The political situation in the South Caucasus is very much like the Gordian knot – simply there is no chance for anybody to cut it.
A new wave of tension rose between Georgia and its autonomies recently and the main cause of it was South Ossetia’s decision to amend its constitution in such a way as to be legally able to join Russia.
The best legal term for Abkhazia and South Ossetia is “partly recognized republics.” This is their key difference from Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria.
But why did South Ossetia make such a decision now when tensions in the South Caucasus are dangerously high?
Georgia’s reaction was easy to predict. Representative of the country’s ruling coalition Gia Volsky has particularly said: “Russia is facing enough economic difficulties to wish to have more problem. In Tskhinval region there are just 15,000 people. Among our friends and relatives living in non-occupied territories there are more Ossetians than in that region. In Vladikavkaz, where there are lots of Ossetians from Tskhinval, moods are quite different. So, this referendum will have no legal grounds.”
Volsky’s position is clear. He hopes for Russia’s pragmatism. But, on the other hand, in his comment he has reiterated the Saakashvili regime’s attitude towards ethnic minorities. Everybody remembers how scornful Saakashvili’s men were when they commented on the decision of Nauru and Vanuatu to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia. What they meant by their mocking jokes was that ethnic minorities should have no right to own opinion and independent decision.
President of South Ossetia Leonid Tibilov perfectly understands that his initiative will cause more problems to Russia. So, why did he adopt it now?
Unfortunately, the frozen conflicts in the South Caucasus tend to unfreeze as were the cases in South Ossetia in Aug 2008 and in Nagorno-Karabakh in early Apr 2016. The bloodshed in Nagorno-Karabakh has been stopped. But will this ceasefire last for long?
Everybody remembers who things developed when Georgia and Azerbaijan failed to get back their rebellious autonomies. Here we have a conflict of two basic principles of the international law – territorial integrity and a nation’s right to self-determination. Naturally, neither Georgia nor Azerbaijan have put up with their losses. Both nations have been steadily strengthening their armies with the support of foreign instructors. For many years Azerbaijan kept reminding the world that its military budget was bigger than Armenia’s total budget. As a result, both nations got more and more confident of their ability to resolve their conflicts by means of force. As regards the attitude of the world community, it is always possible to find some legal argument here.
In both cases blitzkriegs failed, with a long war being the last thing the world community would like to see on this crossroads of Europe and Asia. They in Abkhazia were seriously worried by the events in Nagorno-Karabakh and are afraid of facing a similar scenario in their territory. According to Abkhazian MP Temur Gulia, the Abkhazians are seriously worried. “The Georgian armed forces keep organizing exercises. They are receiving new modern weapons, such as anti-tank and anti-ship systems. In fact, the Georgian army has switched to NATO’s standards. So, I think we must be ready for any scenario,” Gulia said.
One more factor causing alarm in Abkhazia and South Ossetia is Russia’s careful attitude during the four-day war in Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia is Russia’s only ally in the South Caucasus. Azerbaijan’s relations with Russia are much worse than its relations with brotherly Turkey. Turkey has used a weapon against Russia and it certainly was one of the instigators of the new conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. In the Russian-Turkish conflict Azerbaijan was openly pro-Turkish.
Yes, Russia took decisive measures to stop the bloodshed in Nagorno-Karabakh. But it acted as a mediator rather than a strategic ally. In this light, integration with Russia will give Abkhazia and South Ossetia more guarantees of security. In any case, the Gordian knot is tightening. Turkey’s pressure and economic crisis will be pushing Azerbaijan to start a new war – a war that may cover the whole South Caucasus.
On the other hand, Russia’s strategy on Nagorno-Karabakh and South Ossetia may come from the general situation in the South Caucasus. Let’s not forget that the new war in Nagorno-Karabakh burst out at the time when Ilham Aliyev was losing influence in Azerbaijan, when Armenia was reforming its government and when the ruling coalition in Georgia was breaking down.
Irakli Chkheidze (Georgia), EADaily’s political analyst