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Analysis From Washington - New Players in Caucasus

  • Paul Goble

Washington, April 5 (RFE/RL) - Moscow's four-year effort to exclude outside actors from becoming involved in the Trans-Caucasus is now failing. As a result, the stakes in all of that region's conflicts are likely to rise not only for the countries of the region but also for the outside actors as well.

Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian government has pursued a policy of "frozen instability" in the Caucasus. That is, Moscow has sought to keep the conflicts in the region going at a level that would keep outsiders from getting involved while Russia is relatively weak but not allow them to grow to a level that would threaten Moscow's ultimate ability to reproject Russian power.

This policy has taken the form of Russian support now for one side and now for another in all the region's many conflicts. Thus, Moscow has tilted sometimes toward Azerbaijan and sometimes toward Armenia during the Nagorno-Karabakh war. Sometimes it has backed Tbilisi and sometimes Abkhazia in their dispute.

Until recently, this clever combination was sufficient to keep these conflicts going at a low boil, and that in turn was sufficient to keep both the region's immediate neighbors and more distant powers from taking a direct hand, diplomatically or otherwise, in the conflicts.

Now, the situation appears to have changed. In virtually every case, Moscow has lost its flexibility or seen the conflict grow beyond Russian capacity to contain it. That in turn has led the countries of the region to seek outside support and outside powers to believe that getting involved in the region can bring them political bonuses.

The last ten days have brought impressive evidence on this point:

- First, the U.S. has decided to take a much more active hand in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict both to promote American oil company interests and to protect Armenia, which has a large number of co-ethnics in the U.S. While the American involvement has not succeeded, it signals that Moscow can no longer count on a free hand in this conflict.

- Second, Turkey has decided to weigh in on the side of both Azerbaijan and Georgia in their respective conflicts. On Wednesday, a Turkish foreign ministry official said that Ankara would oppose any change in Azerbaijan's sovereignty and territorial integrity. And yesterday, Turkish President Suleyman Demirel said that his country backed Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze's ideas on a peace settlement for the Caucasus.

- Also yesterday, the Moscow newspaper Izvestiya noted that Russia no longer had a free hand in the Abkhaz dispute. It said that Shevardnadze had refused to give Russian peace-keepers a full mandate unless they moved against the Abkhaz separatists. And the paper noted that the Georgian president had said that Russia would not be allowed to open the military bases it wants unless it changed its position on Abkhazia.

In addition, Iran signalled this week in conversations with Central Asian countries that it is more willing than in the past to provide a route out to world markets for goods and services produced by these countries. Such a shift would also reduce Moscow's flexibiity and influence in the region.

The involvement of these outside powers and the new self-confidence it gives to the countries of the region, of course, do not guarantee that there will be peace anytime soon. In fact, to the extent that Moscow feels it is losing influence, it may be tempted to reignite one or more of the conflicts.

But the shifts of the past few days do suggest that Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia will be able to draw on international political resources they have not had in the past and that these new resources could tip the balance toward peace and more genuine independence for the three nations.