How do you solve the question of the South Caucasus?

The South Caucasus is one of the most problematic, fragmented conflict regions. How do mediators work there? How do you try, if not to resolve the conflicts, then at least to transform them?

Last month our senior adviser for economy and conflict in the Eurasia Programme, Natalia Mirimanova, was interviewed by Katerina Prokofieva. Here are the highlights. The complete interview in Russian can be found on Ekho Kavkaza.

Which of the conflicts do you think is the most difficult and volatile?

Difficult and volatile are not one and the same. They are all complex. We are talking about three conflicts which have lasted for decades and span hundreds of years of history. The three difficult conflicts are:

  • Georgia-Abkhazia
  • Georgia-Ossetia
  • [Nagorny] Karabakh-Armenia-Azerbaijan

They are complex because they are protracted conflicts, which cannot be solved in simple ways, like exchange or reparation. These conflicts touch upon issues existential to each conflict party: identity, justice, and historical truth. Therefore, they are difficult and unresolvable. There needs to be a systematic transformation of policies on all sides to achieve peace in these conflicts. As we have seen, compromise is impossible – therefore, only this [transformation] can help to resolve these conflicts. As a professional community, we, including me, are trying to find new options for a resolution in “3D” rather than “2D”, i.e. widening the scope to find new angles. So, they are all complex.

The Karabakh conflict is currently volatile because of the deterioration of the situation in April 2016. While this was not the first, or indeed the only, deterioration since the ceasefire was signed in 1994, and sniper fire across the line of contact is a fairly regular occurrence, last April was a clear marker of escalation. The types of weapons employed were different to before and both sides showed readiness for serious fighting, regardless of who made the most ground during the [April] clashes. It is clear that both sides are prepared and have an entire arsenal to engage in serious, armed confrontation. This is why the [Nagorny] Karabakh conflict is now considered the most volatile. And as I already said, there is a long lasing historical background [against which this is unfolding] – the Armenia-Turkey conflict. In itself, this conflict is not prone to escalation. However, it constitutes a very important component in the [Nagorny] Karabakh conflict, in the first place, and in the geopolitical situation of the whole region.

The Balkans have traditionally been called Europe’s tinderbox. With the collapse of the USSR, war restarted in Yugoslavia, but now peace has been achieved there. What was done in the Balkans, that has not been done in the South Caucasus?

Why was peace reached in the Balkan but not in the Caucasus? The answer is simple: the Balkans were a priority, they are in Europe. The Russian factor was not as strong in the Balkans as it is in the Caucasus, and there have not been big disagreements between external powers.

By “Russian factor”, I mean Russia’s position on compromise and agreement between sides. Russia has not played the role of an honest broker in the conflicts of the South Caucasus, because it increasingly considers the region its own territory or, as they say, within its zone of influence. Widespread war is not in Russia’s interest. The only thing that Russia achieved during Yeltsin’s tenure was the ceasefire agreements in both the [Nagorny] Karabakh and Georgian-Abkhaz conflicts. Today, however, Russia is a stumbling block on the way to establishing any kind of lasting peace, because any kind of bilateral agreement between the primary participants of these existential conflicts will reduce the possibility of controlling the region. You could say that Europe needed peace in the Balkans at any cost; however, for Russia, peace in the Caucasus is not yet necessary, certainly not at any cost.

It must also be said that none of the conflict sides have attempted to bring their positions closer together.

How do conflict-resolution experts work? What successes have there been and is there hope to channel things positively?

There are formats, like the one I am implementing with International Alert. This examines the possibility of regulating economic relations between Georgian and Abkhaz economic actors. This has been a long process, which started with researching and looking at whether it made economic sense to bring existing illicit economic relationships into legal channels, as an element of building trust and as a way of changing the situation. Whether there will be a major economic effect from this or not is not so important to us. It is far more important that the very framework of relations between sides would be changing. We hope that they will enter into some kind of normative relations that do not imply recognition or a change of status of either side at this stage, but that allow us to find opportunities for civilised cooperation at a greater scale than currently exist. 

These kinds of process are in-between the two levels of interventions. They are not very public; however, they are not really a secret and work towards what we call the transformation of conflict. By this we do not mean its resolution, but the transformation of the context in which the conflict exists.

Find out more about our work regulating economic relations across the Georgian–Abkhaz conflict divide.