Washington, 24 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - Several U.S. senators have expressed concern that Russia is trying to re-establish hegemony over the Caucasus and Central Asia while the United States is not moving quickly or boldly enough to help the newly-independent states strengthen their sovereignty and independence.
Questions about Russia's behavior dominated a hearing held Tuesday by the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on U.S. policy in that part of the world.
Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kansas), who presided over the enquiry, criticized U.S. policymakers for regarding the eight states -- Armenia, Azerbijan and Georgia, as well as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan -- "more as dependencies of Russia than as independent countries in a region in which Russian interests are far from the only factor."
He also urged a more assertive U.S. policy, saying "the United States needs to move forward aggressively in this area but we seem to be afraid of offending the Russians...we should act with more boldness."
Brownbacker asked what kind of pressure the U.S. exerts on Russia to remove its troops from the former Soviet republics that do not want them.
Under Secretary of State for Economic Affairs Stuart Eizenstat, testifying for the administration, said the issue comes up regularly in U.S.-Russian conversations.
He said the U.S. wants to make sure the region has the fullest opportunity to develop independently and pursues a policy "to promote sovereign, prosperous, resilient, democratic states."
Eizenstat said the U.S. is hopeful that "recent trends in Russian foreign policy reflect a more realistic attitude toward relations with its southern neighbors."
He cited improved cooperation on settling the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave and participation by Russian companies in Caspian oil projects as examples of what he said is "the altered Russian attitude."
Another committee member asked about Russia's long-term intentions in the region, Eizenstat said those are not yet clear. He said it is obvious that many Russians are having a hard time adjusting to "a post-imperial future" in which they have less influence than in the past, and that "many would like to preserve that influence...and the presence of troops is one way of doing it."
Eizenstat noted that a total of more than 20,000 Russian troops remain deployed on the territories of most of the former Soviet republics.
He said one of the litmus tests for Russian behaviour in the future will be the degree of respect they show for trade relations and the independence of countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Right now, Eizenstat said the picture is still grey and the U.S. must be on the alert to make sure "Russia is a good neighbor and not just a big neighbor."
Eizenstat spoke with greater concern and more sharply about Iran's attempt to develop ties with the region, saying "the U.S. remains highly suspicious of Iran's motives," and that "it is essential for the U.S. to have a pro-active policy to assure that the Caucasus and Central Asia remain free of Iranian influence."
He said one of the ways to prevent Iran and Russia from having undue influence over the region is to rapidly develop economic and commercial systems enabling the eight nations to be more prosperous and independent.
Eizenstat said another means of ensuring their independence will be the choice of pipeline routes bringing oil from the Caspian Sea basin to foreign markets. He reiterated that the U.S. supports construction of multiple pipelines that will not go through Iranian or Russian territory.
Eizenstat said multiple pipelines are necessary, among other things, because the oil and gas reserves are so enormous there would be huge bottlenecks if it was all channeled just through existing Russian-based lines.
An expert witness testifying before the Senate committee -- retired U.S. General William Odom said Russian oil companies are trying to monopolize all the export routes. But he said "pipelines through Russia are not a bad thing if they are not the only ones," because if Russia felt shut out from the project, it would only incite Moscow to make trouble.
Odom, now with the Hudson Institute, a private policy research organization, said that in addition to Russia and Iran, China, Turkey, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are also competing for influence in the region, "often in non-constructive ways."
"Iran has been surprisingly correct in most of its diplomacy in Central Asia and the Transcaucasus," said Odom.
Odom said it is Saudi Arabia that has been the strongest backer of an Islamic cultural and political resurgence, secretly giving vast sums of money to Islamic community leaders in the region.