Frozen Conflicts: Time to Challenge Russia

Transitions Online, Czech Republic
9 August 2004

Frozen Conflicts: Time to Challenge Russia

by Robert Cottrell

The frozen conflicts in Moldova and the southern Caucasus are becoming
top-level issues – and if the EU and the next U.S. president apply the right
pressure, Russia will change its position.

To call South Ossetia a “rebel region” or a “breakaway province” of Georgia
flatters it with the language of political struggle. Better to think of it
as a Russian-backed smuggling racket with a large piece of land attached.
The sooner the land returns to Georgian control, the better for everyone.
Georgia has an interest in South Ossetia’s peace and prosperity. Russia has

Of the four “frozen conflicts” in the Black Sea region, that of South
Ossetia has the merit of being the most straightforward. The separatist
“government” now in place there has nothing to be said for it at all,
whatever the factors that sent South Ossetia to war with Tbilisi more than a
decade ago. The presence of Russian “peacekeeping” forces, backing up the
South Ossetian authorities, ensures the continuation, not resolution, of
this conflict within Georgia.

The case of Transdniester, in Moldova, is almost as straightforward. There,
too, Russian troops and Russian diplomacy prop up an illegal separatist
regime that divides and cripples the country. They obstruct, rather than
facilitate, a constitutional settlement giving Transdniester extensive
autonomy, to which Moldova would readily subscribe.

A third frozen conflict, over Abkhazia, another rebel province of Georgia,
is comparable to that in Transdniester. Abkhazia’s history also gives it a
more persuasive claim to some form of special political status. Georgia is
ready to talk. But, again, by sponsoring and protecting an Abkhaz government
that appears to live mainly off smuggling, Russia obstructs a better

The fourth frozen conflict, over Nagorno-Karabakh, is different again.
Russia has an influence here, but so far a more constructive one, as
Armenia’s main political ally. Karabakh, an Armenian-populated part of
Azerbaijan, has formed a de facto union with Armenia since winning a war
of secession from Azerbaijan in 1994. The absence of a permanent
settlement stunts the economic and political development of Armenia and
Azerbaijan, and leaves both vulnerable to fresh waves of nationalism and


At long last, these four frozen conflicts look set to attract the attention
they deserve–which is a step toward solving them. There are several reasons
for making this guardedly optimistic claim.

One is the election of President Mikheil Saakashvili in Georgia, following
last November’s “rose revolution” when crowds fed up with corruption and
vote-rigging drove out Eduard Shevardnadze.

Previously, the Caucasus had had no leader capable of capturing America’s
attention, still less its enthusiasm. (Shevardnadze had, at most, the
sympathies of some Washington veterans, not for his record in Georgia but
for his earlier role as Gorbachev’s foreign minister.)

Saakashvili has the charm and energy of youth, the advantage of good
English, and a clear commitment to liberal democracy, which he proposes to
apply to the whole of his country. His arrival on the scene, his popularity,
and his policies offer living proof that things can go right in the southern
Caucasus. That matters a lot to foreign policymakers, who need to believe
that success is at least possible before they get involved in any problem.

A second factor that may help thaw the frozen conflicts is the decline of
Western confidence in Russia. Until now the West has allowed Russia the lead
role in managing (or, rather, mismanaging) the problems of Moldova and the
Caucasus. But the Yukos case, together with the continuing Chechen War and
President Vladimir Putin’s suppression of free broadcast media, have
persuaded Western governments that Russia is moving away from them in its
political values and toward more authoritarian ones. They cannot trust its
intentions, as they tried to do when Putin came to power.

President George Bush’s freedom to review his Russian policy has been
hampered by his absurd declaration three years ago that he saw into Vladimir
Putin’s soul and knew he could trust the man. But, embarrassing as it may be
for Bush personally, the U.S.-Russia relationship has been getting so much
less trusting over the past year or two that a new and tougher U.S. policy
can only be a matter of time. The United States will certainly move in that
direction if John Kerry wins this year’s presidential election and if his
administration begins, as new administrations usually do, with a skeptical
review of the policies of its predecessor; and it will probably do so if
Bush wins and appoints a new secretary of state.

A third factor pushing frozen conflicts up the transatlantic policy agenda
is the eastward enlargement of NATO and the European Union, coupled with the
heightened U.S. interest–after 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and
Iraq–in what it calls the Greater Middle East, with Turkey at its
northwestern corner.

Moldova and the countries of the southern Caucasus suddenly find themselves
a center of strategic interest. They are neighbors of NATO and future
neighbors of the EU. As such, their stability must be watched and nourished.
They are a platform for displaying and projecting Western values to the
south and east.

The fact that Europe and America now have a clear reason to want these
countries as reliable allies gives an equally compelling reason to want an
end to the frozen conflicts, which destabilize these countries from within
while also posing wider threats. A recent study from the U.S.-based German
Marshall Fund describes the conflict zones as “unresolved fragments of
Soviet Empire [which] now serve as shipping points for weapons, narcotics,
and victims of human trafficking, as breeding grounds for transnational
organized crime, and last but not least, for terrorism.”*


Of all the frozen conflicts, it is Karabakh that has so far come closest to
a solution, in 2001. The Azeri president of the day, Heidar Aliev, died
before he had quite overcome his hesitations, but the broad outlines of a
deal remain clear to both Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Broadly speaking, Azerbaijan would cede Karabakh to Armenia. In exchange,
Azerbaijan would get back other territories that Armenia has occupied since
the civil war, plus a narrow corridor of land across Armenia, giving
Azerbaijan access to its exclave of Nakhichevan, which is wedged between
Armenia and Iran.

The deal will be done when Ilham Aliev, the new president of Azerbaijan, has
the self-confidence to do it–unless Russia interferes, worrying that peace
and stability would draw Armenia, its main ally in the southern Caucasus,
too close to the West. Russia could use its considerable military and
economic leverage within Armenia to that end; or it might hint at tilting
its foreign relations in favor of Azerbaijan, reawakening Armenia’s fears.

Karabakh is a special case. Russia’s role there is important, but secondary.
For the other three frozen conflicts, persuading Russia to cooperate will be
three-quarters of the work needed to find a solution: the regimes in
Transdniester, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia survive thanks only to Russian
military and diplomatic support.

Russia is not making it easy. As it retreats from democracy, so its
political workings become more opaque, and its true intentions even harder
to discern. But whatever the mix of signals Russia sends out, they have one
fairly constant theme. It is the desire for respect and authority in the
world. So this is the front on which the West should challenge Russia.

The West should tell Putin, directly and preferably publicly, that Russia’s
proclamations against crime and terrorism and secessionism elsewhere in the
world cannot be taken seriously as long as Russia goes on sponsoring
criminal regimes that undermine regional security and cripple legitimate
governments in its own back yard. It should say that the miserable bit of
local leverage that Russia gets from manipulating the frozen conflicts in
Georgia and Moldova is far less than the wider respect and authority that it
forfeits by doing so.

The West needs to put the case in exactly those blunt terms if it wants to
make Russia shift its position. Untruth and evasion are an integral part of
Russian foreign policy. Challenging those untruths and evasions is the
necessary first step toward changing the realities they obscure.

Russia will shift its position, if pressed in the right way, because
Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transdniester don’t really matter very much to
it in the end. A few crooks in Russia profit from their rebellion
commercially, and a few nationalists in the Russian Duma politically. But
they are not worth much of Putin’s political capital. If these problems can
be taken to the top, they will be settled more easily than by argument at
lower levels, where narrow lobbies fight their corners.

This top-level diplomacy will be a job mainly for the United States, whose
president can command Putin’s attention in a way no European leader can. But
the European Union has much complementary work to do.

First, the EU must echo America’s political message. Second, it must follow
through on the idea of its “New Neighborhood” policy, offering the Black Sea
countries more access to EU markets and more EU aid, in exchange for
good-government reforms. Third, it must use its leverage with Turkey, a
candidate for EU membership, to persuade Turkey to normalize relations with
Armenia. If Turkey were to reopen its borders to Armenia, which it closed as
a gesture of support for Azerbaijan, it would reduce Armenia’s siege-induced
dependence on Russia, give Armenia’s economy a boost, and so encourage
conditions for a Karabakh peace deal.

An argument with Russia over the frozen conflict zones will be doubly worth
having, because by winning it, and by helping Georgia and Moldova emerge as
normal countries, the West will help Russia, too. It can only improve
Russia’s security and prosperity to have strong and settled states on its
borders. Russia half-knows that, too, but needs to be prodded into acting on
it. The year or two of hard haggling needed for the West to change Russia’s
behavior would be time well-spent.

* see: “A New Euro-Atlantic Strategy for the Black Sea Region,” ed. R Asmus,
K Dimitrov, J Forbrig; GMF, 2004; Page 21. The book is also available in

Robert Cottrell is The Economist’s correspondent for Central and Eastern
Europe, and a member of TOL’s advisory board. A former Moscow correspondent
for The Economist and for the Financial Times, he visited Georgia and
Armenia in July.