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2003 & Beyond: Russia, U.S. Redistribute Pawns On Caucasus Chessboard After A Year Of Change

The year 2003 was a time of both continuity and change in the South Caucasus. Controversial elections in Armenia and Azerbaijan saw power remain in the hands of the political establishment, while in Georgia, longtime leader Eduard Shevardnadze was forced out of office amid allegations of electoral fraud. The United States and Russia, which both have stakes in the region, watched the events with interest and are now plotting fresh strategies for the region in the year ahead.

Prague, 16 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Last month, the longstanding regime of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze collapsed amid allegations of parliamentary election fraud that drew condemnation both at home and abroad.

Abandoned by his U.S. allies, under pressure from Russia, and facing public humiliation at home after opposition supporters stormed parliament during his inaugural speech, Shevardnadze finally announced his resignation on 23 November, after a three-week standoff.

"Now I see that what is happening will not end without blood, if tomorrow I have to exercise the powers that I have in this situation. I have never been untrue to my people. So now I declare that it is better that the president resigns, that everything ends," Shevardnadze said.

Replacing the 75-year-old leader is a trio of young politicians who have called for early presidential elections on 4 January and new legislative polls, tentatively scheduled for 25 January.

The troika includes outgoing parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze, who is temporarily standing in as president, as well as Tbilisi City Council Chairman Mikhail Saakashvili and former parliament speaker Zurab Zhvania, a one-time Shevardnadze ally.

It appears likely that the charismatic Saakashvili, who spearheaded November's street protests and is the only political heavyweight among six presidential candidates, will be Georgia's next leader.

It won't be an easy transition. Shevardnadze's successors have promised to rebuild Georgia's disastrous economy and put an end to rampant corruption, establish rule of law, and restore the country's territorial integrity.

Even more importantly, they have vowed to open a "new page" in relations with Moscow after more than a decade of mistrust marked by Russian meddling in Georgia's separatist conflicts and its continued military presence on Georgian territory.

This means a change in posture regarding Russia's own separatist conflicts as well. In a 1 December commentary in Britain's "Financial Times," Saakashvili wrote that he sees cooperation with Moscow "in ending conflict and eliminating terrorism in Chechnya" as crucial to "building peace and prosperity in the North Caucasus."

Moscow had often accused Shevardnadze's Georgia of harboring Chechen militants. Russian President Vladimir Putin has welcomed the apparent change of heart, and has vowed in turn to help restore trust between the two countries. "We hope that the future, legitimately elected leadership of the country will do everything it can to restore the traditions of friendship between our two countries," Putin said. "And for us, for Russia, there is no other goal in our relations with Georgia."

Yet, just two days after Putin's remarks, Moscow infuriated Tbilisi by initiating four-party talks with the leaders of Georgia's separatist provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Aslan Abashidze, the maverick president of the autonomous republic of Adjaria, who says he does not recognize the legitimacy of Georgia's interim leadership, was also present at the Moscow discussions. And on 8 December, Russia eased visa regulations for Adjaria residents in a move Georgia's leaders see as an attempt to undermine their fledgling rule.

By contrast, the United States has put its unconditional support behind Shevardnadze's successors, pledging election funds and vowing to resume financial aid to the impoverished country. At a recent summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Washington also chastised Russia for maintaining two military bases in Georgia in violation of international defense agreements.

The spats have raised concerns about stability in the South Caucasus. But analysts believe neither Moscow nor Washington -- who both supported Tbilisi's regime change -- is willing to return to the bitter fight for control over the region that marked bilateral ties in the 1990s.

Charles Urjewicz teaches Russian and Caucasus history at the Paris-based National Institute of Eastern Languages and Civilizations (INALCO). He believes that, rather than seeking confrontation, Russia and the United States will be looking for ways to prop up the working arrangement they have reached over the recent political transitions in Georgia and neighboring Azerbaijan.

"I would not go so far as to say that Russia and the U.S. are contemplating a real partnership, because I don't really believe it would happen. But I believe the two countries may well make the best of the [new] situation in Georgia. They are glaring at one another, but at the same time, neither side has an interest in jostling the other one -- at least for the time being," Urjewicz told RFE/RL.

Moscow and Washington are both deeply involved in Georgian affairs. The United States has allocated more than $3 billion in aid to Tbilisi over the past decade and has engaged in a military program to train Georgian troops in antiterrorist techniques.

Washington sees stability in the region as essential to its pet projects of multimillion-dollar oil and natural-gas pipelines running from Azerbaijan to Turkey through Georgia.

U.S. policymakers are also anxious to avoid new troubles in a region that borders Chechnya, which they claim serves as a training ground for Al-Qaeda militants.

For Moscow too, stability south of Chechnya is a security requirement. With Russian companies now eyeing stakes in regional infrastructure and energy networks, security is also vital to its economic interests and political influence in the area.

Thomas de Waal is a Caucasus expert at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London. He says recent tactical agreements between Moscow and Washington over the need to maintain political continuity in Azerbaijan while pushing for a regime change in Georgia do not say very much in terms of their future cooperation.

"Both [countries] realize that they are major regional powers in the Caucasus, that they have to deal with one another, that they have to respect another, that neither side is going to be given a free hand in the Caucasus. Having said that, their long-term strategic interests are still very much opposed to each other. Perhaps this is happening in a much more civilized way than it was a few years ago, but, still, the [strategic] interests of the two countries are still directly opposed in the Caucasus," de Waal said.

Still, it remains uncertain what the ultimate goals of the U.S. and Russia in the region might be. If Moscow and Washington seem to have found a modus vivendi in Azerbaijan, the same cannot be said of Georgia, where the situation remains particularly volatile.

Urjewicz of INALCO believes a crucial aspect will be the ability of the new Georgian leaders to rebuild ties with Russia at the same time they are asserting their independence from it. "Everything depends on how Saakashvili -- since he looks set to become Georgia's next president -- will manage his relations with Moscow," he said. "This is obviously a very complicated issue that will require a lot of diplomatic skills and great intelligence on his side. If the Georgians are able to display these skills, if they show a real sense of compromise, I think the West in general -- and the U.S. in particular -- will strongly support them. If not, then the Americans will find themselves in an awkward position and may find it extremely difficult to lend them support."

The delicate balance of competing forces and the intricacy of the situation in the South Caucasus make it difficult to speculate on future regional developments.

If analysts generally agree that the Russia-U.S. competition is unlikely to lead to open confrontation, they say the coming months will show how much pressure the sides are prepared to exert on one another to defend their interests.