The South Caucasus Unfreezes

Why Russia Is the Biggest Winner

A military parade in Baku, Azerbaijan, June 2011. STRINGER / REUTERS

The South Caucasus has long been a geopolitical fault line, under pressure from both ethnic tensions and the ambitions of powerful neighbors. Since the final years of the Cold War, the region’s three states, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, have been locked in confrontations with one another, with various breakaway regions, and with outside powers. In the early 1990s, cease-fire agreements froze the region’s main separatist conflicts: between Georgia and the Russian-backed forces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia on the one hand and between Azerbaijan, Armenia, and the Armenian-backed separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh on the other. Since then, the regional order in the South Caucasus has been tense but mostly stagnant, with the notable exception of Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008

Over the past several months, however, the region’s tectonic plates have begun to shift. In April, Azerbaijani forces seized a stretch of territory that was previously under Armenian control, leaving hundreds dead and reminding leaders in Baku and Yerevan of their ability to use force to change the territorial status quo. A conflict that has been mostly frozen for two decades now threatens to slip into open war. Facing economic problems at home, neither the Azerbaijani nor the Armenian government has much reason to avoid warlike rhetoric or embrace compromise, even though renewed conflict would be disastrous for both sides. 

The situation in Georgia, meanwhile, is more stable. Most of the Georgian population and the country’s leading political parties remain committed to Euro-Atlantic integration, and there probably won’t be any major changes in the country’s domestic or foreign policies in the near term. Yet Russia’s continued efforts to shape Georgian public opinion and Moscow’s tightening control over the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia suggest that Tbilisi’s progress cannot be taken for granted. Georgia’s stalled campaign for NATO membership further risks adding to frustration with the status quo, although the recent approval in principle of visa-free travel to the

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