What does Britain’s departure from the EU mean for the country’s policy towards the South Caucasus, a small region on the periphery of Europe, fractured by conflict? Although Britain is not directly involved in any of the region’s peace processes (except in the case of the Geneva International Discussions on conflicts involving Georgia, as an EU member state), it has been a significant stakeholder in South Caucasian stability since the mid-1990s.
Most obviously, Britain has been the single largest foreign investor in Caspian oil and gas. Yet beyond pipelines, Britain also has been a significant investor in long-term civil society-led strategies to build peace in the South Caucasus.
Through what was then the Global Conflict Prevention Pool, in the early 2000s the Department for International Development (DfID) pioneered large-scale peacebuilding interventions, such as the Consortium Initiative, addressing Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, in 2003-09. These built civic networks in the South Caucasus and partnerships with British-based NGOs.
This experience left a strong intellectual legacy. British expertise on the South Caucasus, including specific expertise on its conflicts, is highly regarded in the region and across the world.
There is also a strong tradition of British scholarship on the Caucasus, and several British universities offer Caucasus-related courses. Through schemes such as the John Smith Fellowship Trust, the Robert Bosch Stiftung Academy Fellowship at Chatham House and Chevening Scholarships, significant numbers of young leaders from the South Caucasus have spent time in British institutions and built effective relationships within them.
This niche as a champion of long-term, strategic peacebuilding and repository of area-specific knowledge should not be lost as Britain’s relationship with the EU and regional actors evolves. This can be ensured through awareness of three challenges confronting a post-Brexit Caucasus policy.
The first challenge for London is to avoid framing a regional policy in the South Caucasus as an extension of a wider ‘Russia policy’. Deteriorating Russian-British relations in recent years strengthen a tendency to view policies in the European neighbourhood through the traditional prisms of Cold War and Russian-Western rivalries.
Yet an overwhelming focus on Russia fails to capture other important aspects of political developments in South Caucasus conflicts. Although often referred to as ‘breakaway’ or ‘occupied’ territories, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorny Karabakh are not ungoverned spaces. They have evolved into examples of what scholars call ‘de facto states’ that, to differing degrees, control territory, provide governance and exercise internal sovereignty.
Few disagree that these entities would not survive without external patronage. But neither does that patronage explain their sustainability on its own. Russia-centricity diminishes Britain’s latitude to engage on the full range of local drivers sustaining these entities, contributing instead to less effective policies predicated on competition and containment.
A second and related challenge is to maintain and develop Britain’s position on the issue of engaging populations in these entities. De facto states appear to stand outside of the international rules-based system. Yet in many cases, their civil societies are peopled by skilled and motivated activists who want their leaders to be held accountable according to international rules.
Strategies of isolation ignore these voices and contribute instead to fearful and demoralized communities less likely to engage in a transformation of adversarial relationships. Making this case with the wider international community, and facilitating the funding of local civil societies in contested territories, would be important steps in sustaining an effective British policy on the resolution of conflicts.
The third challenge for Britain is to maintain a long-term approach to the conflicts of the South Caucasus alongside potential short-term imperatives in other policy fields, as relationships shift post-Brexit.
In this fluid international environment, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has a role to play both as an internal champion of a long-term peacebuilding strategy and a coordinator of British efforts with those of multilateral actors engaged in the South Caucasus. These include the United Nations, the EU’s Special Representative for the South Caucasus and the Crisis in Georgia and OSCE’s Special Representative for the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office for the South Caucasus, all of which have built relationships with relevant actors on the ground.
Britain’s niche as a champion and advocate of a strategic approach to peaceful change can be secured post-Brexit in the following ways.
First, in-house expertise is crucial to effective peacebuilding programming. The Foreign Office’s research analysts play a vital role in generating independent internal advice and liaising with academic and NGO communities. Their role could be supplemented by the reinstatement of a regional conflict adviser post, based in Tbilisi, tasked with strengthening Britain’s regional presence on conflict issues and coordinating policy at a regional level.
This post, with a remit to cover conflicts and build up area knowledge and relationships can contribute significantly to working closely with local civil societies, where so much expertise and knowledge resides, as well as other stakeholders.
Second, programming should build in conflict sensitivity by dissociating eligibility from contested political status. This can encourage local populations to take advantage of opportunities for funding, study, comparative learning and professional development irrespective of the status of the entity where they reside.
The Chevening Scholarships are an excellent example, whereby applicants can select ‘South Caucasus’ as their affiliated identity from a drop-down menu. This enables citizens from across the region to apply irrespective of the status of the territory in which they live.
Finally, a holistic understanding of peace is crucial. Programming in unrecognized or partially-recognized entities should acknowledge that effective peacebuilding needs to embrace political dynamics and processes beyond cross-conflict contact and confidence building. Local actors in such entities may find peacebuilding funding streams defined exclusively in terms of cross-conflict contact more politically risky and ineffective in addressing domestic blockages to peace.
While cross-conflict dynamics remain critical, ‘single-community’ programming framed in terms of civic participation, inclusion, civil society capacity-building, minority and human rights in contested territories, and building the confidence from within to engage in constructive dialogue, are no less important.
The ’global Britain’ promised by Brexit remains a fanciful idea. Quiet, painstaking work to build on the legacies of a long-term British investment in a peace strategy for the South Caucasus, on the other hand, is a realistic and attainable goal.