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New moves on Caucasus chessboard

By Paul Goble, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Asia Times, 21 April 1999

WASHINGTON - Several events in the southern Caucasus last week may lead to fundamental changes in power relationships not only there but across a much larger portion of the world as well. And because of that, some of the players both within the region and beyond appear to be positioning themselves to respond with new moves.

On Saturday, leaders from the Caucasus and Central Asia marked the opening of a 515-mile pipeline that will carry oil from the Caspian basin to the West. And on the same day, Ukraine, Georgia and Bulgaria signed a treaty creating a new Black Sea rail ferry route. These moves, widely welcomed in the West, will allow the countries of this region to reach Europe without going through either Russia or Iran.

Together, such shifts on the chessboard of the Caucasus may come to transform the geopolitical environment of both this region and Eurasia as a whole. As one senior Azerbaijan official put it, these steps mean the world to us, giving Baku direct access to the West and thus allowing Baku to free itself from Russia after 200 years.

Indeed, if both this pipeline and ferry arrangement work out, Russian leverage over these countries will decline still further. And as if to underline the decline in Russian power there, approximately 100 soldiers from Georgia, Azerbaijan and Ukraine held a four-day military exercise last week at the Krtsanissi range just east of Tbilisi.

While the number of troops involved is small, such a joint exercise highlights the continuing decay of the Russian-backed Commonwealth of Independent States as the chief security organization of the post-Soviet region. And it gives new content to GUAM, an organization that includes Moldova as well as the three countries taking part in these maneuvers.

Many Russian officials are likely to view this exercise as a direct challenge to Moscow, particularly because it comes on the heels of a decision by several CIS states not to continue to participate in the Commonwealth's defense agreement. Even more, officials in other countries in this region are certain to be following this exercise as a test of what may now be possible for them as well.

But precisely because so much is at stake not only for these countries but for others as well, several countries have moved some pieces on this chessboard as well. On Wednesday, Russia and Iran signed an agreement to cooperate in the exploitation of oil and gas resources in the region, a direct response to the new Azerbaijan-Georgia pipeline.

Russian oil minister Sergei Generalov and his Iranian opposite number Bijan Namdar Zanganeh initialed an accord that will expand the already large degree of cooperation between the two states from which many in the Caspian basin seek to become more independent. Whether this accord will give these two states more opportunities to counter the new east-west corridor in the southern Caucasus remains to be seen. But on Wednesday, Moscow took another step designed to defend or even expand its influence there.

General Anatoly Kornukov, the commander of the Russian Federation air force, visited Yerevan to mark Armenia's expanded participation in CIS air defense. While there, he announced that Moscow will send more fighter jets to its military bases in that Caucasus country.

Kornukov went out of his way to say that this new buildup was in no way a threat to Azerbaijan, with which Armenia has been locked in a dispute over the Nagorno-Karabakh region for more than a decade. But few in Baku or elsewhere are likely to see this latest Russian move as anything but precisely that.

Indeed, when Moscow recently deployed advanced S-300 missiles and MiG-29 fighters to Armenia, Azerbaijanis from President Heidar Aliyev down protested this move as inherently destabilizing. They are almost certain to raise their voices again now that Moscow has introduced still more weaponry into Armenia, with which the Russian Federation maintains close ties.

Such moves and countermoves serve as a reminder not only of how complicated this region remains and how much is at stake for how many people but also of how difficult it is for any of the participants in this geopolitical game to make a move to which the other side cannot quickly respond. And that in turn suggests that neither side is likely to be able to move its geopolitical chess pieces into an endgame anytime soon.