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From the Halki International Seminar: Caucasus quagmire

Had I started to write this article during the weekend, I would have started by saying that despite the relative calm in the Caucasus, the region’s future proved to be one of the most debated issues during the Halki International Seminar.

Just as I came back from three days of brainstorming this weekend with a group composed of journalists, academics, current and ex-bureaucrats from the Eurasia region, news came about the suicide bomb attack against Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, the head of Russia's turbulent Ingushetia region, reminding us how relative calm can be easily disrupted.

This actually is the gist of the matter when it comes to frozen conflicts. The term "frozen" might be delusional since it might hide the fact that a frozen conflict might in a second melt down to a bloody war.

In this sense, the debate on the frozen conflicts in the Caucasus was an eye opener for me, since the discussions have provided not only information about the current situation but also a perspective on what to expect.

It goes without saying that Russia’s policy towards the region is shaped by its "sphere of influence" approach to security.

"For Russia, there are no frozen conflicts," a Russian scholar bluntly said. "These areas are simply instruments for Russia’s policy to exert influence. Hence, Moscow wants to keep the status quo to maintain its sphere of influence," he added.

The West is critical of Russian "sphere of influence" approach to security. But let’s face it Ñ the West is also responsible for Russia’s resistance to give up its old reflexes. The United States and the EU have never been sensitive enough to Moscow’s sense of encirclement. That’s why the war last summer between Georgia and Russia caught everyone by surprise.

The scholar implied that Russian intervention took place in order to stop NATO enlargement. In fact, it did bring about the expected result: a pause to the North Atlantic Alliance’s enlargement.

And no one contested the view that it will be almost impossible for Georgia to get back Abkhazia and South Ossetia, at least in the foreseeable future. As the Russian scholar rightly put it, Russia has created two new "Northern Cyprus," but without the consequences that the creation of Northern Cyprus has had on Turkey.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia are not dominating the Russian - European/American agenda, the way Cyprus problem does so to the Turkish - European agenda.

Yet, Russia needs a positive agenda with the West, argued the same scholar. Hence, it might take some steps towards the resolution of other frozen conflicts in the region, such as Trans Dniester and Nagorno Karabakh.

Many agreed that the easiest one to be solved is the problem in Tarns Dniester, since it's neither an ethnic nor a religious conflict. One should not forget that, no matter how the problem is solved, Russia will only be helpful with the condition that the result will not hamper its policy of keeping Moldova in its orbit.

The same is valid for Nagorno Karabakh. It is much more difficult to solve it, though. Since it is much more complicated and involves more stakeholders, such as Turkey. As an Azerbaijani participant rightly pointed out, a solution should provide a win-win situation for all the regional players. None should think that a solution would create an outcome that will be contrary to its interest. The Russian presence and influence in Armenia is well known, whereas Azerbaijan is trying to maintain an equidistant relationship with both Russia and the West. The resolution of the Nagorno Karabakh, which will be accompanied with the normalization of relations between Ankara and Yerevan, will inevitably end with Armenia and Azerbaijan coming out of the Russian orbit. Though some speculate that Russia wants a solution to Nagorno Karabakh in order to further isolate Georgia, the fear of loosing Armenia and Azerbaijan (and with it their gas) will outweigh its desire to see Georgia further isolated. Thus, Russia will remain one of the greatest challenges as far as the resolution to the Nagorno Karabakh problem is concerned.

One last note from the seminar: some participants were wondering what happened to Turkey’s initiative, the Caucasus Stability and Cooperation platform. I told them one should not be surprised of the fact that we no longer hear much about it. It was doomed to fail from the very beginning. It was not well thought out in advance. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his advisors came up with the idea and announced it without a healthy internal debate and tossed it to the bureaucrats so that they would fill it in with substance. It was just another product of the ruling Justice and Development Party’s ambition to prove it is a player.

The problem is, if it comes with empty plans like that, it will soon see its credibility in pieces.
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