September 24, 2015

South Caucasian Twists in Russia's Geopolitical Plans

According to the latest estimates of the US private intelligence and analysis company Stratfor, the relative calm in the Donbas, the Kremlin's attempts to create in Syria a new pocket-sized state of the DPR/LPR pseudo-republics' type (and like similar puppet quasi-entities of South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Trans-Dniester) and to resume the conflict in the Caucasus, are components of Moscow's large-scale geopolitical strategy. Stratfor's analysts consider Russia's Ukrainian-Syrian-Caucasian “strategy” to establish puppet militant enclaves/bridgeheads not cheap, but totally rational from the geopolitical point of view in the situation of Russia's internal weakening and strengthening of the positions of the USA/West on its borders. That is why American experts predict a possible escalation of the situation in the Caucasus, in particular because of the secret agreement allegedly signed between Moscow and Baku on changing the status quo in Nagorny Karabakh and bringing in the nearest future of Russian “peacekeepers” into the territory of the region disputed by Azerbaijan and Armenia.

 

How do “Borysfen Intel”'s analysts and experts estimate the real current situation in the South Caucasus?

 

South CaucasusThe ruling elites of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia are forced to balance between external security (military and terrorist) and economic threats and the growing potential of internal instability. First of all we mean here the following negative factors:

— downward price movements at the majority of commodity-raw material markets (especially oil ones), aggravation of economic problems in Russia and the August devaluation of the currencies of key member countries of the Eurasian Economic Union;

— the spread of the crisis in China's economy, which is of paramount importance for Azerbaijan and Georgia, as the recipients of the Chinese initiative “Silk Road Economic Belt”;

— increase in terrorist activity in the North Caucasus and in Turkey;

— the growing influence of the Iranian factor in Armenia, which creates a new counterweight to the Azerbaijani-Turkish tandem;

— Russia's implementation of plans to strengthen its own strategic defense system in the Black Sea and Caspian Sea, as well as the use of the factor of military-technical cooperation with Armenia, Azerbaijan and unrecognized republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as a means of political pressure on the official Tbilisi, Baku and Yerevan to facilitate realization of the Kremlin's interests in the South Caucasus.

 

The ruling elites of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia are forced to balance between external threats and the growing potential of internal instability

Under such conditions, to the leaderships of the countries in the region has actualized the issue of preventing destabilization of the internal political situation due to the external players' having activated the following latent triggers: violation of human rights and freedoms (Azerbaijan), deterioration of the quality of life of citizens and their commitment to long-term protest actions (Armenia), or consolidation of the majority of society around the opposition leaders (Georgia). In contrast to these challenges, the ruling elites are using the factor of frozen conflicts to consolidate the society around the idea of patriotism and to counteract domestic “destructive” processes.

 

In terms of a possible escalation of the situation in the region and the Russian-Ukrainian confrontation, the so-called “leaders” of separatist Georgian regions also have to demonstrate diplomatic “talents”. Thus, the controlled by the Russian Federation “leader of Abkhazia” R. Khajimba adheres restrained policy in relation to the development of contacts with the “DPR/LPR”, trying not to force the convergence with their “leaders” and to avoid official statements on the subject. At the same time, “the leader of South Ossetia” L. Tibilov is trying to use the “DPR/LPR” problems to persuade the Kremlin to his devotion and readiness to integrate into the Russian Federation, even on conditions unfavorable for the republic.

Also, the leaders of separatist regions more and more often use the so-called “Moscow Agreements” on the alliance and integration with Sukhumi and Tskhinvali, that is, the authorities of separatist regions threaten to use military means as an argument in discussions on technical issues (a direct result of Sukhumi and Tskhinvali's conclusion of relevant treaties). A recent example of such tactics have become the negotiations on cooperation regarding the Inguri hydroelectric power station, during which the Abkhazians referred to the possibility of using MLRS “Grad” to support their claims.

At the same time, the official Tbilisi believes that the events in Ukraine have become a turning point for Tskhinvali and especially for Sukhumi. In particular, the authorities of separatist regions are aware that the money promised by Russia for various infrastructure projects, will not be given to Abkhazia and South Ossetia in volumes needed to maintain their livelihoods. This, according to experts, is the main reason for Abkhazians' more balanced perception of Tbilisi's proposals of a dialogue.

 

Nagorno-KarabakhIn the zone of the Nagorny Karabakh conflict there continues stagnation of the negotiation process on the settlement of fundamental differences in Baku and Yerevan's positions on the conditions of its resolving (the sides' declaring of their readiness to discuss the “Madrid Principles” against the background of absolute unwillingness to go to mutual concessions because of their rejection by the public of both the countries) and the key players' being not interested at this stage in changing the status quo.

According to analysts of the “Borysfen Intel”, Armenia will continue to declare the so-called “Eurasian choice”, stressing the support of its steps by the Russian Federation, while Azerbaijan will continue the course of building up its military capacity and strengthening the mechanisms of diplomatic influence to resolve the conflict.

It is an undeniable fact that Russia is not interested in the negotiation process on Nagorny Karabakh settlement

Under these conditions, there remains the risk of resuming of the military conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, despite the external players' (first of all, the USA and France') seeking ways to unblock the negotiation process on resolving the conflict. The parties accuse each other of provocation of permanent armed clashes along the line of confrontation with the use of heavy weapons, the number of which has increased in recent years. At the same time, maintaining the status quo is a prerequisite for the continuation of the negotiation process between Armenia and Azerbaijan and the OSCE Minsk Group. Taking into consideration the United States and France's getting more active in the Nagorny Karabakh settlement, it is expected that the format of the OSCE Minsk Group will continue despite the sharp criticism of its activity by Azerbaijan and Turkey.

And of course, it is an undeniable fact that Russia is not interested in the negotiation process on Nagorny Karabakh settlement. “Borysfen Intel”'s experts believe that at this stage Moscow in resolving this conflict is guided solely by its own interests, the main of which is preservation of its one and only strategic ally (Armenia) in the region. To achieve this goal, the Kremlin will show loyalty to the obligations of the security of Armenia as a member country of the CSTO (which is the main reason for Yerevan's choosing the Eurasian integration course) and protect its investments in Armenia by all means available, taking into account the pressure on the official Yerevan by the influential Armenian diaspora in France and in the United States. The Kremlin will not stay off Armenia's preparations for another electoral cycle and the ongoing debates about the possibility of turning the country into a parliamentary-presidential republic.

 

The internal political situation in Georgia is determined, above all, by the continued confrontation between I. Garibashvili's government and President G. Margvelashvili, which will increase as the parliamentary elections (October 2016) come nearer. The conflict was initiated and supported by the oligarch, ex-Prime Minister Boris Ivanishvili, whose possible return into politics is being actively discussed. The latter says that one of the main reasons for his breaking the relationship with G. Margvelashvili is his defending the former President Mikhail Saakashvili and supporting his team.

The situation in the country is complicated by the growth of electoral ratings of pro-Russian political forces, including the party “Democratic Movement — United Georgia” (leader — N. Burjanadze). Russian media declare about strengthening of anti-American sentiments, allegedly recorded in the Georgian society, as well as about the absence of any formal response from the authorities to Burjanadze's visit to Moscow in early July, which is presented as evidence of certain changes in the population's attitudes towards the issue of normalization of relations with Russia.

At the same time information is being spread on the reduction of electoral support to political forces within the ruling parliamentary coalition “Georgian Dream” (out of the current composition of which allegedly only party “Georgian Dream — Democratic Georgia” has guaranteed chances to make it into the new Parliament of Georgia in 2016), and on the “Republican Party”'s increased representation in the government, as a way to shift onto “a junior member of the coalition” all the responsibility for possible significant worsening of the political and socio-economic situation in the country or in case of the ruling coalition's falling apart.

Besides, the official Tbilisi is concerned about the Russian Federation's attempts to promote and spread through the media in the Georgian society the idea about the unacceptability of the country's membership in NATO. According to international analysts and the “Borysfen Intel”'s experts, the activation of the Kremlin towards Georgia is caused by the lack of the official Tbilisi's reaction to the recent “transfer of the border” with South Ossetia at 1 km into the territory of Georgia (after which the area (1.7 km) of the Baku-Supsa oil pipeline has become controlled by separatists), and by the intensification of the process of Georgia's rapprochement with NATO (on August 27, during the NATO Secretary General J. Stoltenberg's visit to Georgia, a joint training center of the NATO-Georgia was opened in the country). Besides, the Russian FSB does not react to the intensified recruiting activity of radical Islamists in the region of the Pankisi Gorge (Eastern Georgia, part of the border with Dagestan) who arrange crossing of the Georgian-Turkish border by Georgian citizens who have expressed their desire to fight in Syria and Iraq on the side of the “Islamic State”.

 

In Azerbaijan, the authorities retain full control over the preparations for the parliamentary elections (November 1, 2015, 125 deputies for the Milli Majlis will be elected in single-member constituencies). With the elites' passivity, the opposition forces' waiting position, coordination of candidates for deputy from power and “independent” candidates with the Administration of the President of Azerbaijan, it is expected that the elections will be won by the much “rejuvenated” under Ilham Aliyev's instructions (no 70-year old deputies with the experience of more than 4 convocations in the row) ruling pro-presidential “Yeni Azerbaijan” party.

Taking into consideration the lack of appropriate conditions for free and democratic elections (formation of election commissions by the authorities, significant legal restrictions on holding any unauthorized protests /fine of $30 thousand US dollars/exit polls/ the CEC's permission is needed/, as well as actual ignoring of the requirements of Euro-institutions for liberalization of the electoral legislation and the release of political prisoners) we may forecast a low level of presence of international observers (from Euro-institutions and western countries) before and during the elections.

Baku is setting the goal to benefit from the ongoing confrontation between Russia and the West

Moreover, in response to the European Parliament's Resolution of 10 September 2015, (which condemns repressions against the civil society in the country, demands to release from prison several Azerbaijani human rights defenders and journalists and expresses the need for imposing sanctions against some Azerbaijani officials, including judges), the Parliament of Azerbaijan has started the procedure for the suspension of membership in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Eastern Partnership “Euronest” and in the Inter-Parliamentary Committee for Cooperation with the EU. The Milli Majlis has also recommended the Government to reconsider the question of participation in the EU's “Eastern Partnership” program. Azerbaijan has suspended negotiations with the European Union about working on a Strategic Partnership Agreement, having cancelled the scheduled for 14-15 September the European Commission's delegation's visit to Baku.

At the same time Baku pursues a foreign policy of balancing between the interests of the world (the USA, EU, Russia) and regional (Turkey, Iran) players, setting the goal to benefit from the ongoing confrontation between Russia and the West, to play on the existing contradictions between Turkey and Iran, to resolve the Nagorny Karabakh conflict in Baku's own favor, and to neutralize external threats to the long-term stability of the ruling regime.

At the international level, the Azerbaijani authorities successfully use the relevant UN Security Council's Resolutions on the need to release Azerbaijani territories occupied by Armenia, keep criticizing the work of the OSCE Minsk Group and its co-heads — representatives of the United States, France and Russia. Besides, they keep provoking armed incidents on the contact line to demonstrate to the population of the country and foreign partners the “military power” as well as readiness to resolve the Nagorny Karabakh conflict through the use of force.

The above-mentioned forms the EU and USA's cool attitude to the Azerbaijani political elite activates Moscow's activity to establish closer cooperation with the leadership of Azerbaijan and provokes permanent misunderstandings in the Azerbaijani-Turkish relations, despite the existence of a strategic partnership between the two countries. On the other hand, the above-mentioned Baku's partners are interested in further cooperation with Azerbaijan, taking into consideration its key role in the transportation of energy carriers, and ensuring regional security. At the same time, the above-mentioned players (except Turkey) clearly demonstrate their unwillingness to support Baku in the Nagorny Karabakh settlement.

 

Despite the sufficient activity of the parliamentary and non-parliamentary opposition, the Armenian President's environment, promoting a Constitutional reform (turning from a presidential-parliamentary to parliamentary-presidential form of governance) is creating conditions for S. Sargsyan's remaining in power after the electoral cycle of 2017-2018.

After the attenuation of protests (”Tariff Maydan”) and “comparing notes” with V. Putin in Novo-Ogaryovo (September 7, 2015) the President of Armenia does not show any intentions to change the existing clan-oligarchic system of governance and focuses his efforts on implementation of the Constitutional reform, aimed at retaining his authoritative influence in the role of the leader of the ruling Parliamentary party or Speaker of the Parliament with extended powers.

The Armenian government and the state media have tried to present (especially in the eyes of the Russian Federation) the protests in Yerevan as anti-Russian and inspired by pro-Western forces

Among the “internal” plans of the ruling elite of the country, experts also highlight the intention to create new pseudo-opposition political forces and movements, which should dampen the mood of protest in the society. It is believed that such a political project will be the movement “Rise, Armenia”, which is trying to secure for itself the role of the “successor” of the latest acts of civil disobedience.

At the same time, despite the part of the Armenian political elite's opposing such transformations and little support to them from the majority of the population, S. Sargsyan relies on Moscow's support to his positions, and to the Constitutional reform. Under these circumstances, the Head of the state is actively trying to convince the Kremlin that he is the main guarantor of the country's continuing policy of Eurasian integration, ensuring Russian interests in Armenia. In this context, the Armenian government and the state media have tried to present (especially in the eyes of the Russian Federation) the protests in Yerevan as anti-Russian and inspired by pro-Western forces.

The lack of serious economic potential and natural resources, especially energy ones, limits the interest of influential external players (the USA and EU) to Armenia. The above said makes Yerevan move in the wake of Russia's foreign policy, as the sole guarantor of the security of the country. In this context, Yerevan is becoming more and more dependent on political, security, and economic guarantees from Russia and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (in 2015-2016 Armenia will preside in the Organization). Besides, S. Sargsyan and his environment are aware of a real increase in the gap between the military capabilities of the national Armed Forces of Azerbaijan and Armenia because of the Armenian Army's lagging behind both, technologically and in terms of maintaining the necessary level of mobilization resource.

 

So, the South Caucasian intricacies occupy a special place in the Kremlin's geopolitical plans, and taking into consideration Moscow's having sufficient tools to influence and control the situation in the South Caucasus and the limited resources of the Russian Federation for the escalation of the conflict in the region, it is hard to agree with the forecasts of Stratfor's analysts' assessing the Kremlin's plans in this direction.

At the same time, V. Putin will keep building up his military potential in the Ukrainian and Syrian directions as a basis for the implementation of his strategic plans for deterring the United States, weakening the European Union and thus “reconciliation” with the West.