Ryskeldi Satke - Mr. Goltz, you had witnessed a Chechen-Russian war first hand in 1995 which led to a publishing of your book "Chechnya Diary." It has been 15 years since the beginning of a conflict between self-proclaimed independent Chechnya and the Kremlin. Do you think the Chechen conflict is over for Russia or is it just a beginning of another round of a vicious cycle on a larger scale in the North Caucasus?
Thomas Goltz - This is a very difficult question for me to answer in a responsible manner. I have not been on the ground in the region for almost a decade, and garner my news through public sources. Some these suggest that Kadyrov has consolidated power in a way that gives him (and thus Chechnya) a type of virtual independence (based on brutality) that eluded both Dudayev and Maskhadov. Others suggest that the spate of police killings and other acts of violence in Ingushetia and elsewhere are the harbingers of greater violence to come.
RS - A political crisis between Georgia and Russia in the summer of 2008 had led to a full blown war in South Ossetia. German weekly magazine Spiegel outlined a report of the independent European Union fact-finding mission headed by the Swiss diplomat and Caucasus expert Heidi Tagliavini which ultimately blamed both sides in the conflict, but specifically claimed Georgian President Saakashvili's proactive role for initiating a military operation against Russian troops in South Ossetia. The United States, on the other hand, firmly supports Georgia, which deeply irritates Kremlin officials. What is your take on Russian-Georgian conflict? Do you think Russia's aggressive stand against NATO expansion to the East has to do with charged war in Georgia?
TG - I would invite you to read the updated Epilogue to my book on Georgia which appeared in February 2009 (Georgia Diary, M.E. Sharpe) because it tackles all of the issues you bring up. In sum, I would say that the events of August 2008 are a near perfect replay of the so-called 'Texas Solution,' meaning the war between Mexico and the USA in 1846 when the US provoked and provoked and provoked Mexico into 'attacking' its army in Louisianna, at which point the US forces responded with overwhelming force and ultimately seized Texas which first became an 'independent' country and was then later absorbed into the USA (as a slave state). No less a soldier than Ulysses S. Grant, who participated in that campaign as an officer, declared in his memoirs that the Mexico/Texas campaign was the 'most unjust and imperial war in American history' and that it led directly to the War Between The States/Civil War. In other words, whatever crimes of stupidity Saakashvili may be guilty of (including the belief that the US and the West would risk WWIII with Russia over his fate), I regard the August 2008 war as a direct result of Russian provocation. If Saakashvili had not responded in August, another provocation would have happened in September or October, etc.
RS - The politics of Turkey and the Caucasus have been dominated for the past few years by gas pipeline projects from Central Asian states (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakstan) through existing connection in Azerbaidjan and Georgia to Turkey (Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline) with further deliveries to European markets. Nabucco pipeline is one of the substantial choices for European Union in diversifying the routes for transporting gas. What are the chances for the Nabucco projec,t in reality, with the complexity of the issues around transporting routes as we saw in Georgia during a war with Russia where reliability of the pipeline raised serious concerns ?
TG - The politics of pipelines in the region are confusing and contradictory. As for Nabucco, it is of interest to note that while Russia is theoretically opposed to it, Turkey is for it, which would lead one to believe in a 'rivalry' between these two states. And yet, Moscow and Ankara are signing agreement after agreement on other pipeline projects... Anyway, for Nabucco to be viable, in addition to Azeri gas, it needs at least one more source - either Turkmenistan (via Iran or under the Caspian), Iran itself or possibly Iraq (Kurdistan) - and all of these sources are problematic (especially Iran, given US involvement). Then add the Turkish-Armenian 'reproachment' to the mix with attendant alienation of the key-country Azerbaijan (now selling gas to Russia) and you have a very complex picture indeed! At the same time, this is what everyone was saying about the BTC project back in the late 1990s - and yet it got done through the political will of Heydar Aliyev. Who knows?
RS - Turkey and Armenia have signed a historic accord to establish diplomatic ties and reopen their shared border on November 2009. BBC News reported that United States has been pressing both parties to normalise relations. Thousands of protesters took to the streets opposing a deal in Yerevan, Armenia. Azeri officials in the meantime reacted angrily to agreement calling the accord a "direct contradiction to the national interests of Azerbaijan" as Reuters reported. In your expertise,what are the prospects of such agreement between Turkey and Armenia with Azerbaidjan's fierce opposition to it?
TG - I seriously doubt that Turkey would completely sacrifice its relationship with Azerbaijan for a luke-warm relationship (at best) with Armenia, but Turkey has shot itself in the foot before and might do so again.
RS - Turkey, in recent years, has been active in mediating between Iran and the West, including the United States on Iranian nuclear activities. We have seen Turkey's role in indirect talks between Israel and Syria in 2008 before they collapsed following Israeli offensive on Gaza. Some western experts believe Turkey, as a NATO ally, has an important role with its influence in the region. In your opinion, is there a shift in Turkey's foreign policy towards proactive engagement? Do you think Turkey can be a reliable player in Afghanistan, especially as Turkish troops have been contributing to the training of the Afghany Army and joining the efforts to rebuild Afghanistan's infrastructure?
TG - These are two different questions. The first deals with Turkey's self-proclaimed, proactive foreign policy of 'Zero Problems With Neighbors.' In that regard, we certainly have seen some interesting changes in policy towards Syria, Iraq/Kurdistan, Greece and the Balkans as well as Russia and most recently, Iran. How sustainable all this is, or how much is just headlines in the press is another matter. As for Afghanistan, as a member of NATO Turkey was obliged to participate (and did so eagerly in the early phase of the conflict there) but has consistently declined to allow its contingent to be used for combat operations and to limit its involvement to training, etc. As such, Turkey's position has been consistent from the start; what has changed is the nature of the war and the level of US involvement and its irritation with Turkey and other NATO members for their sticking with the original game plan and refusing to be drawn in to the expanded war. This has almost nothing to do with Turkish foreign policy, new or not; this has to do with its commitments as a NATO member for almost (over?) 50 years.
RS - It's been 9 years since the beginning of the US and NATO military operations in Afghanistan. Certainly, it shook the central Asian region to the extent that security issues were re-evaluated. Adding the autocratic regimes with weak economies in post-Soviet, central Asian republics - characterized as corrupt by international organizations - the chance of sliding the region into geopolitical chaos became more evident. Do you believe that a destabilized Afghanistan might trigger the escalation of the political instability in the region, including Xinjiang province of China? Do you think US and NATO will be able to bring political balance in Afghanistan?
TG - I am very pessimistic about the US/NATO approach to Afghanistan but cannot offer much in the way of my own solution aside from immediate withdrawal and allowing the cards to fall where they may. This is not a very responsible approach, I know. As for Xinjiang, I am more concerned about the consequences of failure for Pakistan in the first order, and then the post-Soviet republics of Central Asia after that.
RS - So-called color revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan changed a political dimension in post-Soviet states, adding opposing Russia to any new developments in neighboring countries. The Russians and Chinese believe the U.S. State Department was behind these revolutions. Since then, Russia's approach has been aggressive towards Ukraine and Georgia. We know that the Kremlin's policy played a direct role in gas disputes between Ukraine and Russia, which caused gas shortages in European Union. The Georgian-Russian war in South Ossetia is another example of Kremlin's hard line. In the case of Kyrgyzstan, however, the "tulip revolution" of 2005 didn 셳 bring expected change. Moreover, the Kyrgyz Republic fell back into an authoritarian regime. Do you believe in U.S. State Department role in the color revolutions? In your view, do you think Georgia and Ukraine will be integrated into the EU in the near future, despite the Kremlin's harsh actions?
TG - I do not think the US State Department was directly involved or even instrumental in any of the so-called color revolutions, although quasi-governmental bodies such as the Soros foundation certainly were supportive, to the point of over-stepping the bounds. And even though the Kyrgyz 'tulip revolution' might have been disappointing for those who applauded the Rose and Orange ones, I would hasten to suggest that those two so-called revolutions are both in danger of hitting the skids, and that the so-called colorless revolution that failed in Azerbaijan was just that - a bad joke. As for Georgian or Ukraine being integrated into either the EU or NATO, the quick answer is: don't hold your breath!
RS - Kazakhstan became the first ex-Soviet central Asian state to assume the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), in 2010, despite the Kazakh's weak human rights record, which confirms a trend of "closing eyes" in the West on basic principles promoted by the same Western democracies. In your opinion, what's the reason for EU interest in Kazakhstan besides natural resources?
TG - Natural resources, full stop.
Goltz is an American author and journalist best known for his accounts of conflict in the Caucasus region during the 1990s. He has worked in and around Turkey and the Caucasus region of the former Soviet Union for the past 15 years.