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Russia: Moscow Still Seen As A Threat To Stability In South Caucasus

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

For years, Russia's policy toward the South Caucasus has been widely regarded as chaotic, undermining Moscow's relations with the region's independent nations. Vladimir Putin's presidency so far has not changed things much. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch spoke with Western, Russian, and Caucasus analysts and observers, who analyze the state of Russia-Caucasus relations.

Prague, 13 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- When Vladimir Putin officially took over from President Boris Yeltsin in March, many observers believed that Russia would at last pursue a more straightforward policy toward the 11 other former Soviet republics that make up the CIS. Special attention was paid to the South Caucasus region, which since 1991 had been a bone of contention among Russia, the United States, Turkey, and Iran.

For years before, Russia's foreign policy in the Caucasus had been characterized by a chaotic decision-making process. The result was the souring of Moscow's relations with two of the region's countries courted by the West.

Azerbaijan's vast hydrocarbon resources have lured some of the world's biggest oil corporations, while neighboring Georgia is expecting substantial profits from Azerbaijani crude oil transit through its Black Sea terminals. But leaders in both nations believe that Russia remains the main obstacle to their countries' prosperity and to political stability in the region.

Silvia Serrano is a researcher at the Paris-based Observatory of Post-Soviet States. She notes that the situation in the region has changed over the past year -- partly because Georgia and Azerbaijan have moved even closer to the West, partly because Russia's foreign policy is more centralized now. But, she says, even though foreign policy is now concentrated in the Kremlin, Russia still lacks long-term objectives in the South Caucasus.

"Putin took office claiming that he would restore the image of [great] Russian power. Of course, to reintegrate the Caucasus into Russia's sphere of influence fits in [with this goal]. But this policy is based on rhetoric rather than on precise objectives. Why does Russia need the Caucasus? At what cost? What is Russia going to do with the Caucasus? I think that these questions have still not been answered [by Russia]."

Serrano also says that, as was the case under Yeltsin, Putin's Russia still sees instability as an asset to its policy in the region.

Both Georgia and Azerbaijan's leaders say that, in the past, Moscow sought to remove them by force from the political scene. Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze has been the target of two assassination attempts which, he says, were masterminded by political opponents supported by Moscow. Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev accuses Russia of standing behind a series of failed attempts to overthrow his regime.

Shevardnadze and Aliyev both also say that Moscow supports -- politically, financially, and militarily -- separatist movements in Georgia's South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and in Azerbaijan's ethnic Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. Russia and Armenia have repeatedly denied that they provide support to any separatist group in the area.

Some Russian as well as Western analysts also believe that Putin is not interested in bringing stability to the region.

Dmitri Furman, a researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Europe Institute, describes the situation today in the Southern Caucasus as "tense as usual." He says that the Kremlin has several tools at its disposal to exert its influence there.

"We could influence the situation in many ways. [But] another question is: In which direction do we want the situation to develop? What do we want? It is not really clear for us. Yet we have a very large scope of possibilities to achieve concrete goals."

In Furman's view, Russia has several options to further destabilize the region. One would be to renew arms shipments to Armenia and Azerbaijan, which have been entangled in an armed dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh for the past 12 years.

Another possibility would be to bring to power former Azerbaijani President Ayaz Mutalibov -- Aliev's archrival, who fled to Russia after he was ousted in 1992. Russia could also encourage separatist tendencies in the 170,000-strong Lezgin ethnic minority that lives in northeastern Azerbaijan, near the Russian border.

Finally, Furman says, the Kremlin could decide to impose visa requirements on Azerbaijanis traveling to Russia.

Last week, Russia imposed a visa regime on most Georgian citizens. Ostensibly, the move was aimed at preventing Chechen rebels Moscow says are hiding in Georgia from crossing the border. But many analysts see the decision as part of a much wider political campaign to force President Shevardnadze into a more compliant policy.

The new visa requirement does not apply to separatists in Georgia's regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia who, according to Tbilisi, receive regular support from Moscow. It will, however, strongly affect the 600,000 Georgian nationals who currently live in Russia. It could also have unpleasant consequences for Shevardnadze by making it more difficult for thousands of Georgians without jobs at home to cross the border into Russia to earn their living.

Also, from Tbilisi's point of view, Russia has been too slow to pull out from two of the four military bases it maintains in Georgia. Withdrawal from the Gudauta and Vaziani military bases has already started and should be completed by the middle of next year. But negotiations over the Akhalkalaki and Batumi bases have not yet begun.

The Russians would like to keep the Gudauta base in Abkhazia and turn it into a recreation center for their soldiers. Moscow only reluctantly agreed to withdraw from the base after Georgia last year said it would no longer share with Russia its military quotas under the 1990 disarmament Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE).

Georgia's attempts to draw closer to the West are also a growing thorn in Russia's side. Shevardnadze, an outspoken critic of the CIS, has said he wants Georgia to start membership talks with NATO soon.

In an interview published last week in the Russian army's "Krasnaya Zvezda" (Red Star) daily, Georgian Ambassador to Russia Zurab Abashidze explained his country's attitude toward Moscow in these terms:

"One of my friends was asked: 'To what extent is Georgia drifting to the West?' To which he answered: 'To exactly the degree that Russia is pushing it in that direction.' I don't know whether this is entirely true, but this is part of the correct way to look at the problem."

Vafa Quluzade, a former Soviet diplomat, has served many years as Aliev's foreign policy advisor in Baku. A strong critic of Russia, he believes that Azerbaijan, too, should be knocking on NATO's door.

"I have repeatedly said that we should deploy NATO military bases in our region or that we should strengthen our military cooperation with NATO. Eduard Shevardnadze has developed the same idea. But nobody listened to us. We are helpless, we are helpless. But the pressure on us is growing. How will this end, only the future will tell. Entering NATO is not an anti-Russian move. It is a path to safety."

All agree that a peace agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh is a key to regional stability.

Located inside Azerbaijan, but populated mostly by ethnic Armenians, the enclave effectively declared independence from Baku in 1988. That triggered a six-year war that killed 15,000 people and led to the flight of some 800,000 Azerbaijanis from Armenia, the Karabakh enclave and six neighboring districts in Azerbaijan. Despite a 1994 cease-fire, talks on a final settlement have stalled and one-fifth of Azerbaijan's territory -- Karabakh and the six districts -- remains under Armenian occupation.

The United States, Russia, and the European Union have sought to negotiate a Karabakh peace accord under the aegis of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. But analysts say the situation along the ceasefire line remains quite volatile.

Quluzade, who has himself conducted peace negotiations on behalf of Azerbaijan, fears that Russia could reignite the conflict at any moment.

Russian analyst Furman also does not believe that a Karabakh peace agreement will be signed soon. He says: "Most likely, the current situation -- that is, neither peace nor war -- will remain unchanged."

(Mirza Michaeli of the Azerbaijani Service and Bidzina Ramischwili of the Georgian Service contributed to this article.)