Recent initiatives aimed at fostering a multilateral security system in the South Caucasus potentially represent an historic shift in how Russia relates to the region. These initiatives would lead Russia to view the South Caucasus as an area for common co-operation rather than to treat it as a private preserve. The effectively autonomous province of Ajaria in southwest Georgia, and the Russian military base at its capital Batumi, are auspicious for the political integrity of the Georgian state and for South Caucasus regional stability. The ramifications for Georgia are especially profound. The ongoing [late 1999 and early 2000] fighting in Chechnya has strained relations between Russia and Georgia, as Moscow has repeatedly accused Tbilisi of providing tacit assistance to Chechen separatists. Georgian officials deny the accusations and assert that Russia's "special services" (as distinct from the Russian government itself) have been acting as agents provocateurs.
Other issues, such as the ongoing search for a settlement to the Abkhazia conflict and the issue of the closure of Russian military bases on Georgian territory, also exacerbate relations between the two states. The development of framework for regional stability would provide a constructive context for resolving both these issues. Such a pact could thus promote Georgian efforts to consolidate its threatened statehood, setting a background for beginning to resolve the conflict in South Ossetia and relations with the autonomous province of Ajaria in the southwest of the country.
Azerbaijan and Armenia floated separate ideas about a South Caucasus stability pact during the Istanbul OSCE summit in November 1999. In mid-January 2000, President Süleyman Demirel of Turkey visited Georgia and expanded on the Azerbaijani idea. With President Eduard Shevardnadze of Georgia, he suggested including the United States and the European Union, and seeking backing from international financial institutions. The Russian foreign minister's first response has been positive, seeking further clarifications and awaiting other developments.
An agreement to withdraw Russian troops from Georgia was reached at the November OSCE summit in Istanbul. This agreement signed in Istanbul is technically a modification and clarification of the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty. The Caucasus is considered part of Europe, so CFE sets limits on Russian troops in the Caucasus. The Istanbul protocol provides for closing two of the four Russian bases in Georgia without unreasonable delay, and for negotiating the closure of the other two. One of these other two is the Russian base at Akhalkalaki, in Javakhetia. The last is in the autonomous province of Ajaria in southwest Georgia.
Ajaria has remained politically loyal to Tbilisi. The province cooperates with Tbilisi in a number of areas, especially on economic matters. Oil from Kazakhstan has for some time been exported from Ajaria's Black Sea port of Batumi, which is also its capital. Ajaria is thus one of the more economically prosperous provinces of Georgia.
Nevertheless, Tbilisi's authority is tenuous at best, and prominent Georgian politicians have expressed a desire to reassert a greater degree of authority over Ajaria. Thus according to a January 25[, 2000,] report by the Prime News agency, Vitalii Khazaradze, a leading member of the ruling Citizen's Union of Georgia (President Shevardnadze's party), described the threat to Georgia's integrity by alluding to the "velvet divorce" that divided Czechoslovakia into Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Ajaria's leaders, he suggested, were "encroach[ing] on the jurisdiction of the central authorities" as defined by constitution, a move that, in his words, "can be described as 'velvet separatism'."
The situation is not a simple one. Georgia's existing constitution defines Georgia as a unitary state. Georgian leaders feel that state sovereignty would benefit from a withdrawal of Russian troops. To facilitate such a withdrawal, they probably need to reach a power-sharing compromise with Ajaria's leaders.
The best way for Georgia to reduce the potential for complications in Russian troop withdrawal talks may be to take the pragmatic step of amending the constitution, providing for a more federalized system of government. Such a system could preserve the primacy of Tbilisi's power, while recognizing the prerogatives of its provinces.
A compromise could be in the offing. At an enlarged meeting of the Georgian government on January 30, President Shevardnadze advocated a rapid political settlement with Ajaria. "What is it that we cannot divide between us?" Shevardnadze asked in comments broadcast by Georgian television. "Let us sit down and agree about everything. "If [Ajaria's] status needs to be determined, let us do so. If powers need to be separated, let us do so."
From Tbilisi, there looks to be a relation between Ajaria's political status and the presence of Russian troops in the province. From Ajaria's standpoint, the issue of the Russian military base in Batumi need not be integrally connected with the internal Georgian question of the province's rights and responsibilities as opposed to the center's. Yet some of Ajaria's political allies in the rest of Georgia would like to enforce such a linkage. The differences could complicate troop withdrawal negotiations.
Moving towards a constitutional settlement with Ajaria would offer the province appropriate reassurances, encouraging its leaders to conclude troop talks successfully. Moreover, by creating a precedent, it could move towards resolving questions about the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The possibility that Russia may recognize a role for Turkey as a regional power in the Caucasus represents a potentially momentous shift. Russia would greatly contribute to stability and prosperity in this conflict-riven region by leaving behind its historically hegemonic stance in the Caucasus.
Georgia is arguably the state that could most benefit from such a change in Russia's geopolitical worldview. A stability pact for South Caucasus security would help Georgia move beyond the legacy of violent fragmentation that accompanied the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and promote its revival as a stable, potentially federalized state.
However, time is an important factor. Any significant flight of Chechen refugees into Georgia could destabilize an already extremely delicate situation both politically and demographically. At the CIS summit on January 25, President Shevardnadze already agreed to joint patrols of the Chechen border in Georgia, by Georgian and Russian troops: a suggestion from Moscow that he had been avoiding for months.
Copyright © Robert M. Cutler unless otherwise noted.
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First published in Eurasianet Insight (31 January 2000).