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Former USSR: Analysis From Washington--Ties That Unbind The CIS

Washington, 20 February 1997 (RFE/RL) - The decision by Azerbaijan and Georgia to form a strategic partnership highlights an important trend in the Commonwealth of Independent States: the expansion of bilateral ties to increase each country's freedom of action.

During a visit to Baku this week, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze announced that he and Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev had signed a declaration calling for strategic cooperation between their two countries.

By cooperating, Baku and Tbilisi hope to be able to ship oil from Azerbaijan across Georgia to Turkey. Such an arrangement would bring important economic benefits to each: money from the sale of oil to Azerbaijan and from transit fees to Georgia.

But its political consequences for the two would be even greater. Such a route for the export of Azerbaijani oil would inevitably reduce Moscow's influence in the region and give these countries greater flexibility in both their foreign and domestic policies.

Domestically, each country would earn substantial sums from this project. Their mutual enrichment would enhance the stability of the current governments and reduce Russian leverage.

And in foreign affairs, each would be in a better position to pursue policies designed to link itself with the outside world rather than primarily with the other CIS states.

Because so much is at stake, of course, this decision by Tbilisi and Baku to try to export oil this way is likely to be opposed and possibly blocked by Russian actions.

During the past three months, the Moscow press has been filled with articles denouncing Georgian and Azerbaijani efforts to increase their cooperation both with each other and with Ukraine and Turkey as well.

In virtually every case, the authors of these articles have argued that such cooperation is directed first and foremost against Russia and the Russian-led CIS.

And such criticism will only increase now that reports have appeared in Moscow that at least one country now in the CIS may decide to leave it in the near future.

But Moscow can do more than issue broadsides against the construction of a pipeline across Georgia.

First, it can seek to trump the budding Azerbaijani-Georgian effort by opening the Russian route before the trans-Georgian pipeline would be ready two years from now.

Indeed, some in Baku may be hoping to force Moscow's hand in precisely this way, albeit at the ultimate expense of the Georgians.

Second, Moscow can exacerbate or even initiate ethnic conflicts in these two countries along the proposed route of the pipeline. It has already done so with the Lezgins in Azerbaijan and may be behind heightened activism by the Ajars in Georgia.

Not accidentally perhaps, the proposed pipeline would pass through territories on which these ethnic groups live.

And third, the Russian government can use the presence of its own troops in Georgia and Armenia to put pressure on Tbilisi and through Armenia on Azerbaijan to block progress on this pipeline project.

Consequently, Shevardnadze's claim in Baku that his government can "guarantee" the security of pipelines and power lines passing through his country may ultimately prove a hollow one.

But even if that is so, the efforts these two countries are making to cooperate will still contribute to their own independence even as it lessens Russian dominance in the region.

That is because every time two or more countries within the CIS decide to cooperate with each other more than with other CIS states, the importance of that institution declines not only for them but for all other states as well.

And as a result, the cooperation accord that Shevardnadze and Aliyev signed in Baku this week may prove more strategic in its implications than either intends -- even if not one drop of Azerbaijani oil in fact flows across Georgia anytime soon.