“The Big Caucasus has been the most unstable region in Eurasia in the post-Soviet era,” said Sergey Markedonov, Visiting Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies. At a 3 October 2011 Kennan Institute event, the speaker discussed the transformation of the Caucasus region from one of geopolitical periphery to one of the focal points of Eurasian, European, and Transatlantic security.
The “Big Caucasus” region, as outlined by Markedonov, comprises three newly independent states as well as three de facto entities of the South Caucasus region, including Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and seven constituencies of the Russian Federation located in the north Caucasus. The region, the speaker clarified, was militarily unstable: throughout Eurasia, six of eight military conflicts in the region have transpired in the Big Caucasus; additionally, three of four de-facto states are located in the Big Caucasus region.
The Big Caucasus is a political priority for many countries in the geopolitical arena, including the United States, Russia, Turkey, Iran, and the European Union. The stability of the region has great implications for the security situations in the Middle East and Black Sea regions, as well as for Russia. Furthermore, challenges and unpredictability in the region also have the potential to influence strategic partnerships the U.S. has with various countries in the Caucasus.
Russia’s policies with respect to the South Caucasus are notably continuing its policies in the North Caucasus; examples of this treatment, according to the speaker, include the Russian government’s handling of ethnic conflicts in the region, and Russia’s implementation of various stabilization projects. Markedonov explained interconnections between the North Caucasus security agenda and situation in the South Caucasus. He said that Russia’s interference in the South Caucasus regional issues is explained not due to any “Empire revival” aspirations but through the concern the domestic security of the country. At the same time he expressed his discontent with the Russian policy, as it is inconsistent with the government’s foreign policy in other areas of the Big Caucasus. For the Russian-Georgian war of 2008 Moscow employed selective revisionism in its policies. But it didn’t mean Russia’s readiness for the total reconsidering of inter-republican borders created in the Soviet times. Apart Georgia Moscow prefers to keep the diplomatic strategy predictable.
Markedonov paid a special attention to the North Caucasus security challenges. He showed that initial popularity of the nationalist discourse in the early 1990s was replaced growing Islamic religious revival in the different forms including radicalism. As a result the political agendas of conflicting parties in the region do not focus on liberation or nationalism—rather, radical Islam presently underscores the insurgency and terrorism in the region. Reasons for this change, according to Markedonov, include Russia’s failed nationalism projects in the North Caucasus, the rise of Islam, and new forms of terrorism emerging throughout the world.
Although the United States plays a smaller political role in the Big Caucasus than Russia does, it maintains a strong political presence in the region. Several factors have prompted the United States’ interest in the region, including the aftermath of September 11, 2001, as well as growing activity of Turkey and Iran. The Iran-Russia relationship supports the U.S. political opinion that Russian policy in the Big Caucasus should be regarded with skepticism. However, precedent indicates that the U.S.’s suspicion presents an additional potential threat: security issues that implicate state actors throughout Central Asia and the Middle East have prompted the U.S. to escalate its involvement in several countries in the region from passive observation to active engagement more than once in recent years.
In light of the instability throughout the Big Caucasus, Markedonov emphasized that Russia must maintain the integrity of its relationship with the North Caucasus. If Russia moves away from the Caucasus, it could provoke instability throughout the region as well as beyond it, the speaker noted. Ultimately, the speaker asserted, the more pressing issue concerns politicians’ systematic promotion of ethno-nationalist propaganda. “It should not be good Russians against bad Caucasians,” Markedonov concluded, “but a fight against discrimination and xenophobia and an increase of unity.”
By Reagan Sims
- Visiting Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies