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For the Caucasus, though--already one of the most fractured and fractious regions in the world--the emerging picture looks disturbing. While military and intelligence cooperation may grab the headlines, part of the growing cooperation between the United States and Russia may also relate to oil in the Caucasus. Given the threat of Islamic terrorism to key oil producers in the Gulf, the attractiveness to the United States of Russian, Caspian, and Central Asian oil is growing. That gives considerable leverage to all post-Soviet oil producers--in the Caucasus, that means Azerbaijan--and makes it increasingly important for them to complete and secure their pipelines, which, in the Caucasus, run (or are due to run) through Azerbaijan, Georgia, Dagestan, and (war permitting) Chechnya. But, above all, the desire for secure supplies of oil makes Russia even more of a lynchpin and reinforces its influence over the region.
Three recent developments in the region should be reviewed in a new light given the rapprochement between the United States and Russia. First, for Chechnya, the implications of the U.S.-led war on terror became apparent very soon after 11 September. Putin has always conflated separatism with terrorism, and the West has in public appeared more willing to accept this dangerous inflation of that slippery word. Reports suggest that in private the West's position may be more understanding still. The increasingly mouths-shut policy of the West toward human-rights abuses in Chechnya removes an irritant for Russia. The possibility of cooperation over terrorism should weaken Chechen resistance. If Russia can exert pressure on Georgia, which borders Chechnya, it could also begin to attack the Chechens' southern flank. Putin entered Chechnya in 1999 with an entry strategy, but no apparent exit strategy. He may be finding it now.
Next, what precisely is happening in Georgia's breakaway republic, Abkhazia, is perhaps too unclear for conclusions at this point. However, events are developing in a way that increases Russia's influence in and over Georgia, thereby advancing both its interests in Chechnya and oil--and the rapprochement with the United States suggests that it can, if it chooses to, push its interests considerably further with little demur from the Bush administration.
Finally, on 16 October, Powell urged the Senate foreign relations committee to lift Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act, which bans U.S. aid to Azerbaijan until it lifts its blockade of Armenia. The stated reason is to thank Baku for providing intelligence and making airspace available for the anti-terrorism campaign. If oil is a central motivating feature of the United States' new foreign policy, oil could also be added to the list of reasons. Alarm bells are ringing in Yerevan.
Alarm bells--for all three developments--are justified. Lifting Section 907, whatever the rights and wrongs of its imposition, threatens the very fragile peace that has been sustained since the 1994 cease-fire in Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-controlled exclave, and Nakhichevan, an Azeri exclave surrounded by Armenia. No one is truly happy with the status quo, but inching peacefully toward a lasting peace under the aegis of international agencies such as the OSCE is preferable to a return to imbalance, uncertainty over great-power motives, and the possibility of conflict.
In Armenia and Azerbaijan--and Georgia and Chechnya as well--some stark choices should be clarified before this game plays itself out. Is it preferable to have spheres of influence or to proceed very slowly according to international law?
Spheres of influence provide short-term answers and meet the priorities in great powers' hierarchy of motives. International mediation, based on international law, seeks to find long-term settlements based on principles such as democracy, human rights, and refugee rights. Of the two, international law better answers the long-term needs of newly independent, small, and weak states and nations. This, therefore, seems the better choice for those interested in lasting peace in the Caucasus. Those who prefer spheres of influence in the region should consider the possible effects of anger and of weak governments--more conflicts, more refugees, more human-rights abuses, and the retarded development of democracy and the rule of law. In the Caucasus, a complex mosaic of nations, religions and cultures, poverty, and the presence of oil makes the situation all the more combustible.
So the Cold War or post-Cold War period may be coming to an end, but some decision-making habits of policy-makers, all of whose formative years were during the Cold War, may die harder. To them, with power and one defining goal--the Cold War then, terrorism now--it may seem suddenly easy to redraw the world. The hard and time-consuming part is drawing it well.
The above story is reposted with permission from Transitions Online (TOL). TOL (http://www.tol.cz) is an Internet magazine covering Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the former Soviet Union. If you aren't already a member, you can fill out the registration form at <http://www.tol.cz/trialsubscr.html> to receive a free two-month trial membership. If you're a citizen of a post-communist country, FREE annual memberships are available at <http://www.tol.cz/trialsubscr2.html>.