NATO and the South Caucasus


by Emil Danielyan

The forthcoming visit to Armenia by NATO Secretary-General George Robertson is an opportunity to ascertain the Alliance's aims and interests in this region. Nine years after becoming independent, the three republics of the South Caucasus are faced with an insecure and at times harsh geopolitical reality. The existing regional order, if there is any, leaves them vulnerable to external pressure, creating a deep sense of insecurity. For Georgia and Azerbaijan, the main threat is posed by Russia, which they say continues to regard the area as a zone of its exclusive influence. Armenia's security concerns are primarily related to Turkey and Azerbaijan, while Russia is in no way seen as a threat to its independence. The differing perceptions of national security mean differing strategic priorities and expectations about involvement of outside actors, NATO being one of them.

Lord Robertson's tour of the three Caucasian states may shed some light on the intentions of the world's most powerful military and political bloc with respect to the region. Does it have any geopolitical significance for NATO?

What are the Alliance's main interests in this part of the world and how far is the West prepared to go in asserting them? What does NATO think of recent initiatives to create a comprehensive security system for the Caucasus?

Would it be willing to commit troops for future peace-keeping operations in Nagorno-Karabakh or Abkhazia?

There are still no clear-cut answers to these and some other questions. Lord Robertson is bound to deal with them during his meetings in Tbilisi, Baku and Yerevan.

Some Azeri officials have in the past called on NATO to open a military base on their territory as a counterweight to Russian military presence in Armenia. President Eduard Shevardnadze of Georgia has gone father, saying on several occasions that membership of NATO is a long-term foreign policy goal of his country. Armenia, on the other hand, is known to be opposed to such developments. Officials in Yerevan say privately that NATO's military presence would create new "division lines" in the region, jeopardizing its stability.

Armenian concerns are quite understandable. NATO's possible expansion into the region, or a even a pledge to do so, would increase pressure on Yerevan to adopt an exclusively pro-Russian foreign policy. This would run counter to the "complementary" foreign policy declared by the Armenian authorities. Balancing between Russia and the West would no longer be possible. Robertson will thus hear different views in the three capitals. Big powers that provide the bulk of NATO's military and political might have repeatedly ruled out the possibility of accepting any of the regional states into its ranks. Nor have they even considered having military bases there. The NATO chief will most probably reaffirm this line during his visit.

Indeed, for Europe the South Caucasus is too remote a place to deserve any military commitments. Its European bonds are by no means certain. And there is always the question of not angering Russia. Moscow may have had little to counter NATO's expansion into Eastern Europe, but it still pulls the strings here.

By setting the record straight, Robertson will not just please Armenia. He may also end false expectations about limits of NATO intervention and commitments. Some American analysts have said the Western powers themselves have fuelled those expectations and must now put an end to those illusions. That, they say, would give the three ex-Soviet republics a clearer idea of what to expect from the international community and how to develop their national security doctrines. Close cooperation with NATO, however, is not confined to membership of the Alliance or presence of its troops. The Partnership for Peace (PfP) program was designed in the early 1990s as a new mechanism of post-Cold War cooperation between former adversaries. NATO would only welcome a more active Armenian, Azerbaijani and Georgian participation in PfP. The issue will be high on the agenda of Robertson's talks.

Not surprisingly, Azerbaijan and Georgia have been more eager to develop their military links with NATO within the PfP framework. Armenia tends to look back at Russia and hopes that there will be no further confrontation between Moscow and the Alliance. PfP, it appears, does give all interested parties room for maneuver. It remains to be seen what concrete agreements Robertson and regional leaders will reach on that score, and what will be its implications for NATO's future role in the South Caucasus.

Robertson may also be hard-pressed to comment on the more assertive and not always concerted behavior of some NATO member states. Armenia takes the view that neighboring Turkey represents the most serious obstacle to its cooperation with NATO and will likely raise the issue with the secretary-general. In Yerevan's view, Turkey's refusal to normalize relations with Armenia is an overt display of hostility. A senior Armenian official said last month that the NATO leadership is able to get Ankara to soften its policy. This is by no means the case. The United States has repeatedly tried to do that but to no avail. So the question is how big is NATO's influence on Turkish foreign policy.

Another NATO member and Turkey's traditional rival, Greece, is now considered to be Armenia's second most important military partner after Russia. The two countries describe their relationship as a "strategic partnership." Shared feud with Turkey is seen as a major factor bolstering it. The recent visit to Armenia by the chief of staff of Greece's armed forces highlighted the scale of bilateral military contacts.This raises the question of how the behavior of individual NATO countries affects the Alliance's regional policy. How much of a handicap are Turkey's and Greece's Caucasian links? Is the Greek-Turkish rivalry opening a new front in the South Caucasus? If so, what can NATO do about it?

Answers to these and other questions are essential for a correct analysis of regional geopolitics.



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