POLITICAL DEVELOPMENT TRENDS IN THE TRANSCAUCASUS IN LIGHT OF ANTITERRORIST OPERATION

Alexander CHEPURIN


Alexander Chepurin, Envoy Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary first class, deputy director, Fourth Department of the CIS Countries, Foreign Ministry of Russia (Moscow, Russia)


Several years ago while stationed in one of the prospering Scandinavian countries I attended a press conference of one of the leading Russian politicians who introduced his speech with the words that he did not like the country and that he felt for the journalists who had to report about common and even dull local developments there. This statement that carried a great deal of extravagance and a taste for polemic was warmly received.

If applied elsewhere this logic suggests that the Caucasus and the events in its southern and Russian parts are of great interest to researchers. Indeed, the region has concentrated all possible (and impossible) problems ranging from the geostrategic and ethnic, which started a series of local conflicts, to the problems born by terrorist threats. They affected Russia (Chechnia) and the Transcaucasian states, Georgia in the first place (the Pankisi Gorge and the areas along the republics northern borders). The continued terrorist threat adds new and highly alarming overtones to the Caucasian cauldron by generating serious challenges to regional security and calls for increased attention to the local developments in light of an international antiterrorist opposition.

Successful solution to antiterrorist problems depends, to a great extent, on the evolution of the highly complicated political and economic problems in the Transcaucasian states, their domestic and foreign policies, and on certain factors generated outside these countries.

First, it should be noted that geopolitically the Transcaucasian states are found in the border areas where the interests of the North, West, and South meet and where Christian and Muslim cultures have intermingled. The situation is aggravated by the arc of instability that crosses the area and by the repeated attempts to turn the territory into one of the international terrorist bases.

Second, the highly adverse social and economic situation in the Transcaucasian states, especially in Georgia and Armenia and, to a certain extent, in Azerbaijan deprives their leaders of a firm political support on the domestic scene. Unemployment and poverty are still on the threateningly high level relieved, to a certain extent, by recent large-scale labor migration to Russia. However, the recently achieved macroeconomic growth mainly in Azerbaijan and Armenia gives hope.1

Third, to detract the nation from the very complicated domestic political and economic problems the authorities are using (and obviously will continue to use in future) the external threat factor.

Fourth, continued smoldering of three conflicts (over Nagorny Karabakh, in Abkhazia and South Ossetia) does nothing to promote political peace and socioeconomic development and leaves its imprint on the regions future.

Fifth, the ever increasing attempts to use other states and international organizations to bring even more pressure on the opponents to achieve favorable solutions. I am convinced that this fully applies to Tbilisis recent attempts to play the Chechen card to force Moscow to exploit its influence on Sukhumi in exchange for Georgias constructive approaches to the situation at its border with Chechnia. Dissatisfaction with what the Minsk OSCE Group was doing belongs to the same context.

Sixth, there is a mounting awareness that the large foreign policy players have stepped up their rivalry in the Transcaucasus, that they are no longer satisfied with the economic sphere and are moving to the sphere of military policies. It seems that the attempts of the states outside the region to tip the regional balance of forces will create no advantages (small favors apart) for the Transcaucasian countries. The situation will be further destabilized, as the local problems will become parts of geopolitical rivalry.

The post 11 September highly fluid international situation, the events in Afghanistan and Iraq will influence the local situation and will test each of the Transcaucasian countries readiness to consistently fight terrorism, organized crime, and drug trafficking, and their foreign policy approaches and landmarks.

Finally, the factor of Russia that treats the Transcaucasus as one of foreign policy priorities and a region where its objective and obvious interests are concentrated. Russias dynamic economic development and settlement of the Chechen problem are affecting and will undoubtedly continue to affect the situation in the Transcaucasus. For historical, geographic and other reasons Russias continued positive development is of enormous importance for the region and it can be hardly overestimated.

Evolution of Political Forces in the Transcaucasus and Antiterrorist Struggle

The policy of all Transcaucasian states is highly personalized, therefore the personal factor is of special importance there.

From this point of view the situation in Azerbaijan is, on the whole, stable. President Heydar Aliev is an incontestable leader who enjoys support of the vast majority. Over 90 percent of the nation approved of his amendments to the countrys constitution at the 24 August, 2002 referendum.

On 9 October, 2003 his term will expire; in July the nation will be informed of the date of the next presidential elections. Aliev has already announced that he intended to run for another term. His personal charisma and balanced policy will almost certainly bring him victory. However, his age (he is 80) and possible health problems may prevent him from running. This explains why the republic is actively discussing the problem of continuity of power in Baku. Irrespective of concrete persons one can surmise that the present political course will be continued for domestic (a relatively stable political and economic system) and foreign policy (good and balanced relations with Russia, a Western and Turkish interest in internal stability in Azerbaijan because of the planned Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline) reasons. It is in the interests of Baku to preserve its present image accepted by the majority of the nation and the regional big players. One should take into account that Azerbaijan depends on the oil incomes that cover the larger part of its budget expenses.

Political situation will remain fairly stable in Armenia as wellthis is guaranteed by the recent re-election of President Kocharian in March 2003. There are no reasons to expect domestic political storms after the parliamentary elections of May 2003 though at times confrontation between the authorities and the opposition may aggravate. Economic situation will remain fairly complicated. It can be improved if the transport blockage is lifted (this can happen if the railway Erevan-Tbilisi-Sukhumi-Sochi is reopened) and the relations with Turkey are normalized. Both can happen.

Political prospects of both countries depend, to a great extent, on the Karabakh issue: any sudden developments may upset good prospects.

It is very hard to analyze the situation in Georgia. One thing is obvious: there are several reasons why the deep-cutting internal contradictions are very hard to overcome. There are no indications that the social and economic problems may be alleviated while the conflict potential is critically high not only because of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In the foreseeable future Tbilisi will find it hard to normalize relations with Adzharia, the second political center, Western Georgia where supporters of former president Zviad Gamsakhurdia are still strong, Samtskhe-Javakheti with predominant Armenian influence where the Armenian national movement Javakh enjoys great prestige. Possible return of Meskhetian Turks to this area (in accordance with Georgias pledge to repatriate them to Georgia until 2010 Tbilisi made in 1999 when joining the Council of Europe). They can be dispersed across the country or Georgia may try to avoid fulfilling this obligation, which will undoubtedly cause difficulties in its relations with Europe. The situation in Samtskhe-Javakheti may deteriorate if Tbilisi squeezes the Russian military base from Akhalkalaki. (It is not only of economic but also of moral and psychological significance for the local people who are afraid that Russians will be replaced with Turks.) It seems that their fears are not altogether unfounded: all other military objects in Georgia abandoned by Russia were hastily transferred to Turkey and the United States. The Pankisi Gorge may remain a source of tension (more of this below). In short, the ethnic and political map of Georgia looks like a patchwork leaving no hopes of stability either for the present or future.

Much will depend on economy though so far plagued by corruption, unemployment and mass emigration it mainly remains dystrophic. This can hardly offer a glimpse of hope. We have heard nothing about the intentions of the friends of Georgia to invest much money in its economy. Indeed, loud statements about the countrys desire to tie its future to Europe and NATO can bring no investments.

In these conditions the favorite gimmick of Tbilisis of defusing popular discontent by mobilizing the nation against enemies at home and abroad (which develops into anti-Russian, anti-Abkhazian, and anti-Osset actions and periodically mounts pressure on Adzharia) will be especially hazardous. The last local elections carried out in June 2002 demonstrated that the power of President Shevardnadze was declining: the pro-presidential parties had to be satisfied with a small fraction of votes.

It is too early to forecast the results of October 2003 parliamentary elections; it is impossible to say who will win the presidential elections scheduled for April 2005. Shevardnadze is a skillful politician whom the West knows well and highly appreciates thanks to his five-year span as the U.S.S.R. foreign minister. Today he is a hub of all the political system in the country and somehow keeps afloat. The constitution bans him to run for the president again; in addition, by that time he will be 77.

Today one can speak about three or four possible candidates from among the local political leaders, though the highly fluid situation may change by 2005. New strong figures may emerge to try to consolidate this small country with 180 political parties and 14 parliamentary factions.

In the recent years, the United States was stepping up its interest in Georgia. It will continue helping its leaders in the nearest future, too. In 2004, Washington plans to offer Tbilisi $75m2 to help it fight corruption, promote reforms, pay for the Train and Equip Program designed to deal with the problems of terrorism. (Ukraine can expect $94m; Armenia, $49.5; Azerbaijan, $41.5; Kazakhstan, $32m, and Belarus, $8m). The question of economic effectiveness of American aid merits special discussion.

Russia supplies Georgia with cheap energy, it agreed to restructure Georgias large state debt (that has topped $150m), and demonstrates patience in connection with the still unpaid electricity and gas bills to Russian companies (running to nearly $150m). Investments of the Russian firm Itera in the Azot chemical plant in Rustavi revived production and restored over 3 thou jobs. This is one of the few examples of revitalized Georgian enterprises.

Hundreds of thousands of Georgians who moved to Russia in the last ten years are supporting their families back at home. The Russian president pointed out that even though for a long time the situation in the Pankisi Gorge and along the entire stretch of the Russian-Georgian boundaries leaves much to be desired, hundreds of thousands of Georgians have a chance to work everywhere in Russia. A large part of the Georgian population is living on the money their relatives earn in Russia. There is an opinion that the total amount of money sent back from Russia is much larger than the budget revenues.

It is interesting to note that the Georgian leaders who until recently were insisting on liberating the country from foreign (Russian) military presence are now actively inviting third countries to use its military infrastructure. In March 2003, the RF Defense Ministry confirmed that the U.S. special services had inspected two Georgian airfields (in Kopitnari at Kutaisi and the former Soviet air base in Marneuli at Tbilisi). According to the press, the republic hoped to attract the Pentagons attention to the airfield of the former Russian military base in Vaziani (evacuated in 2000). Is there material interest? There is no doubt about it. There is also political interest behind this.

In March 2003, the Georgian parliament ratified an unprecedented agreement on military cooperation with the United States under which American military equipment could be brought into the country according to a simplified procedure while the U.S. military were granted visa-free entry into the republic, free movement across its territory and the right to carry arms while in Georgia. Recently, Russian radar stations detected reconnaissance aircraft U-2 flying along the Russian-Georgian border. Moscow asked Washington for explanations.3

Tbilisi is arranging its priorities to worsen the Russian-American relations so that to capture more attention from Washington. This holds no promise since the desired aim can be achieved only in the context of a sharp Russian-American confrontation. It seems that certain Georgian politicians have not yet ridden themselves of the old stereotypes and have failed to see that the world greatly changed over the last 15 to 20 years. It changed still more after 9/11 while the political weights of Russia and Georgia in the U.S. foreign policy priorities are different.

Antiterrorist Cooperation

Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia are insisting that the international community should step up its antiterrorist struggle. At the same time, each of these countries is pursuing a policy of its own.

It seems that Erevan that is actively cooperating with Moscow on the bilateral basis and in the regional organizations, the CIS Antiterrorist Center in particular, is less exposed to the problems created by terrorism. The Armenian leaders believe that the country is not directly threatened by international terrorists, though there is an awareness that the Armenian Nuclear Power Station may potentially attract them. It is believed that the Armenian special services are in control of the situation and that there can be no terrorist attacks on it.

Azerbaijan as a predominantly Muslim country is convinced that individuals, international criminals who have to be brought to the international court are responsible for the problem of international terror rather than Islam. The authorities have already banned the Human Appeal International that used charitable activities to screen its propaganda of religious hatred. Its head, a citizen of Sudan, was also an active member of the Muslim Brothers. Another organization, a Wahhabi Army of Allah supported by foreign religious extremists was also banned. Members of the extremist Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami party were arrested and brought to criminal court together with members of other similar organizations. Today, the country is free from officially registered Wahhabi organizations, yet in the north and the center there are Wahhabi cells. According to certain sources, they have a several thousand strong membership.

Baku supported the antiterrorist operation in Chechnia and resolutely condemned hostage-taking in Moscow in October 2002. On 14 October, 2002 it closed down the mission of Ichkeria in the republic and extradited to Russia those who had carried out a terrorist act in Buinaksk and were detained in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan extradited to Russia R. Akhmadov, one of the leaders of the brothers Akhmadov group that kidnapped people in Chechnia, and B. Murtazaev who had fought together with Shamil Bassaev. In 2002, Azerbaijan sentenced to various terms in prison 19 Azerbaijani citizens who had been fighting in K. Shabanovs group in Chechnia. The Azerbaijani special services deported R. Ishkildin to Russia, one of those who committed an act of terror on the Urengoi-Pomary-Uzhgorod gas pipeline. They also helped investigate the terrorist acts in Moscow, Volgodonsk, and Kaspiisk. At the same time, certain structures connected with Chechen fighters and international terrorists are still active in the republic (the Chechen Human Rights Center is one of them).

One cannot pass over in silence the attempts of both sides in the Nagorny Karabakh conflict to exploit the antiterrorist terms: Baku is accusing the Karabakh people of terrorism and aggressive separatism, and is calling to a crusade against them in the framework of global antiterrorist struggle. Erevan and Stepanakert, for their part, have detected irrefutable evidence of contacts between Baku and bin Laden who allegedly set up several training camps in Azerbaijan.

The situation with Georgia is much more complicated. Its leaders tried several times to play the Chechen card. In 1996-1999, Tbilisi maintained close contacts with Grozny: Georgian parliamentary delegations visited Chechnia while highly placed emissaries of the Chechen leaders frequented Tbilisi. The Plenipotentiary Representative Office of Ichkeria has been officially functioning in Georgia since 1997. It developed into a structure that coordinates financial and military aid to the Chechen fighters under the guise of distributing humanitarian aid among the Chechen refugees. It was at that time that the Chechen field commanders came to the Pankisi Gorge in the Akhmeta District of Georgia.

In the course of the 1999 antiterrorist operation in Chechnia the Georgian routes became even more important. Numerous facts testify that terrorists are using the Georgian territory to bring in all sorts of ammunition and reserves to Chechnia, to train and heal their fighters there and to let them retreat to Georgia for a breathing space. Georgia is used for propaganda purposes to camouflage their illegal activities, etc. The Pankisi Gorge where the Georgian authorities have no power has become home for over a thousand of fighters.

Late in 1999 and early in 2000 Movladi Udugov met in Georgia with bin Ladens personal representative. Some of the most odious terrorists such as R. Ghelaev (who spent nearly a year in the gorge after his group had been routed at the village of Komsomolskoe), I. Akhmadov, M. Musabaev, L. Shalaev, Gochiaev (one of those who organized blasts of apartment blocs in Moscow) were also seen in Georgia. In 2000-2001, international terrorists increased their pressure on Georgian economy to launder their money through the gambling business, trade, hotels, and the realty market.

One is tempted to ask: What has official Tbilisi done to settle the crisis situation that threatens stability, security, and territorial integrity of Georgia and the neighboring state in general and in connection with U.N. antiterrorist resolution No. 1373? Throughout the recent years Tbilisi acted half-heartedly against international terrorists while its cooperation with the Russian power structures was purely superficial. Tbilisi has chosen to interpret Moscows insistent invitations to act together as unfounded attempts to draw Georgia into a large Caucasian war, as a threat to its independent foreign policy course, etc.

The eleventh of September put the Georgian leaders into a quandary: on the one hand, it became harder to encourage international terrorists. Georgia had to justify its actions not only to Russia but also to the entire international community, and worst of all, to the Americans. On the other, its position was determined by weakness of the authorities who preferred to leave the terrorists in peace to preserve their own personal safety. In this context the Georgian leaders tried to maneuver so that to resolve the problem: they made several efforts to bring law and order to the country while flirting with the terrorists. They also tried to put the blame on Abkhazia and South Ossetia as two vehicles of aggressive nationalism and separatism.

The Pankisi Gorge that the terrorists stuffed with weapons, ammunition, medicines and foodstuffs, communication centers, training camps, etc. remained the worst headache for the Georgian leaders. Wounded fighters were dispatched to the gorge for treatment, numerous hostages were also kept there. The Pankisi story offers the best illustration and deserves to be studied in detail.

Tbilisi spent much efforts and time trying to deny the presence of fighters and to insist that the gorge housed refugees: women, old people, and children. According to President Shevardnadze, there is no ground to say that Chechens get arms from Georgia or that there are their bases on its territory.4 He insisted: The situation there is absolutely normal,5 and added: I personally traveled from one village to another in search of terrorists and found none.6 It should be added that at that time fighters controlled 17 settlements in the gorge and were actively driving away Georgians and Ossets from their own homes.

Later Tbilisi somewhat altered its position. The president agreed: There are about 100-120 people from Chechnia who joined their relatives in the gorge.7 At the same time, he tried to vindicate odious terrorist R. Ghelaev by describing him as a normal and well-educated person.8 It should be said that bin Laden received good education as well but this does not make him a saint.

It was in November 2001 that Eduard Shevardnadze had to admit: In very harsh conditions eight thousand people approached the frontier... Those who crossed it became refugees. Can there be criminals among them? Yes, there is no doubt about it.9 In an effort to shift the blame on Russia from the territory of which (Chechnia) terrorists crossed over to Georgia the Georgian president deliberately ignored the fact that back in August 1999 when extremists had attacked Daghestan Moscow suggested that the Russian military deployed in Georgia should approach the border from the Georgian territory to block out the fighters.10 Later in the same month the Georgian president admitted: I can agree that there are fighters in the gorgeat least 200 or 300 of them.11

In April 2002, the United States and Georgia signed an agreement on the Train and Equip Program of military aid within which four Georgian rapid deployment battalions (total strength about 2 thou) were trained. Russia has chosen not to demonize this rather limited military cooperation, though its purposes invited questions. In response to Moscows reaction American officials hastened to explain that the military aid program was aimed against the international terrorists in the Pankisi Gorge and that it would not be used to settle the Abkhazian and South Ossetian issue by force. Tbilisi officially confirmed this.

On 24 May, 2002 the presidents of Russia and the United States issued a joint statement in which they said: We reconfirm our readiness to cooperate with the government of Georgia in antiterrorist struggle and hope that the presence of terrorists in this country will be ended.12 On the next day, 25 May, 2002 Minister of State Security of Georgia Valery Khaburdzania admitted that there were up to 800 armed people in Pankisi who had come from Chechnia and about 100 Arabs. In this way the Georgian interpretation became more realistic and moved closer to the way the international community was interpreting the situation in the gorge and around it.

Between 1999 and 2002, Tbilisi considerably readjusted its position and moved away from its previous complete rejection of the presence of international terrorists in Georgia to an equally complete admission of this fact. Unfortunately, the presence of hundreds of terrorists in the republic and several illegal armed groups consisting of citizens of many countries did not mean that Tbilisi was prepared to act. It continued its policy of evasion by posing as a scapegoat and a victim.

In August 2002, 60 terrorists crossed over to Russia. Those who were captured admitted that the group had been trained for a long time in the Akhmeta District and had been equipped with communication means, portable rocket complexes, and other contemporary weapons. They also said that it was Georgian border guards who showed them the safest routes across the border. In this context President Putin made a statement on 11 September, 2002 in which he pointed out that since the Georgian leaders could not create a safety zone along the border with Russia and if they continued ignoring Resolution 1373 of the U.N. Security Council of 28 September, 2001 and failed to put an end to raids into the neighboring Russian areas, Russia would reserve the right to act according to Art 51 of the U.N. Charter that says nothing shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations.13

The Russian president emphasized: This will not be needed, no special measures and special operations will be needed if the Georgian leaders establish control over their own territory, fulfill their international obligations in the sphere of struggle against international terrorism and prevent any possible attacks of international terrorists from their territory on the territory of the Russian Federation.14

It should be said that the later meetings between Eduard Shevardnadze and Vladimir Putin, one of them in Kishinev in October 2002, urged Tbilisi to take certain measures, though not all what had been promised was fulfilled.

The so-called anti-criminal operation in the Pankisi Gorge carried out by the Georgian special services between September 2002 and early 2003 brought certain results: the gorge was cleared of some of the criminal elements. Though the real situation is not as brilliant as Tbilisi tried to present it. There are huge amounts of weapons stored in the gorge; the fighters whom Tbilisi warned in advance about the operation dispersed and are biding for time. Many of them bought Georgian passports.

On the whole Tbilisi failed to fulfill everything on which the president of Russia had insisted in September 2002: there are no blocked and disarmed terrorists, no fighters arrested and brought to court, no bandits extradited or at least deported from Georgia. Forty people, mainly heads of criminal groups, were arrested. The majority of the fighters who dispersed across the territory along the borders with Russia were ready to strike again. Citizens of Arab countries who planned terrorist acts with poisonous substances and were arrested in Paris in mid-December 2002 and in London in January 2003 admitted that they had been trained in the Pankisi Gorge.

Since August 2002 Russia had been insisting on the extradition of those of the terrorists detained on the Georgian side of the border who are still being kept in Georgia despite court rulings, the decision of the European Human Rights Court, etc. Tbilisi goes on with formulating new conditions and inventing new pretexts to keep the terrorists in Georgia. It likewise failed to close down the so-called Office of Ichkeria in Tbilisi that is widely using the Georgian mass media. This is another circumstance that casts doubt on the Georgian leaders sincerity. We should bear in mind that Moscow promptly extradited to Georgia several Georgian terrorists detained in Chechnia in December 2002.

Obviously, the future of Georgia depends, to a great extent, on its effective antiterrorist struggle: indeed, the country does not need terrorists engaged in drug trafficking and money laundering. For several years now this problem has been undermining the efforts to strengthen Caucasian security and is creating tension between Russia and Georgia.

It seems that both Moscow and Tbilisi can move forward in settling this problem. Much will depend on Tbilisis ability to achieve real progress and on political developments in Chechnia.

Regional Cooperation

The high conflict potential of the Caucasus does not allow us to expect intensive regional cooperation, yet there are first shoots of it. I have in mind the Caucasian Four.

The first meeting of the presidents of Russia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia took place in June 1996 in Kislovodsk. In 2000-2003, the intensity never slackened: the presidents of the Caucasian Four met five times. The summits provided a better understanding of the present state of affairs and the future of cooperation in the field of terrorist struggle, settlement of regional conflicts and of other vitally important problems.

Recently, the summits have been supported by regular contacts between heads of parliaments and ministers of the interior of the four countries (the Borzhomi Four). Starting with 2002 secretaries of the security councils of the four states have been meeting regularly.

This cooperation might have produced even better results but for the Karabakh issue and the attempts of certain countries to sow discord in the region and to detach Armenia from Russia. Still, we can forecast certain progress in such spheres as health services, education, culture, environmental protection, and prevention of natural and technogenic calamities. There is no doubt that regional and transborder economic and humanitarian contacts will continue developing, though not without problems.

All Caucasian states need this cooperation which will expand as the most acute problems are resolved. On the other hand, the Four may help settle them by elaborating individual elements of the road map of the regions pacification, security, stronger sovereignty and territorial integrity of each state. The realization of the common destiny and culture will become stronger together with nostalgic feelings for the good traditions of the past that used to tie the Caucasian peoples with thousands of threads.

* * *

By way of conclusion I would like to say that we should pay more attention to the Caucasus where serious threats and challenges are concentrated on the limited territory. Strategically, the local countries have many common interests. It is signally important to restore the normal level of cooperation and to achieve positive shifts in dealing with the key problems.

One would like to hope that in the foreseeable future an increased interest in the region will be no longer determined by numerous problems but by its confident advance toward peace and prosperity. This will make professional involvement in the Transcaucasian developments not only interesting but also extremely gratifying.


1 In 2002, GDP in Azerbaijan increased by 110.6 percent; in Armenia, by 112.9 percent; in Georgia, 105.4 percent (press release of the CIS Interstate Committee for Statistics, 10 February, 2003).
2 The USIA site, 27 March, 2003.
3 Interfax-novosti, 26 March, 2003.
4 Svobodnaia Gruzia, 3 July, 2000.
5 Svobodnaia Gruzia, 9 January, 2001.
6 ITAR-TASS, 6 March, 2001.
7 Interfax, 22 September, 2001.
8 Lenta novostei, 8 November, 2001.
9 Svobodnaia Gruzia, 20 November, 2001.
10 Interview of Sergei Ivanov to Kommersant, Infocentre.ru, 16 September, 2002.
11 Vek, No. 44, 6-16 November, 2001.
12 ITAR-TASS, 24 May, 2002.
13 ITAR-TASS, 12 September, 2002.
14 ITAR-TASS, 12 September, 2002.

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