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Belarus: Russian, Caucasus Leaders Meet For Security Talks

A meeting of the leaders of Russia and the three Southern Caucasus states of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan was due to be held today in the Belarus capital Minsk. Russia says the purpose of the so-called "Caucasus Four" meeting is to promote regional security issues. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch looks at the expectations of Georgia and Azerbaijan, two countries that have uneasy relations with Moscow.

Prague, 31 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- On the sidelines of a CIS summit in the Belarus capital Minsk, the presidents of Russia, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan meet today for talks focused on regional security and cooperation.

Speaking in Moscow earlier this week (28 May), Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said the so-called "Caucasus Four" meeting -- convened at Moscow's initiative -- would focus on finding ways to solve current problems in the volatile Southern Caucasus region.

Ivanov also said Russian President Vladimir Putin, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, Armenian President Robert Kocharian, and Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev would consider as well the long-term prospects for cooperation among their respective countries.

Beginning at 1730 local time, Putin will hold talks with Kocharian and Aliyev at the residence of Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. The three heads of state will be joined later in the evening by Shevardnadze.

Navruz Mamedov heads the foreign affairs department in Aliev's administration. In an interview with our correspondent, Mamedov said Azerbaijan expects the meeting to focus particularly on its unsettled territorial dispute with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave.

"[We] consider that this meeting could be useful in helping settle issues that concern [Russia and all three Southern Caucasus states], especially those conflicts that exist between Armenia and Azerbaijan and similar problems that exist in Georgia as well."

Yerevan and Baku have been in conflict over Karabakh since the enclave seceded from Azerbaijan in 1988. That move set off a six-year war that killed about 35,000 people and drove some 800,000 Azerbaijanis from their homes.

Despite a truce signed in 1994, scores of people are killed each year along the demarcation line and ethnic Armenian troops still occupy a substantial portion of Azerbaijan's territory.

A planned meeting between Kocharian and Aliev, tentatively scheduled for mid-June in Geneva, has been postponed indefinitely.

The Geneva summit had been expected to produce a possible draft on a final peace agreement under the aegis of the so-called Minsk Group of nations that has been tasked by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, to monitor the peace negotiations.

OSCE officials told our correspondent earlier this week that the delay should enable international mediators to finalize a draft peace plan that will be later submitted to Aliyev and Kocharian for approval. It should also give the two leaders more time to persuade their respective public opinions to make compromises for peace.

Since 1991, Moscow has tried to regain its position as the dominant power in the Southern Caucasus region and has consistently moved to reduce the West's influence in the area.

In the early 1990s, Russia adopted tactics that were considered by many as an effort to destabilize Southern Caucasus countries. Moscow supported separatist movements in Georgia's Southern Ossetia and Abkhazia regions, and provided weapons to ethnic Armenian forces in Karabakh.

Last week (21 May), the U.S. envoy to the Minsk Group, Carey Cavanaugh, praised Russia's recent efforts to help solve the Karabakh issue. He also said that, under Putin, Moscow had shown a change of attitude and no longer saw a possible advantage in instability in the South Caucasus region.

Still, regional analysts believe that even if Russia has shifted its tactics in dealing with the so-called "near abroad" states, its strategy remains unchanged.

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 he had not noticed any substantive change in Russia's policy towards Georgia under Putin.

"Unfortunately, we do not see Russia taking positive steps toward a settlement of [regional] conflicts. It is difficult to say whether this is the result of a lack of will, or whether this is because Russia has no clear-cut position [on what it should do in the region]. But what we do see is that what everybody was expecting is not happening. Sometimes we have the impression that Russia's political elite is not interested in improving the situation in the Southern Caucasus."

Russia and Georgia are at odds over a number of issues. Tbilisi has repeatedly accused Moscow of preventing a peaceful settlement of the Abkhaz conflict. Russia in return says Georgia is hosting Chechen fighters on its territory.

Russia has only reluctantly agreed to withdraw from two of its Soviet-era Georgian military facilities. It is now asking for lease renewals on two other defense bases.

Georgia wants the Batumi and Akhalkalaki bases -- located respectively in the Ajaria and Javakhetia regions -- vacated within the next three years. But Russia, which wants to retain a military presence in the country, says it lacks the money for an earlier withdrawal and needs 15 years to pull out.

Five months ago, Moscow triggered another diplomatic row with Tbilisi by introducing a visa requirement for most Georgian citizens traveling to Russia. The new visa regime does not apply to residents of Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia, and is seen in Tbilisi as an infringement on Georgia's sovereignty.

Relations between the two countries have substantially deteriorated since 1995, when Shevardnadze first hinted that Georgia would seek membership in NATO in 2005.

NATO has never formally responded to Shevardnadze's repeated calls for membership. Still, Russia has warned the alliance not to move into what it openly describes as its sphere of influence.

Moscow would like Georgia and Azerbaijan to join the CIS Collective Security Council that currently comprises Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Armenia. All six countries are signatories of a 1992 Collective Security Treaty that Georgia left three years ago. Early this week (28 May), Shevardnadze described his decision to leave the treaty as "correct" and said it will not be revised.

Aliev's aide Mamedov told RFE/RL that Azerbaijan, which is concerned by the military cooperation between Russia and Armenia, is not considering joining the treaty either.

"Russia and other signatories of the Collective Security Treaty would certainly not object to Azerbaijan joining in. But Azerbaijan has no such plans at the moment because it does not see any need to do so. Considering that both Armenia and Azerbaijan are members of the Commonwealth of Independent States, what could this treaty possibly give us? The [CIS] should in principle help broker a peace agreement over the Karabakh issue, but it has not attained any special results [in this regard]."

Tbilisi and Baku are both members of GUUAM, a geopolitical forum set up four years ago, which groups Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Moldova and the Central Asian state of Uzbekistan.

GUUAM was originally designed to promote trade cooperation among its members and to lessen their energy dependence on Russia by securing alternative sources of hydrocarbon fuels. From its inception, the organization has been described in Moscow as a challenge to Russia's national interests in states of the former Soviet Union.

Today GUUAM's importance appears to be on the wane. Its future is threatened by the recent rapprochement between Ukraine and Russia and by the election of Vladimir Voronin, a pro-Moscow communist leader, to the post of Moldovan president in early April.

Georgian Foreign Ministry advisor Rondeli says he does not rule out that Moscow's calls for greater cooperation between Russia and the three South Caucasus states may be an attempt to further undermine GUUAM:

"GUUAM is not dead, of course, but it is in a position which is far from brilliant. So maybe the [Minsk meeting] will be an attempt on Moscow's part to become more active and show other participants that they should solve all their problems with Russia, not without Russia."

Rondeli says it is very difficult to predict the outcome of today's Caucasus Four meeting. But he adds that, in his view, it is unlikely to produce any concrete results.