Conflict in the Caucasus

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  • This article was downloaded by: [New York University]On: 25 October 2014, At: 00:03Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number:1072954 Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street,London W1T 3JH, UK

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    Conflict in the CaucasusPublished online: 22 Jan 2009.

    To cite this article: (1992) Conflict in the Caucasus, Strategic Survey, 93:1,75-83, DOI: 10.1080/04597239208460904

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  • CONFLICT IN THE CAUCASUS 75

    can be expected to withhold the taxes they are now collecting toprovide some of these services for themselves. What led to the break-up of the Soviet Union was just such a march of events. Local centresof power which wanted more control over their own affairs, a break-down of central control, and a slow accumulation by local leaders ofthe means to achieve their dreams.

    Racing Towards the CrashIn his TV broadcast throwing down the gauntlet, Yeltsin said that thecountry could not afford another October Revolution. The examplewas picked with care for the two situations have close parallels. In1917 a weak reforming government under Aleksandr Kerensky, loathto take drastic actions that would transgress its democratic ideals,faced the growing strength of those who would willingly take drasticaction while hiding behind democratic slogans. 'All power to theSoviets!' was the battlecry. In 1993 a would-be reforming governmentis being slowly throttled by men who claim they are on the side of thepeople, upholding the constitution, and proclaiming 'all power to theCongress!'.

    Conditions as a result of the economic breakdown in Russia are notas bad as they were during the war 75 years ago, and there is nodetermined party in sight like the Bolsheviks to push the situation toarmed revolution. Yet the auguries are not good. The present impasseis certain to last at least until the referendum. Even if there are thenelections for president and parliament, without a change of constitu-tion the two centres of power will remain. Not even a strong countrycan be effectively run under such a system. In Russia, it is a formula fordisaster.

    CONFLICT IN THE CAUCASUS

    For hundreds of years the Caucasus has been the uncomfortable meet-ing place for a bewildering variety of different peoples, cultures,religions and nations. Historically located on the mountainous edges oflarge neighbouring multi-ethnic empires, the Caucasus has been thehaven for a number of national groups who have sought to preservetheir cultural and religious freedom and independence. Over the centu-ries the ancient Christian nations of Armenia and Georgia havefiercely defended their distinctive religious inheritance. With just asstrong a sense of national pride, the Muslim peoples of Azerbaijan andthe Northern Caucasus have maintained their allegiance to the Dar ul-Islam, the world of Islam. Like the Balkans, the Caucasus marks thehistorical frontier between Islam and Christendom and has the sameshattered mosaic of multi-religious and multi-ethnic societies.

    The rugged independence of the Caucasian peoples was to be aconsiderable obstacle to Russian imperial expansion into the region in

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    the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Under a succession of charis-matic leaders, such as Imam Mansur and Sheikh Shamil, resistance toRussian rule was sustained for over 70 years through numerous guer-rilla campaigns. It was only in 1855 that Russia completed its conquestof the Caucasus and could enjoy full control over its new territory.However, the tradition of opposition to Russian and Soviet rule neverdied, and renewed campaigns for independence broke out whenevercontrol from Moscow weakened, as in the revolutionary chaos of the1917-21 period and during the Second World War.

    When Mikhail Gorbachev set out to reform and democratize theSoviet empire in the late 1980s, it was not surprising that the Caucasusproved to be one of the greatest obstacles to his ambitions. In 1988, theeruption of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan andArmenia provided the first significant indication that inter-ethnic con-frontation would prove to be a more powerful force than international-ist integration and that the Soviet Union was more likely to collapsethan be reformed. Similarly, the forceful Georgian campaign for inde-pendence, which grew in strength after the bloody repression of anationalist demonstration in Tbilisi in April 1989, confirmed that theCaucasian struggle for independence was becoming more uncompro-mising in its objectives and was seeking complete severance from themulti-ethnic Soviet empire.

    The collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 was a criticalturning-point in the liberation struggle for an independent Caucasus.Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan became fully independent and inter-nationally recognized states during 1992. Such independence was not,however, granted to the peoples of the North Caucasus, which wereleft within the borders of the Russian Federation. Chechnia directlychallenged this disposition in the last quarter of 1991 by proclaimingits independence from Russia. That neither Russia nor the internationalcommunity has recognized Chechnia has not deterred the self-pro-claimed state; it has not retreated from its declaration of independenceand continues to defy the Russian authorities.

    As 1992 progressed the initial euphoria of the dramatic unravellingof centralized Soviet rule in the Caucasus gradually evaporated. Thespeed with which power was transferred from Moscow meant that thenew states of the Caucasus had inadequate political, economic andsocial institutions, lacked indigenous national armies and securityforces, and faced severe economic deterioration. Inter-ethnic conflictsalso grew in intensity. Armenia and Azerbaijan became locked evermore bitterly in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute; Georgia became em-broiled in a number of violent confrontations with some of the non-Georgian minority groups; and instability flowed over to the RussianFederation resulting in fierce fighting between the Ingush and theOssetes in October 1992. Tragically, it was these various conflictswhich essentially defined the political developments in the Caucasusduring 1992.

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  • CONFLICT IN THE CAUCASUS 77

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    Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorno-KarabakhIn the early part of 1992, the new Russian government under BorisYeltsin ordered the full withdrawal of the Soviet troops which hadbeen attempting to maintain peace in Nagorno-Karabakh. This deci-sion was popular not only in Russia but also with the combatants, sinceArmenia and Azerbaijan had regularly complained that the troops hadnever been truly neutral and that they had been manipulated by con-servative forces in Moscow to perpetuate and exacerbate the conflict.The withdrawal meant that the two sides could also test their respec-tive military strength.

    At the outset, the Armenian forces were clearly ascendant and won anumber of critical military victories, including the opening of a corri-dor at Lachin through Azeri territory to the disputed enclave. Thereason for these Armenian successes was the relative discipline of theirforces against the chaotic and anarchic Azeri armed formations. Politi-cal instability in Baku also did not help the Azeri cause, as fromFebruary to May the Azerbaijani Popular Front (APF) battled with,and finally ousted, the ex-communist President Mutalibov. It wassymptomatic of this power struggle that during the first five months of1992 six different defence ministers marched through that office.

    In the summer of 1992 the balance shifted. Azeri forces managed toreturn to the offensive after they had seized large amounts of equip-

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    ment from the former Soviet army garrisons inside Azerbaijan. Theyrecaptured a large part of the territory that had been lost earlier in theyear. The Lachin Corridor, however, remained under Armenian con-trol, and in the autumn the Azeri advance was halted as the Armeniandefence forces in Nagorno-Karabakh consolidated and strengthenedtheir defences. By the end of 1992, a stalemate had been reached.

    Throughout this period Russia, Iran, Turkey and the CSCE tookturns at mediation, but all failed to make any decisive breakthrough.Cease-fires were arranged after weeks of arduous diplomacy and thencasually broken within hours of their supposedly coming into effect.There were also bitter divisions between the two sides about obliga-tions to the disputed territory and on the right of representatives fromthe Nagorno-Karabakh parliament to be involved in the negotiations.The unstable political situations inside Armenia and Azerbaijan madeit even more difficult for the two sides to reach any sort of compro-mise. President Lev Petrossian of Armenia had to contend with strongnationalist opposition to any concessions, particularly by the DashnakParty which is the dominant force in the Armenian community inNagorno-Karabakh. The political flux in Azerbaijan was even moredestabilizing. The APF forcibly seized power in May, and its leader,Abulfaz Elchibey, was subsequently elected president in June 1992.His legitimacy and the strength of his political power-base remainedfar from secure, however, and he has had constantly to look over hisshoulder at the growing popularity of such figures as the radicalnationalist Etibar Mahmedov or the strongman of Nakhichevan,Gaidar Aliev.

    The overall situation at the beginning of 1993 appears bleak. Peaceseems as far away as ever, and the economic and political costs of thefive-year-old war are becoming ever more apparent. Armenia is cer-tainly suffering the greater economic hardship. The combined effectsof the economic blockade imposed by Azerbaijan and the disruption ofsupplies from Georgia have meant that Armenia is receiving no oil andhardly any gas. The economy is, as a result, close to collapse.Azerbaijan is clearly hoping that Armenia's economic plight will betranslated into increased military weakness. However, as the moreacute observers in Baku realize, this expectation of an Azeri militaryvictory is improbable, given the deeply entrenched Armenian defencesinside Nagorno-Karabakh.

    The only limited grounds for optimism are that the military stale-mate and the undoubted war-weariness of the Armenian and Azeripopulations might lead to a more profitable and sustained peace initia-tive. Such an initiative would depend, however, on the internal con-solidation and increased moderation of the governments in power,greater centralized control over the armed formations engaged in thefighting, and energetic mediation and intervention by the major exter-nal powers and international organizations like the UN and the CSCE.It would also require greater involvement and cooperation between thethree major regional powers: Russia, Turkey and Iran. Without such a

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  • CONFLICT IN THE CAUCASUS 79

    concerted and coordinated drive for a peaceful settlement, there is aconsiderable danger that the parties in dispute will attempt to escalatethe conflict by spreading the war beyond Nagorno-Karabakh into eachother's territories and by seeking to drag their respective regional alliesinto the fighting.

    Georgia - The Divided StateThe inter-ethnic conflicts inside Georgia since the proclamation ofGeorgian sovereignty in March 1990 have been caused by one funda-mental contradiction: the deeply-ingrained Georgian nationalist desirefor a unitary state and the fact that over 30% of the population are non-Georgian minorities who deeply fear Georgian nationalist self-asser-tion. Zviad Gamsakhurdia, popularly elected president in May 1991,proved incapable of resolving this contradiction and only made inter-ethnic tensions worse by attempting to impose a unified Georgian stateand to abolish the autonomous status of South Ossetia, Abkhazia andAdzharia. His increasing unpredictability and authoritarianism also ledto deep fissures within Georgian society and alienated many of hisformer allies. In January 1992, Tengiz Kitovani and Dzhaba Iosseliani,backed by their respective armed formations, forcibly deposedGamsakhurdia in a coup.

    By spring 1992 Georgia was in a state of deep crisis with restiveminorities and a polity divided between pro-Gamsakhurdia supportersbased mainly in western Georgia and his opposition in the rest of thecountry. In order to legitimize their military takeover and consolidatetheir power, the new rulers invited Eduard Shevardnadze, the formerForeign Minister of the Soviet Union, to return to his native land andresume the political leadership of the country. Shevardnadze was fullyaware that he had been offered a poisoned chalice. He knew thatKitovani and Iosseliani would not willingly give up their independentpower-bases and would seek to circumscribe and undermine his ownauthority. The weakness of the government, the parlous state of theeconomy and the plethora of ill-disciplined armed formations wouldalso present considerable obstacles to the consolidation of a central-ized state and the development of democratic reforms and a marketeconomy. Furthermore, Shevardnadze knew that he would have to dealwith a continuing armed conflict in South Ossetia and a potentiallydangerous confrontation in Abkhazia.

    In the first few months after his return, Shevardnadze had a numberof successes. Georgia received the recognition which the internationalcommunity had denied it during Gamsakhurdia's reign. There was aconstant flow of Western statesmen eager to support and resume theircontact with the man who had helped to dismantle the Soviet empire.In June, Shevardnadze defused the South Ossete conflict after negotia-tions with Yeltsin had led to a military cease-fire and a tripartiteRussian-South Ossetian-Georgian agreement on peacekeeping forces.On 11 October 1992, Shevardnadze's position was boosted by his

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    election to the head of the Georgian state by a massive majority.Although the democratic credentials of the election were tainted by thefact that no one stood against him, the vote did represent strongpopular support for Shevardnadze's leadership and strengthened hisposition against his other political rivals.

    But 1992 was not an unblemished year for Shevardnadze. In August,he suffered his first major setback, as an attack led by Kitovani againstthe Abkhaz republican government in Sukhumi escalated into a majormilitary confrontation between the Georgian and Abkhaz armedforces. The Abkhaz also managed to gain the upper hand, as theirforces were strengthened by volunteers from their ethnic kinsmen inthe Northern Caucasus and by the support of conservative-inclinedelements in the Russian military. The Georgian armed formations,beset by ill-discipline and incompetence, also proved to be almostcompletely ineffective militarily. Although it is unclear how deeplyShevardnadze was implicated in the decision to attack Sukhumi, heimmediately assumed responsibility for the subsequent defeats andvowed to regain the lost territory.

    The Abkhaz crisis has placed considerable constraints onShevardnadze's room for political and diplomatic manoeuvre. It hasmade it more difficult for him to make concessions to the Abkhaz or toother minority groups without the opposition accusing him of compro-mising Georgia's territorial integrity. The triangular power strugglebetween Shevardnadze, Kitovani and Iosseliani has been intensified inthe face of the Abkhaz crisis, and none of the three can afford to appearto be betraying the Georgian nationalist cause. The acute politicalcrisis also makes it even more difficult for Shevardnadze to developthe political and economic institutions of the country and thus build adam against growing political anarchy and economic disintegration.

    The Abkhaz conflict has furthermore undermined Shevardnadze'sattempts to place Georgian-Russian relations on a more conciliatorybasis after the fiercely anti-Russian policies of Gamsakhurdia. Unlikehis predecessor, Shevardnadze was willing to accept, and not immedi-ately condemn as imperialist intrigue, Russia's expressed interest inthe Ossete and Abkhaz disputes. Since the Abkhaz and Ossetes havestrong ethnic, national and cultural links beyond Georgia's borderswith the Caucasian nations in the Russian Federation, the Russianauthorities were naturally concerned about the destabilizing conse-quences of any escalation in hostilities. Russia not only feared theconsequences of increased instability on its very borders but wasaware that if it appeared to condone Georgian military action it wouldlose the support of the nations of the North Caucasus. This could onlylead to more forceful demands for secession. Russia, therefore, hasbeen keen to see a political settlement of the Abkhaz and Osseteconflicts, and has had a correspondingly urgent concern that Georgiashould not be tempted to seek a military solution.

    Shevardnadze was aware of Russia's concern and understood thatonly Russian-Georgian cooperation could secure a durable settlement

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  • CONFLICT IN THE CAUCASUS 81

    of the North Caucasus problem. The cease-fire agreement that haddampened the South Ossete conflict had been a good example ofsuccessful coordinated action between Shevardnadze and Yeltsin, en-hancing bilateral Georgian-Russian relations. Much ofthat good workwas undermined by the Abkhaz crisis. Shevardnadze has had to takeinto account the widespread belief among the Georgian people thatRussia deliberately provoked and inflamed the crisis to undermine theterritorial integrity of their state. This sense of a Russian conspiracy isonly accentuated by the participation of volunteers from the otherNorth Caucasus nations in the conflict and the oft-repeated Abkhazand South Ossete demands to be included within the Russian Federa-tion. As the Abkhaz crisis developed, Shevardnadze's suspicions ofRussia's intentions increased and he became more forthright in hiscriticisms of Russia. The prospects for improved Russian-Georgianrelations and bilateral cooperation on the North Caucasus have conse-quently plunged.

    Shevardnadze faces a complex set of internal and external chal-lenges for 1993. At the moment, he is still weak politically and thecountry is almost breaking apart, both socially and economically. It isperhaps not an exaggeration to say that without a just resolution of theAbkhaz and Ossete conflicts it would be difficult for the Georgianstate to survive, let alone develop a successful market-orientated de-mocracy. It is this critical question - the reconciliation of Georgiannationalism with defence of minority rights - which may overtax evenShevardnadze's considerable diplomatic skills.

    Russia and the North CaucasusThe parts of the North Caucasus within the Russian Federation consistof seven autonomous republics with titular non-Russian nationalities:Adyghe, Karachayevo-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, NorthOssetia, Chechnia, Ingushetia and Daghestan. Nowhere has theStalinist definition of nationality and the adherence to the principles of'divide and rule' been so crazily and arbitrarily applied. Stalin deliber-ately fragmented this region to undercut the unifying force of Islamand the power of Muslim resistance which had consistently character-ized the response of the North Caucasus to Russian and Soviet imperialexpansion. That the Soviet system ultimately failed to quash this spiritof defiance became evident when, after the August 1991 coup,Chechnia elected Dzhokhar Dudayev President of the Republic andasserted its independence from Russia. Despite an economic embargoand constant military pressure, Chechnia refused to sign the RussianFederation Treaty. Dudayev has also been the leading force in theConfederation of the Caucasian Mountain Peoples, which brings to-gether popular groups from 16 nations of the North Caucasus who seekindependence from Russia. Although none of the other autonomousrepublics have yet followed Chechnia's example, the anti-Russiansentiment and desire for independence which Chechnia symbolizesrepresents a strong political current in the region.

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    As in other areas of the former Soviet Union where boundaries werearbitrarily drawn, the loss of central control and the increasing nation-alist self-assertion has led to an upsurge in territorial disputes. Theviolent clashes between Ingush and North Ossetes in October 1992was caused by a long-festering dispute over territory in North Ossetiaclaimed by the Ingush. These clashes were the first major instance ofarmed conflict in the Russian Federation and set alarm bells ringing inMoscow, seemingly confirming fears that multi-ethnic Russia might bedestined to follow the disintegrative path of the Soviet Union. Moredirectly, it raised concern that the North Caucasus might be on theverge of internal fragmentation, following the pattern of inter-ethnicconflict in Lebanon or Yugoslavia. It is salient to note that the Repub-lic of Daghestan alone consists of over 30 different nationalities andany break-up of its multi-ethnic composition would necessarily resultin endless territorial and inter-ethnic conflicts. The speediness of theresponse to the Ossete-Ingush fighting, the large numbers of forcessent to calm the region, and the high-level political figures sent tosearch for a political settlement testifies to the seriousness with whichthe Russian authorities responded to the crisis.

    Despite this forceful intervention, Russian policy towards the re-gion throughout 1992 has been essentially ad hoc and reactive. Thisreflects the unresolved debate in Moscow as to the correct strategicapproach towards the North Caucasian problem. One radical optioncanvassed has been for Russia to withdraw from the Caucasus moun-tains and to redraw the Russian borders somewhere on the plains,allowing the indigenous North Caucasian peoples to determine theirown future, whether violently or not. The other, perhaps more fre-quently expressed, option rests on the belief that Russia's naturaldefensive southern border lies at the Caucasus and that the conse-quences of withdrawal would be harmful to Russia's strategic de-fences. Advocates of this forward approach maintain that the Cauca-sian mountain range is an essential buffer against the spread of insta-bility from the Transcaucasus and a defence against potential aggres-sors from the south, such as Iran or Turkey.

    The speed and the extent of the military intervention to quell theIngush-Ossete conflict obviously reflects the application of this sec-ond strategic concept. However, the reluctance to challenge militarilyChechnia's independence suggests the more cautious approach and thedisinclination to become too involved in the region. Similarly, thestatements in January 1993 indicating that Russia might withdraw itspeacekeeping troops from South Ossetia and the remaining Russiantroops from Abkhazia suggest that the will to remain as the externalguarantor of stability for the region might be decreasing.

    The fact that Russia appears to be oscillating between these twopositions reflects the difficulty of its position in the North Caucasus.The anti-Russian hostility of the indigenous peoples, the inter-ethniccomplications of the region, and the host of territorial disputes makecontinued Russian imperial control, however benignly administered,

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  • FEAR AND LOATHING IN THE BALKANS 83

    difficult to sustain. In the end, if Russia is determined to maintain itstraditional presence, it will probably have to follow the Tsarist andSoviet practice of a combination of the use of force with the carefulapplication of the 'divide and rule' principle. Such tactics, however,are difficult to justify if Russia truly wants to develop as a responsibleand liberal democratic power.

    Nevertheless, to withdraw completely would also have potentiallydangerous implications, for it would leave the North Caucasus criti-cally unstable with the certainty of continuing territorial and inter-ethnic disputes. It would be difficult for Russia to remain an indifferentbystander if such violent conflicts resulted in large refugee movementsor attacks on ethnic Russians, such as the fiercely nationalistic Cos-sack groups. The prospect of Turkish or Iranian penetration into theCaucasus as a response to such developments would also be difficultfor Russia to accept. There is also a strong feeling in Russia thatinstability in the Caucasus might extend further into Russia to the otherMuslim nationalities, like the Tatars and the Bashkirs. The territorialintegrity of the Russian state would then undeniably be at stake.

    How Russia deals with the North Caucasus will, therefore, remainan immensely complicated issue. There is no obvious, nor easy, optionto follow. Whilst there is certainly a strong domestic desire for Russiato be rid of its Caucasian problem, there is just as strong a belief thatRussia's interests demand that it remain as the external guarantor forstability in the region. The future of Russia as a multi-ethnic entity andthe hopes that it will develop on the path of a liberal and democraticstate, which eschews the use of force so favoured by its Tsarist andSoviet forbears, may well founder in this area of intractable problems.

    FEAR AND LOATHING IN THE BALKANS

    When the European Community (EC) met at Maastricht in December1991 and agreed to recognize the secessionist republics of Sloveniaand Croatia, a chapter in the Yugoslav drama was closed. By mid-January 1992 Yugoslavia had ceased to exist. Efforts by the Serbian-dominated Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) to hold the two regions in atight embrace had failed. Fighting had ended in Slovenia by the middleof 1991 and even the more serious conflict in Croatia had ceased earlyin 1992 as a result of a cease-fire plan brokered by United Nations'envoy Cyrus Vance. The Vance plan in effect froze the situation on theground. It did not restore Croatian sovereignty in the Serbian enclaves,but it provided for an all-important element of UN troop deployment inthe disputed areas of Croatia. It ushered in a period of peace duringwhich, the international community hoped, Serbo-Croat negotiationscould resolve the matter. Yet, even though the Vance plan provided thepossibility for a final peaceful, negotiated settlement, it equally leftopen the possibility of renewed violence.

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