Prague, 10 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov toured the capitals of the three South Caucasus countries last week in what many observers saw as a desperate attempt on Moscow's part to halt the erosion of its influence in the region.
Yet Ivanov's stated objective of establishing "all-encompassing, equitable and mutually advantageous" relations with all three states in the region is unrealistic and untenable. The suspicions Azerbaijan and Georgia harbor concerning Russia's motives, and the unresolved conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, will continue to obstruct Russian aims.
The tensions in Moscow's relations with Azerbaijan and Georgia derive from those two countries' pro-Western orientation on the one hand and, on the other, from their belief that Moscow has in the past sought to manipulate the Karabakh and Abkhaz conflicts in order to weaken them.
Georgia and Azerbaijan have both made no secret of their aspiration to NATO membership. Georgia is seeking the closure of the four Russian military bases on its soil -- on its own terms.
Azerbaijan, for its part, wants Moscow to revise the level of its defense cooperation with Armenia, in particular to demand the return of several billion dollars' worth of weaponry clandestinely supplied to Armenia between 1994 and 1996.
Both countries announced earlier this year that they had no interest in renewing their membership of the CIS Collective Security Treaty.
In addition, Georgia and Azerbaijan are both founding members of the GUUAM alignment, which many Russian politicians believe is intended to sabotage the CIS from within. A further priority of the GUUAM member states that concerns Moscow is cooperation in exporting Caspian oil and gas to international markets, bypassing the Russian Federation.
In his talks with Ivanov in Baku on September 2, Azerbaijan's President Heydar Aliyev harshly criticized what he termed Russia's approach to relations with Armenia and Azerbaijan and its "passive" policy towards the South Caucasus which, Aliyev said, is no less a strategic region than the Balkans.
Aliyev told Ivanov that Baku expects Moscow to galvanize the efforts of the OSCE Minsk Group to find a solution to the Karabakh conflict. He said his own direct talks with his Armenian counterpart, Robert Kocharian, are no substitute for such mediation. At the same time, Aliyev noted that Moscow's increasingly close military cooperation with Armenia "is complicating the negotiating process on Nagorno-Karabakh."
Ivanov, for his part, replied that Moscow "understands perfectly" that the issue of its defense cooperation with Armenia is a sensitive one for Azerbaijan and the entire South Caucasus. He echoed the assurances of Armenian officials that Russia's defense cooperation with Armenia is not aimed at Azerbaijan or any other third country, and called for closer contacts between the defense and other power ministries of Russia and Azerbaijan.
Ivanov also said that Moscow does not intend to favor either the Armenian or the Azerbaijani side in seeking a solution to the Karabakh conflict.
In Tbilisi two days later, Georgian officials made it clear to Ivanov that they consider the current state of bilateral relations unacceptable, and that the fault for that state of affairs lies with Moscow. Parliamentary speaker Zurab Zhvania pointed out, for example, that for five years the Russian State Duma has declined to ratify the Georgian-Russian Agreement on Friendship and Cooperation, signed in early 1994. But as in Baku, it was the Russian military that proved the fundamental bone of contention.
Some Georgian opposition parliamentarians, and the chairman of the parliamentary Defense and Security Committee, Revaz Adamia, have proposed that at least two of the existing four Russian bases in Georgia should be closed. The U.S. has indicated that it may be prepared to shoulder part of the cost of doing so.
Ivanov made it clear that as far as Moscow is concerned, a withdrawal of its troops from Georgia is not on the agenda, as their presence there "serves Russia's interests." How Georgian officials responded to his offer to raise the level of military cooperation
between Russia and Georgia to that between Russia and Armenia was not reported.
In Yerevan, by contrast, Ivanov expressed satisfaction after his talks with President Robert Kocharian and Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian at the level of cooperation between countries that are "strategic partners."
Touching on the Karabakh conflict, Ivanov again endorsed direct talks between the two presidents. Interfax quoted him as denying Azerbaijani media reports that Ivanov had said Moscow no longer backs the Minsk Group proposal that Azerbaijan and the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic should form "a common state." Azerbaijan has rejected the "common state" option as violating its territorial integrity.
Ivanov also argued that it is imperative to involve the Karabakh Armenian leadership in the peace process, which Baku is also reluctant to do.
In all three capitals, Ivanov discussed the situation in the Caucasus as a whole, stressing the need for cooperation between the countries and republics to restore stability to the entire region.
But the priorities of those various republics and states are so diverse, and the deterioration of the situation in Chechnya so severe, that stability appears utopian. And Ivanov's statement that "it is impossible to settle conflicts in this region without Russia or against its interests" will inevitably be construed by many politicians in the North and South Caucasus as a threat, rather than a promise.