Thursday, 1 December 2011

Saakashvili pushes ‘United Caucasus’ dream again

Critics have been comparing Georgia’s Mikheil Saakashvili to his arch-rival Vladimir Putin for a while now. Their authoritarian tendencies, colourful language, and fondness for switching political offices (speculative in Misha’s case, confirmed in Putin’s) make uncomfortable parallels between the Russian strongman and his Westernising nemesis.

There may be another reference to add to the list: both like espousing fanciful and unwanted integration projects in which they would (naturally) take the lead. Putin has his Eurasian Union concept, likely to be a cornerstone of his third presidential term, and Saakashvili has his own, provincial version: the United Caucasus.

He first floated the idea in September 2010 at the UN, when he said that “a common market, shared interests, and political and economic interdependence will one day give birth to a united Caucasus”.

This was boldly aimed at the Russian North Caucasus as well as the South Caucasus, and followed by visa-free regimes for citizens of the North Caucasian republics and greater rhetorical focus in government on events on the other side of the mountains. Russia was not exactly pleased, but beyond the visa-free regimes the plan has made little headway anyway.

Misha has now refocused the idea on the South Caucasus, and floated it again in a meeting with Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian in Tbilisi a few days ago. “I am sure that all conflicts in the Caucasus are imposed by the imperial power, the main principle of which is: divide and rule. Unification of the Caucasus, the creation of a common economic space and a political commonwealth are in the interests of all Caucasian countries”, he said at a press conference.

Sarkisian politely ignored the United Caucasus proposal in his own statement, focusing instead on better border controls and increasing trade turnover. Hardly surprising given the outsize role which Moscow plays in supporting Armenia, both economically and as a security bulwark against Azerbaijan.

Which leads to the obvious question: what is Saakashvili thinking? Does he honestly believe Armenia and Azerbaijan can overcome the Karabakh conflict and make peace under Georgian auspices? Both sides are amiable towards Tbilisi but have little interest in accepting mediation from a country which has its own ‘frozen conflicts’. 

Misha may be able to make it easier for Turkish, Armenian and Azerbaijani citizens to enter Georgia (and vice versa), and such quiet, technical steps are welcome for regional trade and movement, but they are not going to solve the problems of a war-wracked region.

In any case, Tbilisi cannot settle its own territorial disputes with Abkhazia and South Ossetia or facilitate normal trade with them. Hardly the credentials needed for the leader of a “common economic space and a political commonwealth”.

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