By Vladimir Socor
With assistance from an overstretched America, and benign neglect by the European Union, a new era is dawning on two countries that are indispensable to the Euro-Atlantic system: Georgia and Azerbaijan.
Under their new young leaders, both countries are finally entering what might be called the post-post-Soviet era: It means clearing away the post-Soviet rubble to build modern state institutions, and moving irreversibly into the West's orbit through appropriate security arrangements.
Georgia and Azerbaijan provide the sole corridor for the transit of Caspian energy supplies to the West. They also provide crucial access for U.S. and allied anti-terror operations from NATO Europe into the Greater Middle East. In both of these roles, Georgia and Azerbaijan can only function as a tandem or not at all; they stand or fall together. Their success would also enable Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan -- where most of the Caspian energy reserves are located -- to export oil and gas to Europe directly, rather than via Russia; and that in turn would help reduce Russia's looming, risk-fraught energy leverage on the European Union. In sum, the stakes are high in securing Georgia and Azerbaijan as functional nations linked to the Euro-Atlantic system.
At the moment, Georgia is especially vulnerable. Its peaceful change of leadership, greeted by the outside world as a "revolution of roses," has been met with implacable hostility by the Kremlin. The now-deposed president Eduard Shevardnadze had, of course, been treated as an enemy by Moscow all along. But, when the "rose revolutionaries" were about to topple Mr. Shevardnadze in the wake of rigged elections last month, Moscow moved to prop him up with the help of some corrupt local clans and fifth-column groups, calculating that it could use the weakened president as a political hostage. This obvious scenario only added fuel to the protest movement which ultimately caused Mr. Shevardnadze to step down.
A frustrated Moscow responded by inviting the chieftains of three secessionist areas of Georgia for a week-long gathering and official meetings in Russia's capital. The event was designed to blackmail Tbilisi's new leaders by advertising the secession of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia as final, and hinting at Ajaria's potential secession. Russian troops are stationed in all three areas. At the year-end meeting of the OSCE, Russia openly repudiated its international obligation to close its military bases in Georgia. Now Russia demands an 11-year extension by treaty; wants that treaty meanwhile to legalize the bases; and because Georgia won't capitulate to such demands, Russia has suspended the official negotiations.
Meanwhile, Moscow is using Ajaria's dictator Aslan Abashidze to thwart the holding of legitimate elections in Georgia. The broader goal is to frustrate the consolidation of legitimate authority and, thus, to keep the country unstable. Mr. Abashidze threatens to enforce in his fiefdom a boycott of the elections -- and even to pull out of Georgia altogether, like Abkhazia and South Ossetia, under the protection of Russian troops -- unless the new leadership in Tbilisi accepts another fraudulent election in Ajaria and gives Abashidze a disproportionate share of power in Georgia's central governance. The Kremlin had wanted just such a deal between Messrs. Shevardnadze and Abashidze. It was precisely in Ajaria, and by Mr. Abashidze, that the worst fraud was perpetrated in last month's elections, heavily distorting the country-wide results and turning Moscow's ally Mr. Abashidze into Georgia's power-broker.
As Georgia's new leadership embarks on modern state-building, it also faces resistance from entrenched clan structures that feed off the institutional vacuum. Some of these seem prepared to work with Russia in perpetuating the dysfunctionality and corruption of the Georgian state. This poses not just political and law-enforcement problems, but national, and indeed region-wide, security problems. While Georgia's presidential front-running candidate, Mikheil Saakashvili, and other leaders are multiplying conciliatory gestures toward Moscow, the latter seeks to exacerbate the problems of Georgia's presidential transition.
In Azerbaijan, the just-deceased president Haidar Aliev was able to build and maintain effective central authority, albeit not resting on institutions, but rather on personal rule and skillful arbitration among interest groups. On that basis, the president handed over power to his son, Ilham Aliev, who was clearly the choice of an absolute majority of Azerbaijan's voters in the recent presidential election -- sycophantic officials who inflated the margin of victory did the worst possible disservice to their country. The new President Ilham Aliev has told me, and other recent visitors, that he realizes that in order to maintain long-term stability and international credibility, he must move from inter-clan arrangements and controlled elections to building effective institutions for a modern state.
As with Georgia, the Kremlin now seeks to complicate Azerbaijan's leadership transition by playing on a local conflict -- in this case, the Karabakh problem. The goal is to slow down Azerbaijan's pro-Western course and to keep Armenia within Russia's orbit by dangling before both countries the prospect of a Russian-brokered-and-guaranteed settlement of the conflict. President Vladimir Putin hopes to establish such a model in Moldova, then use it as a precedent with regard to Georgia and to the Karabakh problem.
Considering the global stakes involved, Western countries must step in now to facilitate Georgia's and Azerbaijan's transitions. While the generational change at the leadership level symbolizes the post-post-Soviet era, tangible confirmation must come through completion of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline without further delays. This means completing the oil pipeline by 2005 and starting active construction work on the gas pipeline in early 2004.
At the moment, bolstering external and internal security is the most urgent priority in Georgia as well as in the Caspian sector of Azerbaijan. The visit last week by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to Azerbaijan and Georgia demonstrated the level of the U.S. commitment, as well as cementing these two countries' membership in the U.S.-led antiterror coalition. Discussions are now under way on long-term access arrangements for U.S. forces to Azerbaijani airfields for antiterror operations in the Greater Middle East. The initial reaction from Moscow is vociferous objection; if maintained, it would only confirm the fact that Mr. Putin is not a member of the U.S.-led antiterror coalition. In Georgia, if next month's elections confirm the new leadership, the U.S. should seamlessly prolong the just-completed Train-and-Equip Program for Georgian troops.
Georgia's and Azerbaijan's new leaders have reaffirmed the goal of working to qualify for NATO membership. They hope for official recognition of their aspirations by the alliance's summit in Istanbul in June 2004. That will be the right forum and timing for political declarations to that effect and for launching appropriate Action Plans for Georgia and Azerbaijan. The two countries and the alliance need to begin laying the groundwork now for decisions to be announced at that summit.
The European Union can play a unique role in meeting these countries' most urgent civilian-sector need: that of expertise for strengthening their institutional and administrative capacities. The EU must include Georgia and Azerbaijan -- and also Armenia -- in its Wider Europe and New Neighborhood initiatives. EU Commission President Romano Prodi's "Nyet" cannot be a final answer. And certain West European countries that are members of both NATO and the EU must stop their slippage toward ratifying the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe without requiring Russia to meet its troop-withdrawal obligations on the southern flank.
Mr. Socor is a senior fellow of the Washington-based Institute for Advanced Strategic & Political Studies.
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