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Caucasus Diary

  • John O'Sullivan

Downtown Yerevan.

Yerevan, Armenia

Arriving in Yerevan is a little like arriving in Las Vegas. The terrain, yellow desert and scrubs, is similar to Nevada, and the road from the airport is banked by neon-lit casinos. There is even a smaller version of the Las Vegas cowboy sign whose swinging arm directs gamblers to a particular casino. Like Las Vegas, Armenia's capital city is a tourist resort. During the Soviet period, which ended in September 1991, it was popular with Russian tourists. But since vacation options for Russians were strictly limited, the locals had little incentive to upgrade hotels and other tourist facilities. The town was a pleasant historic backwater.

Very historic as it happens. One of its main potential selling points was that Armenia was supposedly the first nation to convert formally to Christianity (in the 4th century.) But that was hardly emphasized under Moscow's rule. In fact, wherever you see an attractive public building such as an opera house -- and Yerevan has quite a number of them -- it is almost certainly erected on the ruins of an Armenian Orthodox church.

Today Yerevan is popular with Russian investors and developers. Russian investors own almost the country's entire infrastructure. In Yerevan a massive building boom is in progress. Vast cranes dominate the skyline. (One resident counted 75 from her office terrace.)

Accordingly the hotels, restaurants, and bars are all getting a sophisticated facelift. There is still an aroma of the Third World in the dusty side streets. But Yerevan will soon become a real capital city and a universally popular tourist destination -- or, rather, it would do so if it were not located in the southern Caucasus next door to a full-scale international crisis in Georgia.

***

On the way to lunch I receive a call on my mobile phone from a friend in Oxford. I postpone the conversation, explaining that I am in a taxi in the middle of Yerevan. I get a fine example of British one-upmanship in reply: "Oh, did the taxi take a wrong turning?"

***

But you can see his point: the southern Caucasus is the Rubik's Cube of international disputes. Every time you try to solve one crisis, you make another worse. Next door to Armenia is oil-rich and Muslim Azerbaijan. Both countries claim the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh which the Soviets assigned to Azerbaijan even though its population was mainly ethnic Armenian. They went to war over it in the late 1980s even though both were constituent-states of the USSR at the time. In 1994, an eventual ceasefire left the Armenians in possession of both Nagorno-Karabakh and some part of Azerbaijan proper. Refugees exist on both sides. Nothing is settled.

The dispute is one of those "frozen conflicts" that Russia has cleverly exploited to maintain indirect control of its "near abroad." Armenia and Azerbaijan are each anxious to keep Russia on its side. Neither likes Russian dominance of the neighborhood; both accept it as a fact of life.

But other powerful neighbors also intervene. Sympathetic to Azerbaijan on ethno-religious grounds, Turkey has imposed a blockade on Armenian trade going through its territory. That is a real restraint on Armenia's otherwise very healthy economy --growing in recent years at an average of 13 percent thanks to privatization and other reforms.

Still, the Turkish blockade means that a very high proportion of Armenia's trade has to be conveyed by railway through Georgia to the port of Poti on the Black Sea. That railway is now vulnerable to Russian disruption aimed at Georgia -- and Poti is still in Russian military hands.

***

"A Graham Greene sort of place" is how a friend described Yerevan's mixture of exoticism and dustiness to me in advance. I should have thought it rather an Eric Ambler sort of place after the British espionage thriller writer ("The Mask of Dimitrios," "Journey into Fear," "Topkapi") who specialized in innocents abroad getting drawn into dangerous mysteries against seedily exotic backdrops.

Maybe I had these gloomy thoughts, however, because on the day before I left Prague (a different kind of Eric Ambler kind of place) one of my colleagues in Radio Liberty's office in Armenia was beaten up. He was the 16th journalist to be beaten up in Armenia in the last six months or so. No one has yet been arrested for these attacks.

Armenia's president made a very strong statement ordering the police to investigate the attack zealously. Since this was a big story in Yerevan, I was interviewed by two woman journalists, one of whom had herself been roughed up, from opposition newspapers.

As executive editor of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty I welcomed the president's remarks as a first step towards providing the media with proper protection from political violence and official unconcern. But I couldn't help noticing that my interviewers exchanged skeptical glances.

***

Suspicion between the media and the government is only one example of a wider problem. Armenia is an exceptionally divided society and has been since March 1 when police shot demonstrators protesting against abuses in an election in which the ruling party's candidate was elected with an implausible 52 percent majority.

Tanks on the streets of Yerevan in March
Ten people died, including one policeman and one soldier from the Interior Ministry, more than 100 demonstrators and opposition figures were arrested, and a state of emergency was imposed for a time. This was a shock to an Armenian public that had been assuming that gradual if erratic progress towards real democracy was unstoppable.

A coalition of opposition parties has since been holding more or less permanent demonstrations in Yerevan -- demonstrations that are declared illegal but allowed to proceed. At the same time the government has been proceeding too -- with trials of demonstrators. U.S. and European officials and human rights NGOs appeal solemnly for "dialogue" between government and opposition. But it's not clear what they would talk about.

President Serzh Sarkisian has made some modest conciliatory gestures of talking with the opposition, and the leading opposition figure, Levon Ter-Petrossian, has responded by placing most of the blame for the brutal crackdown on the previous president. But in a struggle for power -- which is what's going on -- there has to be more than that.
A Western diplomat suggests over lunch that the president is waiting for a substantial number of demonstrators to be convicted by the courts of using violence. He could then issue an amnesty all round while pointing out that the opposition had been shown to be quite as blameworthy as the government (though he might not phrase it exactly that way.) Reconciliation would then proceed.

***

That may happen. Sarkisian seems to want something like it. But the real underlying question is: will the tragedy of March 1 push Armenians on both sides of the divide to accept truly fair elections and, just as important, fair campaigns leading up to them. Americans and Europeans are here in droves urging such an outcome (and offering the inducement of greater economic integration with the West as a quid pro quo.)

But as my diplomat friend points out, the Russians are also here in force, smoothly asking: "Why bother with all that pious nonsense? Come over to the dark side. Good money and no questions asked." Given that Russian influence on Armenia is so strong anyway, it is significant that this appeal is not more effective. Both government and opposition keep talking to their Western interlocutors if not to each other.

It is possible that simple admiration for democracy is the reason. One would like to think so. But it is also possible that Armenians, a famously shrewd and even crafty people, have some doubts that their powerful neighbor will ultimately prove to be the winning side, even locally.

***

When I go down to the Hotel Yerevan's business center to write this diary, my email directs me to a blogging entry by the Hollywood writer-director Rob Long who happens to be an old friend and colleague from the American magazine, "National Review."

Rob was writing his blog from down the road in Azerbaijan where he was attending a conference. "Sometimes life is like an Eric Ambler novel," he writes, going on to wonder if a recent attack on the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline (supposedly carried out by the terrorist PKK) may instead have been the work of, well ... what Hollywood and Eric Ambler used to describe as "a certain power to the east." Or, since we're in the Caucasus, to the north.

"What if a large, powerful state -- a state with huge resources, a history of meddling, fomenting instability, supporting terrorism -- that has been saddled with a sluggish, backward economic system suddenly casts off that system and becomes, instead, a sort of enormous, powerful, ruthless gangster-state? What would it be capable of? How would we stop it?"

Not bad questions -- questions also being asked by Armenians and Azerbaijanis as well as by Georgians. Some representatives of the unnameable power to the north were probably attending the same conference as Rob in light disguise. If life can sometimes be like an Eric Ambler novel, what would one of Ambler's cynical spymasters make of these new industrial spies? Indeed, what would they make of Rob himself? Maybe they would mix up the two:

"I ran into one of our not-quite-ex-Soviet friends in the bar. You have to wonder what Moscow Circus is thinking about these days. They go to immense trouble to get the clothes, accent, and haircut exactly right -- and then they saddle the poor fellow with a ridiculous cover story. A Hollywood director who talks my ear off about fly fishing! Really! Why not a Highland ghillie who dreams of being a tap-dancer? I bought him a stiff vodka, ignoring his pathetic requests for Scotch, just to show I was onto him."

***

Still, an important diplomatic breakthrough occurred while I was in Yerevan. The Turkish-Armenian youth soccer match ended in a 2-1 victory for the Armenians. Significantly, both sides were cheered by the crowd after a good-natured game in the presence of Turkish diplomats.

This was considered a good omen for the adult Turkish-Armenian game in September to which President Sarkisian has
President Serzh Sarkisian
invited his Turkish counterpart, Abdullah Gul. Gul's acceptance is still uncertain, but the Armenian-Turkish railway is being reopened until after the match to allow Turkish fans to attend more easily, and the smart money is betting that the "soccer summit" will now take place.

If so, that would be merely the start of a long process of negotiations on a range of issues from the Turkish massacres of Armenians in World War I -- were they state-ordered "genocide" or something less heinous? -- to the lifting of Turkey's embargo on Armenian trade. But it would be a start that few people expected a month ago. Observers then assumed that Azerbaijan had enough clout with Ankara to head off any such talks.

What changed matters is the Russian attack on Georgia. A shiver of instability has run through the Caucasus, and all the major players except Russia are anxious to restore mutual security as best they can.

All three countries in the southern Caucasus are nervous about the threat to the oil and gas pipelines posed by ethnic and regional instability. All of them, especially Georgia at present, would like to see Russian dominance diluted by other powers. All now seem more prepared to reduce the level of their local conflicts. Nagorno-Karabakh has been consigned to the ice-box for the moment. Talks between Ankara and Yerevan are on the agenda.

But can anything more substantial and positive be done?

***

Vartan Oskanian was Armenian foreign minister for 10 years until this April. He now heads a think tank, the Civilitas Foundation, in Yerevan. He is one of the few Armenian politicians who exerts moral authority over government and opposition at home and enjoys high repute abroad.

In his office overlooking the city he sketches out Caucasian realities. The Russians are dominant, but the Caucasus wants to be part of modern Europe. Their people want prosperity and freedom. For that, however, the Caucasian neighbors need a level of security which NATO cannot provide in the teeth of Russian opposition.

So faster integration into the European Union is probably part of the answer. That would be acceptable to the Russians since, being heavily invested in Armenia, they too would gain from closer EU ties. All this would be progress, but not quite enough of it. There has to be a security component in any stable long-term solution. If NATO is not the answer, what is?
Turkey has recently woken up from almost a century of sleep on foreign policy. It is now almost hyperactive, sponsoring Syrian-Israeli talks, appointing a dozen or more ambassadors to African countries, and -- most important -- suggesting a new Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform. Oskanian was intrigued by this proposal but also moderately skeptical. Not much that was concrete had been advanced. He wanted to see more details.

A few days later in the "International Herald Tribune" he embraced it more warmly -- noticing in particular that Turkey's leaders have specifically mentioned including Armenia in such a pact -- and argued that it might ultimately promote a wider U.S.-Europe-Turkish-Russian security guarantee.

Other experts are more skeptical of the idea. Zeyno Baran of the Hudson Institute points out that Turkey recently delayed the passage of U.S. ships heading for Georgia through the straits. She fears that the proposed pact would promote a Russo-Turkish alliance in the Caucasus at the expense of NATO, America, and Georgia.

Maybe Baran has a good record of foresight in such matters. On the other hand, a Caucasus stability pact would, among other things, dilute Russian influence over the Caucasus by the simple expedient of increasing Turkish influence. It is hard to imagine a Russo-Turkish pact lasting long even if one were to be established. NATO and the United States are for the moment on the back foot in the Caucasus. And something is needed soon to counter and restrain an adventurist, troublemaking, and resentment-driven Russia.

Much may depend on the soccer match on September 6 in Yerevan. Perhaps this time the Armenians should plan to lose.

***

Tbilisi, Georgia

Seated in an open-air restaurant overlooking the River Mtkvari, enjoying a light lunch of mountain trout and Georgian salad, one finds it hard to believe that Russian tanks are only about 25 kilometers away -- indeed that they may be even closer by the time the Turkish coffee arrives.

Yet Tbilisi has only a few signs of being a capital city at war. National flags hang from many buildings. Newspapers have ironic anti-Russian headlines such as "Peacekeepers Go Home!!!" Some pavement satirist has sprayed the features of Vladimir Putin on the pathways so that pedestrians tread on his face. And so on.

Posters with a red star and Nazi swastika in front of the Russian Embassy in Tbilisi
But there are no bomb shelters. No one looks up anxiously at the sky when a plane is heard. Refugees head into the capital from South Ossetia for help rather than away from it in panic.

The city itself is prosperous and modernizing. On its central boulevard the old Institute of Marxism-Leninism is being redeveloped as a Kempinski Hotel. The winding streets and squares of medieval Old Tbilisi are now home to smart restaurants and bars. And these are full of seemingly carefree people enjoying themselves well into the small hours.

As for political life the Georgian government is in place and functioning normally. President Mikheil Saakashvili addresses large crowds and hosts distinguished foreign visitors. Its ambassadors launch legal suits against Russia at The Hague. As I walked into a minister's office for an interview, I crossed with a senior official of the European Union emerging from it.

There is an eeriness about such normality when only a hour's drive away Russian soldiers are systematically destroying Georgia's military (and some civil) infrastructure, occupying towns and villages, establishing "buffer zones" in "Georgia proper" to add to their annexation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and arresting Georgian soldiers.

***

All in all this is a very postmodern kind of war. The Russians have plainly won the military outcome (though as yet we know little about how the actual battles went, the losses in the air war, and so on.) Equally plainly, however, they are losing the propaganda war. Almost no impartial observer believes their claims of "genocide" and "ethnic cleansing" by the Georgians. The figures for the civilian dead and wounded in hospitals and morgues are far below the original Russian allegations of "thousands" that served to justify their military intervention. And the Georgian refugees tell horrifying stories in their turn of murders and ethnic cleansing by South Ossetian militias that Russian troops failed to halt. Now, the Russians may be losing the diplomatic and economic wars too.

Poland has already signed the U.S. missile defense deal that Putin has been vehemently opposing. NATO has agreed that there cannot be "business as usual" as long as Russia occupies Georgia. Western Europeans are becoming nervous about their dependency on Russian energy. China and the Central Asian countries at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit expressed disquiet about the Russian intervention and recognition of the breakaway Georgian provinces. A forthcoming European Union summit will at least discuss sanctions against Russia. And nervous investors took $16 billion out of Russia in the week following its military success.

So far these reactions have been mild -- too mild in the opinion of critics such as Charles Krauthammer. All the same they have prevented the Russians marching to Tbilisi and "suiciding" Saakashvili. So far.

***

Georgians are well aware of these postmodern realities. Temur Iakobashvili is their minister for national reintegration -- which surely must be the most optimistic ministerial title in history. But he is bleakly realistic when I interview him for RFE/RL.

His first point is a concession -- yes, there was a "miscalculation" by Georgians when they launched the attack in early August. But Georgians were not the only people who miscalculated:

"When I was at a press conference in Brussels in May of this year and I said we were on the brink of war, I saw a lot of worried faces coming to me and saying: You are using very strong connotation. War is a very, very strong connotation for the European virgin ear."

It is so strong a connotation that the Europeans simply averted their eyes from the gathering storm. But as Trotsky remarked: You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.

Now that the war has taken place, it is forcing the Western Europeans to revise all their pre-war assumptions about the role of Russia, the superiority of soft power over hard power, the dominant role of economics in international relations, and much else.

Iakobashvili was also realistic about how this postmodern war would be fought: "I don't see that there is any military component of pressuring Russia, but there is a political component...showing them the political price of not complying with an agreement."

Here the problem is neither military nor economic but psychological: the cultural pessimism and even defeatism of the West. My Hudson Institute colleague, Charles Fairbanks, who lives half the year in Georgia, points out that "the United States is far more powerful than Russia, which has an economy in the range of South Korea's, and that superiority has multiplied vastly since we strove successfully against the Soviet Union. Only the tunnel vision that comes from immersion in a crisis can conceal this dominant reality."

Georgian officials, Western businessmen, and locally based diplomats feel exactly the same thing, sometimes very impatiently. On my final night in Tbilisi, one Western diplomat outlined the string of financial and economic measures that the West could impose either to alter or frustrate Russian policy. Some positive measures -- aid and investment programs for Georgia -- were already in the pipeline. The eventual package might be so generous that Georgia would be half-integrated into the EU. A prosperous independent Georgia, still outside Russian control despite the war, would significantly weaken Russia's influence throughout the Caucasus.

The stakes of this new great game were very high, as an energy company executive said over the same dinner. If the Russians remained in Georgia proper, they would exercise de facto control of all energy pipelines going from Central Asia to Western Europe. If they then forged an alliance with Iran on the Gulf as well, these two anti-Western powers would have a chokehold on Europe's main energy supplies.

For the moment, however, the Russians had limited ability to disrupt and were vulnerable to economic and diplomatic penalties. The country was weaker than it looked -- over-dependent on energy prices, needing foreign capital and management skills, facing a demographic crisis that ultimately threatened a shortage of Russians. The West had at its disposal a series of negative incentives -- expulsion from the G8, etc. -- that could be very effective for the immediate future.

Both positive and negative incentives, however, required a united West to back them. If Europe and America or different European countries split into different camps, then the Russians could win this postmodern war. And they saw it in such terms. Did the West?

***

Outside my hotel in Freedom Square is a tall marble column that used to be the pedestal for a statue of Lenin. It now supports a golden piece of statuary that depicts St. George spearing the dragon. Outside the world of Georgian myth, however, the dragon is still ahead on points.

John O'Sullivan is RFE/RL's executive editor
Crisis In Georgia
For RFE/RL's full coverage of the conflict that began in Georgia's breakway region of South Ossetia, click here.

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