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Volume XIII, Number 2 (November - December 2002)

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By Elin Suleymanov

Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy

What Washington may view as a temporary side issue often is seen as an existential matter in the capitals of other states. This is especially true about America’s relations with the emerging states of Eurasia, many of which have faced certain risks and heightened tensions with their much stronger neighbor in order to connect with the West.

Because these states see strategic partnerships as fundamental for maintaining and strengthening their independence and sovereignty, they are both staunchly committed to the choices they’ve made and constantly concerned about a possible weakening of the US commitment, particularly since such choices often have entailed major concessions and mutual trust. For instance, during the 1996 Vienna Conference on the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, eleventh-hour brokering by US Vice President Al Gore brought about agrements from Azerbaijan and Moldova (despite their strong reservations) allowing for higher ceilings for Russia.

Concerns with a weaker-than-expected US commitment also explain in part why the pro-American euphoria of the early 1990s is on the wane. In Eurasia, it is not the US presence, but rather its insufficient level, that causes worry. At the same time, most Eurasian governments are trying to maintain a pragmatic balance in order to offset the still-dominant influence of the region’s major military power and former ruler, Russia. Their states’ viability depends on the success of these efforts.

While the current intensification of the US-Russian dialogue and cooperation certainly can help to improve the region’s climate, some developments can be perceived as America sacrificing the interests of its partners in the region to obtain Moscow’s support on issues of immediate concern.

US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage’s recent remarks in Moscow provide a clear illustration. Quite unexpectedly, he acknowledged, in effect, Russia’s right to act preemptively against targets on the territory of neighboring Georgia. (1) Though possibly taken out of context, his words have had a serious effect. A casual remark by a traveling US official paying lip service to Russia, thus came across as indication of a change in policy towards the Caucasus. Compounding the problem was the fact that the comment was made by a person known to be among Washington’s most knowledgeable experts on the region.

Russia’s support in the war against Iraq, undoubtedly, would be valuable. Yet, how far should the US go to obtain such support? Washington’s compromise — real or perceived — of its unequivocal support for the hard-won independence of countries in Eurasia could very well undermine its long-term interests in the region. Paradoxically, this is happening as the United States is expanding actual cooperation with its regional partners. Such a dichotomy between real policies and perceptions is unnecessary, counterproductive and avoidable.

Whatever the context of Armitage’s words, they should not have been uttered. Whether Georgian authorities need to put their house in order or the Russian government needs some encouragement in order to side with the Bush Administration, one thing is clear: High-level US officials must maintain that uninvited interference into a neighbor’s territory will not be tolerated.

The Moscow-based media have, by and large, interpreted Armitage’s remarks as a carte blanche for Russia in exchange for supporting the United States elsewhere. This not only emboldens some "imperial" circles in Moscow but also pressures governments in Eurasia to be more accommodating to Russian demands. As a result, one can expect increasingly rigorous attempts to reassert Russia’s influence and to weaken sovereign decision-making in neighboring states. Ironically, having survived blatant military and economic pressures, coup attempts and separatist conflicts, the emerging republics of Eurasia finally had appeared to be winning Moscow’s respect for their independence. Both America’s support and the strategic choices made by the regional leaders have contributed to that. Now Washington’s preoccupation with Iraq and its propensity to accommodate Moscow may undercut these successes. America’s visible, extensive presence is crucial to ensure the region’s continuous transition in the right direction.

Following the outrage of September 11, the United States decisively pursued clearly defined interests in Eurasia, capitalized on the unprecedented level of international support and significantly raised its presence in the Caucasus and Central Asia. The Bush Administration even waived the infamous Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act. (2) Not only did America’s new decisiveness encourage a greater degree of cooperation from its friends; it also demonstrated that reliable longer-term partnerships based on common interests ensure success. America’s strong commitment alone reduces the need for a trade-off and, as was the case in Central Asia, raises the question whether an arrangement with Russia is necessary given the support from other states in the region.

That there might be no real need for a trade-off came as a revelation for many. While Russia’s legitimate interests must be addressed, individual partnerships among independent neighbors should not require Moscow’s seal of approval. It is possible that the rhetoric about the necessity of Russia’s involvement was meant to address Russian anxieties. However, at least symbolically, such rhetoric contributes greatly to public anxieties elsewhere in Eurasia.

In the early 1990s, individuals in the Caucasus followed the high-level Russian-American meetings with some concern, fearful lest Washington and Moscow agree to something that would harm Russia’s neighbors. Indeed, many persons accustomed to the Soviet mindset perceived more than coincident timing between summits and such activity as, for example, major advances of the Russian-backed Armenian forces in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Those fears were assuaged somewhat as Russia, in spite of all its posturing, began recognizing that neighboring states grew increasingly independent and adopting a less antagonistic approach to Western investment in Eurasia. The biggest danger now lies in ignoring the progress made and encouraging the revival of the counterproductive old-time perceptions.

Moreover, it is important to make the case that a stable not achievable through bullying but rather through cooperation. The improvement of the Turkish-Russian relations, which was contingent on Moscow overcoming its antagonism to Ankara, clearly has been beneficial to both sides. A more stable and confident Azerbaijan has been cooperating broadly with Russia, building a normal neighborly relationship. If anything, Moscow’s previous attempts to coerce its neighbors has been the major reason for resentment and its diminishing presence in the area. The people of Azerbaijan, for instance, resent Moscow’s military support for the Armenian occupation of 20% of the country and the displacement of 1 million Azerbaijanis from their homes; they do not rail against Russian goods in shops, or the presence of Russian companies or culture. Every January, Azerbaijanis remember the mass murder of Baku civilians by Soviet (mostly Russian) troops in 1990. Every February 26, they commemorate the massacre of Khojaly, during which Armenian forces (with the direct participation of Russian troops) slaughtered hundreds of individuals. Such actions have damaged Russia’s own interests in the region. Its brute pressure on Georgia may just follow the same pattern.

The best way to address Russia’s interests is by continuously encouraging Moscow to respect the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of its neighbors. The United States is in a unique position to do so.

America’s engagement in the region is welcomed because it is seen as a result of a principled policy. Whatever the motivation, Washington’s indulgence of Armenia’s self-destructive ethnic expansionism and Russia’s murderous actions in Chechnya does not serve America’s long-term interests. Indeed, inconsistency leads regional leaders to be more cautious in their relations with Washington, thus slowing the transition of the entire Eurasian region.



(1) Ekho Moskvy, 23 January 2003.

(2) Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act, which was enacted by Congress in 1992 under pressure from the Armenian-American lobby, had prohibited US assistance to the newly independent government of Azerbaijan. President George W. Bush waived Section 907 in order to facilitate greater US-Azerbaijan security cooperation.

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