Russia and the South Caucasus

June 2, 2004

Russia and the South Caucasus

Georgian officials were tight-lipped on May 17 when asked by journalists to comment on the visit that day to Tbilisi by Russian Security Council Chairman Igor Ivanov.

Georgian officials were tight-lipped on May 17 when asked by journalists to comment on the visit that day to Tbilisi by Russian Security Council Chairman Igor Ivanov. But the scant information divulged suggests that Ivanov may have been seeking Georgia's approval of a broad scheme that would restore Georgian central government's control over the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia while simultaneously preserving a degree of Russian influence in  the South Caucasus as a whole by delaying indefinitely a solution to the Karabakh conflict.

Moscow's plan reportedly envisages Georgia as a confederation in which the two breakaway unrecognized republics would presumably retain the degree of autonomy they enjoy at present. Security measures - possibly the UN police force that has been under discussion since last year - would be put in place to enable the Georgian displaced persons who fled Abkhazia during the 1992-1993 war to return to their abandoned homes. Their return would transform the demographic situation in Abkhazia, making Georgians the largest single ethnic group. But Russia would retain a certain leverage over Abkhazia insofar as most of the Abkhaz population have acquired Russian citizenship in recent years. In addition, Russian businessmen have acquired substantial economic assets in Abkhazia. The Abkhaz leadership would be persuaded to drop their insistence on full independence from Georgia in return for the region being designated a free economic zone.

A formal political solution to the Abkhaz conflict would make possible the resumption of rail traffic from Russia via the Black Sea coast to Georgia and thence to Armenia, giving a much needed boost to the Armenian economy. And it would also spare the new Georgian leadership, headed by President Mikheil Saakashvili, of the risks that would accompany either an attempt to stage a rerun in Abkhazia of the popular uprising earlier this month that toppled authoritarian Adjar leader Aslan Abashidze or a military operation to win back Abkhazia that might end in an ignominious defeat.

But even more important geopolitically, a rail link from Yerevan via Tbilisi to Russia would obviate the need to restore rail communications between Azerbaijan and Armenia - which is the sole incentive Azerbaijan is currently prepared to offer to secure a solution on its own terms to the Karabakh conflict.

In return for the resumption of rail traffic, Baku is demanding the withdrawal of Armenian forces from six Azerbaijani districts adjacent to the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic and also from the strategically located town of Shusha. During the early 1990s, Azerbaijani artillery in Shusha kept up relentless artillery bombardment of the Karabakh capital, Stepanakert. Armenian President Robert Kocharian, who as commander in the 1990s of the Karabakh armed forces participated in the operation to wrest Shusha back from the Azerbaijanis 10 years ago this month, recently designated that operation one of the proudest days of his life. On the eve of his meeting last week in Strasbourg with his Azerbaijani counterpart Elmar Mammadyarov, Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian dismissed Baku's proposal of a resumption of rail traffic in return for an Armenian withdrawal as "absurd." With that proposal dead in the water, and its economy benefiting from new transport links via Georgia (including the ferry linking Batumi with Constanta on the opposite shore of the Black Sea) the Armenian leadership could sit back and wait for either the OSCE Minsk Group or the EU to persuade Baku to drop its insistence on a settlement plan that subordinates Karabakh to the central government. But at present, Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan's President, is manifestly not secure enough to agree to such a major concession.

Granted, the restoration of rail traffic between Russia and Armenia via Abkhazia would give rise to bad blood between Tbilisi and Baku. But Azerbaijan cannot afford to alienate its Western neighbor, given that the main export pipelines for Azerbaijan's Caspian hydrocarbons run across Georgian territory. On the other hand, there are some half million disgruntled Azerbaijanis living in Georgia whom Baku could seek to mobilize if it wished to retaliate by creating problems for Tbilisi.

The question arises: what quid pro quo is Moscow likely to exact from Tbilisi in return for restoring Georgia's territorial integrity? To which one possible answer is: the inclusion in the bilateral framework treaty currently under discussion of a clause precluding the location of any foreign military bases on Georgian soil.

Also, the festering conflict in Chechnya furnishes Moscow with a perennial leverage over Tbilisi: the "hawks " within the Russian military continue to accuse the Georgian leadership of turning a blind eye to the presence of "Islamic terrorists" ensconced in Georgia's Pankisi gorge.  However, one thing is clear - geopolitical movement in the Caucasus is underway.


Elizabeth Fuller is Editor-in-Chief of RFE/RL Newsline and covers developments in the South Caucasus, the North Caucasus and Central Asia for RFE/RL Newsline and writes the weekly "RFE/RL Caucasus Report."