Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 22

Russia’s Acting President Vladimir Putin threw allied Armenia into disarray at the recent summit of the CIS (see the Monitor, January 26, 28). Putin came down strongly on the side of the principle of territorial integrity of states, as opposed to the principle of national self-determination, for purposes of settling conflicts in the North and South Caucasus. He defined the basis for any conflict resolution as “absolute recognition of the territorial integrity of sovereign states.” Moscow’s position, in the stark form in which it is currently being expressed, reflects Russia’s own difficulties in Chechnya. It also happens to suit Georgia’s interests in Abkhazia.

That position, if adhered to in the negotiations over Karabakh, would clearly work against Armenia and in favor of Azerbaijan. The Armenian side, however, has been prompt to devise its counterargument. It concedes that the territorial integrity principle is applicable to Chechnya, where in any case an “antiterrorist struggle” is being conducted and deserves support. But it insists that the problem of Karabakh is fundamentally different, and that national-self determination is the only viable solution there.

With Yerevan defending what it describes as its “separate position,” a somewhat paradoxical situation has ensued, in which Russia’s sole ally in the region differs with Moscow on a seemingly fundamental issue, while Azerbaijan and Georgia–the countries which seek to limit Russian influence in the region–agree with Moscow.

In practical terms, Russia’s current position will affect the negotiations over Karabakh as long as the dust swirls in Chechnya. Once that dust settles, Moscow will almost certainly revert to its accustomed ambiguity, which has allowed it for years to support the secessions of Karabakh, Abkhazia and Transdniester in practice, pay lip service to the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Moldova, and defend Russia’s own territorial integrity through every means including military force, the use of which it has explicitly barred in the three aforementioned cases.

The current tactical shift in Russia’s position has a precedent in 1995-96, when the Chechen factor similarly forced Moscow to embrace unambiguously the territorial integrity principle. Once the 1996 peace agreements had seemingly shelved the Chechen problem, however, Moscow returned to self-serving equivocation in its policy toward CIS countries affected by secessions. It was at that juncture that Russia came up with its proposals for the “common states” of Georgia-Abkhazia, Azerbaijan-Karabakh and Moldova-Transdniester.

President Haidar Aliev’s assessment of the Moscow summit is colored by Putin’s shift in the Armenian-Azerbaijani dispute. Post-summit statements of Aliev and his top aides speak of a positive shift in Moscow’s approach to the South Caucasus in general and in Russian-Azerbaijani relations in particular. By the same token, Armenian reactions are jittery, even suggesting that Yerevan might be well advised to reconsider its one-sided reliance on Russia. Such reflexive reactions in both Baku and Yerevan do not seem to give proper weight to the record and experience of recent years (Noyan-Tapan, Snark, AzadInform, ANS News, January 26-31).

The Georgian leadership tried at this summit to defuse the tensions which Moscow had whipped up in recent months, to puncture any pretexts for an extension of Russian military operations from Chechnya into Georgia, and to resist any concessions to Moscow at the expense of Georgia’s national sovereignty. The summit’s aftermath suggests that Georgia may have attained those goals at least temporarily and scored a tactical success. Foreign Affairs Minister Irakly Menagarishvili spoke of a “beginning of normalization in Russian-Georgian relations” at his post-summit briefing in Tbilisi.

The Russian side dropped its public demand to deploy Russian border troops opposite Chechnya on the Georgian side of the Russian-Georgian border. An “anti-terrorism” agreement, just concluded by the Russian and Georgian Internal Affairs ministries (see the Monitor, January 25), almost certainly refers to police measures to be taken by either side on its own territory, not to cross-border deployments and not to the border troops, which troops in any case do not come under the Internal Affairs Ministry’s authority. The start of the border monitoring mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has already forced Moscow and its generals in the North Caucasus to tone down their baseless allegations that Georgia assists Chechen rebels through that border (see the Monitor, December 2, 13, 21, 1999, January 7, 13). With the OSCE’s monitoring mission set to expand in the weeks and months ahead, Moscow will have been deprived of any semblance of a case for “hot pursuit” operations across the border into Georgia.

At the summit, Putin refused to rescind the threat of introducing visa requirements for Georgian citizens traveling to or residing in Russia, but neither did he evidence any intention to impose visas any time soon. That measure, if introduced as Putin himself had earlier ordered, would inflict significant losses on the Georgian economy (see the Monitor, November 12, Fortnight in Review, November 19, 1999). Shevardnadze parried the threat by hinting at countermeasures which would affect Russian interests in Georgia, not least the Russian troops and their dependents. On their return from the summit, Shevardnadze and Menagarishvili indicated that Moscow has come to understand two truths: First, that the visa regime would prove to be a “two-edged instrument,” and, second, that it would destroy one of the few remaining mechanisms in the CIS that are still operational and hold the organization together–namely, the 1992 Bishkek agreement on visa-free travel among the member countries.

The Abkhazia conflict had figured prominently on this summit’s prescheduled agenda, as it usually if futilely does at CIS summits. Virtually on the eve of the event, however, Shevardnadze decided to withdraw that issue from the discussion, citing three grounds for his decision: first, that Putin is “unfamiliar with the details of this subject”; second, that Georgia has in any case “no problem with the other CIS countries’ position on Abkhazia”–a clear hint that Georgia’s problem lies with the Russian position; and third, that there would be little point raising the issue simply in order to obtain yet another pro-forma CIS resolution, which the Abkhaz would yet again ignore.

Putin’s emphatic endorsement of the principle of territorial integrity of states at this summit may have surprised Tbilisi no less than it did Yerevan. This may explain Shevardnadze’s post-summit announcement that he would reintroduce the issue of Abkhazia prominently on the agenda of the next CIS summit, scheduled for April. A disappointed Abkhaz leadership reacted with the warning that it would ignore any resolution in April, if it goes against Abkhaz interests; and that Sukhumi recognizes the authority of the CIS only for purposes of deploying “peacekeeping troops” in the Abkhaz-Georgian conflict theater. Ahead of the April summit, Tbilisi is redoubling efforts to move the main negotiations with Abkhazia into a non-CIS format–namely, the Coordinating Group in which Russian influence is balanced by that of Western countries (Prime-News, Kavkasia-Press, January 24, 27-28, 30).

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