Frozen Conflicts: Putting Salt on the Ice

Now that the era of grand hopes for the West’s relationship with Russia is over, it is time to turn attention on Russia’s role in Kosovo and frozen post-Soviet conflicts.

For all the grandiloquent phrases of Britain’s Tony Blair and the grand but wooden words of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, there was an inescapable sense of hollowness about the Russia-EU summit on 4 October. That hollowness is understandable, because at the heart of Russia’s relationship with the West there may now be a real void.

Many of the key issues of recent years have been put to the test and answers found – about Putin’s commitment to democracy, Russia’s position in the war on terror, the limits of his relationship with the West, his foreign policy orientation and the Kremlin’s relationship with Big Business. If there is a hidden democrat in Putin, it is clear he will not appear in a Russian president’s normal two terms; Putin’s post-9/11 embrace of the West was soon chilled by anti-Americanism at home and, now, by the fear of ‘colour revolutions’; Russia’s ‘war on terror’ ends on the borders of Iraq and Iran; Russia is now re-exploring its potential as a Eurasian power; and the Yukos affair and its aftermath suggest the commanding heights of the economy are being renationalized. There seems little chance of change or rapprochement on these fronts.

There may be more chance of the relationship worsening. Moscow’s particular bête noire now is democracy promotion, but, like many bêtes noires, its importance may be more psychological than real. International solidarity and support is undoubtedly vitally important symbolically to democratic groups, and any practical help goes a long way for opposition movements with few means of fighting a regime such as that of Belarus’ President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. But the West’s capacity to bring about change is exaggerated.

For one, the West is still struggling towards a policy on Belarus, let alone Russia. And, more importantly, Washington, Brussels and Moscow may test their influence in Belarus; the answer will be the same as in Ukraine: changes in Belarus will come about primarily thanks to Belarusians’ efforts rather than to Western advice on how to detect election fraud or to Russian attempts to find a replacement for Lukashenka. The same applies in Russia: the West can invest in promoting democracy in Russia, but cannot prompt change. In such circumstances, the primary service that such clashes over democracy promotion may perhaps serve in the near future is to highlight the Russian elite’s own relationship to democracy.

On other issues, many of them practical, the questions are now largely about delivery. The map of oil and gas pipelines is filling up; in some places (such as the Caspian and Black seas), there are competing pipelines, and in others direct pipelines between the West and Russia (such as the planned pipe between Germany and Russia, and Russia’s and Turkey’s trans-Black Sea gas pipeline). In other words, the West’s relationship with Russia is, understandably, ambiguous. As for Russia’s drive for membership of the World Trade Organization (WTO), the United States and Europe have already indicated that they support Russia’s bid; it is now up to Russia to complete the job.

Distraction may also account for some of the hollowness at the summit. Domestic politics is forcing itself to the top of the agenda for many of the key leaders of this relationship. Putin’s administration has a plateful of reforms. The half-acknowledged death of the European Constitution leaves the EU with its own concerns. Bush’s second term is caught in the mud and much of Blair’s third term may be spent in search of successes at home. Germany’s Gerhard Schröder seems definitively on his way out; his replacement will have a weaker hand than once expected. And, meanwhile, France’s Jacques Chirac seems laid out by illness, partly his own but mainly France’s.

With some of the key limits of possible relationships with Russia now clearer and with so much to do at home, Western leaders may let the relationship with Russia drift for a while. But drift would be dangerous: partly because, grand hopes dashed, the relationship may simply follow the path of least resistance to simple matters of mutual convenience; and partly because relations with Russia affect many smaller, but still important issues.

In a sense, the West and Russia need some new issues on which to focus. Now that the age of grand hopes seems over, it may be time for some nitty-gritty work to remove unnecessary grit from the relationship. Obvious bits of grit include the ‘frozen conflicts’ dotted around the Black Sea – in Transdniester, South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh – but also Russia’s role in the Contact Group that will lead discussions about the final status of Kosovo. (Chechnya too should be on the agenda, but the challenge there is to make sure it becomes grit in the relationship; with the West’s leaders gradually being replaced, there just may be a chance of making Chechnya the type of problem that it should be for the West.)

What to do about Karabakh?

In Transdniester and Georgia’s breakaway republics, the real issue is, as we have argued before, to tell Russia that the miserable bit of local leverage it gets from manipulating these frozen conflicts is far less than the wider respect and authority that it forfeits by doing so. There has been some movement by Russia – Moscow is pulling out troops from Georgia’s undisputed territory – and there has been some movement by others, with Ukraine, for instance, tightening up its borders with Transdniester. These will tidy up some of the mess around these conflicts, but in all instances there has been little movement on the key issues: the final status of these regions. The challenge remains the same – to show Russia that it gains little and loses more by continuing to put sand in the oil.

In Kosovo, the situation is a variation on the same theme. When talks on the province’s final status begin, the current evidence suggests Russia may quite possibly lock itself into a pro-Serbian position, a danger made all the greater by the historical baggage of the war in Kosovo and the great powers’ role then as protectors of local actors, with the United States siding with the Kosovo Albanians and the Russians playing the role of a Serbian advocate (albeit somewhat erratic since both Russia’s then president, Boris Yeltsin, and foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, despised Yugoslavia’s Slobodan Milosevic). But if Moscow re-runs old battles and complicates any emerging solution, it will lose some of the respect it could earn by helping to broker a deal.

Those are tractable problems; Karabakh may be less tractable, even though a deal was almost struck in 2001. Pogroms against Armenians in Azerbaijan, then a war over disputed territory and the occupation of undisputed Azeri territory to link Karabakh to Armenia, and the displacement of huge numbers of refugees, particularly Azeris: all this makes Karabakh something like the Palestine of the South Caucasus.

Here, there is perhaps little that Russia can do to make peace. But there may now be more opportunity for the West and Russia, already partners in the Minsk Group that is trying to mediate an agreement (the West represented by the United States and France), to work together to try to turn the Karabakh debate into what it really is: a bilateral issue.

For that to happen, Turkey needs to change its position. Unfortunately, Turkey has hardwired itself into the problem by, in effect, allowing Baku to dictate its foreign policy: when, for instance, there seemed a possibility last year that Turkey might make moves to ease, possibly even lift its blockade on Armenia, Baku put its foot down. Ankara stepped back; the blockade remains in place. The latest talks in August produced no significant movement. On the ground, tensions are if anything increasing, with the number of breaches of the ceasefire rising for several years. With elections in Azerbaijan just a month away, the rhetoric is fiery.

It is hard to say how much Turkey’s Siamese-twin approach to Karabakh is complicating the effort to achieve what must be the international community’s two key goals: to prevent the frozen conflict from thawing into open war, and to find a long-term solution. But there is certainly no obvious way in which it is helping. Armenia (population: 3 million), already instinctively hostile to Turkey because of the 1915 massacres of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire and a follower of the ‘iron ladle’ principle (that you can never win the respect of other nations without fighting for freedom), is unlikely to concede much if it feels that Azerbaijan (8 million) will make no concessions because it can wholly rely on the support of Turkey (70 million).

As Armenia’s greatest supporter, Russia is itself not a neutral player, of course. But its position and policies are less constrained than Turkey’s. The West’s and Russia’s aim should not be the impossible – to make Ankara adopt an independent position – but to try to make it more independent.

And Russia, like the West, does have growing influence over Turkey. With the possibility of EU accession now a real prospect, Turkey now has more to gain from listening to the EU’s requests that it normalize its relationship with Armenia. It also has less to lose by making its relationship with Azerbaijan more flexible: thanks to an energy-based relationship with Russia that has blossomed in the past few years, Turkey now has more alternatives to the current and expected inflow of Azeri gas and oil. It may even be willing to listen to Russia more (in July Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, told the world after meeting Putin that ‘our views totally coincide with regard to the situation in the region as well as to the issues concerning the preservation of stability in the world’). It also seems to see the value in a more stable Black Sea, since it is apparently interested in a role in resolving the conflict in Abkhazia.

It would be hard for Turkey to distance itself from the Karabakh issue, as that implies some distance from Baku. But Ankara now seems trapped by Baku in a zero-sum game that does little, if anything to forward Turkey’s own interests.

To argue for more flexibility is not to accept Armenia’s position on Karabakh: the principles involved in discussions are complicated, much more so than in discussions about the final status of Kosovo. To argue for a change in Turkey’s position is not to expect Turkey to make major changes: a country that will on 16 December put on trial a potential Nobel Prize winner, Orhan Pamuk, for suggesting that Turkey did commit genocide against Armenians in 1915 is unlikely to normalize relations with Armenia swiftly or easily.

To argue for more flexibility is simply to say that Azerbaijan’s and Armenia’s relationship may be frozen, but the politics of the world around cannot be allowed to freeze. What effect any movement by Turkey might have is unpredictable, but it seems reasonable to predict it would not increase the danger of war, the bare-minimum goal for the international community.

Asking Russia to exert pressure on Turkey would, in effect, be asking Russia to tell Turkey what the West should be telling Russia about Transdniester, South Ossetia and Abkhazia: that it gains little and loses significantly by keeping to its current policy. It would also be asking Turkey to do something that Russia may itself do in talks over Kosovo – automatically take the same line as historical friends. That makes it less likely that Russia will use its growing influence over Turkey. Expecting significant shifts in the ice on any of these issues would be overly optimistic. But now is as good a time as any to test the ice. Better, certainly, than letting a key relationship drift.


Andrew Gardner

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