Wednesday, August 19, 2009


The Russian flag

Needless to say, Transcaucasia or Transcaucasus or South Caucasus is one of the most troubled regions in the world. Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan have three heavily disputed areas – Abkhajia and South Ossetia in Georgia and Ngorno Karabakh in Azerbaijan.

This region is of enormous geo-political and economic significance and all major players have a stake in the region. The regional conflicts aside, there are a number of issues in Transcaucasia which have an impact upon the foreign policies of a number of countries including Russia.

This paper seeks to analyse the Russian policy towards the Transcaucasian region. The various facets and determinants of this policy are inter-related and intertwined and are affected by a host of other issues in the region. This paper will discuss the Russian policy in the light of all such issues.

Here, a brief history of the Transcaucasian region would be in order. An independent federal Transcaucasian republic existed in 1917-18. The federation was dissolved in May, 1918, into the republics of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. After the three republics were conquered by the Red Army, the Transcaucasian Federal Socialist Republic was formed; it joined USSR in Dec. 1922 becoming one of the four original federated republics. In 1936 the three were reestablished as separate union republics. In 1991, all the three republics seceded from the USSR.

Transcaucasia has undoubtedly been the most volatile region of the erstwhile USSR since the latter’s demise in 1991. The three regional conflicts are always in news and the Russian foreign policy is tremendously impacted by it. Its policy towards these states is a crucial component of the overall Russian foreign policy and is seen by many as determining the overall tone and tenor of the Russian foreign policy. There are several umbilical cords and geo-political-economic issues that ensure that Russia vis-à-vis Transcaucasia catches everyone’s eye.

After disintegration the Russian foreign policy was heavily oriented towards the west and even in the CIS the focus was on Central Asia, Ukraine etc. A very palpable shift in the policy took place around 1993 which was triggered by several developments in the region having enormous bearing on Russian security interests and geo-political strategies. Certain ground realities dawned upon Russia in time to open its eyes to this part of the world in its immediate neighbourhood. Unlike Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan were pro-west. Turkey was emerging as a major player in the region. The location of the region as a bridge between Europe and Asia, the estimated (and inflated) energy resources of the Caspian sea basin, the state-of-affairs in the north Caucasus were reminders enough for Russia to give the attention that was due to this region. Security, economy, balance of power, sphere of influence – the region was too crucial for Russia to be neglected.

Russia is multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-religious and is surrounded by similar diverse states. The danger for potential conflicts is more pronounced along Russia’s southern periphery and the Russian military doctrine in 1993 voiced this concern. Aggressive nationalism, religious intolerance, forces of extremism, ethno-nationalism were seen as potential threats to national security. Russia believed that these factors were more prominent in the southern direction – in the Transcaucasia and Central Asia. The break up of Yugoslavia further convinced Russia that an “arc of instability” stretches from Transcaucasia to Central Asia. The developments in North Caucasus (Chechnya) further cemented Russia’s apprehensions and thereafter the Transcaucasian states never went out of the Russian radar.

If the relationship of Russia with these states is mapped on a continuum, Armenia and Georgia would be at extreme ends and Azerbaijan somewhere in the middle of the Kline. Armenia is an ‘ally’ of Russia while Georgia is an adversary. The latter is extremely apprehensive and antagonistic to Russia and the vice-versa. The Russian policy towards the three states is, in more ways than one, shaped by its policies towards the three regional conflicts. Russia is a major factor in each of the three conflicts.

Ngorno Karabakh or Mountainous Karabakh is a predominantly Armenian-populated region in the west of Azerbaijan. The conflict over the area, dating back to the first period of independence of Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1918-20, re-emerged during the Soviet period at various times of Central government weakness, most markedly in the late 1980s during Glasnost’ as Armenians demanded the annexation of the region to Armenia. Beginning in late 1987 with the forced expulsion of ethnic Azerbaijanis from Armenia followed by demonstrations in Mountainous Karabakh and Armenia for the transfer of the region to Armenian jurisdiction, the conflict was driven to escalation in 1988 and 1989 with anti-Armenian riots in Sumgait, Baku and Ganja and a two-way ethnic cleansing campaign in the two republics.

The Soviet government failed to stop these riots or contain the conflict, and with the unexpected independence of Armenia and Azerbaijan in late 1991, the conflict rapidly escalated to a full-scale war between the two countries. In spring 1992, Armenia and the ‘self-defense forces’ of Mountainous Karabakh achieved control over the entire Province and created a corridor to Armenia. The region’s parliament declared independence on 6 January 1992. A Russian brokered ceasefire was put in place in 1994.

In Georgia two major secessionist movements have defined the contours of the policies of various players in the region. The first is the problem of Abkhazia located in the north-west part of the country. Its population consists largely of Russians and the predominant religion is Islam. The Abkhazians have been demanding independence from Georgia. The latter believes that this problem arose because of Russian support and help. The eruption of this conflict compelled Russia to seek Russian mediation in 1993 and also join the CIS, however reluctantly. The role of the Russian peacekeepers remained a source of tension.

Another thorny issue in Georgia is the problem of South Ossetia. The latter want to unite with their brethren in North Ossetia, which is a part of the Russian federation. South Ossetia populated mostly by ethnic Ossetians broke away from Georgia in 1990 even while the latter was still a part of the Soviet Union. Several attempts have been made to resolve these issues but in vain. The Russian mediation in the region is besotted with controversy and it is said that the Minsk initiative launched by the UN comprising of Russia, US and France did not achieve tangible results on account of lack of cooperation on part of Russia.

The politics in the region is marked by lack of mutual trust and understanding between Russia and the Transcaucasian states. Allegations and counter-allegations and not dispassionate diplomacy determine the contours of the political developments in the region. Russian support and backing to Armenia is an obvious bone of contention vis-à-vis Azerbaijan who sees it as encouragement to secessionism. There is no gainsaying the fact that the Russian support to Armenia has been crucial to the latter so much so that at times the focus of Russian policy in the regions would seem to be only the Armenia! This is not without reasons. Armenia was the only country in the region to respond to Russian overtures for friendship. It was one of the founder members of CIS along with Russia. Russia has basing rights in Armenia and above all, the latter is a predominantly Christian country. Armenia has tremendously benefited from Russian connections. President Boris Yeltsin had said, “Armenia is a Christian country. It is part of the zone of Russian interests. We should not lose Armenia and we will not do it.”

Vis-à-vis Azerbaijan and Georgia, Russia has followed a ‘carrot and stick’ approach and some may argue that the stick has been used more often than not. Georgia believes that the peace process has been overly jeopardized by Russian efforts. In fact, Russia-Georgia relations have hit a ‘nadir’, which this paper will document at a later stage. Both these countries have accused Russia of playing a partisan role in the resolution of conflicts while Russia hit back alleging encouragement to secessionism in Chechnya by these two countries.

It would be apt to discuss the Caspian Sea and the pipeline politics in the region which has definite repercussions over the policies of Russia, Transcaucasian states and other players like USA, Turkey, and Iran etc. The status of the Caspian Sea is an unresolved issue between the five littoral states (Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, and Turkey) who are yet to see eye to eye over sharing its resources. Every international actor believes the Caspian Sea reserves of oil and gas are huge (Strobe Talbott had once remarked that this area sits over 200 billion barrels of oil!). Russia considers the Caspian sea a ‘Russian lake’ and the foreign ministry believes that the standards of maritime law(UN convention on the law of the sea) is not applicable.

The following excerpt from the document titled “The Position of the Russian Federation with Regard to the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea,” sent to the UN General Assembly, confirms that Russia will try to persuade other Caspian states to support her position by using not only the art of diplomacy, but pressure as well. “Unilateral actions in the Caspian Sea are unlawful and will not be recognized by the Russian Federation, which reserves the right to take necessary steps at any time that it considers appropriate in order to restore law and order and liquidate the consequences of unilateral actions.”

The west weary of Russian monopolistic control explored possibilities of constructing new piplelines bypassing Russia. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline is a reality and it severely deprives Russia of its monopolistic control over the transportation routes and in that undermines its status in the Central Asian region and Transcaucasus (however, in mid-march 2007, Greece, Russia and Bulgaria have sealed the long awaited deal to build a trans Balkan pipeline that will pump cheap crude to the Mediterranean and consolidate Russian influence in the European energy market. The $ 1.25 –dollar, 279-km pipeline will be the result of 15 years of negotiations and will bypass the congested Turkish Bosophorous straits).

Russian policy is also shaped by the European and American interest in the region. The grand chessboard theory had suggested that the US has to concentrate on Central Asia and Transcaucasia if it has to dominate the world. Also strobe Talbott had emphasized upon the enormous importance of the region more than once. The full-blown US policy after 9/11 (the great game) is too well known to be elaborated.

The western tilt of some CIS and Transcaucasian states is a major irritant to Russia and its policy is to neutralize their inclination. Russian policy towards Georgia and some recent developments speak volumes about the Russian –Transcaucasian relations. Georgia’s deep desire to become a full member of NATO and the growing US influence in the region(इधर भी अपनी टांग अदा रहा है ) (rose revolution, construction of the BTC pipeline, the train and equip programme etc.) have frequently strained Georgia’s relations with Russia. Some recent developments deserve special mention.

In February 2006, the Georgian parliament unanimously called on the government to revoke the 13-year-old peacekeeping arrangement under which Russian forces have maintained precarious peace in the region ever since South Ossetia fought a short but bloody war for independence from Georgia in 1992. Georgian MPs accused Russia of “creeping annexation of one of Georgia’s regions,” and urged the government to push for replacing the Russian peace-keepers with an international force. However, Russia is unrelenting and argues how the other side in the conflict is opposed to its withdrawal. The Russian Foreign Ministry accused Georgia’s Parliament of stirring an “anti-Russian campaign in Georgia” and stoking tension and destabilisation in the conflict zone. The Russian Parliament also responded with a strongly worded resolution which said Georgia’s plans to forcefully reintegrate South Ossetia and Abkhazia were a “threat to Russia’s national security.”

As if this were not enough, a spy scandal broke out between the two countries in September last year. Vladimir Radyuhin, the Russian correspondent of the Hindu, has provided a detailed account of the row. Four Russian military officers were arrested in Georgia on charges of espionage and subversion and soon released but not without damage to the relations between the two nations. Georgia accused Moscow of masterminding acts of terror and sabotage on Georgian soil, and of trying to “ruin” Georgia and annex its breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia’s reaction was swift and harsh. It recalled its Ambassador in Georgia and pulled out all but two diplomats from the embassy. It cut all transport and postal links with Georgia, stopped issuing Russian visas to Georgians, and launched large-scale naval manoeuvres off Georgia’s Black Sea coast. The anti-Russia campaign in Georgia had gathered momentum after Mr. Saakashvili’s July 2006 visit to Washington. President Bush had assured the Georgian leader of America’s support for his bid to join NATO and restore control over Georgia’s breakaway territories. Two months later NATO offered Georgia “intensified dialogue,” the first step towards membership of the alliance.

Georgia under Saakashvili has refused to amend its Constitution to allow autonomous status to ethnic minorities, and rejected recommendations from the U.N. Security Council and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe to sign agreements with South Ossetia and Abkhazia against the use of force. Abkhazia and South Ossetia, for their part, in numerous polls have reaffirmed their refusal to be part of Georgia and vowed to defend their independence with arms. Following the spy row, Russian authorities said Georgia would not get any migrant work quotas for its citizens and started deporting “illegal” Georgian workers and closing down Georgian businesses. Georgian workers and businessmen in Russia are estimated to be sending back home up to $2 billion annually, which is comparable to Georgia’s budget revenues. Russia also indefinitely extended a ban on Georgia’s main export items — wine and mineral water — introduced last winter on health grounds. Also, Russia suspended its troop withdrawal from Georgia under the 2005 agreement with Georgia to close its two military bases in Georgia and pull out 3000 military personnel by the end of 2008.

South Ossetia overwhelmingly (99 per cent) voted for independence in a referendum in November 2007. Georgia of course did not recognize it as legitimate just as the similar plebiscite in 1992.

The Kosovo issue provides tremendous leverage to Russia vis-à-vis Transcaucasia. The Russian leader has made it clear that Western plans to grant independence to Kosovo, a breakaway territory of Serbia, will strengthen Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s bid for independence from Georgia.
President Putin has rejected the West’s attempts to qualify Kosovo as a “unique case,” and has said Kosovo must be treated as a “universal case,” that is, one that will set a precedent for breakaway regions in other parts of the world, including the former Soviet Union.

The West looks certain to push through independence for Kosovo, but thereby it will give Moscow a free hand in dealing with the problem of rebel territories not only in Georgia, but also in Azerbaijan (Nagorno-Karabakh) and Moldova (Transdniestre). If Russia recognises the independence of all or some of these territories, this is bound to have a wider international fallout. And Russia, in all probability, will not want to miss the enormous bargaining power that this issue will give it.

All said and done, transcaucasia remains a very important region for Russia. Especially under Putin, Russia and its immediate borders have been emphasized. Neighbours are dealth with in a much more pragmatic manner based on an assessment of benefits to Russia.

To sum up, Russia enjoys good neighbourly relations with Azerbaijan. Putin was in Azerbaijan in early 2006 with a large business delegation and the leader of Azerbaijan paid a visit to Moscow in December 2006. So, Russia is reassessing its relations with Azerbaijan. The most difficult part of Russian relations in the region is with Georgia. From a Russian perspective, Georgia cannot afford to alienate Russia. While Georgia considers Russia part of the problem rater than the solution!

The region is likely to see more activity, claims and counterclaims, so suggest circumstantial evidences. US plans to deploy elements of a missile defence system in Eastern Europe (Poland and Czechoslovakia), Putin’s blunt message to the west in the annual security conference in February 2007 and the promotion of a ‘hawk’ Igor Ivanov as the first deputy PM are indications enough that Russia’s ‘strategic retreat’ is over and it is back on the world stage as a key player and the Transcaucasian region is very much a part of that world stage.


Chenoy, A.M. Foreign policy of new Russia.
Shamsuddin, Nationalism in Russia and Central Asian Republics.
Imam, Zafar. Foreign Policy of Russia.
Contemporary Central Asia
Central Asian Survey
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The Hindu


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