Vladimir Putin and the South Caucasus

What the return of the prodigal president means for Russia's neighbors.

Russia’s neighbors are asking what the heralded return of Vladimir Putin to the Kremlin means for their own regions. One such region is the South Caucasus.

Caucasian leaders’ calculations will certainly change in the wake of the Putin move. In Armenia, news of his return will have gladdened Robert Kocharian, another ex-president who has been lurking in the shadows. There are obvious parallels between the two: both men gave up the position of president in 2008 after serving two terms and handed over power to a trusted successor. Kocharian is, like Putin, a man of action with a tough, uncompromising personality. And he may see the return of his former ally as a chance to relaunch his own public career.

There are important differences, however. Unlike Dmitry Medvedev, current Armenian president Serzh Sarkisian (whose term expires in early 2013) is the equal of his predecessor. Indeed, the two men were partners for thirty years; when they began their political careers in the early 1980s, in the Komsomol (Young Communist Party organization) of the town of Stepanakert, Sarkisian was the senior partner and Kocharian was his junior.

More crucially, Putin is genuinely popular in Russia—if the country had an authentically competitive election and not just a choreographed coronation, he would probably win it. Kocharian, by contrast, is extremely unpopular with much of the Armenian public, and he would encounter strong public opposition if he initiated a comeback. Serzh Sarkisian will know that—and may indeed win some covert support from opposition figures, who prefer to see him in office over Kocharian.

In Azerbaijan, President Ilham Aliev will not be cracking open the champagne. He and Putin got off to a fairly good working relationship, but it deteriorated in 2006 when Aliev refused to cooperate with Putin’s plans to deprive Georgia of cheap gas. Aliev struck up a better relationship with Medvedev, who signed a grandiose declaration of Azerbaijani-Russian partnership and friendship in Baku in July 2008, a month before Georgia and Russia went to war.

When it comes to the biggest issue in the South Caucasus, the smoldering Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorny Karabakh, we can expect far less engagement from Putin than from Medvedev. Putin was reportedly infuriated on the one occasion he genuinely tried to mediate between the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents in September 2004 in Astana. The two men kept him waiting, then quarreled with each other in his presence. Putin does not like being treated that way—unlike Medvedev, who had the stamina to convene nine meetings between Aliev and Sarkisian.

In February 2007, at one of Putin’s marathon Kremlin press conferences, an Azerbaijani journalist asked a question about the Karabakh conflict. The answer reveals all one needs to know about Putin’s views on the issue. The Russian leader began sensibly, telling the Azerbaijani that Russia would not impose a solution, “You [Armenians and Azerbaijanis] shouldn’t shift this problem onto us. It’s you who have to find an acceptable way out of this situation.” But Putin didn’t stop there. He went on to muse aloud how drinkable the Soviet-era cheap alcoholic drink Agdam portvein had been and said the Armenians and Azerbaijanis should restore the town (now under Armenian control and in ruins) and resume alcoholic production. He gave the impression that this conflict was a far-away problem unworthy of much concern and which he associated with a student-era cheap tipple.

In Georgia, the reality is stark. Putin and Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili deeply loathe each other. Putin told French president Nicolas Sarkozy that he wanted to see his Georgian adversary hung by the testicles. Saakashvili’s joke about the smaller man being “Liliputin” got back to Moscow. They went to war once, and their animosity should guarantee that Georgian-Russian relations will go from bad to very bad next year as Putin returns. In the mean time, Georgia is still, using its veto power to block Russia’s World Trade Organization accession until it gets concessions over monitoring of the borders of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. We can only hope that a deal is done before Putin returns.

None of this is very promising. But any predictions on the Putin comeback are inevitably incomplete. After all, Putin is a pragmatist who will be dealing with a different and probably weaker Russia—certainly a Russia in a very different economic and political circumstance from 2008. Hence, it’s possible that Putin could use his authority to be the Charles de Gaulle of the Caucasus, promising his small southern neighbors a big strategic reconciliation on the part of Russia. Possible, but not probable.

Thomas de Waal is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Image: www.kremlin.ru