Blood, Politics, and NATO Meet in Georgia

 

Go with Russia or go with NATO? The upcoming Cooperative Longbow 09–Cooperative Lancer 09 military-training exercises in Georgia, organized by NATO’s Partnership for Peace Programme, are a loyalty call for Russia’s 14 fellow republics within the CIS. All are Programme members and have the option of participating. One by one, they’ve had to decide whether to take that option, or to heed the demands by Russia—a Programme member itself—that they bow out.

 

By now, only three—Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Ukraine—are still signed on to defy Moscow and participate. Moldova pulled out last Wednesday. Kazakhstan called it quits the week before. Latvia and Estonia each individually said “thanks, but no thanks.” 

 

It’s interesting that Armenia and Azerbaijan, who continuously quarrel over ownership of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, can find an area of common cooperation in Georgia. They should, given that:

1) Georgia is the next-door neighbor of both (see the map below) and

2) Georgia’s population is 5.7% Armenian and 6.5% Azeri.

 

Those are two good reasons to believe that any serious trouble in Georgia will sooner or later spill over into Armenia and Azerbaijan.

To Armenians and Azerbaijanis, the turmoil in Georgia is too close for comfort.

To Armenians and Azerbaijanis, the turmoil in Georgia is too close for comfort.

 

Georgia has been the scene of much serious trouble in the last year, i.e., violence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia on top of growing civil dissent throughout Georgia proper against the Saakashvili regime. How messy is the whole country going to get? Armenia and Azerbaijan both have vested interests in not finding out. They would be better off not watching passively as Georgian civil order implodes. They also have an interest in not affording Russia a pretext to occupy Georgia proper, which Russia might see fit to do if the instability in Georgia continues. Either scenario would, if nothing else, mean streams of refugees pouring into Armenia’s and Georgia’s territories. Worse, it might mean war-related destruction of railways, pipelines, and other infrastructure that the two Caucasian republics’ fledgling economies cannot afford.

 

Things such as these came to pass in the bad old days of the early 1990s, when early armed uprisings by Abkhazian separatists against their then-occupier Georgia led to violent campaigns by Georgians to drive Abkhazia’s ethnic Armenians out. The fighting also led to collateral damage to Georgia’s Black Sea railroad (a lifeline from Russia to Armenia) and the repeated blowing-up of a natural-gas pipeline running through Georgia to Armenia.

 

Last year’s conflict in Georgia caused additional damage to rail transit into Armenia. Quote the CIA World Factbook: “The disruption of rail transit into Armenia during the Georgia-Russia conflict in August 2008 highlighted how Armenia’s supply chains for key goods – such as gasoline – were vulnerable to instances of regional instability.

 

Armenian leaders today have the foresight not to rely on Georgian or Russian troops to keep the peace and prevent things from getting blown up. They’re opting instead to take matters into their own hands by committing their own Armenian troops into Georgian territory and proactively keeping the (short-term, at least) peace.

 

Azerbaijan’s leadership is looking ahead, too, to the Kars-Akhalkalaki-Tbilisi-Baku rail project, a rail line that will transit people and goods from Azerbaijan to Turkey and back via a route through Georgia. The project has had a hard time getting off the ground due to not enough funding for the line’s Georgia segments. Baku has every good reason to expedite things, and that means helping to keep Georgia stable.

 

Belarus, Kazakhstan, Moldova, and the other republics that bailed from the NATO exercise all have the luxury of not having to worry about these things. All are far enough away from Georgia to not be fearful of hordes of refugees, exploding railways, or the like.

 

They also have the added element of closer ethnic ties to Russia. Belarus is 11.4% Russian; Kazakhstan is a whopping 30% Russian; 12.5% of the Kyrgyz Republic’s population is Russian; a smaller, but still considerable, 5.8% of the people of Moldova are ethnically Russian. So what concerns the Russian Federation will concern many of their own voting citizens. And so when Russian officials evince great worry that Saakashvilli might interpret NATO’s operation as validation and launch new attacks on Russia (and they have), or that nations who participate in the training exercises will, in so doing, weaken their own ties with Russia (and they likewise have) large numbers of voting citizens in these other CIS republics will listen and take heart. Their own leaders will inevitably listen and take heart, in turn.

 

Ethnic ties are a non-factor in Armenia and Azerbaijan. Their populations are, respectively, only 0.5% and 1.8% Russian. There are no ties that bind among their voters.

 

What about Ukraine? Where would Ukraine’s people stand? They, actually, are a bit more complicated. A substantial 17.3% of Ukrainians are Russian. But given annual Russia-Ukraine face-offs over gas exports—and last winter’s momentary freeze—there is probably little sense of fraternity with Russia in Ukrainian officialdom. Blood runs thicker than water, for sure, but so does the fuel needed to heat one’s home in northern Eurasia’s frigid winter season.

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2 Responses to “Blood, Politics, and NATO Meet in Georgia”

  1. Official Russia | Russia Blog Roundup - 13 May Says:

    […] Rick Docksai wonders whether any conflict in Georgia will spill over into Armenia and Azerbaijan. […]

  2. Sublime Oblivion Says:

    Latvia and Estonia pulled out because, quite simply, they have no spare cash to participate. Apparently they’ve largely suspended even the usual domestic military exercises.

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