Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia this week is timely. The Caucasus holds risks of confrontation that could affect American and European interests, and it requires regular and high-level attention.
Terrorism and insurgency are spreading in Russia’s North Caucasus region. Russian military occupation of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and adjacent areas in Georgia heightens strains. Renewed hostilities are increasingly possible between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan.
Vladimir Putin’s return to Russia’s presidency adds complexity. He seeks to increase Russia’s influence over former Soviet neighbors, counterbalancing the appeal of the NATO and the European Union. Last month, Putin skipped a G-8 summit but convened leaders from the Collective Security Treaty Organization, whose other members are Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Russia is pushing for a widened Eurasian customs union, which Ukraine is resisting.
The Kremlin is skeptical about democratic openings on its borders, such as the 2003 Rose revolution in Georgia and the one a year later in Ukraine. Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 violated established precedent in seeking to change by force borders of the former Soviet states. Moscow engineered proclamations of independence by Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but they are effectively being integrated into Russia.
Although last year Georgia agreed to allow Russia to join the World Trade Organization, relationships remain tenuous. The Kremlin refuses to deal with President Mikheil Saakashvili, and most economic ties are suspended. Last month in Chicago, despite Moscow’s opposition, NATO reaffirmed that Georgia will become a member and noted its “substantial contribution” — including in Afghanistan — to Euro-Atlantic security. Georgia’s holding of free and fair parliamentary elections this year and presidential elections in 2013 will influence NATO attitudes about membership.
War over Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1990s displaced about a million people and gave Armenia control of the enclave and another 9 percent of Azerbaijan’s territory. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe seeks a mediated solution, but negotiations are long stalled. A fragile cease-fire is frequently violated. Russia arms Armenia and maintains a military base there. Azerbaijan uses its oil wealth for an arms buildup, and its ally Turkey has closed the border with Armenia for more than a decade. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict could suddenly become unfrozen.
In the North Caucasus, popular alienation and militant violence are increasing. Two dozen Russian soldiers died in an attack three days before Putin’s inauguration last month. Russia relies mostly on force and economic subsidies to quell resistance, but the strategy has not worked. Terrorism could be a real threat to the 2014 Winter Olympic games in Sochi. Moscow might again blame Azerbaijan and Georgia for aiding terrorists, as it did falsely in 1999 regarding Chechnya.
How can the America and Europe lessen risks in the Caucasus?
They should continue to stand firm for the independence of Georgia and against the illegal occupation of one-fifth of its territory. Moscow ought not to be allowed to assert control over the export of Caspian energy through Georgia. Europe and America should importune Georgia not to stir anti-Russian animosities in the North Caucasus. They ought to cooperate with Russia to prevent terrorist acts around the Olympics.
America and Europe can no longer keep the Nagorno-Karabakh talks on the back burner. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev faces domestic pressures to act, but Europe and America should caution him about the adverse consequences, notably a broader regional war. Energy investment in Azerbaijan and a major new gas pipeline to Europe, Nabucco, could become casualties.
O.S.C.E. members have largely stopped engaging Russia about tensions in the North Caucasus, but risks grow and could spill over into Azerbaijan and Georgia. Members should use the permanent council in Vienna to raise concerns and begin a dialogue.
In her visit, Secretary Clinton should spotlight these tensions and offer reassurance that the West will work actively to prevent confrontation and conflict.
Denis Corboy, a visiting senior research fellow at Kings College, London, served as European Commission ambassador to Armenia and Georgia. William Courtney served as U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan and Georgia and special assistant to the president for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia. Kenneth Yalowitz served as U.S. ambassador to Belarus and Georgia.