Richard Giragosian, an Armenian Assembly affiliate, a colleague of Vartan Oskanian and a regular contributor to "Radio Liberty" is one such character. Operating a so-called "Think Tank" in Yerevan called ACNIS, agent Giragosian is tasked with spreading political rumor and anti-Russian propaganda in Armenia with the sole intent of weakening Armenia's crucial ties with Russia. Armenians have made me realize that democracy in Armenia could prove suicidal.
Have no doubt: just like when when they allowed Turks to occupy northern Cyprus, just like when they ousted Serbs from their historic lands and put them under the care of Turkish backed Muslim Bosnians and Albanians, just like when they attempted to do the same in northern Caucasus by organizing Islamic terrorists against the Russian state, just like when Turkey was ready to invade Armenia in 1993 had it not been for the Russian military stopping them - Western leaders would have looked the other way while Turkey and Azerbaijan took their turns raping Armenia on several occasions during the past twenty years. And to make us ever gullible Armenians content, Western leaders would have then allowed our diasporan organizations to organize solemn candlelight vigils in their Capitols where the self-ordained protectors of freedom and democracy on God's green earth would serve us heartrending speeches from our podiums and vociferously and courageously call on Turks to stop their molestation of Armenians!!! Silly Armenians...
The lengthy essay presented below is a 1996 "analytical" piece brought to you by The Heritage Foundation, an affiliate of the infamous Project for a New American Century, both being Neoconservative political Think Tanks that also helped bring us the anti-Russian/anti-Christian Islamic insurgency in the North Caucasus, the Islamic mutilation of Serbia, the September 11, 2001 attacks on America, the unending "War on Terrorism", the Iraq invasion, the Afghanistan invasion, the periodic violations of Lebanon's sovereignty and the upcoming violation of Iran's sovereignty. Those of you interested in this very important topic should devote some time and read the presented master plan called the "New Great Game" for the Caucasus and Central Asia - a strategic agenda as envisioned by powerful Russophobes in Washington during the mid-1990s when Russia was on its knees. The reader should also take into close consideration that this is the public, general version of the agenda in question. Details, such as plan execution methods, are naturally kept under lock and key. Nevertheless, this essay will help the reader better understand who/what makes government policy in Washington - regardless of who is the sitting president.
The second article at the bottom of this page is a recent independent report written by Thomas De Waal for the Foreign Policy Magazine. In it, Mr. Waal has the clearness of thought and the objectivity to more-or-less tell Washington - "it's time to stop seeing the South Caucasus as a geopolitical chessboard." Reading his encouraging words I'm comforted in knowing that I am not the only voice crying in the Cyberian wilderness. Yes, the West's "Great Game" has to stop in the Caucasus if we want the Caucasus, if we want Armenia, to attain sustainable peace and genuine development. The only way this can be achieve, however, is by utterly defeating Western, specifically Washingtonian, interests in the region.
The world now faces a choice between the cooperative exploitation by the East and West of natural resources or a wasteful struggle that could cost a fortune in blood and treasure. Regional conflicts in the Caucasus and Central Asia threaten to deny Western access to the vital oil and gas reserves the world will need in the 21st century. The wars in Chechnya, between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and in Georgia were started or exacerbated by the Russian military, and the outcome of these wars may determine who controls future pipeline routes. Moscow hopes that Russia will. Powerful interests in Moscow are attempting to ensure that the only route for exporting the energy resources of Eurasia will pass through Russia.
The U.S. needs to ensure free and fair access for all interested parties to the oil fields of the Caucasus and Central Asia. These resources are crucial to ensuring prosperity in the first half of the 21st century and beyond. Access to Eurasian energy reserves could reduce the West's dependence on Middle East oil and ensure lower oil and gas prices for decades to come. Moreover, oil revenues can boost the independence and prosperity of such Newly Independent States (NIS) as Azerbaijan and Georgia. For example, through production royalties, Azerbaijan could generate over $2 billion a year in revenue from its oil fields, while Georgia could get over $500 million annually from transit fees. With these new-found oil riches, non-Russian republics in the region would depend less on Russia, both economically and militarily. Independent and self-sufficient former Soviet states, bolstered by their oil revenues, would deny Russia the option of establishing a de facto sphere of influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia.
Two pipeline routes in Central Asia are under consideration. The first would allow oil to flow from the Azerbaijani Caspian Sea shelf to the Black Sea coast. The second would transport oil from the giant Tengiz oil field, developed by the U.S.-based Chevron corporation in Kazakhstan, in a westerly direction toward Europe and the Mediterranean. Western governments and oil companies participating in the Azerbaijani and Kazakhstani pipeline projects1 face a choice: Will a neo-imperialist Russia (aided and abetted by Iran) dominate the development of Eurasian oil and its exports, or will Russia be an equal and fair player in the region with Turkey, the three Caucasian states (Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan), and possibly Iran? The U.S. should respect the right of Russian companies to bid for the exploration and transport of oil and gas in the region. However, the West has a paramount interest in assuring that the Caucasian and Central Asian states maintain their independence and remain open to the West. Otherwise, Moscow will capture almost monopolistic control over this vital energy resource, thus increasing Western dependence upon Russian-dominated oil reserves and export routes.
In order to ensure free and fair access to the oil reserves in Central Asia, the U.S. should:
- Strive to preserve the independence and economic viability of the Newly Independent States in Central Asia. The U.S. should try to prevent the reconstitution of Moscow's sphere of influence in the southern parts of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). To achieve that end, it should endeavor to ensure that Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Georgia, and other Newly Independent States receive a fair portion of the oil revenues from the region. Moreover, the U.S. should strengthen bilateral and multilateral political and military cooperation with these states.
- Ensure that Russia is not a dominant, but rather an equal partner in developing the oil resources of the Caucasus and Central Asia. Russian oil and gas companies should be allowed to participate in the development of Eurasian energy resources on an equitable basis with other countries in the region. That is their right. Forming partnerships with Western oil companies could turn the Russian business sector into an ally of the West. However, domination by military means should be rejected.
- Work through the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and through bilateral channels, to defuse ethnic conflicts in the Caucasus. Thus far, the West has focused mainly on settling the crisis in Bosnia, relegating the Caucasus region to the back burner. Now that a Bosnian settlement has been reached, the U.S. should endeavor to settle the conflicts in Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh. The OSCE would be a useful vehicle for pursuing these goals.
- Strengthen secular Muslim societies, notably Turkey and Azerbaijan, against Islamic militant groups. Both Russian geostrategic ambitions and Iranian-style religious militancy pose long-term threats to the Muslim societies of the region. These threats can be countered by helping to create free market economies, respect for the rule of law, and a civil society that respects democracy and political pluralism.
- Support the Western oil route through Turkey to reduce oil transportation hazards in the Bosphorus Straits. Absent a new oil pipeline, more potentially hazardous oil shipments will pass through the already clogged Bosphorus Straits. Oil tanker fires like the one in 1994 can block international shipping through the Boshporus for days, causing tens of millions of dollars in damage and threatening the lives and health of local citizens. The U.S. should support a pipeline route through the territory of Georgia and Turkey that will bring oil from Eurasia to a Mediterranean port such as Ceyhan in Turkey.
Wars Endangering Oil Transit Routes in the Caucasus
The War in Chechnya
One of the main goals of the Russian attack on Chechnya in December of 1994 was to ensure control of the oil pipeline which runs from Baku, via Grozny, the Chechen capital, to the Russian city of Tikhoretsk. The pipeline ends at the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk, designed by Russia to be the terminal for the proposed Kazakh and Azerbaijani pipelines.2 In addition, Grozny boasts a large refinery with a processing capacity of 12 million tons per year. During its brief self-proclaimed independence under President Jokhar Dudayev from 1991 to 1994, Chechnya illegally exported crude oil and refined products worth hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars. The rebel government worked closely with corrupt politicians in Moscow to obtain export licenses. Partly to cut off this activity, Russia launched a massive but covert military action in the fall of 1994 to support opponents of Dudayev. In 1994, Dudayev turned to radical Islamic elements in the Middle East and Central Asia for support. This exacerbated the religious aspect of the conflict between the Muslim Chechens and Christian Orthodox Russians.
The overt military action began on December 12, 1994, when the Russian army marched on Grozny, destroying Chechnya's capital city by brutal aerial, tank, and artillery bombardment. Since the start of the campaign, over 30,000 people have been killed, and more than 300,000 have become refugees. Hostilities continue, with hostage-taking crises erupting in July 1995 and January 1996.
The Drama in Georgia
Another conflict affecting potential oil routes is occuring in the Caucasus republic of Georgia. Russia wants to prevent oil from Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan from going the "Western" route through Georgia to Turkey. Moscow's support of civil strife in Georgia is directly connected to its goal of perpetuating conflict in the Caucasus. From 1991 through the end of 1993, Georgia was in the midst of a bloody civil war which pitted the supporters of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and ousted President Zviad Gamsakhurdia against each other. Political violence became chronic. Eventually, the defeated Gamsakhurdia either committed suicide or was murdered under mysterious circumstances in 1993. But even after his victory over Gamsakhurdia, Shevardnadze faced challenges from warlords and militias.
In exchange for crucial Russian support, Shevardnadze finally was forced to join the CIS in October 1993, a move he had bitterly opposed. When he attempted to read a press release announcing this step, Russian diplomats took it out of his hands and gave him a Moscow-authored text to read. Such was the degree of independence enjoyed by Shevardnadze at the hands of his Russian patrons. In 1995, Moscow brought pressure on Shevardnadze not to build a pipeline for Azeri oil through Georgian territory. The Georgians wanted to bring oil to the Georgian port of Supsa (between Poti and Tbilisi), from which it then would be exported by tanker to Turkey. However, the Russians demurred. Soon after Shevardnadze refused to cancel the pipeline plan, he was injured in an assassination attempt when a car bomb exploded next to his vehicle on August 29, 1995. Shevardnadze has insisted repeatedly that Russia was behind this attempt on his life. The suspected culprit -- Shevardnadze's security chief, Igor Georgadze -- has escaped to Russia and continues to threaten Shevardnadze's life.3 Shevardnadze demanded that the Russians extradite the suspect, and the Russian Prosecutor General's Office issued an order for his arrest. However, the Russian Interior Minister refused the extradition, and Georgadze is still at large.
The Fighting in Abkhazia
Another dangerous conflict is smoldering in Abkhazia, a breakaway region in Georgia. The bitter war in Abkhazia, which began in 1992, has claimed over 35,000 lives. It was precipitated by the Russian military backing the Abkhaz separatist minority against the Georgian government in Tbilisi. One purpose of the Russian intervention was to weaken Georgia and curb Turkish and Western influence in the region. But more important was the Russian goal of controlling access to oil. By acting as it did, Russia gained de facto control over the long Black Sea coastline in Abkhazia. Moscow also was protecting the Russian Black Sea ports of Novorossiysk and Tuapse and moving closer to the Georgian oil exporting ports in Poti, Supsa, and Batumi. In August 1995, Georgia's beleaguered President Shevardnadze agreed to place four Russian military bases on Georgian soil, thus assuring Russia's control of the oil exporting routes via the Black Sea coast. As Russia became entangled in Chechnya in 1994-1995, and word of Chechen commando training camps operating from Abkhazia spread, Moscow began to show less support for the Abkhaz rebels, who are allies of the Chechens. But Russia also has refused either to close the border with Abkhazia or to deny the separatist government in the Abkhaz capital, Sukhumi, financial and military support. Shevardnadze had hoped that this would be a Russian quid pro quo for his agreement to permit Russian military bases on Georgian territory.
The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict
Yet another bloody war affecting potential oil pipeline routes is occurring in Nagorno-Karabakh, a small, largely Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijan. The enclave of Karabakh sits astride a potential oil route from the Caspian Sea to Turkey. Populated mainly by Armenians, Karabakh was put under Azerbaijan's jurisdiction in 1921 after Stalin negotiated a treaty in the Transcaucasus between communist Russia and Turkey. Strife between the mainly Christian Armenians and Shi'a Muslim Azerbaijanis broke out in 1988. Full-scale war erupted in 1992, with the Armenians demanding complete independence for Karabakh or its absorption into Armenia. A cease-fire negotiated in May 1994 has been holding. The Armenians in Karabakh have proclaimed an independent republic, which Azerbaijan refuses to recognize. Thus far, Azerbaijan has suffered political and military defeat at the hands of the Armenians, losing one-fifth of its territory since the collapse of the Soviet Union. One million people, mostly Azerbaijanis, have become refugees as a result of the war. The Azeri capital of Baku has seen the government change three times since 1992.
Russia has supported the Armenians and the Azeris intermittently. In 1992, Moscow proposed that Russia become a guarantor of peace in the region, promising to send in 3,000 peacekeepers, but was rebuffed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a regional security group in Europe.4. The OSCE "Minsk group," which consists of Russia, the U.S., Turkey, France, Sweden, and Italy, has been charged with finding a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict but thus far has met with only limited success. Under Western pressure, Moscow has agreed to a multilateral OSCE peacekeeping force for Karabakh. However, this force has yet to materialize, and there is still no peace agreement between the warring parties.
Azerbaijan: Key Oil Region
The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh is important because of the immense oil reserves controlled by Azerbaijan. Since the late 19th century, the oil in Azerbaijan has played a key role in the economies of the Russian empire and the Soviet Union, as well as in the global energy market. International business interests, such as the Nobel and Rothschild families, and even conquerors like Adolf Hitler have all vied at different times for control of Azerbaijan's oil. Even after 100 years of Russian imperial and Soviet exploitation, Azerbaijan still has some of the largest reserves in the world. At stake today is a $6 billion, 4 billion barrel Caspian Sea shelf petroleum deal between Azerbaijan and a consortium of large international oil companies.5 Put simply, Russia opposes the deal. The Russian oil company Lukoil is part of this international consortium, but other Russian oil interests felt excluded, and the Russian foreign and defense ministries have come out squarely against the arrangement. In addition to demanding that at least 25 percent of the deal go to Russian firms (Lukoil gets only 10 percent), Moscow wants full control of the oil exports.
The Caspian Sea oil deal was facilitated first by President Abulfaz Elchibei, who was overthrown in June 1993 by former Azerbaijani KGB Chief and Brezhnev Politburo member General Heydar Aliev.6 While Elchibei was considered pro-Turkish, Aliev had a reputation for being pro-Russian. It was Aliev who signed the oil agreement in September 1994. On October 9, 1995, the Azerbaijani International Oil Consortium (AIOC) announced that "early" oil (approximately 80,000 barrels a month) would be split between two pipelines. The northern line would go to the Russian port of Novorossiysk (via unstable Chechnya) and the western line to the Georgian port of Supsa in two separate pipelines. This was a compromise decision supported by the Clinton Administration and aimed at placating Moscow, but it failed to do so.
Despite his attempts to accommodate Russia, Moscow apparently considers Aliev too independent. Therefore, the Kremlin is backing Suret Husseinov, a warlord who reportedly has good connections with Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev.7 Between 1993 and 1995, four unsuccessful coups were attempted against Aliev, reportedly with Moscow's support. Russia also is playing the ethnic separatism card against Aliev, bolstering the national movement of the Lezgin minority in the north of Azerbaijan and the movement of the Talysh minority in the south. Aliev has proved himself to be a tough survivor. Although Azerbaijan has joined the CIS, he has managed to resist the pressure to deploy Russian military bases or troops on Azerbaijani soil. However, Moscow probably can outwait Aliev, in the meantime fostering instability in Azerbaijan. Russia will attempt to block any large-scale production or exports of oil from Azerbaijan until such time as a more compliant man can be put in charge.
Oil Politics and Russian Imperialism in the "Near Abroad"
The main threat to the equitable development of Eurasian oil is the Russian attempt to dominate the region in a de facto alliance with the radical Islamic regime in Tehran.8 Russia benefits from instability in the Caucasus, where wars and conflicts undermine independence and economic development while hindering the export of oil from the region's states.9 Moscow has gone beyond words to establish its power in the Caucasus. The Russians are setting up military bases in the region in order to gain exclusive control over all future pipelines. Georgia now has four Russian bases and Armenia has three, while Azerbaijan is still holding out under severe pressure from Moscow. In addition, members of the Commonwealth of Independent States are required to police their borders jointly with Russian border guards, and thus are denied effective control over their own territory.
Attempts to Reintegrate the South
The struggle to reestablish a Russian sphere of influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia started in early 1992. While not a full-scale war, this struggle employs a broad spectrum of military, covert, diplomatic, and economic measures. The southern tier of the former Soviet Union is a zone of feverish Russian activity aimed at tightening Moscow's grip in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse. The entire southern rim of Russia is a turbulent frontier, a highly unstable environment in which metropolitan civilian and military elites, local players, and mid-level officers and bureaucrats drive the process of reintegration.10
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, President Boris Yeltsin called for a re-examination of Russia's borders to the detriment of her neighbors, especially Ukraine and Kazakhstan. For example, upon his return from a state visit to the U.S. in September 1994, Yeltsin reiterated Russia's "right" to conduct "peacemaking" in the "near abroad," to protect Russian speakers and to exercise freedom of action in its sphere of influence.11 These statements were echoed on numerous occasions by former Russian Foreign Minister Andrey Kozyrev and other key policymakers in Moscow. In his September 1995 Decree "On Approval of the Strategic Policy of the Russian Federation Toward CIS Member States,"12 Yeltsin outlined plans to create a CIS military and economic union. Some observers have termed this design an informal empire "on the cheap," a "sustainable empire" which is less centralized than the old Soviet Union.13 The aim of such an arrangement would be to ensure Russia's control of the oil and gas reserves in Eurasia.
Competing political interests inside Russia's neighbors often prompt local elites to challenge the faction in power and to seek Moscow's support. For example, Russian oil chieftains in Kazakhstan and military commanders who are still in place in Moldova and Georgia naturally maintain close links with Moscow. Where it lacks troops on the ground, Moscow supports the most pro-Russian faction in the conflict, such as Trans-Dniestrian ethnic Russians in Moldova, the separatist Abkhazs in Georgia, warlords and former communist leaders in Azerbaijan, and pro-communist clans in Tajikistan. This is a classic scenario for imperial expansion. What is common to these conflicts is that without Russian support, the pro-Moscow factions (regardless of their ethnicity) could not have dominated their respective regions, and would be forced to seek negotiated and peaceful solutions. In each case, appeals by the legitimate governments of the Newly Independent States to restore their territorial integrity were ignored by Moscow.
Russian political elites have not overcome the imperialist ideology that inspired both pre-1917 and Soviet expansionism. For today's Moscow bureaucrats and generals, as for their predecessors in St. Petersburg prior to 1917, the turbulent southern periphery is a potential source of political fortunes, promotions, and careers. For Russian politicians in search of a grand cause, re-establishing the empire and paying for it with Eurasian oil revenues is a winning proposition, especially in the murky environment in the aftermath of imperial collapse.
Key Russian Players in the Great Oil Game
The Russian military and security services are by far the most resolute driving force behind the restoration of a Russian-dominated CIS. They are playing a key role in ensuring Moscow's control over the pipeline routes. The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Berlin Wall terminated, at least temporarily, confrontation with the West, leaving the Red Army's General Staff, the Russian military intelligence (GRU), and the former KGB desperately seeking new missions. The biggest of these new missions is to establish control over Caucasus and Central Asian oil, establishing a Russian sphere of influence in the process.
The Russian army and security services seek to deny foreign companies the right to export oil without their control. Russian military activities over the last four years indicate an attempt to consolidate strategic control of oil sources and export routes in Eurasia. For example, the war in Chechnya blocked an important pipeline from Azerbaijan through Grozny, and the victory of the Abkhaz separatists, supported by the Russian military, further secured the Russian oil terminals in the ports of Novorossiysk and Tuapse. In order to obtain an oil route in the region, Western exporters may be pressured to reach accomodations with the Russian generals.
The Russian intelligence services are also involved. The successor to the KGB's First Chief Directorate, now known as the Foreign Intelligence Service of Russia (SVRR) and led until January 1996 by KGB general and now Foreign Minister Evgenii Primakov, published an important document in 1994 on Russia's policies in the "near abroad," called "Russia-CIS: Does the Western Position Require Correction?"14 General Primakov's staff argued that any attempt to integrate the CIS states into the global economy without Moscow's cooperation is doomed to fail. Russia already has effectively stopped Kazakhstani and Azerbaijani joint oil exporting ventures in their tracks.
The states of the CIS's southern tier were coerced by Russia even before they declared their independence from the USSR. Moscow incited local pro-Russian factions, such as Abkhazians in Georgia, Armenians in Karabakh, and hard-line communist pro-Russian clans in Tajikistan, to challenge the independence and territorial integrity of these nascent states. The Russian military provided advisers, hardware, training, planning, and coordination for the military activities in these areas. As a result, hundreds of thousands have been left dead, wounded, or homeless. In addition, these violent conflicts blocked the transit routes to the West for Caspian and Central Asian oil.
The U.S. Role in the Great Game
Much is at stake in Eurasia for the U.S. and its allies. Attempts to restore its empire will doom Russia's transition to a democracy and free-market economy. The ongoing war in Chechnya alone has cost Russia $6 billion to date (equal to Russia's IMF and World Bank loans for 1995). Moreover, it has extracted a tremendous price from Russian society. The wars which would be required to restore the Russian empire would prove much more costly not just for Russia and the region, but for peace, world stability, and security.
As the former Soviet arsenals are spread throughout the NIS, these conflicts may escalate to include the use of weapons of mass destruction. Scenarios including unauthorized missile launches are especially threatening. Moreover, if successful, a reconstituted Russian empire would become a major destabilizing influence both in Eurasia and throughout the world. It would endanger not only Russia's neighbors, but also the U.S. and its allies in Europe and the Middle East. And, of course, a neo-imperialist Russia could imperil the oil reserves of the Persian Gulf.15
Domination of the Caucasus would bring Russia closer to the Balkans, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Middle East. Russian imperialists, such as radical nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, have resurrected the old dream of obtaining a warm port on the Indian Ocean. If Russia succeeds in establishing its domination in the south, the threat to Ukraine, Turkey, Iran, and Afganistan will increase. The independence of pro-Western Georgia and Azerbaijan already has been undermined by pressures from the Russian armed forces and covert actions by the intelligence and security services, in addition to which Russian hegemony would make Western political and economic efforts to stave off Islamic militancy more difficult.
Eurasian oil resources are pivotal to economic development in the early 21st century. The supply of Middle Eastern oil would become precarious if Saudi Arabia became unstable, or if Iran or Iraq provoked another military conflict in the area. Eurasian oil is also key to the economic development of the southern NIS. Only with oil revenues can these countries sever their dependence on Moscow and develop modern market economies and free societies. Moreover, if these vast oil reserves were tapped and developed, tens of thousands of U.S. and Western jobs would be created. The U.S. should ensure free access to these reserves for the benefit of both Western and local economies.
In order to protect U.S. and Western interests in Eurasia and ensure free and fair access to the oil reserves of the region, the United States should:
- Strive to preserve the independence and economic viability of the New Independent States in the region. In cooperation with Britain, Germany, and France, the U.S. should prevent the reconstitution of Moscow's sphere of influence in the southern CIS. The West should not grant Moscow carte blanche in the "near abroad" in exchange for cooperation in Bosnia. The U.S. should lead other Western countries in implementing programs that support independent statehood, free-market development, and the rule of law in Azerbaijan, Georgia, and the Central Asian states. Training for the civil and security services of these countries should be stepped up, and economic reforms, including privatization of industries and agriculture, should be continued. Moreover, sanctions on technical and humanitarian assistance to Azerbaijan, imposed at the height of the Karabakh conflict, should be lifted to increase Washington's leverage in settling the conflict there.
- Ensure that Russia is not a dominant, but rather an equal partner in developing the oil resources of the Caucasus and Central Asia. Russian oil companies should be assured of equitable access to the development of oil resources and pipeline projects. The strategic goal of the West should be the creation of a level playing field that allows Russian and Western corporations to participate in the development of Eurasian energy resources on an equal footing. If cooperation from Russia is not forthcoming, the U.S. should oppose attempts by the Russian security establishment to impose a single direction for the pipelines -- i.e., north, via Russian territory. This kind of geopolitical diktat would give Moscow an unacceptable level of control over the flow of oil to Western markets and would make the West vulnerable to Russia's political whims. The U.S. government should demand that Russia stop fostering conflicts in the area. At the same time, Washington should promise that the interests of Russian companies operating in the region will be taken into account in current and future oil consortia.
- Work through the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and through bilateral channels, to defuse ethnic conflicts in the Caucasus. The OSCE has been charged by its members with settling the conflicts in Chechnya, Abkhazia, and Karabakh. This authority is recognized by Russia. So far, the OSCE has not been successful. To become more so, the OSCE should step up efforts to bring together the leaders of the Newly Independent States and separatist ethnic groups so they can find acceptable political solutions to the conflicts in the region. The OSCE should assign senior politicians to mediate in order to prevent new conflicts, particularly between the Azerbaijanis and the Lezgin and Talysh minorities in Azerbaijan, or between the Georgians and the Adzhar minority. An OSCE-sponsored conference to promote minority rights in the Southern CIS would be in order. The U.S. and its allies should support the OSCE's efforts and initiate a bilateral dialog with leaders of the ethnic groups to assist them in finding a modus vivendi in their countries.
- Strengthen secular Muslim societies, notably Turkey and Azerbaijan, against Islamic militant groups. Both Russian ambitions and Islamic radicalism threaten the pro-Western orientation of regimes in the region. Economic development, support for basic human rights, and cultural affinity with the West are important to prevent a radicalization of Islamic politics in the region. An important ally in this regard is Turkey. The U.S. should support Turkey's bid for membership in the European Union. Turkish efforts have been sidetracked by the Europeans because of Ankara's crackdown on the Kurds last year. Washington should urge the Europeans to refrain from rejecting Turkish Westernizers and pushing the Turks into the hands of militant Islamists.
- Support the Western oil route through Turkey to reduce oil transportation hazards in the Bosphorus Straits. As an important U.S. ally and founding NATO member, Turkey has raised serious concerns regarding tanker exports of Eurasian oil through the narrow and twisting Bosphorus Straits. Istanbul, the largest city in Turkey, would be endangered by the nonstop tanker traffic the exports of vast new quantities of Eurasian oil would require.
The struggle for Eurasian oil is a multifaceted game. It involves security, geopolitical, and economic interests not only Russian and Eurasian, but American and Western as well. In Russia, nothing less than democracy is at stake. If Russia pursues a cooperative engagement with the West in the Caucasus, it will strengthen its economic and political integration with the West. However, if it chooses to challenge the West and reverts to its old imperial ways, Moscow likely will become increasingly hostile toward the West in other areas as well.
The oil and gas reserves of the Caucasus and Central Asia are vital to Western geostrategic and economic interests in the 21st century. They have the potential to secure prosperity and economic growth bolstered by low oil prices. In addition, these resources are key to ensuring revenues and, with them, the sovereignty of the Newly Independent States. In addition, the wealth brought by oil can fuel both economic and democratic development in the Caucasus and Central Asia, fostering the independence and freedom of countries which serve in turn as an obstacle to potential Russian imperial expansion.
The Russian military and political establishment is attempting to impose a sphere of influence on the CIS and secure control of the region's oil. If a hardliner wins the Russian presidential elections in June 1996, these efforts may redouble. A major campaign to assert influence in the Russian "near abroad" would be a setback for U.S. interests. In addition, control of the Caucasus and Central Asia would allow Russia geographical proximity to, and closer cooperation with, the anti-Western regimes in Tehran and Baghdad. Together, an anti-Western Russia, Iran, and Iraq, if they desired, could pursue a common interest in driving up the price of oil.
To counter this prospect, the U.S. and the West need to convince the Russians to approach the oil question in Eurasia as an economic, not geopolitical, opportunity. The U.S. should reassure Russia that its companies will be included in future economic ventures in the region. Russian companies alone do not have the technological and financial resources to develop the hydrocarbon reserves of Eurasia. They will need Western oil companies to do that.
The first mirage may be the oldest: the notion that the region is a "Great Chessboard" where the big powers push the locals around like pawns to serve their own goals. That is not what actually happens. In actual fact, however the geopolitical weather changes, the locals always manage to manipulate the outside powers at least as much as the other way round. In the 21st century the Caucasus is still the Caucasus, in all its complexity and variety -- not an assimilated province of Russia, Turkey, or Iran. The peoples of the Caucasus may be too weak to prosper, but they remain strong enough to withstand fading into their bigger neighbors. You could call it a "balance of insecurity." Over the course of history, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, and Georgians, as well as the region's other smaller ethnic groups, have all persistently survived invasion and resisted assimilation. It's true the price of survival has come in the form of Faustian pacts with other Great Powers, in which the Azerbaijanis allied themselves with Turks and British; Georgians with Germans and British; Armenians, Abkhaz and Ossetians with Russians.
The outside power that has most determined the fate of the region over the last century has been Soviet Russia, which for a period of time did not so much resolve the contradictions of the Caucasus as smother them. Beginning in 1920, the region was under the Soviets' suffocating authoritarian rule. When Soviet power waned in the late Gorbachev period, the pendulum swung again. The years 1919 and 1991 bore many similarities; Abkhaz and Ossetians sought Russian assistance against what they saw to be a Georgian nationalist threat, while newly independent Georgia looked to new Western allies to protect itself against a perceived Russian threat. Fast forward to August 2008, and long-simmering tensions helped make South Ossetia the arena of the worst clash between Russia and the United States since the end of the Cold War.
Given the complexity of these relationships, it is better to describe this picture not as a giant chessboard, but as a castle of dominoes, wherein the whole construction totters if you dislodge one piece. The second mirage is that of the Russian bear looming over this region ready to maul the relatively defenseless Caucasian peoples, even today. I believe this outlook is exaggerated. To be sure, Russia is still the most powerful outside actor in the region. In the 1990s, the Russian military indeed meddled disastrously in the conflicts of the region and still has troops stationed just 30 miles from Tbilisi in the town of Akhalgori.* Yet Russia's capacity to control events is far less than most observers assume. It is geography that firstly limits Russia's role here. Both the physical barrier of the Greater Caucasus range and the strong histories of independent statehood in the southern Caucasus forced tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union to rely on local leaders to maintain their rule. The number of ethnic Russians present in these areas has always been small. Even today Russia has very few people and direct levers to pull here.
Many Western analysts saw the 2008 war as evidence of Russia's neo-imperialist plans for domination in the South Caucasus and the "near abroad" in general. In actual fact, Moscow has spent much of the last two years offering incentives and gifts to Armenia and Azerbaijan, while President Dmitry Medvedev has personally invested time and effort in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process. Russia's recent consolidation of a military alliance with Armenia cannot disguise a long-term strategic retreat from the Caucasus where the local players, including the Armenians, prefer to have multiple partnerships and not just one. Today the Caucasus is a neighborhood where Russia is one of several international players and where economic, not military, tools are the ones that matter.
Even in the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which have both accepted de facto Russian control as a price for their de facto secession from Georgia, Russia's stake is not as heavy as it looks. Moscow is investing millions of dollars in the territories, money that it needs to spend elsewhere. Almost no other country has followed Russia's example in recognizing the two territories as independent; Moscow's move has stirred up discontent in the restive North Caucasus. In the long-term a truce over these frozen conflicts may be possible, primarily because international deadlock over these two territories reduces Moscow's ability to deal with an even more urgent security problem: its own turbulent North Caucasus. Russia cannot stabilize Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia on its own, but eventually needs the help of Georgians, Abkhaz, Ossetians and the West to do so. A deal over South Ossetia, which was always economically part of Georgia and is linked to Russia by just one tunnel through the mountains, is certainly achievable in the next decade.
So the all-powerful Russian bear is something of an illusion; Moscow remains a prickly and unpredictable beast certainly, but not an omnipotent one. A third mirage is the perception of the South Caucasus as an area of great Western strategic interest -- an approach, paradoxically, that actually does more harm than good. Two factors have led to the point of view that the South Caucasus is of such global import: first, the desire to see the region as a new essential energy corridor for the West; second, the desire to see it as a zone for NATO enlargement. In energy terms, the South Caucasus is indeed an important transport corridor for Caspian Sea oil and gas; there were good reasons why Azerbaijan needed pipeline routes independent of Russia and Iran. Oil pumped through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline has also brought billions of dollars of much-needed revenue to Azerbaijan -- and rather less to Georgia. Caspian Sea gas has lessened the reliance of both countries on Russian gas. But many Western policymakers have incorrectly treated pipeline policy as a zero-sum strategic game.
In the 1990s, several new Caspian enthusiasts allowed themselves to believe extravagant claims about the oil reserves of the Caspian Sea, comparing them to those of Kuwait or Saudi Arabia. These claims later turned out to be highly exaggerated. A pair of unhelpful metaphors made things worse. The image of a "new Silk Road" stretching from Central Asia across to the Black Sea, pretty though it sounds, unfortunately conjured up a medieval era of pre-modern principalities. And the idea of a "Great Game" comparing the new interest in the South Caucasus with the struggle for influence between tsarist Russia and Great Britain in Central Asia and Afghanistan in the 19th century cast the locals as passive objects and Moscow in the role of a deadly rival. These metaphors unduly raised the hopes of small nations that they were essential to the West, while antagonizing Russia. In retrospect, strategic ambitions to establish a position in the region ran ahead of a more sober assessment of its place on the European energy map and its economic needs.
The second grand strategic vision imposed on the Caucasus the West was that of NATO expansion into Georgia. The issue on the table was not really Georgia's right to join NATO -- something that the Georgian public voted for by a good majority in a referendum. The issue was whether active pursuit of this was a good policy for either Georgia or NATO - it is now clear that it was not. The effort did not improve Georgia's security, and NATO was not ready for a country with undeveloped armed forces and weak state institutions, as well as two unresolved conflicts on its territory. As became clear in August 2008, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili believed he had far more support in Washington for his actions over South Ossetia than he actually did. When that conflict had played itself out, Georgia was left with neither Abkhazia and South Ossetia, nor a Membership Action Plan for joining NATO.
Far better than this kind of rhetorical and selective strategic engagement would have been more focused lower-level investment in institution-building. That would at least have allowed the locals to make sober assessments of their own capacities and what they themselves should ask from Western patrons with limited attention spans. This leads me to the paradoxical thought that a healthy dose of strategic insignificance would be very positive for the South Caucasus. Viewing the region in this light would allow outsiders and locals alike to concentrate on solving essential everyday problems. I believe the South Caucasus would benefit from a truce between the latter-day Great Powers, in which they accept the interests of the others, so long as their intentions are not hostile. The outsiders should agree not to provide offensive weapons to the region and to work together to halt any slide to conflict. That vision only makes sense if the region belongs to no security organization-its in-between status making it a zone of neutrality rather than conflict.
At the moment that vision is clearly utopian, given the heavy Russian presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia and the smoldering volcano of the Karabakh dispute. Still, outsiders have the freedom to imagine a different future and frame their policies accordingly. Hand in hand with this goal goes an economic vision: Imagine the South Caucasus region as a free trade zone and communications hub, radiating out to five points of a star: to Russia, the Caspian Sea, Iran, Turkey and the Black Sea. The day the railway line is reopened through Russia, Abkhazia, Georgia, Armenia, the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan to Iran -- with a sideways connection to the Black Sea, Turkey and Europe -- is the day the South Caucasus regains its role as a region with real prospects for the future.
Few locals and outsiders think in these terms. Narrow bilateralism is an abiding problem in Caucasus policy -- a problem complicated by the multiple policy agendas of a country such as Russia or the United States. For instance, Washington has an Armenia policy driven mostly by Congress and the more than a million Armenian Americans who make up a powerful domestic lobby. Meanwhile, it has an Azerbaijan policy, whose advocates in the energy companies and in the military are focused on that country as a source of oil and gas and as an over-flight station for troops and supplies headed to Afghanistan. And there is Washington's Georgia policy, which for a time was the prize exhibit in President Bush's "democratization agenda." The point is that with few exceptions, almost no one in Washington is thinking of how to approach the South Caucasus as a region, whose economic needs and security problems are inter-connected and best resolved by a holistic regional approach.
Meanwhile, the most promising agents of change in the Caucasus receive far too little recognition. They are small businessmen and traders born in the region. Often today they are working as entrepreneurs outside the Caucasus, not working to enrich the region itself. Small traders are no respecters of borders or ethnic difference and the mythical "ancient hatreds" that politicians sometimes conjure up to mobilize loyalty and hatred. International organizations have spent millions over the past two decades on peace-building projects in the South Caucasus, but the most effective catalysts for cross-border cooperation were two wholesale markets that were entirely spontaneous.
One was outside the village of Ergneti on the administrative border between South Ossetia and Georgia. Georgians and Ossetians traded almost everything, from cars to matches, and the profits of the market sustained South Ossetia for a decade. The second market was in the village of Sadakhlo inside Georgia but near the borders with both Armenia and Azerbaijan and an entreport for traders from both those countries - even as they were in a virtual state of war. The lesson of the two markets, both now sadly closed down, is this: the region is still a place of dynamic individuals, not only warring group identities. As for Western policy-makers, I believe they should ask themselves two questions every time they contemplate an intervention in the South Caucasus: "Is my action helping to open borders and free up a blocked region?" and "Does it empower ordinary people and not just governments?"