Rebuilding the Silk Road: Developments and Prospects for Security in the South Caucasus


by: James Bosbotinis
Member of RUSI


Irina Ghaplanyan
Independent Researcher


The East-West crossroads of the Trans-Caucasus, once the aorta of the Silk Road, are currently constrained by unresolved regional conflicts. The unrecognised political status of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno Karabakh undermine the stability of the region.

The collapse of the USSR revealed the inherent problems of the inopportune confederacy. These were not the well known problems with its deteriorating economy and of glasnost and perestroika, but the cumulative effects of the policies of the Soviet system. The Bolshevik promises given to the Abkhaz, Ossetians and Armenians in the early 1920s, were reneged upon by the first General Secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR, Josef Stalin (). This legacy is confronting today not only the immediate partakers, neighbours and regional hegemons, but also outside powers - perhaps because the region, indeed, is gaining the geopolitical importance of the once famed Silk Road era.

Today the region forms a highly significant strategic, political, military and economic space. This is due to its geographical locale, being positioned at the juncture between Europe, Russia, the Middle East, and between the Caspian and Black Seas. The security and stability of the Caucasus region is thus of significance to the Euro-Atlantic institutions - NATO, the EU, and the OSCE, Russia, and due to the increasing importance of Caspian oil and natural gas resources, the global economy.

In the USSR, the right of self-determination was given only to parts of federations whose constitutions stipulate their right to secession (). In the case of Abkhazia, it had a measure of autonomy, until it was incorporated into Georgia in 1931 (). The collapse of the Soviet Union and the acquisition of sovereignty by the republics led the Abkhaz government to seek national self-determination. This was reinforced after years of repression against Abkhaz culture and language, resulting in accrued hostility towards the Georgians. Abkhazia proclaimed its independence from Georgia in September 1993. Thirteen years later, it is still waiting for recognition or an alternative solution to the existingsituation.

A year earlier, in 1992, Georgia lost sovereignty over the larger part of its South-Ossetian Autonomous Region, which was incorporated into Georgia in the early 1920s (). Siding with the Bolshevik forces, Ossetians hoped to remain as one region within the Russian Federation, however, as part of the redrawing of borders which followed, the South Ossetian Autonomous Region was created in Georgia, and North Ossetia was formed in Russia. It is hoped by the current leadership of South Ossetia that a re-unified Ossetia can be created, potentially within the Russian Federation.

The complex history of Nagorno Karabakh, coupled with its forceful inclusion into Soviet Azerbaijan in the early 1920s, posed problems even before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The first clashes after the perestroika and glasnost reforms occurred in 1988 (); by 1991 there was a full fledged war. Azerbaijan by that time lost control over the larger part of the territory of Nagorno Karabakh, and in 1994 it lost control over seven of its administrative districts.

The desire of the Karabakhi people for national self-determination, together with the occupation of Azeri territories and large numbers of refugees on both sides, make this conflict an even greater challenge in the search for a solution.

Russia continues to pursue its regional objectives in, not just the South Caucasus, but the whole post-Soviet space. It has backed most of the post-Soviet separatist enclaves and played a crucial role in strengthening and influencing them (). Nevertheless, Russia has not gone so far as to officially recognize these republics. Following the Montenegrin Independence referendum, Russian President Vladimir Putin told journalists "Why can Albanians in Kosovo have independence, but South Ossetia and Abkhazia can't? What's the difference?"()

Perhaps what makes Russia rather wary in making drastic decisions is the developing and increasing role of the outside powers - primarily the US and the European Union. Increasing Western influence, particularly in Georgia, has resulted in Russia adopting coercive measures (that is, extending more help to South Ossetia and Abkhazia), which was countered by massive financial investments into Georgia from the US government and other sources. This is continuously being done by the West and particularly by the US in order to strengthen the geopolitical position of the former Soviet republics.

The Russo-Armenian relationship on the other hand is rather more complex. There are not just coercive measures that Russia can employ in order to influence Armenia (the recent drastic increase in gas prices). A large chunk of the Armenian energy sector, heavy industry (e.g. aluminium), industry (e.g. diamonds) and other major economic sectors are Russian-owned, potentially limiting Armenia's room for manoeuvre.

In addition to the Russo-Georgian hostility over the secessionist republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and the conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanis vis a vis Nagorno-Karabakh, the security environment of the South Caucasus is undermined by the instability in the North Caucasus - the conflict in Chechnya and increasing instability in other constituent republics of the Russian Federation. This is particularly relevant to the hostility between Russia and Georgia, with the former confronting the latter regarding the sheltering of Chechen terrorists in the Pankisi Gorge, and the support provided to the secessionist republics of Georgia from within the Russian Federation (for example, from North Ossetia to South Ossetia). The existing conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanis is also a major source of instability, and may deteriorate into renewed war between the two states. The South Caucasus, due to their strategic position is of major interest to the institutions of the Euro-Atlantic community, particularly NATO (), and there exists the potential for NATO expansion into the region in the near term. Georgia has stated an interest in joining the Alliance in 2008 along with the Ukraine (). This however would put NATO into a highly charged and complicated situation due to Georgia's unresolved conflicts with Abkhazia, South Ossetia, hostility with Russia and fraught relations with Armenia, thereby increasing the likelihood of Georgia seeking Article V support from the Alliance. In addition, the expansion of NATO into the South Caucasus would most likely elicit major concern in Moscow, and add enhanced credibility to the hard-line siloviki, and their claims of NATO posing an imminent threat to the security of Russia.

Aside from the traditional politico-military challenges in the South Caucasus, the region has the added factor of an increasing geo-economic importance. The South Caucasus provides a link between the Caspian Sea, the Mediterranean and Black Sea for the transit of oil and natural gas reserves from the Caspian basin. Of particular importance is the new Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, linking extractive infrastructure in Baku, Azerbaijan, with the export terminal at the port of Ceyhan, Turkey. The Caspian Sea offers extensive oil and gas reserves, which would to a limited extent alleviate Western dependency on the Middle East, and the existing Soviet-based distributive infrastructure which is dominated by Russia. The BTC pipeline offers the option of a link which bypasses both Russia and the Middle East, and thereby is seen as contributing to energy security.

Added to the traditional security challenges facing the countries of the region, the non-traditional security challenge sets even further and deeper hurdles in the search for stability. Organized crime, operating mainly in illegal arms trading, narcotics trafficking, human trafficking and wide spread corruption, is often undertaken in the form of a Politico-Criminal Nexus and poses a significant security challenge ().

The prospect for the stability in the region is subject to numerous factors. The role of Russia in the South Caucasus is complicated. It continues to maintain a military presence in not only Abkhazia and South Ossetia (ostensibly for peace-keeping) but also Georgia, bases in Armenia, and an early-warning facility in Azerbaijan. Further, Russia has a significant military presence deployed in the North Caucasus (). In addition, Armenia is a key ally of Russia, and part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization. The growing interest of the US in the region, including military deployments in Georgia, interest in Azerbaijan (and Armenia) as potential "lily-pads" for US forces reacting to crises in the region, and the potential for NATO expansion, may result in increasing tensions with a Russia that is becoming increasingly concerned with the erosion of its influence in its "near-abroad". There is also the possibility, that Russia may covertly encourage instability particularly in Georgia, so to undermine confidence in the BTC pipeline and the relative merits of using Russian pipeline infrastructure. For Russia, the prolongation of the current status quo is beneficial to its interests.

At present, the potential for the integration of the South Caucasus into the Euro-Atlantic community remains limited. This is principally due to the lack of a stable security environment. The promotion of integration within the context of a constructive dialogue between the states within the region, and the institutions of the Euro-Atlantic community would greatly facilitate the prospects for, and development of, security and prosperity in the South Caucasus. This would contribute toward conflict resolution, and eventual membership within the Euro-Atlantic community. Then, indeed, the Silk Road will merge the centuries long gap, and the benefits of the re-integration will reflect not only on the near abroad, but globally.

- Image from: http://studyrussian.com/seidenstrasse/pic/map_s.jpg

- This leading government post of General Secretary was created with Stalin already in power; whilst Lenin was the Chairman of the Union of People Commissars; or otherwise Chairman of Government.

- Yuri Nabiyev, Is Right For Self-Determination "the Lesser Evil"? From http://www.regnum.ru/english/655547.html. Accessed 14 June 2006.

- From From http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/3261059.stm. Accessed 14 June 2006.

- At the time Stalin was the People's Commissar for the Nationalities of the Soviet Union, already having substantial power to make crucial decisions.

- The clashes between Armenians and Azerbaijanis of Nagorno Karabakh occurred almost every decade since the 1920s.

- Indeed, Russia is a major regional player, but it is important to remember that other countries, such as Ukraine, have had a substantial influence on the course of the conflicts in case of Ukraine, it was a large-scale arms trade with Azerbaijan.

- Fred Weir, The Coming Of The Microstates, Christian Science Monitor, article available from: http://news.yahoo.com/s/csm/20060605/wl_csm/ostatelet

- For example, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly held jointly with the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, a seminar addressing the theme of "Russia-NATO: Security Issues in the South Caucasus" from June 22-24 2006, in Sochi. From NATO-PA Press Communiqu, 26 June 2006.

- Nicholas Fiorenza, "In Search of Acceptance", Jane's Defence Weekly, 43: 19, 10 May 2006, pp. 42-45.

- Guy Dunn. "Major Mafia Gangs in Russia" in Russian Organised Crime: The New Threat? P. Williams, ed., (London: Frank Cass, 1997), pp 63-87.

- Denis Trifanov, "Russia Boosts Counterinsurgency Efforts in North Caucasus", Jane's Intelligence Review, 18: 2, February 2006, pp 34-37.

This work is part of a larger research project examining the implications of the Montenegrin independence vote for the Former Soviet Union, in particular the secessionist conflicts in the South Caucasus.



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