THERE are more than 3,000 kilometres (1,800 miles) of international borders in the Caucasus. Only the smallest, the 9 km stretch between Azerbaijans Nakhichevan province and Turkey, is truly friendly. The two countries understand each other linguistically, economically, politically and, increasingly, militarily. A former adviser to the Azeri president has even suggested a confederation, creating a short cut for Azerbaijan into NATO and, eventually, the EU.
There should be that kind of closeness, and carelessness about formal sovereignty, everywhere in the Caucasus: both between the three former Soviet republics of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, and with their neighbours: Russia, Turkey and Iran. Russian is a common language across much of the region; there are common cultural heritages (Christian, Persian, Ottoman and Soviet) and common economic problems and opportunities. The Caucasus isor should bea splendid transit route between east and west, north and south, for goods, money, people and ideas.
For energy firms, the Caucasus is a way out for the oil and gas around the Caspian Sea. Proven reserves are estimated at 18 billion-35 billion barrelsabout as much as America and the North Sea combined. This could rise threefold if a big new find off the Kazakh coast proves as promising as results announced in July suggest.
But most borders in the Caucasus divide rather than unite. Armenia and Azerbaijan are still technically at war. Turkey blockades Armenia in sympathy. Russia keeps a tight grip on its southern border. Iran is chilly to Azerbaijan, Georgia to Armenia. Even when political ties are cordial, as with Georgia and Azerbaijan, physical ones are not. Roads are bumpy and narrow, railways slow and squalid. Customs offices in all the regions countries are notorious for stealing time and money from travellers. The easiest flight connections are via Moscow or Istanbul.
This is surprisingly disappointing. After the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the three republics of the Caucasus seemed to have the best chances of all the other inmates of the Soviet prison when communism started collapsing. Georgia was the former Soviet Unions favourite wine maker and tourist destination; Armenia had high technology and a large, rich, influential diaspora; Azerbaijan had oil, agriculture, and the helping hand of Turkey. All had been independent before, after 1918, if only briefly. Unlike Soviet creations such as Moldova, each had a national cultural identity.
But while the reinvented Baltic states have returned happily to Europe, the three countries of the Caucasus have suffered a miserable decade of war, bad government, isolation and impoverishment. In Georgia, a wrong-headed nationalist government and Russian-backed separatists in the provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia fought two disastrous civil wars. Armenians fought and won a war for their Nagorno-Karabakh ethnic exclave in Azerbaijan. Oil wealth in Azerbaijan stayed in the pockets of the ruling elite. Living standards all across the region have plunged relentlessly.
The most pathetic example is Abkhazia, once (give or take a few cockroaches) the Côte dAzur of the Soviet Union. By its own account, it is a success story. Every hour of every day works in favour of independence. Poverty is the mother of invention. Abkhazia has huge possibilities, intones the president, Vladislav Ardzinba, rattling off Soviet-era nut-production statistics to underline his point. But his country is one of the most depressing sites on the Eurasian landmass. Uniquely for a self-described capital city, Sukhumi has no Internet connection, no mobile phones, and no hotel of any kind. In one day of the civil war in 1992, it lost all its main cultural buildingsequivalent to a terrorist attack in Washington destroying the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian and the Kennedy Centre. Nobody has tried to rebuild them, or the ghostly citys many other ruins. There is practically no work, no money, no hope, and seemingly no effort. The airport is littered with bits of crashed planes. Nobody bothers to clear them away.
For all its rulers bombast, Abkhazia exists on Russian sufferance. Without Russian military help, the Abkhaz, who made up less than a fifth of the pre-war population, would have lost the civil war. Russian energy keeps it ticking over now, just. But apart from the rulers and their thuggish security people (who live well enough) almost everyone who can leave has done so, either as refugees to Georgia, or as economic migrants to Russia. That leaves, essentially, the old, sick, handicapped, lazy, or drunk. The only decent jobs in town are working for the earnest foreign soldiers at the United Nations mission, which monitors the Russian-run peacekeeping forces. Cynics pun that these forces are actually piece-keepers, protecting the Kremlins real interest in its former empire: Abkhazias 180 km of Black Sea coastline.
Abkhazia is a concentrated example, but the same cocktail of bad government, spite-thy-neighbour and poverty poisons life in the rest of the Caucasus. South Ossetia, another Russian-backed puppet state that survives on the money it makes, more or less illegally, from a tunnel leading through the Caucasus mountains to Russia, is a bit less isolated but still poor. Nagorno-Karabakh is richer, a kind of political Disneyland for the Armenian diaspora whose donations support it. But it has little to show for its military success. The resulting breach between Armenia and Azerbaijan practically cuts the Caucasus in half.
Couldnt they get along?
The political and military stalemate disguises an economic and social catastrophe. Public health services are collapsing; a tuberculosis epidemic, for example, is raging unchecked in Azerbaijans jails. People are voting with their feet. Western diplomats estimate that fully 2m people have emigrated from Armenia since independencemore than half the population. According to the same figures, Georgia and Azerbaijan have each lost around a fifth of their population (1m and 1.5m people respectively). It is the best people who are going: The DHL minoritydecent, honest, law-abidingis the most endangered in the Caucasus, quips Alex Rondeli, a Georgian analyst.
There is no shortage of clever solutions for this mess. A Brussels think-tank, the Centre for European Policy Studies, has just produced a bag of ingeniously cooked fudge*including, for example, the creation of a South Caucasus Community, based on modern European models of shared sovereignty, interdependence and multi-tier (sometimes asymmetric) governing structures. Translated, this means, for example, a common passport for all three countries, a lot of foreign money (including for Russias southern fringe) and a security pact backed by big outsiders.
The reaction has been cool so far. Azerbaijan and Georgia want the victors to back down before becoming friends. Armenia and the puppet states would like the status quo entrenched. But places like Taiwan, Puerto Rico, Northern Ireland, Montenegro and Hong Kong show how far formal sovereignty and independence can be fudged when politics or convenience require, even if the result is not always happy. At a practical level, an American expert, Paul Goble, has suggested an ingenious territorial swap in which Armenia would give Azerbaijan a corridor to its exclave of Nakhichevan, in exchange for Azeri concessions on Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia is cool towards this, because it would cut off access to its only friendly neighbour, Iran. But a senior official says that with outside monitoring, some sort of corridor would be worth discussing.
Peace making has shown little progress. The best news is that only a handful of people get killed each year. Political leaders do talk to each other: the Armenian and Azeri presidents will meet again this Friday, August 18th, in Yalta at a regional summit. Georgia made a huge concession recently by referring to Mr Ardzinba as a president. But even such limited steps are risky. Hundreds of thousands of refugees in Georgia and Azerbaijan see the separatist leaders who drove them from their homes as criminals and traitors, not partners in peace. The victorious sides believe only independence saved them from extermination by their neighbours. There has been almost no preparation of public opinion for peace deals, which would strike many as sell-outs. Some suggest that the mysterious killing of Armenias prime minister in October last year was a (so far successful) attempt by hardliners to sabotage a tentative peace deal with Azerbaijan.
Certainly there seems little reason for any of the weaker parties to back down on their own. If there is going to be bad government, most peoples inclination is to prefer their own. Abkhazia is depressing. But if you are Abkhaz, returning to the unpredictable, corrupt, ethnocentric and perhaps vengeful rule of the Georgian government probably looks even worse.
As poverty increases, so may instability. Georgias most miserable region is Armenian-populated Javakheti, where the main employer is a large Russian military base. Azerbaijan has a large ethnic minority, the Lezghin, on the border with the volatile Russian republic of Dagestan. Latent territorial claims abound. Those who blame Russian meddling for the conflicts fear it is only a question of time before shooting starts again.
The long-term way out of this must involve the creation of well-governed, prosperous countries that people want to live in, not leave. That is a huge task. The Baltics aside, no state in the former Soviet Union works well. Communist rule is not the only culprit. The Caucasian virtues of family loyalty and extravagant hospitality are not those from which transparent and accountable bureaucracies naturally spring. The governing elites set such a bad example that no ordinary citizen feels inclined to pay taxes or obey laws.
The short-term fix is external pressure. Russia could make its proxy states accept a fudged deal on independence by turning off the energy tap. The West could push its allies, Georgia and Azerbaijan, to be more flexible; and Turkey to open its border with Armenia. Turkey might also look more kindly on visitors wanting to make informal contacts, rather than deporting them, as happened recently to one delegation. And America could be less twitchy about talking to Iran.
On Russias toes
Although all sides pay lip service to high-flown 21st-century notions of peace-making and conflict-resolution, the real story is an old-fashioned geo-political tussle. Russias spies and soldiers see the Caucasus as their backyard. They may grudgingly accept that their formal sovereignty is over, but they do not want to be squeezed out of the region in the way they were from the Baltic. In May, a top Russian military planner, General Leonid Ivashov, said American involvement in the region was risking an explosion; he threatened counter-measures if Georgia and Azerbaijan continued to flirt with NATO, and said Russia would like to keep two military bases in Georgia indefinitely.
The biggest argument is over Russias Vaziani base near Tbilisi, which Georgians see as a menace: it helped the leader of an unsuccessful coup escape to Russia in 1995. Russia has promised to leave by July 2001; it has already started to pull equipment out. But the senior Russian commander in the region, General Nikolai Andreyev, said in July that the bases future status has yet to be decidedadding also that the neighbouring airfield would in any case keep working.
There are other ominous hints about Russias future policy towards the former captive nations. Next door, in Central Asia, the Kremlin has in the past year successfully re-established its geo-political clout by playing on fears of Islamic insurgency. It is taking a much tougher line on dividing the Caspian Sea. And it talks nastily to Georgia and Azerbaijan about their supposed support for rebels across the border in Chechnyasomething both countries sharply deny. There has been an odd campaign in Armenia to join the Russian-Belarussian Union, a mysterious entity which, if it ever gets off the ground, looks likely to become a Moscow-dominated confederation not entirely unlike the old Soviet Union.
One particular sign of the Kremlins intentions may be the growing use of Russian passports, now handed out to practically any former Soviet citizen who wants one. This is creating substantial numbers, one day perhaps even a majority, of Russian citizens in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Javakheti, and thus a lobby for ever-closer ties with Moscow. A linked policy may be the threat to impose a visa requirement on Georgians and Azerissomething that would hurt both countries, given the huge role that working and trading in Russia still plays in many peoples lives.
Pessimists believe that Russian policy has changed little since 1816, when a Russian officer recommended: Maintain a continuous state of dissension among their diverse nations and never forget that their unity could be fatal for us. From a paranoid, zero-sum viewpoint in Moscow, this still makes perfect sense. If, eventually, a rich, stable Georgia were to join the EU (and assuming Russia cannot) it would further highlight the dismal results of two centuries of Russian colonialism on the other side of the Caucasus mountains. Optimists, among them Georgias President Edvard Shevardnadze, take a different view, believing that Mr Putin may show signs of seeking an accommodation with various parties in the Caucasus: even including, in due course, the Chechens.
Yet the West is taking no chances on Mr Putins mood, and is trying to build up Georgia and Azerbaijan to withstand the Russian squeeze. Although both have recovered from the nightmarish anarchy of the mid-1990s, there is little else to boast about. Extraordinary corruption in both countries drives away foreign investors. Georgia is still chronically unstable, while Azerbaijans political system is frozen rigid by the Machiavellian 77-year-old president, Heidar Aliev. Russian influence, particularly economic, remains strong in both countries, while disappointment with the West increases.
A second big flaw with western policy is that the Armenian diaspora hampers aid to Azerbaijan, and encourages it to Russias main ally, Armenia. A huge amount of American aid goes to Armenia. The Council of Europe, a Strasbourg-based talking shop, wanted to keep both Armenia and Azerbaijan out until they had made peace. Then diaspora pressure, via America, pushed successfully for Armenian membership. As a result, Azerbaijan, with its muzzled press and rigged elections, is to be let in too, making a mockery of the formal criteria.
Western policy in the Caucasus has been so unsuccessful so far that some even doubt its sincerity. Maybe all the talk about civil society and good government is misleading. Perhaps western energy firms prefer weak corrupt states, safe for oil wells and pipelines, rather than headstrong democracies that may start worrying about the environment, or their own citizens share of the cake.
That is probably too cynical. Western efforts in all three countries to build civil society, educate young people, beef up security and retrain bureaucrats are patently well-meaning, if sometimes optimistic (paying for an American lawyer to head the new securities commission in Georgia is one particularly valiant example). And there are still grounds for hope. Every year of independence does entrench statehood, at least for those people who stay to enjoy it. The new oil discovery in the Caspian means that the American-backed plan to build a new pipeline across the Caucasus, creating an export route independent of Russia, looks less wobbly and over-ambitious than it did before. A joint gas pipeline route to Turkey for Azeri, Turkmen and Kazakh gas is also planned. Co-operation on coal and steel was the foundation of the European Community; oil and gas could play the same role in the Caucasus.
The ultimate responsibility lies with Russia. If President Vladimir Putin truly wants prosperous, strong, independent neighbours, then the Caucasus is the place to prove it. If he wants to play the geopolitical games of the past, then the West will block him as far as it can. The result of that will be more of the same: a depressing, and dangerous, stalemate.