BACKGROUND: The intensification of mediating efforts to negotiate an agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan by the OSCE Minsk Group (of which France, Russia and the US are co-chairmen) earlier this year, produced an upsurge of now-subsiding optimism. The head-on charge by US co-chair Ambassador Cavanaugh so early in the new Administrations tenure, as well as President Bushs and Secretary Powells direct participation, indicated the importance of the region for Washington. Importantly, the mediators seem to have abandoned their often-criticized competition and have found a way to work together. Such a cooperation among the co-chairs was repeatedly, and sometimes excessively, emphasized and hailed by the co-chairs themselves, but is certainly welcome in the region. However, there is a fine balance between cooperation in order to achieve a fair peace, and making mediators cooperation, rather than reaching lasting peace, the main priority. During high-profile MoscowWashington summits in the late 1980s and early 1990s, many suspicious conspiracy-theorists in Baku (admittedly, most post-Soviet observers typically are) warned about agreements at the expense of Azerbaijan. To make their point, they reminded that often a major military success of the Russian-backed Armenian military, or even the Soviet invasion of Baku in January 1990, were preceded by White House-Kremlin photo-ops. It shouldnt be surprising, therefore, that Mr. Cavanaughs newfound excellent cooperation with Moscow, mentioned visibly more frequently than the Russian military presence in Armenia or the overall forceful Russian tactics in the region, brings back bad memories. While in the narrow sense of the term Russia might have become more cooperative, evidence of the same in a wider regional context is yet to be seen. Russias military presence in Armenia is not abating. Quite to the contrary, new arms are being openly shipped, a joint rapid reaction force is being discussed. The Duma passed a law enabling the Russian Federation to incorporate a foreign state or a part of it, and speaking in Yerevan, a Russian military official threatened Azerbaijan with the use of force. With the only response from Washington being yet more talk of cooperation between peacemakers, anxiety naturally grows among the Azerbaijani public wary of the potential sacrifices that maintaining such a cooperation could come to require.
IMPLICATIONS: The western policy of what amounts to de-facto condoning Russias misbehavior, most notably and tragically its murderous approach in Chechnya, sends mixed signals to others in the region. It is not a secret that the events in Chechnya are closely watched by Russias neighbors as a warning to them. In this respect, neither the brutality of Moscows crackdown against the people it claims to be its citizens, nor the Wests silence, are good news. As an indirect consequence of Russias actions in the North Caucasus, the region is witnessing a growing risk of violent instability, increase in crime, an overall rise of militancy and a perception of impunity as well as the radicalization of otherwise possibly benign Islamic groups. Moreover, along with destroying Chechen society and exhausting Russias own - and its neighbors - resources, Moscows actions undermine the fragile and sensitive system of co-existence, traditionally maintained among diverse groups in the Caucasus, thus severely damaging long-term prospects for normalcy in the region. Ten years into their independence, the Caucasus republics of Azerbaijan and Georgia are firmly on the radar screens of Western policy-makers both in terms of attention and support. Yet, still weakened and exhausted by a seemingly never-ending socioeconomic transition, they are now coming under increasing and much more sophisticated pressure from Putins Moscow evidently determined to reassert control over them. If this pressure is not matched by a corresponding increase in Western support for these countries independence, they may fall victim to Russias forceful intrigues and their own mismanagement. In fact, while Western presence in Azerbaijan has increased and Russias has been declining over the last decade, the overwhelming impact of numerous channels of Russian broadcast and print media conveniently available in Azerbaijan should not be underestimated. Access to western media is further limited by the language barrier. In fact, the impact of this flow of information with a distinctly Muscovite flavor on shaping political perceptions has never been greater. Feeling the seeming indifference of the West and perceiving the plight of their nations as just an element among others in U.S. Russia relations, many in the Caucasus fear the return of Moscows domination on the one hand and the rise of radical movements on the other. Sadly, in the post-Soviet countries, where all-national pro-independence movements united millions to bring about enormous changes just several years ago, political apathy is a growing trend. Mediators disturbing words about the need to recognize the reality on the ground add insult to injury for people for whom this reality means ethnic cleansing of their lands and years in refugee camps. Recognition and acceptance of the reality achieved in violation of international norms, with Russias open military backing also means that such a reality can be reversed with the same impunity and, perhaps, again with Russian military backing. This in turn would undermine a fundamental cornerstone of Azerbaijans independent statehood the hard-won departure of Russian military from the countrys territory. As the example of neighboring Georgia is presently showing, a Russian military presence, even in some form of a peacekeeping force, turns into a strong leverage in Moscows hands.
CONCLUSIONS: The region is already witnessing the influence of growing Russian pressures on traditionally close Azerbaijan Georgia ties as well as on GUUAM. Moreover, Moscows policies have not been conducive for the Trans-Caspian CaucasusCentral Asia cooperation. Ironically, this all is taking place at a time when new opportunities are abundant for Western involvement, the process of building independent institutions in most of the former Soviet states is fully underway, and Russias real potential is limited to undermining its weaker neighbors. The US should base its negotiating efforts on principles of international law and the values it is being associated with in the region and help Armenia and Azerbaijan to negotiate a peace acceptable to two independent nations. In this way, Washington will continue to be seen as an honest broker, rather than just a broker. Positive consequences of such a principled approach, just as the negative ones of the contrary, will go beyond the Armenia-Azerbaijan peace process.
AUTHOR BIO: Emin Alisayidov is a freelance Azerbaijani writer.
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