Playing a Losing Game
- By Thomas de Waal
- Feb. 27 2007 00:00
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Georgia has not only endured Russia's blockade, but used it to become more economically independent. Thanks to Azeri gas, Georgia is surviving the winter and Gazprom has lost a big customer. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has said the economic punishment has helped Georgia diversify its markets.
This own-goal is part of a larger picture about which the Kremlin, preoccupied with Russia's resurgence as a world power, seems only dimly aware: Russia is losing the South Caucasus.
It is not just Georgia, although recent Russian policy there has been spectacularly unproductive. A country that has 200-year-old historical, cultural, linguistic and religious ties to Russia has now set a firm course in pursuit of NATO membership and alliance with the United States. This was by no means inevitable. It was Russia's foreign minister at the time, Igor Ivanov, who brokered the deal that led to the resignation of former Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and Saakashvili's arrival in power in 2003. I myself heard Saakashvili at his first news conference following the Rose Revolution in Tbilisi going out of his way to say that he wanted "normal" relations with Moscow.
Since then, prickly Georgian nationalism has played its part in the subsequent decline in relations, but the bigger factor has been the high-handed behavior of the bigger neighbor on a whole range of issues, from energy policy to South Ossetia to the treatment of Georgian workers inside Russia.
Now that same highhandedness is harming Moscow's relations with the two other South Caucasus countries as well.
One of Vladimir Putin's first acts as president was to visit Baku and start to repair relations with Azerbaijan, the largest, richest and most strategically important country in the South Caucasus. In the 1990s, the adversarial relations between Russia and Azerbaijan were only barely concealed. Putin cleverly played on his common KGB past with President Heidar Aliyev. After Aliyev's death, he supported and cultivated his successor and son, the Moscow-educated Ilham Aliyev.
That improvement in relations was all but destroyed at beginning of this year, when Gazprom tried to impose higher gas prices on Azerbaijan and Moscow clumsily told Baku to abandon support for the Georgians. Aliyev Jr. promptly used the opportunity to demonstrate that Azerbaijan was an emerging power. He rejected Russian gas, halted oil shipments through the Baku-Novorossiisk pipeline, ordered the pulling of Russian channels from Azeri television, called into question the usefulness of the Commonwealth of Independent States and threw extra support behind a new non-Russian regional project, the Baku-Kars railway line. Azeris cheered enthusiastically.
This is bad enough for Russia. More remarkable is that Armenia, once the most fiercely loyal of Russia's neighbors, is also experiencing a cooling of affections for Russia. Russian elites have failed to notice that the wholesale grab of Armenian economic assets by Russian companies has turned public opinion there against them. Last autumn, Armenians were outraged when the Russian blockade of Georgia hurt them almost as badly, as most of Armenia's trade with Russia goes via Georgia. Worse, Armenians in Russian cities were picked up and harassed by the police with almost the same nastiness as Georgians -- after all, one person from the Caucasus looks very much like another to your average Russian police officer. The upshot has been unprecedented demonstrations against Russian xenophobia outside the Russian Embassy in Yerevan and the emergence into the mainstream of the first serious Armenian politician to say that Armenia's future lies with the EU and NATO -- former parliament Speaker Artur Baghdasarian.
This should be enough bad news for anyone sitting in the Kremlin. But let's provide some more. The breakaway Black Sea statelet of Abkhazia is perceived by most of the world as being entirely in Russia's pocket. Russia saved it from being overrun by the Georgian army in 1993, most of its citizens now have Russian passports, and its elderly residents draw Russian pensions. But the Abkhaz are also a people of the Caucasus, and their support for Russia is based on pragmatism, not love, and it may be that Russian-Abkhaz relations are now declining from their high-water mark. The reason is that many Abkhaz have been waiting for Russia to recognize Abkhazia's unilateral declaration of independence from Georgia, but the realization is dawning that Moscow is merely playing with them, using the prospect of recognition as a card to play against Georgia and the West. The Abkhaz are not happy about this, and some of them are now saying as much. This does not mean that they will turn back toward Georgia, but it does mean that they may try to engage more with Turkey and Europe and rely less on Russia.
Russia is in such a state of proud introspection that few in the leadership seem to be aware where its Caucasus policy is heading -- toward a deeper divorce between the South Caucasus and Russia than at any time since the 18th century. The trouble is that policy toward the region seems to be more driven by domestic and energy politics than the calculations of diplomacy. A friendly policy toward people from the South Caucasus does not win many Russian votes in a year running up to State Duma and presidential elections.
Yet the pity of it is that Russia still has a lot to give the South Caucasus, if only it would seek to cooperate instead of wanting to dominate. The people of the South Caucasus are not instinctively anti-Russian -- a huge number have lived in Russia and large numbers work there now. And Moscow has one great asset in the region that could be a source of immense "soft power" -- the Russian language. But Moscow is doing nothing to promote it, and Russian is dying out for want of teachers or language centers in all three countries. Entire university libraries full of Russian-language books are being rendered redundant as a new generation of students lacks the ability to read them. I suspect that in about 10 years, someone in Moscow will wake up to this reality -- but by then it will be too late.
Thomas de Waal is Caucasus editor at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London.