“This summer and fall of 2016 may look like the perfect timing for territorial adventurism in the Caucasus”

May 16, 2016
By Mariam Chubinidze
The Georgian news agency Accent’s exclusive interview with Ariel Cohen, Nonresident Senior Fellow of the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center & Global Energy Center.

-On May 11, the Georgian army began two weeks of military exercises with the United States and Britain, drawing an angry response from Russia which called the drills “a provocative step”. On May 12 so-called South Ossetia announced that it is shutting down its “border” with Georgia during the period of a joint military training exercise- Noble Partner 2016, as Tskhinvali “doesn’t rule out the possibility Georgia’s “friends” to use revanchist attitudes”. What would be your comment on the position of Moscow and Tskhinvali?

-The Russian policy in South Caucasus has been consistent for the last 25 years. It is diminishing the statehood and national expression of the peoples and states in the region, undermining their sovereignty, and increasing the Russian military posture as the predominant original power against other competitors, including the U.S., Turkey and Iran.

Having supported the separatists in Abkhazeti (Abkhazia) and Samachablo (South Ossetia) since 1992, Russia’s blaming Georgia for “revanchist” attitudes is risible. Having said that, the Georgian government should be careful when relying on the European partners.

EU’s lukewarm support of Georgia in 2008, the tiny observer missions in the region, both in Georgia and Karabakh, the lack of lethal assistance to Ukraine, and half-hazard management of the border security and the refugee crisis in Southern Europe all suggest that the EU is underperforming when peace and security in the Caucasus are concerned.

The US was also careful not to over–commit to security of South Caucasus during the Obama years. The Obama administration hoped to reach the modus vivendi with Russia in the former Soviet Union, but those hopes were shattered with the Ukraine war. The future policy will greatly depend upon the outcome of the US elections.

-Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated the peoples of Ukraine and Georgia rather than these countries’ leaders on the Victory Day anniversary on May 9 because of the absence of dialogue with presidents Petro Poroshenko and Giorgi Margvelashvili “at the proper level”, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists on Tuesday. In your opinion, how it is possible to have “dialogue at the proper level” with the leader of Georgia when you are occupying parts of this country? In your opinion, how it is possible to talk about “dialogue at the proper level”, while Russian troops have been installing barbed wire and fences around the breakaway South Ossetia region since the August war 2008, when this everything impacts on local communities’ freedom of movement and livelihood, as well as local inhabitants’ access to the cemetery and the church.

-Russia has deteriorating relations with some of its neighbors. This endangers the security of Ukraine, Georgia and other neighbors, such as the Baltic states and Turkey.

Ignoring the democratically elected leaders of Ukraine in Georgia when congratulating the populations of their countries with the Victory Day, is yet another example of its self-inflicted wound in Russian foreign policy. Such gestures will not add to goodwill toward Russia in the two countries.

Georgia was historically a good neighbor to Russia. Being a bully will not improve Russia’s bilateral relations or security of people on either side of the border. So, territorial integrity or fundamental principles of the international order should not be violated by actors big or small.

Ideally, these relationships will be repaired soon, though nobody knows when and how. The US, the EU, NATO, the UN and regional powers need to play a more active role in improving security in the South Caucasus, including border security of Georgia.

-The “President” of South Ossetia, a Russia-occupied part of Georgia, told the Tass news agency that he plans to hold a referendum on joining Russia “before August”.  Referendum news comes amid fresh fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Will this referendum pose a threat to stability in the Caucasus region?

-All separatist movements in the region are destabilizing and dangerous. Samachablo is no exception. The referendum is a tool in further destabilization of Georgia and the Caucasus. But the effort to separate South Ossetia from Georgia and weaken Georgia is not new. It started 25 years ago and will continue until Moscow has incorporated the region into more society and into the Russian Federation. The Kremlin’s support for Abkhazia, Karabakh is aimed to destabilize South Caucasus, just as support of Trans-nistria and Donetsk-Luhansk weakens Moldova and Ukraine.

-We have recently heard a lot of such statements made by de facto President Leonid Tibilov; however, it seems that Moscow is in no hurry to make a decision in this regard. On April 14, Russian President Vladimir Putin said: “we have not discussed the issue in detail with the South Ossetian leader. He expressed his attitude towards this problem and said that people of South Ossetia want to hold such a referendum. We cannot resist it”. What would be your comment on Tibilov’s announcement about a referendum and how would you assess Russia’s attitude towards this issue?

–Tibilov is an old – school apparatchik, who does not make statements of such an importance as the referendum and incorporation into Russia without clearing it many times “upstairs” in Moscow. Russia today is obsessed with glorification of Stalin and with territorial aggrandizement.

The decision in principle to annex South Ossetia was made many years ago. It is only a matter of time and timing. As President Obama is leaving office, this summer and fall of 2016 may look like the perfect timing for Russia’s territorial adventurism in the South Caucasus.