South Caucasus Summary

The South Caucasus, comprising the three states of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, is a region plagued by unresolved ethno political conflicts, political instability, and protracted economic crisis. The region is beset by poverty, corruption, slow political and economic reforms, large refugee and IDP populations, grave environmental problems, and scant respect for human rights and the rule of law. Surrounded by the three regional powers Iran, Russia, and Turkey and located on the crossroads of Europe and Asia, the South Caucasus has also been at the center of post-cold war geopolitical rivalries. To a considerable extent, the significant oil and gas reserves in the Caspian Sea, specifically in the Azerbaijani sector, have amplified regional rivalries for political and economic influence in the region.
The South Caucasian states acceded to independence in the early 1990s on a wave of anti-Soviet popular and nationalist movements that abortively attempted to establish democratic forms of government, while being bogged down into ethnic warfare with minority populations and/or neighbors. These wars worsened the economic recession in the region, and led to the revival of authoritarian tendencies in society. By the late 1990s, the region had achieved some stability, but at the cost of democratic setbacks and three unresolved ethno political conflicts frozen along cease-fire lines. In spite of increased international attention and attempts to resolve these conflicts through negotiations, none of the three is close to a solution. To differing degrees, these three conflicts are all at risk of erupting again in a violent manner; moreover, ethnic tensions elsewhere in the region exist that are at a risk of escalation.

The South Caucasus is in deep political and economical crisis. Armed conflict and economic collapse following the Soviet breakup have confined over half of the population of the region to poverty. Health care and education systems have suffered greatly from the economic collapse, and living standards have fallen considerably. Corruption in all spheres of society has become rampant and may today pose the largest single threat to the functioning of the three states. Judicial reform has begun but is far from satisfactory, and none of the states has established a reliable system of government based on the rule of law. In the decade since independence, civil society has grown, but remains heavily dependent on foreign (i.e. western) support and funding. A relatively free print media has been able to develop, although it remains under heavy state pressure. Broadcast media is significantly more controlled.

Economic reforms have been undertaken but have so far failed to create a truly investment-friendly environment. Some foreign investment has reached the region, but mainly in the oil and gas sector, which generates little employment and gives little impetus to other sectors of the regional economy. Massive unemployment pervades the region, and the economic recession has especially hit women harshly. Large environmental problems, mainly dating back to the Soviet era, have not been addressed, threatening public health in the Caucasian states.

In the political realm, all three states have become members of the Council of Europe, though all three fail to meet the standards of democratic rule of this organization. While democratic progress has been made since independence, the Caucasian states are at best semi-democratic with strong authoritarian traits. Political violence has been a constant threat in the three states since independence, as all have experienced coups d’etat, insurrections, or attempts to assassinate political leaders – threats that are still present today. The states of the Caucasus are weak, and institutions have not developed to an extent that has overcome the focus on personalities that continues to dominate politics. This increases the danger of the looming succession crises in Azerbaijan and Georgia, which threaten to plunge these states into unrest once the present Presidents are out of power. Instability, the presence of uncontrolled territories, and corruption has led to the increased influence of transnational crime in the South Caucasus. Crime networks are well-connected with adjacent regions, including the North Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Middle East. The region has become a key transiting point for the illegal trade in arms, narcotics, and persons, which have acquired threatening proportions both to the security of the three states and to their citizens. These networks also have well-established links to government officials; the narcotics trade in particular has a strong corruptive effect on the region, and worsens health problems as drug addiction is rising. Moreover, poor socio-economic conditions and the proximity of the war in Chechnya have fueled the rise of extremist ideologies, including radical Islamic movements.

These domestic and transnational problems have been exacerbated by geopolitical rivalries among regional powers surrounding the region, which have taken advantage of the Caucasian conflicts to secure their own influence over the regional states and especially over energy resources and their transportation. Russia has played the most negative role, as it actively engaged in the secessionist conflicts of the region in order to weaken the independence of the South Caucasian states. Iran, Turkey and the United States have also sought to maximize their influence in the region.

The regional situation in the South Caucasus is conflict-prone and inherently unstable as a result of several interrelated factors. Weak state structures breed corruption, incapacitate law enforcement, prevent tax collection, and lessen governments’ legitimacy and control. Socio-economic problems create poverty and frustration and dangers of social reactions against mismanaged governments; and a weak political culture prone to nationalism and the personalization of politics breeds fragmentation and the risk of aggressive populism. Meanwhile, state weakness is exacerbated by regional powers, and transnational criminal or subversive groups that take advantage of state weakness, corruption and public frustration to operate in the region, increase their control over state structures, and gain followers.
The South Caucasus region has been plagued by conflict and instability since before the independence of the three states of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. The ethno political conflicts in the region that raged in the early 1990s have led to the death of over 50,000 people, great material destruction, and contributed significantly to the political instability, economic hardships, and the increase in transnational crime that has characterized the region in its first decade of independence. The conflicts came on the heels of the weakening and subsequent break-up of the Soviet Union. The weakening of Communist control from the Kremlin stirred national liberation movements in the three republics, which had been forcefully annexed by the Red Army in the 1920s. The conflicts centered over the territorial status of three regions populated by ethnic minorities: the Mountainous Karabakh Autonomous Province of Azerbaijan, populated mainly by Armenians (armed conflict between 1988 and 1994); the Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic of Abkhazia (1992-93) and the South Ossetian Autonomous Province (1989-92), both in Georgia. The lack of civic consciousness contributed to the incompatibility of the conflicting sides. Majorities and minorities alike considered belonging to the newly emerging nations in a purely ethnic sense, leading to attempts by minorities to secede and by majorities to dominate. A mythification and glorification of history and nation developed on all sides, interweaving truth and fiction and further widening the gap between ever-more conscious national groups. Political immaturity and extremism prevented politicians from bringing the sides to conflicts to a common ground; a tit for tat legislative struggle for the sovereignty over the territories followed – which was made possible by autonomous institutions in the minority regions in question. Vague notions of ethnic self-determination and rights of ownership over a particular territory as well as reunification with brethren (in the Ossetian and Karabakh cases) led to warfare, which ended in defeat by the central governments in all three cases.

At present, none of the conflicts in the South Caucasus has found a negotiated solution, and the conflicts are frozen along unsteady cease-fire lines. A relapse to warfare is a distinct possibility in all three conflict areas as negotiations have yielded no positive results. Besides these active conflicts, other minority regions in the three states have seen tensions between the central government and representatives of ethnic minority populations rising. Areas with conflict potential include Georgia’s Javakheti region and Azerbaijan’s Talysh and Lezgin areas. In addition to ethnic tensions, which have been the region’s main type of conflict, all three countries have been afflicted by the use of violent means to alter the leadership of the respective states. This has included armed insurgencies that managed to overthrow existing governments in Georgia in 1991, in Azerbaijan in 1993, as well as several unsuccessful attempts made to alter the political environment since then. Assassination attempts have also been made against leaders, including two failed attempts on the life of Georgia’s President and the assassination of Armenia’s Prime Minister and Speaker of Parliament in 1999. To compound this unruly picture, the South Caucasus has in the last few years been increasingly affected by other security threats of a more transnational nature, including organized crime, specifically trafficking of narcotics, arms and persons, and the rise of Islamic radical movements.

The ethnic conflicts in the Caucasus are three of five armed ethnic conflicts that erupted in the Caucasus region during the last years of the Soviet Union’s existence. Significantly, of the nine armed conflicts in the former Soviet Union until today, five have taken place in the Caucasus. These included, in order of magnitude, the war in Chechnya; the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Mountainous Karabakh; the Georgian-Abkhaz war; the Georgian-South Ossetian war; and the Ingush-Ossetian conflict. While each of these five conflicts were and are unique in their own roots and circumstances, several common elements in their emergence are notable – elements that lie at the heart of these conflicts and that are crucial to understanding their character, and therefore, their possible solutions.

The emergence of ethnic conflict in the Caucasus is intimately tied to the structure of the Soviet Union. A hierarchically structured asymmetric federation of ethnically based territorial entities, the Soviet Union – despite its Communist ideology – afforded great importance to ethnicity. Ethnically based territorial units received great rights of self-rule on paper, and though these never changed the totalitarian nature of the Union, the Soviet regime actively promoted the creation of titular, ethnic political elites and intelligentsia in the republics, autonomous republics, and autonomous provinces of the Union. This ensured that ethnic segregation was kept in place, and safeguarded the salience of ethnicity in political and public life. As the ideology of Communism, which had served as glue keeping the disparate ethnic groups of the union together, lost its legitimacy in the late 1980s, the scene was set for the rise of ethnic nationalism to replace it as the dominant political ideology. This was increasingly the case as the Soviet Union had prepared its population extremely poorly for participatory politics: there was close to no civil society, no experience of democracy or tolerance, and the population was accustomed to the use of violence and repression instead of dialogue and compromise in solving political differences.

The Caucasus region, in addition, shared several elements that accentuated ethnic tensions there compared to other areas in the Union. Firstly, the salience of ethnic identity was comparatively higher there, as evidenced by higher levels of native language retention, resistance to linguistic Russification, and a lower geographic mobility of the population. Moreover, the region had seen past ethnic conflict in the immediate pre-Soviet era, during and after the First World War, and continued inter-ethnic tensions in the Soviet era. Unresolved grievances hence existed between ethnic groups, with diametrically different interpretations of History. The Caucasus was also a border area of the USSR, and as such contained a significant number of military installations in a relatively small area. With the breakdown of military discipline in the early 1990s, a large amount of weaponry was available in the region to secessionist movements and paramilitary organizations in a way that was not the case in many other parts of the Soviet Union.

An additional factor was the role of the central government in Moscow. Whether in the guise of the Soviet government in the late 1980s or the independent Russian Federation of the 1990s, the leadership in Moscow sought to maintain its dominant influence over the South Caucasus, and to prevent the South Caucasian states from seceding from the Union. The same attitude prevailed after the dissolution of the Union, as Moscow continued to prevent them from pursuing independent and pro-western foreign policies. The Russian government has had a clear intention to weaken the South Caucasian states’ viability and independence, a policy that continues to various degrees to this day. The Soviet government entertained minority secessionism in Georgia in order to counterbalance Georgian attempts to secede from the USSR; likewise, Moscow at different times supported both Armenia and Azerbaijan against each other to weaken their independence and increase their reliance on Moscow. This accentuated tensions between ethnic groups and contributed to the escalation of conflict. It should also be mentioned that do-called ‘democratic’ and ‘conservative’ forces in Moscow have followed closely similar and destabilizing policies against the Caucasus, especially Georgia.

Georgia declared independence before most other Soviet republics in April 1991, under the leadership of the democratically elected President Zviad Gamsakhurdia. Gamsakhurdia’s popularity nevertheless eroded due to his eccentric style of leadership, which alienated most erstwhile allies. The conflict with South Ossetia that began in 1989 worsened matters and a shady paramilitary junta forced Gamsakhurdia into exile in early January 1992 after a brief civil war in central Tbilisi. This coup delayed Georgia’s entry into the United Nations, and the junta invited former Communist leader and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze to lead the ‘State Council’. Shevardnadze gradually forced out the coup-makers from power, but only after having lost a war in Abkhazia. He also faced imminent state collapse during a large-scale army mutiny led by Gamsakhurdia in fall 1993, necessitating him to give in to Russian pressure and allow the stationing of Russian military bases in Georgia and the stationing of Russian border guards on the Turkish border. Shevardnadze also conceded to membership in the CIS. However, Shevardnadze managed to gradually restore some stability and build Georgia’s statehood and international standing.

Georgia has a strong executive presidency, based on the 1995 constitution. The President is directly elected to a maximum of two five-year terms, and appoints a council of ministers headed by a minister of state. In both the 1995 and 2000 Presidential elections, Shevardnadze was overwhelmingly elected as president. In the same manner, Shevardnadze’s party, the Citizens’ Union of Georgia (CUG), won the largest number of seats in the 1995 and 1999 legislative elections. International observers judged the 1999 elections to be a step towards compliance with OSCE commitments, but noted that the election process did not meet all commitments. The 2000 presidential elections, on the other hand, were marred by serious irregularities.

Georgia’s relations with Russia were marred from Georgia’s independence by the blatant covert and occasionally overt Russian support for secessionism in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Georgia regards Russia as an imperial power that seeks to undermine Georgia’s statehood and independence. In response, Georgia has tried to market its role as a gateway from the Black Sea to the larger Caspian region. Tbilisi has therefore reached out to its other neighbors, and it has increasingly looked to the West in search of new, alternative, opportunities. Relations with Europe and especially the U.S. have been and continue to be excellent. Georgia’s western orientation and efforts to avoid entanglement in the Chechen War are under severe Russian pressure, as Moscow has repeatedly cut off gas supplies, stalled negotiations on Abkhazia, delayed negotiations for the withdrawal of Russian military bases, complicated external debt rescheduling, and imposed a discriminatory visa regime that exempts secessionist areas of Georgia from the requirement of a visa. Currently, steps are being taken to provide Russian citizenship to citizens of the secessionist areas of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Georgia’s relations with Turkey were marked by historical tensions, but these are being gradually overcome and in the late 1990s, Georgia has forged a strategic partnership with Turkey. Georgia and Azerbaijan have been at the forefront of creating a Caucasian ‘bridge’ between Turkey and the Black sea, to the Caspian Sea, and on to Central Asia in the energy, transportation, political and military sectors. Western interests have largely been determined by the exploitation of the Caspian resources, and corresponding projects such as the ‘Silk Road’ and the EU-financed TRACECA (Transport Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Asia). As the westward export of Caspian oil and gas gradually materializes through Azerbaijan and Georgia, geopolitical and geo-economic interests will simultaneously rise, and the region’s importance to the west is subsequently predicted to grow. Azerbaijan and Georgia hope that this will ensure their security and stability, and promise conflict resolution and the restoration of their territorial integrity. Georgia and Azerbaijan thus share a similar outlook on the world and on relations with their neighbors.

The relationship between Baku and Tbilisi has strengthened significantly since independence, as both understand that their security is connected. Azerbaijan cannot export its oil without Georgia, which connects it to Turkey and the West; while Georgia partially relies on Azerbaijan’s oil exports for its economic and political security. The two have been motors in the GUUAM (Georgia Ukraine Uzbekistan Azerbaijan Moldova) alliance that developed since 1997 as a counterbalance to Russian hegemonic tendencies within the CIS. Armenia, on the other hand, has remained largely isolated from regional transportation schemes and cooperative efforts due to its conflict with Azerbaijan. Geographically, Azerbaijan and Georgia are better positioned as a transport and communications route as they form the corridor between the Black and Caspian seas, hence any transport conduit can easily bypass Armenia. International pressure has mounted on Azerbaijan and Turkey to open economic relations with Armenia, yet Azerbaijan refuses to do so as long as Armenia occupies almost 20% of its territory.

The Georgian Civil War

The Georgian Civil War consisted of inter-ethnic conflicts in the regions of South Ossetia (1988-1992) and Abkhazia (1992-1993), as well as the violent military Coup d’etat of December 21, 1991 – January 6, 1992 against the first democratically elected President of Georgia, Dr. Zviad Gamsakhurdia and his subsequent uprising in an attempt to regain power (1993).

While the Gamsakhurdia rebellion was eventually defeated, the South Ossetia and Abkhazia conflicts resulted in the de facto secession of both regions from Georgia. As a result, both conflicts have lingered on, with occasional flare-ups, and as of 2004, the threat of renewed fighting remains, particularly in South Ossetia.

Ethnic Conflicts

Ethnic minority separatist movements – primarily on the part of the Ossetians and the Abkhaz, both given intermittent encouragement by the Soviet regime over the years – demanded fuller recognition in the new order of the early 1990s. Asserting it’s newly gained national prerogatives, Georgia responded with military attempts to restrain separatism forcibly. On January 5, 1991 Georgia’s National Guard entered Tskhinvali, South Ossetian capital and the fightings broke out in and around the city. The Georgian-Ossetian Conflict was the first major crisis faced by Gamsakhurdia’s government.

Georgian Abkhaz Conflict

The Georgian-Abkhaz conflict, or the Abkhazian war, refers to the ethnic conflict between Georgians and Abkhaz in Georgia’s Autonomous Republic (“Abkhazeti” in Georgian) in 1992–1993. The 13-month long war, between Georgia government forces and Russian-backed Abkhaz separatists. Approximately 30.000 Georgians were killed and more than 250,000 Georgian refugees were forced out from their homes. Numerous war crimes have been committed during the conflict, one of them known as Ethnic cleansing of Georgians in Abkhazia. Close to 3.500 Abkhaz were killed and 20,000 were forced to flee. Post-Soviet Georgia was heavily affected by the war and suffered considerable financial, human and moral losses. Although Russian and international mediation, the conflict has been unresolved. Abkhazia has been devastated by the war, and the subsequent continued sporadic conflict. The region, de facto independent from Georgia, suffered huge economic and social problems and was entirely dependent on Russia.

History of the Conflict

The situation in the Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic of Abkhazia has been tense since 1989. The first armed clashes between the representatives of the Abkhazian and Georgian populations took place on July 15–July 17, 1989. The Soviet government contributed to the separatist movement in Abkhazia and did nothing to prevent inter-ethnic conflict. The situation was further deteriorated by rising nationalism among Georgians and Abkhaz, ethnic violence in former South Ossetia Autonomous Oblast and military confrontation after coup d’etat in Tbilisi in December 1991 – January 1992.

The tensions in the autonomy approached the dangerous edge in June 1992, when Abkhaz boevyks attacked the government buildings in Sokhumi. On July 23, 1992, separatist members of the Abkhazian government declared independence of the region, though this was not internationally recognized. The situation was further deteriorated by anti-governmental diversions made by several so-called “Zviadist” armed groups (supporters of overthrown President Zviad Gamsakhurdia) in Abkhazia. On August 14, 1992, Georgian police and National Guards units were dispatched to protect railways and restore an order in Abkhazia. The fights broke out the same day. On August 18, 1992, a secessionist government left Sokhumi. Georgian government forces managed to take control of most of Abkhazia. Atrocities were committed by both sides, however more intensively by Abkhaz separatists in Gagra and Gudauta. On September 3, 1992, a ceasefire was negotiated in Moscow. According to the agreement, Georgian forces were withdrawn from Gagra district. The ceasefire was soon violated by Abkhaz. Thousands of volunteer paramilitaries, mainly Chechens and Cossacks from the self-styled Confederation of Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus (CMPC) joined the Abkhaz separatists to fight the Georgian troops. Abkhaz and CMPC forces attacked the town of Gagra on October 2. With the fell of the town, the majority of the Georgian population was either executed, or expelled. The rebels largely supported by Russian military presence in the region established their control over Gagra, Gudauta (the town where former Soviet/Russian military base remains) and Tkvarcheli and approached Sokhumi. During the conflict, Moscow officially maintained neutrality; the Russian government condemned human rights violations and established sanctions against both sides. Russian forces situated in the conflict zone from the beginning provided unofficial support for the Abkhaz formations. Numerous eyewitness accounts testify to the bombardment of Georgian forces by Russian aircraft and the use of the Russian navy to transport Abkhaz fighters. Official statements by the Russian Ministry of Defence claimed that Russian forces were only acting in self-defence and were only returning fire when attacked.

In December 1992, rebels began shelling of Georgian-held Sokhumi. On March 4, 1993, Eduard Shevardnadze, head of the State Council of Georgia, arrived in the capital of the region to take control over the defensive operations in the city. On March 14, 1993, Abkhaz and the Confederation forces launched a full-scale attack on Sokhumi resulting in large destruction and casualties among the civilians. However, the government forces repelled the attack. Both sides accused each other in ethnic cleansing and genocide. Georgian government stated Russia was conducted “an undeclared war” against Georgia. The statement was strengthened by capturing several Russian officers by Georgians. On March 19, 1993, Georgian forces shot down a Russian aircraft SU-27.

On May 14, 1993, a short-lived ceasefire was signed. On July 2, a strong force of Abkhaz and North Caucasian mercenaries landed with the support of Russian navy near the village Tamishi. The battle was one of the bloodiest in the war. Several hundreds were killed and wounded from all sides, but Georgian forces succeeded to regain the positions. However, Sokhumi was virtually besieged by the end of July. Russian-mediated ceasefire was again agreed in Sochi on July 27, 1993 and lasted until September 16, when separatist forces launched a large-scale offensive against Sokhumi, which fell after a fierce fighting on September 27. After the capture of the city for about two week most horrific massacres of this war have been committed against remaining and trapped Georgian civilians in Sokhumi. Eduard Shevardnadze left the city narrowly escaping death. Soon Abkhaz forces and the Confederates overran the whole territory of Abkhazia, except small region of the Kodori Gorge (which more or less remains under the control of the Tbilisi government). The total defeat of government forces was followed by ethnic cleansing of Georgian population with all horrors of humanitarian catastrophe. More than 250.000 refugees (mainly Georgians, also Greeks and others) were forced out from Abkhazia. In September 1994, several reports indicated ethnic clashes between Abkhaz and Armenians, significant part of which supported the former during the war. Chechen militants of CMPC soon left Abkhazia to take part in the “Chechen Resistance War” against Russia.

Conflict Mediation

During the war the peace mediation was done first by the Russian Federation and second by the UN. From 1993 onwards, the pressure for a peace settlement mounted from UN, Russia and the then Group of Friends of Georgia (Russia, U.S., France, Germany and UK). In December 1993, an official ceasefire was signed by Georgian and Abkhaz leaders under the aegis of the UN and with Russia as intermediary.The venues shifted from Geneva to New York and finally to Moscow. On April 4, 1994, the “Declaration on Measures for a Political Settlement of the Georgian-Abkhazian Conflict” was signed in Moscow. Instead of the deployment of a traditional UN peacekeeping force, the deployment of a CIS, mainly Russian peacekeeping force was agreed in Moscow on May 1994. In June 1994, CIS peacekeeping forces comprising only the Russian soldiers were deployed along the administrative border between Abkhazia and the remaining Georgia. The UN mission (UNOMIG) also arrived. However, these could not prevent further atrocities against the Georgians in the following years (around 1.500 deaths have been reported by the Georgian government in the post-war period). On September 14, 1994, Abkhaz leaders appeared on local TV to demand that all ethnic Georgians depart from the region by September 27 (the anniversary of the capture of Sokhumi). On November 30, 1994, Abkhazia promulgated a new constitution declaring independence of the breakaway region. However, none of the foreign governments recognized this. On December 15, 1994, the US State Department condemned Abkhazia’s declaration of independence. On March 21, 1995, The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees accused Abkhaz militias of torturing and murdering dozens of returning ethnic Georgian refugees in the Gali District. Despite an official economic blockade imposed on Abkhazia by Russia and CIS in 1995 (virtually ended by the Russian government in 1997), the breakaway region has been enjoying both military and economic support by the Russian Federation.