The former Soviet republics of the Southern Caucasus -- Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia -- are allying themselves with Washington in its tough line against Baghdad, despite Russian efforts to prolong the work of UN weapons inspectors in Iraq.
Prague, 17 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- While the UN Security Council remains divided over growing U.S. pressure to take military action against Iraq over its failure to disarm, there is no real division, analysts say, between Washington and the views of the Southern Caucasus republics on the issue.
Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze last week reaffirmed his country's support for the U.S. position that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein is not cooperating with UN weapons inspectors and that military action may have to be used. "A totalitarian regime, which develops mass-destruction weapons in any region, represents a huge danger not only for a given country but for the region and the world as a whole. And it must be punished," Shevardnadze said.
In Azerbaijan, Foreign Minister Vilayet Guliev said last week that Baku supports U.S. efforts to eliminate Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and wishes to find a quick resolution to the current crisis. Guliev said Baku urges Iraq to fulfill all obligations under UN resolutions and to fully cooperate with UN weapons inspectors.
In Armenia, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Dzyunik Aghadjanian told the Arminfo news agency last week that Yerevan supports the complete and unconditional disarmament of Iraq and full implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1441. That resolution threatens "serious consequences" if Baghdad fails to disarm.
Richard Giragosian is the author of the monthly newsletter "TransCaucasus: A Chronology" and is an expert on the region. Giragosian said the political alignments of the three South Caucasus countries on Iraq largely mirror their policies in the war on terrorism. "Unlike Europe, there is no real division between Washington and the states of the Transcaucasus. This is mainly because all three states of the Transcaucasus have aligned themselves both with Moscow and with Washington in their strategic partnership on the war on terrorism. Therefore, the looming crisis with Iraq basically follows the same model as the war on terrorism, with each of the three states trying their best to maximize their limited ability and limited capability. We see this, for example, in Georgia offering to play a more direct role in terms of U.S. basing arrangements, as well as both Armenia and Azerbaijan offering the U.S. overflight rights," he said.
Jaba Devdariani is editor in chief of the "Civil Georgia" Internet magazine. He noted that Georgian President Shevardnadze has been the only regional president to publicly comment on the Iraq issue. Shevardnadze, he says, is supporting the U.S. position without making clear whether a second UN resolution will be needed to authorize the possible use of force. "Georgia has been the biggest recipient of U.S. military assistance so far, and the Georgian government clearly has hopes to increase the U.S. military presence or to prove their allegiance to their U.S. partners," Devdariani explained.
Shevardnadze has declared that Georgia's "duty" is to support the U.S., which he says has rendered "enormous assistance" -- more than $1 billion -- to the country since 1992.
Giragosian said Georgia's decision to align itself more with the U.S. is also a reflection of Tbilisi's sour relationship with Russia, which has threatened military action across its border into northern Georgia to clear out what it regards as terrorist bases operating in the Pankisi Gorge. "Georgia's strained relationship with Russia is reflected in Georgia's more apparent willingness and ambition to both joining NATO -- unlike, say, Azerbaijan -- and also to facilitate the United States as much as possible. This is done for Georgia, in effect, to maximize the U.S. presence already in the Train and Equip program, as well as the continuing threat posed to Georgia by the Pankisi Gorge," he said. The U.S. dispatched military instructors to Georgia last year as part of a $64 million program to train 2,000 local troops.
Analyst Devdariani said that Armenia and Azerbaijan, meanwhile, have been more cautious with their statements. "The Armenian spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry has stated that his country would call upon Iraq to disarm unconditionally, and he called for the UN to take tougher measures, so basically endorsed the UN way of regulating this conflict. A similar statement was made by the [Azerbaijani] officials," Devdariani said. Azerbaijan, he said, feels compelled to express its support more toward Ankara rather than Washington, since Turkey is a close ally.
Gabil Huseynli, an Azerbaijani political observer and an activist in the opposition Musavat Party, recently told Moscow's Prima news agency that Baku may soon join the anti-Iraq coalition and give its support to U.S. actions, especially since Azerbaijan's close ally, Turkey, is taking a similar stand on the matter.
Armenia's statements have been the most cautious, analysts say. According to Giragosian, Yerevan is under great pressure, mainly due to the implications of a military buildup by Turkey in response to the Iraq crisis. "Armenia faces a dangerous buildup to its west by the Turkish military. And any incursion by the Turkish military -- as has been reported -- into northern Iraq to counter any pseudo-Kurdish state is potentially destabilizing to Armenia. And Armenia, as well, has a significant Kurdish minority within its borders that raises again fears of Turkish military power and aggression, and may also damage any attempt -- as Armenia has been pursuing -- to establish diplomatic relations with Turkey, and to lift the Turkish blockade of Armenia," Giragosian said. The border between Armenia and Turkey has remained closed to traffic since 1993 due to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Late last month, Armenia's former ambassador to Baghdad, David Hovhannisian, predicted that Ankara's support for Azerbaijan will increase if Turkey benefits from U.S. compensation for material or economic damage sustained by any war in Iraq.
In an interview with Armenia's Noyan Tapan news agency, Hovhannisian also discussed the possible emergence of an independent Kurdish state, which would "entirely" change the geopolitical situation in the region. He warned a war might have negative consequences for the Armenian community living in Baghdad.
How far will the countries of the Southern Caucasus go to cooperate with the U.S. in a possible attack on Iraq? Devdariani hinted at an answer: "All three countries have had in their agenda the possible offering of their airspace for the U.S. military aircraft. I think this is the main and most likely scenario that may happen in South Caucasus. Speculations on the Georgian side have progressed further [than in] each of the [other] South Caucasian republics. The speculations were not only about the possible use of airspace for the U.S. aircraft but on the possible sending of some of the Georgian commando troops that were trained under the U.S. project to Iraq."
Georgian Defense Minister David Tevzadze has said that the U.S. could use its Vaziani military base in any operation against Iraq, if needed. Georgia's Caucasus Press news agency reports the possibility was discussed by Shevardnadze and Deputy U.S. Secretary of State Stephen Rademaker. Rademaker denies the story.
According to Devdariani, however, it is likely that Georgia's cooperation in any Iraq war would be limited to U.S. use of its airfields or airspace. But he notes the Incirlik air base in southeastern Turkey, where about 40 U.S. and British planes are based, is more conveniently located.
Devdariani said it is likely the three states of the South Caucasus would contribute peacekeeping troops to Iraq after any conflict.
(Goulnara Pataridze of RFE/RL's Georgian Service contributed to this report.)