Dangerous Trends Developing in the Caucasus



By Edmond Y. Azadian

Call it with whatever you wish but realize that an intensifying Cold War is looming on the horizon. The East-West confrontation is gaining momentum and further developments in that direction may soon get out of hand.

The mid-term elections in the US in early November and the ensuing Republican landslide may hasten that confrontation, especially when Arizona’s Sen. John McCain takes over the Senate Armed Services Committee chairmanship. He will certainly endorse a further arms buildup and logic tells us that the arms build-up can be justified only when there is a war or a looming threat of war.

The US economy recovered remarkably during the last six years, unemployment was down, the US achieved energy self-sufficiency, yet President Obama’s rating suffered at home and around the world and some analysts believe that the election results reflected a referendum on Obama’s performance. Others believe that low turnout at the polls — two-thirds of eligible voters stayed home — and the Republican efforts in portraying Obama’s performance as a failure contributed to the further loss of House and Senate seats for Democrats and the resulting takeover of the Republicans in the Senate.

Senator McCain was already a vocal critic of President Obama’s cautious foreign policy, but now that he will be empowered with the Senate committee chairmanship, he will convert his words into action and force the lame-duck presidency into international adventures. A recent article in the New York Times, describing Mr. McCain’s policies stated that the latter did not see a war that he did not like. However, there is a mood swing in the US and even a potential Democratic candidate like Hillary Clinton has been playing up her hawkish credentials to enhance her chances. In a recent interview given by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to the German newspaper Der Spiegel, he characterized US actions in Ukraine as a “fatal mistake” and added that the resulting Cold War may prove to be “tragic.”

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One front of confrontation may be amplifying the rhetoric against Russia over the Ukraine impasse and the other immediate impact may be direct US intervention in Syria. The pro-government Turkish Sabah daily has already hailed gleefully Mr. McCain’s ascendance, predicting that President Erdogan’s Syria policy will be vindicated by Mr. McCain’s leadership.

Meanwhile, the Russians have not been sitting idly; after the takeover of Crimea, they have practically amputated Ukraine by paralyzing its eastern provinces. But on the global scene, the Russia-China rapprochement has experienced a dramatic upswing.

Last May, Russia and China had already sealed an energy deal worth $400 billion, which will deliver annually 38 billion cubic meters of gas to China through Power of Siberia Pipeline. A second deal is in the offing to increase the annual delivery of Russian gas to China to 68 billion cubic meters.

A less spoken-about factor which may further deteriorate the East-West tensions is the financial retaliation against the economic sanctions which China and Russia may deliver, as major buyers of US debts.

Of course, a global confrontation may affect many countries and one of the most vulnerable regions is the Caucasus, where Armenia is located. Indeed, shifting political trends have already taken wing in the region.

Recent changes in the Georgian government do not augur well for the region and turmoil seems to be on the horizon. Armenia and Georgia would do much better with European integration. But Armenia has already been trapped by geostrategic determinants while Georgia stayed the course set by former President Mikhail Saakashvili, even at the expense of territorial loss. The Georgian Dream Coalition, which swept to power during the last parliamentary elections, vowed to continue its Euro-Atlantic course. But a news article in the November 6 issue of New York Times states: “Free Democrats, a pro-Western political party, abandoned Georgia’s governing coalition on Wednesday, deepening a political crisis in the former Soviet republic that critics fear may slow the country’s path toward integration with the West.”

What actually happened was that the leader of Free Democrats and member of the Georgian Dream Coalition, Irakli Alasania, was removed from his position as defense minister, on charges of corruption, while visiting France to consolidate his country’s ties with Europe. He was negotiating arms deals with the foreign ministers of France and Germany. Foreign Minister Maya Pandjikidze and Minister for European Integration Alexiy Petriashvili tendered their resignations in protest. Alasania accuses Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvilli of fabricating the scandal for political gain, in order to derail the country from its course of European integration. Although the prime minister has denied the accusation, his denial remains questionable as his policies all along have been geared toward reconciliation with Russia. The political atmosphere is poisoned and it looks like the “Georgian Dream” is mired in a Georgian nightmare.

The US reaction was muted but charged. Foggy Bottom Spokesperson Jen Psaki expressed her concern over the resignations  and praised Alasania for his contributions to Georgia and to its partnership with the US. She reiterated her wish to see Georgia on a Euro-Atlantic path.

Now, there is talk of a Ukraine-style Maidan, which resulted in the loss of Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk from Ukraine.

The potential problem areas in Georgia are indicated to be Ajaria and Javakhk; the first region is the transit route for Armenians doing business with Turkey and the second one is densely populated by the Armenians. Thus, any conflict in these two regions will spill over into Armenia.

A more ominous article signed by Mikhail Chernov has appeared in the online Russian newspaper Lenta.ru, under the title “Russia will reach border with Armenia.” The article also indicates that “Russia is increasingly interested in the construction of a Transcaucasian automobile junction which will link the Russian North Caucasus via North and South Ossetia, Georgia, with Armenia and Iran.”

There is also talk of reviving the Abkhazian railway system. But without Georgia’s cooperation, that system cannot extend into Armenia. Either the Tbilisi government has to fall in line with Russian plans or another war has to force Georgia to concede.

Now that Armenia has joined the Eurasian Union, it would have been convenient for Yerevan to have trouble-free access to Russia’s border. But to achieve that end through another war will be too costly for all the parties concerned.

Developments in Azerbaijan have also come to compound the situation on Armenia’s borders. After the meeting of Presidents Serge Sargisian and Ilham Aliyev in Paris, at the invitation of French President François Hollande, incidents on the line of contact have been reduced dramatically. That was considered to be the outcome of Paris talks and would have been a welcome development for Armenia. But it turns out that the sudden lull is the result of changes in Azerbaijan’s relations with the West and with Russia. Until now, Azerbaijan had been sitting on the fence and teasing the West and the East at the same time.

Recently, the pro-government Azeri news portal Azertaz came out with critical comments about British Petroleum, which is a major investor in Azerbaijan.  Azerbaijan has worked out new deals with Russia to export its gas to Europe through the latter’s territory. Perhaps that is the main reason which has prompted the US and European governments to sharpen their criticisms of Azerbaijan’s abominable human rights track record. That seems to be an indication of deteriorating relations with the West. In the meantime, Russia has been arming Azerbaijan at an alarming scale to entice President Aliyev to join the Eurasian Union. And finally, also in the equation is Karabagh’s destiny.

Analysts believe that Russia may cede Karabagh to Azerbaijan in exchange for Baku’s joining the Eurasian Union. Although the deputy speaker of Azerbaijan’s parliament has ruled out the possibility, stating that “Azerbaijan cannot join the Eurasian Union in exchange for Karabagh.”

Although there is a tug-of-war going on in the Caucasus between the West and Russia and Turkey has a treaty obligation as NATO member to help the West, recent developments have demonstrated that Ankara may exercise some underhanded politics, all along pretending to uphold NATO interests. Russia has also been selling arms to Turkey and holding joint military exercises in the Black Sea. Both parties have decided to improve trade relations to the level of $100 billion annually. Thus, as Azerbaijan’s big brother, Ankara may play the Russian card in pushing Baku into Moscow’s embrace. Also, Turkey has a role to play if and when Mr. Putin decides to control the region of Ajaria in Georgia because Turkey has more clout in that province than the Tbilisi central government.

The East-West confrontation has been exacerbating the web of conflicts in the Caucasus and the Yerevan government has to navigate very cautiously through those stormy waters.

The bare fact is that Armenia has almost no leverage over the situation in the region which will determine its destiny. The only option that Armenia has is to have the internal cohesion to face the tremendous odds.

The Caucasus has historically been a complex region, and this time around is no exception.

Let us hope for the best as the storm gathers around Armenia.

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