Accessibility links

Russia: Analysis From Washington--Destabilizing The Caucasus

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 10 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - Azerbaijani and Georgian officials said last week that Moscow has interfered in the internal affairs of their countries to the detriment of stability there and in the region as a whole.

The current exchange of charges, countercharges, and denials on this point was sparked when a Russian cabinet minister said publicly last month that Russian companies had "illegally" supplied tanks and other heavy armor to Armenia in 1994-96.

But very few people in the Transcaucasus accepted this explanation for what most there view as Russia's backing of Armenia in its war with Azerbaijan. And because of that, some officials in the region have begun to accuse Russia of continuing to interfere.

Last Tuesday, for example, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Hasan Hasanov said that Armenia had recently obtained missile systems capable of carrying nuclear warheads. Other Azerbaijani officials were reported to have said that Russia had supplied these weapons.

And Azerbaijani deputy security minister Galip Haligov added that Armenia had taken delivery of 1,000 shoulder-mounted, anti-aircraft missiles from Russia.

"These new weapon deliveries," he said, "could lead to the resumption of hostilities and lead to the destabilization of the situation in the Transcaucasus."

These claims of Russian weapons deliveries were followed by suggestions that Armenia was fortifying its forward positions in Azerbaijan and preparing to launch a new attack.

The Armenian authorities promptly denied this, and early last week the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents conferred by telephone to try to prevent the crisis from escalating into new fighting.

On Thursday, however, the Baku authorities pointed to what they said was another example of Russian interference. Security minister Namik Abbasov was quoted by the Turan news agency as saying that "certain circles" in Russia had stepped up their espionage activities against Azerbaijan.

Abbasov reportedly said that these Russian forces were hoping to overthrow Azerbaijani President Geidar Aliyev and to replace him with someone more malleable from Moscow's point of view.

Meanwhile in neighboring Georgia, two further events highlighted the dangers of what many in the Transcaucasus see as unjustified and dangerous Russian interference.

First of all, a group of Georgian parliamentarians vowed to continue their hunger strike until Russian military units were withdrawn from Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Those units currently operate under a United Nations mandate as peacekeepers.

While only eleven members of the Georgian parliament were involved, Georgian parliament speaker Zurab Zhvania said that all factions in Georgian politics were sympathetic to their point of view about the need for Moscow to withdraw its forces.

And in a second case, both the Georgian government and the leadership of the Abkhazian separatists denounced Russian troops for illegally removing military stores from a naval base on the Black Sea coast.

Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze said that the Russian forces there were acting "as if they are somewhere in an outlying Russian region," rather than in a foreign country.

And Gennady Gagulia, the prime minister of the self-proclaimed government of Abkhazia, criticized Moscow for taking military equipment from the port of Ochamchiri.

Just how involved Moscow is in any of these events is very much a matter of dispute. Some local officials have their own reasons for suggesting the "hand of Moscow" is present event when it is not.

Moreover, given the disorder in the Russian army and government, it is difficult if not impossible to establish just who is responsible for which action.

As a result, the Russian government may be getting blamed for something it has not in fact done, at least in particular cases.

But many people in the region nevertheless will believe these charges that Russia is responsible for these actions precisely because it was so in the past.

Such beliefs can destabilize a region that is far from stable even when no one from the outside becomes involved.