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Caucasus: Georgia Sees Future In Regional Cooperation

Ten years after it gained independence, the tiny Caucasus state of Georgia it still struggling to retain control over its territory and create a healthy economy. A civil war and two separatist secessions are among the chief causes of Georgia's fragile statehood, as is, according to one Georgian analyst, Russia's "neo-imperialistic" policy toward its former vassal. Some Georgians see "geo-economics" -- rather than traditional geopolitics -- and regional cooperation as the country's best hope for the future. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch reports from Tbilisi.

Tbilisi, 18 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Beset by economic hardships and subject to unabating pressure from its powerful Russian neighbor, the tiny Caucasus state of Georgia is struggling to survive in the new geopolitical environment created by the end of the Cold War.

Of the 15 new states that emerged after the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union, Georgia was among those with the most unpromising debuts. A 1992 civil war, two separatist conflicts, and a more-than-precarious economy have deeply affected many of its five million citizens.

Particularly painful to the Georgians was the 1992 to 1993 war with the breakaway region of Abkhazia, which left thousands dead or wounded and turned tens of thousands of Georgians into displaced persons.

President Eduard Shevardnadze, a former Georgian Communist Party leader (1972 to 1985), has somehow escaped two assassination attempts since he took over from nationalist leader Zviad Gamsakhurdia in 1992.

To many outsiders, it is almost miraculous that Georgia has managed to stand firm amid the turmoil that stirred the South Caucasus region in the first half of the 1990s.

Yet Georgia today is a dismembered state.

To the north, the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia lie far beyond the reach of the central government. To the south, the autonomous republic of Ajaria has become an area of rampant criminality entirely controlled by its wealthy leader, Aslan Abashidze.

Also to the south, along the border with Turkey and Armenia, the mainly ethnic Armenian region of Javakhetia poses a potential threat to the Georgian leadership.

Analysts acknowledge that Georgia's fragile statehood and domestic political weakness are major obstacles to its developing into a modern, democratic state. But they also point to external factors which, they say, have prevented Georgia from achieving political stability. In the view of some of them, Russia is perhaps the most important among those external factors.

Alexander Rondeli is the director of Georgia's Foreign Policy Research and Analysis Center, a think tank affiliated with the country's Foreign Ministry. In an interview with RFE/RL, Rondeli said that Russia's policy towards the South Caucasus region in general, and toward Georgia in particular, is deeply rooted in its centuries-long history of territorial conquests.

"I am not particularly fond of this word, but it is impossible not to recognize that what Russia has done -- and to a certain extent continues to do -- to Georgia smacks more of 'neo-imperialism' than of anything else. Russia's political elite keeps thinking in military terms. This is a tradition of their political culture. Russia's foreign policy has been traditionally based on expansion. We should not forget that, for about 300 years, Russia increased its territory by an average of 90 square kilometers a day. So, of course, losing everything within a few months is a big trauma [for Russia]."

Although Russia directly supported Shevardnadze's return to Georgian leadership nine years ago, relations between the two countries have since deteriorated drastically.

Russia was actively involved in Abkhazia's secession, helping the separatists with fuel supplies, arms shipments, and direct military support. Moscow's intervention eventually resulted in the small, poorly trained Abkhaz forces driving the Georgian army beyond the Inguri River that separates the region from the rest of the country.

Five months ago, Moscow further asserted its control over Abkhazia by introducing visa requirements for Georgian citizens traveling to Russia. Moscow justified the new visa regime as a measure aimed at preventing Chechen fighters allegedly hiding in Georgia from crossing the Russian border. The visa requirement does not apply to Abkhazia or South Ossetia, another Moscow-backed separatist region.

Political analyst Ghia Nodia runs the independent Caucasian Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development. He told RFE/RL that Moscow's decision to exempt people living in Abkhazia and South Ossetia from the visa requirement is an infringement on Georgia's territorial integrity and an interference in its domestic affairs:

"By doing this, [Moscow] is somehow telling the populations of these regions that they will eventually be part of the Russian Federation and that they should not take peace negotiations with Georgia very seriously."

Russia has long sought to retain a military presence in Georgia. Only recently, and reluctantly, did it agree to withdraw its troops from the Gudauta base in Abkhazia and from the Vaziani military airfield near Tbilisi -- both by the end of next month.

Moscow is now asking for lease renewals on two other Soviet-era bases -- one in Batumi in the Ajaria region, the other in Akhalkalaki in the Javakhetia region. Georgia wants the two bases vacated within the next three years, but the Russian government -- saying it lacks the money for an earlier withdrawal -- wants 15 years to fulfill its pledge to pull out.

Javakhetia's mainly ethnic Armenian population has had uneasy relations with Tbilisi for much of the post-Soviet period. It fears that the withdrawal of the 3,000 Russian soldiers -- many of whom are reportedly recruited from among the local population -- will increase tensions between the region and the central authorities in Tbilisi. Georgian officials consider the presence of a strong Russian contingent in this potential hot spot as a threat.

Shevardnadze has said that a final date for completing the withdrawal will be set only after Moscow and Tbilisi sign a new bilateral treaty that is currently under discussion. The new treaty would replace a previous agreement that has never been ratified by the Russian parliament.

Another bone of contention in bilateral relations are Shevardnadze's periodic pledges over the past six years that Georgia will seek NATO membership in 2005. Russia is strongly opposed to the alliance's eastward expansion, which it sees as a threat to its national security.

Yet Foreign Ministry adviser Rondeli does not believe that Georgia will join NATO soon:

"Let's be realistic: By the time Georgia becomes a country that is in a position to think about joining NATO, [the alliance] could change. The world could change, too. I do not think that [this issue] is that important, and I do not think that this prospect really frightens the Russians. I think that this is a pretext. Russia knows perfectly well that Georgia cannot join NATO now."

Rondeli's comments echo Shevardnadze's recent remarks that Georgia may eventually choose not to knock on NATO's door and opt for neutrality.

Still, the Georgian president announced last week (12 May) that his country will host next month's NATO-led peacekeeping military exercises under the alliance's Partnership for Peace Program. These maneuvers, the first such exercises ever organized in the Caucasus region, will include military units from 14 countries, among them Turkey and Azerbaijan.

Georgia's increasing military cooperation with Turkey is seen in Tbilisi as a way to counterbalance the close defense links that have developed between Armenia and Russia since 1991.

Last January, Tbilisi and Ankara signed three agreements on defense cooperation, and the Turkish army recently completed the modernization of Georgia's Marneuli airbase, south of Tbilisi.

Armenia remains formally at war with neighboring Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh territorial dispute. It also suffers from a seven-year-old economic embargo imposed by Turkey. Except for the European Union-sponsored TRACECA project, aimed at coordinating the development of transit routes between East and West, Armenia has remained on the sidelines of most of the region's major economic projects.

By contrast, Georgia has been linked to Azerbaijan since 1999 by a pipeline that carries Caspian crude oil produced by a U.S.-led international consortium to the Georgian Black Sea port of Supsa. Georgia and Azerbaijan -- together with Ukraine, Uzbekistan, and Moldova -- are also members of GUUAM, an economic forum set up in 1997 to promote trade cooperation among the five nations.

Analyst Rondeli believes that the future of the South Caucasus region lies in geo-economics rather than in geopolitics. He says that Georgia and Azerbaijan have similar views on the matter, while Armenia still sees regional development through the prism of geopolitics.

"Armenia wants to have its cake and eat it too, but this is very difficult to achieve. It wants to be with the West, to get financial support from it. At the same time, it considers Russia as a trustworthy ally with whom to develop military cooperation. Unfortunately, the different views that prevail in Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan on what national security priorities should be do not favor regional collaboration and prosperity. I think that [the Armenians] too want to participate in big projects and be associated with the development of the region. But for the time being they are focusing on national security issues, especially on their military aspect."

In Rondeli's view, only economic cooperation among the three South Caucasus states can bring stability and prosperity to the region -- and might even help regional powers such as Russia enhance their security. Therefore, he concludes, it is essential that Armenia and Azerbaijan quickly resolve their territorial dispute.