asiaNet Eurasia Insight
From a broad perspective, it is clear that the U.S. campaign against terrorism has altered the traditional alignment of U.S. policy in the former Soviet Union in general, and in the Transcaucasus as well. This altered alignment is driven by the new U.S. cooperative relationship with Russia and the utilization of several key Central Asian states in the first stage of the campaign. This global campaign involves a coalition of several allied nations and a second tier of forty other nations, including all three states of the Transcaucasus, pledging the use of their airspace for U.S. forces involved in the military aspect of the campaign. But the forging of a new partnership with Russia poses the most pressing challenges to Georgia.
Georgian relations with Russia have been marked by serious disputes prior to this new U.S. campaign and the future suggests only more problems for Georgia. Already seriously vulnerable to the recent reassertion of Russian geopolitical policies in the Transcaucasus, the fragile Georgian state now faces a daunting set of obstacles in defending its own national interests in the face of an emboldened Russia. It seems logical to assume that the new Russian role as U.S. partner in the anti-terrorism campaign will also mean that Washington will allow Moscow to adopt an even tougher approach to the Chechen conflict. In fact, it seems likely that Moscow's attempt to link the Chechen rebels to the Bin Laden organization as manifestations of international terrorism threatening Russian interests will succeed in encouraging Western acquiescence or even support for Russia's drive to reestablish its influence and control in the Caucasus.
A more visible result will most likely be a postponement, or even a cancellation, of the withdrawal of Russian troops from their military bases in Georgia. Russia is bound to the terms of an agreement reached in the November 1999 Istanbul summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) which called for the Russian withdrawal from Georgia according to a detailed timetable. Even before the recent developments, however, the Russian withdrawal was behind schedule and subject to renewed protests and renegotiations by Russian officials. But in the wake of the new situation, the continued Russian pullout from its Georgian bases seems unlikely. It should also halt any discussion of a possible Russian retreat from its base in the Armenian-populated southern Georgian region of Javakhk.
A second probable outcome is an increase in the Russian military presence in other parts of Georgia. The Russian military presence in Georgia today goes far beyond the simple maintenance of a few military bases. Under a peacekeeping mandate of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Russian troops constitute the bulk of the CIS force deployed along the Georgian border with Abkhazia. Empowered to police the conflict area separating the Georgian and Abkhazian forces, this strategic Russian military presence will only be strengthened and may even be extended.
Countering Russia with Turkey
Overall, this combination of military influence within the Georgian borders provides Moscow with significant leverage over the course of its relations with Tbilisi. For the past few years, the Georgian government has sought to counterbalance this Russian leverage by developing closer military ties with Turkey. As the neighboring country with the largest land border with Georgia, Turkey has long sought to enhance Georgian dependence and recognizes the strategic value of utilizing Georgia in its long-term geostrategic policy to isolate Armenia and establish linkage with Azerbaijan. By specifically wielding Turkish military assistance, weapons modernization and training, the reforming Georgian military has been rushing to fortify its position against the Russian presence.
In recent months, however, the magnitude of the Turkish economic and political crisis has greatly reduced this strategy. With the loss of Turkey as a counter balance to Russia, the Georgians have been rushing to find an alternative patron. Another example of this security dilemma was reflected in the Georgian rush to sign an agreement with Azerbaijan for the transport of Azerbaijani natural gas through Georgia and on to Turkey. The rush to conclude this key transport agreement was highlighted last month when the Georgian government was pressured by the World Bank to postpone the signing. The World Bank saw the terms of the Georgian-Azerbaijani transport agreement as grossly unfavorable to Georgia and pressured the government to raise greater demands for tariff payments. Although signed late last month with a slight increase in the transit fees Azerbaijan will pay Georgia, the low rate reflects the Georgian need to conclude the agreement as soon as possible.
Washington Looks Beyond Georgia
Although naturally distracted by the military campaign that was launched only two days later, the U.S. President and senior officials did attempt to reassure a concerned Georgian President. During the White House meeting, the U.S. commitment to supporting the stability and security of the Georgian state was reiterated. Throughout the past decade, as Georgian stability was greatly weakened, Washington was its main pillar of support. The U.S. has provided Georgia with more than $778 million in aid for the fiscal years between 1992 and 2000, a level roughly five times that of U.S. aid to Azerbaijan for the same period. Even more reflective of the degree of U.S. support, its aid to Georgia through September 1999 on a per capita basis, stood at $53 while aid to Russia was only $17 per person. This strong support for Georgia, however, is now being reassessed and involves a redirection of funding away from the Caucasus.
This reassessment of priorities is demonstrated by the proposal unveiled last week by the chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, calling for a "fund for the reconstruction and recovery of Central and Southwest Asia" and pledging an immediate U.S. $1 billion contribution. This proposal also follows the president's pledge of $320 million in humanitarian aid for the Afghani refugees. Such a shift in focus to Central Asia, a region also offering greater cooperation between Russia, China and the United States, would also return Russia as a major player in the region. Secondary players such as Turkey and even Israel will also seek to forge new roles in energy-rich Central Asia.
It seems that these new regional realities reveal that Georgia, as well as its Armenian and Azerbaijani neighbors, now face a series of significant challenges. It also shows that these new geopolitical realities suggest that there are no winners in the region, only a differing level of losses among these vulnerable states. One can only hope that the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan will recognize the new reality that the Georgian president recognized during his recent visit to Washington and adapt appropriately. But such a hope hinges on the durability of these states and depends on the imperative to forge security and stability over conflict and confrontation.
Richard Giragosian was a professional
staff member with the Joint Economic Committee, U.S. Congress
specializing in international relations and economics in the
former Soviet Union and China. He is the author of the monthly
newsletter, "TransCaucasus: A Chronology."