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The Sources and Regions of Crisis in the Caucasus

Public speech invited at the International Symposium Examination of the Regions of Crisis from the Perspectives of Turkey, NATO and the European Union, and the Impacts of These Crises on the Security of Turkey, organized by the Strategic Research and Study Center (SAREM), Turkish General Staff, Istanbul, 27–28 May 2004.

1. Introductory Remarks

I have been asked to address "The Sources and Regions of Crisis in the Caucasus" with special reference to the six issues of fundamentalism, ethnic conflicts, oil, organized crime, the security of power supply lines, and migration due to economic problems. Of course, all these issues interact and they are not mutually independent. If one looks at the list of six factors in relation to the Caucasus, it becomes quickly clear that the most immediate cause associated with the crisis in the region is ethnic conflict. Examples include Mountainous Karabagh in Azerbaijan; Ajara, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Javakhetia in Georgia; and Chechnya in Russia. In four of these situations, the conflict has been militarized: the conflicts in South Ossetia and Mountainous Karabakh, which broke out in the late 1980s; and Chechnya and Abkhazia, which broke out in the early 1990s. Also there are two situations where an ethnic conflict situation has not been militarized: Javakhetia and Ajara. In these remarks today, I do not example these conflicts in detail. Rather, I present you general conclusions about the role of all six sources of crisis not just in those conflicts but in the overall situation in the Caucasus.

2. Sources of Crisis

2.1. Fundamentalism as a Source of Crisis

Fundamentalism is not a source of crisis in the Caucasus, but it is an important contributing factor. It has more of a particular character and less of a general one. This means that although Wahhabists from outside the region undoubtedly played an important role in "islamizing" some aspects of the crisis in the Caucasus. Islam became a factor in the region more as a tool in the arsenal of ethnic identity-building than as a socializing instrument for global jihad. Even the Chechen conflict, where Islam's influence in the Caucasus has been most profoundly evident, remains an ethnic war where Islamic identity does not manifest as a sense of solidarity with Muslims outside the region.

Islam in the Caucasus, besides being an identity-building tool for local goals, is also a discourse by which local sub-elites can attract financing and volunteers. The "Islamization" of the conflict was driven not by the general population but by those sub-elites, warlords and politicians. In the period between the two Chechen wars, many of these leaders passed through a phase of Islamization that radicalized their views and tactics while marginalizing the nominal president Maskhadov. All these uncompromising figures ended up employing radical Islamic rhetoric but whose war against the West stopped in Moscow. Some of them sought to include Dagestan in a new "Islamic nation" based on Chechen identity, but even this political construction was never conceptualized as a new caliphate.

The main influence of Wahhabists in Chechnya came after the end of the First Chechen War, but this influence was limited. For example, attempts to introduce sharia law failed. Nevertheless, it is the alliance between the "dissident" sub-elite and foreign jihadis that explains what increased influence there was by radical Islam in Chechnya in the interwar period of the late 1990s, rather than any mass adhesion to radical Islamist ideology. The radical Islamic discourse cloaking nationalist ideology served the goals of these figures in the struggles within the Chechen elite in the late 1990s.

Since 1999, with the outbreak of the new war, funding and volunteers from abroad came anew to Chechnya. Propaganda support was not matched by the influx of a very large number of foreign Islamist combatants, but the funding affected the balance between radical and moderate Chechen nationalists, in favour of the former. The result was an eventual dominance of the conflict by uncompromising factions both in Moscow and Grozny.

2.2. Organized Crime as a Source of Crisis

It is necessary to distinguish three different aspects of organized crime. One involves activities that violate humanitarian principles and/or human rights and are definitely criminal under national and/or international law. Drug trafficking and trafficking in human beings are examples of this. Another type of organized crime may be called "purely" economic crime, i.e., covert or underground networks of economic activity that do not declare themselves subject to state authority and therefore escape taxation and legal regulation. This aspect of organized crime can be labelled by the state as security threat to the degree that it forms a centre of power autonomous of state control. These two aspects of organized crime easily overlap in practice. Humanitarian crimes also bring economic profit to their organizers. Illicit networks and socio-economic circles can make practical alliances among themselves to resist state authority. A third aspect of organized crime appears when such networks and socio-economic circles come to influence, or even to control, sections of the state apparatus itself. In this instance, the state may be less willing to act against the organized crime; or it may even lack the capability to act.

To the degree that the state apparatus is corrupt and acts like an organized crime network enjoying official protection, this is a factor making for short-term stability but long-term instability. The instability arises from the fact that the political monopoly on coercive force will tend to be exercised against real and potential opponents whether these opponents are economic or political. This is a danger because in the long run it restricts social and therefore economic development, promoting poverty and dissatisfaction among the population. The most talented and entrepreneurial sections then seek to migrate to other countries for economic reasons. Organized crime, although it may be based in ethnic conflict, easily transcends such an ethnic basis. Indeed, rivalries may occur within the same and identical ethnic group on the basis of sub-ethnic identities such as clan and family.

Phenomena of organized crime have a direct connection to the outbreak of crisis in Chechnya, and partly in the maintenance of crisis in South Ossetia. It was intra-Chechen conflicts among different clans that led to the breakdown of all authority in the region in 1993, as different social networks competed for control of the production and especially distribution networks of scarce economic goods. In South Ossetia, organized crime was not at the origin of the outbreak of crisis, but it is in the view of some observers responsible for the maintenance of the conflict. The new Georgian president, for example, regards South Ossetia not just as a renegade province but as a haven for drug smuggling and human trafficking. During the 1990s, this was certainly the case in Chechnya between the two Chechen wars: the organized crime no longer cantered only on oil and oil products but expanded to include kidnapping non-Chechens to hold for ransom or for political reasons.

2.3. Migration Due to Economic Problems as a Source of Crisis

It is sometimes difficult to separate migration due to economic problems from migration due to militarized conflict, simply because the militarized conflict makes regular economic life sometimes nearly impossible: this also gives rise to organized crime. Likewise, in post-conflict situations there may no longer be continuing military activity; but if regular economic life is still difficult or non-existent, then this may give rise to migration that could be attributed to economic problems, even though those economic problems may not be considered the root cause of the phenomenon.

In the Caucasus, most migration within the region is by refugees, i.e., by people forced to leave their home rather than by people who choose to leave it to seek better economic conditions. An exception would be emigration from Dagestan to other regions of the North Caucasus. In that instance, the economic difficulty is connected less with ethnic conflict than with organized crime and other forms of corruption. In the South Caucasus, there has been significant economic emigration especially from Georgia and Armenia. That migration is by no means as large as the intra-Caucasus refugee migration, but it is the younger and more skilled workers who emigrate to destinations outside the region, so this loss of labour-force is especially negative for the countries concerned. Migration on the whole for the Caucasus is not a source of crisis but a product of it. However, migration due to economic problems is an effect of crisis in the short term and an indirect source of further crisis in the long term.

2.4. Oil as a Source of Crisis

One well-documented danger for those countries that have oil resources to develop (Azerbaijan) or receive fees for transporting oil over their territory (Georgia) is the so-called "Dutch disease." According to this, energy exports cause the domestic currency to appreciate, leading agricultural imports to rise, and so making domestic agriculture less competitive at home. As a result, domestic agricultural unemployment increases, triggering mass internal migration to cities, with increased potential for political instability. At the same time, exchange rate shifts cause problems in promoting investment shifts into other sectors. Another, related, danger is the enclave style of development, which describes how the energy sector can develop within the national economy but without the linkages to other sectors that are necessary to drive overall economic development. Finally, there is the argument that political disorder may arise simply from the disparity of wealth between a country's new and wealthy super-elite and the vast majority of its poverty-stricken population. The human suffering caused by income inequalities and the sub-optimization of social and economic opportunity should not be minimized. These problems feed other sources of crisis: the misery and lost opportunities experienced by individuals can result easily contributes to in general impoverishment, and criminal activities frequently often arise as compensation for those lost opportunities. In fact, all these phenomena are not isolated concerns but aspects of a general syndrome.

In general, oil is not a direct source of crisis in the Caucasus. Questions about oil worsen crisis where the state apparatus is not firmly implanted and does not wield the monopoly of coercive force. The situation in Chechnya in 1993 is the best example of this: even local authority in Chechnya broke down over inter-clan conflicts concerning the physical control of land through which the Baku-Novorossiisk pipeline originally passed. There was simply no obstacle to any individual going out to a pipeline, blowing a hole in it, collecting the product, and selling it by the roadside; and this occurred with great frequency.

Even where a separatist or autonomist movement exists in the Caucasus, oil does not have to be a catalyst to crisis if there is a regional authority capable of enforcing order. For example, under Abashidze the central Georgian government and Ajara reached an understanding whereby Kazakhstani oil reaching Baku by barge across the Caspian Sea was loaded into railroad transport in Azerbaijan and taken across Georgia to the Ajaran capital Batumi for sale and transhipment.

However, oil can be a factor complicating other disputes, as in the instance of Mountainous Karabakh. A small corner of this region was within mortar-round distance of the projected path of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline until it was taken back by Azerbaijani troops in the 1990s. The laying of the BTC pipeline through the Borjomi section of Samtskhe-Javakhetia in Georgia holds the possibility of provoking some social unrest, although a militarized separatist movement remains unlikely.

2.5. Power-line Security as a Source of Crisis

In the Caucasus it is difficult to consider that power-line security is a significant source of crisis, because there are so many other factors present that are more directly a cause of crisis. Although the region suffers from poor provisionment of electricity in general, this is not due principally to an absence of power-line security in itself but rather to those other factors that I have discussed.

3. Conclusion

In the Caucasus, the domestic and transnational issues of identity—ethnic conflict and fundamentalism—have clearly been the leading ones for explaining the crisis in the region. The Abkhaz and Chechen crises in the 1990s are typical in being motivated mainly by identity issues (ethnic conflict, later with fundamentalism added in the Chechen case), abetted socio-economic issues (organized crime in particular) and complicated by energy issues (especially oil). State-level socio-economic issues, i.e., organized crime and migration due to ethnic problems, have been secondary. The international-level issues of oil and power-line security are perhaps of greatest interest to many external powers, but for the people in the region itself they are of only tertiary significance in explaining the crisis in the region. However, these international issues, and oil in particular, do play some role in explaining the persistence of the crisis, since actors from outside affect the interplay of all the levels of conflict within the region itself. Also, the oil issue has had a direct influence, although never the only influence, on the evolution of certain of the conflicts.

The list of six issue-areas (ethnic conflict, fundamentalism, organized crime, migration due to economic problems, oil, and power-line security) is a good a useful typology of sources of crisis in the regions of crisis overall. The particular features of the Caucasus make it useful to add such issues as environmental constraints, resource scarcities, demography, and mass-media influence. The relevance of these additional factors is clear from considering the question of the return of the Meskhetian (Ahiska) Turks to Samtskhe-Javakhetia, also known as Meskheti-Javakhetia. Georgia's admission to membership in the Council of Europe in 1999 was originally conditioned upon its adoption of a law of repatriation of the Meskhetian Turks within two years, and the completion of the process within a decade. New settlers to the region, many of them Georgians, have preferred to build new dwellings. Thus, while the Meskhetian Turks' original houses have by and large not been occupied, they are today used by current residents of their old villages as ancillary buildings, storage facilities, and the like. As a result the local authorities contend that there is no land available for any returnees. While that contention may be slightly disingenuous, it is to be observed that whereas under 100,000 Meskhetian Turks were originally deported, those wishing to return, including descendants, may today number up to a quarter-million or more. The accelerated return of Meskhetian Turks in significant numbers could well strain the social resources of Samtskhe-Javakhetia, where the current population today is itself slightly under a quarter-million.

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