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Are conflicts in the South Caucasus ethnic?

There is no negative intrinsic value to ethnical diversity that would make it a cause of conflict. Otherwise, every ethnically diverse society would be expected to be in conflict, while the reality suggests that for each case of ethnic rivarly, there are many other cases of different ethnic groups coexisting peacefully. So that is only in combination with (an)other factor(s) that ethnicity becomes important. Then, if no conflict can be explained exclusively by reference to ethnicity, why are some conflicts named as such? Apparently because neither other conflict-triggering factor(s) would work without referring to ethnicity.

In the conflicts labeled „ethnic“, ethnicity serves at least as a mobilizing factor (preparation phase), a minimal condition and only in conjuction with (an)other factor(s) that it becomes a sufficient condition for a conflict to occur. Ethnicity as a minimal condition should be understood as the mere fact of existence, within one state, of two or more ethnic groups that share somewhat negative awareness of their ethnic differences. What are then these other factors that add to this minimal condition, making ethinical rivarly explode? (taking it for granted that ethnicity is one of the factors in every conflict labeled „ethnic“)?

In case of South Caucausus conflicts designated as „ethnic“, ethnicity as a minimal condition was present. In 1990s, South Caucasus had three regions populated by ethnic minorities: Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh populated mostly by Armenians; Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Geo- Samachablo) populated together with Georgians by Abkhaz minority and Ossetians majority respectively.  As for the additional conditions, there were at least 2 other conflict-triggering factors (speaking about 1990s, the conflict-escalation period).

1) Political conditions and timing „favourable“ to conflict. The dissolution of USSR meant the elimination of Soviet authority. It created a power vacuum that ethnic minorities were afraid would be filled on their expense. It also meant the end to triangular politics, with Soviet Union being the third and authoritative party. Now ethnic minorities would not have any third party to address in case of need and this need seemed to be there with rising nationalistic movements and countries proclaiming independence. With the emergence of new power structures came power struggle and ethnic minorities felt threatened by new political cirumstances. It was an opportune time for the mobilization of the population by the actual leaders or some nationalistic movements

2) Lack of Western interest in the region. No EU or NATO involvement, as this region was not in their security interests that time. The South Caucasus was only left to Russia to exercise its „divide and rule“ modus operandi.

In conjuction with these factors, ethnically divided South Caucasus states immersed in bloody wars designated „ethnic“.  Though calling wars with substantial political and territorial dimensions ‚ethnic‘, simplifies the picture. Especially as the parties themselves never claimed conflicts to be ethnic in contrast to the accepted definition of ethnic conflict that requires at least one party to „interpret(s) the conflict,its causes, and potential remedies along an actually existing or perceived discriminating ethnic divide” (Wolff, 2006).

Georgia has never claimed its conflict with the separatist regions to be ethnic. In Georgian understanding there are two purely political conflicts on its territory, with groups seeking certain political goals (statehood or joining motherland) via political means (separation or irredentism) thus threatening Georgia’s own statehood (territorial integrity). E.g. the turmoil of 1990s is referred to in Georgia as a civil war. Civil war is not necessarily ethnic in the character and is about political, territorial and mass domination, – be it done by different ethnic groups or within one ethnic group. So ethnicity does not add anything here for Georgians who see the conflicts on its territory in purely political terms.

Neither for Georgians, nor for Abkhazh is their conflict ethnic. Azbkhaz people believe they are fighting for their legitimate rights over Abkhazian territory, asking for self-determination in the form of the statehood. Thus for Georgians Abkhaz people are separatists claiming Georgian territory theirs, while for Abkhaz Georgians are aggressors invading their land and claiming it theirs based on a historical wrong done by Stalin (who himself was Georgian). What is more, the escalation of the South Ossetia-Georgian conflict in 2008 is perceived by Georgia, as well by the international community, as a war between Russia and Georgia. 08/08/08 war thus falls under the category of inter-state wars for geopolitical reasons, rather than ethnic conflicts.

In the same vein, Nagorno-karabakh conflict is usally designated ethnic, while at the same time it is presented as a conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, rather than a conflict between Azerbaijan central government and separatists.  Interestingly enough, sometimes Nagorno-Karabakh is not even referred to as a party. Hence, there are inconsistencies in labeling Nagorno-Karabkh conflict ethnic while also suggesting that it is an inter-state border dispute or territorial conflict (The same inconsistencies are there in case of Ukraine crisis too. It is both referred to as an ethnic-conflict within a state and as an inter-state war between Russia and Ukraine).

Altogether, It is true that ethnicity has a say on why certain regions immersed in conflict and not the others (these were not just any territories of South Caucasus in conflict, but these were territories populated by ethnic minorities). Yet,  these were not fights simply directed against other ethnicity, it was war between occupiers (Georgia and Azerbaijan for their ethnic minorities) vs separatists (Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians, Abkhazs and South Ossetians for Azerbaijanis and Georgians). The claims were about political status and territorial control, even if claims were made by ethnic minority groups vs majority.

Therefore, affiliations played an important role here -something similar to „rally-around-the flag phenomenon“. For those without legitimate state, the „flag“ proved to be their ethnicity and territory they claimed theirs. On that account, the combo-term seems the most relevant here: South Caucasian conflicts as ethno-political or ethno-territorial (claiming political status of an independent country in the name of self-determination in the case of Georgia-Abkhazian conflict;  claiming historic rights to a territory attributed to another state in case of Nagorno-Karabakh and less clear stance of South Ossetia undecided between separatism and irridentism).