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South Caucasus: Is Russia Losing Influence?

(RFE/RL) April 19, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Moscow's influence in the South Caucasus region has been steadily waning in recent years. In a recent commentary in "The Moscow Times," Thomas de Waal, the Caucasus editor at the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting, argued that the Kremlin -- preoccupied with Russia's resurgence as a world power -- is losing its grip on Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.

RFE/RL's Armenian, Azerbaijani, and Georgian services invited de Waal to participate in a roundtable discussion on the issue as part of their regular "Caucasus Crossroads" series. Also participating in the discussion were Ivliane Khaindrava, a lawmaker from Georgia's opposition Republican Party; Rauf Mirkadyrov, a columnist for Azerbaijan's "Zerkalo" newspaper; and Stepan Grigorian, the director of the Center for Globalization and Regional Cooperation in the Armenian capital, Yerevan. The discussion was moderated by RFE/RL's Andrei Babitsky.

RFE/RL: To start, let's have Thomas de Waal explain the premise of his article.

Thomas de Waal: My thesis is paradoxical. Of course, Russia is stronger politically and economically than it was 10 years ago. But as a result of its shortsighted policies, Russia is losing influence in the Caucasus.

As a result of [Russia's] blockade [of Georgian wine and agricultural products], Georgia has opened its economy, its market, to other countries. In Azerbaijan, Gazprom's very shortsighted policies pushed Azerbaijan into a more pro-Western position. This is even happening in Armenia, whose position about the [Georgian] blockade was not taken into account, and where Georgians were able to hold a demonstration in front of the Russian Embassy in Yerevan about xenophobia in Russia.

My thesis is that Russia's domestic and energy policies are dictating its foreign policy. And on all fronts, Russia is losing its position in the Caucasus.

RFE/RL: How much is this thesis justified? Let's look first at Georgia.

Ivliane Khaindrava:
If we look at the way the Russian political establishment categorizes its priorities, Russia is losing Georgia and losing it at a very fast pace. If we look at the categories we're talking about -- military, political, Russian foreign-policy interests, the rules of the game in economics and energy -- then [Russia] is losing its influence. Accordingly, Georgia is becoming increasingly liberated [from Russia].

At the same time, if we are operating from a normal understanding of the 21st century, I don't think there is a particular problem. Georgia's economic space is open to Russian capital, and in the past years there have been projects with local and Russian investment. Georgia's information space is open. At home I can watch 12 Russian channels. On the other hand, there isn't really any particular reason why I would want to watch them.

If Russia is prepared for close relations with a smaller and weaker Georgia, then there's no problem. But if Russia aspires to be a hegemon they will not succeed. Because for the Georgian political establishment, this question has been decided. We've decided that the days of speaking to us as Foreign Minister [Sergei] Lavrov tried to speak to us -- saying that Russia will not allow Georgia to join NATO -- are over. We'll do everything we can so that you can't speak to us this way.

RFE/RL: Is there a general sense that Russia is simply seeking to fill its pockets, instead of pursuing common interests and sympathetic ties with neighbors like Azerbaijan?

Rauf Mirkadyrov:
I don't think this is what has determined Russia's latest steps toward the countries of the South Caucasus, including Georgia.

In recent years, there have undoubtedly been serious changes in Russia. It went from a state that had a financial crisis [in 1998] to one with the third- or fourth-largest gold and currency reserves in the world. This influences its policy, which has become more stringent. There are also other factors.

At the end of the day, Russia could have continued to give favorable economic treatment to the countries of the South Caucasus. There is a country in the region that affirms Russian and Kremlin policy -- Armenia.

But this favorable treatment didn't continue for the simple reason that one of the South Caucasus countries, Georgia, very quickly became uncontrollable. It defined its foreign-policy priorities as joining NATO and integrating with the European Union, if possible. Maybe some of Russia's actions made Georgia and the countries of the North Atlantic bloc act faster.

It seems to me that Russia, since the end of last year, has sought to bind Azerbaijan to its side and pull it away from the West once and for all. To tie them to an anti-Georgian coalition and to themselves and pull them away from the West once and for all. To tie them to an anti-Georgian coalition and achieve a revanche. This didn't happen. Now I think there is a reevaluation of this policy -- particularly with the events surrounding Iran.

Russia has a very rich imperial tradition. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Russia didn't dictate to those on its territories how to behave. It raised the social standard. It brought the regional elite into its own. How do you explain the clumsy and insulting way that Russia is now trying to control the situation?

Stepan Grigorian:
I first want to say that, lately, we're always talking about Russia's economic growth, its large budget, its huge reserves. The question is: what's the quality of this growth? There is no quality there. This growth is only the result of rising gas and oil prices on world markets. Since Russia's economic growth is only a result of selling oil and gas, it strengthens corporations. Therefore, Russian policy today is not just the policy of the state toward the South Caucasus and the countries of the CIS, but also the policy of major corporations.

Analogies are difficult to find in the Russian empire or even in the Soviet Union. Any corporate system works this way. They don't look at the political consequences of their actions. Therefore our country has suffered and is moving away from Russia.

This is not just because of the political problems with Georgia, but also because Russia's closure of the [Verkhny Lars] crossing point between Armenia and Georgia automatically meant -- and Russia didn't even think about this, and high-ranking officials aren't interested -- that Armenia's ground communications were closed off.

What does this mean? In the last half-year to year since that border crossing point was closed, Armenian businessmen began orienting themselves toward Western markets. So even in a place where the elite is not badly disposed toward Russia, they are reorienting themselves toward the West. The poorly conceived policies of Russia toward the South Caucasus -- including Armenia -- are causing the reorientation of the political elite.

Russia grew a bit stronger financially -- not technologically, economically, or industrially, just financially. And now the Russian political elite seems to be under the impression that they can compete with the West and the United States for the South Caucasus. Russia's recent actions toward Georgia and Azerbaijan are connected to this illusion. But I think the movement of NATO, the EU, and the United States toward the South Caucasus will continue.

RFE/RL: In the early years of Putin's presidency, a lot of political observers said his foreign policy appeared to be based on the principle of self-containment. Russia needed to be strengthened internally and reject ties with the outside world, including the near abroad. Could it be that Russia just doesn't need the South Caucasus, and that's why it's treating it this way?

De Waal:
Any politician in Russia who says they need to be friendly with the South Caucasus, of course, won't win any political points. I think the problem is that Russia doesn't understand the difference between the near and far abroad.

The countries of the South Caucasus correctly see themselves as independent countries and are building relationships with the West, with Washington. Moscow hasn't sufficiently understood this yet. They still think: these are our neighbors, our former republics. They don't understand the finer points of the current foreign policies of these countries. Putin himself doesn't understand. Does he want [Russia] to be the successor of the Soviet Union or does he want to liberate [Russia] from the Soviet Union?

RFE/RL: Thomas de Waal's commentary also talks about the problem of a serious cultural divide between Russia and the South Caucasus -- that in 10 or 15 years, the Russian language will no longer be spoken in the region. Does this seem realistic?

Khaindrava: It's perfectly obvious that Russian culture -- not in terms of its existence, of course, but in terms of language -- is quickly losing its position in Georgia. It was once the obvious second language in Georgia, but that has already stopped being the case. The younger generation, including teenagers, are already going with English.

As far as values go, things have also happened quickly. The Russian doctrine is an unclear conception of Eurasiaism. It is interesting to me whether Russian citizens even understand what that is. In Georgia, the most popular doctrine is Europeanism and the aspiration to affirm ourselves and our state as a faraway province, but nevertheless a province, of Europe. Russia is closer to Europe and there was once a sense that Georgia would get to Europe via Russia.

But the process of disassociation [from Russia] happened very quickly. When the anti-Georgian campaign began in Russia, it was also an overall anti-Caucasus campaign, aimed against anyone with a Caucasian appearance. In Georgia -- even when Russia was seen as Georgia's biggest headache, even as everybody was saying Russia was Georgia's biggest problem -- there wasn't any xenophobia in Georgia.

RFE/RL: Today a lot of people are hoping the Russian regime will change and become more democratic. If that proves the case, perhaps after the Russian presidential election in March 2008, could the countries of the South Caucasus envision Russia as a close political and cultural partner as they do with the West?

Mirkadyrov: The situation in each country varies. Look at Azerbaijan. In the beginning of 2006, they were Russia's strategic partner. But in the end, Azerbaijan was talking about leaving the CIS. Russia was not acting like a friend and partner to Azerbaijan.

Armenia has a different situation. It's more oriented toward its neighbors because their choices can override Armenia's choices. Armenia doesn't have a border with Russia. The choices of Georgia and Azerbaijan can override Armenia's foreign-policy choices.

What about Azerbaijan? I completely agree that recent actions by Russia have scared away even the elite in Azerbaijan. They have begun to look at Russia as something dangerous. Its policy is oriented toward establishing, if not the former Soviet Union, then a of kind of empire where there is some freedom, but where [Russia] views the territory as its own. Russia looks at these countries as its own and this feeling has recently gotten stronger. This tendency isn't likely to reverse.

Moreover, there's another strong tendency. That's the feeling that these countries need to change their foreign-policy orientations, work more closely with NATO and the EU, and in the future join these structures. Under these conditions, and in this political situation -- and also given the situation surrounding Iran -- I don't think the South Caucasus countries will move closer to Russia.

RFE/RL: There are certain democratic criteria that countries must meet in order to be close to the West. Armenia and Azerbaijan, while not very far from this criteria, aren't very close to it either. If this doesn't happen, will these countries move back toward Russia?

Grigorian: Thank you, that is an excellent question. I want to point out three factors which make it impossible to return to Russia's side. One is the quality of Russia's political elite -- and we need to remember that they are not politicians, but people from the special services, who have their specific world. Second, the unattractiveness of Russia -- the absence of democracy, the lack of technology and interesting scientific work.

The third factor is more important as to why the South Caucasus are going to the West. It is the self-sufficiency of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey, which are realizing very serious projects that will enable us to diversify oil and gas routes, transport, and the like. These things are pushing us to the side of the West. We have problems with democracy. Does this disturb things or not? I am certain that our political elite will change and become more democratic.

RFE/RL: Thomas de Waal, you opened the debate and you should finish it.

De Waal: I'm glad for the words of support from the South Caucasus. I would like to raise one question that Ivliane also raised, the question of the Russian language. This is a Russian resource that is dying in the South Caucasus. It is a language that unites three countries, that unites Abkhazia with Russia and Georgia. Russia is not utilizing this resource in the way that Britain utilizes its resource through the British Council. The Russian language has a lot of cultural significance and a lot of possibilities. And with this, Russia could have a very positive influence on the South Caucasus.

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