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Russia/Georgia: Analysis From Washington--The North Caucasian Barrier

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 But he said that this did not mean Georgia wanted the Russian peacekeepers withdrawn.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.