Boston, 6 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia can only watch with dismay at events unfolding in Kosovo, as NATO struggles in its confrontation with Yugoslavia's Serbs.
The ambitions of nations like Azerbaijan to associate themselves with NATO has been based on perceptions that the alliance provides a guarantee of security, an assurance that now seems in doubt.
Both Presidents Heidar Aliyev of Azerbaijan and Nursultan Nazarbaev of Kazakhstan have announced plans to travel to Washington this month to take part in NATO's 50th anniversary ceremonies. But with the outcome in Kosovo uncertain, some analysts have raised questions about whether the event should take place at all. If it does, it is likely to be a somber rather than a joyous occasion.
For all the differences between the Balkans and the Caucasus-Central Asia region, there are enough similarities to give the leaders pause. Ethnic conflicts, isolation, rough terrain, independence movements, economic hardship. For the Caspian nations, the Soviet collapse and Russia's efforts to reassert its influence have tended to make most of these factors worse.
But if the countries of the region saw NATO as a counterbalance or a source of possible relief, their hopes have certainly dimmed during the past two weeks. Yet, they may still see little alternative to pursuing NATO links, other than to retreat back into the Russian sphere.
Azerbaijan has been most vocal about seeking the security of the NATO umbrella. In addition to its calls for establishing a NATO air base at Baku, it has also dropped out of the CIS security structure.
In the past week, Azerbaijan's National Security Minister Namik Abbasov, charged that both Russia and Iran have mounted intelligence activities against Azerbaijan in attempts to destabilize it. The country is clearly looking toward the United States and NATO to save it from its neighbors and provide an outlet for its oil.
Also last week, Aliyev showed what appeared to be remarkable restraint in declaring that he has declined an offer of arms from Russia to match those that Moscow has supplied to Armenia, or to its own bases there. On the surface, Aliyev had the good sense to avoid the start of an arms race, which could allow Russia to justify the $1 billion in weapons that it has supplied to Armenia in the past.
But there are likely to be other reasons for Aliyev to reject the reported offer so publicly. New Russian warplanes and surface-to-air missiles would only serve to increase Azerbaijan's dependence on Russian technicians and spare parts instead of putting it on the path of NATO-compatible weaponry.
Despite Aliev's criticism of an arms buildup, it would not be surprising if he were to follow his refusal of Russian help with an appeal for Western military aid. By going public, he may be implying that Azerbaijan could be forced into regrettable alternatives if the West turns him down.
The United States will be more wary about any additional commitments after its Kosovo experience, however. The chance of a NATO base in Baku, which previously seemed remote, may now be impossible.
Much may depend on the outcome of the Kosovo operation, including the willingness of the American public to support NATO expansions farther to the east. Membership for Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic hardly raised a ripple of attention in U.S. public opinion, leaving the issue to supporters among ethnic constituencies. But the difficulties of Kosovo could soon shut NATO's open door.
For the past half-century, NATO's authority has been largely theoretical. The war in Kosovo is testing its resolve. It may also set new bounds for membership and expectations of success.
NATO's three new members did not face any imminent threats, a fact that eased their way into the alliance. The same cannot be said for Azerbaijan, which has made its case for NATO ties precisely by emphasizing its conflicts with Russia, Armenia and Iran.
The insecurity of its situation can hardly be a selling point to the United States or NATO in their current dilemma over Kosovo. The allies may not only be unwilling but unable to deal with any further instability. The prize of Caspian oil may no longer be seen as an incentive, because its very value requires protection and security.
This difficulty will not be lost on Russia, which stands to benefit from the Kosovo conflict, no matter what the outcome. If NATO prevails, it will certainly become even more wary of any similar commitments toward the Caspian region, leaving Russia with a strong hand to play. If NATO fails, Moscow's hand could become even stronger, despite its economic weakness.
Countries in the region may soon see good reason to become more accommodating toward Russia, adding a dose of reality to their dreams of NATO ties. Despite words of defiance, Caspian nations may wish to cover their bets and recognize that even a superpower cannot guarantee them a secure world.
(Lelyveld is Senior Correspondent for the Journal of Commerce. He wrote this analysis for RFE/RL)