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CIS Opinion Divided Over Georgian Conflict

Presidents Saakashvili (left) and Aliyev: in tune with their publics?
Presidents Saakashvili (left) and Aliyev: in tune with their publics?
The highway at the Barva border crossing between Armenia and Georgia is packed with panic-stricken Armenian holidaymakers returning home from Georgian Black Sea resorts, their vacations abruptly cut short by the military conflict in Georgia.

"We're in a panic. We're coming back. These last few days were very tense," an Armenian man who's been vacationing in Kabuleti tells RFE/RL at the Bavra border crossing.

Georgian resorts like Kabuleti and Sarpi have become popular holiday destinations for tens of thousands of Armenians, in large part due to their proximity and affordability. The Armenian man adds that many holiday spots appear to have been deserted after Russian troops entered Georgian territory. "Everybody is coming back," he says, "Kabuleti is empty now."

The Armenian government's reaction to the conflict in neighboring Georgia has been cautious. In a statement from Yerevan, the Foreign Ministry called on both sides of the conflict to find a peaceful solution.

But expert and other responses to RFE/RL in CIS member states suggest public stances that are less cautious than those of their respective governments over the fighting between Russia and Georgia.

Whether in Central Asia or among immediate neighbors like Armenia and Azerbaijan, some people blame Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili for provoking Russian military operation in Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia, while others accuse Moscow of using any pretext to destabilize the region.

A similar diversity of opinion has appeared among opposition politicians, media and the so-called community of experts.

In Armenia, where events have been granted extensive coverage, most of Armenia's state-run media have taken a visibly pro-Russian stance; much of the opposition and some independent publications appear to side with Georgia.

Georgia is Armenia's major transport route to the world, with most Armenian goods shipped through Georgian ports.

Georgia's other immediate neighbor, Azerbaijan, is similarly concerned about the ongoing crisis.

Azerbaijani experts say that if the conflict deepens further, the main challenge for Baku could be a potential refugee crisis. Some 500,000 ethnic Azeris live in Georgia, and hundreds have already sought refuge in Azerbaijan. Experts say more refugees could follow, possibly including ethnic Georgians. That could leave Baku facing a humanitarian crisis.

The key for Azerbaijan, experts say, will be to handle any refugee flows in a way that avoids upsetting Moscow. Azerbaijan depends in part on Moscow for exporting oil through Russian pipelines. Moreover, an estimated 2 million Azeris live and work in Russia.

"Now Western countries have to give full support to Georgia and not let Russia change [Georgian President Mikheil] Saakashvili's presidency with a pro-Russian government in Georgia," says Vafa Quluzade, an Azerbaijani political analyst and former presidential adviser who blames the fighting on an effort by Moscow to change the government in Tbilisi.

Observers in both Armenia and Azerbaijan say the conflict over South Ossetia could affect the region's other "frozen conflicts," such as in the Nagorno Karabakh breakaway region in Azerbaijan. The concern is that the fighting in Georgia could provoke others to seek military solutions to those disputes.

Public opinion on the conflict in Georgia appears to be divided in other former Soviet countries, such as the Central Asian republics, where media coverage dominated by state-run outlets has been sparse.

A group calling itself the "Tajik Labor Migrants" movement in Russia issued a statement supporting Moscow, saying many Tajiks living in Russia are ready "to go and fight alongside Russian troops" in South Ossetia "to defend the people of Ossetia."

But in Kyrgyzstan, political analyst Askar Mambetaliev regards as dangerous the Russian assertion that it sought to protect its citizens in South Ossetia. He says that if Russia used such a pretext to invade one country, it could do it again elsewhere, leading its government to adopt what he calls a "balancing" posture.

"What happens if Russians came to our territory with tanks tomorrow, saying that they have their citizens here?" Mambetaliev says. "If we just allow Russia to do this -- if we don't adopt our own stance -- then we will lose face in the eyes of the world. They would say, 'Don't ask [the Kyrgyz] their opinion, their stance is known: they would never say a critical word.'"

RFE/RL's Armenian, Azeri, Kyrgyz, and Tajik services contributed to this report
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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