JUST over the high mountains of the Caucasus range from here,
Russia's brutal war against separatist rebels of Chechnya is now
entering its sixth month. For the peoples of the neighboring former
Soviet republics of the Transcaucasus -- who won their freedom only
three years ago -- the Chechen struggle strikes a chord with their
own battles against Russian dominance.
"I am worried," says an Armenian college student. "If the
Russians can do that in Chechnya, then maybe they will do it next
here, in Armenia, or in Georgia and Azerbaijan."
The war "is an experiment," echoes a taxi driver in Baku, the
capital of Azerbaijan. "They are trying to frighten us, Azerbaijan,
and all the republics, by showing us how strong they are."
Less openly, government leaders of the region share those
apprehensions. "A new hotbed of tension has emerged, a very
dangerous one, which complicates an already difficult situation in
the Caucasus region," Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan told
In all three Transcaucasian countries, the Chechen war is viewed
through the prism of their own internal conflicts -- Georgia's
civil war with a breakaway movement in its Abkhazia region and
Azerbaijan's war with the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh who also
Even more powerfully, the Chechnya war has reminded all in this
region that they must find a way to live with the giant Russian
bear. Romantic hopes that the West or Turkey would supplant the
Russian presence have been dashed. In their place is a sober
realism that their countries are too close for Russia to ignore.
All Transcaucasian governments are reluctant to criticize the
war in Chechnya. Some even support Moscow's position.
"Chechnya is a part of Russia, as California is part of the
United States," Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze told the
While Shevardnadze expresses "concerns" about the use of force
by the Russian Army, he echoes Moscow leaders that they had little
choice against the fierce Chechen drive for independence.
"If Russia agreed with the separation of Chechnya from Russia,
it would mean the beginning of the disintegration of Russia and
this would be the beginning of chaos, not only in Russia, but first
in Europe, in Eurasia and then in the whole world," contends
Shevardnadze, who as Soviet foreign minister under Mikhail
Gorbachev was the architect of the end of the cold war.
Both Georgia and Armenia have agreed in recent months to allow
Russia to keep military bases on their territories for years to
come. Both countries see the deals as a strategic necessity,
dictated by the need to gain Russian support in their respective
Azerbaijan holds out
Only in Azerbaijan is there still some belief, fed by a contract
with Western oil companies to develop vast offshore reserves of
oil, that they can deny Moscow a dominant role. But even there, the
government is careful not to publicly assail the Russian war in
Chechnya, not least because of the parallel with their struggle
against Armenians seeking "self-determination" for Nagorno-Karabakh.
"We recognize Chechnya is Russian territory, and now it is not
possible to change the status quo," says Vafa Guluzade, foreign
policy adviser to the Azeri President. "The same in Azerbaijan --
Nagorno-Karabakh is Azeri territory and we will never agree to
another status," he adds. No country has recognized Chechnya as a
separate state since Chechens declared independence in 1991.
But the Azeris, like others in this region, are happy to see
Moscow bogged down in the war, calculating that it gives them room
"This conflict will drag on for a long time and will strongly
affect the integrity of Russia," comments Najaf Najafli, a member
of the Azeri parliament from the opposition Popular Front. …