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Caucasus: Russia May Benefit From 11 September Fallout

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

The 11 September terrorist attacks on the United States are believed to have seriously altered the world's geopolitics, including in the South Caucasus, where the three former Soviet republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia could face new security challenges soon. Regional experts believe that Russia, which has already won greater understanding from the U.S. for its crackdown on alleged Chechen terrorists, may benefit from the new situation.

Prague, 30 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- As the world's attention is focused on the situation in Afghanistan and Central Asia, tensions in the volatile South Caucasus continue unabated.

Four weeks ago, new armed clashes erupted in Georgia's separatist province of Abkhazia, amid rising concerns for the region's fragile stability.

Tensions also have recently raised between Armenia and Azerbaijan, with both states renewing what Adrian Severin -- the head of the parliamentary assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) -- recently described as "militant rhetoric" on the Nagorno-Karabakh territorial issue.

Regional experts and diplomats are expressing growing concern at the deteriorating situation in the South Caucasus. They warn about the risks of fresh violence flaring there while Western attention is distracted by the ongoing U.S.-led military operation against Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia and Saudi-born militant Osama bin Laden.

In opening remarks made at a conference organized in Brussels last week (26 October) by the Istanbul-based Turkish Foundation for Social and Economic Studies, Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem noted that the international atmosphere since last month's attacks "has further inflamed the old disputes in the Caucasus."

Addressing government officials and academics from Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and other regional countries, Cem also warned the world community against neglecting South Caucasus affairs. Noting that the region is "at a very critical juncture of its development," Turkey's top diplomat said stability in Europe would not be achieved unless there is peace in the Caucasus.

Richard Giragosian is a Washington-based regional analyst and the publisher of the monthly newsletter "Transcaucasus: A Chronology." Giragosian told RFE/RL that last month's terrorist attacks and the subsequent rapprochement between Russia and the U.S. have created new security challenges for the three South Caucasus states of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia.

"I see 11 September as the milestone and, especially for the three reforming states of the Caucasus, it basically challenges them to find their place within this new shifting -- and still dynamic -- alliance in this U.S.-led war on terrorism. I also think that in many ways, despite the propaganda, despite the rhetoric, each of the three states of the Caucasus loses to some degree, and none of the three are clear winners in this new reality."

Last week (25 October), the U.S. Senate asked President George W. Bush to lift a controversial law that for nine years has restricted U.S. funding to Azerbaijan. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell says the expected move to lift the restrictions is a reward to Baku for sharing intelligence on international terrorism and allowing U.S. planes to use its airspace and bases.

The Senate also voted to allocate nearly $5 million in military aid to Armenia, which claims that it will get U.S. funding roughly equivalent to that allocated to Azerbaijan.

In a speech made at Harvard University earlier this month (3 October), Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze reiterated his pro-Western orientation and his country's willingness to apply for NATO membership.

In an apparent effort to get Washington's support in his dispute with Russia, Shevardnadze also expressed full support for a planned U.S. anti-missile defense system that Moscow opposes.

Yet experts generally fear that, despite its huge hydrocarbon reserves, the South Caucasus region could be granted much less U.S. attention than some of the Central Asian states -- notably Uzbekistan, which has offered to host American troops from the beginning of the anti-Taliban campaign.

Giragosian explains: "I really don't think that the Caucasus will enjoy the attention, or the role, it did before 11 September in that the U.S. -- even Europe, to a larger degree -- are now recognizing the strategic importance of Central Asia and are working in a much more cooperative way with Russia. Therefore, the Caspian basin, or the Transcaucasus in particular, does not enjoy the same kind of attention it once did."

A commonly expressed concern among regional experts is that the ongoing anti-Taliban campaign may overshadow problems inherent to the South Caucasus region and further delay international efforts to settle conflicts in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Karabakh.

Relations between Moscow and Tbilisi further deteriorated late last month when hundreds of alleged Chechen and ethnic Georgian guerillas made a series of armed incursions in Abkhazia before being repelled by separatist troops. This new outbreak of violence has already claimed at least 40 lives, including those of four United Nations observers.

The Abkhaz-Georgian conflict broke out nine years ago when Abkhazia, actively supported by Moscow, seceded from Georgia. Tbilisi then launched a large-scale offensive against the separatists. But a series of military setbacks forced the Georgian government to sign a truce in 1993 and to agree to the deployment of Russian peacekeepers along the front line.

Despite the cease-fire and U.N.-sponsored mediation efforts, both sides are still formally at war.

The latest developments occurred after Georgian authorities decided to clamp down on Chechen fighters hiding in Georgia's northern Pankisi Gorge, hundreds of kilometers east of Kodori. Abkhazia claims that Georgia has helped guerillas fighting in Kodori travel undetected from Pankisi.

Officials in Tbilisi deny the charge and accuse Russian jet fighters of violating Georgia's airspace to assist the Abkhazian side in bombing the guerillas. Both Russia and Abkhazia, in turn, deny any wrongdoing, describing the Georgian claims as "provocations."

Last week, Abkhaz authorities delayed the planned withdrawal of military hardware from Russia's military base in Gudauta. The separatist government fears that the Russian pullout -- which should have been completed four months ago -- would make them more vulnerable to possible Georgian attacks.

Georgia has insisted on the withdrawal, arguing that Russian soldiers were helping the separatists and were a mere tool in the hands of the Russian leadership to exert control in the region. The Georgian parliament has also demanded that Russian peacekeepers be withdrawn from the region and be replaced by troops from another country.

Much to Tbilisi's surprise, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated 12 October that he would not oppose Georgian demands for a pullout, amid UN warnings that such a move could lead to a worsening of the crisis. However, regional experts doubt that Russia will withdraw from a region it still considers as its sphere of influence.

Elkhan Nuriev is the director of the Baku-based Center for International Studies. In an interview with our correspondent, Nuriev said Russia, which still has two military bases in Georgia, might just want to gain time.

"To me, it could just be a clever move from Putin's part. Besides, Putin's statement is just worth what it is and whether Russian troops are indeed withdrawn [from the region] remains to be seen. Yet, I don't believe that Russia will quickly pull out its troops and [military] bases from Georgia's territory. It seems to me that [Russia is exerting pressure] on the Georgian government and on Shevardnadze in particular. The Abkhazian side, I believe, will strongly oppose a [Russian] withdrawal and will insist on being integrated into Russia. Here, Russia can interfere and help Abkhazia. Of course, it is too early to talk about this right now because we still don't know what will happen. But when analyzing the latest events, one has to agree that everything is moving toward that direction."

On 28 June, Russia's lower chamber of parliament, the State Duma, voted on a constitutional law that provides for the admission of foreign states, or parts of foreign states, to the Russian Federation. Not surprisingly, this controversial bill has been much criticized in some former Soviet republics, notably in Georgia and Azerbaijan, where officials describe it as the expression of "Russia's continuing imperial policy."

Like Nuriev, regional expert Giragosian also believes that Putin's stated backing-off policy may just be a tactical move aimed at exploiting the vulnerability of the Georgian state. Giragosian says this interpretation is reinforced by Russia's recent decision to move troops along its border with Georgia.

"It is a tactical move aimed at exploiting the very weaknesses of the Shevardnadze government in controlling its [own] territory and it is a further tactical move toward a longer-term actual increase in Russian presence, or military role, in Georgia proper."

Prospects of a quick resolution of another regional conflict -- the 13-year-old Karabakh dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan -- also look gloomy, despite international efforts to bring the two sides to a peace agreement.

Azerbaijan has threatened to recourse to military means to regain control over Karabakh and adjacent territories occupied by ethnic Armenian forces, while Yerevan has warned its neighbor of a "final defeat" if it takes up arms.

Speaking in Yerevan on 29 October, visiting OSCE parliament Chairman Severin called upon both sides to intensify peace efforts and to avoid war-like rhetoric. Severin, who had toured Azerbaijan and Karabakh earlier in the week, urged regional leaders to use instead "a lexicon conducive to a favorable atmosphere for the sake of a peaceful solution to the [Karabakh] problem."

Giragosian believes the development of what he calls "the U.S.-Russian cooperative framework in all areas" could herald potential for advancing the mediation process. Along with France, Russia and the U.S. co-chair the so-called Minsk Group of nations which has been tasked by the OSCE to broker a peace treaty.

Baku-based regional expert Nuriev also believes relations among the Minsk Group co-chairmen play a key role in the search for a territorial settlement. But he says relations between Russia and the U.S. must not prevail over demands made by the warring sides.

"The Minsk Group co-chairmen should pay more attention to Armenia and Azerbaijan than they do actually pay to Russia and the U.S. Everybody is focused on the national and strategic interests of the U.S. and Russia, on work [with these two countries], while they should listen to the so-called 'small nations' and work with them [instead]."

Turkish Foreign Minister Cem last week warned regional countries not to treat Caucasus countries as their "backyard" and criticized "those who think that it is the right moment to profit [or] to settle accounts."

Although Cem did not name any countries, his remarks were generally perceived as a veiled attack on Russia, which Turkey -- a planned export route for Azerbaijani crude oil -- sees as its main rival in the region.

Cem's statement was also understood as an additional sign that stakes in the South Caucasus remain high.