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Caucasus: Analysis From Washington--Voting For Instability In The Caucasus

Washington, 20 November 1996 (RFE/RL) - Secessionists in three regions in the Transcaucasus are seeking to use elections to legitimize their positions.

But the results of these votes in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two regions of Georgia, and in Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian populated area within Azerbaijan, are likely to have a very different result.

In each case, these elections will further destabilize the countries of the region, call into question Moscow's ability to manage conflicts there for its own advantage, and likely preclude any serious expansion in Western investment in the region.

On November 10, voters in South Ossetia, a Georgian region that has been beyond Tbilisi's control since 1991, elected a president who wants to unite his region with North Ossetia, an ethnic enclave inside the Russian Federation.

The South Ossetians took this step despite the vocal opposition of Tbilisi, Moscow, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

This weekend, two other secessionist areas in the region will also stage elections. On Saturday, voters in Abkhazia, a region of Georgia that is also beyond Tbilisi's control, will go to the polls to elect a new legislature.

Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze has spoken out against the vote, but Moscow's position has been more ambiguous. In the past the Russian government sometimes supported the secessionists, but now Moscow argues that Abkhazia should accept autonomy within Georgia.

Given these conflicting pressures, the results of the voting are uncertain, but the campaign itself has provided an occasion for advancing the secessionist agenda, an airing that has done little to lessen its attraction to many Abkhazians.

But the vote with the greatest impact of the three will come on Sunday in Nagorno-Karabakh. Some 100,000 people are expected to elect that breakaway region's first president. He is almost certain to be the current self-proclaimed leader there, Robert Kocharian.

The Azerbaijani government has denounced the holding of this election. The United States, Russia, and the OSCE have also come out against it, arguing that this vote will exacerbate a conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan that has already claimed 25,000 lives. But neighboring Armenia is backing the vote and so it almost certainly will go forward.

The possible impact of these elections on the territorial integrity and stability of the states of the Transcaucasus and its neighbors is obvious.

At a minimum, these votes seem likely to make the secessionists even more intransigent by providing them with a veneer of democratic legitimacy. And over the longer term, such unwillingness to make concessions is likely to mean more violence and instability.

Given the current weakness of the governments of these states, any renewal of violence could have serious consequences not only for each of them but for their immediate neighbors as well.

For three reasons, Russia may be the first to be affected.

First, Russia faces secessionist challenges on its territory and any success in one of these regions would give aid and comfort to them.

Second, Russia's ability to exploit conflicts in the Transcaucasus to its own advantage by supporting now one side and now another both to increase its own influence and to exclude that of other countries would collapse if violence in one or more of these countries were to escalate.

And third, should such fighting get out of hand, Russia might be confronted by the challenge of either deploying its own troops, something it would find both politically and militarily difficult to do, or allowing the deployment of the troops of other states, something it would almost certainly oppose.

But these three elections are also likely to have an impact in the West as well, albeit a more indirect one.

Renewed violence and instability in the Transcaucasus would almost certainly put on hold plans for greater Western investment in the oil industry and expanded Western involvement in the politics of the region.

Not only would such a pause guarantee the continued weakness of these states, thus making future crises that much more likely, but it could also open the way to expanded Iranian influence in the region, something no one in the West would find reassuring.

In short, and once again, events -- and this time elections -- in places few in the West have ever heard of are likely to send out shockwaves in virtually all directions.