South Caucasus: Frozen Conflicts in Changing Geopolitical Landscape
U.S, Washington , Sept.15 / Trend. spec. corr. M.Assenova /
The conference dedicated to the 20th anniversary of independence in the South Caucasus, organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, took place at a time when U.S. policy toward the South Caucasus region comes under increasing scrutiny in the wake of military withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan. The venue provided a calm and sober assessment of the achievements of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia and the challenges they face as the geopolitical situation surrounding the region is changing.
Unlike previous conferences in Washington, the Azerbaijani and Armenian participants largely refrained from mutual accusations over the Nagorno Karabah conflict and maintained a more constructive tone of discussion. While some of the American experts predicted that the conflict's status quo is not likely to change in the foreseeable future, others envisaged worsening of the situation given the arms race in the region. None of the experts saw a positivescenario of peaceful resolution of the conflict in the next few years.
American policy makers from the Departments of State and Defense, however, declared the intention of the U.S. administration to support peace, security, economic development, and democratic institutions in the South Caucasus. The conference dedicated significant attention to the development of democratic institutions, civil society and independent justice systems, emphasizing that progress with democratic reforms and economic development would provide more stability for eventual solutions to the prolonged conflicts in the region.
All analysts, academics and policy makers recognized the geostrategic importance of the South Caucasus where the interests of Russia, Iran, Turkey, Europe, and the U.S. intersect. Georgetown University Professor Angela Stent pointed out that the conflict in Georgia was a result of the geopolitical competition between Russia and the West, caused by the aspirations of Georgia to become a NATO member and Russia's opposition to any country in its alleged "sphere of privileged interest" to join the NATO alliance. Russia's invasion of Georgia raised serious questions about European security. The keynote speaker Svante Cornell from Johns Hopkins University commented that despite the secession of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia did not achieve its objectives in Georgia as Mikhail Sakashvili, who Moscow wanted to topple, emerged with higher domestic public support from the war.
Col. Jon Chicky from the National Defense University commented that 9/11 changed theapproach and the intensity of U.S. security activities in the South Caucasus though this intensity did not necessarily endure. U.S. security cooperation with the three South Caucasus countries grew stronger for several years as the region was seen as a "geostrategic pivot" in a very broad sense linking Europe, Anatolia, and the Middle East with Central Asia and Afghanistan. The lines of communication to Afghanistan - specifically, the Northern Distribution Network - are essential for sustaining NATO's military operations in Afghanistan.
However, factors such as the Russia-Georgia war in 2008, the global economic and financial crisis, and the "reset" in U.S.-Russian relations have negatively impacted the relationship between the U.S. and the three countries in the South Caucasus. The pending withdrawal of U.S. military personnel from Afghanistan may further impact U.S. commitment to the region.
In his closing remarks Ariel Cohen from Heritage Foundation stressed that not onlyRussia, but also Iran and Turkey are calculating on a reduced U.S. presence in the region after 2014. He warned that if the U.S. leaves a vacuum, Iran and Turkey could quickly fill it. This is why it is very important for America to continue its active presence and engagement in the South Caucasus for various geostrategic reasons, including stability, energy, anddemocratic development.
The forum included presentations by Jennifer Walsh, Principal Director for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia at the U.S. Defense Department; Justin Friedman, Director, The Office of Caucasus Affairs and Regional Conflicts, Department of State;Ariel Cohen (Heritage Foundation); Janusz Bugajski (CSIS); Andrew Kuchins (CSIS), Mamuka Tsereteli (American University); Reshad Karimov (Center for Strategic Studies of Azerbaijan); Rouben Shougarian (Tufts University); Col. Jon Chicky (National Defense University); Col. Robert Hamilton (U.S. Army war College); Catherine Newcombe (Department of Justice); Alex Sokolowski (USAID); AngelaStent (Georgetown University); and Svante Cornell (Central Asia Caucus Institute).