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Caucasus: Possible U.S. Military Buildup In Georgia Raises Armenian Concerns

News that Washington is preparing to send military advisers to Georgia as part an antiterror drive has been met with wariness in Armenia. Some Armenian experts suspect the U.S. decision may be prompted by security concerns that are broader than simply the search for a handful of Al-Qaeda fugitives reportedly hiding in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge.

Prague, 12 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The expected arrival of American soldiers in Georgia as part of Washington's global antiterror drive is generally viewed in the Caucasus as heralding increased U.S. involvement in the region.

On 26 February, the United States announced it would send up to 200 military advisers to help Georgia's armed forces uproot Al-Qaeda fugitives reportedly hiding in a mountainous area bordering Russia's separatist region of Chechnya.

Washington insists its aim is limited to helping Tbilisi eradicate elements of Osama bin Laden's terrorist network.

But regional experts generally believe the decision to send troops was prompted by broader security concerns. These could include bolstering Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze's government, protecting a projected U.S.-sponsored multimillion dollar oil pipeline that would run through Georgia, or ensuring a safe supply route to new U.S. military bases in Central Asia.

In Armenia, which remains closely linked to Russia despite efforts to initiate ties with NATO and the West, news of the U.S. deployment plans was met with a certain degree of wariness, although Russian President Vladimir Putin, for one, does not seem to be opposed to the deployment.

Armenian Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian said he thought the presence of U.S. soldiers in Georgia was unlikely to destabilize the region in the immediate future. Yet, pressed by reporters to assess the situation, he cautiously said: "Let's wait and see what happens."

Armenia's pro-government daily "Azg"was more critical. It wrote this month that the presence of U.S. troops might, in the long run, lead to "dangerous developments." It cited possible troubles in Georgia's Javakheti Province, a region mostly populated by ethnic Armenians and where Russia maintains a major military base.

Armenia's former prime minister, Vazgen Manukian, told our correspondent that, in his view, the ongoing changes are likely to have a negative effect in a region that has seen a decade of interethnic strife. Manukian, who now heads the National Democratic Union opposition party, said uncertainty over Washington's real aims in dispatching troops to Georgia further complicates the picture.

"I do not expect anything good. Why? The problem is not so much that the U.S. and Russia are vying for influence in Transcaucasia (the three southern Caucasus states of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan). The problem is that countries in that region have no common vision of what they want. It took two world conflicts before Europe finally decided what it wanted and, after that, it was in a position to easily find solutions to its internal problems. But our region has no such common vision. And when there is no common vision, any interference can hardly bring anything but troubles."

Since the U.S. made its plans public, Georgia's separatist republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have increased their demands and asked to be included in the Russian Federation as "associate members." The Kremlin has not reacted to these demands, but Russia's State Duma adopted a non-binding resolution last week (6 March) threatening to strengthen ties between Moscow and both regions.

In the early 1990s, Abkhazia and South Ossetia successfully fought against Georgian government troops with the active support of Russia -- which was seeking to undermine Georgia's nationalist president at the time, Zviad Gamsakhurdia. Despite subsequent Moscow-brokered cease-fire agreements, both republics are still formally at war with Tbilisi and international efforts to bring all sides to sign comprehensive peace accords have brought little so far. In addition, both South Ossetia and Abkhazia remain de facto under Russian control.

Years of international mediation have failed to bring Armenia and Azerbaijan to settle their 14-year-old territorial dispute over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. Both countries fought a war that resulted in Moscow-backed ethnic Armenian troops gaining full control over Karabakh and occupying half a dozen Azerbaijani districts.

Some regional analysts believe the presence of U.S. troops in the region -- however limited -- might foster a peaceful solution to the conflict by accelerating the search for a compromise between Armenia and Azerbaijan. But other experts say they do not expect any substantial progress unless Russia changes its own foreign policy toward the entire region.

Svante Cornell is an analyst at the Washington-based School for Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University and the editor of the "Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst" newsletter. In an interview with RFE/RL, Cornell said the almost-absolute preference given to Russia by landlocked Armenia over the past decade -- mostly due to security and energy supply concerns -- had left local leaders with virtually no alternative.

Asked whether he expects the presence of U.S. troops in Georgia to affect relations between Yerevan and Moscow, Cornell says: "No, absolutely not, because Armenia's foreign policy is deeply tied to Russia. Armenia's dependence on Russia has been increasing over the past few years. Armenia's debts to Russia are being paid not in cash, but by Russia acquiring large Armenian enterprises and industries. So, not only politically, but also economically, Russia is increasing its control over Armenia. For Russia, Armenia is a very important piece of real estate, which will enable it to have a continued influence in the South Caucasus -- even [though] Georgia and Azerbaijan continue to be outside Moscow's orbit."

In Cornell's view, "given Armenia's economic difficulties, only an alliance with Russia will allow it to exert control over Karabakh in the short and middle term."

Cornell also says Moscow's continued backing of Yerevan will deter Baku from attempting to regain control over its occupied territories by force.

Gagik Avakian is an Armenian political analyst and the co-chairman of a Yerevan-based non-governmental organization known as "Cooperation and Democracy." Avakian tells our correspondent that, while the majority of Armenia's population sees Russia as the main guarantor of its security, the leadership is looking at other strategic partners as part of the "complementary" foreign policy launched in the mid-1990s by then-President Levon Ter-Petrosian.

Avakian believes this complementary policy explains why Armenian leaders have cautiously reacted to the upcoming deployment of U.S. soldiers in Georgia, although he says these developments did not come as a surprise to anyone in Armenia.

"Armenia has no real clear-cut conception of what its foreign policy should be. Our [foreign] policy is a very responsive one. Given the existing balance [of forces in the region,] our reflex has to be wait and see. Of course it would be much better if we could have a real foreign policy because we could then use it to defend our national interests. But this not being the case, we have to have a wait-and-see policy and see how the situation develops further."

Avakian believes that, despite their stated pro-Western foreign policies, both Georgia and Azerbaijan are confronted with the same problem. He says that, like Armenia, neither of these countries is really the master of its own fate.

"I think that, today, not a single country in the southern Caucasus region can really initiate anything. The deployment of U.S. troops is not entirely the result of a decision made by Georgia. The decision was not made entirely on Georgia's initiative. Georgia rather yielded to external circumstances and the U.S. deployment could end up not being as advantageous as it seems for Georgia, because tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, Russia can decide to take action against [Tbilisi]. [Moscow] has a whole range of instruments at its disposal to do so, including economic ones."

Like former Premier Manukian, Avakian believes the only viable solution for Armenia and its southern Caucasus neighbors lies in regional cooperation. Both men believe that only regional ties can help all three southern Caucasus states meet their long-term security challenges.

Manukian says: "We are not refusing assistance offered by international organizations or great powers. But it seems to me that [our] region is the scene of competing ambitions, that [these great powers] are playing a game and are sometimes behaving with us as if we were nothing but pawns. With such an approach, it is impossible to solve our problems."

Meanwhile, the situation in Georgia's southern Javakheti Province -- where local ethnic Armenians have staged street protests in recent weeks to demand autonomy -- has raised speculation that Tbilisi might look for further foreign military help.

Those protests were prompted by reports that Tbilisi might ask Turkey -- which last year refurbished a Georgian military air base vacated by the Russian Army and is modernizing another airfield located near the Armenian border -- to send troops to Javakheti. Even though these reports were later denied by Georgian authorities, they raised alarm in Armenia, which sees Azerbaijan's Ankara ally as the main threat to its security.

In Avakian's view, any Turkish military buildup in the region would inevitably prompt Yerevan to turn to Moscow for increased military supplies.

He says that "As long as relations with Turkey remain as difficult as they are, Armenians will continue to consider Russia as the best guarantor of their safety."