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Caucasus: Scholars Ponder Prospects For Caspian Stability

  • Michael Lelyveld



Boston, 1 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Scholars at Harvard University pondered the prospects for succession and long-term stability in the Caspian region last week during a period of both rising violence and hopes for peace.

The long-scheduled seminar on the challenges of transition and policy toward the Caucasus and Central Asia coincided with dramatic events in Chechnya and Armenia, giving a heightened sense of urgency to the meeting.

The Harvard effort is part of a new Caspian studies program and an "Azerbaijan Initiative" at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, funded by the U.S.-Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce and a consortium of companies.

Speaking to an audience at the start of the three-day session last Tuesday, Araz Azimov, Azerbaijan's deputy foreign minister, stressed regional security as a major factor in the speed of his country's development.

"We're concerned with the increased military pressure in the northern Caucasus," Azimov said, citing the large numbers of Russian armored vehicles brought into play by the Chechnya offensive.

Azerbaijan and Georgia both seek an eventual international agreement to exclude any foreign military presence in the area in exchange for the elimination of Russian threats to security, Azimov said.

Much of the public discussion was devoted to the region's petroleum development and the outlook for pipelines. Former U.S. Central Intelligence Agency Director John Deutch voiced skepticism that any of the planned pipelines would be built "in the next dozen years." Ashton Carter, a former U.S. assistant secretary of defense, cited the risk of failure unless all regional interests, including Iran, share in the benefits of pipeline development.

Much of the work of the program is being conducted in closed meetings of experts who are studying regional policy. The groups are working toward a series of policy recommendations for the U.S. government, said Graham Allison, chairman of the program and director of the Belfer Center at the Kennedy School.

Last week, expert panels dealt with issues of succession in the region, where threats to stability are combined with concerns about the age or health of several national leaders.

Prospects are uncertain for peaceful transition to the next generation of power across a wide area stretching from the Black Sea to the borders of China. The concerns have been compounded by war, ethnic tensions, and sudden violence, such as last week's assassinations in Armenia.

In a paper presented to the conference, Martha Brill Olcott, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said the issue of succession appears to be developing under three different models. The first is dynastic, in which aging leaders hope to pass their power to family members. The second is democratic, relying on institutional development. The third is simply unplanned, or what Olcott calls "avoidance" of the succession question. All present risks and problems, she said.

Azerbaijan was cited most clearly as falling under the "dynastic" category because of speculation that Ilham Aliyev, the vice president of the state oil company, will succeed his father Heydar Aliyev as president.

To a lesser extent, Kazakhstan may fall into the same category because of the role of President Nursultan Nazarbayev's family in politics, Olcott said. So far, neither leader has shown signs of stepping down. Armenia and Georgia are seen as most likely to rely on elections for future transitions, although both countries are deeply troubled. Kyrgyzstan may also come under the democratic category, although doubts have risen as the country's economy has soured, Olcott said.

But the deepest uncertainty surrounds Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, where reliance on one-man rule has created an institutional void and barred even talk of a peaceful succession. Olcott believes that these countries will ultimately prove to be at the greatest risk of instability.

In Uzbekistan, opposition to President Islam Karimov has already turned violent and could take over in his absence, although the outcome is unpredictable. In Turkmenistan, there is difficulty in identifying any group that could serve as an alternative to the cult of President Saparmurat Niyazov, Olcott said.

The irony of the study is that the countries with the tightest internal security may face the greatest threat to future stability, unless their leaders find new formulas for passing on power.



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