But the problems of Russia’s relations with Azerbaijan and Georgia remain unresolved

On September 2-5, 1999, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov toured the CIS’ Trans-Caucasus republics. Although it has been stated that the tour was preplanned, the rapid departure of the Russian diplomat and the tone of his negotiations with the leaders of the post-Soviet republics undoubtedly referred to the current events in Dagestan, Nagorny Karabakh, Abkhazia, and other “hot spots” of the Caucasus. In turn, leaders of the Trans-Caucasus republics, except for Armenia, were harshly critical of the Russian authorities. For example, Azerbaijan’s President Heidar Aliyev criticized “Russia’s policies in the Trans-Caucasus”. In his words, Russian-Azerbajani relations, as well as the activities of the OSCE’s Minsk Group designed to settle the Nagorny Karabakh conflict (Russia is an active member of that group), are unsatisfactory. According to Aliyev, he was both “frustrated and surprised to learn that the Trans-Caucasus is playing a secondary role in Russia’s foreign policy doctrine”. He emphasized that the Caucasus and Trans-Caucasus were a no less important strategic region of the world that, say, the Balkans.

Of course, President Aliyev reproached Moscow for its sympathy towards Armenia (it is worth noting that Russia and Armenia have signed a Friendship and Cooperation Treaty), while Minister Ivanov made diplomatic excuses and tried to prove the contrary. As he noted in his speech in Baku, Russia “is seeking to establish equal and good relations with all the countries of the Trans-Caucasus, including Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia”. He emphasized that Russia had no preferences for either of these states. Minister Ivanov also assured President Aliyev that Russia was not taking sides in the Nagorny Karabakh conflict, and that both Russia and the Minsk group did not support the idea of settling the conflict through the formation of “a common state”, especially since Azerbaijan was against that proposal.

Speaking about the Russian-Armenian military cooperation, Minister Ivanov stressed that “Moscow is well aware that this issue is very queasy for both Azerbaijan and the entire region”. He also added that a session of the Russian-Azerbaijani-Armenian trilateral commission that was set up in 1997 to investigate the alleged $1 billion-worth deliveries of Russian arms and military equipment to Armenia would convene soon.

When speaking about Russia’s military base located in Armenia, Minister Ivanov emphasized that its activities “were in no way directed against Azerbaijan”, and that the base was not set up in the course of the Nagorny Karabakh conflict. According to Minister Ivanov, the military base was Moscow’s response to “recent events in the Balkans, NATO’s declarations of its readiness to spread the so-called Kosovo experiment beyond the zones of responsibility of the alliance and even beyond European borders”. He also noted that Russia’s approach to its relations with the Caucasus states would be very serious.

Judging by the results of Foreign Minister Ivanov’s trip to Azerbaijan, he managed to convince President Aliyev of Russia’s most loyal and good-neighbor attitude. In the course of the visit, guidelines for mutually profitable trade, military and military-technical cooperation have been developed. In addition, the two sides discussed the presence of the Gabala radar station in Azerbaijan. Minister Ivanov emphasized that the problem is two-faceted. On the one hand, the status of the Gabala radar station in Azerbaijan has not been defined yet. On the other, a number of financial problems connected with its activities have not been resolved. Currently Russia owes Azerbaijan some $4 million for the Gabala radar station. According to Minister Ivanov, it has been agreed that the defense ministers of the two countries will discuss the issue, and later representatives of the finance ministries will join them, which is very positive in itself.

Then Minister Ivanov met with Georgian President Shevardnadze. At first, the negotiations were difficult. Both sides were rather critical and expressed their “dissatisfaction with the scope and rate of development of the bilateral relations”. In this connection the Georgian President called for an increase in cooperation between Moscow and Tbilisi in absolutely all spheres. President Shevardnadze expressed his support for Minister Ivanov’s statement that “Russia will intensify its participation in the early settlement of the Abkhazian conflict” and for “Russian-Georgian coordinated activities aimed at ensuring stability in the North and South Caucasus”. According to President Shevardnadze, to achieve this goal it is urgent to unite the efforts of the peoples living both in Russia’s North Caucasus and the Trans-Caucasus. During his visit, Minister Ivanov repeatedly called for the preservation of Russian military bases currently located in Georgia. “We maintain this plays into the hands of Russia”, stated Ivanov. In his opinion, the problem must be resolved to the advantage of Russia and Georgia as two sovereign states. According to the minister, the two sides agreed to set up two standing bilateral committees assigned to resolve the problems connected with the stay of Russian military bases in Georgia on a permanent basis. In turn, sources from the Russian Foreign Minister delegation specified that in the course of the negotiations Minister Ivanov and Georgian leaders focused on setting up a bilateral commission on military cooperation between Moscow and Tbilisi, and that this commission will reportedly work on a permanent basis. It is expected that the commission will be assigned to specify the format and major objectives of that cooperation. It is also likely that the terms for the presence of the Russian military bases in Georgia and their personnel numbers will also be agreed upon within the framework of this commission. According to well-informed sources, a draft resolution of the Council of CIS Heads of States on the mandate of the Russian peacekeepers in Georgia was also discussed in the course of the Tbilisi negotiations. However, they denied the reports of some mass media in Georgia that Russia favors the “no war-no peace” current situation in Abkhazia and claimed that “This position contradicts the interests of the Russian authorities who are seeking to resolve the conflict as soon as possible”. Reportedly, in the course of his visit to Tbilisi, the Russian Foreign Minister agreed upon certain steps designed to tackle the Abkhazian problem.

According to Russian mass media, the negotiations demonstrated “the intention of the Georgian side to promote its good relations with Russia, as well as its readiness to resolve any problems within the framework of permanent bilateral committees”.

However, despite the efforts to ensure stability of military-diplomatic relations between Moscow and Tbilisi, after Minister Ivanov had already left the Trans-Caucasus, the Georgian President repeated his statement that a civilized withdrawal of the Russian military bases from the Georgian territory would promote confidence and mutual respect between Georgia and Russia. It is worth noting that the Russian diplomats agreed with that statement, and it is expected that the Russian-Georgian commission will discuss the terms for the stay of the Russian troops in Georgia. According to President Shevardnadze, the withdrawal of the Russian military bases from Georgia will be conducted on a step-by-step basis. At first, the Russia bases must abide by the provisions of the CFE Treaty. It goes without saying that all the weapons with which the Russian troops are armed Georgia considers being its property. The inventory of the property of the Russian troops in the Trans-Caucasus, including ground facilities, weapons and military equipment, has been prepared already. This means that, despite Russia’s persistent diplomatic efforts, Georgia is still seeking to gradually oust it out of the region.

Meanwhile, it is worth noting that Georgia has so far failed to establish complete control of the country. Adjaria intends to act on its own. Its leader, Aslan Abashidze, is categorically against the withdrawal of the Russian military base from his republic. Abkhazia does not obey Tbilisi aithorities, either. Abkhazian leaders also insist that the Russian troops remain on its territory. Similar sentiments are reported among the population of South Ossetia, Akhlkalaki, and other regions of Georgia. This means that President Shevardnadze may face great difficulties if he only tries to squeeze Russian soldiers out of his country.

On the other hand, the Georgian authorities have been persistently seeking to establish more contacts with NATO, primarily with the US. In this respect a visit of US Secretary of Defense William Cohen to Georgia held in early August is worth noting. In his speech at a press conference in Tbilisi (Georgian President Shevardnadze participated in the event), US Secretary of Defense Cohen emphasized that Georgian – US relations have been developing fast and stable. In particular, he noted that the US were going to deliver six operative-purpose helicopters and another four helicopters as spare parts for them to the Georgian Defense Ministry by the end of this year. He also reminded that some time before the US had given a modern combat boat designed for coast protection to the Georgian border guards. The Minister reported that a joint US-Georgian military training would be held in the near future, and that a program for Georgian servicemen to be trained in the US had been developed. In the name of the US administration, Secretary of Defense Cohen expressed his gratitude to Georgia and to President Shevardnadze in person for their support for NATO’s position in the settlement of the Kosovo conflict. In his words, the US Secretary of Defense arrived in Georgia especially “to praise President Eduard Shevardnadze for his cleverness and foresight”.

When asked about the current presence of the Russian military bases in Georgia and a possible US military presence in that country, Secretary of Defense Cohen said that it is for the people and government of Georgia to decide both problems. While the opinion of the Georgian population is still unclear, the political leaders of the country have repeatedly claimed that it would be preferable for Georgia to make the Russian troops withdraw, and join NATO. It is worth noting that official representatives of Azerbaijan have also expressed similar opinions.

Commenting on the possibility of the Trans-Caucasus republics to join NATO, US Secretary of Defense Cohen noted that the doors to the alliance are open for every state. However, if a country wants to join NATO, in addition to political will, it would be necessary for it to bring its armed forces in line with the NATO standards.

The reduction of Russia’s influence in the Trans-Caucasus is obvious. Unfortunately, this trend has been gaining momento. Moscow authorities understand this, they even undertake certain actions, however, illogical and sporadic, so that they are usually ineffective.