Why the U.S. Needs to Pay Attention to the South Caucasus

September 24, 2003

Why the U.S. Needs to Pay Attention to the South Caucasus

The South Caucasus (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia) is a strategically important transit point from Europe and is at the heart of America's evolving "Greater Middle East" vision, which considers weak or failing states as serious security risks that can

The South Caucasus (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia) is a strategically important transit point from Europe and is at the heart of America's evolving "Greater Middle East" vision, which considers weak or failing states as serious security risks that can easily become terrorist breeding grounds.  While Afghanistan and Iraq are now clearly at the top of the policy agenda, anchoring this region into the Euro-Atlantic alliance is a major US goal for the next several years.

For this vision to succeed, the conflicts that have remained "frozen" for almost a decade must be resolved. The status quo in Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia leads to human suffering and enormous loss of human potential, while thwarting economic development. Radical Islamist or terrorist groups that want to transfer militants, drugs, arms, and weapons of mass destruction into Europe could also penetrate these gray zones.

The South Caucasus is also significant for the completion of Europe's expansion eastwards. In May, the European Union will have 25 members, but Europe's enlargement will not end with this round. In addition to pivotal countries like Turkey and Ukraine, the South Caucasus also needs to be included in the greater Europe.

This region will also play an increasingly important role for European energy needs. There is already an oil pipeline going from Baku to Tbilisi, and the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline that is being built will tie Azerbaijan and Georgia to NATO ally Turkey.  A parallel gas line will be constructed shortly.  With continued US support for the East-West energy corridor, increasing amounts of Caspian oil and gas will reach Europe via Turkey, as well, via Black Sea pipelines through, possibly, Ukraine, Romania and Greece into Europe.

While pipelines will help tie South Caucasus to Europe, they are simply tools. This region's long-term success will depend on how these three countries develop internally. Today they are, to varying degrees, trying to move away from Russia's monopoly on power, while establishing positive neighborly relations.  The US has been actively engaged in the South Caucasus and has provided financial and technical assistance for over a decade, but, so far, the results are mixed.

The future of this region will depend to a large degree on the October 15 presidential elections in Azerbaijan, followed by Georgia's November 2 parliamentary elections and the 2005 presidential election. It will prove increasingly difficult for these countries to sustain high levels of U.S. attention after 2005 if, by then, their reforms have not progressed sufficiently.

Unfortunately, we are already seeing worrisome signs.  The US cares about democracy, not just in words or as an idealistic pursuit, but as an important element for long-term security and stability. The 2003 March presidential and May parliamentary elections in Armenia were highly contested with thousands protesting.  President Robert Kocharyan does not have much legitimacy.   A weak president without public support cannot make important reforms and make important concessions, like it is needed in Karabakh.

In Azerbaijan it is extremely important to have free and fair elections so that the next President can have legitimacy. There has been no peaceful transition in Azerbaijan since 1991 and the October elections will hopefully be a turning point where a President will come to office after elections and serve his full term.  Haidar Aliyev ruled Azerbaijan for over 30 years and had the  experience and authority to manage the many clan and tribal interests. Holding free and fair elections is a "must" for the incoming president, as whoever takes office will have a tough time solidifying his power and control over the whole country and the various factions. 

The elections and post-election developments in Azerbaijan will have an impact on other Muslim countries. This Muslim, democratic, secular, pro-Western, oil rich country's success or failure as a close US ally will be seen as a benchmark for prospects of democratization in the Islamic world, especially in oil-rich ones.

In the short term, it will also have an impact as a precedent for the Georgian elections. It is important to appeal to Eudard Shevardnadze's quest for a positive historical legacy. Moreover, all concerned parties must discourage individual Georgian politicians from employing private armies or militia groups as tools of political influence, especially during an election. These militia groups have in the past led to disasters - like Abkhazia.

One cannot seriously start discussing conflict resolution in the South Caucasus until after the elections are over in Azerbaijan and Georgia, which means early 2004. To make real progress, we may also need to wait for Russia's presidential election in March 2004. We also need to keep in mind that the status quo has its own stability and any serious attempt to resolve the conflicts will, in the short term, create domestic instability, as there are personal and criminal interests involved in these managed conflict zones. The South Caucasus governments have little legitimacy to make serious concessions.  This is why active US and NATO engagement is required to expand security and stability in the Caucasus.

These conflicts can only be solved if there is a wider security umbrella.  The options for such an umbrella for Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia are either Russia and the CIS or Europe/NATO and the United States.  Azerbaijan and Georgia both harbor ambitions to join NATO.  President Aliyev publicly stated this aspiration for the first time in April 2003. Shevardnadze has talked about Georgia's aspirations for eventual NATO membership since 2001, and, most recently, stated that "NATO needs us because of our geo-strategic situation: our country provides exit to Azerbaijan and the Caspian Sea and from there to Central Asia and China."

Armenia's strategic aspirations seem a little less clear. Armenia has strengthened its security relations with NATO's Partnership for Peace program and with the United States during the past two years. However, Russia is gearing up the new Collective Security Treaty organization, which brings together Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan. Armenia's historically close military cooperation with Russia may obstruct its NATO aspirations and prospects.

Given that the NATO May 2004 summit will be in Turkey, which has many years of experience with NATO and strong interests in the stability of the South Caucasus, it can be an invaluable ally. This secular, pro-American Muslim country's help in Iraq and ongoing assistance in Afghanistan is also essential for NATO, as its concept of security is adapting to new challenges. Moreover, Turkey is the only regional power that can balance Russian and Iranian interests in the Caucasus in a pro-Western way.

For Turkey to be able to play such a historic role, it is important to open the Turkish-Armenian border-the last Cold War border. With such an opening, and Armenian-Turkish economic and political relations resuming, Russia will lose its stronghold in the South Caucasus.  While Turkey has made some positive statements about the border opening in the spirit of "bringing down the walls of old Europe," Ankara cannot take this step until Karabakh is resolved.

Karabakh (and Abkhazia) can only be resolved with legitimate and strong presidents (read: someone who will reform the economy, strengthen democracy and invest in human potential) in Azerbaijan and Georgia.  The South Caucasus has been in a transition for the last ten years; the period between 2003 and 2005, "the election period," will determine the future of this region. The international community needs to make sure that the elections in Azerbaijan and Georgia are closer to European standards, instead of Central Asian ones.

While this region is very important, the US is distracted with Iraq, the ongoing war against terrorism and, beginning in 2004, will focus on its own elections. The South Caucasus countries need to engage the US and NATO soon, or the window of interest from Washington will close, thereby increasing the risk of resumption of conflict in the region.


Note: This article is taken from a speech Zeyno Baran gave in Vilnius, Lithuania on September 23, 2003. The full text of her talk will be available on The Nixon Center webpage.  Zeyno Baran is the Director of International Security and Energy Programs at The Nixon Center.