NATO AND THE SOUTH CAUCASUS: MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING?

Frederik COENE


Frederik Coene, M.A. in Commercial Sciences and M.A. in Caucasian and Central Asian Studies (Veurne, Belgium)


Since their independence, the three South Caucasian republics have sought to integrate with the Euro-Atlantic structures and since 1994, they have entered into a partnership with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In the past two years, and mainly after 11 September, the attention has shifted eastward from the Balkans and in terms of Eurasian security the stress has now been put on the Caucasus and Central Asia. Indeed, a lot is being talked about these issues, especially on the cooperation between NATO and the South Caucasus. However, is it really such a big deal? Is the South Caucasus really so high on the priority list of the Alliance as some leaders and academics claim? Is NATO really so active in the region? This article tries to systematically go through all facets of this topic, in order to see if it really deserves so much attention or if it is merely overcited.

NATO Members Interests in the South Caucasus

Stating that NATO has interests in the South Caucasus is as false and absurd as quoting that NATO policy is being dictated by the U.S. It is not NATO that has interests, but rather the member states that jointly create a common military and security policy toward the East. Furthermore, it is false and simplistic to reduce everything to oil as is often the case when reading popular articles.

Five main interconnected interests can be identified. The core of them, which links the other interests together, is the geo-economic and strategic location of the South Caucasus. The region is the border of a common European security space, it is an important economic hub and transportation corridor (e.g. for oil and gas), and it used to be of high military importance to the Soviet Union. The South Caucasus role in Eurasian security is of extreme importance to the Alliance and its members. In a few years, the Caucasus will be the new border of NATO and the entire European security architecture. Therefore the resolution of conflicts on Caucasian territory will be of increasing concern to Europe and crucial for its security. Other political and socioeconomic problems could even further aggravate the volatile situation in the region. Furthermore, NATO looks with suspicion to the Russian military presence in the Caucasus, which has a negative effect on maintaining a balance of power. A third interest is the vast untapped natural resources of the Caspian Basin. Although the speculations of the quantity of these reserves are not clear, the South Caucasus is economically important and several oil companies from NATO member countries are active there. Not only the presence of these resources is important; the oil and gas also need to be transported to interested buying countries. This transforms all involved countries into international actors in the world economy.1 Another interest is the prevention of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, because the region possesses considerable quantities of enriched uranium in unsafe locations. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union and again stimulated by the events of 9/11, there is concern that certain countries or terrorist groups might acquire this uranium, infrastructure, and specialists. Finally,although it is not a public issuethere is a wish to keep Russia small, and still fits in the old mission of NATO to keep the U.S. in, the Germans down, and the Russians out of Europe.

Russian Interests in the South Caucasus and Conflict of Interests

Russias interests in the South Caucasus are very similar to those of NATO members, but its approach to the region differs strongly. Its main concern is to ensure the security of its southern border. Moscow desires good relations with the three Transcaucasian states as it believes this will enhance its ability to maintain stability in the Northern Caucasus.2 Although Russia possesses huge reserves of oil and gas, it is tremendously attracted to the hydrocarbon resources of the Caspian in its Near Abroad. For these reasons, Russia is interested in keeping the West out of what it sees as its exclusive zone of interest. Foreign involvement in the region, especially western military presence, weakens and could ultimately remove Russian influence over these states.3 Having to withdraw from its bases in Georgia and the possible removal of even more forces from Georgia and the early-warning radar in Azerbaijan would be a substantial blow to Russias geopolitical interests.4 However, due to its location and long history in the region, Russia can truly be called the main competitor in the region for the West, and therefore, Russian policy and actions are a main factor that influence NATOs policy toward the region. To put it straightforward, NATO and Russia simply cannot afford to ignore each other.5

South Caucasian Interests in NATO

Also Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia have motives for cooperating with the Alliance. Although these interests are in principle very similar for all three of the republics, they are not seen with the same intensity. It is clear that Armenia does not have a very large interest in NATO and therefore is not cooperating on the same scale as the two others.

The main issue is definitely security and stability. Georgia and Azerbaijan in particular are convinced that NATO can play an important role in bringing peace and stability to the region. Because of its success in the Balkans, NATO has a strong image in the region. The problems of this gray zone of insecurity are the frozen conflicts, a certain danger of encroachment from Russia, and a danger, albeit not so acute at the moment, of a possible Islamic takeover attempt.6 The integration into Euro-Atlantic structures is some kind of foreign policy goal of the region, and the political elite think that Europe has something to offer the region. Azerbaijan and Georgia have stated their interest in joining the alliance, but Armenia opposes such a thing. Some think that NATO can also assist in bringing about internal changes, such as assistance in reforming the armed forces. Also the support for economic development and the Alliance as a channel for transferring the Caucasian points of view to the West on current events in the region should not be forgotten.

Actors Dealing with NATO-South Caucasus Relations

Many people talk about the relations between NATO and the South Caucasus, but who determines and influences the policy, who deals with the real cooperation? It should be clear that not many people at NATO know the South Caucasus well, but also knowledge about the Alliance is very limited in the three republics, even at the level of decision makers.

Almost all divisions and departments of NATO are involved with the Partner Countries through the PfP program. Not only the international staff, international military staff and member nations delegations deal with the South Caucasus, there are also some forums for immediate contact with the region. These include the Summits, the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC) and political consultations. NATO policy however is more determined by the Member Nations delegations, which depend on their governments. It is clear that some of the members, such as the U.S., Turkey and Greece, are more involved in the region than the others. In the South Caucasus, there exist many actors: the Ministries of Foreign Affairs with their Missions to NATO, the Ministries of Defense and Armed Forces, the National Security Councils, the Presidents, Parliaments, and Azerbaijan and Georgia even have special Commissions on relations with NATO. Big neighbor Russia is not determining the relations between the Alliance and the South Caucasus, but it does have a very strong influence on them. Many parliamentary and nongovernmental organizations also have an influence and try to inform to public. Examples of these are the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, the Atlantic Treaty Association (including the associate members in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia), or the NGO Georgia for NATO. Many western, Russian, and South Caucasian companies, mainly the ones dealing with oil and gas, are lobbying. Finally, opposition parties, academics, research institutes, scientists, media, and the public opinion should not be forgotten because they can heavily influence political decisions.

Cooperation between NATO and the South Caucasus

The first formal NATO involvement in the Caucasus began in 1990, when the Warsaw Pact and NATO discussed the CFE-treaty. One of the issues dealt with was the quantity of military equipment of the Flank Zone, which includes the South Caucasus. The creation of the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC) on 20 December, 1991 was the earliest institutional change within the Alliance that led to closer cooperation with the members of the former Warsaw Pact, including with the three newly independent republics in the South Caucasus. The NACC and its successor the EAPC is a political institution whose mission is to maintain and strengthen stability, prevent conflicts, and manage crises, which shows that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is not just a military bloc. In January 1994, Partnership for Peace, well-known under its acronym PfP, was introduced as NATOs chief engagement tool for cooperation with its former enemies. Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia signed the PfP Framework Document respectively on 23 March, 4 May, and 5 October, 1994.

Although there had been several visits of high-ranking Caucasian officials to NATO, it was not until 1997 that the Secretary-General traveled to the region. Mid-February 1997, Javier Solana paid official visits to Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan to meet Heads of State, governments and other leading politicians. This event proved to be a real turnaround in NATO-South Caucasus relations. Cooperation received a strong boost and each of the three countries brought their partnership to a higher level. A similar reaction can be noticed after Solanas second visit to the region in September 1998. The increased activity of Armenia did have another cause too. In the summer of 1997, the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council was established in accordance with the NATO-Russia Founding Act. These ameliorating relations between the Alliance and one of its biggest adversaries gave an opportunity for Armenia to be more active.

The Planning and Review Process (PARP), a framework for advancing interoperability and increasing transparency among Members and Partners, started its first cycle in December 1994, but it was not until 1999 that Georgia and Azerbaijan were ready to join. In the past years, the two states made a significant step forward in reforming their armed forces according to NATO standards.7 Armenia started this military aspect of its partnership only in 2002. The Georgian and Azerbaijani infantry platoons in KFOR prove that this interoperability is becoming a fact.

Since the Washington Summit of April 1999, the cooperation between the Alliance and the South Caucasus has been gradually growing. The number of assets and forces available for PfP activities, areas of cooperation, and concrete activities has augmented tremendously. In the summer of 1999, the Alliance received a new Secretary-General, who continued the work of his predecessor in a similar way. He visited the Caucasus in September 2000, January 2001 and September 2001.

After September 11, NATOs attention to the Caucasus as well as the level of cooperation increased. Many claim that this is the direct result of the events of the day which changed the entire world. There is no doubt it might have had its effect, but it is often overcited and used in a populist manner. Every year the cooperation has been increasing and thus it is nothing more than the logical continuation and evolution of the partnerships, but the terrorist attacks were not crucial. Due to the events of 9/11, member nations awakened and the threats and risks with respect to the region have become clearer to them.8 Whereas a few years ago, it was difficult for the South Caucasian countries to voice their opinions and requests, now they are heard easier. Furthermore, with the situation in the Balkans calming down and less attention focused on Eastern Europe because most of the region will be members soon, NATO has more opportunities to look at the Caucasus.

The main topic for Partner countries for the future deals with the issue of enlargement. For some of them it is a question of if, for others it is just a matter of when. Three Partners became NATO members in 1999 and seven others have been invited at the NATO Summit in Prague in November 2002. Countries like Azerbaijan and Georgia were not satisfied with the existing framework for cooperation, but were unable to start with the Membership Action Plan (MAP) and join the Alliance. This led to the need for the creation of a new tool which was presented at the Prague Summit: the Individual Partnership Action Program (IPAP). It will be a better elaborated and mainly political partnership that can be compared to MAP, but no membership is envisioned.9 However, it seems as if IPAP is still not well understood: it is not a step leading to MAP, but an advanced and individualized partnership.

Some argue that Azerbaijan is of more interest to NATO and more active in its relations with the Alliance than Georgia,10 whereas others tend to claim the opposite.11 It is probably more correct to state that they are of equal importance. Azerbaijan possesses the hydrocarbon resources, but Georgia can assist in transporting them, and it is believed that whoever has the most leverage over Georgia controls the entire Caucasus. In terms of cooperation, Azerbaijan is more active on the state-level, whereas Georgia does not have these financial means and thus there is more cooperation on the level of NGOs or participating and hosting seminars.12

NATO and Regional Cooperation

Regional cooperation in the South Caucasus has a special role as it is seen as the only chance for creating peace and prosperity in the region. Although the issue of regional cooperation in the South Caucasus has been occasionally highlighted in the EAPC by the countries directly involved, NATO itself has not been very active in discussing the problems in the region and tries to keep cooperation at a purely technical level. However, the fact that the three countries sit together in the EAPC is a positive development in its own right. In July 1999, the Ad Hoc Working Group on Prospects for Practical Regional Cooperation in the Caucasus was established within the framework of the EAPC. Four areas were identified as being most suitable for further developing practical regional cooperation: defense economic issues; civil emergency planning; security related science and environmental cooperation; and information and public relations. Unfortunately, this trilateral cooperation under NATO auspices has proved not to be a tremendous success.

Other initiatives for regional cooperation are also related to NATO in a certain way: GUUAM and the pipeline projects. An important aspect of the Georgia-Ukraine-Uzbekistan-Azerbaijan-Moldova alignment includes the political interaction with international organizations, especially with NATO. However, a proposal for a NATO+GUUAM forum did not receive enthusiasm from the NATO side. A very important issue of the GUUAM-cooperation is the protection of pipelines. Shortly after the opening of the Baku-Supsa pipeline, there has been a joint exercise of pipeline protection for Azerbaijani, Georgian and Ukrainian troops under the auspices of NATOs PfP. This however should not be seen as a GUUAM-NATO exercise. There had been requests from both Georgian and Azerbaijani sides that NATO-troops would protect pipelines,13 but the chance that the Alliance would not only advise but also operate is very unlikely. Pipelines are a law enforcement problem within countries; to invite NATO to come in and do this is an open admission on the part of the countries that they cannot rule their own countries.14

NATO and Regional Conflicts

As soon as the South Caucasian states became NACC members in 1992, this forum touched upon the conflicts in the region.15 Georgia is still trying to discuss security issues such as the withdrawal of the Russian bases or the situation in Abkhazia. Azerbaijan and Armenia only talked about such topics during the first few years of the existence of the NACC, but soon they realized that NATO has no interest to deal with them. There even seems to be some kind of gentlemens agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan not to touch any sensitive issues in ambassadorial meetings, which is definitely appreciated by the Alliance.16 Although officials have declared at many occasions that NATO is interested in peace and stability in the region and that it sees this as elementary for its own security, the Alliance has not taken up an active role in mediating and resolving the frozen conflicts. Instead, it refers to other international organizations, such as the OSCE and the United Nations, which have mandates that are more oriented to conflict-resolution. The Alliance has several reasons not to intervene. First of all, such action would not be related to Art 5 of the NATO Charter: since the South Caucasian countries are not NATO members, the Alliance will not resort to force to solve the conflict without a mandate of the U.N. Security Council. However, it is seen by some experts that NATO will try to defend its own interests if they were threatened.17 Although Bosnia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia have never been EAPC members, NATO still sent forces to the region, and this without the support of the U.N. Security Council. Another important reason for NATOs relatively passive attitude is Russia.

The South Caucasian countries have used and especially abused events in international politics in order to get NATO support for the settlement of the frozen conflicts. Three main events can be noticed. The first comparisons were already made in the mid-1990s with the involvement of NATO in the Balkans through IFOR and SFOR. The second event, NATOs involvement in Kosovo, strained relations further because the Alliance did not have a mandate from the U.N. All of the three countries compared the situation in Kosovo with the conflicts on their own territory. Armenia and Azerbaijan only interpreted this in their own advantage, whereas Georgia even wanted an intervention of the Alliance. Finally, whereas the comparisons with Kosovo focused on ethnic cleansing, 11 September led to terrorism being the buzzword for possible future NATO intervention. Tamaz Nadareishvili, chairman of the Abkhaz parliament-in-exile, even claimed that some 40 al-Qaeda fighters were in Abkhazia.18 Azerbaijani Col-Gen Abiev claimed that if we really intend to combat terrorism in Afghanistan, such determination should be demonstrated against Armenian terrorists.19 Armenian Minister of Defense Sarkisian in reply to such accusations claimed that an al-Qaeda branch in Azerbaijan has been involved in several attacks against the U.S.20

NATO Policy and Foreign Policies of NATO Member States

All decisions at NATO, also the ones related to the South Caucasus, are taken on the basis of consensus, where each member has the same voice. Still it is clear that certain allies are more involved than others and the differences among them make the decision-making a difficult process and sometimes results in a solution which is not always optimal for every actor. The internal weaknesses in NATO (e.g. Turkey-Greece) are visible, as well as the not always consistent U.S. policy (e.g. combination of the Section 907-sanctions against Azerbaijan, interest in the oil and influence of the Armenian Diaspora).

Certain countries are more involved in the region than others, and this contributes to the misunderstandings about the level of NATO involvement in the South Caucasus. Member states can cooperate with the region through NATO-programs or on their own as part of their foreign policy. As if that were not enough, NATO member states often work in the region in the spirit of PfP. This means that they follow the ideas and aims of Partnership for Peace, but that the program is not part of the official NATO plans. The fact that NATO members have their own policies and programs in the region shows that the Alliance can easily be bypassed. A military-related engagement of one NATO member in the South Caucasus is often wrongly perceived as a commitment of the entire Alliance. A good example for this is the American Georgia Train and Equip Program (GTEP).

NATO in the Public Opinion and Media

Public opinion and media go hand in hand, since people form their opinions based on what they hear and see on TV, radio and newspapers. These forms of mass media however are very biased and mostly do not show the opinion of the official NATO side. Still, information from and about the Alliance is being distributed by the Contact Point Embassies and several national Atlantic Councils and Associations. There is also indirect news related to NATO that influences public opinion. The best example for this is that Armenian public opinion is negatively influenced because of the bad Turkish-Armenian relations.

While the Caucasian press and media are important, the Russian TV-channels and newspapers also play a vital role in informing the people about their countrys partnership with the Alliance. This media is along the same line of what the Armenian media says, but often in contradiction with the Azerbaijani and Georgian one. Russian media can be termed as anti-NATO oriented.

Until a few years ago, the public opinion thought of NATO only as the big animal that crushed the Soviet Union, as the military alliance that bombed Yugoslavia and as the organization that might intervene in the region to help. In Armenia this was perceived in a negative way, whereas the opposite was true for Georgia and Azerbaijan. However, this euphoria has changed in recent years because all speculations about NATO remained unfulfilled. Still, public opinion seems to understand that their country can only benefit from cooperation.

The Changing Nature of NATO

NATO is not a stationary thing, but its structure and activities have been rapidly evolving too. Recognizing these evolutions is not less important than looking at the internal changes in the Caucasian states, in order to analyze the relations. Several events have led to internal changes in the NATO structure and its tasks. Issues in international politics, such as the end of the cold war, NATO involvement in Kosovo and 11 September, are of high significance when examining these evolutions. These changes were initially quite slow, but have accelerated exponentially. It used to take a long time to change anything within NATO, but this is no longer true which means that NATO action is often quite unpredictable.

Problems in Cooperation

Although many officials claim cooperation is not difficult because there is a common motive for it, the list of problems and obstacles is rather long and does significantly endanger the cooperation in many ways. The internal problems are very big and constitute a great challenge. The entire internal problem is multifaceted and includes the following issues: unsettled conflicts; poor quality of the armed forces; backward mentality and no understanding of the modern world; corruption; lack of knowledge, experience, and skills; lack of homogeneity and diversity of interests; no clear vision of priorities; lack of implementation of mechanisms; weakness of states; and economic problems and financial difficulties. In the Caucasus there exists a strategic illusion in NATO, which is based on the lack of knowledge and optimistic unrealism. NATO members conflicting interests with Russia constitute a further problem. Not only between the three South Caucasian republics there exist different views of how the cooperation should be, also among the NATO members a similar difficulty can be noticed. At first glance, it might seem to be a minor issue, but the lack of knowledge of English, especially in the Armed Forces forms a huge obstacle.

Dismantling the Myths of NATOs Cooperation with the South Caucasus

It should be noted that many things that are said or thought about the relationships between NATO and the South Caucasus are biased, and there exist many stereotypes and wrong perceptions. One of the biggest myths is definitely that the South Caucasus and its conflicts are high on NATOs priority list. Furthermore, NATO is often seen as a purely military bloc, some believe the Alliance will intervene in regional conflicts, and some see oil as the sole NATO interest. Military-related involvement by one Ally is often misperceived or wrongly interpreted as a commitment from the entire Alliance. Finally, there is a general misperception that Azerbaijan and especially Georgia will become members of the Alliance in the near future. In reality, the level of cooperation is not really high and the list of problems and obstacles is rather long and does significantly endanger this cooperation in many ways. It is very unlikely that one of the South Caucasian republics will become a NATO member soon, since it would create new cold-war like divisions.


1 Personal interview with Alexander Rondeli, head of the Research Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Georgia, Tbilisi, Georgia, 20 January, 2000.
2 See: M. Smith, Geopolitical Challenges to Moscow in the Transcaucasus, Conflict Studies Research Center, Camberley, UK, 1999, p. 1.
3 Ibidem.
4 Ibid., p. 6.
5 Speech by the Rt. Hon. Lord Robertson, Secretary General of NATO Caucasus Today: Perspectives of Regional Cooperation and Partnership with NATO, Tbilisi, 26 September, 2000.
6 See: J. Wright, Georgia Might Find Its Only Defense in NATO, The Russia Journal Weekly Monitor (Moscow), 20-26 March, 2000, p. 2.
7 See: I. Paliani, EAPC and PfP Enhancements in Promoting Security, The Caucasian Perspective, NATO fellowship, Tbilisi, Georgia, 2002, p. 16.
8 Personal interview with E. Amirbekov, Counselor, Mission of Azerbaijan to NATO, Brussels, Belgium, 13 March, 2003.
9 Personal interview with O. Neola, Political Affairs International Staff, NATO HQ, Brussels, Belgium, 13 March, 2003.
10 See: S. Cherniavskiy, Iuzhniy Kavkaz v planakh NATO, Mezhdunarodnaia zhizn (Moscow), 1998, No. 9, p. 103.
11 See: G. Howard, NATO and the Caucasus: The Caspian Axis, in: S. Blank (ed.), NATO after Enlargement: New Challenges, New Missions, New Forces, Strategic Studies Institute, Carlisle, PA, U.S., 1998, p. 181.
12 Personal interview with D. Afentouli, Information Officer Greece, NATO HQ, Brussels, Belgium, 15 January, 2003.
13 Azerbaijani Official Wants NATO to Guard Baku-Ceyhan Pipeline, Interfax Russian News (Moscow), 22 November, 1999.
14 See: K. Aliev, Security in the Caucasus: Caspian Crossroads. Interview with U.S. Lt. Gen. William E. Odom. Available from [http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/usazerb/426.html]. Accessed on 13 July, 2002.
15 See: I. Paliani, op. cit., p. 5.
16 Personal interview with H. Tashchian, Counselor, Mission of the Republic of Armenia to NATO, Brussels, Belgium, 10 March, 2003.
17 See: E. Mekhtiev, Security Policy in Azerbaijan, NATO fellowship, Baku, Azerbaijan, 2001, p. 45.
18 See: Civil Georgia. No Definitive Information on al-Qaeda Fighters Presence in Abkhazia Boucher Says, Tbilisi, Georgia, 12 March, 2002. Available from [http://www.civil.ge/cgi-bin/newspro/fullnews.cgi?newsid1015918240,85479]. Accessed on 13 March, 2002.
19 Speech by Colonel-General Safar Abiev, Minister of Defense of the Republic of Azerbaijan at the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council in Defense Ministers Session, Brussels, Belgium, 19 December, 2001.
20 Statement by the Minister of Defense of the Republic of Armenia, Mr. Serge Sarkisian, Brussels, Belgium, 19 December, 2001.

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