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Five Years After The War, South Caucasus Still Caught Between Russia, The West

Azerbaijan is arming to the teeth. Armenia is growing increasingly disillusioned with Russia, its main protector. And the potential for armed conflict in the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region appears higher than it has been in years.

The increased tensions surrounding the Armenian-controlled separatist enclave inside Azerbaijan -- where there have been a series of incidents near the cease-fire line in recent months -- is indicative of how the volatile South Caucasus region has remained dangerously tense even five years after Russia's brief war with Georgia in August 2008.

The five-day war, which was fought over Georgia's pro-Moscow separatist region of South Ossetia, was won decisively by Russia. But it also undermined Moscow's role as a powerbroker in a region fraught with ethnic tension.

"[The war] sent also a signal to other post-Soviet countries that Russia is willing to use force to implement its interests," says Stefan Meister, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). "It also undermined Russia's role, to some extent, as a player which has allies, maybe, in the region."

Indeed, Russia's closest ally in the region, Armenia, has been eyeing Moscow suspiciously of late amid squabbles over gas prices and Kremlin pressure on Yerevan to join the Eurasian Union. Azerbaijan, which Putin is due to visit this month, has long been wary of Moscow and has used its energy might to steer an independent path.

And then, of course, there is Georgia. To be sure, relations between Tbilisi and Moscow have improved considerably since Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili came to power in January, but they remain far from warm.

'Russia Is The Same Empire'

Vafa Guluzadeh, a former Azerbaijani presidential adviser on foreign policy, agrees that Russia's muscular response to Georgia in 2008 raised alarm bells throughout the Caucasus.

"The war between Russia and Georgia was, in reality, an aggression of Russia against independent Georgia -- there is no doubt," Guluzadeh says. "And it is a very dangerous action after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the Caucasus because it demonstrates that Russia is the same empire -- very aggressive to all peoples and to all small nations in the region."

In the wake of the 2008 war, Russia attempted to step up its role as a mediator on Karabakh, but that effort, spearheaded by then-President Dmitry Medvedev, never gathered momentum. Since Vladimir Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012, Russia has largely reduced its role to that of the main arms supplier to both sides.

The increased mistrust of Moscow in the region has not, however, translated into intense cooperation among the three South Caucasus nations themselves, largely because Armenia and Azerbaijan remain alienated over the unresolved Karabakh conflict.

Azerbaijan and Georgia have developed a stabilizing interdependence in the energy sphere -- with Georgia providing routes for Azerbaijani hydrocarbon exports that bypass Russia and Baku helping Tbilisi dramatically reduce its energy dependence on Moscow.

Stepped-Up EU Engagement

One important result of Russia's 2008 war victory is that it effectively displaced NATO -- and the United States -- from the region by putting Georgia's ambitions to join the alliance on hold.

Since the war, and especially under U.S. President Barack Obama, U.S. policies in the South Caucasus have been viewed "as a subset of U.S.-Russia relations," says analyst Richard Giragosian, director of the Regional Studies Center in Yerevan.

At the same time, the conflict paved the way for significantly stepped-up engagement in the region by the European Union. It was the EU that brokered the cease-fire that ended the 2008 war, and the EU monitoring mission along the administrative lines between Abkhazia and South Ossetia and the rest of Georgia has played a visible role in the ensuing years.

More importantly, in 2009, the bloc launched its Eastern Partnership program, an intense effort to engage with six post-Soviet countries -- Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, and the three South Caucasus nations of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia.

Giragosian says the program was launched to help the EU "stabilize its periphery," but its success has been driven by its soft-power attraction.

"What makes this especially more successful and effective as a policy instrument has been the willingness by the states themselves to actually engage in seizing the opportunity with the European Union," Giragosian says. "And in this way, the EU -- through, but beyond, the Eastern Partnership -- has become more of a transformative power in terms of both values-based and also offering true economic incentives that were previously missing or simply ignored by the states themselves."

Independence Milestone

The ECFR's Meister agrees, saying the Eastern Partnership has played a significant role in democratization and rule-of-law reform in Georgia and Armenia. He argues that EU monitoring played a crucial role in the success of Georgia's October 2012 legislative elections.

But he stresses that the Eastern Partnership does not include a security component, meaning that the EU's ability to reduce tensions over Karabakh is minimal.

"It has to link its neighborhood policy, its transformation policy, much more with security, because security is the key for democratization and transformation in these countries," Meister says.

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Whether that can be done without provoking Moscow is very much an open question. Since returning to the Kremlin last year, Putin has made his Eurasian Union project a top priority and Moscow has been pressuring Eastern Partnership countries -- particularly Ukraine, Moldova, and Armenia -- to reject closer ties with the EU in favor of the Moscow-led bloc.

Georgian philosopher Zaza Shatirishvili says the 2008 war was a milestone in Georgia's quest for genuine independence, words that could apply to all three South Caucasian countries.

"In some sense [the war] was a sort of revenge for Russia, payback for [Western support for the independence of] Kosovo and other defeats of the last 15 to 20 years," Shatirishvili says. "But for us, the war is a key part of our 25-year war against empire. And where this path will ultimately lead -- we don't know, because the story is far from finished. And until the story is finished, we can't draw conclusions."

RFE/RL Azerbaijan Service correspondent Arife Kazimova contributed to this report from Baku; RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Georgy Kobaladze contributed from Tbilisi

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