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The South Caucasus: Seeking security at an East/West, South/North crossroads

Imagine trying to talk with your neighbors after decades of communicating with them only through city hall. That is the situation of the newly independent countries of the South Caucasus, a region that has been a crossroads for great civilizations for centuries but controlled from foreign capitals, most recently Moscow. Stanford's Center for International Security and Arms Control considers it vital to get these neighbors talking to each other so they can build jointly their economic security and a stable peace.

With that in mind, the center played host last week to delegations of political leaders from Georgia and oil-rich Azerbaijan. Politicians from Armenia also visited during winter quarter, and scholars from the region have come for longer stays as well. The host projects include the Stanford­Harvard project on "preventive defense," directed at Stanford by former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry, and the project on ethnic conflict in the former Soviet Union headed by Professor Gail Lapidus, a political scientist at Stanford's Institute for International Studies.

The preventive defense project aims to prevent crises from erupting in the post-Cold War era as part of U.S. defense strategy. Its concerns are broader than the Caucasus. However, Perry reminded scholars last week that the region is strategically important as a bridge between northern Christian and southern Muslim nations, between Eastern and Western cultures, and between oil deposits and consumers of oil. Caspian Sea oil deposits controlled by Azerbaijan and the Central Asian countries of Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan are estimated to be about as large as those of Kuwait, he said.

The South Caucasus countries also are fledgling free-market democracies that in the view of U.S. foreign policy makers probably cannot be sustained without further economic development, said Coit Blacker, a scholar at the Institute for International Studies and former National Security Council director for the region, during a March 31 seminar on Azerbaijan. Alternative oil pipeline routes are important economically but also for security reasons because they make countries less attractive targets to invaders seeking monopoly control of oil, Blacker said. "It is sometimes alleged that U.S. policy [toward the region] is driven by U.S. oil companies, but that is not the case. The interests coincide."

Lapidus' working group is trying to develop fresh approaches to conflict management and negotiation in the South Caucasus, which has a long history of intermingled ethnic and religious groups but virtually no history of cooperation and independence. The Soviet Union, in particular, planted many "land mines" in the region, she said, by handling most grievances with coercion and repression. Since Gorbachev's liberalization began, repeated disputes have erupted over borders and treatment of minorities, disputes that sometimes explode into secessionist movements, civil wars and refugee tent camps. The situation requires leaders of the countries to give a high priority to protection of minority rights and the rule of law in pursuing economic development, she said.

"There is an enormous temptation for meddling by forces within Russia," Lapidus added, which diverts some of Russia's energy from solving its own problems to neo-imperialist longings. "The stability and prosperity of the Caucasus depend heavily on developing regional cooperation."

That message was not lost on Zurab Zhvania, a biologist who chairs the Georgian Parliament, or on Ilhan Aliyev, the vice president of an Azerbaijani oil company and son of Azerbaijan's president. In separate sessions on March 30 and 31 with Stanford scholars, both said their nations' economic growth was highly dependent upon regional agreements for oil pipelines and other physical and financial infrastructure. They said ethnic conflicts and border disputes must be resolved through negotiation before independence is secure.

Zhvania, who is regarded as a likely successor to Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, said there can be no stable, regional security plan without the involvement of Armenia. "It is Georgia's responsibility to provide Armenia with the maximum opportunity to participate in regional projects," he said.

Armenian leaders cooperate with Georgia, Russia and Iran but have refused to negotiate with Azerbaijan since a cease fire in 1994 in a war over claims to Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave in Azerbaijan with a majority population of ethnic Armenians. Zhvania said he hoped recent elections in Armenia would eventually lead the country to the bargaining table.

As for Georgia's own ethnic problems, Zhvania said that the parliament and Shevardnadze are prepared to give the region of Abkhazia substantial autonomy, reserving only some issues, such as border control and international relations, for the national government. They also are talking about the possibility of creating a bicameral national legislature with special veto rights for Abkhazia. About 200,000 ethnic Georgians who were expelled from the secessionist Abkhazia in 1992 would have to be allowed to return, he said. Zhvania would not rule out the possibility of trying to retake Abkhazia by force but said the situation was "too fragile" for that to occur soon.

Stanford scholars also wanted to know how Georgian leaders view the presence of roughly 4,000 Russian troops in Georgia. They are concerned that the Russians are fomenting discontent "among fundamentalists of every sort," Zhvania said, but they also recognize that Georgians who live near Russian military bases are still economically dependent upon them and need some alternative plan for their social welfare.

Aliyev said Armenian troops occupy 20 percent of Azerbaijan's territory, which has created 800,000 refugees. "People live in tent camps after losing all their property and relatives," he said. "Sooner or later [the occupiers] will have to leave." Armenia cannot be part of oil transportation plans, he added, until they do.

Both men emphasized the importance of completing the pipeline to the Black Sea through Georgia as an alternative to a northern pipeline. Aliyev said his country is interested in other alternative routes, including one to China.

Georgia believes it is ahead of other post-Soviet republics in building democratic institutions, Zhvania said, citing his country's adoption of new civil, tax, custom, banking and foreign investment codes. It hopes to have an independent judicial system and local government by the end of the year, he said. About 10,0000 small and medium industries have been privatized already, and the country no longer has price controls or runaway inflation.

Azerbaijan also has curbed inflation and is involved in the development of nine offshore oil projects with foreign partners, a total investment of about $1.5 billion, Aliyev said. "But it is very important for us not to be dependent on oil." The country's leaders hope to use oil revenue to develop other industries that will keep the economy growing after the offshore supply is exhausted in 30 to 70 years, he said.

The Stanford Center for International Security and Arms Control recently published two working papers on the Caucasus, one examining Georgia's security threats and policy options and another looking at how the region's security relates to the security structure of Europe and Russia. For information, see the center's website at


By Kathleen O'Toole

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