South Caucasus: Is Russia Losing Influence?


19 April 2007 [16:54]

Moscow’s influence in the South Caucasus region has been steadily
waning in recent years.

In a recent commentary in "The Moscow Times," Thomas de Waal, the
Caucasus editor at the London-based Institute for War and Peace
Reporting, argued that the Kremlin — preoccupied with Russia’s
resurgence as a world power — is losing its grip on Georgia, Armenia,
and Azerbaijan.

RFE/RL invited de Waal to participate in a roundtable discussion
on the issue. Also participating in the discussion were Ivliane
Khaindrava, a lawmaker from Georgia’s opposition Republican Party;
Rauf Mirkadyrov, a columnist for Azerbaijan’s "Zerkalo" newspaper;
and Stepan Grigorian, the director of the Center for Globalization
and Regional Cooperation in the Armenian capital, Yerevan.

RFE/RL: To start, let’s have Thomas de Waal explain the premise of
his article.

Thomas de Waal: My thesis is paradoxical. Of course, Russia is
stronger politically and economically than it was 10 years ago. But
as a result of its shortsighted policies, Russia is losing influence
in the Caucasus.

As a result of [Russia’s] blockade [of Georgian wine and agricultural
products], Georgia has opened its economy, its market, to other
countries. In Azerbaijan, Gazprom’s very shortsighted policies pushed
Azerbaijan into a more pro-Western position. This is even happening in
Armenia, whose position about the [Georgian] blockade was not taken
into account, and where Georgians were able to hold a demonstration
in front of the Russian Embassy in Yerevan about xenophobia in Russia.

My thesis is that Russia’s domestic and energy policies are dictating
its foreign policy. And on all fronts, Russia is losing its position
in the Caucasus.

RFE/RL: How much is this thesis justified? Let’s look first at Georgia.

Ivliane Khaindrava: If we look at the way the Russian political
establishment categorizes its priorities, Russia is losing Georgia
and losing it at a very fast pace. If we look at the categories
we’re talking about — military, political, Russian foreign-policy
interests, the rules of the game in economics and energy — then
[Russia] is losing its influence. Accordingly, Georgia is becoming
increasingly liberated [from Russia].

At the same time, if we are operating from a normal understanding
of the 21st century, I don’t think there is a particular
problem. Georgia’s economic space is open to Russian capital, and
in the past years there have been projects with local and Russian
investment. Georgia’s information space is open. At home I can watch 12
Russian channels. On the other hand, there isn’t really any particular
reason why I would want to watch them.

If Russia is prepared for close relations with a smaller and weaker
Georgia, then there’s no problem. But if Russia aspires to be a
hegemon they will not succeed. Because for the Georgian political
establishment, this question has been decided. We’ve decided that
the days of speaking to us as Foreign Minister [Sergei] Lavrov tried
to speak to us — saying that Russia will not allow Georgia to join
NATO — are over. We’ll do everything we can so that you can’t speak
to us this way.

RFE/RL: Is there a general sense that Russia is simply seeking to
fill its pockets, instead of pursuing common interests and sympathetic
ties with neighbors like Azerbaijan?

Rauf Mirkadyrov: I don’t think this is what has determined Russia’s
latest steps toward the countries of the South Caucasus, including

In recent years, there have undoubtedly been serious changes in
Russia. It went from a state that had a financial crisis [in 1998]
to one with the third- or fourth-largest gold and currency reserves
in the world. This influences its policy, which has become more
stringent. There are also other factors.

At the end of the day, Russia could have continued to give favorable
economic treatment to the countries of the South Caucasus. There is
a country in the region that affirms Russian and Kremlin policy —

But this favorable treatment didn’t continue for the simple reason
that one of the South Caucasus countries, Georgia, very quickly
became uncontrollable.

It defined its foreign-policy priorities as joining NATO and
integrating with the European Union, if possible. Maybe some of
Russia’s actions made Georgia and the countries of the North Atlantic
bloc act faster.

It seems to me that Russia, since the end of last year, has sought to
bind Azerbaijan to its side and pull it away from the West once and
for all. To tie them to an anti-Georgian coalition and to themselves
and pull them away from the West once and for all. To tie them to an
anti-Georgian coalition and achieve a revanche. This didn’t happen. Now
I think there is a reevaluation of this policy — particularly with
the events surrounding Iran.

RFE/RL: Russia has a very rich imperial tradition. In the 18th and
19th centuries, Russia didn’t dictate to those on its territories
how to behave. It raised the social standard. It brought the regional
elite into its own. How do you explain the clumsy and insulting way
that Russia is now trying to control the situation?

Stepan Grigorian: I first want to say that, lately, we’re always
talking about Russia’s economic growth, its large budget, its huge
reserves. The question is: what’s the quality of this growth? There
is no quality there. This growth is only the result of rising gas and
oil prices on world markets. Since Russia’s economic growth is only a
result of selling oil and gas, it strengthens corporations. Therefore,
Russian policy today is not just the policy of the state toward the
South Caucasus and the countries of the CIS, but also the policy of
major corporations.

Analogies are difficult to find in the Russian empire or even in the
Soviet Union. Any corporate system works this way. They don’t look
at the political consequences of their actions. Therefore our country
has suffered and is moving away from Russia.

This is not just because of the political problems with Georgia, but
also because Russia’s closure of the [Verkhny Lars] crossing point
between Armenia and Georgia automatically meant — and Russia didn’t
even think about this, and high-ranking officials aren’t interested —
that Armenia’s ground communications were closed off.

What does this mean? In the last half-year to year since that border
crossing point was closed, Armenian businessmen began orienting
themselves toward Western markets. So even in a place where the elite
is not badly disposed toward Russia, they are reorienting themselves
toward the West. The poorly conceived policies of Russia toward the
South Caucasus — including Armenia — are causing the reorientation
of the political elite.

Russia grew a bit stronger financially — not technologically,
economically, or industrially, just financially. And now the Russian
political elite seems to be under the impression that they can compete
with the West and the United States for the South Caucasus. Russia’s
recent actions toward Georgia and Azerbaijan are connected to this
illusion. But I think the movement of NATO, the EU, and the United
States toward the South Caucasus will continue.

RFE/RL: In the early years of Putin’s presidency, a lot of political
observers said his foreign policy appeared to be based on the principle
of self-containment. Russia needed to be strengthened internally and
reject ties with the outside world, including the near abroad. Could
it be that Russia just doesn’t need the South Caucasus, and that’s
why it’s treating it this way?

De Waal: Any politician in Russia who says they need to be friendly
with the South Caucasus, of course, won’t win any political points. I
think the problem is that Russia doesn’t understand the difference
between the near and far abroad.

The countries of the South Caucasus correctly see themselves as
independent countries and are building relationships with the West,
with Washington.

Moscow hasn’t sufficiently understood this yet. They still think: these
are our neighbors, our former republics. They don’t understand the
finer points of the current foreign policies of these countries. Putin
himself doesn’t understand. Does he want [Russia] to be the successor
of the Soviet Union or does he want to liberate [Russia] from the
Soviet Union?

RFE/RL: Thomas de Waal’s commentary also talks about the problem of
a serious cultural divide between Russia and the South Caucasus —
that in 10 or 15 years, the Russian language will no longer be spoken
in the region. Does this seem realistic?

Khaindrava: It’s perfectly obvious that Russian culture — not in terms
of its existence, of course, but in terms of language — is quickly
losing its position in Georgia. It was once the obvious second language
in Georgia, but that has already stopped being the case. The younger
generation, including teenagers, are already going with English.

As far as values go, things have also happened quickly. The Russian
doctrine is an unclear conception of Eurasiaism. It is interesting to
me whether Russian citizens even understand what that is. In Georgia,
the most popular doctrine is Europeanism and the aspiration to affirm
ourselves and our state as a faraway province, but nevertheless a
province, of Europe. Russia is closer to Europe and there was once
a sense that Georgia would get to Europe via Russia.

But the process of disassociation [from Russia] happened very
quickly. When the anti-Georgian campaign began in Russia, it was
also an overall anti-Caucasus campaign, aimed against anyone with
a Caucasian appearance. In Georgia — even when Russia was seen as
Georgia’s biggest headache, even as everybody was saying Russia was
Georgia’s biggest problem — there wasn’t any xenophobia in Georgia.

RFE/RL: Today a lot of people are hoping the Russian regime will change
and become more democratic. If that proves the case, perhaps after the
Russian presidential election in March 2008, could the countries of
the South Caucasus envision Russia as a close political and cultural
partner as they do with the West?

Mirkadyrov: The situation in each country varies. Look at
Azerbaijan. In the beginning of 2006, they were Russia’s strategic
partner. But in the end, Azerbaijan was talking about leaving the
CIS. Russia was not acting like a friend and partner to Azerbaijan.

Armenia has a different situation. It’s more oriented toward its
neighbors because their choices can override Armenia’s choices. Armenia
doesn’t have a border with Russia. The choices of Georgia and
Azerbaijan can override Armenia’s foreign-policy choices.

What about Azerbaijan? I completely agree that recent actions by
Russia have scared away even the elite in Azerbaijan. They have begun
to look at Russia as something dangerous. Its policy is oriented toward
establishing, if not the former Soviet Union, then a of kind of empire
where there is some freedom, but where [Russia] views the territory as
its own. Russia looks at these countries as its own and this feeling
has recently gotten stronger. This tendency isn’t likely to reverse.

Moreover, there’s another strong tendency. That’s the feeling that
these countries need to change their foreign-policy orientations,
work more closely with NATO and the EU, and in the future join these
structures. Under these conditions, and in this political situation —
and also given the situation surrounding Iran — I don’t think the
South Caucasus countries will move closer to Russia.

RFE/RL: There are certain democratic criteria that countries must
meet in order to be close to the West. Armenia and Azerbaijan, while
not very far from this criteria, aren’t very close to it either. If
this doesn’t happen, will these countries move back toward Russia?

Grigorian: Thank you, that is an excellent question. I want to point
out three factors which make it impossible to return to Russia’s
side. One is the quality of Russia’s political elite — and we need
to remember that they are not politicians, but people from the special
services, who have their specific world. Second, the unattractiveness
of Russia — the absence of democracy, the lack of technology and
interesting scientific work.

The third factor is more important as to why the South Caucasus are
going to the West. It is the self-sufficiency of Azerbaijan, Georgia,
and Turkey, which are realizing very serious projects that will enable
us to diversify oil and gas routes, transport, and the like. These
things are pushing us to the side of the West. We have problems with
democracy. Does this disturb things or not? I am certain that our
political elite will change and become more democratic.

RFE/RL: Thomas de Waal, you opened the debate and you should finish it.

De Waal: I’m glad for the words of support from the South Caucasus. I
would like to raise one question that Ivliane also raised, the question
of the Russian language. This is a Russian resource that is dying in
the South Caucasus.

It is a language that unites three countries, that unites Abkhazia with
Russia and Georgia. Russia is not utilizing this resource in the way
that Britain utilizes its resource through the British Council. The
Russian language has a lot of cultural significance and a lot of
possibilities. And with this, Russia could have a very positive
influence on the South Caucasus. RFE/RL

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