Martin MALEK

Martin Malek, Research fellow, National Defense Academy of Austria (Vienna, Austria)

The South Caucasian region is of only very limited interest to the Western public. However, this does not mean that events there have no supra-regional relevance. On the one hand, the ethnically and religiously highly heterogeneous South Caucasian region is itself the scene of a number of crises; on the other, it is close to other trouble spots such as Chechnia, the Kurdish areas of eastern Turkey and Iraq. The South Caucasus is a kind of hinge between Europe and Asia, the Orient and the Occident. The zones of interest of several great powers also overlap here, not least of all due to the regions role as a transportation corridor, in particular for oil. Security policy relations in and around the South Caucasus are therefore much more complex than can be explained in a relatively short account.

The most important challenges for the internal and external security of the South Caucasus are: Unresolved political and ethnoterritorial conflicts, refugee movements, the continuing economic and social crisis, the weakness and ineffectiveness of state institutions (especially in Georgia), crime and corruption and the modest quality of democracy. These six problem areas are so self-evidently linked that it hardly appears possible to tackle and solve them individually.

1. The Main Players

The main security policy players in the South Caucasus are:

  • The independent and recognized states, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan;
  • The states bordering the region, Russia, Turkey and Iran;
  • The United States;
  • International organizations such as the U.N., OSCE, CIS, GUUAM and NATO.

One could also include the unrecognized, but de facto existing states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia and Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan among the players. However, Azerbaijan denies that Karabakh is an independent, i.e. separate factor from Armenia and it is a widely held belief in Georgia that Abkhazia and South Ossetia owe their position solely to Russian support.

2. The Collective Security Treaty and GUUAM

The 1992 Collective Security Treaty (or Tashkent Treaty) contains an assistance clause which (unlike the NATO treaty) explicitly refers to military means. Georgia and Azerbaijan did not extend their membership of the Collective Security Treaty in 1999, leaving Armenia as the only country in the South Caucasus to belong to the treaty. It was expanded in April 2003 to an Organization of the Collective Security Treaty, which was supposed to constitute a full military alliance consisting of Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

In Moscow and Erevan, GUUAM (after the first letters of the member states Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Moldova) had always been regarded as an anti-Russian organization and Trojan horse of NATO in the CIS. Despite preparations for the establishment of a joint peacekeeping unit, the security policy relevance of GUUAM has so far remained insignificant. There is no permanent organizational structure or even a secretariat, let alone military assistance as provided for by the Collective Security Treaty.

3. The Relationship to NATO

All three states in the South Caucasus belong to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly as associate members and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC). In 1994 they signed the Framework Document of the Partnership for Peace (PfP). Georgia and Azerbaijan have since 1999 small contingents (around 30 men each) in the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force in Kosovo, and in January 2004 Armenia will also send a platoon (as a part of the Greek contingent). However, the similarities in relations with NATO end here.

Armenia clearly has no intention of joining the alliance, although it does not reject a certain degree of cooperationundoubtedly with the intention of obtaining funds and in order not to leave the field to Azerbaijan. The first NATO exercise in Armenia, Cooperative Best Effort 2003, took place in the second half of June 2003. It was also remarkable because for the first time Turkish troops, albeit only three of them, set foot in independent Armenia. Another reason why the maneuvers attracted attention is that Erevan and Ankara have no diplomatic relations and their common border is still closed. 19 members of NATO and the PfP, including Russia, sent 400 troops in order to act out a fictitious scenario in which they provide military support for an international peacekeeping operation.

In contrast to Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan have committed themselves to join NATO. However, this will not happen any time soon for a number of reasons. The alliance, for example, insists that candidates resolve all territorial issues with neighboring states, and the governments in Tbilisi and Baku only have reliable control over parts of their territories. Moreover, their armed forces still fall far short of NATO standards, even though reaching this standard has been made a policy goal. Then there is the Russian factor: Moscow vehemently opposes NATO membership of former Soviet Republics, and the alliance has no desire to strain its sometimes awkward relations with Russia for the sake of Georgia and Azerbaijan. NATO Secretary General George Robertson also left no doubt about his position. Asked by a Russian newspaper about Georgia and Azerbaijans chances of membership, he said that this was speculation he did not wish to discuss.1 He also made it clear during a visit to Baku in the middle of June 2003 that NATO was not considering setting up bases in Azerbaijan, as a number of people (including presidential advisor Vafa Guluzade) had invited it to.

4. The Iraq Crisis

Georgia and Azerbaijan were named by the U.S. State Department on 19 March, 2003 as being part of Washingtons 30-member coalition of the willing formed to fight Saddam Hussein. Former Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, in particular, gave unreserved support to the U.S. His obvious motive was hope for American support solving the conflict with separatist Abkhazia.2 Russia feared that the U.S. could attack Iraq from bases in Georgia. Shevardnadze is on record as having said that he would have permitted this, but matters never got that far.

According to Minister of Defense Colonel General Safar Abiev, Azerbaijan placed its airspace and military airfields at the disposal of the U.S. and its allies in the anti-Iraq coalition.3

Armenias Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian regretted the outbreak of war. Armenia was concerned about the fate of the Armenian minority in Iraq, variously said to number between 10,000 and 30,000 people. Armenian voices predicted that Turkeys role in the region would expand as a result of its membership in the anti-Iraq coalition of the willing, which would weaken the Armenian position in Karabakh. However, this development did not take place, as parliament in Ankara refused to allow the U.S. Army to use Turkish territory for the invasion of Iraq. This did not though alter the basic Armenian assessment of relations to Turkey and Azerbaijan as a zero sum game: Everything that (supposedly or in fact) benefits these two countries is regarded as harmful for Armenia.

In August 2003, Georgia sent 70 and Azerbaijan 150 troops to Iraq. In the same month, Armenia declared its willingness to dispatch three military doctors and ten specialists on demining.

Table 1

The Armies of the Recognized States









combat aircraft

combat helicopters







some 110


(partial non-operational)


(partial non-operational)

11-16 patrol craft,

6 amphibious


some 45,000








some 77,000






11 patrol/ coastal/mine warfare,

2 amphibious

Sources: The Military Balance 2002-2003, London, 2002, pp. 64-66, 73; Kommersant, 16 April, 2002, p. 11; Nezavisimaia gazeta, 13 September, 2002, p. 1.

* This figure contains personnel of army, air force, navy, troops of the Ministry of the Interior and border protection forces.

5. Georgia between Russia and the U.S.

Shevardnadze had high hopes of bilateral cooperation with the U.S. Since the end of April 2002, U.S. military instructors have been training Georgian forces in antiterrorist operations as part of the so-called Train and Equip Program. The Americans will be withdrawn after completing their mission, i.e. there are no plans for a permanent military presence in Georgia. According to estimates of independent Moscow defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer, there are around 150,000 Russian troops in the North and South Caucasus, 80,000 up to 100,000 of whom are in Chechnia.4 Some 80 American instructors in Georgia with no combat mandate whatsoever will not be able to influence the force ratio in the region. Nevertheless, Moscow viewed their deployment as a move by Washington to counter Russian influence in the South Caucasus.

Russia has repeatedly accused Georgia of giving shelter to Chechen rebels, especially in the Pankisi Gorge (not far from the Chechen section of the Russian-Georgian border) and even supporting them. At the height of the Pankisi crisis in summer 2002, Moscow openly threatened Georgia with war; Russian newspapers even published operational plans.5

6. Armenia: Russias Last Reliable Ally

In 1999, a Moscow newspaper described the paradoxical foreign policy situation of Armenia as follows: It is the only country that receives weapons from Russia and money from America and cooperates with Iran.6 However, the U.S. has little influence over Erevans political course, notwithstanding the fact that it also finances some Armenian military programs. Instead, there is much talk of an axis Moscow-Erevan-Tehran. At first sight it seems astonishing that the Islamic Republic of Iran supports Armenia, the oldest Christian state in the world, against Shiite Azerbaijan. Upon closer inspection, however, the background to the congruence of interests becomes clear: Like Moscow and Erevan, Tehran wishes to keep Western and Turkish influence in the region as small as possible.

7. Azerbaijans Difficult Neighborhood

While relations between Azerbaijan and Russia were sometimes tense, cooperationparticularly in military affairshas never broken off. Thus, the defense ministers of Azerbaijan and Russia, Abiev and Sergei Ivanov, signed an agreement at the end of February 2003 in Baku, which, among other things, provided for the training of Azerbaijanis in Russia. However, that has gone on for yearsand Azerbaijani officers repeatedly run into Armenians from Karabakh at Russian military academies.

Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Vilaiat Guliev announced his opposition to a new Iranian proposal for a regional security organization on 2 May, 2003. The proposal, announced during Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazis visit to Armenia, would encompass Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, Russia, and Turkey. Guliev explained that although all regional states, including Iran, should be closely involved in security in the South Caucasus, Azerbaijan and Georgia are seeking closer integration with NATO. He said any serious security system in the region is impossible without the participation of Euro-Atlantic structures.7

8. Ethnoterritorial Conflicts and the Refugee Problem

South Ossetia already seceded violently from Georgia in 1989-1992. Abkhazia followed in 1992-1993. Since a ceasefire in the fighting over Karabakh in 1994, the Armenians control some 13.6 percent of the territory of the former Azerbaijani Soviet Republic (which is a long way short of official Bakus claim of 20 percent8). Negotiations for a solution to the conflict have now been going on for around a decade and nothing indicates that a solution is in sight. Abkhazia and South Ossetia insist upon their independence or on becoming part of Russia, Karabakh on its independence or unification with Armenia.9

The refugee problem remains unsolved in all three South Caucasian States. In 1993 some 250,000 Georgians (i.e. almost half the population) were expelled from Abkhazia or had to flee, 800,000 Azeris (from Armenia, Karabakh and other Armenian occupied territories of Azerbaijan) are refugees in Azerbaijan, and Armenia is still hosting about 311,000 refugees from Azerbaijan. The rulers in both Abkhazia and Karabakh will probably never agree to a return of all the refugees, because they consider the Georgians or the Azeris, respectively, as a threat to their claims to secede. From the point of view of Baku and Tbilisi, it seems to be unlikely to solve the refugee problem before Azerbaijani or Georgian jurisdiction, respectively, has been established over Karabakh or Abkhazia. This, however, can be ruled out in the near future. The world community has so far failed to tackle the security interests of the Karabakh Armenians and Abkhaz on the one hand and the humanitarian tragedy of the IDPs from Abkhazia and Karabakh on the other hand. Both are a consequence of the lack of a clear strategy to overcome the consequences of various ethnic cleansings in the South Caucasus.

In Armenia and Russia, but also in various Western sources, fears are expressed that Azerbaijan could use its oil revenues to arm its military in order to at least threaten a violent solution of the Karabakh problem. However, this overlooks the fact that Armenia could use its SCUD-B ballistic missiles against Azerbaijani oil fields, pipelines and/or refineries, an action that would undoubtedly result in an inferno.10 Of course, in the event of war, Western corporations would immediately withdraw their investments from the Azerbaijani oil industry. Baku is well aware of this fact. For that reason, the current de facto independent status of Karabakh becomes safer with every dollar invested in the Azerbaijani oil industry by Western companies.

Table 2

Separatist Armies








combat aircraft

combat helicopters



3,000- 5,000 (on mob up to 45,000)







(Su-25 etc.)


some 20

(small craft)

South Ossetia

2,000 (planned: 6,000)






some 18,000 (on mob up to 40,000)






Sources: The Military Balance 2002-2003, pp. 73, 66; Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, 19 October, 2001, p. 2; Gazeta, 13 September, 2002, p. 2; 30 October, 2001, p. 2; Kommersant, 16 April, 2002, p. 11; Russia and the CIS, Janes Sentinel, No. 12, 2003, p. 234.

A comparison of the figures in Tables 1 and 2 seems to indicate that the bulk of Armenian military potential is stationed in and around Karabakh. It should, however, be pointed out that these figures come from Baku. They are firmly denied by the Armenian side, which has not provided its own official data. Of course, no reference is made to the Karabakh military potential (like the forces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia) in the quotas of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE). Karabakh has expressed its readiness to put its military under CFE control, but this, of course, implies the international recognition of its independencewhich is almost impossible in the near future.

9. Russia and Ethnoterritorial Conflicts

Without military support from Moscow, Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Karabakh relied mainly on Armenia) would hardly have been able to tear free from their central governments: Moscow rendered political support and made massive deliveries of arms. According to Alexei Arbatov, a member of the Russian State Duma (lower house of parliament), it gave direct military aid to the Abkhaz.11 The Russian army openly intervened in Abkhazia in 1992-1993 (together with Chechen volunteers under Shamil Bassaev, now one of Russias most wanted terrorists).

Officials from Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Karabakh and the Dnestr region (Moldova) come and go regularly to Moscow; they are received in parliament and the foreign ministry whenever they wish. Almost the entire adult population (and of course the political elite) of Abkhazia and South Ossetia has since longtime held Russian citizenship. Consequently, Moscow could intervene militarilyin the event that Tbilisi was ever to attempt to solve the conflict by forceunder the pretext of protecting Russian citizens.

Russia has repeatedly warned Tbilisi against a war against Abkhazia and/or South Ossetia. At the same time, however, Moscow is trying to solve its own problem with separatism in Chechnia by solely military means, i.e. to exterminateto use the official termthe rebels there (officially referred to only as bandits and terrorists). The Kremlin has always ruled out negotiations.

10. Russian Military Presence


In the Final Act agreed upon at the 1999 OSCE Summit in Istanbul, Russia agreed in a joint statement with Georgia to withdraw a part of its military equipment from its bases on Georgian territory. Moscow promised to disband its military bases in Gudauta and Vaziani by 1 July, 2001. While the Vaziani base was closed on time, withdrawal from the Gudauta base in Abkhazia was not completed within the agreed upon time frame. According to official Russian sources, the main hurdles are the refusal of Abkhaz authorities to allow the presence of international observers as well as widespread local opposition to the operation.

Even today, Tbilisi and Moscow are far from reaching an agreement about the two Russian bases in Batumi and Akhalkalaki that are still active. Tbilisi has been insisting that Moscow hand back its bases at Akhalkalaki and Batumi within three years, rather than the 11-year time limit Moscow is seeking. Russia calls its troops in the South Caucasus a factor for stability and currently sees no reason to withdraw them, because it fears that NATO would move in or that Georgia could more easily join the alliance without Russian bases.

In Armenia, Moscow has the 102nd base in Giumri and combat aircraft in Erevan. Russia is currently transferring military personnel from Georgia to Armenia, which Azerbaijanwithout being able to prevent ithas severely criticized with references to the unresolved Karabakh conflict.

Table 3

Russian Military Bases








combat aircraft




(Batumi, Akhalkalaki)


probably 6,300*



some 140



(Giumri, Erevan)






up to 50?

Sources: The Military Balance 2002-2003, pp. 64, 74; Kommersant, 16 April, 2002, p. 11; Russia and the CIS, pp. 42-43, 220.

* In April 2003, Georgias ambassador to Russia, Zurab Abashidze, quoted the figure of 8,000 Russian soldiers in Georgia altogether. The figure of 6,300 in the bases results from the consideration of the peacekeeping contingent (see Table 4).

Border troops

Within the context of its integration efforts in the CIS, Moscow followed a strategy of two borders: It only wished to guardwith its own soldiers if possiblethe so-called external borders of the CIS (i.e. the borders of the former U.S.S.R.), while wanting borders between two CIS states to remain as open as possible. Most CIS states (including Georgia), however, have long since sent the Russian border troops home. Russian soldiers are now only stationed on the Armenian border to Turkey and Iran.

The Radar Station in Gabala

On 25 January, 2002 the presidents of Azerbaijan and Russia, Heydar Aliev and Vladimir Putin, signed an agreement, according to which Russia would lease the Daryal base (near Gabala) for ten years for the comparatively small sum of 7 million dollars a year. 200 of the 1,600 employees at the station, which is part of the Russian early warning system against missile attacks, are citizens of Azerbaijan.

Peacekeeping Missions

Tbilisi also occasionally wished for a change to the mandate of the Russian peacekeeping troops that have been stationed in the Georgian-Abkhaz zone of conflict on the Inguri River since June 1994 to allow them to escort Georgian refugees back to Abkhazia. Russia, and of course Abkhazia, always categorically rejected this as well as the replacement of the Russian contingent by Turkish and/or Ukrainian peacekeepers. Russia evidently does not wish to surrender control of the peace mission, arguing that without their troops the Georgian-Abkhaz war would flare up again. However, this concern for peace is hardly plausible given that Moscow is conducting a bloody war in Chechnia itself. The real reason why Moscow is determined to remain present on the Inguri is clearly geopolitical. The Russian peacekeepers act as de facto border troops for Abkhazia. As long as they are there, a restoration of Georgian jurisdiction over Abkhazia is virtually impossible. Moreover, Moscow can act as a referee between Tbilisi and Sukhumi.

When the mandate of the Russian peacekeeping force expired on 31 December, 2002, the U.S. pressured Shevardnadze to agree to an extension of the mandate despite all the problems between Georgia and Russia.12 However, that did not change the widespread belief in Russia that the West wished to push Russia out of the CIS and more specifically the South Caucasus.

Table 4

Russian Peacekeepers in Georgia



main battle





combat helicopters







South Ossetia




Sources: The Military Balance 2002-2003, p. 74; Nezavisimaia gazeta, 12 July, 2002, p. 5; Kommersant, 16 April, 2002, p. 11; N. Sumerkin, Vooruzhennye sily Rossii, Moscow, 2000, p. 69.

* Part of a trilateral peacekeeping force.

Russian troops on the Inguri do not possess a U.N. mandate; Moscow considers the CIS mandate to be sufficient. The trilateral peacekeeping force in South Ossetia is based solely on a bilateral agreement concluded in 1992 between presidents Shevardnadze and Boris Yeltsin. This unit, under the command of a Russian general, has Russian, Georgian and Ossetian contingents. However, this ignores one of the most important principles of the U.N. for peacekeeping missions, namely the non-inclusion of soldiers from the (former) warring parties.

11. The Importance of the Baku-Ceyhan Pipeline in Security Policy

Energy policyand specific issues concerning the production and transport of oil and natural gasis of tremendous security policy importance in the South Caucasus. The main focus of attention is the construction of the 1,730-kilometer Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, costing around 3 billion dollars. The pipeline was started in 2002 and should from 2005 on transport up to 50 million metric tons of oil a year. So far, Azerbaijan remains dependent upon two export routes for the sale of its oil: the Baku-Supsa pipeline through Georgia and the Baku-Novorossiisk pipeline through Russia. The U.S. is also very interested in Baku-Ceyhanundoubtedly because it is routed to avoid both Russia and Iran. For the same reason, these states reject the pipeline.

No less important for the project is the question of whether there are sufficient oil deposits in Azerbaijan to fill the pipeline. It is conceivable that it will only be able to work profitably if it can carry additional oil from Kazakhstan. Moreover, the pipeline would run close by Karabakh, South Ossetia, Russian bases in Georgia as well as the Kurdish areas of eastern Turkey. For that reason, the defense of the pipeline is one of the greatest security policy challenges facing those countries with an interest in it.

Conclusion and Outlook

The three South Caucasian states are far from being the unit that many in the West wish to regard them as. There are no solutions in sight to the ethnoterritorial conflicts, as Moscow tries to manipulate them in its own self-interest and the West shows only a small (or no) degree of commitment to achieve enduring solutions of these conflicts. Georgia and Azerbaijan have due to their internal weakness no prospects to restore what they call their territorial integrity in the near future. Notwithstanding a certain U.S. presence, Russia will remain the dominant power in the South Caucasus for the foreseeable future, thus setting the limits for its further integration into European and Euro-Atlantic organizations.

1 See: I. Korotchenko, NATO i Rossiia obrazovali protivoraketnyi klub. Interview with Robertson, Nezavisimaia gazeta, 15 May, 2003, p. 5.
2 See also: S. Wright, Caucasus States Review Iraq Wars Impact, 5 June, 2003; International Relations and Security Network [http://www.isn.ethz.ch/infoservice/secwatch/].
3 See: Transcaucasus and Central Asia, RFE/RL Newsline, 24 March, 2003 [http://www.rferl.org/newsline/2003/03/240303.asp].
4 See: P. Felgenhauer, Kremlins Risky PR Game, The Moscow Times, 7 March, 2002, p. 9.
5 See also: P. Polkovnikov, Genshtab gotovit Blitzkrieg, Nezavisimaia gazeta, 13 September, 2002, pp. 1, 11; I. Safronov, Stsenarii voyny v Gruzii, Kommersant, 16 September, 2002, p. 10.
6 A. Gadzhizade, Dve initsiativy, Nezavisimaia gazeta, 18 December, 1999, p. 5.
7 Azerbaijan Opposes Iranian Regional Security Proposal, Azerbaijan Daily Digest, 5 May, 2003 [http://www.eurasianet.org/resource/azerbaijan/hypermail/news/0012.shtml].
8 See: Th. de Waal, Black Garden. Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War, New York, London, 2003, p. 286.
9 See: D. Lynch, Managing Separatist States: A Eurasian Case Study, Institute for Security StudiesWestern European Union, Occasional Papers, No. 32, Paris, 2001.
10 Deliveries of Russian arms to Armenia between 1993 and 1996, said to have been worth 1 billion dollar, included SCUD-B missiles. See also: M. Malek, Armenia, in: Security Handbook 2001. Security and Military in Central and Eastern Europe, ed. by Hans J. Giessmann and Gustav E. Gustenau, Baden-Baden, 2001, p. 56; idem, Determinanten der Sicherheitspolitik Armeniens, Berichte des Bundesinstituts für ostwissenschaftliche und internationale Studien, No. 11, 2000, p. 11.
11 A. Arbatov, Bezopasnost: Rossiiskii vybor, Moscow, 1999, p. 163. See also: Ch. King, The Benefits of Ethnic War. Understanding Eurasias Unrecognized States, World Politics, July 2001, pp. 538-540.
12 See: Statement by U.S. State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher on Commonwealth of Independent States Peacekeeping Force in Abkhazia, Public Affairs Section / Embassy of the United States of America (in Georgia), 13 February, 2003 [http://web.sanet.ge/usembassy/releases/feb13_03.htm].

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