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EU, U.S. Conduct Two-Pronged Diplomacy In Caucasus

EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana meets with EU monitoring mission personnel in Tbilisi.
BRUSSELS (RFE/RL) -- The two-pronged diplomatic strategy by the EU and the United States is very evident in the South Caucasus this week and shows what the division of labor between Brussels and Washington will be.

The EU has its sights set on the short term. Trying to exploit whatever influence it has with Moscow, Brussels' aim is to get the Russian troops to pull back from as much of Georgian territory as possible.

The United States, on the other hand, is focusing on the longer-term objective of shoring up the resolve of the governments in the region to stand up to Moscow. It believes Azerbaijan is key to this effort.

The EU on October 1 formally launched its 340-strong monitoring mission in Georgia. Armored cars carrying unarmed EU observers set out from their bases with the aim of entering the so-called buffer zone set up by Russian troops outside the administrative borders of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

In Tbilisi for the inauguration of the monitoring mission, EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana on September 30 reiterated the bloc's view that Russia has committed itself to withdrawing its troops from the "buffer zone" within 10 days of the observers' deployment.

"I hope very much that by the end of [October 10] that Russian forces will be withdrawn," Solana said. "That is the aim that we have, and that is, at least for the first part, the obligation that we have from the agreement. And we'd like very much to see that done."

Complications From Both Sides

Unfortunately for the EU, its observer mission had trouble gaining access to the areas in Georgian proper that are still controlled by Russian soldiers.

Moscow is obliged to cease all military activity outside Abkhazia and South Ossetia under the terms of an agreement it signed with the EU on September 8. That agreement modifies an earlier accord, reached on August 12, which allowed Russia to carry out "additional security measures" in Georgia outside Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The August 12 agreement also stipulates that an international conference will be convened in Geneva on October 15 to discuss the "stability" and "security" of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Preparations for the conference have been fraught with difficulty. Russia insists on the full presence of the Abkhaz and South Ossetian authorities -- both of which it has recognized as independent countries. Georgia, on the other hand, vehemently rejects any arrangements that could be seen as conferring independent status on either region.

As a result, the first talks on October 15 will be low-key, featuring junior ministers from Georgia and Russia as well as mediators from the EU. They will be preceded on October 14 -- also in Geneva -- by a summit of top officials from the United Nations, OSCE, EU, and the United States.

President Mikheil Saakashvili indicated last month that Tbilisi is prepared to talk to the separatists about refugees, but not the status of the regions.

"The next stage is, and a parallel stage is returning [internally displaced persons] in secure and dignified conditions, getting internationalization of the process -- but not of the status, I have to say the process -- and getting Russians out of Georgia's territory, deoccupation of Georgia, because these are, right now, territories occupied by a foreign military power against the will of the government of a sovereign, independent country," Saakashvili said.

To complicate matters further, Georgia has launched criminal proceedings against the Abkhaz and South Ossetian leaderships, accusing them of high treason and banditry.

Regional Confidence-Building

While the United States has remained on the sidelines in Georgia, Deputy Undersecretary of State John Negroponte's visit to Azerbaijan is the second in recent weeks by a senior U.S. official. In early September, Vice President Dick Cheney was reportedly given a cool reception by Baku, but this appears not to have put off Washington.

With considerable gas and oil reserves of its own, Azerbaijan holds the only viable transit route between Central Asia and Europe that bypasses Russia. Without Baku's cooperation, the EU's projected Nabucco pipeline between bringing Caspian hydrocarbons through Turkey to Austria would be doomed -- and Russia's grip on the EU's energy supplies would tighten.

Azerbaijan and Armenia have adopted a wait-and-see posture in the aftermath of the Russian tour de force in Georgia in early August.

Western diplomats say Azerbaijan's self-confidence, which had been buoyed by the huge windfall profits it was making from oil and gas, has been visibly dented. Along with it were the short-term hopes it may have entertained about retaking Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia by force.

Armenia, forced into an uneasy alliance with Russia because of its standoff with Azerbaijan, is now worried it may itself become a target for Moscow. Yerevan has in recent weeks taken steps to break out of the regional isolation it finds itself in. On September 6, Turkish President Abdullah Gul paid a landmark visit to Yerevan. On September 30, Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian arrived in Tbilisi for his first visit to Georgia since the war.

Diplomats in the region say Yerevan is pressing Turkey to open up the mutual border, which has been closed since 1993. Western officials say there are rumors that in order to secure a breakthrough in relations with Turkey, Armenia may consider returning to Azerbaijan five of the seven Azerbaijani provinces it currently occupies around Nagorno-Karabakh.

Currently, Georgia provides the only overland access route between Armenia and the outside world, and maintaining good relations with Tbilisi remains a must for Yerevan.

The delicate interdependence between the three countries will be brought into sharp relief this winter. Like last winter, Georgia will need Azerbaijani gas to survive. Aside from Iran, Armenia can only turn to Georgia in its quest for gas as it lacks a border with Russia and remains on nontrading terms with both Azerbaijan and Turkey.

Meanwhile, Russia is actively seeking to reestablish control over the region. Moscow is said to be intent on frustrating any rapprochement between Yerevan and Ankara, and has blocked Armenian attempts to restore a key railway link to Turkey that is owned by a Russian company.

Russia is also putting pressure on Baku. Russia has offered to buy all of Azerbaijan's gas and oil exports at world prices. There are also reports that Russian passports are being handed out in Azerbaijan's restive north, bordering Daghestan, which could serve as a warning for Baku and certainly evokes uneasy parallels with the Russian action in the Georgia's breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in August.