Conflicts in the Caucasus: Prospects for Resolution

Editor’s Note: In testimony before the U.S. Helsinki Commission, Fiona Hill discusses the latest developments in the Caucasus, focusing on the relationship between Georgia and the countries in the region and outlining policies that could help ease tensions.

I want to begin my remarks by addressing directly the questions that the Helsinki Commission posed to us for the briefing. The questions, of course, were already distributed to all of you in the announcement. And Michael Ochs has already begun to frame the first part of those questions about where the conflicts stand today, and he posed the question about the differences in terms “frozen,” “protracted,” “still unresolved.” And I think, you know, I can certainly speak on behalf of my other two colleagues here that we cannot call these conflicts frozen, and indeed, Michael said that himself; protracted most certainly, and yes, still unresolved.

But these are very dynamic conflicts, as all of you in the room know, and the situation on the ground, including in Nagorno-Karabakh, which Michael actually posed, has much changed in the last 15 years. In fact, yes, there’s been some significant changes in all of these conflicts in their on-the-ground configuration. And it’s not just been the outbreak of war in Georgia in 2008 that was the only event here, though perhaps this has been the most notable event. What we saw with the war in Georgia, of course, is that the configuration of contested boundaries changed as a result of that war. And we also got some new dimensions to that specific complex of conflicts with South Ossetia and Abkhazia. We have a controversial cease-fire document that has become itself a focal point of contestation. And the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by their handful of rather small states as well as Russia that Michael referred to has brought a whole new dimension to this conflict.

We’ve also had the introduction of new international actors into the broader conflict zone. Previously, of course, the U.N. and the OSCE were the principal international players, but now we have the EU, in the form of the EU Monitoring Mission in Georgia. And that also brings, again, a whole array of different dimensions to the conflicts in the region.

Now, the only way in which the conflicts can be deemed frozen is that, as Michael also said, that the initial parameters for resolution that we laid out, which was this desire to try to bridge the demands for self-determination by the individual peoples on territories of the conflicted and contested regions, with the imperative of maintaining the territory integrity of the respective states, has reached an impasse. It’s that concept that has become frozen, if anything is frozen at all.

And what we’ve seen over this last almost 20 years now in terms of thinking about these conflicts is that increasingly, and especially now given the obvious developments in 2008, Abkhazia and South Ossetia have rejected the increasingly elaborate attempts to find a proposal for ensuring their autonomy, while at the same time the two principal states that are involved on the other sides of the conflict, Azerbaijan and Georgia, have found it very difficult to accept proposals that seem, at least have the appearance of falling short of the full reintegration of the territories back into their states, all of them not seeming to come under their full sovereignty. So this is really what Michael was talking about, about the frozen aspects of it. And it’s really impasse that we’ve reached, the inability to find this bridge.

Now, the other question that was posed here is, is the resumption of armed hostilities a serious threat? I think as we saw in 2008 and we’ve seen continuously since, there is always the risk of miscalculation and of seemingly isolated incidents of violence sparking out of control. Since the war in Georgia, we’ve seen repeated incidents of violence in Georgia itself and in the territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. We’ve also seen at many times what looks to be the result of deliberate provocation to up the political ante when we’ve reached critical junctures in negotiations, and that’s been, unfortunately, very much the case in Nagorno-Karabakh, where we’ve seen consistently relatively large numbers of casualties in cease-fire violations and sniper attacks along the line of contact in Nagorno-Karabakh. And also, we’ve seen a great deal of bellicose rhetoric on all sides, especially at the state level in Azerbaijan and also in Armenia, that have further inflamed this situation and have increased the potential for violent incidents to get out of hand.

And then, as Michael mentioned, although this isn’t the specific topic of our briefing today, but obviously it’s an important component, we have the added complication of armed hostilities that are already under way in North Caucasus across the border. There, insurgency and violence are a fact; they’re not just something of dispute. And as all of you in this room know, historically, the violence in the North Caucasus bled into violence in the South Caucasus. The two areas are intrinsically interlinked in terms of their populations and their shared history within both the Russian Empire and in the Soviet Union. And the fact that armed hostilities are ongoing in the North Caucasus really increases the level of tension in the South.

And I would say, unfortunately, the situation in the North Caucasus is likely to become more, rather than less, tense as we look ahead over the next couple of years. We’re seeing now turbulent politics in Russia in the work of the recent Duma elections. We don’t know how that is all going to unfold. We have next March’s presidential election in Russia, and obviously there’s going to be a lot of scrutiny on the various regions as to see how people are going to engage in the election campaign over the next few months.

And then of course we have the impending event of the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, which has been designated a national priority project by the Russian government and has obviously become quite a focal point in the North Caucasus. Moscow is extremely concerned about the risks to the Olympic project from the ongoing insurgency. Moscow also, to some degree, was very concerned about the implications of Sochi of its ongoing disputes with Georgia, and we can say that Sochi was a factor in propelling Georgia and Russia toward war in 2008. And we could also, of course, point to many instances where cross-border insurgency, particularly spillover from Chechnya, has resulted in Russia’s intervention directly in Georgia’s internal affairs.

And the Georgian government’s quite recent explicit support for North Caucasian groups, including those who are concentrated around in Sochi, the – (inaudible) – and their grievances against Moscow and against the Russian state have certainly caught Moscow’s attention and raised the political tension even further. So I would say that unfortunately, over the next couple of years, we see potentially even more dangerous situation emanating where North and South Caucasus become intertwined.

Now, the other question was raised about what factors impede a settlement. And as I started to put together my bullets for this, I could have gone on perhaps for pages, and I know that Wayne – (laughs) – and Tom would also like something to say, so I’ve confined myself to I think it’s sort of seven bullets here, which is of course not at all exhaustive of all of the different factors.

Michael already mentioned perhaps the primary fact, of the fact that the roots of the conflicts are very long and are intrinsic to the set of the administrative structures and the nationality policies of the Soviet Union. And as Michael said, the roots of most of the conflicts date back to the 1980s and, in some cases, some of the factors for conflict go back to the czarist era. So it makes it very difficult to basically disentangle some of the elements of conflict here.

But as most of us know, in any case, the independent modern states of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia were never established in their administrative configuration to be independent. They were intended to be interdependent with each other, as well as dependent on Moscow, and that is primarily one of the problems that we see. And the Constitution of the Soviet Union in theory, at least, provided for autonomous regions like Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh to also appeal to Moscow for a change in their status. And as Michael alluded, some of that was already underway by the late ’80s and certainly in the 1990s. And that also includes republics in the North Caucasus as well. So we have a very complicated situation to handle here.

Also, none of the contested territories, or indeed the states themselves, have really had any independent existence outside of the framework of the Soviet Union or of the Russian Empire, with of course the exception of a very brief period of independence after the collapse of the Russian Empire and just after World War I.

The other fact that we need to bear in mind is that conflicts do not exist in a vacuum. And Michael already referred to Transnistria and said that that was not a subject of a discussion today. But in addition to strong parallels with Transnistria and the conflict obviously that also involves Moldova, there are distinct parallels between these conflicts in the Caucasus and conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, such as Kosovo, and we could go on in a broader sense there, but also Cyprus and indeed the Middle East conflict between Israel and the territories of Palestine, the Palestinian territories.

And a lack of settlement in each of these other cases that I’ve listed here provides, in fact, a rather negative example, unfortunately, for the protracted conflicts in the South Caucasus. If there had been, say, a major breakthrough in Cyprus or elsewhere, we might have something positive to point to that might provide a different frame of reference. What we’ve seen instead, unfortunately, as of the attempts to resolve the conflict in Kosovo and the disputes between Kosovo and Serbia provided, in fact, yet another negative factor in the resolution of the South Caucasus’ conflicts and can be said to also impede a settlement.

The United States government explicitly denied, of course, the existence of any parallels between Kosovo and the South Caucasus and the fact that this could possibly set a precedent for a Caucasus resolution. But in fact, what the international recognition of Kosovo did, because it was treated entirely separately from this, has greatly complicate the situation between Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and Tom de Waal wrote very eloquently about this at various points just after that decision. The parallels and precedent were quite obvious, certainly to people on the ground, and they were explicitly used, of course, by the Russian government in its engagement of all the three parties to the Georgian complex of conflicts, and also explicitly used by the Russian government in their direct involvement in the conflicts and in the war.

Kosovo was used as the point of reference, in fact, for Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia’s independence, and Abkhazia and South Ossetia now assert that, on the basis of the Kosovo precedent and Russia’s recognition of their independence, even if it hasn’t been picked up on an international level, that they should no longer be expected to negotiate their relationship with Georgia on the old terms. And clearly Georgia – because nobody else has recognized this, and in fact because of, you know, the long nature and details of the conflict – naturally refuses to engage with the territories on these terms in any way that might suggest some kind of implicit acknowledgement of any change whatsoever in their status. So we’ve got ourselves into another impasse as a result of what happened in Kosovo.

In even the convoluted way that I’m describing it here, you can see that it’s become difficult for experts like myself to even talk about this without raising a whole host of additional questions that we have to prefigure everything with, seven or eight bullet points of caveats before we even mention the issue.

Now, notably, of course, Russia’s not made the parallel between Kosovo and Nagorno-Karabakh, nor has it made any attempt to recognize its independence, which underscores how much bilateral political antipathy between Russia and Georgia has framed Moscow’s response to the conflict and to the conflicts in general.

Now, another couple of factors just to mention before getting onto the last set of questions about the negotiating formats: One very important factor that we see now, and this is where things really have changed in Karabakh and elsewhere over the last 15 to 20 years is we’ve got a whole generation of people who have grown up on both sides of each conflict without any experience of interaction with each other. And they obviously have very different attitudes, very different experiences, very different expectations and intentions from the generation before them. And new relationships have developed between populations in those outside the region. So we have a whole different dimension and a whole different outlook now on the conflicts from what we had 20 years ago.

Also, local governments, and I mean this both at the level of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh and then Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia, have also had their own problems in establishing and consolidating and keeping a hold of their own legitimacy, and the conflicts have become part of this issue. And what we’ve seen is when there’s been a lot of questions about democratic developments, whether there have been contested elections, whether there have been other questions about the legitimacy of local leaders, the governments have often resorted at all different levels to rhetoric about the conflicts to compensate for and deflect away from political failings. South Ossetia, which we may get into in the discussion, is a classic case in point, right now after a contested and rather disputed election just in the last month.

Now this, of course, has an impact on the negotiating format, this legitimacy issue on the part of local governments, because the international negotiating mechanisms that were to set up and respond to the armed conflicts of the 1990s have now become part of the domestic political scene in each case. They’ve been around, frankly, as long as the governments have been around, as long as the independent states have been around. They’ve almost evolved along with the conflicts and they’re no longer seen as neutral. And they’re often presented as different actors on different sides – by different actors on different sides in the Caucasus as part of the problem. They’ve become very politicized, not by the fault necessarily of those people involved in the negotiations, but just by being a fact of existing so long. They use bi-regional leaders frequently as an excuse for avoiding compromise. In the case of Karabakh, you know, for example, we frequently hear after failed rounds of negotiations, well, the Minsk Group didn’t do their job properly. Nobody says, well, I, the leader of this or that entity, couldn’t really reach a compromise this time because of X, Y domestic factors; this wasn’t a good juncture. It’s very easy to blame the Minsk Group for them, rather than air out all of the dirty laundry difficulties or all the difficulties of your domestic politics that have prevented you from being able to move forward in any way.

One of the other issues that we’re currently facing also in the negotiations is the lack of time and resources on part of the international players. The Minsk Group has been around so long that the world has changed, and now we have the inevitable press of other international issues. And the impact of ongoing economic crises on diplomacy, people don’t have the same time and effort or the same money to expend on these ventures as they did before.

And what we’ve also seen is the U.S., Europe and all the other international entities, the U.N. and OSCE, have all developed their own approaches to conflict. They’ve all put money into their individual mechanisms. And everyone is now facing the question of what to do with dwindling budgets and dwindling cadres of international diplomats about what can they do. So is it possible, for example, to join forces for a concerted effort to push things forward? That’s one of the questions about, could we have a new negotiating format, and at different points, people have suggested this.

However, I would say that it’s not entirely clear, and Wayne and Tom I think will have a lot of opinions on this, as to whether setting something new up would actually solve the conflicts. We actually saw in the last year an intense personal push, and I would actually say quite a sincere personal push, by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Nagorno-Karabakh. He spent a lot of time and effort in bringing the leaders together and trying to push things forward. He didn’t really get anywhere. And it wasn’t really the lack of effort on his part or the resources that was the problem; it was simply that again, this was not the good juncture for the conflicting parties to reach a resolution.

So, and my final point is what can the United States or what can others do to facilitate a resolution is perhaps we need to go back to the drawing board about what do we mean by resolution, because there’s not, as I said at the very beginning and as Michael has made clear, any status quo ante to refer back to or even to go back to, given the nature of the conflicts. The U.S. and everybody else has their own domestic political problems that make it difficult always to make a firm push on issues. We have as many problems in being an honest broker as the regional leaders do in really themselves being able to be honest about finding a path forward.

And by always pushing for the bridge, the final resolution that we’ve putting everything together, we always set ourselves up for failure. So the question is can we set ourselves a different set of goals, and Tom and Wayne and others have been engaged in efforts like this, and it would be good to hear directly from them about some of the things we could do.

But one thing where we have seen, where there has been a breakthrough is not on the conflicts itself but on (creative pollutions ?), but has been recently on WTO and the negotiations between Georgia and Russia. And maybe this is just something that we can think about for moving forward.

In the case of the WTO negotiations between Georgia and Russia, obviously the critical issue of status and the status of Karabakh – of, sorry, of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, was a critical issue. The Georgians are very worried that any agreement that they reached would somehow have an implication to the conflict. But what we saw instead was very creative mediation on the part of the Swiss. The United States wasn’t out in front; we were leading from behind.

And the final resolution in this – for this very narrow thing was outsourcing of the customs monitoring to a private entity. So the question is, can private entities, can these kind of creative solutions play a role where the larger negotiation formats have failed?

Read the full testimony, including the briefing from Helsinki Commission Policy Advisor Michael Ochs »