Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence - Sixth Report


Memorandum submitted by Mary Kaldor, Centre for the Study of Global Governance, LSE


  The Transcaucasus region comprising Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, is torn by conflicts. These conflicts are comparable to those in the Balkan region but they have received much less attention.

  The conflicts have caused much suffering. Thousands of people have been killed and hundreds of thousands have been forced to leave their homes. The economies of all three countries have been devastated; during the height of the conflicts GDP fell by between 50 and 74 per cent. Out of a total population of all three countries of 15.2 million, according to the last Soviet census, between 1 and 2 million are refugees and displaced persons and probably a similar number have left the region for economic reasons. The conflicts also constitute a serious obstacle to democratic development; nationalist ideologies have helped to sustain authoritarian political cultures. Moreover, there is a real risk of spread to neighbouring regions where conflicts are also simmering—Russia and the conflicts of the North Caucasus to the North, Turkey and the Kurdish conflict in the South West and Iran in the South East.

  The role of outside powers has been ambiguous. On the one hand, most of the key players—Russia, Iran, Turkey, and the United States—have tried from time to time to act as mediators. On the other hand, they have all pursued geo-political agendas and tended to side with one or other party to the conflicts. At the time of writing, there appears to be developing a new set of alignments with Russia and Iran siding with Armenia and the US and Turkey with Azerbaijan, which could betoken a dangerous East-West division in the region.

  The main argument of this memorandum is that Britain should promote a common European policy towards the region aimed at the long-term solution of the conflicts. This `ethical' approach to the area is much more likely to lead to stability and prosperity, especially in view of the oil reserves in the Caspian Sea, than a competitive geo-political approach.


  There are three main conflicts in the region: the Nagorno Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan; the Abkhazia and South Ossetia conflicts in Georgia. Nagorno Karabakh used to be an autonomous province of Azerbaijan in Soviet times although it was mainly populated by Armenians. Armenian and Karabakh demands for its incorporation into Armenia marked the beginning of the nationalist movements during the perestroika period which eventually led to the demise of the Soviet Union. After the withdrawal of Soviet forces, a war over the status of Nagorno Karabakh was effectively won by Karabakh forces who now occupy 20 per cent of Azerbaijani territory. Some 300,000 Armenians were expelled from Azerbaijan. Around a million Azerbaijanis were expelled from Armenia and the occupied territories. A cease-fire was negotiated by Russia in 1994 and the so-called Minsk group of the OSCE (the three co-chairs are Russia, the US and France) continue to negotiate the future of the region.

  Abkhazia used to be an autonomous province of Georgia. The so-called titular nationality, however, the Abkhaz, only represented some 17 per cent of the population. The remainder were Georgians, mainly Mingrelians, and Russians. South Ossetia was an autonomous region of Georgia with a mixed Ossetian and Georgian population. Wars in those two areas led to the expulsion of 250,000 Georgians from Abkhazia and some tens of thousands of Georgians from South Ossetia. Many Ossetian people also sought refuge in North Ossetia inside Russia. Cease-fires were negotiated in 1992 and 1993. In the case of Abkhazia, there is a Russian peacekeeping force supported by a UN observer mission UNOMIG; the Friends of the Secretary General (Russia, the US, Britain, France and Germany) together with with CIS try to encourage negotiations. In the case of South Ossetia, there is a joint Russian-Georgian-Ossetian peacekeeping force under the auspices of the CIS.

  All three conflicts are frozen conflicts. Fighting has been more or less halted but the issues of status and the return of refugees and Dps has not been solved. In both Abkhazia and Nagorno Karabakh, there are continuing violent incidents across the cease-fire lines. Moreover in Abkhazia, a further bout of ethnic cleansing took place last May, when 40,000 Georgians who had returned to their homes in the Gali region were expelled again and their houses looted and burned.

  There are other lesser conflicts in the region—for example, the Lesgyn minority in Azerbaijan, the Armenian minority in Georgia and the status of Adjaria, an autonomous region in Georgia ruled by a typical post-Communist leader, Abashidze, according to one commentator in the manner of an Ottoman clan chief.

  The immediate cause of all these conflicts was the rise of nationalist ideologies in the dying days of the Soviet empire. In all three countries, nationalists came to power in the aftermath of Soviet collapse—Gamsakhurdia in Georgia, Elchibey in Azerbaijan and Lev Ter Petrossian in Armenia. The first two were overthrown in 1992 and replaced by former Communist leaders—Shevardnadze in Georgia and Heidar Aliyev in Azerbaijan, perhaps with Russian connivance. Although both leaders have succeeded in restoring some degree of stability; both still rely on nationalist ideologies to retain their power positions. Ter Petrossian was overthrown in 1997 after proposing a conciliatory approach to the Nagorno Karabakh conflict; he was replaced by the Prime Minister he himself had appointed—Robert Kocharian the former President of Nagorno Karabakh.

  It would be wrong to treat nationalism as a throwback to the past, even through narratives of nationalism are replete with historical claims about who came first and who has the right to which territory. In particular, the Turkish genocide of Armenians in 1915 is deeply imprinted on Armenian consciousness. But by and large, the whole region was historically very mixed and most conflicts were directed against the various empires that came and went—the Persians, the Ottomans and the Russians—rather than against each other. When I visited Nagorno Karabakh in February of this year, I was struck by the fact that the Armenians and Azeris who face each other across the frontline know each other from before the war and used to be friends. Indeed, even now, they sometimes stop to take a coffee with each other. However, when I asked one of the same Armenian border guards about an incident in which an American Armenian was killed, he told me that he had been killed by a "Turkish" tank. In other words, the Azeris are not traditional enemies but they become Turks the old enemies of Armenians, when engaged in violence.

  Contemporary nationalism has several sources. One is the popular movements that emerged during the perestroika period and which envisaged independence from the Soviet Union as a way of gaining democracy. Former dissidents were able to mobilise popular feeling under the banner of nationalism. Another is the administrative arrangements under the Soviet Union according to which administrative status was linked to titular nationalities who were given privileged positions in the administration and who encouraged local language and culture. In a situation of bureaucratic competition and shortage, nationalist claims became a method of competing for resources within the bureaucracy and patronage networks based on ethnicity or clan became a mechanism for distribution. For former nomenclature wishing to retain their positions, alliance with the democrats under the umbrella of nationalism was a natural development. Nationalism has provided an easy substitute for communism as a tool for authoritarian leaders with much the same black-white, we-them, good-bad mentality. In societies where people are accustomed to obey, such ideologies can be very powerful.

  The electronic media has facilitated contemporary nationalism, as in other parts of the world. Although there has been some progress towards establishing independent media in all three countries, their position remains precarious and the state continues to dominate television and radio which reaches out to the countryside and reproduces nationalist propaganda. In the case of Armenia, the role of the Diaspora has also been crucial in supporting and publicizing the Armenian position especially in the United States.

  The explosive growth of nationalism has to be understood in terms of the military and economic context of the region. The Transcaucasus region is said to be the most heavily militarised part of the former Soviet Union. Weapons were stolen from or sold by departing Russian soldiers. In the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, there were no regular armed forces. Rather the wars were conducted by paramilitary groups formed on the basis of extreme ideologies and/or organised crime. Their tactics were to gain control of territory through population expulsion rather than to fight each other. As in the Balkans, most of the violence was directed against civilians. Where forces were professionalised, they easily prevailed. This was the case with the Karabakh forces, which received training and even combat leadership from American Armenians and from Russia. In the case of Abkhazia and Ossetia, Russian forces, perhaps breakaway units seem to have fought on the side of the Abkhazians and Ossetians. In the aftermath of the wars, the Azerbaijani and Georgian forces have been consolidated and professionalised. But they are still weak and paramilitary groups have not been completely eliminated.

  The economies of the region have been severely disabled by the collapse of trade, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, blockades imposed as a result of the wars, physical destruction of utilities and plants, and in the case of Armenia, the aftermath of the 1988 earthquake. Indeed, Armenia, the poorest of the three countries has been worst affected by blockades from Turkey and Azerbaijan and the difficulty of trade with Russia which has to pass through Abkhazia. Income and tax revenues in all three countries plummeted during the wars. somewhere between 40 and 50 per cent of the economy went underground. In this context, war generated income from loot, pillage, hostage taking and illegal trade has been an important way of sustaining paramilitary groups. In the Armenian case, Diaspora support acounts for two thirds of the defence budget of Nagorno Karabakh and is sustained by a permanent sense or emergency. Although the economies of all three countries have begun to recover, especially Azerbaijan which is now benefiting from oil investments, there remains widespread poverty and inequality; tax revenues are still very low and the grey economy is still considerable.

  Thus there remains a considerable risk that the conflicts will reignite because of the confluence of political and economic interest. For the ruling elites and their political opponents, the conflicts provide a reason why other problems are not solved and a mechanism for mobilistion and political competiton. The disabled economies and the markets in surplus weapons still provide a breeding ground for violence and organised crime. In the case of the breakaway regions especially Karabakh and Abkhazia, they remain dependent on war generated sources of revenue.


  Outside powers have tended to act in contradictory ways. The main actors are Russia, Iran, Turkey and the United States.

  Russia, as Margot Light has put it, has been both "peace-maker and trouble maker". On the one hand, it is Russia, which has been primarily responsible for the cease-fires and, in the case of Abkhazia and Ossetia, for peacekeeping. On the other hand, Russian forces whether officially or unofficially seem to have been involved in formenting conflicts. some, especially in the region, would argue that this has been Russia's method of controlling the "Near Abroad". A more likely explanation is the lack of co-ordination within the Russian State as well as various independent groups, often involved in illegal activities, which may or may not have official connections. Russia`s role in maintaining and policing cease-fires is, however, problematic and, indeed an important reason for fragility of the cease-fires is, since Russia is not seen as an impartial mediator. Russian peace-keepers did not prevent the ethnic cleansing of the Gali region last year; although it is not clear whether this is because, as the Russians claim, of their reluctance to risk lives as a resultof the "Chechen syndrome", or whether it is, as perceived by the Goergians, evidence of Russian partiality. Russia has been augmenting its military forces at bases in Armenia and in Adzharia, providing a focus point for Azerbaijani and Geogian concerns about Russia's partiality.

  Iran and Turkey both have serious concerns about the pressure of refugees and the dangers of conflict spreading. In particular, a large part of the Iranian population is Azerbaijani and there are fears that Azerbaijani nationalism could be generated with Iran. Both have economic interests in the region. Both are interested in pipelines from the Caspian Sea as well as trade. At various times, both have tried to mediate and retain an impartial stance. But both are increasingly seen as partial—Turkey is seen as the ally of Turkic speaking Azerbaijan expecially in the light of American-Turkish interest in a pipeline through Turkey which would cut out Iran and Russia. Iran is increasingly seen as an ally of Armenia both because of its fears of Azerbaijani irredentism and its alleged support for the banned Islamic party in Azerbaijan.

  The US was initially seen as an ally of Armenia especially in light of sanctions imposed by congress on Azerbaijan under pressure of the Armenian Diaspora. However, American interest in reducing dependence on Persian Gulf oil has been the justification for recent support for Azerbaijan as a way of gaining access to Caspian Sea resources. Some claim this interest is exaggerated since Caspian Sea oil reserves seem likely to be much lower than was expected and that the main US interest is in offsetting Russian and Iranian influence. The US has also tried to mediate and pressure from the US seems to have been an important reason why Ter Petrossian proposed a new peace initiative. However, there does not seem much effort in that direction at present—a US official told me that "we" the OSCE "are just the postbox" for negotiations, ie not active. After the announcement that Russia was to deploy additonal Mig-29 aircraft in Armenia, the Azeri Foreign Minister called for a NATO base in Azerbaijan. In contrast, the European role in the region has been comparatively minor. The British have a relatively strong diplomatic presence in Azerbaijan, especially in light of the leading role played by British Petroleum in AIOC (Azerbaijani International Operating Company). The French are part of the Minsk group and France, Britain and Germany are Friends of the Secretary General. All three countries have signed Partnership and Co-operation Agreements with the European Union, Partnership for Peace Agreements with NATO and all are hoping to join the Council of Europe.


  European countries, which, as yet, are seen as relatively impartial, could put a major co-operative effort into solving the conflicts of the region. What might this involve?

  First of all, it is very difficult to envisage long-term solutions so long as nationalist ideologies prevail. The most important task is to develop an alternative political culture which is much more cosmopolitan in outlook and which recognises that increased integration of the region will contribute towards stability and prosperity. Despite obstacles posed by a totalitarian tradition and by unfavourable regulations concerning NGOs, civil society is emerging in all three countries. It is probably strongest in Georgia, at least in those parts controlled by the Government. Nevertheless, independent media, independent intellectuals and NGOs are engaaged in public debate in all three countries, even outside the capital cities. In particular, there are NGO specifically working on peace and human rights issues who co-operate throughout the region. These include the Helsinki Citizens Assembly, International Alert, and the Transcaucasia Women's Dialogue. The Helsinki Citizens Assembly has, for example been responsible for the release of over 500 prisoners of war and hostages and engages in dialogue across the conflict zones, especially involving refugees and Displaced Persons. Support for civil society is crucial in building an alternative political culture, especially in encouraging democratic participation and individual civic responsibility so as to undermine the authorisation mentality on which nationalist ideologies feed.

  Secondly, efforts need to be made to thaw the conflicts. Civil society cannot flourish in conditions of conflict. Conflict is polarising and can be used to suppress civil society. Thus efforts need to be made to freeze the violence and to encourage a process of normalisation. In this context, negotiations need to be aimed not at a final solution to the conflicts but rather at stabilising the conflicts. Thus they need to focus on maintaining cease-fires, and on confidence-building measures, such as return of refugees, lifting of blockades, economic reconstruction, freedom of movement, or Demining and demilitarisation rather than on status. European countries should consider the option of making available peacekeeping forces and police. They could also play a role in putting pressure on the various parties to agree to such measures. And finally, they could support confidence-building measures at citizen's level. For example, there is a proposal to create a peace zone among local municipalities from all three countries in the Red Bridge area, which is where all three countries meet. Similarly there are proposals for cultural exchanges, media co-operations, youth co-operations through summer camps and universities—all of which should be encouraged.

  Thirdly, a programme of normalisation needs to be developed which would include economic reconstruction, control of surplus weapons, assistance to war victims especially demobilized soldiers, refugees and Dps. Economic reconstruction should focus on two areas—reconstruction of infrastructure which would facilitate economic integration of the region as a whole, and local economic development with a special emphasis on job creation so as to provide alternative sources of livelihood for the very poor who are likely turn to the black economy.

  The British government could play a very constructive role in encouraging such an approach to the region in co-operation with British companies active in the region such as BP and Midland Bank as well as NGOs such as International Alert and Vertic, British NGOs, and the Helsinki Citizens Assembly which has a British branch.

April 1999

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