16 January 2019

POLITICAL AND SECURITY FORECASTS 2019- SOUTH CAUCASUS (XV)

Cristian Eremia

Image source: Mediafax

South Caucasus was marked, in 2018, by two important political surprises. Firstly, when no one was expecting Armenia’s “westernization” anymore, the velvet revolution that took place in spring made the revolutionary Nicolo Pashinyan take the power. He made internal and external political changes, but also tried to retract Armenia from Moscow’s and the Euro-Asian integration fluxes influence. Some internal political obstacles determined him to resort to anticipated elections that he actually won in December, reaching the looked-for political legitimacy.  

The small Caucasian state, Georgia, has elected at the end of the year a new president, Salome Zourabichvili, who dedicated this victory to the entire West. The self-declared separatist republics, recognized and supported by Moscow, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, bogged down the pacific solution for the conflicts with Tbilisi, the main security and national survival problem that Tbilisi continues to have in 2019.

Another important moment for the regional security, from the previous year, was the passage by the five Caspian states- Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Iran and Turkmenistan, after 22 years of negotiations, of the “Convention on the legal status of the Caspian Sea”. Drafts’ provisions implementation raises new challenges for the following period.

The remarkable events which happened in the previous year in South Caucasus did not bring any positive guarantees or certainties for this year regarding the security of Black Sea’s Extended Region.

Georgia- is not the time to be friends with Russia

The independent candidate, Salome Zourabichvili, who has western origins and formation, won Georgia’s president chair, a state which has military confrontations with Russia for over 10 years and which is still fragmented by Abkhazia and South Ossetia. 2019 will reveal if the decision that the Georgian state made was not just interesting, brave and (why not?) challenging for the entire Georgian political class, but also a solution for the tough security problems the state is currently facing.

There are chances for the new president to use her experience as refined diplomat and connoisseur of the Georgian society and the international relations to bring stability and unity on an internal plan, but also to try to protect the Georgian state against external enemies. Without being firmly part of any political parties that actually matter for Tbilisi, her right political orientation will make her support the governmental party and the Georgian state authorities, who also supported her at the elections. As for the economic policies, there will be no serious issues (World Bank’s estimation to increase GDP this year raises to 5%), however, Zourabichvili will have to be careful with mediating the internal political process and power’s relations with the opposition forces, as the Georgian politicians are not actually “pleased” with who is in power. 

Hence, we expect 2019 to be an important year for Georgia’s foreign policy and less important regarding the social-economic evolutions and the internal policy. Consequently, the new Georgian president will strengthen the foreign cooperation vectors, so that Georgia can bravely reactivate two trilateral powers from Black Sea’s Extended Region (the “Georgia-Turkey-Azerbaijan” and “Georgia-Turkey-Armenia” Trilateral), that S. Zourabichvili founded as ex- Foreign Affairs Minister. This is especially important for the reactivation of the “energy map” of the region wherefrom the countries of the first mentioned trilateral are.

Georgia’s 2019 biggest problem, and of years to come, remains the relation with Russia. Regarding this topic, the new Georgian president was quite outspoken: “Russia still aggressively occupies one-fifth of our nation, as it has since 2008. I do not think that as long as Russia behaves like this and considering what is happening on the demarcation line where people are kidnapped and this line is slowly moving towards out territory, towards Tbilisi… I do not think we can cooperate now”.  Russia destroyed any negotiations and diplomatic relations resumption perspectives.  The Geneva Format, dedicated to this conflict, will at the most debate the current interferences generated by the permanent conflictual condition, given that UN and OSCE almost left the stage. The Russian-Georgian conflict will remain the same, and the Tbilisi-Moscow relation may suffer some positive changes in 2019 as long as Moscow will not find a more conciliant approach for Georgia.

On the other hand, we should note that the chief of the Georgian state permanently reiterated that her country is a strong EU and US military ally and this is why Georgia will need, in the following period, a strong support from the West, to reinforce the national territorial integrity. Zourabichvili obviously has the necessary political support in the Western capitals, however it is not clear what she is going to ask the West for and what kind of political instruments should be used to change the current dynamic that Russia utilized in the entire Black Sea’s Extended Region and, particularly, to solve the Georgian file.

Armenia- the revolution led by Pashinyan will continue

Therefore, 2018’s revolutionary politician, N. Pashinyan, won with is political bloc, “My step”, the recent anticipated general elections and the large legitimacy given by the popular vote to continue Armenia’s already initiated “revolutionary transformations”. The National Assembly (the Parliament) will only have three political movements (Pashinyan Bloc, the “Prosperous Armenia” Party and the “Bright Armenia” Party), the last two being expected to have, at least in the first half of 2019, a constructive political opposition.

For 2019, Pashinyan seems determined to continue his political programme, which aims to “transform Armenia in a developed and strong country, not only economically, but also regarding the external policy”. Feeling right at home in the Parliament will allow him to bring, probably, some corrections for the Constitution. Although a part of the hostile political forces was eliminated from the political games, Pashinyan’s most sensitive task, during 2019, will be to upkeep the internal cohesion of his political bloc and the management of the gradual ambitions of this bloc.

Economically, the governmental team will drive the social-economic development on pro-western liberal principles of the market economy. World Bank’s prognosis for Armenia’s economic growth in 2019 is an optimistic one- GDP’s increase with 4,3%, although it is a decrease compared to the previous year. The implementation of new policies could be the reason why the Armenian citizens will be confused, maybe disappointed, on the real economic progresses and reforms and on the quite confused policies regarding state’s security (especially the new approaches in the relations with Russia, or Nagorno-Karabah conflict’s management).

Upkeeping last year’s foreign policy agenda will probably be the biggest challenge for Armenia. Of course, the West will support and encourage, this year also, the new Armenian authorities. We cannot say the same thing about the evolution of the relations with Moscow and other ex-Soviet republics which have cordial relations with Russia. CIS and CSTO states’ reluctances against the foreign policy of the new Armenian leader emerged in the past few months, especially due to Armenia’s detour tendencies from the Euro-Asian integration directions. Moscow remains pretty cautious regarding Pashinyan’s government processes, labelled as “anti-Russians”. Consequently, in the following period, Moscow will continuously supervise Armenia. Erevan calling on complying its interests, based on the “noninterference principle in other state’s internal business” will not work in the relation with Moscow, all the more so it is already known that “Armenia’s security and, somewhat, Armenian state’s economy, are tied with Russia” (the Russians have an important military base in Armenia that they may disclaim, Moscow can feed back into changing the situation from Nagorno-Karabah, Russia is an important investor in the energy field, in the heavy industry and cars manufacturing).  Armenia will have no important strategic allies, at least not on short-term. Even Turkey, Iran or other states in the region will not adopt, in no circumstances, military-political positions to favor Armenia, but on the contrary.

On the other hand, Armenia will unhappily see the progresses regarding the political and technical-military cooperation between Azerbaijan and other states, like the US, Israel or Russia.  Erevan’s concerns about the modern weaponry that Azerbaijan is frequently acquiring will be felt this year also, as Armenia is getting ready for military confrontations with Azerbaijan, to protect the situation from Nagorno- Karabah.  

Azerbaijan- continuity in all fields

The central political scene will remain stable in 2019, which will actually allow the executive, firmly led by president I. Aliyev, to focus on the development of strategic infrastructures, on state’s modernization and the force structures as well, and strengthening the foreign relations on different sectors. Hydrocarbons deposits from the Caspian Sea will guarantee the necessary finances for the economic stability and for the desirable projects, even if some regional economic declines will affect the economic growth (for 2019, it is estimated a GDP increase of only 3,6 %). A special attention will be on the developments of strategic infrastructures and regional transport corridor. Baku will be focused on ending the “North-South Russia- Azerbaijan- Iran” transport corridor, dedicated to Euro-Asian markets.

The relaxed financial situation will allow the continuation of acquiring last generation military equipment available on the international market. The number of states which want to sell armament to Azerbaijan will be increasing, but it will not create any political difficulties for Baku, which has many options, because he is not strategically tied with any provider. The strategic partnership agenda strengthened with Russia will remain topical, as the Russian-Azerbaijani technical-military cooperation sector will take new contracts for strategic armament from Russia, to which we add those signed last year, worth of around $5 billion.

Moscow will continue to exploit Azerbaijan’s position regarding the possibility to adhere to the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), although it is unlikely for Baku to give up the neutrality status which offers it more freedom in practicing the foreign and security policy. Neither the Russian position in this matter is not a definitive one yet, as Moscow does not want to force Baku’s direction towards CSTO as long as it is not fully certain about Armenia’s evolution.

The substantial geopolitical changes which affected Turkey’s relations system with the Western world have lately modified the regional political relations also. This will ease the consolidation of a new Moscow- Baku-Ankara geopolitical axis, which will lead, after all the records, to the development of Moscow’s political-military “resemblances” with Baku.   

The Azerbaijani president will continue to insist on hosting the high-level military dialogue between NATO and Russia. This will allow the Azerbaijani state to simultaneously have privileged relations with NATO and Moscow. Baku will upkeep the cooperation with NATO, although it will not confirm its NATO accession. The Azerbaijani state will continue to have Turkish security guarantees, without being afraid of a negative strategic surprise. Turkey will be the most important strategic ally that Baku will have on all fields, including regarding the support for any type of confrontation with Armenia.

The Nagorno-Karabah conflict

The negotiations process for solving the Nagorno-Karabah conflict will probably remain inactive. Armenia and Azerbaijan will take confronting stances, which will lead to the elimination, from the current agenda, of the direct negotiation, in order to reach any compromises. Armenian side’s aggressivity will be accompanied by equal reactions from Baku, the Azerbaijani authorities nervously calling on the “unacceptable” situation from the Nagorno-Karabah extended conflict front. Armenia will be permanently warned that the Azerbaijani army is ready for complex military operations, which will upkeep the option of reopening the military confrontations on the field.

Baku and Erevan will accuse each other for breaking the ceasefire regime, for starting fire and using large caliber weaponry, which is creating insuperable issues for any mediator, even OSCE. The political statements alike the Armenians ones (according to which “Karabah is Armenia’s inseparable part”) and the Azerbaijani one (which are showing that “Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity will not be negotiated with Armenia… the Azerbaijani territories will soon be freed by the occupants”) will not unlock the short-term negotiations, regardless of the accessed format. Consequently, the stakes of the geopolitical games surrounding this conflict remain extremely complex, hence the substantial change of the “status-quo” is unpredictable.

Caspian Sea’s security

Hence, in 2018 the “Convention on the legal status of the Caspian Sea” was adopted. The uncertainties of the following year will be if this document truly created concrete conditions for the “cooperation in new friendly conditions” (as they aimed when signing it) in an area which is important for the security of Black Sea’s Extended Region and Central Asia as well. Firstly, we may witness some tensions generated by the different national security interests of the riverside countries in the bi- and multilateral negotiations processes over the division of Caspian Sea’s “intercontinental waters” (each state will have the right to establish the acreage of the territorial waters, the national fishing areas etc.). Furthermore, delimiting the seabed and bottom are things that the Convention did not treated entirely. It is foreseeable that there will be difficult political processes to solve these extremely sensitive issues. Probably the Iranian part will be the most uncomfortable in this situation, especially regarding the relation with the Turkmen part.

A tense situation could be generated by the fact that in the Caspian Sea were prohibited, through the Convention, the installation of foreign military bases or any foreign military presence, other than those belonging to the riverside states. As consequence, we expect new actions from some states, especially Russia and Iran, which want to take the military control over the Caspian Sea. The first signs are starting to show up, as Moscow recently refused to provide Baku some military materials, stating that it would affect the Russian military interests in Caspian Sea’s bottom. Also, we may witness some disengagement reactions from some important Western companies in energy field, whom will realize do not have an adequate security umbrella to hide in.