Outside View: Russia's Caucasus Gambit


Nov 22, 2004

This commentary originally appeared in United Press International on November 22, 2004.

As the Bush administration formulates its policy for its second term, it needs to pay more attention to the South Caucasus and Black Sea region. Until recently, this area has been a policy backwater. However, three developments have thrust the Southern Caucasus more squarely onto the policy agenda.

The first is the “Rose Revolution” in Georgia. The peaceful ouster of Eduard Shevardnadze in November 2003 and the election of President Mikheil Saakashvili have given reform in Georgia new momentum and sent shock waves throughout much of the former Soviet space. Like Yugoslavia in the 1950s and 1960s and Poland in the 1980s, Georgia provides an alternative model of political development that could act as a catalyst for further democratization throughout the post-Soviet space.

The second development is the eastward enlargement of the European Union and NATO. As a result of the enlargement process, the Southern Caucasus and Black Sea region are no longer remote areas cut off from Europe. They are now Europe's “new neighbors.” Events there have the potential to spill over into Europe in a way that was not the case before the recent rounds of enlargement. Thus the U.S. and Europe can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to the security problems there.

The third development is Russia's more assertive policy toward the Southern Caucasus. The Rose Revolution in Georgia, together with the more active U.S. engagement in the region since 9/11, have sparked fears among the Russian elite that Russia is losing influence in a region that it has historically seen as part of its sphere of influence. These concerns are not limited to ardent Russian nationalists. Even some democrats have called for the creation of a “liberal Russian empire.”

Georgia has emerged as the centerpiece of Russia's effort to strengthen its influence in the Southern Caucasus. Moscow continues to drag its feet regarding the closure of its two remaining bases in Georgia despite its agreement to close the bases at the November 1999 OSCE summit in Istanbul. Russia has also pressed the Georgian government to sign a bilateral agreement that it will not accept bases of a third country (i.e. United States) on its soil. However, the Georgian government has refused to sign such an agreement because it would be an unacceptable restriction of its sovereignty.

Finally, Moscow has sought to exploit secession movements in the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia. Russia currently maintains special economic and political links to these areas and has even gone so far as to grant Russian citizenship to many residents of these regions, thus providing a pretext for intervention under the guise of protecting Russian citizens. Many Georgians fear that Russia's policy is aimed at the creeping annexation of both regions.

Russia's policy toward the contested “presidential” election in Abkhazia on Oct. 3 underscores Moscow's determination to maintain its influence over the breakaway republic. The election pitted Sergei Bagapsh, a local entrepreneur, against Raul Khajimba, a former prime minister backed by Moscow.

Moscow did its utmost to ensure Khajimba's election. In August, President Putin held a high-profile meeting with Khajimba at the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi. Photos of the meeting appeared in Khajemba's campaign posters and other materials.

To Moscow's chagrin, however, the local election committee declared Bagapsh the winner. On Oct. 28, the Abkhaz “supreme court” upheld the election committee's decision, but then reversed itself and called for new elections after hundreds of Khajimba's supporters stormed the court building. Bagapsh has refused to recognize the supreme court's decision, plunging Abkhazia into turmoil and political uncertainty.

In recent months, Washington has been preoccupied with other issues, especially Iraq and the presidential elections. But with the elections now over, the United States can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to Russia's increasing assertiveness in the South Caucasus.

First, the United States should make clear that any interference in the internal affairs of Georgia — including Abkhazia and South Ossetia — will have serious consequences for bilateral relations. The European Union should do the same.

Second, the U.S. and the EU should press Russia to allow OSCE monitors to be stationed on the Georgian side of the Rokki tunnel connecting South Ossetia with Russia. This would help to prevent the infiltration of guns and criminals across the border from Russia and reduce the prospects for further violence.

Third, the U.S. and Europe should insist that Russia carry out its closure of its remaining bases in Georgia, as agreed at the OSCE summit in Istanbul in November 1999. The bases serve no real military purpose today, a fact that Russian officials privately admit. Their main purpose is to provide a means for exerting political pressure on Georgia.

Finally, working closely with its European allies, the U.S. needs to develop a long-term strategy toward the South Caucasus and Black Sea region designed to link the region more closely to Euro-Atlantic institutions and resolve the frozen conflicts in the region. This strategy has to include an effort to engage Russia. Ultimately, Russia needs to feel that it has more to gain by cooperating to solve the region's conflicts than by blocking their resolution or pursuing a divide and rule strategy.

© United Press International

F. Stephen Larrabee served on the National Security Council in the Carter administration and currently holds the corporate chair for European security at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.

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