Flashpoint South Caucasus | Eurozine

In New Eastern Europe, Jennifer S. Wistrand reflects on the human consequences of three decades of turbulence in the South Caucasus, where the conflicts in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh have forced hundreds of thousands of people into internal displacement across the region.

Azerbaijan’s seizure of Nagorno-Karabakh in September 2023 has laid the ground for the ‘return home’ of internal refugees displaced after Armenia took control of the region in 1994. This puts oil-rich Azerbaijan in a position to accelerate its economic development.

‘Unfortunately, the past two years have not foreshadowed an equally reassuring future for either Armenia or Georgia’, writes Wistrand, who foresees that the burden of supporting up to 120,000 refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh ‘is going to have profound social, political and economic impacts’ on poor, landlocked Armenia, just as the displacement of Georgians from Abkhazia and South Ossetia has done for Georgia.

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the regional picture has been further complicated by the arrival of at least 100,000 Russians fleeing mobilization, mainly in Georgia and Armenia. Wistrand highlights the positive economic benefits that the Russian migrants have brought Armenia, which had the fastest growing economy in Eastern Europe in 2022–2023, but warns that deteriorating bilateral relations between Moscow and Yerevan may ultimately dissuade them from remaining in Armenia.

For Tbilisi, the problem is more sensitive. Russia’s war against Ukraine ‘has placed Georgia in the most precarious position’ of the three South Caucasus states, according to Wistrand. Deeply mistrustful of Russia, Georgians see the Russian migrant population as a potential casus belli for Moscow and are anxious about the growth of a ‘parallel society’ in the country.

‘For the South Caucasus, and especially for Georgia and Armenia, the war has meant more migrants, more displaced people, and greater anxiety and instability.’

Prospects of reconciliation

Is peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan possible now that the Karabakh issue has been ‘resolved’? Ahmad Alili analyses the socio-political complexities of the situation in both countries and highlights key areas likely to have a bearing on the prospects for reconciliation.

Historically, power imbalances between warring parties have not been conducive to fruitful and fair peace settlements, meaning that the conclusive nature of Azerbaijan’s military victory might preclude a ‘dignified peace’, cautions Alili.

Another obstacle to peace is the disparity between the two countries in the degree of political consensus on the issue. While Azerbaijani society is in alignment, in Armenia the loss of Karabakh has splintered once-solid national opinion. ‘As a result, at a time when Azerbaijan’s position on the issue is centralised and united, Armenia’s position is reflected differently on various platforms.’

External geopolitical interference also represents a genuine threat to stability in the region, warns Alili. The South Caucasus countries may find that their best prospects lie in forging common cause: ‘The rapidly changing geopolitical conditions in the wider region make Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia natural allies against potential external threats.’

Georgia’s embattled democracy

With parliamentary elections around the corner, pro-Russian oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili is back on the political scene in Georgia, amid growing public distrust in politics and an increasingly unstable social climate.

Georgia, which received EU candidacy status in 2023, appears to be heading for a moment of reckoning, writes Nino Chanadiri. If the ruling party Georgian Dream (GD), over which Ivanishvili wields outsized influence, wins a fourth term in power in this year’s elections, the country’s westward path will be in serious jeopardy.

Ivanishvili has re-entered the country’s political stage for a third time, in a comeback ‘seen as Russia’s attempt to maintain control over Georgia by ensuring that a friendly government remains in power and sabotaging further steps toward Euro-Atlantic integration’.

However, it is unclear whether Ivanishvili will throw his weight completely behind GD or back new parties with anti-western and often pro-Russian stances. He may also enlist the help of pro-Russian right-wing movements widely seen to be GD tools against anti-government demonstrations, writes Chanadiri.

Meanwhile, Georgia’s opposition is fragmented, with the pro-western United National Movement struggling to attract the support and confidence of voters who still see it as linked to controversial former president Mikheil Saakashvili.

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