“In the second Karabakh war, Russia surpassed the West. The “new” world is the “Russian world”, and the West is even more excluded from the sphere of conflict resolution”. How will Georgia resolve its conflicts in this context?
In general, everyone agrees that the second Karabakh war changed a lot in the security architecture of the entire South Caucasus region. But at the same time, the Georgian conflicts – in Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Tskhinvali region) – are not mentioned by analysts.
This is strange: we are used to the fact that all three territorial conflicts are part of one big picture of regional security.
I am not saying this to criticize analysts who do not link the new situation in Nagorno-Karabakh and the entire territory around it with Georgia’s problems. I also believe that the second Karabakh war did not have a visible impact on the Georgian reality.
But that in itself is somewhat of a mystery.
But at the very least, the drastic changes brought about by the second Karabakh war should prompt Georgia to take a fresh look at the bigger picture — all the territorial conflicts in the South Caucasus, including Abkhazia and South Ossetia (the Tskhinvali region).
The general framework within which we must do this is not new. The people of the South Caucasus, including Georgia and the de facto states, are accustomed to viewing all of the region’s major political issues, including territorial conflicts, in the context of competition between Russia and the West.
Some analysts consider this approach to be overly simplistic. It doesn’t really explain all aspects of the problems. But we cannot bypass it, especially if we want to see a single picture of the region.
If you look at the context of the second Karabakh war from this point of view, it becomes clear that not only Azerbaijan was stronger than Armenia, but Russia also surpassed the West. The new world established by the war is the “Russian world”, and the West is even more excluded from the field of conflict resolution.
In the words of one British analyst, the European Union (it can be extended to the West in general) is “in search of a role” – which means that it does not currently have one.
Obviously, we can talk about increasing the role of Turkey, and this is a responsible issue. Since although this country had a really significant impact on the purely military side of the process – with its participation in the training and equipping of the Azerbaijani army, nevertheless, its place in the post-war peacekeeping process is rather modest.
No less important is the fact that, no matter what role Turkey plays in the distribution of regional powers, it acts here as an independent regional player, and not as part of a Western alliance.
Georgia, at least declaratively, is pinning its hopes on integration with the West. That is why he cannot look indifferently at such processes in his immediate environment. The changes are expected to have a significant impact on the overall regional security architecture. But here I will focus only on what these changes will mean for existing territorial conflicts.
Russian and Western Approaches to Conflict Resolution
The dichotomy between Russia and the West does not boil down to a 19th-century rivalry for territorial control and distribution of “zones of influence.”
Obviously, rivalry also includes values and norms that should govern various aspects of political life. These include the values and norms used in approaches to conflict resolution, for example in Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia or South Ossetia/Tskhinvali region.
What exactly is the difference? The Western approach to conflict resolution is based on the mantra: “There is no military solution.” Ethno-territorial conflicts should be resolved through negotiations between the parties. It is desirable, though not essential, for these negotiations to be conducted by Western mediators.
The function of the latter is to push the parties to become more pragmatic and rational instead of being guided by old-fashioned principles and emotions.
In this case, they will be able to better find an intermediate position between opposing requirements. In addition, the mediators can offer some political and economic incentives to the participants to make it easier for them to make the inevitable concessions and, at the same time, no longer deviate from the agreements once reached.
In practice, not everything is so simple. When the West had a really strong interest in resolving specific conflicts, it admitted that sometimes it would have to exert direct military pressure on the “destroyer”: this is how the West, represented by NATO, treated the regime of Slobodan Milosevic in 1999.
But the general philosophy is that such methods should be used only in extreme situations, and even in such cases, the final conflict resolution formula should be somewhere in between the requirements of the parties.
Russia’s approach (which we will draw more from its actions than from its words) stems from the fact that conflicts are always ultimately resolved through military force. Therefore, their outcome depends on the balance of military forces and a more correct use of their own resources.
This applies not only to the resources of the direct participants in the conflict, who have to fight and make sacrifices, but also to their influential sponsors. So it was and so it will always be. To say that times have changed now and that we should approach conflicts differently is nothing but the hypocrisy of the West.
When we say that Russia won the Nagorno-Karabakh war against the West, we mean not only that, unlike the previous situation, Russian troops will be deployed directly between the parties to the conflict as peacekeepers. But also that the peace achieved at this stage (whether temporarily or not) will be based on Russian, and not on Western political philosophy.
Stages of conflict management in the South Caucasus
If we consider the description of the difference between these two approaches correct, then it would not be superfluous to look at how the influences of the West and Russia on the development of ethno-territorial conflicts in the region correlated at different times.
From the very beginning of the three conflicts in the South Caucasus, I roughly divided them into three stages. We are probably now at the beginning of the fourth stage.
First – Soviet / Russian stage (1988-94)
All three conflicts in the South Caucasus began in the Soviet Union. Their participants assumed that Moscow would be the ultimate arbiter and tried to support it. The West did not participate in this. The other regional powers, Turkey and Iran, may have had their favorites, but they also recognized the Soviet Union/Russia as an important player.
This situation, in fact, persisted after the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, the internal situation of Russia was tense, and under its influence she was the ghost of her Soviet predecessor, while remaining stronger and more orderly than her southern neighbors. In particular, the situation in Georgia is much worse than in Russia.
So, although much depended on the resources, organization, attitude and courage of the direct participants in the conflict, the final victory remained with those who had great support from Russia.
All ceasefire agreements that ended the conflict were mediated by Russia or with its direct participation. Russian peacekeepers are stationed in Abkhazia and South Ossetia/Tskhinvali region, but not in Nagorno-Karabakh.
However, the West, primarily the US, was becoming an influential player in the South Caucasus. During this period, this influence on conflict resolution did not yet extend. The only exception is the deployment of a UN observer mission in the conflict zone in July 1993, a few months before the end of the war.
But it is difficult to say that this somehow influenced the post-war course.
The second stage of geopolitical rivalry (approximately 1995-2008)
However, if you look at the bigger picture, at the moment Russia has clearly not won the battle for influence in the South Caucasus. Its general political, military and economic resources were shrinking. It could not compete with the West in soft power either.
He earned a certain level of loyalty from Armenia and made it his main ally in the region, instead alienating Georgia and Azerbaijan, who blamed him for the loss of territory.
More promising were partnerships with the much stronger politically and economically wealthy West. Proximity to Russia in a peaceful period did not bring much benefit.
Russia compensated for its weakness with geographic proximity and more pronounced interests, but still had to admit that it was fighting for influence with the West, primarily with the United States (although most Western politicians and observers avoided the language of competition as much as possible).
Due to general trends, many saw the West as the ultimate winner.
The most obvious expression of the growing influence of the West has been the US-sponsored Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline project.
This allowed Azerbaijan to use its oil resources independently of Russia. This project, and then the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline, contributed to the creation of the Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey axis, which counterbalanced Russia’s claims in the region.
Azerbaijan and Georgia were able to withdraw the remaining Russian military units (for example, Russian bases in Georgia) from their territories (with the exception of units controlled by the separatist regimes).
Georgia most openly expressed its desire to cooperate with the West. Azerbaijan followed suit more closely, while Armenia pursued a policy of “complementarity,” meaning it made the most of its chances of cooperating with the West as long as it didn’t oppose a security partnership with Russia.
The competition also included conflict resolution. The role of the West was more pronounced in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, where the OSCE Minsk Group, consisting of the United States, France and Russia, acted as the main mediator. In fact, the United States has assumed the role of leader.
They met with the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan to find a way out of the impasse. Twice, in 1998 and 2001, a breakthrough seemed real, but in both cases the agreement failed at the last moment, because it involved concessions unacceptable to the local elite and the public.
In 1998, Armenian President Ter-Petrosyan was forced to resign due to his support for the proposed peace formula. After that, his partner Heydar Aliyev also avoided taking excessive risks.
In Abkhazia and South Ossetia/Tskhinvali region, the West could not play such a role, because Russian troops were stationed there and governments de facto depended on it. In Abkhazia, the West was represented by the already mentioned UN mission, while South Ossetia/Tskhinvali region was represented by the OSCE mission.
But these organizations could do little, including because Russia had a veto in both of them. Nevertheless, the West also tried to convince the parties of the correctness of its philosophy of conflict resolution. Here, too, it was expected that some agreements could be reached.
But, as it turned out, the positions of the parties were too far apart. Moreover, since Western interest in the region was comparatively less, and Russia was not allowed to change the status quo, the negotiation process based on Western approaches proved fruitless. Ultimately, this led to a state of “fatigue” in the process of resolving the conflict.
The local public and the political elite did not want to become as “rational” as they wanted in the West, and did not give up their maximalist demands. It turned out that the Western approaches to conflict resolution mentioned above have failed.
It became clear that if hard power were not used in any way, the price of compromise in the eyes of local political leaders would be much more expensive than the loss of an unstable peace. Moreover, de facto there was still peace, even an unstable one.
The third stage is the return of Russia to its positions (2008-2020)
The third stage brought disappointment and hesitation in the West, against which Russia increased its self-confidence. If we need a specific watershed, then the Russian-Georgian war in August 2008 and its immediate consequences will help us.
With this and subsequent decisions, Russia sent a clear signal to the West: “I am the leader here!” The West secretly tolerated this, at least in part. Since then, no significant initiatives have come from the West aimed at resolving conflicts in the South Caucasus.
The term “conflict resolution” itself is gradually being replaced by the more vague and, therefore, more convenient term “conflict transformation”.
As different as the Russian-Georgian war in 2008 and the Armenian-Azerbaijani war in 2020 may have been, their end results are similar in one thing: a new version of the “Russian peace” was established in all conflict zones, and this was done only with the use of force.
How is the new Russian world different?
Of course, the precursor formulas for peace (in other words, “frozen conflicts”), based on the 1992-1994 ceasefire agreement, were also “Russian”. But during this period, Russia was still relatively weak and confused enough to find a solution that fully met the interests of the parties.
And now Russia’s control over all three conflict zones is much stronger, and the world has become even more “Russian” in the sense that the West is even less likely to play a role in resolving them. As I said, in the case of the Karabakh conflict, Turkey has a certain role in achieving peace, but this does not change the whole picture much.
The most important of these changes may be that the new formulas of “temporary” peace are much more accepted as final solutions than in the old circumstances.
The parties, as well as Western observers, often repeat that the new ceasefire agreements are not the final peace agreements. So true peace has not yet been achieved. Indeed, the territory of the de facto jurisdiction of Georgia and Azerbaijan still does not coincide with their internationally recognized borders, and they do not intend to formally put up with this situation.
Therefore, the territories of Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia/Tskhinvali region can still be called “frozen” or “re-frozen” conflict zones.
All this is obviously true. But here we must remind ourselves that in the case of the conflicts in Georgia, the terms of the temporary ceasefire agreements of the 1990s remained in force for 15 and 16 years, respectively, and such an agreement over Nagorno-Karabakh established a regime of territorial control. for 26 years.
By comparison, the Treaty of Versailles of 1919, signed after the First World War by all parties as the basis for a lasting peace, turned out to be much shorter.
It doesn’t matter whether the document is formally called a “final” peace agreement or simply a ceasefire agreement, what matters is what the real situation is in the territories, what are the moods and expectations of the parties.
While the peace treaties set out in the 1992–1994 agreements were relatively long-lived, they were not considered sustainable in the long term. Georgia still controlled significant areas within Abkhazia and South Ossetia/Tskhinvali region, much to the dismay of the de facto authorities.
Armenia retained control of most of Azerbaijan’s territory, only to use it for trade during the negotiations – even after all negotiations were suspended. It was not clear how the influence of Russia and the West on the dynamics of the conflict would be correlated.
Against this background, before the second war, both Georgia and Azerbaijan (although, unfortunately, not Armenia) considered the settlement of the conflict one of the central tasks of their political agenda.
Mikheil Saakashvili promised to resolve these conflicts both before and after the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections. Obviously, this was his serious mistake. But from this it is also clear that society really expected him to resolve conflicts. And he believed, albeit erroneously, that he could do it (with the support of the West).
Azerbaijan had a very clear position on this issue: it considered the status quo unacceptable and was ready, if there was no prospect of change, to solve the problem by military means. All sides were preparing for war.
After Western countries recognized the independence of Kosovo, Russia openly considered this a precedent, removing the taboo on the principle of inviolability of borders. From now on, she was preparing for non-standard solutions in “her” region.
The second war changed everything. This may be clearer in the case of Georgia, as more time has passed since August 2008 than since November 2020.
The second war effectively removed conflict resolution from Georgia’s current political agenda. In this regard, there is no significant difference between the government of Mikheil Saakashvili after 2008 and the Georgian Dream after 2012.
Whatever the official rhetoric, there was actually a sense of loss. “Abkhazia and South Ossetia/Tskhinvali region now belong to Russia and there is nothing we can do about it yet.” Western calls for “strategic patience” are nothing more than a confirmation of such an attitude in the language of diplomacy.
The new Georgian Dream government wanted to show that it was different from its predecessor in that it was ready for direct dialogue with the de facto authorities of Sukhumi and Tskhinvali. But nothing came of it, because the latter were not interested in it.
Later, when the new government of Sukhumi, headed by Aslan Bzhaniya, expressed its readiness for dialogue, this was now ignored in Tbilisi. It seems that Georgian Dream saw no point in such a dialogue. According to the official position of Abkhazia and Russia, the conflict has already been resolved. If yes, then what to talk about?
The situation around Nagorno-Karabakh is more complicated. Here Russia is dealing with two internationally recognized sovereign states, one of which, in the person of Turkey, has an influential political patron.
The peace formula created after the second Karabakh war is also technically more complicated. Russia protects the roads between Armenia and the rest of Nagorno-Karabakh on the one hand, and the main territory of Azerbaijan and Nakhichevan on the other. The implementation of this formula is not yet complete, and before that, small-scale military clashes take place in this zone.
Nevertheless, the general solution to the problem may turn out to be more solid than the previous one. Both sides recognize the leading role of Russia. Neither of them is completely satisfied, but both can get used to the new situation – this was not the case before the second war.
Armenia this time suffered a painful defeat, but if we take the beginning of the conflict (the late Soviet period) as a starting point, then it received most of Nagorno-Karabakh. The Russian military presence, which is not opposed by either Azerbaijan or Turkey, gives Armenia greater control over the territory than it was before the second war.
For its part, Azerbaijan has regained quite large lands that were lost a quarter of a century ago, and most of the internally displaced persons can return home if they wish. Formally, Azerbaijan still retains its claims to the entire territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. But life in the new status quo is much more acceptable to him.
What can be done in the conditions of the Russian world?
Let’s summarize: As a result of the second war in all three territorial conflicts in the South Caucasus, the “Russian world” was established. While the new peace formulas are still based on “interim” ceasefires rather than full-fledged peace agreements, they appear to be more sustainable than those based on similar agreements of the early 1990s.
This means that the parties to the conflict are less likely to try to change the situation in the foreseeable future.
The main reason for this is that Russia is even more interested in maintaining the status quo and protecting the territories with its military units (in the case of Karabakh this happened for the first time, and its military presence in Abkhazia and in southern Ossetia/Tskhinvali has increased significantly). Therefore, any attempt to change the situation will mean a direct confrontation with Russia. The West is trying to find some role in this configuration, but, in fact, it has also adapted to the situation.
Hypothetically, at least in the foreseeable future, changes are possible if they are in the interests of Russia. For example, the possibility of joining Abkhazia and South Ossetia/Tskhinvali region to the Russian Federation (or “Crimea scenario”) could be considered.
Such a development is easier to imagine for South Ossetia, where the de facto government has already asked Russia to do so several times. This project also enjoys the support of the local community, as it involves unification with North Ossetia, which is part of Russia.
If Russia makes such a decision, Georgia will not be able to stop it, except for appeals to the international community – but, as the example of Crimea has shown, this may not be enough.
I will not go into the realism of this scenario (in my opinion, its probability is low), but even if it were, only the formal status of these territories would change, and the real situation would remain essentially the same: the fact of control of these territories (especially South Ossetia / Tskhinvali region). The quality is already quite high.
Does this mean that nothing can be changed? To say so would be an exaggeration. It is impossible to predict the future. If there is anything we can learn from history, it is that circumstances that are considered absolutely solid and indestructible are changing much faster than anyone can imagine (the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union is one example of this).
But it is still very likely that in the case of Abkhazia and South Ossetia/Tskhinvali region (as well as Nagorno-Karabakh) it is unlikely that local and gradual processes will lead to significant changes.
This can only lead to a radical transformation of the regional, if not global, security architecture. The reason for the change in this level is a number of factors that the American politician Donald Rumsfeld called “unknown aliens”, and the well-known analyst Nasib Taleb – “black swans”. No one expects such processes in advance.
But it is very difficult for people to plan their actions in an unfamiliar situation. It makes sense to set goals with only a small chance of being achieved. Whether we want to admit it, a long-term peace agreement, which all parties to the conflict (in this case, the Georgians, Abkhazians and Ossetians) consider legitimate, now seems impossible.
The parties have not even agreed that the conflict still needs to be resolved: the Abkhazians and Ossetians, as well as their Russian patrons, believe that the conflicts have already been resolved, and that only the Georgian state and the international community should recognize the “new reality”.
This does not mean that this “new reality” can never be shaken. However, one can only guess how to get to a situation where the Georgian side can say: now the conflict is resolved.
One of the hypothetical settlement scenarios is for Georgia to really come to terms with the “new reality”, that is, the irretrievable loss of these territories, and officially recognize the legitimacy of de facto states. This will really solve the problem. There is nothing illogical in this, and I do not rule out that some friends may consider such a move by Georgia reasonable.
At the time of this writing, almost three decades have passed since Georgia lost the wars for control of these territories. Thirteen years ago, as a result of the second war, Russian/separatist control over them became even more complete and solid. It was quite a long time ago, during this time new generations of Georgians and Abkhazians have grown up, for whom the “new reality” is the only thing they know.
However, even the possibility of formal recognition of these territorial losses as final and the existence of Georgia within narrower borders has never been the subject of serious discussion and will not be discussed by any political player. There is a strong consensus that any move in this direction is politically completely unacceptable, even the mention of it is taboo.
This does not put Georgia in an advantageous position. It cannot take deliberate steps to resolve the conflict (“resolution” means an end to the conflict that Georgian society might consider legitimate), but it cannot afford to put off resolving the issue either.
The country should have some kind of policy towards Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia. What specific goals does it pursue?
The policy cannot be limited to responding only to problems and incidents that occur along the administrative dividing lines with both regions, such as the so-called “borderization”, the so-called detention of Georgian citizens who violate the border regime, the protection of the rights of Georgians living on the other side of the dividing line etc.
However, these problems are very acute and real, and they cannot be ignored.
But Georgia should have some kind of long-term perspective, which, in particular, is expressed in the concept of “reintegration”, albeit more or less vague.
But what is this long-term policy? There is the official position of Georgia, which was created in 2010 and is based on two main principles: diplomatic work to prevent international recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia/Tskhinvali region and maintaining contacts with the population of the occupied regions at the civilian level.
Although the ruling Georgian Dream party promised a significant change in policy towards conflict regions when it came to power in 2012, nothing has really changed.
Moreover, these principles do not cause political resistance. Both the majority of the population of Georgia and the political elites agree that Georgia is not capable of more. The program of free health care for Abkhazians of all backgrounds, started by the previous government, has been continued and is generally considered a success.
But if one hopes that free medical care will eventually push Abkhazians to support reintegration into Georgia, the wait may be long.
Naturally, the government does its best to avoid unpopular moves. Civil society is expected to be bolder and to try out ideas and approaches that may not even be acceptable to most people. But even in this situation, it was difficult for them to come up with new ideas that would change the general mood to accept the existing situation.
The development of contacts and discussions with Abkhaz and Ossetian colleagues, which is what civil society usually does, is a good thing in itself. But since such activities have no obvious political implications, there is some kind of boredom in them.
What would be the right thing to do in this situation? Perhaps a good start is to be honest and not encourage false hopes and illusions.
We all want to achieve what we sincerely call a legitimate solution to the problem, and thus put an end to the uncertain and highly uncomfortable situation in which we find ourselves. But until the appearance of a beautiful (or not so beautiful) black swan, we cannot touch our hearts and cannot say that we know the path that will lead us to such a solution.
Recognizing this does not mean doing nothing. As trite as it may sound, Georgia’s top priority should be to become a better country, which is not happening right now. There is nothing to lose here: if we live in a better country, it will be good anyway.
In addition, if there are any dubious chances for integration, a successful country will be able to more easily reintegrate those regions whose inhabitants today do not want to have anything to do with Georgia.
Secondly, we cannot make contact with people who live on the other side of the dividing line, including different strata of society. We must not deceive ourselves and build logical schemes according to which such contacts are a stage on the way to final integration. Hypothetically, this may or may not be true.
If a chance presents itself to find a real solution to a real problem, it will be better used by societies that know each other better and trust each other. Moreover, no matter how political relations develop between Georgian and Abkhaz or Georgian and Ossetian societies, they will remain neighbors, and the social capital of goodwill and trust between neighbors will always come in handy.
Georgia must finally face the reality of itself and its conflicts. Too many mythological representations have accumulated about them.
For example, that there is no Georgian-Abkhaz and Georgian-Ossetian conflicts, there is only a Georgian-Russian conflict. Or a more “politically correct” myth – if as many Georgians as possible and as many Abkhazians (or Ossetians) as possible build trusting relationships with each other, then the conflicts will somehow disappear.
The same logic applies here: a more adequate understanding of one’s own problems is not sufficient in itself to solve them. But it can help us understand what it means to “solve” our own problem.