Europe risks being outmanoeuvred in the restive Caucasus

Protesters in the capital of Armenia, Erevan.
Protesters in the capital of Armenia, Erevan.

The balance of power on Europe's eastern borders is shifting. Georgian historian Beka Kobakhidze speaks from Tbilisi about rivalry and emerging alliances in the region, an impotent EU and disappointed pro-democracy activists. Interview by Elisa Rheinheimer-Chabbi

الكاتبة ، الكاتب: Elisa Rheinheimer-Chabbi

The war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh may be over, but the region is still a long way from peace. Russia and Turkey are involved, Iran also has interests in the region, but the EU is nowhere to be seen. Has the European Union failed in its bid to support democratic development amongst its neighbours?

Beka Kobakhidze: In economic terms, the European Union's presence is indeed felt in the Caucasus. The EU's Eastern Partnership has brought quite a few advantages for Ukraine and Georgia – visa liberalisation, to name but one. But when it comes to political involvement and conflict resolution, the EU lacks both the resources and the political will. It could do so much more!

Instead, Russia is in the starting blocks, rearing to go.

Kobakhidze: Exactly. Those Armenians who supported Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and his pro-Western course of the past two years are now disillusioned with the EU. The current situation in the Caucasus is dangerous. The relationship between Russia and Turkey is, on the one hand, marked by rivalry. On the other, they have together formed an alliance against Europe, against the West.

We've been here before: in 1920/21 Lenin and Atatürk were clear geopolitical rivals. But when Europe introduced a blockade against the Soviet Union, the two closed ranks in order to ensure their survival. In the Treaty of Moscow and the Treaty of Kars, both of which were signed in 1921, the Soviet Union and Turkey carved up the Caucasus and divided it among themselves. The situation today is similar. In Syria and Libya – and now in the Caucasus too – Putin and Erdogan are forming temporary alliances.

Arrest of opposition leader Nika Melia at the end of February 2021 (photo: Irakli Gedenize/REUTERS)
Festnahme in Tbilissi. Ende Februar wurde der georgische Oppositionsführer Nika Melia verhaftet. Daraufhin kam es in der Hauptstadt Georgiens zu Massenprotesten. Solche Inhaftierungen seien keine Einzelfälle, sagt der Historiker Beka Kobakhidze. „Die georgische Regierung verhaftet immer wieder politische Gegner. Die Unabhängigkeit der Gerichte, der Staatsanwaltschaft und anderer Strafverfolgungsbehörden wird von Beobachtern in Frage gestellt.“

Are you saying that the region around the Black Sea is becoming a geopolitical hotspot?

Kobakhidze: It has been for a long time. What is new is that Turkish President Erdogan and the Azerbaijani ruler Ilham Aliyev have launched an initiative to set up a regional forum. The plan is that this forum will involve not only Turkey and Azerbaijan, but also Russia, Iran, Armenia and Georgia.

Iran's response has been positive because it has a sizeable Azeri minority within its own borders and wants to avoid further unrest. And because Iran is being sanctioned and blocked by the West, it is very keen to export Iranian gas to Russia. Europe has demonstratively been excluded from this regional forum.

After the recent war, many Armenians feel they have been abandoned. What can the EU do to restore its credibility in the Caucasus?

Kobakhidze: I'm not sure that the EU is even interested in increasing its influence in the region. Its objective seems to be to prevent Russia from further expanding its sphere of influence. It is accepting the status quo, including the annexation of the Crimea, and hopes that that will keep the peace. The EU is neither willing to nor capable of countering Russian aggression.What impact will the recent war over Nagorno-Karabakh have on Armenia’s young democracy?

Kobakhidze: From a Russian perspective, these tender shoots of democracy were one of the main reasons for this war. It was not just about geopolitics; it was also about values and models for society. Armenia has always been loyal to Russia, for the simple reason that in terms of security, it relies on the Kremlin. In 2018, there was a series of protests that became known as the Velvet Revolution: across Armenia, people took to the streets and demanded a change of government.

And they achieved their goal, without a drop of blood being spilled. The leader of these street protests, Nikol Pashinyan, then became the country's new prime minister. As far as Russia was concerned, the simple fact that he came to power in the wake of a revolution was a threat. What's more, he was also turning towards the West and distancing himself from Russia.

But Russia didn't start the war over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Kobakhidze: It didn't have to; its restraint at the start of the conflict was enough. The message to the Armenians and to all pro-democracy activists in the region was clear: "If you push for a democratic and liberal society, it will all end in disaster."

Georgian historian Beka Kobakhidze (photo: National Geographic Georgia & Cloud Studio)
Alarmierendes Signal für die georgische Demokratie: Die westliche Präsenz im Südkaukasus nimmt ab, sagt der georgische Historiker Beka Kobakhidze. Dabei sei die Einmischung der EU für weitere Schritte in Richtung Demokratie wichtig. „Wenn die georgische Gesellschaft und die internationale Gemeinschaft Schritte in Richtung Autoritarismus dulden, dann würde die georgische Regierung vermutlich diesen Weg gehen. Aber die breite Öffentlichkeit reagiert mit Protesten auf derartige Versuche.“ Die Missachtung der demokratischen Prinzipien dürfe im Westen nicht unbemerkt bleiben, und die georgische Öffentlichkeit „sollte nie das Gefühl haben, von Europa im Stich gelassen zu werden.“

Turkey also played an important role in this war, assuming the role of Azerbaijan's protector.

Kobakhidze: Yes, but it was above all Putin and the Azerbaijani President Aliyev who benefited from the war. In terms of domestic politics, the latter is now even more firmly in the saddle. Russia is in the privileged position of having both sides under control: the Armenians are in a tight spot. Azerbaijani troops have captured Shusha in Nagorno-Karabakh. The city is situated about 10 kilometres from Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is still controlled by Armenians.

Should the Armenian leadership show itself disloyal to Russia again, the Kremlin will allow the Azerbaijani troops to march into Stepanakert and then on into other Armenian-controlled areas. And if, on the other side, the democratic forces in Azerbaijan should ever become too strong, Putin could encourage the Armenians to take back some territories from Azerbaijan with Russian support.

The atmosphere in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, is tense. The number of protests is rising. On 13 March, some of the demonstrators called for Pashinyan's resignation. He has agreed to hold elections. Are the democratic reforms he introduced under threat if his party loses the election?

Kobakhidze: First off, it is a good sign for democracy that the public is reacting and expressing its dissatisfaction with or support for Pashinyan. It's understandable that some Armenians are calling on the government that lost the war to resign. Early elections could be a solution. The important thing is that everything is done in accordance with the constitution. The elections will be a kind of personal referendum on Pashinyan. Even if he were to win the election – and that would border on a miracle – he will not be the same as he was two years ago.


When and where would you have liked to have seen greater engagement from the EU?

Kobakhidze: Armenia's prime minister Pashinyan is being portrayed as a loser by his own people because he lost the war. In the hope of scoring a few brownie points, he drew up a 15-point reconstruction plan. How the plan would be financed is not yet clear. If the West is interested in Pashinyan staying in power, thereby keeping a liberal, democratic leadership in place in Armenia, Europe should consider subsidising this social pact.

Thus far, however, no one has expressed support for him or demonstrated any solidarity with him. Europe has imposed new sanctions on Russia because of the arrest of Alexei Navalny, but it remains tight-lipped on Armenia. Doesn't Armenia deserve a little support from the West? Should Europe not offer some alternatives to Russia? The same applies to Georgia. A large majority in Georgia is in favour of a potential membership of the EU. We have a strong and dynamic civil society. But if no one in the West wants you, to whom do you turn?

Interview conducted by Elisa Rheinheimer-Chabbi

© 2021

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

Dr Beka Kobakhidze lectures in History and International Relations with a focus on the Caucasus in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. He is a professor at the Ilia State University and co-chair of the Masters Programme in Modern Georgian History. He also works at the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs and is a visiting fellow at the University of Oxford. Up until 2015 he worked, among other things, for the EU Monitoring Mission in Georgia.