Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Caucasus: a region in pieces

by Thomas de Waal

Caucasus editor at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London from 2002-08.
The Caucasus region is a small and troubled place. It should be a common endeavour where its small and diverse nationalities - in Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan as well as Russia’s north Caucasus - work together to build an integrated region. Instead, no sense of common purpose is discernible: the sad reality is, that with its tangle of closed borders and ceasefire lines, the Caucasus more resembles a geopolitical suicide-pact.

Nowhere in the world can there be so many roadblocks. The two long borders - Armenia-Azerbaijan and Russia-Georgia are almost permanently closed (the latter even more tightly controlled since the war of August 2008 between the two countries). Only two neighbours – Azerbaijan and Georgia – can be said to have a genuinely close relationship, and even that is based primarily on energy politics rather than common values; it does not translate into many tangible benefits for ordinary people.


Yet, given the chance, the everyday folk of the Caucasus eagerly take the opportunity to do business with one another. A tale of two markets confirms this. The first was the one at Ergneti, right on the administrative border between Georgia and the breakaway territory of South Ossetia, where the busiest wholesale market in the Caucasus used to flourish. The Ossetians brought untaxed goods from Russia (everything from cigarettes to cars) to sell there, in return for (mainly) agricultural produce brought by the Georgians. The Georgian government of Mikheil Saakashvili that came to power in January 2004 argued that since Ergneti was unregulated it was knocking a big hole in the state budget and had to be shut down; the market was duly closed in June 2004.

The closure of Ergneti may have been justified on strict legal grounds, but the decision lacked imagination; for, in the words of Georgia’s former conflict- resolution minister Giorgy Khaindrava, “If Ergneti didn’t exist it would have to be invented.” Ergneti was possibly the widest “confidence-building measure” in the entire Caucasus region, with people of all nationalities doing business. It is arguable that the day it closed was the day the countdown to war in South Ossetia began.
The second market was located at the Georgian village of Sadakhlo on the Georgia-Armenia border. It was another astonishing spectacle: a mass Armenian-Azerbaijani market on Georgian territory, which paid no heed to the bitter relations at state level between the two countries and which moreover was conducted with virtually no Georgians in sight. There, Azerbaijanis bought Armenian produce and Armenians purchased Azerbaijani goods that would then flood the shops of Yerevan. Sadakhlo, though not forced to shut down entirely as Ergneti was, has been curtailed by governmental pressures. Again, a magnificent example of inter-ethnic cooperation has been suppressed.


What politics drives apart, common economic and security interests should drive together. The south Caucasus is a delicate mechanism in which the malfunctioning of one part affects what is going in the others.

That became obvious during the August 2008 war in Georgia. Azerbaijan’s prime revenue-earners, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and Baku-Supsa pipelines, were shut down. When the Grakali railway bridge in central Georgia was blown up on 16 August, the effect was also to block the only railway-line linking Armenia to the Black Sea coast. The result was to cut off landlocked Armenia’s entire imports for a week, costing the country at least $500 million in revenue.

The political responsibility for this unfortunate state of affairs is widely shared. Armenia and Azerbaijan have adopted intransigent positions which mean they have failed to resolve the prime source of tension between them as well as the biggest obstacle to peace and prosperity in the Caucasus: the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Georgia, in its push towards Euro-Atlantic integration since 2004, has generally ignored its neighbours and Russia. In the words of Georgian analyst Archil Gegeshidze, one reason for Georgia’s problems is that the Saakashvili government unwisely “put all its eggs in the basket of mobilising western support” and did not pay sufficient attention to its neighbours.

Europeans and Americans have often payed lip-service to the idea of regional integration in the Caucasus, though in practice they have generally pursued narrower goals. Europe’s grand communication and transport project designed to link the Caucasus to Europe - Traseca, billed as a new “silk road” - has received less than €200 million ($270 million) of investment since it was inaugurated in 1993; its effects so far are negligible.

Instead, projects such as NATO expansion, energy security and the claims of Armenian diasporas have all tended to divide Caucasian policy into different segments. In Washington, it seems at times that different agencies are running different policies with a different primary focus - the Congress on Armenia, the Pentagon on Azerbaijan, and the state department on Georgia.

Full article is here

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