Regional Dynamics in the South Caucasus: An Interview with Neil MacFarlane

We recently had the opportunity to speak with Professor S. Neil MacFarlane, the Lester B. Pearson Professor of International Relations and Fellow at St. Anne’s College, Oxford University. Dr. MacFarlane is also an Associate Fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, and has previously taught at Harvard, the University of Virginia, and Queen’s University. Dr. MacFarlane is a specialist on former Soviet Union affairs, with particular expertise in the affairs of the South Caucasus states. He is the author of dozens of policy papers on the region and is currently a visiting professor at the Center for Social Sciences at Tbilisi State University, Georgia.

SD: Since 2008, NATO has flip-flopped on whether Georgia’s ongoing bid to join NATO as a member state will come to fruition. This past March, President Obama formally announced that neither Ukraine nor Georgia are on the path to a NATO membership. But after the annexation of Crimea and the ongoing civil war in Ukraine, US officials have been more encouraging to border states of Russia and rumors of providing either country with a membership action plan will likely strain relations even more. Do you see Georgian accession to NATO as feasible, or even desirable? 

MacFarlane: Georgian membership in NATO is not currently feasible. The outcome of the last NATO summit in wales was indicative. Georgia sought a membership action plan.  They did not get it. Instead, they received “enhanced cooperation.” This, of course, was something they already had.

It may be that the US position is shifting in a direction more favorable to Georgia. But, as President Bush found in 2008, American aspirations do not determine NATO outcomes. I don’t think major European states are anywhere near an agreement on a MAP or path to membership. I don’t think accession is desirable for NATO. Georgian membership would create additional vulnerability to the alliance, and would complicate efforts to reach some modus vivendi with Russia. Those efforts might be futile, but they do need to be explored. Enlarging into the Caucasus would not help. NATO membership might also be undesirable for Georgia. The risk is that evidence of movement in that direction would provoke a hostile Russian response. There is no evidence that NATO would defend Georgia if the Russians reacted in a hostile manner.

However, it is possible that shifting circumstances might change the politics around the question of Georgian accession. Two years ago, the EU association agreement with Georgia was a distant prospect. Now it exists. That is a result of EU alarm about evidence that Russia is constructing a sphere of influence in the former soviet region.

SD: On a similar note, last month saw an agreement to share in defense responsibilities between the Russian government and the breakaway province of Abkhazia roundly condemned by Western powers. Moscow additionally doubled its subsidy to Abkhazia to $200 million – is a similar pact with South Ossetia in the works? What strategic objectives is Russia trying to accomplish with these moves in the Caucasus region, and are they worth the risks of condemnation and further isolation?

MacFarlane: A similar agreement with South Ossetia is in the works. I suppose Russia is making an attempt to influence Georgia’s westward orientation. In a broader sense, they probably have in mind the objective of control of the Caucasus, and Georgia remains a problem in their effort to construct that control.

Is their policy worth the risk? After (or in the context of) Russian policy towards Ukraine, it is not clear what additional risks they might face through this kind of initiative in Georgia. They have already accepted the attendant isolation. On the other hand, the growing crisis in the Russian economy may temper their enthusiasm.

SD: Recently, the RFE/RL offices were shut down in Baku, Azerbaijan on grounds that the news media organization has foreign sponsors. Additionally, the Azeri regime has been accused of cracking down on civil society and opposition groups. What purpose does the regime see in alienating news media, and how might this affect relations with the US and EU?

MacFarlane: I don’t think the Azerbaijanis are too concerned about alienating international media. They have learned (because we taught them) that major Western states will complain about these things, but won’t act on them because we want their oil and gas. Also, they know they have a Russian option and they know we know it is not our interest to push them in that direction. I assume that Azerbaijan’s government is undertaking these measures in order to limit potential domestic challenges. Like Russia, they are consolidating authoritarian control, and the potential international costs of doing so are discounted.

I do not anticipate major changes in their relationship with the EU and the US. They don’t really want enhanced cooperation anyway. We will be vocal in criticism of their media and human rights policies. We will buy their energy products. The more difficult the relationship with Russia becomes, the more attractive Azerbaijani energy exports become. Life will go on.

SD: Turkish relations with the ex-Soviet states that comprise the Caucasus are famously mixed. Turkish-Azeri relations are overwhelmingly positive due to the shared cultural, political and linguistic patrimony, while relations with Georgia are positive and ties with Armenia virtually non-existent. What importance do you believe Ankara gives to regional relations in general and with Georgia and Armenia in particular?

MacFarlane: I understand your question to be: what is the significance of these states in Turkish foreign and security policy. On Azerbaijan, it is not just about shared cultural/linguistic heritage. Azerbaijan has resonance in Turkish domestic politics. The Turkish retreat from the proposed protocol with Armenia a few years ago is a case in point. In addition, because of the pipelines, Azerbaijan has economic leverage.

On Armenia, Turkey has demonstrated that it is reluctant to take costs in relations with Azerbaijan in order to ameliorate relations with Armenia. In addition, the Turks are troubled by the Armenian use of the genocide question in Western capitals. This is particularly sensitive at the moment, since we are approaching the 100th anniversary. This one is stuck.

On Georgia: good relations are necessary to Turkey in the context of its increasing economic and energy relationship with Azerbaijan. Georgia has an interest in seeing that relationship grow; Georgia has its own growing economic relationship with Azerbaijan. So the Georgians pursue constructive relations with both Azerbaijan and Turkey. This doesn’t really affect their relations with Armenia because the Armenians need Georgia more than Georgia needs Armenia.

In a large sense, Turkish policy in the Caucasus needs to be understood in the context of Turkish-Russian relations. The Turks have done well out of Russia on trade and investment. Russian gas is a major part of Turkey’s energy strategy, particularly given the recent Russian decision to shift South Stream from Bulgaria to Turkey. They would not wish to jeopardize these relations through any challenge to Russian policy in the Caucasus. They also have a reasonably comfortable maritime security relationship with Russia in the Black Sea. That also gives them an incentive to be restrained.

Moreover, Turkish policy in the Caucasus is linked to their fragile relations with Iran. Iran, in turn, has a fragile relationship with Azerbaijan. Deeper Turkish political engagement in the Caucasus might destabilize those relations.

Finally, Turkey is distracted from the Caucasus by developments on other borders (Syria, Iraq). In contrast to the Middle Eastern dimension, the Caucasus is small potatoes in the larger context of Turkish strategic planning.  It is also a place where it is easy to get burned; the risks of more direct engagement outweigh the benefits. That said, the “equilibrium” just described is complex and fragile. An exacerbation of the Karabakh conflict would destabilize it.

SD: In the case of Georgia, do you believe that Tbilisi’s relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan are cordial solely because of shared economic interests, or is the relationship strategically important for other reasons? With respect to Armenia, do you believe that formalizing diplomatic ties is possible without alienating Azerbaijan?

MacFarlane: Bear in mind that Azerbaijan’s economy is much larger than those of Georgia and Armenia together. For Azerbaijan, economics is strategy. They need the corridor. In a larger sense, both Georgia and Azerbaijan are nervous about Russia, with good reason. The Azerbaijani-Georgian bilateral relationship is a critical component of their shared objective of securing and sustaining their independence from Russia.

SD: Armenia and Azerbaijan have long been at odds over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh. These tensions, however, have become much more acute over the past few months, with repeated exchanges of fire, the downing of an Armenian helicopter and the conviction of Azeri citizens on charges of espionage. Needless to say, the relationship between Azerbaijan and Armenia is unlikely to improve. Does this fact have regional ramifications? If so, do you believe that pressure is placed on regional heavyweights such as China and Russia to choose a side?

MacFarlane: Starting from the back end, China is not a major strategic player in the Caucasus. They have no reason to be. The stakes are small and distant. This is not Central Asia. Formally, Russia has chosen a side. It has a substantial bilateral defense arrangement with Armenia and a sizeable military presence in that country. On the other hand, the Russians supply both sides with military equipment. They have been playing both sides for a long time, because the persistence of the conflict suits their perceived strategic purpose of generating, and then sustaining, dependence of Caucasian states on Russia.

As I suggested earlier, the conflict does have regional implications.  The pipelines are easy targets. A renewal of warfare might rip the fabric of the region to pieces. Happily, so far as I can tell nobody has a compelling interest in renewed conflict. The uncertainties are too great. Both the Armenian and Azerbaijani governments benefit from the status quo. So does Russia. For Georgia and Turkey, a destabilization of the Karabakh situation might carry very high costs with no obvious benefits.

One lingering risk is that incidents on the de facto border get out of hand. Another risk is that, as Azerbaijan continues to build its defense capability, they might become over-confident. Or the Armenian side might try to preempt. A third risk is that one or the other might attempt to compensate for growing domestic political pressure by escalating the situation around Karabakh. Unfortunately, international actors do not have sufficient leverage to produce a settlement.

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