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Caucasus: Russia, U.S. Played Key Role As Events In Georgia, Azerbaijan Unfolded

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

In Tbilisi, the euphoria that followed President Eduard Shevardnadze's recent resignation is gone, replaced by tough questions about Georgia's future. Key to upcoming developments will be relations between the region's two main power brokers -- Russia and the United States. As recent events in Georgia and Azerbaijan have shown, Moscow and Washington seem -- for the time being -- to be in unison with regard to political changes in the area.

Prague, 11 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Georgia's interim leaders have vowed to maintain good ties with both Moscow and Washington to ensure stability in the region. Conversely, Russia and the United States have pledged to cooperate with the new leadership in Tbilisi in a bid to make the region safer.

Yet, the two superpowers have also engaged in a bitter war of words in the past few days, each blaming the other for seeking to tighten its grip on Georgia.

In a two-part interview published last week (4-5 December) in the Moscow-based daily "Komsomolskaya Pravda," Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov accused the U.S. of taking an active part in the demise of Eduard Shevardnadze's presidency.

In the midst of the Georgian political crisis, Ivanov was dispatched to Tbilisi by Russian President Vladimir Putin to help the Georgian leader and his opponents reach a compromise over disputed legislative polls on 2 November. His mission resulted in Shevardnadze announcing his resignation.

In his remarks to "Komsomolskaya Pravda," Ivanov disputed widespread beliefs that the street protests that marked the climax of the Georgian standoff were a "revolution" staged by frustrated voters infuriated by allegations of electoral fraud.

"There are enough facts to indicate that all that happened [then] was not spontaneous," Russia's top diplomat said, pointing to the active role he claims U.S. nongovernmental groups and government officials played in Georgia's political turmoil.

His remarks echo most of the commentaries that have appeared in Russian media since the Georgian president resigned.

In his first interview with foreign reporters after his resignation, Shevardnadze himself said he felt "betrayed" by his U.S. allies.

Even in the West, initial praise for Georgia's "Revolution of the Roses" -- as the bloodless change of regime is now known in Tbilisi -- is giving way to more skeptical assessments. "This was not a people's revolution. It was a coup, masked by the biggest street party that Tbilisi has ever seen," read a commentary published last week in London's "Guardian" daily.

Whether foreign countries helped the Georgian opposition seize power remains an open question. Yet, many elements concur in suggesting Russia and the U.S. both contributed to the recent political changes.

Damien Helly is Caucasus project director at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG), an independent organization that specializes in conflict prevention and resolution. Although he says there is still no firm evidence to sustain Moscow's allegations that Washington actively contributed to Shevardnadze's ouster, he believes leaders in both capitals have long been looking forward to a change of regime in Tbilisi.

"[One possible reading of the recent events is that] both great powers have, to some extent, condoned Shevardnadze's ouster by opposition forces and have done nothing to prevent his demise," Helly said. "Both were interested in the fall of Shevardnadze's regime -- the Russians because Shevardnadze was continuing to court the Americans and the Americans because they had enough of this corrupt regime and Shevardnadze's balanced policy [that prompted him to maintain ties] with Russia. Both the Russians and the Americans were likely eyeing a change of regime in 2005 [when Shevardnadze's mandate would have expired], but their plans were disrupted."

Shevardnadze had repeatedly pledged not to seek a third mandate in 2005. Unlike many of his counterparts in the former Soviet Union, however, the Georgian leader had not anointed an heir apparent -- thus leaving open the question of political transition in a country both Moscow and Washington see as a key element in their respective security strategies.

Whether this circumstance prompted the two capitals to withdraw their support for Shevardnadze in hope of influencing changes in Georgia before political developments went out of control remains unclear.

The Moscow-based "Ekspert" weekly recently argued that U.S. President George W. Bush's administration started contemplating a change of regime in Tbilisi last summer. That's when Shevardnadze signed a strategic deal with the Russian natural gas monopoly Gazprom and his government let another Moscow-based company acquire a formerly U.S.-owned controlling stake in Georgia's power plants and distribution network.

Both agreements triggered angry comments in Washington and outcry in Tbilisi, where Russia is widely blamed for undermining national security. But Shevardnadze justified his decision by saying he had to secure steady gas and electricity supplies to energy-stricken Georgia ahead of the winter season.

Thomas De Waal is Caucasus project manager at the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR). He believes Russia and the U.S. agreed to tone down their traditional rivalry during the Georgian crisis, thus making the task of Shevardnadze's opponents "a lot easier."

"What was interesting in the latest crisis was how Washington and Moscow were talking to each other," De Waal says. "We know that [U.S. National Security Adviser] Condoleezza Rice called Ivanov before he left to mediate in Tbilisi. And we know that [U.S. Secretary of State] Colin Powell telephoned him when he landed in Tbilisi to talk to Shevardnadze. So there was, I think, an agreement in both Washington and Moscow that Shevardnadze had to go, and both sides were interested in negotiating a peaceful resignation for Shevardnadze."

While U.S. officials insistently criticized the outcome of the Georgian elections, they voiced comparatively limited concern about the 15 October presidential polls in neighboring Azerbaijan. That election saw Ilham Aliyev, the son of outgoing President Heidar Aliyev, rise to power.

Civil rights groups and international election observers complained of ballot stuffing, intimidation of opposition candidates, and gagging of independent media. They also denounced the crackdown on political dissent that followed Ilham Aliyev's election.

Helly believes the U.S. has different agendas in both countries. He says Washington sees ensuring democratic changes in Azerbaijan as a distant objective while it considers developing energy projects in the oil-rich Caspian Sea state a more urgent task. By contrast, the Caucasus expert says, the U.S. views Georgia's energy development and further liberalization as equally important.

"I think that, [with recent events] in Georgia, the U.S. has to some extent succeeded in combining both agendas -- that of democratization and that of energy issues, even if one could argue that the first agenda served as a screen to hide the second one. By contrast, democratization in Azerbaijan is not a top priority [for the U.S.]."

Helly further argues that American decision makers believe that, unlike in Georgia, none of the current opposition leaders in Azerbaijan is capable of assuming power.

Washington sees stability in the Southern Caucasus as essential to its longtime project to ship Western-produced Azerbaijani crude oil from Baku to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan through Tbilisi.

The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which last month received pledges of funding from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the World Bank, is due to become operational in two years. It will eventually be coupled with a natural gas pipeline linking Baku to Erzurum in eastern Turkey through Georgia.

Washington's implicit support for Azerbaijan's ruling family has drawn much criticism at home, with "The New York Times" blaming the Bush administration for "supporting autocrats who sit atop oil riches."

Russia, too, welcomed the election of Aliyev, who had previously pledged to improve bilateral ties and remain equidistant from Moscow and Washington.

Signs of this delicate balance are already visible.

Azerbaijan's media recently reported that Russian oil and electricity companies are mulling stakes in the national energy network. Washington, in turn, has pledged to strengthen defense ties with Baku, and the new Azerbaijani leadership had indicated it would welcome the opening of U.S. military bases in the country.

The IWPR's De Waal agrees that, as in the case of Georgia, Russia and the U.S. are on the same wavelength with regard to political developments in Azerbaijan.

"Both Moscow and Washington had received Ilham Aliyev [before the elections], and they seemed to be sending him positive signals, giving him moral support. So, yes, you could say that both sides agreed they preferred [him] to be the next president in Azerbaijan."

Whether Russian-U.S. tactical agreements in the Southern Caucasus will stand the test of time, however, is an open question.