AZTAG Interview: So. Caucasus: A war-zone or a place for holidays?

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South Caucasus: A war-zone or a place for holidays? An Interview with
Hratch Tchilingirian
by Khatchig Mouradian

`Abkhazia is not a place for holidays…it is a war zone,’ said Georgian
leader Mikhail Saakashvili earlier this month, threatening to sink foreign
(implicitly understood as Russian) ships that enter the region without
permission from his government. His comments came as tensions escalated
between the central authorities of Georgia and two of its breakaway regions,
South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which Saakashvili has promised to win back.
Saakashvili’s pronouncements on South Ossetia and Abkhazia have been
furiously opposed by Moscow, whose relations with Georgia have plummeted
from bad to worse since a `rose revolution’ brought pro-western Sakhasvili
to power.

Armenia and Azerbaijan, Georgia’s South Caucasian neighbors, have been
struggling with problems of their own, the most important of which is the
Karabakh conflict. But despite the various international conflicts they are
engaged in, as well as their serious domestic economic and social problems
the three ex-soviet republics of the South Caucasus continue to struggle
towards political stability, reform and democracy. In this respect, the
example of Armenia is telling.

I discussed the conflicts in the South Caucasus with Hratch Tchilingirian,
who has written and lectured extensively on the region. He is Associate
Director of the Eurasia Programme, the Judge Institute, University of
Cambridge. He received his PhD from the London School of Economics and
Political Science and his Master of Public Administration (MPA) from
California State University, Northridge. His research covers political and
territorial disputes in the Caucasus and Central Asia as well as the
region’s political, economic and geostrategic developments. He has authored
over 120 articles and publications on the politics, economy, culture,
religion and social issues of the Eurasia region, especially the Caucasus
and the Armenian Diaspora.

Aztag- In the Caucasus region ethnic tensions existed during the Soviet era,
and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, these tensions were rekindled
and some of them became full-blown wars. Can you put these conflicts into

Hratch Tchilingirian- One of the areas that has not been much researched
when it comes to these regional conflicts, and which I have made part of my
research, is what I call the management of minority-majority relations. You
have a number of minorities living within the majority nationalities in this
particular part of the former Soviet Union, and the tensions actually go
back before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991; indeed, to the
beginning of the Soviet period. The majority of these problems were not
resolved by the sovietisation of the region, they were rather frozen and,
for decades, somehow controlled or managed. These conflicts also need to be
examined from the point of view of how titular nations deal with their
minorities. When the larger group or nationality is not able to deal with
its minorities, whether for objective or subjective reasons, it creates many
problems for both the minority and the majority. I believe this is an issue
that has been overlooked, especially by western scholars.

In addition to these minority-majority relations, there are territorial
claims which further complicate the situation. But, for the moment, if we
concentrate on the socio-political, cultural, and economic levels, we see
that the post-Soviet independent states in the South Caucasus have not been
able to create stable and dependable infrastructures for economic
development, democracy, human rights, and freedom of speech within their own
societies, let alone for their disgruntled minorities. The regimes in
Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia have been unpopular in the last 10-12 years.
In Azerbaijan, the opposition is almost completely wiped out. When a society
lacks healthy political development, it is easy to see where the other
problems are coming from. If an Azerbaijani opposition in Baku cannot freely
express himself or herself or is thinking about reprisal, how can we speak
about the issue of the rights of Armenians in Karabagh?

In my opinion, in order for these conflicts to be properly resolved, there
is, first and foremost, the need for basic political structures that are
stable and a certain level of democracy and openness.

Aztag- Some people argue that the rise of nationalism led to these land
issues and ethnic conflicts. What is your take on that?

Hratch Tchilingirian- Nationalism is, of course, a part of the whole fabric;
but I would argue that nationalism is not the only reason that you have a
conflict there. Some people say, rather naively, `These people have always
hated each other and have fought wars throughout history’, they present the
issue as if it were an innate thing. They fail to appreciate the objective
reasons that contributed to the conflicts — at least in the Soviet period
— in Karabagh, Abkhazia, or Ossetia. There were policies dictated by the
centre which affected education, cultural preservation, language teaching,
socio-economic priorities, etc. When you look at the record, there are
objective reasons that made these minorities unhappy; these factors feed
into the nationalistic ideology that is driven by the elite; we have to look
at these other factors as well; we cannot fully explain these conflicts only
by theories of nationalism.

Aztag- You are saying that during the Soviet era, these conflicts were under
control. Don’t you think that some of the policies of that time have, in
fact, worsened the situation?

Hratch Tchilingirian- Yes, but one also has to remember that the Soviets had
this internationalist ideology where the ultimate goal was to create the
Soviet People — individual nationalities and separate territories did not
matter. However, individual or separate nationalities or ethnic groups still
preserved their sense of national identity.

Aztag- Some scholars argue that although the Soviets wanted to create a
homogenous country, the leaders of individual states were using a
nationalistic rhetoric when tackling key issues in their respective

Hratch Tchilingirian- If one looks at theories of nationalism, one sees that
it is useful as a political program. So we have to know why nationalist
ideology is being used in this particular era. What is the purpose? Is it to
resolve or address certain issues? What I’m trying to stress is the context
in which events develop; things don’t happen in a vacuum. The elite or the
leadership exploits certain fault lines within a society for nationalistic
purposes. Indeed, existing problems and conflicts in society provide such
opportunities for exploitation. One should also ask why conflicts happen at
a given time: the time factor, the change of leadership, the change of
climate, the change of politics is very important.

During the late 80s and early 90s, the societies in this region, as in other
parts of the Communist world, allocated the necessary resources — human,
financial, military, or other — to gain independence or autonomy. The
weakening of the center (Moscow) was one of the most favorable factors which
provided the republics and peripheral autonomies to re-appropriate power
from the center. And this was occurring very rapidly. The central government
in Moscow was collapsing and you had two or three layers of the state
apparatus trying to appropriate power from the center. When the center
completely collapsed, the republics declared independence and the autonomies
forced a divorce.

Aztag- You are stressing the fact that history does matter. But in conflict
resolution, how far back in history can one go to address the core issues?

Hratch Tchilingirian- As time passes, people forget why the conflict started
and what the initial spark that triggered the conflict was. The present
moment becomes the starting point of analysis; history and the beginning
point become less relevant. And this is part of the problem in this region
specially. Indeed, when you look at the way the mediators work, for instance
the Minsk Group, you see that what matters is today, the year 2004, not what
happened in 1988 or 1991. Yet, for the minorities in the conflict the
starting point is very important.

You have the present moment, which dictates the process of dealing with the
issues. The points of reference for the various groups involved in the
solution could be very different. For instance, on the one hand, you could
have a powerful country trying to impose a solution; and on the other hand,
you have the very people who are going to be affected by such a solution.
Their references or `starting points’ could be very different. This is where
the issue of compromise becomes very important: how far back do you go and
what kind of criteria do you use to resolve the conflict. For instance,
presently Armenia is viewed as an occupying force as far as Azerbaijanis are
concerned; on the other hand, there is no reference as to why or when these
regions were occupied; it’s irrelevant. Yet this is relevant for Karabagh
Armenians, it is relevant for at least certain groups in Armenia. So it is
very important to understand and analyze these various layers that add to
the complexity of the matter.

Aztag- How practical is the approach of solving the conflict by force?

Hratch Tchilingirian- My argument is that any quick or imposed solution in
this region would not be a lasting solution. When one looks at the history
of Karabagh or Abkhazia in the last 200 years, it is easy to see that there
have been various types of political or military conflicts every few years.
Any solution that does not address the fundamental issues of the conflict
would not be lasting. If a solution is imposed just as it was during the
Soviet period, the problems will resurface whenever there is an opportunity.
I believe one of the key issues that should be addressed is the
majority-minority relationship. How you manage and maintain that
relationship will determine the durability of the solution.

Aztag- So you think that democratizing the region would make the situation

Hratch Tchilingirian- Democratic regimes provide a more conducive ground for
conflict resolution.

Aztag- What about the issue of territorial demands? Even if we had a
democratic Georgia or Azerbaijan, the conflicts would still be there because
of the land issue, wouldn’t they?

Hratch Tchilingirian- Yes, I believe so, because especially in this part of
the world, territory is very important. In Europe, throughout history, the
situation was the same. But the European Union has made territory less and
less important. In the Caucasus, territory is still a very important
identity marker, it is a very important political and strategic factor, so I
don’t think this region will become like a mini-EU any time soon.

If you look at the European Union, the issue of territoriality is not
important anymore, you can travel within the EU as if you are in one
country. Today, territorial boundaries are not contentious in Europe, to a
large extent because nobody is suppressed; various national or ethnic groups
are free to practice their culture, to speak their language. But when you
have discrimination, when you have inequality, then people want to protect
their socio-political boundaries; they want to be their own boss!

Aztag- It is no secret that Russia and the US have their strategic interests
in the Caucasus and each tries to enlarge its own circle of influence in the
region. How does this affect the already volatile situation in the Caucasus?

Hratch Tchilingirian- This issue has two dimensions: internal and external.
If you look at the internal situation, when the regime is weak and not
stable, then it would be affected by the big powers, whether positively or
negatively; the ruling elite itself needs the backing of a “sponsor” or a
big power, to secure its position.

The external aspect is that Russia has definite interests in this region;
historically this region has been part of the Russian sphere of influence;
it has been part of the Russian Empire for centuries. Russia is interested
in preserving that influence and role. The US has its own strategic
interests in this region, especially in the Caspian, so there is going to be
rivalry among the superpowers, just like any other region. I would add that
this competition is not unique to this region, it happens throughout the

The issue also depends on how the countries in this region view their
strategic interests. For instance, it’s very important for Armenia to have
good relations with Russia for security and strategic reasons. Armenia also
has trade and economic dependency on Russia, not the least of which is the
large remittances that come from Russian-Armenians who send money to
Armenia. So if there were a choice, Russia would be a priority — even
though Armenia tries to have good relations with both Russia and the US and
virtually with everyone else.

Aztag- What’s your take on the current situation in Georgia and the way
President Saakashvili is dealing with the separatist movements?

Hratch Tchilingirian- Well, I think any leader would wish or would want to
resolve conflicts in his country. Saakashvili has an interest to do that as
the new leader of Georgia. On the one hand, he appears to project a strong
position when it comes to dealing with these conflicts; on the other hand,
he sounds like he is willing to compromise, provide autonomy and so on. But
I would come back to my earlier point: it would ultimately depend on how
Tbilisi is going to manage its relations with the various minorities within

Aztag- In Adjaria, Saakashvili had his way rather easily, didn’t he?

Hratch Tchilingirian- Yes, that was because the problem was limited in one
person, Aslan Abashidze. However, after the removal of the immediate
problem, if you do not provide the guarantees, the opportunities that these
people expect, then you are not resolving the conflict.

On the other hand, he has said that he is willing to give Abkhazia a very
wide autonomy; but it is debatable whether at this point Georgia has the
capacity to deliver. Does Georgia have the capacity and the resources to
deliver? I am not sure. Georgia is hardly paying the salaries of state
employees. Is Georgia ready to help the Abkhazians or the South Ossetians
with their needs? The same goes for Azerbaijan. I do not think the central
governments in Tbilisi and Baku are in any position to make the lives of the
Abkhazians or Karabagh Armenians any better at this point. What clear
incentives or gains do the minorities have? I believe this is missing from
the various solutions that are being proposed. At the end of the day, the
population, the villager, the farmer living in Abkhazia or in Karabagh or
wherever, is going to ask: What am I gaining that I don’t have now through
this agreement? What is this going to add to my current situation?

When mediators look at it purely from a political perspective, it looks like
you could resolve the conflict. On paper, it looks like it is just a matter
of sharing territory or changing flags or sending a governor. But as
scholars we look at it at a deeper level, on the everyday level, the
sociological level — for instance, the fact that people were once neighbors
and became enemies overnight.

Aztag- In your opinion, how far are we from the resolution of the Karabakh

Hratch Tchilingirian- In my opinion, the conflict will take a very long time
to resolve; probably 20-25 years. This is not something that can be resolved
in a few years. Even if a peace agreement is signed within months or a few
years, it will take a long time to implement that agreement on the ground.
When you look at Cyprus, it took more than 30 years just to come up with a
framework, not a solution. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is more than 50
years old and nowhere near resolution.

Aztag- Could you give us a brief background about the conflict in Abkhazia?

Hratch Tchilingirian- The Abkhaz conflict is going to take a long time to
resolve. It has a long history. There were inter-ethnic tensions throughout
the Soviet period.

The Abkhazian Autonomous Republic — situated on the eastern Black Sea coast
with an area of 8,700 sq km — was part of the Georgian Soviet Socialist
Republic, with a population of over 500 thousand. The Abkhazians constituted
a minority of 18%, compared with the 46% majority of Georgians. However, in
the late 19th century, before the ‘Georgianisation’ of the region, as Abkhaz
scholars argue, Abkhazians were the majority, with some 55% and the
Georgians counted for only about 25%.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Abkhazian-Georgian relations
deteriorated, when, in 1992, the Abkhazians reinstated their 1925
Constitution to prevent Georgian attempts to curtail the political status of
the autonomous republic. A full-scale war broke out between the Abkhazians
and Georgia, after the fall of Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the ultra-nationalist
president of Georgia, which resulted in the defeat of the Georgians in
September 1993. Obviously, the Abkhazians were assisted by Russia, whose
policy, at least at the time, was to use the conflicts in Abkhazia and
Karabakh to pressure Tbilisi and Baku, which were rapidly drifting away from
Moscow’s “sphere of influence”.

A ceasefire between the Georgian and the Abkhazian was reached in 1994;
since then the United Nations have been involved in mediating a solution.
While unrecognized by the international community, Abkhazia, like Karabakh,
has achieved de facto independence in what is now the ‘Republic of
Abkhazia’. Nevertheless, Abkhazia remains extremely isolated and extremely
dependent on Russia. The international community recognized only the
independence of what were the 15 Soviet Socialist Republics. The
international community, in fact, discouraged further break up of
second-tier `states’ in the Soviet system, such as autonomous republics like
Abkhazia, and third-tier autonomous regions like Karabakh. As such, the
international community puts more pressure on the secessionists than the
recognized states.

The Abkhaz problem has many similarities with Karabagh, especially in terms
of independence, in terms of breaking off with the center, in terms of
determining their own affairs and lives, and so on. But it also has some
important differences. The Abkhazians were willing to have a federative
relationship with Georgia, but because Georgia was not forthcoming and did
not take it seriously, the Abkhazians declared full independence from
Georgia in 1999. And nowadays they talk about having a special association
or a membership association with the Russian Federation. This proposed
association is a model that does not exist in any other place in the world
yet. Abkhazia would not become a member of the Russian Federation or a
federal entity, but it will have a special, still to be defined association
with Russia. In a way Abkhazia will keep its independence, but in many ways
will dependent on Russia, as it is now.

Aztag- So being part of Georgia in any way is not an option for Abkhazia.

Hratch Tchilingirian- It is not a desired option for the Abkhazians. When
you speak to political leaders and ordinary people in Abkhazia, they say
they do not want to be part of Georgia, they prefer to be part of Russia.
But Abkhazia is very isolated from the rest of the world; they are very
dependent on Russia, so ultimately, Russia’s role in the resolution of the
conflict will be a determining factor. On the other hand, Karabagh is
different from Abkhazia because it has an outlet to the rest of the world
through Armenia — Karabagh is a virtual province of Armenia. Perhaps
legally or on paper Karabagh is a separate entity, but de facto, it is part
of Armenia.

Aztag- What do you think about the recent pronouncements of President

Hratch Tchilingirian- The nationalistic pronouncements of the President of
Georgia are not surprising, but the logic of his threats to sink Russian
ships going to Abkhazia is hard to understand. Saber rattling with Abkhazia
is one thing, but with Russia it has serious consequences. Russia still has
enormous levers in this region. Hostility towards Russia is not going to
make Georgia’s position any better nor is it going to resolve the Abkhaz
conflict to Georgia’s favor. I believe, once Saakashvilli’s `Rose
Revolution’ honeymoon is over, he is going to realize that the resolution of
Georgian’s major territorial, political and economic issues depend on good
relations with Russia.