Source: Financial Times
South Ossetia and Abkhazia make only one half of the separatist provinces in the CIS region. Russia was a principal player in the outbreak and freezing of the two other ‘frozen conflicts’ – Transnistria in Moldova and Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan. These breakaway regions, along with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union following brief conflicts in the early 1990s. Moscow provided military, political and economic support to all four separatist governments and deployed peacekeeping forces on what have become de facto borders inside these states. Clearly, the road to peace settlement or conflict resumption in Transnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh leads through Moscow. This geopolitical fact can hardly lower the political risk in a region where Russia has been using ‘frozen conflicts’ to exert military or political pressures and maintain leverage over its former satellites. Only a few days after the Georgia incursion, Russian president Medvedev called Moldova to resume peace talks with Transnistria in a move some analysts interpreted as pressure on the Moldovan government to cut ties with NATO and accept a peace plan that would allow Russian forces to stay indefinitely in Moldova. Moscow’s similar initiative for settling the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute is also seen as an attempt to woo Baku away from the West, secure gas purchase deals for Gazprom and undermine the pipeline projects that circumvent Russia. In theory, Moscow could also use the presence of the large Russian minority in the Crimea region as a pretext for conflict with NATO-aspirant Ukraine. It would be in accordance with recently outlined Russia’s foreign policy concept that envisages protection of Russian citizens ‘wherever they are’.
Nonetheless, it seems that the highest risk of violent conflict resumption has been looming over Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan’s breakaway region. In recent years, military spending has been on a sharp rise in all Central Asian states, but the two leading countries are Georgia and Azerbaijan. According to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Georgia increased its 2007 defense spending by $200m, to almost $600m, which is a 20-fold increase since 2000. Supported by its oil-booming economy, Azerbaijan has also been investing heavily in the defense sector ($667m in 2007 compared to $141m in 2000), raising concerns the government may try to recover the breakaway region by force. The growing trend of clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh in the first half of 2008 and the aggressive rhetoric employed by the Azerbaijan central government is another disturbing sign that very much resembles the pre-war dynamic in Georgia. In June, the Azerbaijani president, Ilham Aliyev, stated that the government will continue to explore political solutions for conflict resolution, but will not dismiss military options if necessary. The Georgia crisis only adds to the pre-existing security dilemma and could spark an outbreak of the violent conflict. It would inflict high costs for the economy of Azerbaijan which is named the top pro-business reformer according to the recent World Bank report.
Data – SIPRI, adjusted by Author
Finally, recent developments in Georgia could reverberate in the Balkans again. Kosovo, whose Western-backed unilateral declaration of independence infuriated Moscow and offered a convenient excuse for its actions in Georgia, is facing the threat of ‘secession within secession’. The Serbian populated northern part of Kosovo is the new potential breakaway region that does not recognize Kosovo’s statehood, has been under de facto authority of Belgrade and could eventually seek to rejoin its kinship state. Russia has been a traditional ally of Serbia and it is not hard to imagine Moscow throwing the northern part of Kosovo in its own basket of sui generis cases that do not fall under the international law of respecting borders. Meanwhile, border disputes and the fact that not all EU member states have recognized Kosovo, could further complicate EU integration process pursued both by Serbia and Kosovo.
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