When Fishing in Muddy Waters is Justified

By signing the joint declaration made by the presidents of the member states of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in Moscow supporting the policies implemented by Russia regarding Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan naturally pinned his hopes on the fact that the voice of little Armenia would be drowned out underneath the alarm bells made by United States warships stirring up waves in the ports of Poti and Batumi. In other words, no one would give credence to the fact that the content of that declaration directly contradicted the main goals as stated by the President during a speech given in frontof representatives of the diplomatic corps at the ROA Foreign Ministry. That is to say that Armenia cannot recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. And no logical explanantion was given as to how Yerevan could defend the initiatives of Moscow in the Caucasus if it doesn't recognize the independence, something gifted by Russia, of these these two self-proclaimed states.

This evident manifestation of a double standard, this peculiar " curtsy" of Armenian diplomacy, in essence wasn't given any weight by Georgia as well. Tbilisi didn't react at any level to this juggling act by its southern neighbor. This fact proved that the trends towards a cooling of political relations between the two nations has moved to another qualitative level. Perhaps President Sargsyan took this prospect into account when he saw fit to declare during the same Yerevan speech that by next year Armenia might possibly be importing as much gas from Iran that it receives today from Russia via Georgia (about 2.5-3 billion cubic meters). Thus, Armenia showed that it is no longer frightened by Tbilisi's threats of blackmail to raise the transit tariffs on gas coming via Georgia. Of course the Armenian-Iranian gas pipeline is an important factor in terms of energy independence and, in terms of affording Yerevan potential for maneuvering, the near completion of its construction couldn't have been more timely. However, when Serzh Sargsyan was making that declartion French President Nicolas Sarkozy had yet to sound his warning regarding the very real possibility of an Israeli pre-emptive strike against Iran in the near future.How realistic is such a development? The copllapse of Georgia's operation in South Ossetia and the unexpected severe reaction of Russia neutralized the plans of Washington to remove Russia from the lands south of the Caucasus and to turn Georgia into a springboard against Iran. The problem is that for the United States the two other countries in the South Caucasus were inconveniences in terms of executing this plan from the beginning. In the case of Armenia, due to the fact that it has a military alliance with the Russian Federation, that it is a member of CSTO, that its exit point through Iran is of vital significance and that Yerevan would never turn its territory into an assault base against Iran. As regards Azerbaijan, there is the security issue of the some 13 million Azeris living in Iran. Thus, Georgia was left as an option and Washington was disappointed as a result. Regarding Turkey, by proposing the formation of the Caucasus Security and Stability Platform and by seemingly coming to an agreement with Russia in principle on the matter, it has openly shown that it is attempting to free itself from United States influence and to assume the role of an independent and creative regional player. In addition, Turkey has already performed the role assigned to it by the U.S. in the Iraq War and by directly participating in a new assault in Iran it would ultimately risk harming its relations with the Muslim world. Thus, after losing the Caucasus as a front from which to assault Iran, the Israeli factor remains the most suitable for the U.S., which faces a host of serious internal economic problems.

We must also take into account the fact that the U.S. is also undergoing a crisis on various levels in terms of its foreign policies. In particular, it has not succeeded in completing its Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan nor in bringing a modicum of stability to Iraq. On the other hand, Washington's last-minute decision to support Georgia in its conflict with South Ossetia is losing public support back home due to the dissemination of facts reagrding Georgia's occupation of South Ossetia that entirely contradict official reports.. In the wake of the upcoming November presidential elections, both the authority of the Bush Administratuin and the Republicans in general is being shaken. With the aim to restore that authority it is vital to start a new campaign against the international Empire of Evil, conceived of in the very same United States, and of course which Iraq is a part. And Israel remains the most suitable candidate to pull the chestnuts out of the fire. If Israel actually goes down this road of adventurism the Armenian vision of obtaining a degree of energy independence via Iranian gas can disappear like a mirage.

What price is Armenia to pay?

Thus, no matter what, Armenia cannot turn its gaze from Georgia without trepidation. Thus the delay with which Armenian Foreign Minister Edvard Nalbandian left for Tbilisi in an attempt to clarify the reasons and peculiarities of Armenia's position and to regain a minimum level of the lost confidence. In this matter, as strange as it may seem, the decision not to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia can possibly become an important playing card in Nalbandyan's hand. And that is not such a low price that Yerevan proposes. The problem is that the non-recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia places Yerevan within a set of severe restrictions and restricts the possibility of executin diplomatic "curtsies" in the negotiations process. By not recognizing the independence of these territories Armenia involuntarily comes across as a defender of territorial integrity or at least as giving priority to that principle.

At first glance it appears that Russia, as one of the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group in the Karabakh conflict negotiations process and by granting independence to those two "countries" based on the principle of self-determionation, would have given Yerevan carte-blanche, to demand the same position from its military ally regarding Karabakh. In reality, however, Moscow has no such desire. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov made it quite clear that there are no commonalities amongst Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Karabakh, given that, as opposed to the first two, none of those in the Karabakh negotisations started military operations. In other words, it turns out that for Russia the right of nations to self-determination only takes precedence when military operations are involved. This is much more than an ambiguous, unprinciped approach despite it not being unexpected at all. It would really be naive to think that Russia would have recognized or defended the right of the people of Karabakh to self-determination and by doing so indirectly opening a second front in the Caucasus against Azerbaijan. Such a move would have the potential risk of throwing Azerbaijan into the lap of NATO, as was the case with Kiev and Tbilisi. If this were to happen Russia could finally end up losing the entire Caucasus. Put another way, for Russia, the recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia was not an expression of its principled position regarding conflict resolution but simply rather an attempt to defend its current interests and concerns. If the opposite were true it would have had to recognize the independence of Kosovo immediately after recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. However, this didn't happen and will not likely happen in the foreseeable future.

Three levels of potential initaitives

Thus, Moscow made it clear to Yerevan not to pin any hopes on it. What is there left for Armenia to do given this situation? Essentially, there is not much left but to take advantage of the regional upheaval and, by executing a politics of activist proposals, to attempt to defend its interests along three main directions.

1. To take advantage of the moment and, by giving the Georgian-Ossetian example, to develop the notion in world public opinion circles that the Karabakh conflict must not have a military resolution and as a calculating factor in a new geo-political situation to express a willingness with Azerbaijan and Karabakh to sign off on an agreement to resolve the conflict solely through a process of negotiations. This would place Azerbaijan in a very uncomfortable position and Armenia will come out ahead, whatever the decision of Azerbaijan. On the other hand, the Georgian move to attack South Ossetia, the Russian act to unilaterally recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and the infiltration of Russian forces into Georgia, as well as the Kosovo example, conspire to develop the notion that the most effective and long-term option to settle conflicts is the implementation of referendums under the auspicies of international organizations. Armenia must, even if it only singles out this detail from the negotiatins table and by focusing special attention on it, must defend the concept by using all its diplomatic and public relations resources. And Armenia must not fear that by doing so it will indirectly call into question the results of the independence referendum that took place on December 10, 1999 in Karabakh. Presently, this serves as the most important factor defending the legal basis on which the Armenian position is founded. However, in purely political terms, it doesn't possess any significance in the negotiations process since it isn't recognized by the United Nations or by any other international body. In this matter it is necessary to rid ourselves of stereotypes and to be more flexible. And for this it is difficult to imagine a more convenient time given that the Georgian-Ossetian conflict has made it clear to Azerbaijan that considering a military solution to Karabakh or expanding its military budget has no real long-term prospects. We can not afford not to take advantage of the confusion now reigning in Baku.

2. As luck would have it Armenia assumed the presidency of the CSTO against the backdrop of these dramatic developments. It is vital to take advantage of this possibility, in particular, to expand the political component of the porganization. By using its political weight in the CSTO, Moscow has been able to get the Presidents of the member states to agree to its policies in the Caucasus. Armenia can not only demand that the CSTO member states agree to a unified approach to all problems, without exception, but throughout the term of its presidency it can strive to create such mechanisms. Otherwise this organization can turn into merely a club that serves the interests of Moscow. It is vital to take advantage of the fact that Armenia is the only country in the Caucasus that more or less defends all of Russia's actions and at this stage Moscow doesn't wish to spoil relations with its Souith Caucasian "Outpost". In other words, to also demand from Moscow that it use its influence in the CSTO to define the rules of the game in order that, for example, none of the member states reserves to itself the right to implement actions that oppose the immediate interests or concerns of the others. We have been witness to such events a few times already.

3. We must categorically assist in formulating the Caucasus Security and Stability Platform initiative. Furthermore, we must offer prposals of our own on certain issues. It is clear that Turkey, by the creation of this system, seeks to share regional influence with Russia and to obtain a degree of hegemony. However, she will not be able to accomplish this without the creation of necessary infrastructure. Assisting the formation of the Platform in the capacity of an observer will grant Turkey the entire possibility to create that infrastructure. As a result Armenia, as a part of the system, will be transformed into merely a compliant, executing nation. It is vital to deprive Turkey of such a possibility by again relying on the Russian factor.

If Turkey and Russia are truly interested in creating a security and stability platform in the region then they cannot directly circumvent the interests and concerns of Armenia given that without Armenia such a platform is meaningless. First and foremost, they must take this into account for two important reasons for Russia. Firstly, all the other nations slated to participate in the Platform are either NATO members, i.e. Turkey, or either overtly or covertly seek to gain membership in the alliance. Thus, the importance of Armenia for Russia is doubled, since it is a member of CSTO, an opposing military-strategic bloc that seeks to maintain a certain balance with NATO. Armenia's inclusion in the Platform would raise a question of vital significance for Moscow. Secondly, if Armenia doesn't enter that system, Moscow loses one of the most convenient conduits directly linked to Iran. Thus, it wouldn't be at all surprising for both Armenia and Russia to demand, as a precondition for the creation of the Platform, that Iran also be allowed to participate, given that only with the inclusion of Iran will there be a true balance of regional powers.

In all cases, Armenia faces two principled issues that must serve as clear precondtions for Armenia's entry in the Platform and, in particular, they must serve as the prime motivating factors for making participation for Armenia not only conducive but necessary.

A) Armenia must unreservedly participate in all regional exisiting and planned for energy, communication and economic projects, both on an East-West and North-South axis. Only in this Platform context can one conceptualize any possibility of Turkish-Armenian-Azeri cooperation.

B) All exisiting conflicts in the Caucasus must be resolved solely through the negotiations process and diplomatic relations must exist between all nations. This last point doesn't mean that Armenia will start "kirvayutyun" (familial relations) with Azerbaijan or Turkey, especialy taking into account all exisiting conflicts and controversies. However the absence of diplomatic relations, in and of itself, almost reminds one of a war or pre-war situation. Without such relations any talk of regional security or stability is senseless.

At first glance, these demands/initiatives might perhaps appear to be maximalist and utopian in terms of being realized when we take into account the foreseeable opposition of Turkey and especially Azerbaijan. However, the definition andf pursuit of these objectives creates a wide field in which to adopt an activist diplomacy. One must consider that fishing in muddy waters in terms of defending national interests is sometimes justified. What remains is merely to try.

[Source: By Gevorg Darbinyan, Hetq, Arm, 22Sep08]

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The Question of South Ossetia
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