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Eurasian integration will protect South Caucasus from the flaming Middle East: interview with Vladimir Yevseyev

Head of the Caucasus Department of the CIS Institute Vladimir Yevseyev opines about the results of the past year for the South Caucasus, the prospects of the Eurasian integration and the future of Russian-Georgian, Russian-Abkhazian and Russian-South-Ossetian relations.

Could you please sum up key results of the past year for the South Caucasus? What event in the year seems to be the most dramatic one to you? What an effect have the developments in Russia and the world had on the situation in the Middle East?

In 2014, the South Caucasus faced growing turbulence, which was caused by both internal and external factors. The external factors were the Ukrainian crisis and the so-called Islamic State, of course, each of them had a different effect on the region. For instance, Georgia’s ruling coalition, Georgian Dream, tried to improve relations with Moscow through a dialogue between Abashidze and Karasin. As a result, the countries resumed direct flights and increased significantly the bilateral trade turnover. But this was practically ignored by Georgian mass media, which keep blocking any good news about Russia. In the meantime, Georgia was facing a political crisis, caused by the dismissal of its Defense Minister Irakly Alasania, the split of the Free Democrats from the ruling coalition, Mikheil Saakashvili’s belligerent calls on Georgian officers to go and fight against militants in Donbass, participation of Georgian citizens in the ‘Islamic State’ activities and deteriorating social-economic conditions. Under such circumstances, it is quite possible that the opposition United National Movement may come back into power by joining new ruling coalition.

Armenia has been also internally unstable. In that country, the authorities attempted a constitutional shift from presidential to parliamentary rule. The opposition regarded this as a wish to retain power after 2018, when President Serzh Sargsyan will have to resign. This all might have ended in a serious political crisis were it not for some new spells of tension in Nagorno-Karabakh in August and November. Armenia joined the Eurasian Economic Union but tried to preserve the existing level of its relations with the European Union. In fact, that country has become a field of battle between two economic systems, and much here depends on its ability to overcome this challenge despite continuing blockade by Azerbaijan and Turkey. In any case, they in Yerevan will give priority to Russia as their only real ally.

However, this all is not as serious as the problems that may arise in Azerbaijan. They are not yet seen by the international community due to a generously funded propaganda, but oil production in that country is falling. Sooner or later, this may happen to natural gas as well, and since there is little chance for the Azerbaijanis to become a transit nation for Central Asia – despite attempts to pump Kazakh oil through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline – they will have to do something to develop their economy. But instead they are wasting huge money on projects like 2015 Baku European Games. Things look even worse in view of the fact that quite a lot of Azerbaijani citizens are currently fighting for the ISIL. Ethnic minorities like Talyshs and Lezgins have almost no rights in Azerbaijan, while Salaphites are gaining more and more influence in that country. And these factors may well be used by the ISIL against the not very stable current regime.

Can the Middle East instability move to the Caucasus this year? Particularly, can it cause a new war in Nagorno-Karabakh or can it draw the region into a global war?

I see no direct connection between the developments in North Africa and the Middle East and the conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. First of all, Armenians, Ossetians and most of Abkhazians (64%) are Christians. And the opposite side in the Georgian-South Ossetian and the Georgian-Abkhazian conflicts is also a Christian nation. The only Muslim nation here is Azerbaijan, but there too we can hardly expect any Jihad moves as that country is ruled by a secular regime.

Secondly, Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan serve as a kind of a buffer between the South Caucasus and the ISIL, and this situation will continue in the near future despite certain predictions of instability in Turkey.

And the third factor is that the key external political players, such as Russia, Turkey, Iran and even the United States, are not interested in instability in the South Caucasus. Moscow and Ankara are all but willing to be involved in a new war in Nagorno-Karabakh as they can hardly predict the consequences. Iran is not interested in stronger Azerbaijan as it has a huge Azerbaijani community. They in Washington would love to create some new problems for Moscow but they are not ready to lose this oil and gas transit corridor from Central Asia.

Obviously, instability in the Middle East will have bad effects on the Caucasus - but mostly on Azerbaijan as a country with serious inter-ethnic and inter-religious problems.

What do you think about the future of the Eurasian integration project in view of the growing political and economic crisis in the world?

I think it will develop despite the crisis and will certainly involve the territory of the Caucasus. Its success will depend on Moscow’s ability to improve its relations with Tbilisi. If this happens, we may see restarted railway connection through Abkhazia. All this may bring Georgia closer to the Eurasian orbit, but, of course, that country’s Association Agreement with the EU will stay in force.

But even if things go bad for Moscow, Georgia will not yield to Azerbaijan’s pressure and will hardly blockade Armenia, primarily, for economic reasons. So, the transport corridor will be preserved, and there will be no insurmountable obstacles to Eurasian integration in the South Caucasus. They in Baku are well aware of this. That’s why they are not yet saying no to this project but are just laying inadmissible preconditions to Russia concerning the Nagorno-Karabakh settlement.

How will Russian-Georgian, Russian-South Ossetian and Russian-Abkhazia relations develop in 2015? Can there be a breakthrough here and what can cause it?

Relations between Russia and Abkhazia will depend on how efficient the sides will be in implementing the strategic partnership agreement they signed on November 24. The People’s Assembly of Abkhazia ratified it on December 22. The next day Russian President Vladimir Putin submitted the agreement to the State Duma. This document is quite controversial but if enacted, it will mean Moscow’s refusal to make Abkhazia a part of the Russian Federation. In fact, they in the Kremlin have never had such plans, but they in Tbilisi are still suspicious, especially after the events in Crimea.

I think, in order to make their positions clear, Russians and Georgian leaders need to have a meeting, taking into account the current peculiarity of the Georgian political power. De jure the leader of Georgia is Georgy Margvelashvili but de facto he has no influence in his country. The last constitutional reform has given more powers to the prime minister. This office is being held by Irakly Garibashvili, but he is too young and dependent on Bidzina Ivanishvili. Under such conditions, Putin will have to hold both official meetings with the Georgian president or the prime minister and an unofficial one with Ivanishvili. The Russian side will have to give clear guarantees that it will not annex Abkhazia and South Ossetia, while the Georgians will have to agree to restart railway services via Abkhazia and to stop their information blockade against Moscow. Of course, this will be hard to achieve considering Washington’s pressure.

With South Ossetia Russia may sign a similar agreement but will hardly be able to carry it out as the population of South Ossetia is very small. On the other hand, this will confirm that Russia has no plans to annex South Ossetia. This will be in line with Georgia’s national interests and may help the sides to improve their relations.

By Yana Amelina specially for EAD

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