5 Oct 2019
Stuck in post-liberal limbo? Conflict resolution in the South Caucasus
For 25 years resistance to conflict resolution has been a defining trait of the South Caucasus, despite peace processes running continuously since the early 1990s. The Geneva International Discussions provide a platform for very limited, tactical cooperation and information exchange among Georgians, Abkhaz, South Ossetians, Russians, and other international interlocutors. Yet there is no strategic vision of what a resolved conflict might look like in Abkhazia or South Ossetia. The negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan mediated by the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) have, in a way, the opposite problem. A strategic vision for peace exists in the form of the Basic Principles, yet there are no tactical levers or meaningful interactions to get there. A quarter-century of negotiations has brought none of the parties closer to a negotiated agreement, begging the question: what does conflict resolution mean in the South Caucasus today?
It is important first to acknowledge that conflict resolution is itself a contested concept and not a consensual goal in the region. The baseline political positions in the region’s conflicts have not changed in 30 years. Consequently, for many who are on the winning sides of ethno-territorial conflicts of the 1990s, the status quo is conflict resolution, and the world simply needs to catch up with this reality. That view has been repeatedly shaken up by resumptions of large-scale violence, notably violence between Georgia and Russia in South Ossetia in 2008 and escalation between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in April 2016. Yet, the short duration of these five- and four-day “wars” indicates that a balance of forces exists in the region. However normatively irregular, and for large numbers of people morally inacceptable, the status quo in South Caucasus conflicts—strategically speaking—is sustainable.
The sustainability of intractable conflicts is reinforced by the South Caucasus’ positioning within the wider, contested geopolitical field of the post-Soviet space. The region briefly became the focal point of competition between Russia and Euro-Atlantic powers in 2008, but has since ceded this role to Ukraine. This raises the further question of whether it is possible to think about conflict resolution in this region for as long as the conflict in Ukraine continues. For as long as it does, external attention to conflicts in the South Caucasus will remain diminished and the region’s normative trajectory indeterminate. The Ukrainian crisis also reinforces a powerful tendency to see external actors as primary in both the causality and resolution of conflict. Those who see interfering geopolitical forces as the sole cause of South Caucasian problems see this analysis confirmed in Ukraine, challenging the argument that local will, agency, and capacities matter.
A more nuanced view is to see the South Caucasus as an extreme case of regional fracture (Ohanyan 2018). Fractured regions are characterized by weak internally networked ties and regional identities, which expose them to competing region-building projects from outside, often from former colonial hegemons. The South Caucasus offers a vivid example of this process, which has seen the geo-strategic, security, and trade relations of the region’s constituent republics vectored in distinct and incoherent ways. While fractured regions offer opportunities for great power penetration, their fractured nature also obstructs their incorporation into regional organizations and structures. External hegemony over such regions is often itself fractured, partial, and inconsistent. Although marginal in world politics, fractured regions threaten global security as sites where local conflicts and external agendas cannot be absorbed into a regional fabric, and spillover is a risk.
In this article, I extend the regional fracture argument to contend that fracture also characterizes the conceptual argument over appropriate responses to conflict in the South Caucasus. I argue that just as we observe the impacts of fracture in the South Caucasus on other policy domains such as democratization, regional cooperation, and security alliance formation, we also observe a fractured field in the philosophy of conflict resolution. Liberal and post-liberal models for addressing conflict compete with one another in the region, overlapping with rival Euro-Atlantic and Eurasian projects in hegemonic regionalism. Yet no model dominates, leading to incoherent and mutually exclusive policies. The resolution of South Caucasus conflicts is consequently stuck in a post-liberal limbo.
The liberal peace and its solutions
In the late 1990s and the 2000s up to about a decade ago, almost all Western thinking about conflict resolution in the South Caucasus was rooted in concepts such as federalism, confederalism, or some formulation of self-government within formally preserved but geopolitically less significant borders. Consider, for example, the agenda laid out in the many publications by Bruno Coppieters, in books with titles such as Federal Practice: Exploring Alternatives for Georgia and Abkhazia (Coppieters, Darchiashvili, and Akaba 2000). Conflict resolution in these publications was imagined in terms of Europeanization— incorporation into a Euro-Atlantic geopolitical space in which borders of themselves would become less significant.
Coppieters and his colleagues were advocating for solutions within the wider paradigm of the “liberal peace,” which was a set of ideas inseparable from the post-Cold War unipolar moment and which comprised the conflict resolution wing of transition theory (Campbell, Chandler, and Sabaratnam 2011). It assumed that democracy, rule of law, and the market are the pillars of sustainable peace. The liberal peace prescribed a path to peace through internationally-brokered peace negotiations, often accompanied by peacekeeping forces or military intervention and the containment of local violent actors; a focus on internationally monitored, free, and fair elections; the promotion of human and minority rights and gender equality in a new constitutional settlement; the advancement of development goals by identifying plural stakeholders, focusing on reducing poverty, and providing international aid and foreign investment; and embedding the new political order through institutions such as transitional justice.
The liberal peace shared a common genealogy with the idea of democratic transition (the two ideas merge in the concept of “democratic peace,” the notion that democracies do not go to war with each other). In the aftermath of the end of the Cold War, it formed a core element of what appeared to be a new global dispensation mandating the global hegemony of liberal democracy. Yet much like democratic transition, the liberal peace has both a questionable track record in practice. Numerous critiques of the liberal peace appeared, some of which discussed putative alternatives, such as “indigenous peace” or “hybrid peace” (Mac Ginty 2011, Paris 2004, Paris 2010, Richmond and Mitchell 2012). The assumption that liberal norms of conflict resolution generated in the “global north” would be accepted in global peripheries was proven wrong. Like the transition paradigm, the liberal peace mistakenly placed a prescriptive emphasis on formal institutions and procedures, yet even when followed these prescriptions did not lead to sustainable liberal outcomes. Practically, the liberal peace as a mode of interventionist peacemaking endured a number of failures: peacebuilding interventions conceived in liberal terms led ultimately to authoritarian outcomes in countries such as Tajikistan, Rwanda, and Angola. The idea that liberal nation-building would follow invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan has been a spectacular and costly failure, most of all for the peoples of these states. Even in so-called “success stories,” such as the Western Balkans, a stabilized regional order has not led to the anticipated and irreversible liberal transitions, but to a fragile and still fractured region (Bechev 2018).
Liberal scenarios of conflict resolution in the South Caucasus involved the rehabilitation of autonomous self-governing institutions in secessionist areas. For example, the first proposal put forward by the Minsk Group in 1997, defined Nagorno-Karabakh as “a statal and territorial formation, within the borders of Azerbaijan.” Karabakh Armenians were to be compensated with a wide range of rights, such as enhanced mobility to Armenia and specially annotated passports, but they would be Azerbaijani citizens and elect representatives to the Azerbaijani parliament. Two other plans from the late 1990s, one put forward by former US ambassador to the OSCE John Maresca, and one proposed by American scholars Ronald Suny and David Laitin, similarly advocated for a “Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh” within Azerbaijan that would be compensated with extensive rights and guarantees (Maresca 1994, Laitin and Suny 1999). In the Georgian-Abkhaz context, the Boden Plan of 2004, associated with former United Nations envoy Dieter Boden, re-conceptualized Georgia as a federal state and Abkhazia within its borders. A Concept for the Status of Abkhazia elaborated by a working group of Georgian activists in the early 2000s accorded a wide range of devolved rights and powers to Abkhazia in the framework of Georgian statehood (Concept on the Special Status of Abkhazia in the Georgian State 2004).
The fundamental problem with these scenarios, however, is that the liberal peace was inconceivable without liberal states. These plans assumed a converging and mutually constitutive dynamic, whereby both regimes and conflicts would be transformed. But this is not the dynamic that emerged. Instead of the wider social and political transformation within which the liberal peace is embedded, a significantly more inconclusive process followed of partial and reversible transitions in some states, and contested or consolidating authoritarianism in others.
Post-liberal modes of managing conflict
A rich academic and practitioner’s critique of the liberal peace was already long established before the seismic shifts within the Euro-Atlantic space of the mid-2010s. These shifts further undercut the eroded appeal of the liberal peace. Information manipulation and “fake news” corroded the notion of an open and transparent informational space, in which different narratives and political perspectives can be genuinely debated and reconciled. Perceptions of the integrity of liberal institutions within democratic states, from elections to courts, were compromised, and public trust in law, norms, and truth degraded. The presumed home of the liberal peace, the Western powers, appeared fractured and ridden with challengers inside and out, from US isolationism, to Brexit, to illiberal challengers in Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, multilateral international organizations, from the United Nations to the OSCE, became deadlocked in formulating responses to crises in Sudan, Libya, Syria, and Ukraine. Rising and regional powers, such Russia, Turkey, and China, rejected liberal norms in the resolution of their internal conflicts, and experimented with non-liberal approaches.
In short, to paraphrase Francis Fukuyama’s now infamous phrase, whoever imagined that we had reached “the end of conflict and the last peace” because of the hegemony of the liberal peace was mistaken. Yet scholars and practitioners alike have been slow to acknowledge that the problem is not simply insufficient peacebuilding capacity, which would suggest more peacebuilding programming as a solution, but the appearance and consolidation of an alternative to the liberal peace. This alternative has been described as the illiberal peace, or by David Lewis and his co-authors as “authoritarian conflict management” (Lewis, Heathershaw, and Megoran 2015). This term describes an array of norms, discourses, and practices that do not seek to cohabit or hybridize with the liberal peace in any way, but instead to manage conflict in ways that are consistent with preserving authoritarian rule. This is an approach that invites us to take non-liberal actors seriously, rather than depicting them simply as “spoilers” to a liberal peace, shadow networks, or temporary aberrations that will eventually, after some period of contestation, internalize liberal norms. Instead, authoritarian conflict management aims to achieve the end of an armed rebellion by one part of society through sustained hegemonic control by a consolidated political elite, with a rather limited kind of political stability being the result.
Lewis and his co-authors identify three core components to authoritarian modes of managing conflict. In the realm of discourse, a single hegemonic discourse about the conflict is imposed that legitimates the state and de-legitimates all other actors. Rather than portraying them as actors with legitimate grievances, a state-centered discourse depicts them as, for example, Islamist terrorists, marionettes of occupying powers, or as bearers of a fundamentally antagonistic culture or civilization. In its spatial dimension, authoritarian modes of managing conflict brings all spaces under government control and limits access to any spaces beyond it, which is securitized, for example, through travel bans. A third angle concerns the control over economic resources, using informal flows and patron-client relations that liberal perspectives would depict as “corruption” to impose a political economy of control. This means, for instance denying access for humanitarian and development agencies to rebel areas. Another aspect that can be added is the limited use of coercion itself. Whereas the state seeks to suppress unsanctioned violence in the theatre of conflict itself, limited violence may serve purposes of defining wider political fields and spaces in specific ways justifying military spending, suspension of civil liberties and rights, and additional political and security controls.
One contemporary example of authoritarian conflict management is Russia’s quelling of rebel forces in Chechnya over two wars, the containment of the wider North Caucasus insurgency, and the establishment of a power vertikal’ between Moscow and Ramzan Kadyrov. Another example is China’s management of dissent among Uyghurs in Xinjiang, involving the imposition of a single hegemonic narrative, the suppression of alternatives, and the reported “re-education” of large numbers of people in the state narrative. This model of managing conflict offers an alternative to the liberal peace, not of course by resolving conflict but by simply managing it indefinitely in ways that uphold and embed authoritarian rule.
The South Caucasus between liberal peace and authoritarian conflict management
Consistent with the wider pattern of regional fracture, liberal and authoritarian responses to conflict in the South Caucasus compete with and mutually exclude each other. Emphatically, liberal and authoritarian approaches do not coincide with the de jure/de facto divide. The relevant divide is between actors more invested in liberal modes of conflict resolution and actors more invested in authoritarian modes of conflict management. The distribution of these actors across conflicts in the South Caucasus does not replicate or follow conflict fault-lines; rather, groups and actors inclined to these different approaches can be found in each society. This reflects more fundamental cleavages in each society, between those who wish to see a reformed political order (and to varying extents a liberal one), and those who are invested in the status quo or more authoritarian alternatives.
Yet partisans of both the liberal peace and authoritarian conflict management encounter the deeper structural condition of regional fracture. Competing vectors for the region’s geopolitical, security, and normative alignments, and the embeddedness of fracture, constrain both liberal and illiberal responses to conflict.
Constraints for the liberal peace in the South Caucasus
Some of the constraints to the liberal peace in the South Caucasus have been alluded to above. Globally, the liberal peace everywhere confronts the passing of the unipolar moment, the decline in Euro-Atlantic cohesion and the power to attract, and the emergence of a multipolar order featuring several entrepreneurs of authoritarian conflict management. Regionally, the three major powers surrounding the Caucasus, Russia, Turkey, and Iran are all to varying extents invested or experimenting in authoritarian models of conflict management.
Within the region itself, regime trajectories have not developed towards the kinds of liberal democratic governance with which the liberal peace is associated. Azerbaijan and, until 2018, Armenia featured stably authoritarian regimes. Georgia has exhibited a highly contested trajectory in the direction of a more democratic regime type, a trajectory that Armenia looks set to follow in the wake of its 2018 “Velvet Revolution.” In different ways all of the region’s states exhibit the kinds of weak institutional capacity characteristic of fractured regions and present credible commitment problems for liberal mechanisms such as elections, referendums, or transitional justice.
Another factor is the emergence and viability of the “de facto state” as an alternative political model in secessionist areas that has to varying extents been able to present itself as an emancipatory project framed by ostensibly liberal norms such as self-determination. Yet for all three of these entities in the South Caucasus, legacies of ethnic cleansing or the exclusion of residual populations belonging to the “parent-state” nationality continually undermine a liberal framing of a self-determination project.
A crucial constraint for the liberal peace is the political resource that unresolved conflict offers to political entrepreneurs of various kinds. Through the rhetoric and practice of securitization—depicting certain actors, ideas, or practices as a threat to national interests sufficient to warrant the deployment of security policies in response— national security can be effectively construed as the Achilles’ heel of any who challenge or win power. For example, during the eight-hour parliamentary marathon on May 1, 2018 that preceded the first and unsuccessful attempt to vote him in as prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan’s opponents consistently targeted his security credentials. Ruling Republican Party MPs pronounced Pashinyan an implausible commander-in-chief and guardian of national security. In Georgia, security in the form of appropriate responses to the Russian presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia has emerged over the last 15 years as a key playing field in which government and opposition score points against one another. In this febrile competitive environment, liberal peace strategies are easily depicted as “going soft,” and the case for them is more challenging to argue.
This reflects a further, critical constraint to the liberal peace in the South Caucasus, which is the simple reality that public opinion does not support such approaches. Polling on politically sensitive issues such as ethno-territorial conflict is prone to bias and the delivery of expected answers, yet it seems reasonable to conclude that the approaches embedded within the liberal peace, such as dialogue, autonomy, and power-sharing, are less popular than top-down, unitary approaches. The last Caucasus Barometer conducted in Azerbaijan, for example, found in 2013 that autonomy for Nagorno-Karabakh was significantly less popular (50% definitely or maybe) than no autonomy at all (98%). What counts as “authoritarian” in authoritarian conflict management is consequently moot, as such policies may reflect majority views. (Of course, this overlooks the role that political elites play in propagating and normalizing such views through rhetoric, education, and state-controlled media.)
The horizons for the liberal peace in the South Caucasus consequently face grave and enduring constraints. The hegemony of the liberal global order that underpinned it has dissipated, and the era of large-scale multilateral interventions to enforce liberal outcomes is over. There is neither an unambiguous evidentiary base to justify such interventions, nor capacity among fractious multilateral organizations to field them.
Constraints for authoritarian conflict management in the South Caucasus
Yet the prospects for more authoritarian approaches to definitively displace the liberal peace in the South Caucasus are also critically constrained because the basic structural conditions that have allowed, for example, Russia and China to quell internal conflict in Chechnya and Xinjiang are absent in the South Caucasus. Authoritarian conflict management is most effective when used against internal adversaries without heavily internationalized support. Secessionists in the South Caucasus, however, have reliable external support that mitigates and deflects the costs of authoritarian strategies directed at them. Recalling the three components as described by Lewis and his co-authors—discourse, space, and economic relations inside rebel areas—the latter two factors are largely beyond the effective reach of most post-Soviet “parent states.” Strategies of isolation may be pursued, yet these result primarily in accelerating secessionist areas’ integration with external patron states. Moreover, isolation strategies also compromise the credibility of “parent-state” claims to be genuinely committed to peaceful resolution and to this extent may entail reputational costs among some international audiences.
Second, authoritarian models of conflict management are not capable of definitively stabilizing conflicts with a strong communal element. Powerful collective memories and nationalist narratives drive conflicts in the South Caucasus. From the perspective of the region’s “parent states”, the idea that today’s de facto states are artificial or transient entities ignores the fact that they represent the institutionalization of local aspirations to separate ethno-territorial status that go back a century. This suggests that it is only open, public, multi-vocal, and extended processes of articulating grievances and reconciling them that can, eventually, transform and resolve these conflicts.
The idea that authoritarian regimes are better suppliers of security than their liberal alternatives can also hardly be taken as axiomatic. April 2016’s “four-day war” exposed corrupt authoritarians in Armenia as a primary security risk for the population in Nagorno-Karabakh. Although the “four-day war” played out as a tactical victory for Azerbaijan, it nevertheless came at a high human cost, with casualties reported to be broadly equivalent to Armenian losses and with very limited territorial gains for the billions of dollars spent on the military in the preceding decade.
Finally, like the liberal peace, authoritarian conflict management faces the South Caucasus’ fractured positioning between Euro-Atlantic and Eurasian centers of power. The depth and pace of European integration may have been disappointing for some of its advocates in the South Caucasus, yet it is still sufficient to exercise a normative influence. That influence may now increase with the appearance of a new government in Armenia explicitly claiming a liberal-democratic form of legitimacy, even as it seeks to manage an ongoing security alliance with Russia. All South Caucasus actors are aware of an elective affinity between local strategies to pursue authoritarian strategies of managing conflict and Russian influence as a regional and global entrepreneur of these same strategies. This affinity may serve the interests of strongmen seeking to win or regain power by instilling insecurity in their populations and selling themselves as the solution to it. But many in the South Caucasus understand that authoritarian conflict management and a region penetrated by hard and soft Russian power are two sides of the same coin.
In the South Caucasus context, then, authoritarian conflict management may serve as a powerful tool for shaping the domestic political arena, but it is not able to actually contain internationalized conflicts. It may be an addictive prop for illiberal politicians or regimes, and useful in demobilizing liberal alternatives. As a component of wide stagnation stifling reform, innovation, and efficiency, authoritarian conflict management can also be corrosive of state power. As Armenia’s autocrats discovered in 2018, it only takes a crisis to reveal the depth of that corrosion.
Conflict resolution in the South Caucasus is caught between liberal and authoritarian models of responding to conflict. Reflecting and feeding back into the wider structural condition of regional fracture, neither approach can consolidate into effective strategies for either the resolution of conflicts along liberal lines, or their suppression consistent with authoritarian rule. The region is stuck in a post-liberal limbo, where the liberal peace is no longer hegemonic, yet authoritarian conflict management is incapable of decisively displacing it. This state of limbo, moreover, is set to continue and deepen for the foreseeable future.
Movement from this limbo to a new dispensation more conducive to conflict resolution will be a slow, incremental, and multi-faceted process, necessitating the passing of multiple interlinked thresholds. A full discussion of what these might be lies beyond the scope of this paper. I will conclude with mention of just three.
First, the limitations and wider socio-political costs of authoritarian conflict management need to become a publicly recognized problem. This implies on the one hand a public recognition that the balance of forces in South Caucasus conflicts makes their termination through military means prohibitively costly. On the other hand, it implies a broad public awareness that the pursuit of authoritarian conflict management brings with it a much wider series of negative consequences for society. These span a wide spectrum from the centralization of power and authoritarian evasions of accountability behind the rhetoric of “national security,” the diversion of resources to defense spending, the demobilization of dissent, the masculinization of society, and much more.
A second threshold would be the reduction of external influence. This idea, of course, pushes back against the received narrative of the South Caucasus as an object of competing external influences. It is certainly true that external patrons are hard-wired into the region’s conflicts by their asymmetric nature. Smaller actors borrow external power and geopoliticize conflicts in the process. The regional fracture perspective argues, however, that fractured regions are as much the product of local agency as external intervention. Negating the local levels of conflict and attributing a causal monopoly to geopolitics has been a very widely used rhetorical strategy in the South Caucasus. The liberal peace, of course, is also tainted by association with intrusive external powers pushing democratization and governance agendas. Yet a multitude of alternatives—hybrid peace, everyday peace, communitarian or community-driven peace, and quality peace—have been proposed as alternative paths to the relentless geopoliticization of conflicts (Mac Ginty 2011, Wallensteen 2015, Kokaia, Guliyeva, Kalatozishvili, and Romashov 2019, Sargsyan and Aydin 2019). Serious adoption of these perspectives could reinstate local political agency and over time lead to a new conjuncture beyond the impasse between the liberal peace and authoritarian conflict management.
A third threshold would be the advent of strategies that would meaningfully engage, but not recognize, de facto states. After a quarter-century of securitization and containment, “parent states” can point to the limited or non-existent number of recognitions, but very little else, as indicators of success. Furthermore, notwithstanding the Syrian exception, after Russia’s annexation of Crimea it is extremely unlikely that any further recognitions will be forthcoming in the foreseeable future. Rather than leading to the collapse of de facto states, isolation leads rather to their development along harder, illiberal lines making them more, not less, resistant to conflict resolution. Strengthened capacities in these entities are essential to either their accession to a new constitutional settlement with “parent states”, or their eventual recognition as independent states (Broers 2013).
Passing these thresholds might allow for today’s emaciated peace processes to expand sufficiently to draw disparate segments and social constituencies into a genuine political process. Increasing networked ties could also contribute to the greater institutional embeddedness of the South Caucasus as a framework for the resolution of conflicts and future for this region.
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Sargsyan, Suren and Yaprak Aydin. 2019. “Meet the New Normal: Community-Driven Clean Energy Partnership and Regional Cooperation between Turkey and Armenia.” Caucasus Edition, June 1. https://caucasusedition.net/meet-the-new-normal-community-driven-clean-energy-partnership-and-regional-cooperation-between-turkey-and-armenia/.
 The term “parent state” has become common in the academic literature, although many actors in “de facto states” dislike the term for its connotations of kinship and hierarchy. However, like the term “de facto state”, “parent state” is in many ways a least worst option compared to alternatives, such as the “metropolitan state” (which implies a directly colonial relationship), “base state” (which is more neutral but ambiguous) or the cumbersome “central state authority”.
 I thank David Lewis for this point.
*The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of any organization the author is affiliated with.
** The featured photo portrays a war memorial in Shushi/a, Nagorno-Karabakh. Photo is taken by Laurence Broers.