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Putin's Caucasian Ambitions
Across the South Caucasus, political analysts are working round the clock. Once their predictions were considered to be as reliable as throwing chicken-bones or reading tealeaves. Now, as Vladimir Putin's election victory seems increasingly certain, they have never been so much in demand.
Beyond his hugely popular military campaign in Chechnya and an uncompromising attitude to the West, Putin remains a political enigma. He has yet to define clear foreign or domestic policies, or even produce a coherent manifesto. While federal warplanes continue to pound rebel strongholds to the north, the leaders of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan are waiting in an atmosphere of strained anticipation.
Much will depend on Putin's inner circle - and those responsible for executing his policies. The politicians who manoeuvred the former KGB spy into the Kremlin are likely to be sidelined: Putin cannot afford to have them pulling the strings. They will be replaced by a cabal of new and as yet unfamiliar faces. Then the political experts will have to start from scratch.
Fortunately, however, for the flustered analysts, there are a number of constants in the equation. In the event of an election victory, Putin will become the only professional politician in history to have scaled the Russian Olympus. His lightning success may be viewed with relief or with trepidation, but Putin boasts an ideal political background for the job.
He is neither a former party bigwig from the provinces nor a flash-in-the-pan reformer with a loose political programme. He has studied Western economies and political developments in a global context. He can read between the lines when international leaders trumpet their statements of intent.
This background and experience are likely to have a strong bearing on Putin's diplomatic relations with the South Caucasian states. If the leitmotif of his foreign policy is the rebirth of Russia's global preeminence and the reestablishment of her influence on neighbouring regions, these former Soviet republics will become a crucial political arena.
In the aftermath of the Chechen campaign, Putin cannot fail to understand that the North Caucasus will remain a hotbed of instability until such a time as he can build a buffer zone between his southern frontiers and the anti-Russian forces which fuelled the Chechen resistance.
The new president will also be eager to crush anti-Russian sentiments across the Caucasus and reassert influence in a region which has historically been part of the Russian empire. Certainly, signs that neighbouring Turkey is emerging as a major player on the international military stage will give Putin cause for disquiet.
However, the task of reasserting Russian influence in the South Caucasus is further complicated by the growing appetites of Western oil companies in Azerbaijan and NATO's military-political interests in the area. But Putin is a pragmatist and is likely to opt for one of two alternatives.
In the spirit of 19th century diplomatic manoeuvres, the future Russian president may agree with the West to divide up spheres of influence in Eastern Europe and Asia.
For example, Russia would recognise NATO's complete control of Europe west of Belarus and the Ukraine - with some limitations in the former Yugoslavia. The Kremlin would agree to cut short its collaboration with Iran and Iraq and abandon all overtures to other Arab nations.
In return, the West would acknowledge Russia's dominant role in Central Asian affairs and halt all military-political programmes in the South Caucasus. Western investment activities would be limited to regional projects whilst plans to develop new oil-fields would be realised in partnership with Russian companies. This alone would bring the South Caucasus back under Russian patronage.
On the other hand, Putin could choose to destabilise the three South Caucasian states and thereby seriously derail any Western development programmes in the region. In Georgia, for example, Russian army peace-keeping troops - stationed to "guarantee the republic's security and provide for its sovereignty" - could take an active part in this subversive process.
It would be enough for the Kremlin to declare political and economic support for the Abkhazian regime and thereby unleash a political tidal wave in Georgia where around 280,000 refugees are waiting for a resolution to the conflict. This move would serve to torpedo the credibility of the Georgian government which has failed to bring the region any closer to peace since the 1997 ceasefire. In a few days, Abkhazia could become a springboard for Russian military and political expansion into the South Caucasus. It is a game that the West would be likely to lose.
The consequences of Russia's political victory would be far-reaching. Putin would effectively secure the eastern coast of the Black Sea and scupper Azerbaijan's plans to construct an oil pipeline from the Caspian to the Mediterranean. He would be able to negotiate with the West from a position of strength and would no doubt win further advantages for Russia.
But Putin's triumph would inevitably signal a new era of chaos for Georgia and Azerbaijan. The collapse of existing regimes would usher in extremist factions who in turn would trigger new civil unrest. The spectre of upheaval will probably serve to persuade the West to agree to a division of spheres of influence.
Russian observers have always interpreted the international community's cautious relations with Georgia and Azerbaijan as a sign that the West doesn't want to find itself, sooner or later, in conflict with Russia in the region.
If that is the case, then the West is already recognising the primacy of Russian foreign policy in the South Caucasus. This can only mean that the Western powers will be compelled to take on the role of observers as a fallen empire begins to rise from the ashes.
Leonard Amani is a Georgian political analyst based in London
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