Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 108

Using his trademark method of dealing with subgroups of CIS countries (see the Monitor, June 4), Russian President Vladimir Putin held a meeting of what he terms “the Caucasus Four” on the sidelines of the June 1 CIS summit in Minsk. Even that subgroup he divided further by holding a session with Presidents Haidar Aliev of Azerbaijan and Robert Kocharian of Armenia, after which Eduard Shevardnadze of Georgia joined in for the actual Caucasus Four meeting.

The Caucasus Four is Moscow’s response to the Western-backed idea of a regional security pact, mooted by Georgia, Azerbaijan and Turkey, which would include–alongside those proponent countries–Armenia, Russia, the United States and the European Union, and presumably also Iran. Russia hopes to involve Georgia and Azerbaijan as well, together with its ally Armenia, in a narrow political and security framework that would isolate Georgia and Azerbaijan from their Western partners.

The Kremlin hopes to institutionalize the “Caucasus Four” on various political and functional levels. Thus far, Putin has only managed to hold symbolic meetings of the four presidents on the sidelines of CIS summits. He has failed to persuade the Georgian and Azerbaijani presidents to hold such meetings at more frequent intervals as independent events, to turn the “Caucasus Four” into a deliberative forum, and to authorize their respective governments and ministries to hold similar quadripartite meetings.

Shevardnadze and Aliev rule out the creation of such a quadripartite framework until the Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Karabakh conflicts are resolved on terms consistent with Georgia’s and Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity. Citing Russia’s support of the secessionist forces and of Armenia in those conflicts, Shevardnadze and Aliev are urging Moscow to change its policy before they consider joining a formalized “Caucasus Four.” That seems a safe official position. Russia can hardly be expected in the foreseeable future to abandon its local allies and proxies. That would mean forfeiting the strongest leverage in Moscow’s hands to pressure Georgia and Azerbaijan.

The Minsk summit illustrated that leverage. Russia obtained another, routine six-month extension of its seven-year old “peacekeeping” operation in Abkhazia. Putin reaffirmed his decision to maintain the discriminatory visa regulations on Georgia while exempting the secessionist Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Moreover, Putin and his top aide Sergei Yastrzhembsky cited the unstable situation in the Pankisi Gorge against Georgia. That situation, however, is a byproduct of Russia’s war in the Chechen republic, which created a mass of Chechen refugees in that Georgian border area.

In his meeting with Aliev and Kocharian, the Russian president sought to upstage the OSCE mediators in the Armenian-Azerbaijani negotiations. Those negotiations seem again deadlocked at the moment. The Kremlin offers to broker a settlement and “guarantee” it by supplying the dominant element in a possible peacekeeping operation.

According to the joint communique, the next “Caucasus Four” meeting is scheduled to take place “before the end of the year.” This is a face-saving formula for Putin, meaning that he will not get another quadripartite meeting until the regular December CIS summit, and then again almost certainly as a ceremonial sideshow (Snark, Noyan-Tapan, Turan, ANS, RIA, Itar-Tass, May 31, June 1-2).