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      In search of a realistic policy in the Caucasus

In search of a realistic policy in the Caucasus   10/03/2004


Editorial

In search of a realistic policy in the Caucasus

During the Soviet era popular songs were composed – in tune with the state policy – to glorify the "brotherhood" of the three nations in the Caucasus – Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. With the fall of the Soviet empire, the notes of those songs turned sour as these nations rose against each other, goaded by the historical injustices perpetrated against some of them. At this point each of those Caucasian republics are in pursuit of – naturally – their own national interests, which in part or in whole counter their neighbors' national interests.

The recent months witnessed Georgia as the main actor on the Caucasian scene, highlighted especially by the visit of two prominent Cabinet Members of the Bush administration – namely Secretaries Rumsfeld and Powell. Georgia's young and dynamic leader Saakashvilli assumed power, roses in his hand. Thus far the Georgian people have not enjoyed the scent of those roses, but the thorns are already pricking their lives.

Upon assuming the President's office Mr. Saakashvilli pledged to resolve two main problems plaguing Georgia – the territorial integrity of the country and improvement of the sagging economy, which certainly involved the fight against corruption.

But the young and inexperienced leader already committed two major blunders, right on the day of his inauguration ceremony, by declaring that he intends to steer his country towards the West, and by asking Russia to move its military bases out of the Georgian territory. He indeed created an ironic situation by extending an olive branch to Moscow on one hand, and on the other hand chasing Moscow out of the Georgian territory.

Mr. Saakashvilli knows better than any other person that in order to restore Georgia's territorial integrity, he at least needs Moscow's good will, if not political support. Because Georgia's breakaway regions – South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and to a degree Ajaria – depend heavily on Russia's political, economic and military backing.

Short of a military confrontation, those regions will not willingly submit to Tbilisi's rule. Even if the young President has Washington's pledge for an unlimited supply of arms – which is very doubtful – he cannot wage such a war, which may head Georgia into a bloodbath without delivering the intended results.

Thus far Saakashvilli's attempts to win over Moscow have failed because he has yet to learn that in diplomacy there is the rudimentary logic of give and take. Saakashvilli is asking everything from Moscow, in return offering nothing.

It is more interesting to dwell on Saakashvilli's overtures to his immediate neighbors, namely Armenia and Azerbaijan. He had promised to visit Armenia first, and then Azerbaijan. But blunt and untimely declaration by the ARF changed his mind, and he first visited Baku. Although Georgia's relations with Azerbaijan are not very smooth, ARF's immature and jingoistic declaration turned off the new leadership in Tbilisi, thereby injecting a sour note into its relations with Yerevan. Indeed, Prime Minister

Jvania did not mince words, and he stated in an interview: "divisive pronouncements in Armenia are not ignored in Georgia". The ARF is a partner in the ruling coalition in Armenia and in that position it needs to act in a more circumspect manner. The imprudent and untimely announcement asking for autonomy for the Javakhk Armenians in Georgia was reminiscent of ARF's adventurous policies during the first republic. Those adventurous policies led to the demise of the first republic of Armenia.

It is entirely a different ballgame when the press in Armenia raises the issue, because there are legitimate grievances to be addressed in the Armenian populated regions in Georgia. Even the Javakhk Armenians sometimes raise their voices against discriminatory policies enforced by the successive Tbilisi administrations over the Armenian minority in Georgia.

Under the current political situation the Javakhk Armenians themselves have to take up the challenge, with moral, cultural and economic help from Armenia. Had Armenia possessed a mightier military force, things could have taken a different shape.

Fortunately, there are more sober heads in the administration who have learned the lessons of history and can act in a more statesmanlike way. When Armenia has not yet resolved the issue of Karabagh, it would be foolhardy to provoke Georgia to open a second front.

A similar amateurish scene was enacted recently in Strasbourg when a team of novice parliamentarians went to question the legitimacy of the present administration at a session of the European Parliament. Washing Armenia's "dirty laundry" in Europe eroded Armenia's position vis--vis the European Union, where an adverse policy shapes out, favoring Azerbaijan over the Karabagh issue. Normally cool-headed Vartan Oskanian blew his top after witnessing the charade.

Returning to Saakashvilli's visit to Baku, his warm praises of Aliev were not reciprocated. Even Azerbaijan's President did not rush to the airport – contrary to protocol – to greet his Georgian counterpart.

It was not lost on Saakashvilli that as he was staging his "rose revolution", Azerbaijan's ambassador in Tbilisi was actively supporting Shevardnadze.

The controlled media in Azerbaijan took some cheap shots at Saakashvilli, raising the issue of discriminatory policy applied against 500,000 Azerbaijanis living in Georgia.

It becomes very obvious that the root cause of Georgia's political problem is fanatical nationalism. It is similar to ARF fanaticism, which goes beyond their actual power.

It seems that both Azerbaijan and Georgia have pinned their hopes on the West, and particularly on the U.S. They believe that policy is panacea. In fact, great powers tend only their own interests, using their minor partners. For example, throughout the Cold War era both Greece and Turkey were partners in NATO, yet NATO leader Washington did not resolve the Cyprus crisis for the last thirty years, because there was no intention to solve the issue. Had Washington demonstrated the political will, a nod to Ankara would have sufficed to withdraw Turkish occupation forces from Cyprus. A case in point is Washington's insistence to strike an alliance between Ankara and Tel Aviv. Turkey entered that alliance with full realization that she would be isolated in the Moslem world.

In the same manner Turkey tried to forestall Kurdish autonomy and gain a foothold in the Turkoman region in Iraq. To Turkey's resentment, the U.S. blocked those ambitions.

As Baku and Tbilisi veer towards the U.S., they should not forget the Cyprus precedent.

Georgia's new President visited Armenia on March 12 and 13. No breakthrough was worked out.

Saakashvilli's lavish praise of President Kocharian dampened the hopes of the opposition. He probably asked for Armenia's support, or at least neutrality, in his confrontation with Ajaria's leader Aslan Abashidze, because upon his return from Yerevan he raised the ante and confronted Abashidze.

It looks like that confrontation was staged at the behest of the U.S. administration. When Baku-Ceylon pipeline was on the drawing board, Washington gave its blessing to bypass Armenia and run it through Georgia, despite the added cost. But the Tbilisi government does not have full control over Georgia's territory. Therefore, this was a test to bring Ajaria into the fold. This move also masks the beginning of the end of Russian military presence on Georgian soil. Should Saakashvilli gain control over Ajaria, that will send a message to the other two breakaway regions.

Moscow's reaction to this move will determine the outcome of this standoff.

There is a strong Armenian community of 10,000 in Ajaria and they enjoy very favorable relations with Abashidze's administration. Russian military presence is an added protection for the Armenian community there.

The Russian military base guarantees the security of the Armenian population in Javakhk as well, while providing much-needed jobs to that population. Removal of the Russian military base is a direct threat to them.

Saakashvilli has made the centerpiece of his foreign policy the ouster of the Russians from Georgia. On the other hand, he has promised Turkish Medzkhet minority to resettle in Armenian regions. These initiatives are not conducive to a comfortable visit in Yerevan.

However, the two countries have areas of mutual dependency, which will force them to cooperate, even if their foreign policies digress; Georgia is Armenia's economic lifeline to Europe. All transit trade moves through Georgian territory. On the other hand, energy-starved Georgia depends on Armenia's electricity. Therefore, they are bound by necessity.

Peace and stability can be achieved in the region only through the cooperation of these republics, by painful compromises. Depending on superpowers – the U.S. or Russia – will only perpetuate the existing crises and create new ones, because the superpowers can maintain that dependency by pitting these nations against each other.

Today Azerbaijan is courting the U.S., Georgia is in the process of antagonizing Russia, and Armenia is compelled to side with Russia for security.

But these are ingredients to threaten stability and peace in the region. Only bold, independent and visionary policies can save the Caucasus from the impasse.

March 10, 2004


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