Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Chechen Conflict Inspires South Caucasus Links

Confronted with renewed Russian aggression in Chechnya, the states of
By IWPR

regional cooperation and security.


By Rasim Musabekov in Baku (CRS No. 7, 19-Nov-99)


"We are all equally interested in stability and security throughout


Europe," Russian President Boris Yeltsin declared in Istanbul on


November 18, at the summit of the Organization for Security and


Cooperation in Europe (OSCE,) before abruptly marching out.


The performance by the Russian president - rejecting international


criticism over Chechnya, threatening to obstruct the charter on


European security, and cutting short a meeting with French President


Jacques Chirac - may have hampered efforts to come to broad agreement


on a common European security policy. But it also underscored the


importance of such an agreement, especially for the Caucasus.


Indeed, Russia's renewed military campaign in Chechnya has direct


implications for the South Caucasus states and has added considerable


urgency to efforts to build closer cooperation. The concentration of


Russian troops and weapons in the region is already a violation of


the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty.


The number of Russian troops in Armenia is reportedly growing. The


region is flowing with rumours of covert operations allegedly carried


out by Russian special units in different parts of the Caucasus. Some


in Georgia believe that political groups linked to Russia ware


involved in the assassination attempts on the life of Georgian


President Eduard Shevardnadze.


There is also considerable fear in the region that, in retaliation to


the refusal to cooperate with Russia's military campaign in Chechnya,


Moscow could attempt to destablise other South Caucasus regions. And


there could be much scope for Russia's meddling. Fighting continues


in Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh, and separatist movements are


bubbling under the surface in several Georgian regions and in


northern Azerbaijan.


Fearing that it would be dragged into the current Chechen conflict,


Georgia refused Russia's request for permission to fly sorties into


Chechnya from the Russian military base of Vaziani, located on


Georgian territory.


Now Georgia has accused Moscow of bombing its village of Shatili,


five kilometers from the Chechen border. Moscow has acknowledged that


its helicopters crossed into Georgian airspace on November 17, but


has denied the bombing. It has dismissed the Georgian charges as


malicious disinformation.


For its part, Moscow has accused Georgia and Azerbaijan of supplying


Chechen rebels with arms and military instructors. It also threatened


to impose strict visa requirements for people visiting Russia from


Georgia and Azerbaijan. It also said Georgian and Azeri residents in


Russia would be prevented from sending money home from Russia.


In the midst of these developments, South Caucasus states and their


neighbours, themselves beset with conflicts, are taking steps to


increase regional cooperation.


On November 18, on the sidelines of the OSCE Istanbul summit, the


presidents of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey signed agreements


providing the legal framework for the construction and operation of


an oil pipeline from Baku to the Mediterranean Turkish terminal of


Ceyhan. The presidents of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan signed a


separate document with their Turkish, Azeri and Georgian


counterparts, pledging to export oil via this pipeline.


Furthermore, Georgian President Shevardnadze and Azeri President


Heydar Aliev have suggested on separate occasions to create


programmes supporting a peaceful Caucasus region. Armenian President


Robert Kocharian has articulated similar ideas for a regional


security system. There have also been calls for a regional security


sub-group within the framework of the OSCE, including the Caucasus


states plus Russia and possibly the United States.


During a meeting with Jean Jacques Gaiard, co-chairman of the OSCE


Minsk group on Nagorno-Karabakh, Kocharian suggested that a regional


security system could contribute to the resolution of conflicts and


national security problems, as well as helping establishing mutual


trust. Armenian Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian, expanding this


idea, hinted that regional organizations should also include Iran.


The sharp exchanges at the OSCE summit point up the limits of multi-


lateral institutions and diplomacy to temper Russian policy. However,


they are crucial for expressing viewpoints and developing solutions.


The effort to develop regional organizations in the South Caucasus


reflects the increasing maturity of these newly independent states,


in an attempt to resolve their own problems. If cooperation


declarations are implemented, Russian influence will inevitably


diminish.


Concern over Chechnya is heightened in the Caucasus because of the


broad public and political support that Russian authorities enjoy


over their Caucasus policy. With presidential and parliamentary


elections looming in Russia, the war in the Caucasus appears to be an


electoral campaign issue and the growing popularity of Russian Prime


Minister Vladimir Putin shows he is profiting from his hard-line


stance.


This gives rise to fears in most South Caucasus states that a post-


Yeltsin Russia could face a period of potential instability, combined


with an aggressive and expansionist policy in the Caucasus. Russia's


policy on Chechnya, blaming the republic's entire population for the


actions of an extremist minority, presents a worrying precedent.


Senior US officials have expressed concern at what they see as a


possible wider regional conflict.


In such circumstances, the governments and the citizens of the South


Caucasus republics are beginning to realise the scale of the dangers


they could eventually face and the need to build closer cooperation.


For too long, Russia itself has exploited divisions and feuds between


the people of the region, in order to retain a prominent position.


This time, renewed concerns of a threat from the North may inspire


steps to ensure mutual trust and cooperation among Caucasus states


and their neighbours.


Rasim Musabekov is a political scientist in Baku.