What do you think is
the next step in Abkhazia?
One of the main problems in Abkhazia is the high degree of
unpredictability on both the Russian and the Georgian sides. I
don’t believe that anyone wants a war over Abkhazia. However
it’s a very small territory, and there are a lot of armed men
there from both sides. The Russians have recently deployed
paratroopers there, ostensibly as peacekeepers, although they
obviously have a big offensive capability. And the Georgians
have deployed armed men in the only part of Abkhazia under their
control, the Upper Kodori Valley.
The risk is that one side may try some kind of military action
because they are afraid of the other side doing so; they’ll
launch what they believe is a pre-emptive strike. The territory
is so small that a lot of it could be conquered in half a day,
so a few hours of fighting could completely alter the situation.
This would lead to the Russian peacekeepers inevitably being
drawn in on the Abkhaz side, and we would have a
Do you believe
that the Georgian administration will be tempted to use military
From what I gather, they have a number of options. [Georgian
President] Saakashvili is quite indecisive and his mood changes
a lot. So the military option is one that they are considering,
although I think they have to be aware that it would be fairly
suicidal - it would be the end of the international mediation
effort in Abkhazia and the UN mission there. Although they would
get support from some (mainly East European) countries, it would
be pretty disastrous for Georgia. On the other side, I don’t see
any motives for the Russians or the Abkhaz to attack, unless
they believed it was a pre-emptive strike.
What do you
think that Russia will do next, regarding its ‘soft annexation’
I think that Russia
has, in its own terms, played this situation masterfully. They
have used two events (Kosovo’s declaration of independence and
promises of NATO membership to Georgia), as cover to claim that
they are protecting Abkhazia. They are not recognizing Abkhazia,
as the West did with Kosovo - this would leave Russia open to
claims of hypocrisy, and would make Abkhazia more independent
than it presently is. So I think that Russia has got more or
less everything that it wants. This ‘soft annexation’ gives
Russia de facto control over Abkhazia, it weakens Georgia and it
annoys the West. I think this is possibly Vladimir Putin’s
greatest legacy to his successor.
Do you think
that the Abkhaz themselves have a role to play? Will there come
a point where they resent being under Russian influence?
I think this has basically happened already. The Abkhaz are in a
rather unenviable position. They have de facto seceded from
Georgia and proclaimed independence which no-one recognizes and
which no-one will recognize. They are also very suspicious of
Russia. Like most people in the Caucasus, they see Russia as
having a colonial role which threatens their identity, and yet
they’ve had no option but to embrace Russia. Russia has done
many things for the Abkhaz – it has opened the border, it has
paid pensions, it has provided investment. But the Abkhaz are
being swallowed up, and there is no room for manoeuvre.
To what extent
is Georgia to blame for the situation in Abkhazia? Does
President Saakashvili have a real plan for peace?
I think the Georgians
do share a large portion of the blame. Saakashvili was elected
in 2004 [after the ‘Rose Revolution’] with a huge popular
mandate for change. He could have started again with a clean
sheet, and put all the blame for what had happened in Abkhazia
on his predecessor Eduard Shevardnadze. There was still scope at
that point to reach out to the Abkhaz and pull them away from
But Saakashvili and his administration have maintained the
blockade and isolation of Abkhazia, and they’ve continued to
talk about ethnic cleansing and have adopted a tone of moral
outrage. They have developed a peace plan, but one on which they
didn’t really consult with the Abkhaz - it’s a unilateral peace
plan, and it looks to the Abkhaz like more of a public-relations
statement to the West than a serious effort to engage.
There’s a lot of inconsistency in Georgia, there have been very
positive gestures and steps from some people, and then some very
belligerent statements from others. The Abkhaz don’t really know
what to expect.
anything that the West can do in Abkhazia?
There are a number of things they could be doing. They are
putting pressure on the Georgians not to do anything stupid,
which is having some results; they’re also trying to put
pressure on the Russians which, given the mood that Russia is
currently in, is having fewer results. One thing they could do
is to try opening some sort of presence in Abkhazia which would
give the Abkhaz a window onto Europe, perhaps some kind of
travel documents which would allow them travel to Europe or an
EU office in Abkhazia - anything which would be seen as coming
from neither Georgia nor Russia.
Do you think
that Armenia and Azerbaijan can draw any lessons from the
situation in Abkhazia - does it reflect in any way on Karabakh?
I think the two conflicts run in parallel, and I think that the
declaration of Kosovo’s independence has had an effect on all
the conflicts in the region. It means that the separatists - in
Abkhazia, Karabakh or South Ossetia - have felt more confident
that time is on their side and that history will recognise the
realities on the ground. And it has meant that Georgia and
Azerbaijan are more worried, and feel that time is working
against them. There’s a great sense of urgency, and both states
have felt the need to work harder to reclaim these territories.
Both countries have recently put resolutions to the UN General
Assembly reaffirming their territorial integrity; they have felt
compelled to do this because they felt that the Kosovo precedent
was working against them.
Do you think
that with the new administration in Armenia we can expect to see
any change in Karabakh?
No, I think the
opposite. In Armenia there is an ongoing political crisis which
saw blood on the streets in early March in Yerevan, with at
least ten people killed. So the new president Serzh Sarkisian
has now got his work cut out to prove his popular legitimacy in
a very difficult situation and claim a mandate, which means that
the last thing on his agenda at the moment is Karabakh. He had
his first meeting with [Azerbaijani President] Ilham Aliyev in
St. Petersburg on June 6th. They have agreed not to
take any steps backwards, essentially an agreement that they
will resume work on negotiations later this year.
prospects do you see for Karabakh, and is there a chance that
Azerbaijan’s increasing oil wealth will lead it towards a
I think the prospects are quite gloomy at the moment. The Azeris
are talking more and more about how any resolution of the
Karabakh conflict must involve Armenian recognition of
Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, which is obviously out of
the question for Armenia. The most positive scenario is that
after Aliyev is re-elected, he will have a new mandate and will
want to think about doing a deal; but it’s equally likely that
he will use this new mandate to think about the military option,
which I think would be a disaster. On the Armenian side,
Sarkisian comes from Karabakh and is a veteran of the war with
Azerbaijan. He is therefore in no hurry to make a big compromise
which would be seen as betraying that victory. Both sides
continue to believe that time is on their side, and both sides
are half-right, and I think that’s part of the problem.
generally, do you see any major changes in the Caucasus in the
I think this is a period when things are so delicate that a
small event could spiral out of control. Take the Gali region of
Abkhazia, the most southern region, which has a Georgian
population of 40-50,000 who live there precariously - they are
ethnic Georgians but live in Abkhazia, and don’t have any real
support from the Georgian government. Any armed incident there
could escalate - large numbers of people could flee and there
could be military interventions. Or look at the Karabakh
ceasefire line which is almost 200 miles long and has only five
unarmed monitors along it: on March 4th/5th
we saw big violations of the ceasefire there.
Do you think
that those ceasefire violations were, as has been claimed,
engineered by the Armenian defence ministry to draw attention
away from the protests in Yerevan?
Well, both sides
blame the other for starting that particular incident for
political reasons, but it may have just been accidental. In
spring each side moves to higher ground to reclaim positions
where the winter snows have thawed, and during this process an
exchange of fire may have started which got out of control.
Do you see any
upcoming changes in the North Caucasus: in, for example,
Dagestan and Ingushetia?
a kind of permanent instability now both in Ingushetia and in
Dagestan. This is something that President Medvedev may try and
resolve, by putting a new leader in Ingushetia, for example.
Chechnya is relatively more stable, the process of
Chechenisation has more or less worked, by giving the Chechen
leadership almost everything they asked for. This stores up
problems for the future, but for now has brought much greater
peace and stability to Chechnya. So I think that if Moscow could
find leaders who they can do the same kind of bargain with in
Ingushetia, that might be an answer. This might be something
that Mr. Medvedev might be thinking about now that he’s
Do you think
there will be any changes in Russian attitudes towards Georgia
under the ‘new’ Russian administration?
I don’t think so, in the sense that even if Dmitry Medvedev
wanted to have a thaw in relations with Georgia - and it’s
possible he does - Putin is still there as Prime Minister, and
Putin was also extremely active in provoking Georgia in his last
months in office, in a way that locked Medvedev into that
policy. And even the foreign ministry, which is the most
moderate of all the ‘power ministries’ in Russia, is locked now
into that policy. I can’t see that the Russians would withdraw
their troops from Abkhazia, since that would look like backing
Would a new
American administration bring a new approach to the region?
It obviously depends
who wins. John McCain has been to Georgia several times, he’s
even been to South Ossetia, and is rather confrontational with
respect to Russia. It’s difficult to say about Barack Obama, I
doubt he knows much about Georgia, but I suspect it’d be more of
the same. I do think that all of these conflicts in the South
Caucasus could only be solved through some sort of ‘grand
bargain’ between Russia and the United States, which would
involve lots of bigger elements such as NATO membership,
security guarantees, energy promises and so on. I think that’s
probably what’s needed in order to defuse things; there’s too
much suspicion at the moment between Russia and the US over
What are the
chances of such a thaw in US-Russian relations?
particularly if McCain comes in, because he’s quite hawkish on
Russia. Also, it must be said, the Russians are in no mood to
back down. For domestic purposes, picking a fight with the US
that plays well with the electorate. It’s an easy way to secure
domestic popularity and to remind people that Russia is a great