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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Peace In The Caucasus?

Washington, 17 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - The United States has stepped up its efforts to resolve two long-standing conflicts in the Caucasus in order to promote stability there and to gain access to the oil of the Caspian Sea basin.

Despite these efforts, the parties involved in the disputes over Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh appear unlikely to agree to settlements anytime soon.

But even if some of the parties involved do announce agreements, those accords are unlikely to be implemented. On the one hand, the international community has repeatedly indicated that it is unwilling to provide the forces needed to keep any peace there.

And on the other, the number of conflicts and the ability of any of the many parties involved to torpedo agreements are both so large that any accord not supported by peacekeepers would almost certainly prove shortlived.

Nonetheless, both the United States and some of the countries in the region have indicated that they would like to be able to announce accords on two of the Caucasian conflicts.

American efforts to promote an agreement on Nagorno-Karabakh have been the more obvious. Last Sunday, Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrossian said that the OSCE Minsk Group, of which the U.S. is a co-chairman, had offered a new compromise plan on Nagorno-Karabakh.

As earlier leaked to the press, that plan would call for an Armenian withdrawal from Azerbaijan, heightened autonomy for Nagorno-Karabakh and the deployment of an international buffer force around that disputed region.

Ter-Petrossian suggested that the compromise represented a step forward, but he indicated that Yerevan would never support it unless the ethnic Armenian authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh also agree. Because the latter are unlikely to do so, no accord appears likely anytime soon.

But later this month, Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev will be in Washington to press for a settlement of this conflict. He will do so both because he wants Caspian oil to flow Westward and because he wants direct American support on other issues.

On both counts, he will have support from powerful American oil and business interests. But he will also face the obstacles to any agreement that have plagued the region since the collapse of Soviet power there in 1991.

But even before Aliyev is scheduled to come, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze arrives in Washington this week to press for American assistance in reaching a settlement with the Abkhazian secessionists, an accord that would facilitate the flow of oil across his country.

Like Aliyev, Shevardnadze is likely to enjoy support from American oil interests and also from the U.S. Administration.

Indeed, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott is scheduled to give what has been advertised as a major speech next Monday at Johns Hopkins University on Washington's expanded interest in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

All this diplomatic activity is likely to lead to speculation that one or another settlement is imminent. But there are three major reasons to be skeptical about that.

First, many of the most important parties with an interest in these conflicts are not going to be involved in the current talks.

Among these are Russia, which has pursued a policy of frozen instability in the region, backing now one and now another side in each of these conflicts to maintain or extend its interests there.

While some in Moscow have indicated that they would like to have a settlement that would allow oil to flow, others in the Russian capital remain opposed to such a possibility and retain their ability to pursue an independent course.

Another party not represented in these current efforts to find a settlement is Iran. Tehran, of course, has powerful reasons for opposing any agreement that would strengthen Azerbaijan or weaken its Russian ally in the region.

And still others unrepresented in Washington are some of the smaller ethnic groups in the region who in the past have indicated their displeasure when they feel they have been ignored.

Second, each of these has the ability to subvert any agreement either directly or through proxies on the ground. Given the depth of suspicions in this region about such a possibility, even a relatively small incident could destroy any possibility for an accord reached by others to survive very long.

And third, the United States and its Western allies appear ever more reluctant to provide the peacekeepers that would make such an agreement more sustainable.

Not only has the West been unwilling to challenge Russia in the Caucasus in the past, but public reaction to NATO's recent effort to arrest accused Bosnia Serb war criminals suggests that few Americans would be willing to put any American lives at risk.

For all these reasons then, any prediction coming out of Washington in the near future about imminent breakthroughs on Nagorno-Karabakh or Abkhazia are likely to prove premature.