Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 65

In terms of international security, the South Caucasus is now seeing the United States emerging as a direct regional actor. This is welcomed by Georgia and Azerbaijan. Western Europe is for the most part conspicuous by its absence, its security interests in the region resting primarily on American and Turkish shoulders. Russia’s activity is primarily rearguard, designed to recoup political and economic influence there.

Moscow’s attempts rely mainly on military presence and “regional security mechanisms,” which the Kremlin seeks to institutionalize within a “Caucasus Four” format of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia under Russia’s leadership.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has made the “Caucasus Four” a personal project. He launched it in January 2000 at the first CIS summit he chaired as president and persisted with it at all subsequent summits, but has made very little headway to date. Georgia and Azerbaijan have cast their economic, political and security lot with the West. They have by the same token compiled a gloomy experience of Russia as “peacekeeper” and arbiter in regional conflicts. Even Armenia, Russia’s sole ally in the region, mistrusts the “Caucasus Four” scheme, because it would require Russia to sacrifice some Armenian interests for the sake of attracting Azerbaijan. Much of this was again in evidence at the latest Caucasus Four meeting.

On March 30 in Sochi, Putin hosted a conference of Security Council secretaries, the first of its kind in a Caucasus Four format. Russia’s Vladimir Rushailo, Armenia’s Serge Sarkisian (who doubles as defense minister), Azerbaijan’s Ramiz Mehdiev (who is also the presidential administration chief) and Georgia’s Tedo Japaridze took part in the marathon meetings, not only in the quadripartite framework but also bilaterally between each country and Russia–a procedure designed to emphasize Russian overall preeminence. The conflicts within Georgia, that between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the planned U.S. Green Beret deployment to Georgia topped the agenda, in accordance with the Russian premise that the South and North Caucasus form a common space in terms of security. That premise, however, never leads Russia to submit the situation in Chechnya or Dagestan for assessment by its would-be partners. The Sochi meeting was no exception in this regard.

Putin dusted off three “major principles” on which to build regional security in a Caucasus Four framework: observance of the states’ independence and sovereignty, respect for their choice of external and internal policies, and peaceful settlement of conflicts. To these he added a fourth: “not allowing military-political competition to develop in the region”–which is apparently a stricture on Georgia’s and Azerbaijan’s growing cooperation with the West on security issues.

In Tbilisi, President Eduard Shevardnadze promptly seized on the second of Putin’s items to defend Georgia’s military cooperation with the United States. Focusing on Putin’s stated position, Shevardnadze dismissed the vituperations of other Kremlin officials as irrelevant. Ever since Putin had, on March 1, termed the Green Beret mission to Georgia “no tragedy” for Russia, some of the president’s closest associates and the Kremlin-controlled mass media have denounced Georgia’s choice, threatened countermeasures and sowed war panic in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In Sochi, Japaridze–who has just been appointed to his current post after eight years as ambassador to the United States–cited his own ambassadorial activities to show that U.S.-Georgia military cooperation is neither new nor surprising. Japaridze rebutted Moscow’s accusations that Georgia would use the U.S. training program for attacking Abkhazia or South Ossetia, or that the Green Berets would themselves operate in the Pankisi Gorge, or that plans are afoot to establish American military bases in Georgia. He was “perplexed at some of the Russian colleagues’ emotional judgments” on U.S.-Georgia relations. Japaridze pointed out that improving Georgia’s ability to guard its borders and operate against terrorists would correspond to Russia’s own security interests.

The Russian president tried at Sochi to draw a line between security cooperation and economic cooperation in the South Caucasus-Caspian region. Putin wants security cooperation confined to the Caucasus Four as the “core mechanism,” while allowing “outside countries” to participate in economic cooperation. Putin and Rushailo argued that “any external interference [in security issues] would harm, rather than promote stabilization,” but that the region “must remain open to “economic and humanitarian cooperation with all interested countries.”

The first part of this concept, allowing token inputs from some non-CIS countries, seems consistent with previous Russian and Iranian proposals to include Iran and Turkey as “neighboring countries” in a South Caucasus security framework, while excluding the United States and the European Union as “nonregional.”

The second part of Putin’s suggestion–Western economic role without a security role–would clearly leave Russia in a position to play hegemon, partner or spoiler as it might choose. Putin offered these ideas informally, rather than as Russian proposals, but they build on formal proposals Moscow had aired in 1999-2001, countering Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze’s and Turkish ex-President Suleyman Demirel’s proposals, which Azerbaijan endorsed. Those envisaged security and stability pacts for the South Caucasus in a 3+3+2 framework (Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Russia, Iran, Turkey, the United States and the European Union), with the United States and the EU as full-fledged participants, and without drawing artificial distinctions between security cooperation and economic cooperation.

In their remarks on settling conflicts in the region, Putin and Rushailo tried to please Georgia and Azerbaijan by emphasizing the territorial integrity of the states and the need for settlements based on international law and generally accepted norms–an oblique reference to inviolability of borders. This is one major reason for Armenia’s misgivings regarding conflict settlement in a Caucasus Four format. In such a format, Azerbaijan’s and Georgia’s views on the subject will, at least on paper, prevail with Russian support.

The meeting’s concluding communique reflects the continuing irrelevance of the Caucasus Four and its lack of appeal to the three South Caucasus countries. It included generalities about combating international terrorism, and a redundant appeal to the countries to “become more active” in the Moscow-based CIS Antiterrorism Center, which is, however, stillborn for lack of staff, funds and mission. The concluding communique even tasks the four Security Councils’ secretaries to organize exchanges of artistic and theatrical delegations and cultural festivals among the peoples of the Caucasus, with a view to improving mutual relations. The next meeting will be held in October in Tbilisi, to focus on economic cooperation–apparently a downgrading of Moscow’s expectations from this forum. Meanwhile, in Baku, President Haidar Aliev and the head of his foreign policy staff, Novruz Mammadov, welcomed the planned deployment of U.S. special troops to Georgia as a “positive, beneficial development,” in the “common interest” of Georgia and Azerbaijan (Turan, March 26, 30; Prime-News, Georgian Television, March 31, April 1; Interfax, RIA, March 30-31, April 1; see the Monitor, April 2).