THE SOUTHERN CAUCASUS IN THE NEW WORLD ORDER CONTEXT: WHO WANTS TERRORISTS?
Laura Bagdasarian, Head, “Region” Research Center, Association of Investigative Journalism of Armenia (Erevan, Armenia)
Struggle Against International Terrorism or an Antiterrorist Operation of the United States?
A wave of condemnation of the terrorist acts of 11 September, 2001 has created an illusion that international terrorism as it manifested itself in New York and Washington is a new threat that can bring mankind together, up to and including the United States and Russia. The global “dangerous special criminal retrieval” was carried out according to the following features: large-scale terrorist actions with massive loss of life; transborder actions; unknown agents subjects and organizers; no special demands (for example, on the U.S. government); show elements designed to produce an information shock together with maximal damage.1
The world has realized that it was a beginning of a confrontation that might suck in any state or individual, even totally indifferent to politics and antiterrorist struggle and make them its victims. Any person at home or at work while sleeping or walking may fall victim to the same fate that befell those who happened to be in the Twin Towers on that September morning. In critical situations mankind as an abstract entity united by general human and moral principles close ranks easily and promptly. Any blending of interests of Russia and the United States, two major opposing forces in Eurasia, is another matter.
As the state that suffered unprecedented human, material, and psychological losses the United States naturally declared a war on international terrorism. As soon as Washington formulated its ultimatum “he who is not with us is against us,” numerous unwelcome “side effects” appeared that could interfere with a large-scale, collective and therefore effective opposition to the widespread, amazingly well-organized and well-equipped terrorist network. The White House turned the war against international terrorism into a war of the United States against terror. Few have noticed how the formulas were smoothly swapped.
Terrorists in Nagorny Karabakh and Azerbaijan—a New Game in the Southern Caucasus
Many leaders immediately responded to the events of 11 September with statements that condemned the terrorist acts and announced their countries’ readiness to help the U.S. fight organized terror. The South Caucasian countries did the same. What was more all of them, just like Central Asian countries, offered their airspace to the antiterrorist coalition forces heading for Afghanistan. Russia was also contributing to the operation while some of the post-Soviet republics allowed the coalition to set up temporal military bases on their territories. This created an opinion that the interests of Moscow and Washington were identical. The assessment of this fact in the Southern Caucasus no matter how adequate was mainly prompted by the newly created possibilities of addressing the most urgent tasks, which, in its turn, produced an impression that the region acquired new space for maneuvering and subtle games. On the eve of the September events Georgia stood “closest to the United States” while Armenia remained Russia’s only “loyal” toehold in the Southern Caucasus. Azerbaijan started correcting the bias toward the United States protracted by the Key West syndrome. In a rush to catch up with the flow of events and to maximally exploit the Russian-American rapprochement that looked real the South Caucasian states hastily readied themselves for a parity cooperation with both countries. During the CIS summit of spring 2002 held in Kazakhstan the presidents of Georgia and Russia reached an agreement on several important issues: it was decided to set up a bilateral commission to investigate free and rather “noisy” movements of armed Chechen units across Georgia; to revive the ratification procedure in the RF State Duma of the framework treaty on friendship and cooperation the text of which has been shelved in the Russian parliament for six years. Tbilisi demonstrated a certain extent of tolerance for the problem of delayed withdrawal of the Russian bases from Gudauta (Abkhazia) and Akhalkalaki (Javakhetia). Early in 2002 during their personal meeting in Moscow Aliev and Putin, by mutual agreement, discussed cooperation between their countries outside the Nagorny Karabakh issue. Armenia made an unprecedented step. In November 2001, its foreign minister demonstrated loyalty to the partial lifting of the 907th amendment approved by the U.S. Congress—the step that caused bewilderment among the experts and the establishment, especially outside the country. The decision to lift embargo was accompanied by “concrete wording” like “this cannot obstruct the peaceful settlement in Karabakh.” This should be read as “American military aid to Azerbaijan cannot (and will not) be used against Nagorny Karabakh.”2
According to Erevan’s official response to the “noticeable” drawing closer between Russia and the United States, “it will benefit our region especially from the point of view of the principle of complimentarity of Armenia’s foreign policy. This principle is demonstrating its constructive nature and can be even more efficiently used.”3
The question of drawing closer to the United States has never lost its topicality in Armenia because “over 1.6 million Armenians are law-abiding citizens of the United States and Armenia’s political and economic well-being depends to a great extent on the Armenian-American community. Therefore, any Armenian government will always strive to establish partner relations with the United States. This cannot be done today because of Armenia’s relations with Russia and Iran.”4 No wonder Armenia accompanied its statement about its readiness to enter into military cooperation with the Unites States within the total antiterrorist war with a bow to Russia: “we are well aware of a limited nature of such partnership because military cooperation with Russia is of special importance for us.”
Political circles and experts in Armenia reacted differently. Most frequently the authorities got their share of criticism because of inadequately slack response to the deep-cutting changes in the region and around it and their blind dedication to the old slogan “with Russia forever.” These opinions sounded even louder when on 24-26 May, 2002 during the official visit of the U.S. president to Russia the two countries had signed a declaration on new Russo-American relations and after the NATO Roman summit of 28 May, 2002 attended by President Putin. The Russia and America’s declaration of their common interests in the sphere of strengthening “security, stability, and territorial integrity” of all Central Asian and Caucasian states led certain Armenian analysts to a conclusion: “Russia will work consistently on a program of its security and economic development by drawing closer to the West. Having become assured by the U.S. and EU that it will be recognized as a state with market economy and admitted to the WTO Russia is making concessions by cutting down its nuclear potential and narrowing down the zones of influence.” These people were saying that Armenia should extend its military cooperation with the U.S. and NATO in the sphere of security and antiterrorist struggle.5
Baku was even more delighted with the closer Russian and American positions. “Naturally enough, all were saying that American actions in Afghanistan should be supported. The local media even reported that a group of local volunteers would soon be dispatched to help the Northern Alliance. In October all sobered up: the list compiled by the U.S. State Department of the most dangerous terrorist organizations made no mention of the Armenian terrorists. Disillusion set in. When it became known that the list had been compiled by Morton Abramian’s group (an American of Armenian extraction) disillusionment rapidly grew into indignation. The desire to fight in Afghanistan disappeared, the press no longer spoke about volunteers. Later American bombardments did not add enthusiasm to the Azerbaijani Muslims.”6
The following quotation is an ample evidence of a wave of enthusiasm caused by the unprecedented possibilities to cure “the old wounds:” “The rumors that bin Laden was hiding in Baku, Karabakh, Chechnia or the Dnestr area were not idle inventions. All wanted Uncle Sam to come in search of the fugitive terrorist and resolve their problems. Even authorities of an African country were trying to enlist Americans to sort things out with their local ‘terrorist opposition.’ The uncle is not kind and will not go away—this is the main problem.”7
This and similar opinions are not popular in Azerbaijan. People prefer to say that military cooperation between Armenia and Russia had outlived itself while Russia and the United States started drawing closer their strategic positions in the Caucasus. “In the past the persistent [Karabakh] conflict was associated with the global clash of the great powers’ interests. Today we are watching these interests drawing closer. The powers are no longer divided by antagonistic contradictions as it was in the past. I am convinced that a more favorable situation appeared after 11 September in which the South Caucasian countries can resolve the regional problems.”8 According to the above interpretation of the new situation one should conclude that so far the conflict was not resolved because the interests of Russia (as the guarantor of the security of Armenia and Nagorny Karabakh) clashed with those of America (the main manager of Azerbaijan’s oil resources) and that the two powers reached an agreement on more serious issues than the Karabakh problem or, probably, more important than the problem of control of the trans-Caucasian communications, the Caspian energy sources, and—surprise, surprise—more important than turning Russia’s southern belt into a single area of influence: the US-Turkey-the Caucasus-Central Asia. These logical exercises are acceptable in virtual, not real, politics. Early in 2002 the Karabakh problem seemed to be affected by the “changed” U.S. stand. As before, it boiled down to the idea that the sides should speed up the process of settlement because (1) the conflict may diminish the efficiency of the U.S. antiterrorist struggle, (2) because of the costly Western operations in Afghanistan to be followed by operations in Iraq, Iran, etc. that may claim all the money promised in case of a truce.9 “But I have to tell you the money (because of the antiterrorist struggle.—L.B.) is going very, very rapidly to different directions after [11 September]—not just American money but also EU money.”10 Unfortunately, this direct warning coming from the U.S. official circles testifies not to the geopolitical context in the region conducive to resolving the local conflicts but to the new stricter rules of the game offered to the South Caucasian countries and to a refusal to justify their “integration” with any sort of an ideology.
Who Joined Whom: The U.S. Russia or Russia the U.S.?
The terrorist acts in New York and Washington shook the world because of their unprecedented nature and the scale of repercussions felt in all spheres of life in the United States. The country that nearly always managed to protect its interests on any continent through diverse methods ranging from direct invasions to political and economic embargo was hit on its own territory for the first time in its history. No matter how blasphemous is the following the blow at the state’s image was received with more pain than the loss of numerous lives and colossal financial and economic damage. It was a blow at the state that claimed the role of the world’s only center of attraction, the state that, in fact, won the Cold War and was spending huge sums to achieve its major geopolitical aim. When the United States openly declared that the prerogative of the destruction of the centers of international terrorism was its it became clear that the country had turned a new leaf in its history and invited other countries and alliances to do the same. The beginning of a long and complicated “power phase” of establishing a new world order produced a gamut of impressions in Russia and the South Caucasian countries. Some people believed that American military presence in Central Asia and Southern Caucasus would have spelt Russia’s defeat and were convinced that Russia should have insisted that it was the first to have suffered from terrorism, that the September events were a continuation of what happened in Buinaksk, Volgodonsk, Kislovodsk, Moscow, etc. and that it should join the antiterrorist operation using its Central Asian bases. According to others, Russia deliberately let Americans in Central Asia, the area threatened with Islamic fundamentalism and bordering on unpredictable Pakistan and Afghanistan. By this tactical move Russia relieved itself of possible headaches.
A superficial glance at the political and geographic situation changing fast after the October bombing of the Taliban in Afghanistan will detect numerous examples of “deeper and wider” U.S. military presence in the region—something that Russia had been consistently opposing throughout the entire post-Soviet period. The United States now has an airbase in Uzbekistan, another at the Bishkek airport; it also used the airports of Tajikistan. “Under the new conditions, Tajikistan was able to change the status of the 201st Russian motor rifle division. Since 1 January, 2002, it is considered a military base, and now Russia is obliged to pay for its presence in this country. There was nothing else for the Russian officials, in particular State Duma Chairman Gennadi Seleznev, who arrived in Almaty on 9 January, 2002, to do but prevent Kazakhstan from becoming too friendly with the U.S.”11
In this way the Americans, with an obvious Russian “connivance,” appeared in places where the ties between the local fundamentalists with al-Qa‘eda and other terrorist organizations was especially felt: in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan. It seems that those who believe that Russia made a tactical move by letting the Americans in Central Asia so that to do the “dirty job” with American hands are more or less right. Indeed, “secular” Azerbaijan became disappointed when it realized that the antiterrorist fist might miss the Armenian aggressors and separatists12 while continued bombardment and the increased number of civilian lives lost have already caused displeasure among Azerbaijani Muslims. The American actions in Afghanistan, the Middle East and Central Asia may cause even greater displeasure.
Late in July 2002 King Abdullah of Jordan visited London and Washington to try to convince Premier Blair and President Bush that an American military operation against Iraq may start a large war in the Middle East. The King of Jordan believed that the clashes between Israel and Palestine were an absolute priority and that the Middle Eastern problems would not go away together with deposed Saddam Hussein. To this President Bush answered that the removal of the present Iraqi authorities was the U.S. priority and inevitable task. This proves that those who believe that the United States is not addressing its geopolitical tasks together with the antiterrorist operation are wrong. If drawn into the antiterrorist operation Russia, a multi-confessional country, might have sent the shock waves across the regions. This means that being indignant with what the U.S. is doing the Muslim states and anti-governmental circles in Central Asian countries will hail Moscow’s more active involvement in the regions. Russia “may well plan for building up its military presence in Central Asia, assuming that the U.S. has only limited ‘staying power.’”13
Bin Laden in the Pankisi Gorge—Why Not?
On 27 May, 2002 the U.S. program of training special antiterrorist units in Georgia was launched officially. It involves four battalions and one company of the Georgian Ministry of Defense and a battalion of the Department of Guarding State Border. Specialists of the Ministry of the Interior and the National Security Committee will also get their share of training. Other countries (Germany, France, Turkey, Bulgaria, and China) are also helping Georgia fight terrorism. In 2001 alone the United States and other countries gave Georgia three times more money than its national budget is worth of to strengthen its armed forces. Joint Georgian-Turkish military training has become a tradition; military cooperation with Turkey in other spheres is also extending. The program of “training and equipping” the Georgian armed forces that will cost $64m and will last 21 months during which U.S. military instructors will work with Georgian units is the first and “the most important element” of an extended war against international terrorism in the Southern Caucasus. As could be expected Russia responded in an outburst of indignation and categorical statements. Even before the American instructors landed in Tbilisi in March 2002 the RF State Duma adopted an unprecedentedly harsh statement On the Situation in Georgia in Connection with the U.S. Military Presence on Its Territory that might invite unprecedented repercussions. Georgia was warned that if the newly acquired skills and U.S. assistance would be used against Abkhazia Russia as a guarantor of Abkhazian security would defend its population and might even go as far as joining Abkhazia to Russia. It was at the same time that it became known that the Abkhazian leaders officially asked Russia to establish associated relations with their republic. They pointed out that the events of the fall of 2001 when the Chechen units that penetrated the Kodori Gorge from Georgia tried to enter Russia to destabilize the situation in the Georgian-Abkhazian sector demonstrated that Tbilisi either could not control the situation or was deliberately attracting Western attention to it. It should be noted that similar statements came and are coming from Russia that repeatedly offered its help in destroying the Chechen armed units on the Georgian territory. Tbilisi responded in kind. President Shevardnadze described the Duma’s March statement as hysterical while the relations with America “allied” or “strategic cooperation.” He added: “Today’s processes are the result of seven years of gradual building up and deepening relations between the U.S. and Georgia. This is a special level of relationships.”14
Tbilisi attaches particular importance to the Russian-American declaration signed in May 2002 that registered the sides’ shared interest in preserving “territorial integrity, independence and security of all countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus.” Georgia interprets this as an agreement on a joint Abkhazian settlement. Until the latter half of the 1990s Georgia had staked on its conviction that Russia needed the settlement more than Georgia and had, therefore, to contribute to the crisis settlement. As Georgia was drawing closer to the West and its policy of Atlanticism was strengthening the Abkhazian problem was deliberately made international. Today Tbilisi says with a great deal of enthusiasm that the Abkhazian issue should not remain Russia’s prerogative and that its internationalization will help Georgia protect its interests in the course of settlement. “The United States has clearly defined its attitude to Georgia and the region as a whole. Will this aggravate the situation? I don’t think so, because Russia will have to reject everything that might interfere with its economic progress and international status. Influencing Georgia through Abkhazia will no longer bring dividends in the Russian-American relationships. In any case further relations will probably develop in the following way: the Russian-American cooperation will help raise Russia’s relations with Georgia to a new level while cooperation with Georgia will improve Russia’s relations with America.”15
An example of the Karabakh settlement that periodically hits stalemates because the problem has become too internationalized (recently even Armenian and Azerbaijani officials have started talking about a geopolitical clash between the U.S. and Russia there) failed to serve as a lesson. If it turns out that the presence of American military instructors serves as a prelude to a more serious Western presence in Georgia there will be two seats of geopolitical conflicts in the Caucasus, a region that has already been entangled in contradictions.
It has been often said and has been repeated for a long time that the Caucasus is an important sphere of Russia’s vital interests not only because Russia is one of the Caucasian states with 10 of its subjects belonging to the Northern Caucasus but also because the Caucasus helps preserve the “buffer security zone” along Russia’s southern frontiers. As distinct from Central Asia in the Caucasus Moscow is stubbornly fighting for a possibility to do the “dirty antiterrorist work” both in Chechnia and in Georgia not only because the problem of the armed Chechen units on the Georgian territory is part of Russia’s antiterrorist effort and not because of its special bias to people in Abkhazia exposed to a harsh embargo since 1996 and very much concerned with the fact that there are Chechens in Georgia. Moscow is worried because any slackening of its control over these problems will deprive it of any influence in the Southern Caucasus. Everybody knows that Moscow and Washington face two major problems in the Southern Caucasus: Russia’s relations with Georgia and its relations with Turkey. Despite numerous assurances to the contrary the Abkhazian factor remains Moscow’s trump card in its game with Tbilisi. Here is a confirmation: “A year ago Russia introduced a simplified visa regime for Abkhazia and South Ossetia while a strict visa regime between Russia and Georgia is still intact. The Russian ruble is accepted in Abkhazia, Russia’s fiscal policy dominates there. Several months ago it was announced that all large resorts in Pitsunda and Gagra would be privatized. It is in this context that the Foreign Ministry of Russia offers Russian citizenship to all ‘Georgian citizens living in Abkhazia.’ This would have been quite legal but for one thing: the Constitution of Georgia does not recognize dual citizenship, therefore all those wishing to become citizens of another state should undergo all necessary procedures in our foreign ministry and ministry of the interior. Being fully aware of this Russia is granting its citizenship at a fast pace to those who are living in Abkhazia. Today about 70 percent of Georgian citizens there have become Russian citizens. This is illegal and contradicts international norms. Our delegation headed by Speaker Nino Burdzhanadze described this step as an attempt at latent annexation. The Georgian statement made at the OSCE parliamentary session held in Berlin on 6-10 July was promptly parried by Speaker of the State Duma Gennadi Seleznev with ‘We do not know what annexation means.’ Tomorrow Russia may decide to protect its citizens in Abkhazia—this is the main problem.”16 It seems that the vice-speaker of the Georgian parliament is quite right in explaining Moscow’s inadequate behavior (immediately after the Russo-American declaration had been signed) by its desire to demonstrate that its positions were still strong.
The situation surrounding the Chechen armed groups on the Georgian territory is very complicated. The Chechen card that Georgia laid on the table in the latter half of the 1990s to counter the Abkhazian card of Moscow’s did a lot of damage to the relations between the two countries. Some experts believe that it was more damaging than the Abkhazian conflict.17 The Georgian final admission that the talks about Chechen armed groups that penetrated the country together with refugees are based on facts testified to at least two factors: (1) Georgia is not strong enough to move the groups away, the groups are unpredictable and may repeat attacks of early fall 2001; (2) Tbilisi wants a more active involvement in the West’s antiterrorist struggle that will benefit both Georgia and the antiterrorist coalition.
On several occasions (sometimes in categorical terms) Moscow offered its “assistance” in fighting Chechens in Georgia and was always flatly denied this opportunity. It is interesting to note that while the American “training and equipping” program was being realized in Georgia Moscow joined in a game very popular in the Southern Caucasus called “Hi bin Laden! Where are you?” While commenting on the events on the Russian-Georgian border Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov answered one of the questions in the following way: “Bin Laden is hiding in the Pankisi Gorge—indeed, why not?” One should give its due to the skills Russian diplomacy is demonstrating in prolonged and rather entangled opposition. Everybody knows that the antiterrorist struggle will not end with extermination of either bin Laden or other prominent terrorists.
Late in July a Chechen unit tried to cross the Russian-Georgian border into the Itum-Kale District of Chechnia some 40 to 45 km away from Georgia. It was destroyed by Russian troops, Georgia got another rebuke for its failure to control the fighters and for not allowing Russia to do this. It seems that even before the 21-month-long antiterrorist training of the Georgian army is complete and Tbilisi carries an operation in the Pankisi Gorge “by its own, and only by its own, forces” Russia will find other opportunities to lay even more serious responsibility for border incidents at Tbilisi’s doorstep.
The antiterrorist struggle the United States launched immediately after the September terrorist acts looked like a unique opportunity to draw closer the positions of states in Eurasia. Despite the early signs of solidarity with the United States any talk about a new world order is premature. Today people talk of the “U.S. antiterrorist operation” rather than of “struggle against international terrorism.” This lays the responsibility for “the side effects” on this superpower.
The military-political changes in Central Asia and the Caucasus brought about by the antiterrorist operation created an impression that even if the interests of Russia and the United States have not coincided Russia’s influence in these areas has weakened, at the very least. Profound analysis, however, proves the contrary.
Russia applies different tactics in Central Asia and the Caucasus where the United States has entrenched itself to the same degree. Russia remains loyal to the process in Central Asia for two reasons: it is a multi-confessional country and cannot afford spoiled relations with the Muslim world when the U.S. antiterrorist actions are over. Second, Russia is waging an antiterrorist operation of its own in the Caucasus where any geopolitical misstep might prove perilous.
As before Russia is acting in many vectors and in a very “pro-Russian way.” If an immediate realization of this strategy requires much force and money Moscow as a rule finds them.
It is too early to predict that the Russian-American rapprochement may help resolve the most painful South Caucasian conflicts. On the one hand, Moscow does not want to retreat, on the other, the U.S. unprecedented pressure there unfortunately allows us to say that in the nearest future there will be not one but two conflict zones with pronounced geopolitical interests.
Early in 2002 the United States demonstrated that in relation to the Karabakh problem it would no longer preach “integration of the South Caucasian countries.” Unfortunately, we are all approaching a phase of stricter conditions for the conflicting sides.
A prolonged period of local and regional wars in which the South Caucasian countries would have to operate on a much wider field than they had been used to, started together with the U.S. antiterrorist operation.
1 See: Mirovoi poriadok posle teraktov v SshA: problemy i perspektivy. Kommentariy Komiteta vneshnepoliticheskogo planirovaniia [www.kvp.iccpec.org].
2 Press conference of Foreign Minister of Armenia V. Oskanian in November 2001, Azg (Armenia), 28 November, 2001.
4 I. Muradian, Problemy bezopasnosti Iuzhnogo Kavkaza i rol’ Armenii [www.hetq.am/ru.region.html].
5 See: S. Grigorian, “Strategicheskie perestanovki,” Aikakan zhamanak (Armenia), 8 June, 2002.
6 From an interview given by the head of the Department of Conflict Studies and Migration, Institute of Peace and Democracy Arif Iunusov to the present author on 19 March, 2002 [www.hetq.am/ru/region.html].
7 From an interview given by the head of the Human Rights Center Eldar Zeinalov to the present author on 25 February, 2002 [www.hetq.am/ru/region.html].
8 From an interview by the former head of the secretariat of the Azerbaijani president’s administration E. Namazov [www.pressclubs.org].
9 Every month the United States spends $1 billion on the wide-scale operation in Afghanistan and other antiterrorist measures in various regions of the world. This year the cost of U.S. domestic security will increase from $13 to 39 billion [www.kvp.iccpec.org].
10 From the remarks made by Rudolf Perina, plenipotentiary representative of the U.S. State Department and co-chairman of the OSCE Minsk Group responsible for promoting a Nagorno-Karabakh peace settlement [www.eurasianet.org/Russian/departments/insight/articles/eav011502ru.shtml].
11 I. Ismagambetov, “Structuring Central Asia’s New Geopolitical Space: Regional Characteristics and Prospects,” Central Asia and the Caucasus, No. 2 (14), 2002, p. 11.
12 In Azerbaijan the thesis that separatism is one of the sources of international terrorism is gaining ground (see: Regional’noe sotrudnichestvo i bezopasnost’ posle 11 sentiabria [www.hetq.am/ru/region.html]).
13 Pavel K. Baev, “How Does History Inform Russia’s Policy in the Great Anti-Terrorist Game?” Central Asia and the Caucasus, No. 1 (13), 2002, p. 17.
14 From an interview given by President Shevardnadze to Rustavi-2 TV channel (Georgia) of 8 March, 2002.
15 From an interview given by vice-speaker of the Georgian parliament V. Kobaia to the present author on 21 July, 2002 [www.hetq.am/ru/region.html].
17 See: G. Nodia, Nezavisimost’ znachit prezhde vsego uiti ot Rossii [www.hetq.am/ru/region.html].