Vienna, June 22 – Five events during the past week call attention to a dramatic intensification of the geopolitical competition among the Russian Federation, the United States and Iran for influence in the southern Caucasus, the Caspian basin and even further afield.
First, last Saturday and Sunday, representatives of all four of the so-called “unrecognized” states which some refer to as CIS-2 or the anti-GUAM met in Tiraspol to map out common strategies for achieving their goal of seceding from the countries of which they are part.
In the past, the government of Nagorno-Karabakh held itself aloof from the meetings of the other three – Transdniestria, Abkhazia and South Osetia – but this time it was represented by Arman Melikan, an advisor to the Nagorno-Karabakh president (http://www.politcom.ru/article.php?id=4738).
His presence suggests that many in Stepanakert are increasingly frustrated by the continuing stalemate between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the status of that region, a stalemate that was highlighted earlier this month at a meeting between the presidents of those two countries.
Or the participation of a representative of Nagorno-Karabakh may reflect Moscow’s interest in stirring the pot in the southern Caucasus especially in the face of other recent developments in the region that suggest the Russian Federation is losing influence there.
Second, on Monday and Tuesday, the leaders of the four GUAM states – Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova – met in Baku to develop a common strategy designed to foil the efforts of Moscow and the “unrecognized” states to threaten their territorial integrity and undermine their march toward the West.
Although the meeting limited itself largely to declarations about issues large and small, it may be a turning point for a grouping that the Russian government has done all it can to undermine lest GUAM undermine Moscow’s influence across the post-Soviet region.
On the one hand, precisely because of its democratic credentials, Ukraine used this meeting to advance its claim as an alternative to Russia as “a center of attraction” for other former Soviet republics, thus solidifying its claims to be a bridge between east and west.
And on the other, there was one important new participant: Poland. It was represented not by a diplomat from the foreign ministry but by that country’s president, Lech Kaczynski. His presence marks a breakthrough for GUAM whose members have long sought to attract as possible members countries that were not part of the USSR.
Although Kaczynski did not say much more than express his doubts about the possible joint Russian-American exploitation of the Gabala radar station, his attendance alone highlights Poland’s growing role and makes the survival of GUAM more likely (http://www.russ.ru/layout/set/print/politics/reakcli/klub_proigravshih).
Third, on Wednesday, the foreign ministers of the Caspian Sea littoral states met in Tehran in the latest effort to reach an accord dividing up that body’s seabed and governing the use by those states and third parties of the Caspian. The ministers made little progress.
The representatives of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan insisted on a full and final division of the Caspian sea into national sectors, something Moscow opposes: Such an accord would make possible the construction of trans-Caspian pipelines bypassing Russia easier and even create conditions for a NATO naval force there.
Because those are developments that Iran does not want to see either, Moscow’s “single ally” in these discussions was Iran, Moscow’s “Kommersant” pointed out. And that in turn is likely to have the effect of reducing Moscow’s influence in the region still further (http://www.prognosis.ru/news/news/2007/6/21/kaspii_partition.html).
Fourth, on Thursday, an Azerbaijani commentator in a major Baku newspaper called for the destruction of the Gabala radar site instead of any possible joint American-Russian use. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has already indicated he is prepared to talk about this issue, but the “Zerkalo” article may make that more difficult.
In his article, R. Mirkadyrov notes that Azerbaijan has gotten little out of it in recent times except hot air: For the last two years, he points out, Russia has not even paid what he calls “the miserly” rent of seven million dollars a year it agreed to in a 2006 bilateral accord (http://www.iamik.ru/?op=full&what=content&ident=35243).
And fifth, also on Thursday, Iranian and Georgian news agencies reported that Tehran business interests are now ready to invest one billion U.S. dollars in Georgia and a similar amount in Armenia. Such investments almost certainly would expand Iran’s influence in the region (http://www.ng.ru/cis/2007-06-21/8_armenia.html).
Not surprisingly, American officials warned of the dangers involved of accepting so much Iranian money, but the problems for Russia may be even more immediate: If one or both of these countries should tilt toward Tehran, Moscow’s influence in the southern Caucasus would fall to a new low.
It is uncertain whether Tehran’s offer will ever be realized, and it is far from clear what it or any of the other steps taken this week will ultimately mean. But quite clearly, the southern Caucasus is again very much in active play on the world’s geopolitical chessboard.