Save the Caucasus from Balkan-like crisis

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President Suleyman Demirel of Turkey, the grand old man of goodwill and respectability in his part of the world, is on a new mission. He paid a visit to the Caucasus last week to promote an ambitious "stability pact" for the region, modeled on the effort to rebuild the Balkans after the Kosovo uproar last year.

The reasons for it are easy to understand. Turkey is very concerned that its historic rival Russia is about to use whatever victory it claims in Chechnya to reassert dominance in the southern Caucasus. Already Russia has made forays into Georgia to restrict Chechen "sanctuaries." When Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze cools toward Russian involvement on his territory, the Russians remind him he has little choice. The Abkhaz separatists, historically supported by Russia, have spread rumors they'll begin to make trouble again for the beleaguered Georgian government.

This could be just the beginning of a post-Chechnya round of regional/ethnic flare-ups, which according to some experts may spread beyond the Caucasus to Central Asia, and perhaps beyond.

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Turkey and its Western allies, namely the US, have invested nearly a decade in carving out what they see to be a new sphere of influence in this region and in trying to mediate peace on their terms. They're worried it's about to be lost. The time has come to cut a deal with the other major powers that have ambitions in what they all consider to be their backyard. The effort should be strongly encouraged.

Ambitious as it sounds, a stability pact - in truth a basic security arrangement - is precisely what the Caucasus needs. The Turkish, Azerbaijani,# and Georgian governments stand accused of promoting naked national interest - there is nothing wrong with that, and no real security framework can be based on anything less. Only now they are doing so within a broader concept of security - one that includes not only Armenia, but also Iran and Russia. The reaction by those governments has been lukewarm of course, but the offer strangely enough has come with a silver lining of good faith. For the first time, the key players in the Caucasus have openly declared that they will be unable to bring peace and prosperity to their region without the cooperation and gain of all the major powers across the borders.

To impose stability on a fractious region before rather than after a conflict has torn it apart is a formidable challenge. President Demirel has set a tall order, and with so much else on his plate - Cyprus, the Kurdish problem - it may be difficult to pull off.

The idea has to be taken more seriously, which means the West must offer something tangible to Russia and Iran. This most likely will be a relaxation of the even more ambitious effort to build an exclusive East-West energy corridor through the region that excludes Russians and Iranians.

The Turks know how foolish this is and recently made progress in natural-gas pipeline projects with Russia and Iran. Azeri President Heydar Aliev is on his way to Tehran for talks with the Iranian government about his own set of deals on engery and regional security. With close to 20 million Azeris living across the border in Iran (there are only a third as many in Azerbaijan), it is not surprising that Mr. Aliev's foreign minister declared Iranian involvement to be essential to any workable security arrangement for the Caucasus.

The West - namely the US - should not lose this opportunity. With its stubborn promotion of pet pipelines and bizarre sanctions against Azerbaijan and Iran, US policy in the region since the Soviet breakup has been confused and contradictory, reminiscent of a statement attributed to former Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser: "The genius of you Americans is that you never make clear-cut stupid moves, only complicated stupid moves that make us wonder at the possibility that there may be something we are missing."

It's time to remove both complexity and genius from US policy and follow the sensible lead of the people there who are forced to live with one another.

*Kenneth Weisbrode is a research associate at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, in London.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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