The Caucasus: Armed and Divided

Small arms and light weapons proliferation and humanitarian consequences in the Caucasus

This report is concerned with the problems caused by the proliferation of small arms and light weapons (SALW) in the South Caucasus. Levels of SALW possession remain very high, reflecting the continued atmosphere of insecurity: conflicts remain unresolved, crime is widespread and people do not always feel they can trust the state to protect them. In such circumstances, SALW are seen as protection against these unpredictable forces. Yet SALW proliferation is also a cause of insecurity in itself, heightening fears of further violence both between and within societies.
Although SALW proliferation in the Caucasus is recognised as a serious security concern, there has been little detailed analysis of its dimensions: How many weapons are in circulation? How were these weapons acquired, and which types of guns are widespread? What role do guns play in society? This report seeks to find some answers to these questions by exploring the dynamics of SALW proliferation in the region and rooting it in the context of the local security environment. It is comprised of seven case studies written by local researchers in the Caucasus, complemented by a chapter on the view from Moscow.

It is difficult to get even approximate figures of the number of SALW in circulation in the South Caucasus. The major source of SALW proliferation was the stores of the Soviet Army as the Soviet Union collapsed, and the arms of the Transcaucasian Military District were divided amongst the newly independent republics, breakaway regions, paramilitary organisations and individuals by a combination of legal and illegal means. This period was so chaotic that it is not always possible to establish how many weapons ended up where. Although the states of the region have had some success in establishing control, disbanding paramilitary organisations and collecting or registering weapons held by the civilian population, concrete information about the SALW situation remains scarce, and legislation to regulate the possession and use of SALW is weak. Information on weapons under state control is usually secret, and estimates of the amount in illegal circulation vary considerably.

The authors demonstrate that there is no single 'problem' with SALW in the Caucasus - each area has its own specific 'problems'. Though in some regions of the Caucasus there was a traditional 'gun culture', it was not until the late 1980s that civilians began to acquire arms on a large scale, because political conflicts over ethnic identity, territory and survival created a sense that weapons were needed and catalysed the formation of armed groups. This was facilitated by poor stockpile security. Moscow had little idea how vulnerable its military stores were. In the instability of the period, it was quite easy to acquire arms by bribing those responsible for their storage or by violent seizure of the weapons.