Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 6 Issue: 2

Slowly and cautiously, the West is stepping in to forestall a possible extension of Russian military operations from Chechnya into the South Caucasus. Last month, the OSCE sent a token monitoring team to the Georgian side of the Georgian-Russian border, where Moscow has claimed without evidence to have discovered Chechen supply lines and sanctuaries. On that pretext Moscow has sought to introduce Russian troops into that part of Georgia. The OSCE’s monitoring operation, which indirectly discourages a possible Russian military intrusion, is due gradually to increase in the months ahead. As an all-encompassing safeguard, Turkish President Suleyman Demirel is now proposing a South Caucasus Stability Pact. His initiative is discreetly being supported by Western governments.

Demirel and Shevardnadze issued the proposal in broad outline during Demirel’s January 14-15 visit to Tbilisi. The pact would include Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia as regional countries; Russia, Turkey and probably also Iran as powers contiguous to the region; the United States and the EU as parties with major interests in the region; and international organizations such as the OSCE in a guarantor’s role. The International Monetary Fund and World Bank would be asked to underwrite postconflict reconstruction aid to the region, once the political and security framework is in place.

The North Caucasus, including Chechnya, would remain outside the political scope of the pact, so as to underscore both Russia’s title to sovereignty there and the line of demarcation under international law. As Demirel pointedly reminded Moscow from Tbilisi, “Russia has no grounds to involve Georgia or Azerbaijan in the processes currently underway in Chechnya, inasmuch as Georgia or Azerbaijan are independent countries while Chechnya is a part of Russia.” That distinction is in fact sometimes less than clear to Russian officials. According to Turkish officials, a pact which includes both Russia and the West is implicitly asking Russia to view the South Caucasus no longer as a Russian backyard, but as an area of international cooperation. It was owing to this implication that Shevardnadze termed the initiative “historic.”

The two presidents underscored the need for Western political attention and guarantees to the region, on a level to match the West’s economic interests in this corridor between Europe and Asia. As Shevardnadze commented, with a glance at Moscow, the projects underway in the Caspian-South Caucasus area “are of pan-European and worldwide significance, which means that the international community can not remain indifferent to this region.” Demirel more explicitly remarked that “the security of the South Caucasus forms part of Europe’s security” and corresponds at the same time to the interests of the Central Asian countries.

In Ankara, Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit emphatically endorsed Demirel’s proposals. Ecevit’s gesture amounts to a demonstration of political consensus on this issue within Turkey’s often fractious government. The Demirel initiative crowns Turkey’s steadily growing role as economic and security partner to Georgia and Azerbaijan. In 1999, Turkey was second only to Russia in Georgia’s foreign trade, but Turkey may actually have ranked first if the two countries’ extensive unregistered trade is taken into account. Turkey, moreover, provides military assistance to Georgia’s border and land troops and fledgling navy. Demirel’s visit to Tbilisi produced an agreement on Turkish training of Georgian air force personnel.