Thursday, 02 June 2016

Ad-hoc peace or ad-hoc war: micro-geopolitics of Central Asia and the Caucasus

Published in Analytical Articles

By Farkhod Tolipov

June 2nd, 2016, The CACI Analyst

A few weeks before the April 2-5 fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh between Azerbaijan and Armenia, a border crisis occurred between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan on March 18-26. Some observers connected these two events as links in the same chain. Indeed, both cases revolve around so-called frozen conflicts in the post-Soviet space; where one of the conflicting sides is a CSTO member and the other is not; and where speculations proliferate of a hidden Russian hand in both the instigation and mediation of the clashes. The two conflicts can be seen as a by-product of the same process – the continuing divergence of the former single Soviet space.


sc-caBACKGROUND: This year, all former Soviet republics celebrate the quarter-century anniversary of their independence after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Most of the newly independent states faced their independence with territorial or other disputes with neighboring states or with internal social and political defects. Several of these disputes have periodically seen renewed escalation throughout these 25 years. One of the most essential conflicts – between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh – has remained largely frozen since 1994, remaining in a status-quo of “no war, no peace.”

Only weeks before the most recent crisis in the Caucasus, a border crisis occurred between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, as Uzbekistan deployed troops to the Chalasart border area on March 18. This and many similar existing border disputes between Central Asian states sporadically escalate into standoffs, often rather unintentionally. Yet no Central Asian government has stated the intention to take control of the disputed lands by force.

In the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, both sides appeal to history and historical documents, attempting to validate their assertions about Karabakh. In Central Asia, the sides usually refrain from waving historical documents, probably because the documents rarely confirm the validity of territorial claims but, on the contrary, common rights to certain lands, installations and infrastructure in the border areas.

In the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict, mutual antagonism originates from so-far unaccomplished sovereignty; whereas in Central Asia tension originates from unaccomplished regional integration. The former case is marked by inter-ethnic division, where two ethnically different peoples cannot find the formula for separation by completing their sovereignty. The latter has a dimension of resource distribution, but also lacks a formula for reunifying peoples of the same ethnic origin by completing regional integration.

Representatives of Azerbaijan frequently argue that their country is tired of the “no war, no peace” situation and is eager to return Nagorno-Karabakh once and forever, even at the expense of an interstate war. In Central Asia, neither Uzbekistan nor Kyrgyzstan demonstrate such eagerness. Therefore, the situation in the Caucasus appears closer to war than peace; and in Central Asia closer to peace than war. But these frozen conflicts have at least one common dimension: geopolitics and great power influence.

IMPLICATIONS: When these and similar events occur in the Caucasus and Central Asia, rumors and speculations about Moscow’s hidden hand unavoidably come to the fore. In any case, a degree of Russian influence – implicit or explicit – in the pre- or post-conflict period cannot be denied, because these events take place in Russia’s immediate neighborhood. For Moscow, such influence is a matter of great power geopolitics. Yet for the countries directly engaged in these conflicts it is a matter of micro-geopolitics – a consequence of their unaccomplished sovereignty. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the overall geopolitical transformation of the post-Soviet space remains incomplete.

Irrespective of Moscow’s direct role in the recent escalation in the Caucasus, two evident actions on Russia’s part attract attention – the arms sales to Azerbaijan and the new articulation of Azerbaijan’s role as a key country in the North-South corridor from Saint-Petersburg through Azerbaijan and Iran to the Indian port in Mumbai. Russian officials justified the arms sales by referring to business interests, whereas the sales could have been suspended if the ceasefire was really meant to last. Regarding the articulation of a strategic partnership between Moscow and Baku, this puts into question Moscow’s relationship with Yerevan within the CSTO and EEU. This is a perilous time to manipulate with geopolitical projects in the region if, again, peace enforcement is really intended.

In Central Asia, irrespective of Moscow’s direct role in the recent border incident between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, Kyrgyzstan’s hope for CSTO protection against Uzbekistan stands in contrast to Uzbekistan’s and Russia’s bilateral strategic partnership and alliance relationship established in 2004 and 2005 by two respective treaties. Moreover, erstwhile attempts by Moscow to mediate tensions and conflicts in the Central Asian region have proven ineffective; and Tashkent’s official position, sealed in its foreign policy doctrine, is that there should be no mediation by any great power in resolving regional problems.

Although the result was escalation in the Caucasus and de-escalation in Central Asia, both peace and war in these cases are essentially ad-hoc outcomes. Neither temporary peace sporadically interrupted by escalating hostilities, nor low-intensity conflict interrupted by a mediated ceasefire, nor a war-like situation with an uncertain perspective, can eliminate the existential forces generating inter-state enmity and confrontation. Furthermore, retreat from the current “principled” official positions and self-confident references to the controversial historical past regarding the substance of conflict would perhaps mean losing face for those spearheading the process, along with possible public indignation.

In these circumstances, post-Soviet conflicts related to the possession of certain territory all contain an embedded micro-geopolitical dimension. The sides engaged in territorial disputes think of the lands in question not just as a matter of national pride and historical justice but also as means for power projection and geopolitical enterprise. From this perspective, any form of external interference by great or regional powers under the banner of peacemaking will add more geopolitics and perpetuate the conflict potential.

A number of international attempts, including by the OSCE Minsk Group, have so far been unable to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis. But one important mechanism remains unfulfilled – direct and regular bilateral talks institutionalized at the highest official level between Azerbaijan and Armenia, without great power mediation. It would be expedient to adopt on this level something along the lines of a “Pact on Peace and the Status of Nagorno-Karabakh.” Central Asians already have a similar pact in the “Treaty on Eternal Friendship” signed in 1997, which not only fixed the status-quo in the region but also confirmed that these states have no territorial claims on each other and will resolve any problems by means of mutual consultations as brother countries.

CONCLUSIONS: The antagonism between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh and border disputes between Central Asian countries are in need of similar innovative approaches to conflict resolution. Indeed, the conflicts implicate each other because they are located in the formerly common Soviet area and are by-products of that area’s disintegration. Two main assertions can be made in this regard.

First, the principle of “territorial integrity versus national self-determination” should perhaps be revised, at least in specific cases where two states claim a certain territory as exclusively their ancestral lands or in border disputes between two states engaged in regional integration, with equal rights to certain lands. If territorial integrity and national self-determination are seen as divergent absolutes, they will be of little help in finding solutions acceptable to both conflicting sides.

Second, peaceful coexistence between Azerbaijanis and Armenians in the Caucasus and Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in Central Asia was not only possible during the Soviet period; it was a firmly established fact because it concerned coexistence between peoples rather than polities. The previous atmosphere of coexistence among a single Soviet people is now poisoned by the revival of archaic nationalism, which obscures forces of peace and induces forces of war.

These two assertions, however, bring us back to the 1920s when the Soviet power conducted national delimitation in Central Asia and the Caucasus in an adventurous and arbitrary fashion, leaving the seeds of potential resentment among local elites and populations. Therefore, at the very foundation of current approaches to the conflicts concerned, two opposite principles can be applied: to renounce Soviet-made borders or to confirm those borders. The Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict escalates on the principle of renouncing Soviet-made borders; whereas the Central Asian border issue usually de-escalates due to the official confirmation of Soviet-made administrative borders as inter-state borders. In both cases, however, micro-geopolitics drops new seeds of ad-hoc disturbances in the future.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Farkhod Tolipov holds a PhD in Political Science and is Director of the Education and Research Institution “Bilim Karvoni” in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. 

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The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.


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