A new European security deal to benefit the South Caucasus

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Minsk, 20 April 2018 – The key to making peace is dialogue. For years, the PfP (Partnership for Peace) Consortium Study Group, “Regional Stability in the South Caucasus”, has been contributing to the reconciliation of regional ethnic and religious conflicts, as well as addressing the ambitions of local and international players. Along with the NATO-backed PfP program, co-organisers include the Austrian Ministry of Defense and the Berlin-based think tank, Dialogue of Civilizations Research institute (DOC). This week, the Study Group concluded its 17th workshop in the Belarussian capital of Minsk.

Experts from at least eleven countries assembled to exchange their views on the peculiar situation in the South Caucuses, which is characterised by stagnant and long-standing conflicts, some reaching back 30 years. Those are the frozen crises in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno Karabakh, each of which have gone through periods of ‘hot conflict’. Surrounding this area are three regional powers – at times partners, at times rivals – Russia, Turkey, and Iran. As if that weren’t enough, the region and its hotspots are subject to the Western-Russian geopolitical and ideological confrontation.

During the workshop views differed, as can be expected. A substantial achievement, as underlined by the workshop’s longtime coordinator Frederic Labarre of the PfP Consortium in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, is that representatives of opposing sides managed to sit at table to talk and listen to each other. Academics from the break-away republic of Abkhazia spoke with their counterparts from Georgia, political experts from Armenia and Azerbaijan discuss the contested Nagorno Karabakh dispute. In previous years, this kind of constructive dialogue was rare, as some participants nearly resorted to physically jumping at each other. Today, the fear is rather that younger generations have no memories of war, and that the various conflicts may re-escalate unless politicians resolve them soon.

The general perception is that the region is in a critical dilemma. The two biggest powers involved, Russia and the US, are both ready to disregard the region’s peace and security interests in their fight against each other. The EU, which stakeholders in the South Caucuses used to look with hope, have lost their appeal. The main reason is that the Europeans failed to produce alternatives to the US design of incorporating the ex-Soviet periphery within the Western sphere of influence. This US strategy, immediately met with opposition from Moscow, will only prolong the absence of sustainable solutions.

At the same time, Russia, Turkey, and Iran are not yet strong enough to negotiate settlements with only Eurasian actors. Nevertheless, all workshop participants agreed that the three countries have been moving closer to each other, largely propelled by a common opposition to US involvement in the south Caucuses. There was also a consensus, that the West, led by the United States, has adopted revisionist policies, trying to reconstitute the status quo ante of the 1990s. In contrast, Russia is perceived as a proponent of status quo policies focusing on self-protection, stability, and equilibrium.

In his keynote speech, DOC co-founder Peter W. Schulze criticised the insistence of Western politicians, to continue the established European peace architecture. He challenged the argument that the existing rules and tools still answer to the continent’s security needs – particularly, if only the Russians adhere to them. Schulze maintains that the post-1990 system was designed to integrate a substantially weakened Russia into the framework of Western hegemony. Now the return of Russia, and the ‘rise’ of China, constitutes a game changer that justifies the claim to revamp and adapt the European security system. Most importantly, the new order will have to meet the challenges of the transition from a Western-dominated multipolar world order.