Russia’s President Vladimir Putin initiated a meeting on January 20 between himself and Presidents Eduard Shevardnadze of Georgia, Haidar Aliev of Azerbaijan and Robert Kocharian of Armenia on the sidelines of the CIS summit. It was a rerun of the meeting held by the same presidents during the January summit of the CIS at Putin’s insistence. This time around, the Russian president obtained the consent of his three counterparts to hold such meetings twice every year, as a forum which Moscow dubs “the Caucasus Four.”
Russia expects to call the tune as first fiddle in this quartet. It hopes to counterpose the “Caucasus Four” to wider forums, in which Western countries and Turkey would play their role in shaping the future of the South Caucasus. Shevardnadze and Aliev advocate–as does Turkey–a South Caucasus Stability Pact with the participation of: Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia as regional countries; Russia, Turkey, and possibly Iran as countries contiguous to the region; and the United States and the European Union as full-fledged participants by virtue of their interests in the South Caucasus-Caspian region. Dubbed “3+3+2” when launched earlier this year, the formula is being resisted by Moscow and Tehran only. Armenia initially welcomed that format as a means to avoid one-sided dependence on Russia, but has recently retreated into ambiguity (see the Fortnight in Review, 21; the Monitor, January 18, 27, March 15, April 3-4, 14, June 1).
Putin’s chosen motto for the “Caucasus Four” says that “the Caucasus countries must alone shape the region’s fate.” That slogan expresses the attempt to minimize the West’s role and to place the South Caucasus countries face-to-face with an overbearing Russia. In order to preempt or upstage the 3+3+2 initiatives, Moscow proposes to institutionalize the Caucasus Four. It even seems to consider endowing the latter at least symbolically with some decisionmaking functions, albeit on nonessential issues and under Russian control.
The holding of biannual meetings would constitute a first step toward institutionalization. But Aliev, Shevardnadze and even Kocharian took significant precautions in accepting Putin’s proposal. They reserved full latitude to resolve any problems on a bilateral basis; they agreed that the chairmanship of meetings–and thus the primary role in shaping the agenda–would rotate among the four countries; and they tied any such meetings firmly to CIS summits, in effect reducing the Caucasus Four to a sideshow and making it difficult for Moscow to call special or “crisis” meetings of the four presidents.
Post-meeting remarks by Russia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Igor Ivanov indicated that Putin had failed to push through a proposal which would have created a high-level Russian governmental commission–or commissions–to mediate a settlement of the Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia conflicts. Moscow will almost certainly persist with this initiative in the framework of the Caucasus Four as well as bilaterally with Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia. The proposed commission or commissions would undercut the mediatory efforts of international organizations and of Western countries. Moscow would regain the ability to manipulate negotiating processes, freeze existing deadlocks or, alternatively, shape outcomes in accordance with its own interests. That in turn is a recipe for maximizing Russian leverage over the South Caucasus countries and their overall policies. The preceding week in Chisinau, Putin had talked Moldova’s President Petru Lucinschi into accepting a Russian special commission of that kind under Yevgeny Primakov to mediate the conflict between the Moldovan government and Russia’s client authorities in Transdniester (Itar-Tass, RIA, June 20-22; see the Monitor, June 20; Fortnight in Review, June 23).
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