Washington, 31 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - Rising ethnic tensions in the
North Caucasus appear likely to make that region a barrier rather
than a bridge for the export of Caspian Sea oil.
As a result, Western countries may step up their efforts to explore
alternative pipeline routes across Georgia and Iran. And Russia may
be forced to grant new concessions to the Chechens and others lest it
be cut out completely from this lucrative market.
Three long-standing disputes across this region intensified over the
course of the last week. On Tuesday, more than 100 North Ossetians
attacked an Ingush refugee camp in North Ossetia's Prigorodny
district, according to the Russian interior ministry.
Coming less than a week after a visit to the region by Russian
Security Council Secretary Ivan Rybkin, the renewed violence called
into question Moscow's recent claims of progress toward the
resolution of a conflict inherited from Soviet times.
Meanwhile, Russia and Georgia very publicly failed to agree on the
future of Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia, a region that has sought
to break away from Georgia.
A spokesman for the Georgian government said that Tbilisi opposed
any extension of the Russian mandate unless Moscow lives up to its
earlier commitments. But he said that this did not mean Georgia
wanted the Russian peacekeepers withdrawn.
But Russian government spokesmen indicated that Moscow would pull
its troops out unless Tbilisi explicitly agreed to the extension of
their mandate without any significant modifications.
Given the level of tensions in and around Abkhazia, this diplomatic
exchange could easily provoke one or another group to violence even
if Moscow and Tbilisi ultimately reach a mutual understanding.
Also this week, the situation in Chechnya appeared to be
deteriorating. On Sunday, Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov announced
several new law enforcement measures. The need for these was
highlighted on Wednesday when a bomb killed three in Grozny.
But even more important, the Chechen government has increased its
pressure on Moscow. First, Grozny has demanded that Moscow extradite
several people charged with violating Chechen laws and it has
established a special squad to help free Chechens held there.
Second, Maskhadov on Monday called for an exchange of embassies
between Moscow and Grozny. And third, on Tuesday, the Chechen
president ordered a halt to all talks with Moscow until the Russian
government lives up to its promises to provide reconstruction aid.
In response, Russian President Boris Yeltsin on Wednesday indicated
that he would like to have Maskhadov come to Moscow to discuss a
power-sharing arrangement like the ones the Russian government
already has with Tatarstan and several other regions.
Maskhadov may ultimately go to Moscow, but at least for now he seems
unlikely to agree to anything that might slow Chechnya's drive toward
independence. Indeed, the Chechen leader may well believe that things
are now going in his and not Yeltsin's direction.
After the end of the fighting in 1996, the Russian government
indicated that it hoped to undermine the Chechen independence
movement by promising Grozny enormous oil wealth if it agreed to
remain part of Russia and to allow oil to flow across its territory.
But recent calculations show that Moscow is prepared to give
Chechnya only about $8 million a year in transit fees, far too little
to dissuade most Chechens from continuing their pursuit of complete
independence from Moscow.
As a result, Moscow currently may have a greater interest in having
the oil flow across Chechnya than the Chechens do. Because unless the
oil does go that way, Moscow will not be able to insist that the
so-called early Caspian oil pass through Russia.
The Chechens clearly know this, and are likely to seek additional concessions from the Russian government.
One concession they are likely to demand and that Moscow might now
be willing to make would be an agreement between Russia and Chechnya
to set up "permanent representation" offices in each capital.
During Soviet times, each union republic had such an office in
Moscow, and consequently the Russian authorities of today could
maintain that the establishement of such offices does not constitute
Russian recognition of Chechen independence.
But the Chechens could see this as a major step toward their goal,
especially since they are aware that the current Moscow embassies of
the former Soviet republics were based on these earlier institutions.
If the Chechens demonstrate sucessfully that Moscow is willing
to make concessions to maintain control of pipelines in the region,
other groups there, including the Ossetians and the Abkhaz, may also
seek to press their case.
And in that event, the politics of pipelines would take on an
entirely new dimension.