SOUTH CAUCASUS: POLITICAL ASPECTS OF THE SPREAD OF SMALL ARMS AND LIGHT WEAPONS
Rauf Guseinov, D.Sc. (Hist.), professor, Moscow State Open University Baku affiliate (Baku, Azerbaijan)
The spread of small arms and light weapons (SALW) is part of the negative processes unfolding in the post-Soviet area, including in the South Caucasus. At the same time, it is an element of a global phenomenon that for brevity could be defined as proliferation.
This process is a threat and challenge to mankind in general and in particular to states that are openly and consistently countering the spread of SALW. This threat is no less dangerous than drug trafficking and terrorism, kidnapping and corruption, separatism and extremism, organized crime and money laundering, etc. Furthermore, it is directly related to human rights and recognition of the rules of international law and political obligations by individual states.
Proliferation of small arms and light weapons is especially conspicuous in zones of tension, in states with pseudo-democratic regimes—totalitarian and military-political (of the junta kind), in less developed countries of the Third World, and in dependent and pseudo-sovereign limitrophe states—in short, wherever there are pronounced negative trends and a lack of unity at the politico-state level.
In the South Caucasus, small arms and light weapons “disappeared” from the arsenals of Soviet military units deployed in Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia before the breakup of the Soviet Union while in the 1990s this process intensified, as a result of which an incalculable amount of small arms and light weapons fell into the hands of illegitimate structures. They appeared in the region in the course of local and interstate conflicts. Their consequences are well known: It will be recalled that this process was marked by the presence of (or intervention by) certain external forces with interests at stake, in particular, the United States, Russia, Iran, and Turkey as well as certain Arab states.
This complex and ambiguous situation provided fertile soil for the spread of small arms and light weapons, which in turn set the stage for collisions and conflicts in the region as a whole and in individual states with the involvement of both internal and external players. As a rule, crucial periods in the life of a particular country or a region as a whole are an essential factor in the spread of small arms and light weapons. To the South Caucasus and states in the region, that crucial period came with the disintegration of the socialist camp, the breakup of the Soviet Union, and the subsequent developments that had been brewing within both the socialist world and the Soviet Union—a multiethnic colossus state.
Generally speaking, the problem at hand came about with the emergence of this class of weapons, and that was when its political dimension also came about. It is taken for granted that the political component of this process and the spread of SALW are interrelated.
Over time the problem grew in scope, passing through several stages. The highest stage—in terms of complexity, danger, causes and implications—occurred in the second half of the 20th century and continues to date. At the same time, this period has seen peaks of aggravation, one of which is associated with the breakup of the Soviet Union, which is especially pronounced in the South Caucasus. The further we move from the outset of the problem to present-day realities, the more acute and dangerous the spread of small arms and light weapons, and the more conspicuous its political aspect. This is primarily to do with zones and belts of instability and conflicts, local wars, and regional clashes, which is borne out by the current situation in our region.
Responsibility for the spread of small arms and light weapons and its implications is borne, among other forces, by the political elite of states involved in the process at hand. Political will to stop the spread of this danger in the South Caucasus was declared in a statement by the GUUAM states (April 1999) on countering traffic in small arms and light weapons.
The U.N. and the OSCE, for their part, coordinate the efforts of regional and local political, law enforcement, and intelligence structures, as recorded in an OSCE document on SALW (November 2000), the U.N. Firearms Protocol (March 2001), and a U.N. Program of Action (July 2001). These official documents have a direct bearing on the spread of SALW in the South Caucasus, providing politico-legal schemes for action by the international community concerned by uncontrolled proliferation of such weapons and its implications. Nonetheless, for a number of objective and subjective, including political, reasons, the aforementioned documents have not as yet produced the expected result.
The main problems of legal and illegal trade in SALW can be divided into two categories. The first are the causes and the second, the effects of this spread. This cause-and-effect relation can vary depending on the situation on the ground, including its reversal to effect-and-cause.
Causes of the Spread
There are two aspects here: the legal and the illegal spread of SALW. The two are mutually supplementary, interrelated, and interdependent. As mentioned earlier, they can even mutually transform. In this event it is not important whether this is understandable to the players. This interdependence is the result of a logical evolution of the situation in a particular part of the world or in a region, a continent or even the world at large.
At the same time, it is essential to take into account other aspects of the problem at hand. First, the sanctioned spread of SALW in the interest of official regimes or structures that do not want to or are unable to publicize their involvement in the process. In this situation it is necessary to find out who stands to gain from this. Remember the Iran-contras affair, the Hezbollah terrorist organization financed by Iran, and U.S. assistance to “insurgents” in Afghanistan at the time when a “limited contingent of Soviet armed forces” was deployed there. Back then, the spread of SALW had a pronounced political component in so far as it helped to deal with sensitive issues faced by the regimes in question that could not have been addressed by any other methods. Second, the other aspect of the problem is more dangerous: unsanctioned proliferation of SALW by non-official structures—criminal, terrorist, separatist, extremist, nationalist, and fundamentalist. They use these weapons to pursue their own ends or to perform certain sensitive missions on behalf of the powers-that-be.
In this connection, we can talk about a logical link—from the general to the particular and from the particular to the general. Say, from Kashmir separatists, supported by Pakistan, to al-Qa‘eda, and from the latter to the Philippine separatists. So at times it is impossible to say where trade in SALW is legal and where it is not, where one line ends and where another begins. The two can effectively merge into one, recalling a two-faced Janus.
So the spread of SALW depends on a specific situation in a given country, region, or continent as well as on a specific task or goal set or formulated by particular interests, setting the process in motion and feeding it. For its part, the spread of SALW affects the situation on the ground. In this instance, the situation constitutes a complex of disturbing developments unfolding in a particular area. The level of SALW spread in such an area is in reverse proportion to the security level, the stability of local political regimes, or the character and methods of their action. Furthermore, the spread of SALW has a strategic and tactical aspect. The former is long term, designed to attain wide-ranging goals, while the latter is designed to fulfill transient, here-and-now tasks and attain local goals. Just like trade in and spread of SALW in general, both aspects can have a legal or illegal character.
The main triggering mechanisms in SALW proliferation are the purposes and goals of the great powers addressing their own strategic and tactical problems as well as their global geopolitical and geo-economic aspirations. Also, plans by local regimes and structures to attain their goals; aspirations by their neighbors—large states advancing their own interests; unfavorable processes prevailing in particular countries or regions; and fallout from globalization, geopolitics, and geo-economics.
The political dimension is a major factor on this list: power struggle, a not-quite-legitimate ruling regime, the personal position of its leader, the role and place of NGOs and mass media as well as of the principal religious denomination. Just as important is the level of democratization and maturity of civil society.
Thus, proliferation of SALW is a diverse, multidimensional process. At the same time, its causes can be divided into internal and external. On the whole, trade in SALW as well as its forms, objectives, and partners overlap, interact, and correlate. Everything depends on the time, place, the situation, and the intentions of participants in this process. It makes no difference here whether trade in these weapons is legal or illegal.
External factors in the spread of SALW in the South Caucasus include also the reluctance by the great powers to abandon the idea of penetrating the region by any means, including political means backed up by all sorts of unofficial action; their impact on the local political elite and the use of economic, financial, trade, information, religious, diplomatic, scientific-cultural, and military levers.
Internal factors in the proliferation of SALW in the region include the weakness of the political, military, economic, and ethnic-communal structures of states in the region; insufficient maturity of their civil societies; internal political struggles both within the official ruling regimes and between them and NGOs; and outstanding local and regional issues.
Viewed from a broad perspective, considering that the South Caucasus is only a part of the whole, it should be noted that the situation in and around the region is to a very large extent contingent on more general causes:
the drastic changes that have occurred in the world following the disintegration of the socialist camp and the breakup of the Soviet Union;
the end of the Cold War;
the emergence of newly independent states in the post-socialist, including post-Soviet, area;
a new level of geopolitical and geo-economic rivalry between the great powers;
escalation of local and regional conflicts, to a very large degree precipitated by the great powers and major states thus addressing their own problems;
a rise in negative sociopolitical, economic, ethnic, religious, and other trends and processes on the global scale;
a merging of organized crime, drug trafficking, extremism, terrorism, separatism, and other unfavorable developments with certain ruling regimes; and
support and assistance of such negative developments on the part of certain ruling regimes.
Thus, beginning in the 1990s, the proliferation of SALW, which until then had a relatively local and even latent character, took on a global scale. So the effort to bring it under control also turned global, as is evident from the aforementioned U.N., OSCE, and GUUAM documents.
At the same time, political chaos, typical of the transition period in both the post-Soviet region and in other parts of the world (say, in the Balkans) should also be included among the causes for the proliferation of SALW. As a rule, this chaos goes hand in hand with military and civic instability as the aforementioned factors oftentimes are interdependent, interacting, and mutually complementary.
It is equally important to bear in mind that today NGOs and media in the South Caucasus do not in effect support the attempts by political ruling regimes to control the proliferation of SALW in the region. This results from the lack of trust between them, which impairs the effectiveness of proliferation control efforts.
The region, therefore, is not an exception from the rule but actually confirms the rule. The same causes for the spread of SALW exist in the South Caucasus as in any other regions. The differences mainly lie in details predetermined by local specifics arising from local history, ethnic mix, and settlement of mutual claims. At the same time, it should be pointed out that the spread of SALW is largely to do with ruling political regimes and elites, relations with NGOs, great powers, and large neighboring states.
Judging by the level of political stability and responsibility, which is key to SALW proliferation control efforts in the region, it should be noted that while there is political will in Georgia to deal with the problem, it is not matched by the country’s capabilities. Furthermore, the republic’s laws allow possession of firearms, including pistols and shotguns.1 The weakness of ruling regimes and the spread of SALW are also well in evidence in Azerbaijan and Armenia.
With the onset of perestroika policies in the Soviet Union (1985), the South Caucasus emerged as a zone of tension and instability, already then aggravated by both internal and external causes and forces. As a result, both the region as a whole and its individual components (countries) were confronted with a real security threat, which manifested itself in various forms: loss of territorial integrity, ethnic conflicts, warlordism, and aggravation of the entire complex of negative trends in society.
Moreover, the South Caucasus emerged as a destabilizing factor with regard to the Northern Caucasus—that is to say, for the Russian Federation. This is why the latter actively tapped its informational, religious, political, and military levers and resources and intervened in the ongoing events in the region, the consequences of which are known only too well. That, however, did not save Russia herself from the negative impact of North Caucasian problems, which is also well known, including the hostage drama at the Dubrovka theater in Moscow, on 23-26 October, 2002.
Thus, proliferation of SALW in our region is an outcome of events on both the local and regional scale as well as the activity of external forces with an interest at stake. As a result, politico-military confrontation emerged along the following geographic lines:
Erevan-Baku, a high point in the standoff coming in the 1988-1994 period with Armenian aggression and war against Azerbaijan;
Stepanakert-Baku, resulting in proclamation of an illegitimate Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, supported and recognized by Armenia;
Sukhumi-Tbilisi, resulting in a one-year war and Abkhazia’s de-facto secession from Georgia;
Tkhinvali-Tbilisi, with a similar outcome: proclamation of the South Ossetia Republic that de facto broke away from Georgia;
a dormant conflict accompanied by friction along the Javakheti-Tbilisi line, which brought about a broad de-facto Armenian autonomy in Georgian territory that used to be home to Meskhetian Turks who were deported from there in 1944 and have yet to receive territorial rehabilitation;
Batumi-Tbilisi, marking a de-facto conflict between Adzharia and Georgia;
a dormant conflict can also be seen in the relations between Azerbaijan’s Talysh, Lezghian, and Avar ethnic minorities and Baku; and
a dormant conflict with regard to ethnic Azeris living in Georgia.
Division of society in Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia, primarily in the political sphere, but also in the economic, media, and ethnic spheres, is equally dangerous. As a result, political ruling regimes exist, as it were, on their own, in separation from the masses of the people and the sprouts of civil society in these states. Hence the ruling regimes’ inability to control the entire territory and the proliferation of SALW, brought about by both the state of South Caucasian countries themselves and the activity of external forces in the region, vying for such a tidbit.
This said, it should be noted that in so far as the fate of a particular country and its people is concerned (both in the political and other aspects), the situation in Armenia is characterized by a unity between the ruling regime on the one hand and NGOs and mass media on the other; in Georgia, by an open confrontation between different political forces; and in Azerbaijan, by a deceptive calm in the political and other spheres, but at the same time there is no real opposition, which ensures official structures a relatively quiet existence even though all is not well on the latent level.
Implications of the Spread
The danger of the proliferation of SALW was not appreciated in countries of the region until after the euphoria from the newly acquired independence had passed and the process of the redistribution of power had completed within a particular newly independent state and its components as well as in the South Caucasus as a whole. By that time, however, it was already too late: These weapons had proliferated on such a scale that even now official structures are not in a position to deal with the problem.
That had a sobering effect on the ruling regimes in the region which realized that SALW were a catalyst of conflicts in zones of tension. Furthermore, the fact that SALW were held by informal paramilitary structures and ordinary individuals, and on such a scale, posed a danger to the ruling regimes.
Experts note that SALW stockpiles, aggravated by political instability, turn into a vicious circle that has enormous conflict potential.2 This problem is exacerbated by the boomerang effect that must be dealt with if the ruling regimes want to remain legitimate in the long term. Otherwise—whether it likes it or not—a ruling regime merges with organized crime.
To sum up, the implications of the spread of SALW in the South Caucasus are as follows: destabilization of the situation in the region as a whole and in individual countries, including on different levels; the relatively easy penetration by great powers and large neighboring states; breeding grounds for organized crime, warlords, and illegal armed formations; the weakness of the ruling establishment in countries of the region; and military and legal problems in the newly independent states.
The history of the proliferation of SALW falls into several stages. The first stage began at the end of World War II. It did not pose a tangible threat to society and ruling regimes but had a regional character (Ulster, Corsica, Sicily, etc.). The situation got worse when the world’s colonial system collapsed, newly independent states emerged, and national liberation movements invigorated their activity.
The next stage came with the end of the Cold War—that is to say, after 1991, when the world socialist system disintegrated and the Soviet Union broke up. Weapons across vast areas were left effectively unsupervised. That was also when the proliferation of SALW was compounded by some highly disturbing processes in the region, which also affected other parts of the world. The struggle between the great powers over zones of influence as well as globalization and growing geopolitical and geo-economic aspirations were also a factor here.
At some point, the great powers, as key players in the international community, missed the opportunity to stop the spread of SALW. Yet it is not ruled out that they knowingly turned a blind eye to the problem. Thus the proliferation effectively slipped out of control, with disastrous consequences.
Extraregional forces today are disturbed by the spread of these weapons in the South Caucasus as it hinders implementation of their strategic and tactical plans in the region while local forces are also worried by the process since the ruling regimes are concerned about preserving their positions. As for NGOs, they are disturbed by the slow pace of the evolution of civil society in the South Caucasian republics.
Proliferation of SALW as well as the shared interests of official and unofficial structures in using them are especially pronounced in the arc of instability and tension from the Balkans (Europe) to the Pacific (Asia), including, along with other trouble spots, the South Caucasus. These are the areas where some highly negative trends are observed.
Other areas are less exposed to the spread of SALW even though there are also conditions for proliferation there.
While talking about the need for transparency in controlling the spread of SALW in their respective territories, official political structures of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia in fact shun publicity. So their statements oftentimes lack specifics. A case in point are comments by government officials from regional states at the international seminar Control of SALW Proliferation: a View from Russia, which took place in December 2001. A Georgian Foreign Ministry representative was self-critical up to a point, but even his statement was rather one-sided, describing Russia as the main factor in the spread of SALW in Georgia, including Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Javakheti, not even mentioning other channels of traffic in SALW. At the same time, it is to the Georgian leadership’s credit that the ruling regime recognizes the insufficiency of its efforts and appeals to international structures for help in controlling the proliferation of SALW in the republic.3
Nonetheless, the main responsibility for the spread of SALW in any state lies with the ruling authorities who are obligated to use all available means and resources to resolve the problem in their respective territories. This said, a certain measure of responsibility also lies with NGOs and mass media.
Experts believe that “the present situation (in the wake of 11 September, 2001.—R.G.) creates quite a favorable ‘ideological environment’ for resolving the problem in so far as SALW are weapons of choice for terrorist and insurgent groups. This opportunity must be used to put in place on the international level legally binding accords on the problem at hand and incorporate them into national legislations.”4
It should be added here that ruling regimes in the South Caucasus should draw the lesson from the events of 11 September, 2001 in the United States and of 23-26 October, 2002 in Russia. They should make important decisions in combating the traffic in SALW in the region. Thus far, however, there has been more talk than action on the ground.
The authorities of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia should take advantage of the situation in combating SALW traffic and develop their own state programs in this sphere: In so doing, it is essential to tap NGOs in drawing up such programs and ensuring their subsequent implementation. After all, unlike official ruling regimes, NGOs are oftentimes better informed about the SALW traffic channels and SALW recipients and suppliers on the black market.
So, what else can be done to stop the spread of SALW? First of all, pool efforts on the global scale, as was the case in combating terrorism in the wake of 11 September, 2001 and 23-26 October, 2002. Second of all, to deal with the problem successfully, ruling regimes, while relying on the power of law and force, must have the will to cope with it by political means. It is essential to begin on the national level, then moving on to the regional level. Herein lies the “golden mean” in the array of methods that are key to success.
The political dimension of SALW trafficking in the South Caucasus has three levels: national, regional, and international. Using the international and regional level as a base, the problem can be resolved on the national level. The last mentioned is by far the most important in so far as it has to do with the situation in a particular country, the actual spread of SALW and their supply channels on the ground.
Even so, in any scenario, the problem can only be resolved with sufficient political will and commitment without which forcible methods will not be effective.
1 See: Materialy mezhdunarodnogo seminara Kontrol nad rasprostraneniem LSO: vzglyad iz Rossii, Moscow, 2002, p. 28.
2 Ibid., p. 20.
3 See: Ibid., pp. 37-42.
4 Ibid., p. 20.