Separation Anxiety

Twenty years ago this week, the ghosts of history stirred in Europe and a conflict that no one had paid attention to since the Treaty of Versailles re-erupted in the depths of the Soviet Union.

Separation Anxiety

Twenty years ago this week, the ghosts of history stirred in Europe and a conflict that no one had paid attention to since the Treaty of Versailles re-erupted in the depths of the Soviet Union.

The Nagorny Karabakh dispute between Armenians and Azerbaijanis was the first bonfire in a series of ethno-territorial conflicts that burned through the Caucasus and the Balkans. European Union enthusiasts had thought that the only conflicts left on the Continent were about sheep and cod quotas - but they were dead wrong.

In the week when Kosovo embarks on a path of EU-guided independence and Serbia and Russia voice angry resistance, it's worth asking whether the nationalist gunmen or the European dreamers will win the argument.

The dispute that kicked it off in the southern Caucasus is still unresolved. On February 20, 1988, the local Armenian soviet in the tiny territory of Nagorny Karabakh decided to take Lenin's dictum of "all power to the soviets" literally and vote for secession from Soviet Azerbaijan and join Soviet Armenia. The Armenians said that Karabakh was an historic Armenian homeland that had been unjustly incorporated into Azerbaijan by Stalin, the Azerbaijanis that an Armenian fifth column was breaking up their republic and stealing their territory. The region was so obscure that even most people in Moscow knew nothing about it. Mikhail Gorbachev wisely chose not to use violent repression to solve the dispute but found he had no other instruments that worked.

Strikes, demonstrations, pogroms and deportations degenerated into full-scale war. The dispute tore up the notion of Soviet brotherhood and began to weaken the architecture of the USSR. as a whole. Within a couple of years, the same forces would bring about the violent death of Yugoslavia.

Hundreds of thousands perished and millions were displaced. The blame in all these nasty wars - Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the Caucasus and Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo in the Balkans - is shared unevenly, but it can safely be said there were no angels in them. The victims one day became ethnic cleansers the next. Those who suffered most were those most attached to some kind of modern, multi-ethnic notion of identity, such as the cosmopolitan families and mixed marriages of Baku and Sarajevo.

Twenty years on, politicians in the Caucasus continue to give inflammatory speeches about victory, justice and "no surrender". Armenian and Azerbaijani historians still seek to prove that the other ethnic group "never lived" in the disputed territory and that therefore it is their undisputed historical homeland. These bogus theories are now being taught in classrooms.

Now the emergent state of Kosovo poses both challenges and threats.

The standard western line about Kosovo's independence, from the White House to Brussels, is that it "does not set a precedent". The Kosovars, the argument goes, suffered so egregiously under Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia that they deserved the United Nations mandate that gave them de facto independence. That state of affairs is merely being made de jure, albeit with continued international supervision.

It goes without saying that all these conflicts are different. Kosovo is certainly larger than the disputed Caucasian territories and its years under UN supervision have prepared it to be a more viable state. But whether the West likes it or not, Kosovo's independence will have a strong ripple effect. Consider the calculation made by the de facto leaders of Abkhazia or Nagorno-Karabakh when they hear the news from Kosovo: They will be even less likely to try to sell a bargain to their people that entails "return" to the sovereignty of Azerbaijan or Georgia.

That knowledge further frustrates the leaders of Azerbaijan and Georgia, who fear that they are losing the breakaway territories and drop ever heavier hints that they could use military action to reconquer them. Thanks to new Caspian Sea oil revenues, Azerbaijan has the fastest-growing defence budget in the world, while the Georgian government recently renamed its conflict resolution ministry into the more aggressively titled "ministry for reintegration".

Kosovo is further thawing conflicts that have been mistakenly called "frozen". The peace processes are already all but dead. Around Nagorny Karabakh, now under Armenian control, snipers exchange deadly fire across a 200 kilometre ceasefire line. Shooting incidents and kidnappings set nerves jangling in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In truth, neither side here will get what they want. Full independence for these territories is highly implausible, especially when large minority populations remain in exile and are not consulted; but integration of these territories into Azerbaijan or Georgia, places they have had nothing in common with since Soviet times and fought wars against is also fantasy. The only way "reintegration" can be achieved is through another catastrophic war. Everyone knows that some kind of shared sovereignty must be the eventual outcome. But how to arrive at it?

The worrying aspect of Kosovo's "supervised independence"- and the most awkward for the European Union as it simultaneously proclaims its trans-national identity - is the perception that the reward for intransigence is a full national state, with all the old-fashioned trappings attached to it. The new Europe is supposed to be about fewer borders, not more.

But if the emphasis is put on supervision, rather than independence, something good could still be borrowed from the Kosovo model. In theory at least, the Kosovo model honours the aspirations both of the Kosovo Albanians and the Serbs, puts conditionality on the choices made by the new state, introduces some Western-style institutions and keeps an international security presence.

The key word here is security. If the Balkans have moved further ahead, it is thanks in large part to a belated but massive international effort. The Dayton agreement for Bosnia was in effect a huge international security blanket smothering the conflict in the expectation that EU expansion would lull the conflicting sides into a state of prosperity. The Kosovo experiment is also predicated on the idea of continuing security for both Kosovo Albanians and Serbs.

The underside of the violent nationalist exterior of many people in the Balkans and the Caucasus is genuine fear. In my travels in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, I have met well-educated people who say that they fear "genocide", the extinction of their ethnic group. I have met people who took up arms against their former school mates and neighbours because you had to take sides and kill or be killed. They did not trust the socialist state to look after their security and began to look instead to their own young men with guns over their shoulders. Only an overarching international security architecture can stifle that fear and allow people to see their former enemies as traders and potential neighbours again, not as threats to their existence.

This is the security structure that Western powers have tried to erect in Bosnia and Kosovo in the last decade and a half, with partial success. They have not managed to do so in the Caucasus partly because they lack the resources and the commitment, partly because this can only be done in partnership with Russia. The European Union is barely present in the South Caucasus, while the United States has a stronger presence but several competing agendas, shaped by energy investments, the domestic Armenian lobby and relations with Russia.

That calculation may need to change, as the Georgian and Armenian-Azerbaijani conflicts begin to unfreeze and Western politicians notice, for example, that the Armenian-Azerbaijani cease-fire line runs just 15 kilometres from the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline that connects Caspian oil fields with European markets. Interests are at stake here, not just ordinary lives. The fighters of the nationalist wars have not disappeared; they just left their guns in the cellar, waiting to see what the future brings.

Thomas de Waal is IWPR’s Caucasus Editor and author of “Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War” (NYU Press, 2003).

This comment originally appeared in Wall Street Journal Europe.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of IWPR as a whole.

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