Tbilisi: A pivotal year for the South Caucasus

The Messenger, Georgia
Dec 17 2004

A pivotal year for the South Caucasus

The South Caucasus will face major changes in 2005. As soon as the
Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline comes online, construction will begin on
the Baku-Erzrumi natural gas pipeline, providing the country with a
second artery in the region’s energy infrastructure, and an
international presence. At the same time, the region is increasing
efforts to resolve its territorial conflicts, a move that places
pressure on both political and economic stability.

While installing the country’s new minister of defense Irakli
Okruashvili on Wednesday evening, Georgian President Mikheil
Saakashvili made it clear that Georgia’s territorial restoration is
high on the agenda. He underscored this saying Okruashvili would head
the armed forces “until the country’s territorial integrity is
restored.” This, Saakashvili said, “is the main purpose for Irakli
Okruashvili to head the Defense Ministry.”

Speaking Monday at the Royal Institute of International Affairs at
Chatham House in London, Azeri President Ilham Aliev also indicated
resolving territorial conflicts is moving from the back to the front
burner. In his speech, Aliev called on the West to become more active
in defusing the political and humanitarian crisis in the region.
According to him the conflicts in Abkhazia, Tskhinvali, Transdnestre
and Nagorno-Karabakh are identical and should be resolved through a
united approach. “We will never put up with the occupation of our
land, these territories must be liberated from occupation,” Aliyev
said as quoted by Interfax.

According to Ilham Aliev, if the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh is not
settled soon, Azerbaijan will not reject the use of force. “Armenia
will not be able to go against us,” Aliev is quoted as saying. To
prevent forceful resolutions or the continued stalemate, the Azeri
leader called on western institutions such as the Council of Europe,
NATO, and the EU to use their ability to stimulate a peaceful
resolution.

Like Georgia, Azerbaijan appears to be actively resisting the status
quo that has kept the peace but allowed separatist regimes to become
further entrenched over the last decade. Both regions toe a careful
line placing blame, pointing north but not naming any names. As Aliev
said in London, “separatism in the post-Soviet territory received
support from certain outside forces.”

For its part, Russia habitually responds that any attempt to alter
the status quo in the region must be a well-thought political
decision. In response Georgia and Azerbaijan can reasonably argue
that the Russian attitude toward Abkhazia and Tskhinvali during the
last two years cannot be regarded as a “status-quo.” During this time
Russia has been actively trying to integrate these regions further
into its own federation, disbursing passports, pensions, and
supporting Russian political activity in the area.

Simultaneously, Russian officials recite tacit threats of bombing
runs and military operations directed against Georgia. Over the
weekend, an anti-terrorist official reported that Georgia’s Pankisi
Gorge is a prime spot for ‘preemptive strikes.’ The week before,
Moscow announced it was against the extension of the OSCE monitoring
groups on the Russian-Georgian border.

Now both Georgia and Azerbaijan are calling for increased
international intervention but there have been few indications that
the direct help they have in mind is forthcoming. The EU and NATO
both have more pressing concerns within their alliances – it is
unlikely for them to throw their weight behind conflict resolution in
the Caucasus when they see that even in a country like Cyprus, this
influence goes only so far.

In lieu of direct international support, Georgia and its Caucasian
neighbor must find more effective levers in their recourses at hand.
The increased revenues from the BTC pipeline are one such source.
Using this money to rebuild the military would be unlikely to lead to
greater trust with the separatist regions. But reintegration will
seem a more attractive prospect should economic growth in Georgia and
Azerbaijan take off.

Economic development should be the Georgian government’s top
priority, both as the most obvious way of addressing the country’s
social problems, and also as the most effective means of eventually
restoring its territorial integrity. But at the same time, the
possibility of lifting themselves out of poverty through
reintegration will not persuade Ossetians and Abkhaz to become part
of Georgia again if there is a fear that they will be second-class
citizens in an ethnic Georgian dominated country.

If Georgia is serious about restoring its territorial integrity,
rebuilding the economy and rebuilding trust with its separatist
regions must be central to its policy.

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