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Georgia Faces New Regional Realities

Armenian News Network / Groong
October 8, 2001

By Richard Giragosian and Khatchik Derghoukassian


Completing a five-day visit to the United States, Georgian President
Eduard Shevardnadze met with U.S. President George Bush and other
senior Administration officials in the White House on Friday, October
5th.  The Shevardnadze visit to Washington, although scheduled since
late August, was an important opportunity for the Georgian president
to attempt to determine his country's position within the new
realities of the post-September 11th U.S. policy in the region.  In
the meetings and speeches of his visit to the United States, President
Shevardnadze was anxious to demonstrate his nation's strategic value
in the face of an evolving U.S. foreign policy.

 From a broad perspective, it is clear that the U.S. campaign against
terrorism has altered the traditional alignment of U.S. policy in the
former Soviet Union in general, and in the Transcaucasus as well.
This altered alignment is driven by the new U.S. cooperative
relationship with Russia and the utilization of several key Central
Asian states in the first stage of the campaign. This global campaign
involves a coalition of several allied nations and a second tier of
forty other nations, including all three states of the Transcaucasus,
pledging the use of their airspace for U.S. forces involved in the
military aspect of the campaign. But the forging of a new partnership
with Russia poses the most pressing challenges to Georgia.


Russia Emboldened

Georgian relations with Russia have been marked by serious disputes
prior to this new U.S. campaign and the future suggests only more
problems for Georgia. Already seriously vulnerable to the recent
reassertion of Russian geopolitical policies in the Transcaucasus, the
fragile Georgian state now faces a daunting set of obstacles in
defending its own national interests in the face of an emboldened
Russia. It seems logical to assume that the new Russian role as
U.S. partner in the anti-terrorism campaign will also mean that
Washington will allow Moscow to adopt an even tougher approach to the
Chechen conflict. In fact, it seems likely that Moscow's attempt to
link the Chechen rebels to the Bin Laden organization as manifestations
of international terrorism threatening Russian interests will succeed
in encouraging Western acquiescence or even support for Russia's drive
to reestablish its influence and control in the Caucasus.

A more visible result will most likely be a postponement, or even a
cancellation, of the withdrawal of Russian troops from their military
bases in Georgia. Russia is bound to the terms of an agreement
reached in the November 1999 Istanbul summit of the Organization for
Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) which called for the Russian
withdrawal from Georgia according to a detailed timetable. Even
before the recent developments, however, the Russian withdrawal was
behind schedule and subject to renewed protests and renegotiations by
Russian officials. But in the wake of the new situation, the
continued Russian pullout from its Georgian bases seems unlikely. It
should also halt any discussion of a possible Russian retreat from its
base in the Armenian-populated southern Georgian region of Javakhk.

A second probable outcome is an increase in the Russian military
presence in other parts of Georgia. The Russian military presence in
Georgia today goes far beyond the simple maintenance of a few military
bases. Under a peacekeeping mandate of the Commonwealth of Independent
States (CIS), Russian troops constitute the bulk of the CIS force
deployed along the Georgian border with Abkhazia. Empowered to police
the conflict area separating the Georgian and Abkhazian forces, this
strategic Russian military presence will only be strengthened and may
even be extended.


Countering Russia with Turkey

Overall, this combination of military influence within the Georgian
borders provides Moscow with significant leverage over the course of
its relations with Tbilisi. For the past few years, the Georgian
government has sought to counterbalance this Russian leverage by
developing closer military ties with Turkey. As the neighboring
country with the largest land border with Georgia, Turkey has long
sought to enhance Georgian dependence and recognizes the strategic
value of utilizing Georgia in its long-term geostrategic policy to
isolate Armenia and establish linkage with Azerbaijan. By specifically
wielding Turkish military assistance, weapons modernization and
training, the reforming Georgian military has been rushing to fortify
its position against the Russian presence.

In recent months, however, the magnitude of the Turkish economic and
political crisis has greatly reduced this strategy. With the loss of
Turkey as a counter balance to Russia, the Georgians have been rushing
to find an alternative patron. Another example of this security
dilemma was reflected in the Georgian rush to sign an agreement with
Azerbaijan for the transport of Azerbaijani natural gas through
Georgia and on to Turkey. The rush to conclude this key transport
agreement was highlighted last month when the Georgian government was
pressured by the World Bank to postpone the signing. The World Bank
saw the terms of the Georgian-Azerbaijani transport agreement as
grossly unfavorable to Georgia and pressured the government to raise
greater demands for tariff payments. Although signed late last month
with a slight increase in the transit fees Azerbaijan will pay
Georgia, the low rate reflects the Georgian need to conclude the
agreement as soon as possible.


Washington Looks Beyond Georgia

Although naturally distracted by the military campaign that was
launched only two days later, the U.S. President and senior officials
did attempt to reassure a concerned Georgian President. During the
White House meeting, the U.S. commitment to supporting the stability
and security of the Georgian state was reiterated. Throughout the
past decade, as Georgian stability was greatly weakened, Washington
was its main pillar of support. The U.S. has provided Georgia with
more than $778 million in aid for the fiscal years between 1992 and
2000, a level roughly five times that of U.S. aid to Azerbaijan for
the same period. Even more reflective of the degree of U.S. support,
its aid to Georgia through September 1999 on a per capita basis, stood
at $53 while aid to Russia was only $17 per person. This strong
support for Georgia, however, is now being reassessed and involves a
redirection of funding away from the Caucasus.

This reassessment of priorities is demonstrated by the proposal
unveiled last week by the chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign
Relations Committee, calling for a "fund for the reconstruction and
recovery of Central and Southwest Asia" and pledging an immediate
U.S. $1 billion contribution. This proposal also follows the
president's pledge of $320 million in humanitarian aid for the Afghani
refugees. Such a shift in focus to Central Asia, a region also
offering greater cooperation between Russia, China and the United
States, would also return Russia as a major player in the region.
Secondary players such as Turkey and even Israel will also seek to
forge new roles in energy-rich Central Asia.

It seems that these new regional realities reveal that Georgia, as
well as its Armenian and Azerbaijani neighbors, now face a series of
significant challenges. It also shows that these new geopolitical
realities suggest that there are no winners in the region, only a
differing level of losses among these vulnerable states. One can only
hope that the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan will recognize the new
reality that the Georgian president recognized during his recent visit
to Washington and adapt appropriately. But such a hope hinges on the
durability of these states and depends on the imperative to forge
security and stability over conflict and confrontation.

----------------------------------------------------------------------
Richard Giragosian was a professional staff member with the Joint
Economic Committee, U.S. Congress specializing in international
relations and economics in the former Soviet Union and China. He is
the author of the monthly newsletter, "TransCaucasus: A Chronology."

Khatchik Der Ghougassian is a Ph.D. student of International Relations
in the School of International Studies, at the University of Miami. He
has written as a political analyst in the Armenian and Argentinean
press.

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