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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia's Growing Reach

TBILISI, Georgia -- The bilateral treaty that President Boris Yeltsin -- or "the new Tsar" as he is known in the Transcaucasus -- signed with the Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze on Feb. 3 in Tbilisi confirms Georgia's re-entry into the Russian sphere of influence. Under the agreement Russia has the right to establish military bases in Georgia and troops on Georgia's border with Turkey. It also permits Russian arms sales to Georgia and help in the training of the Georgian National Army.


That is something of a volte-face for Shevardnadze, who declared last spring that, because elements in the Russian Defense Ministry were helping separatists in Georgia with arms, intelligence and volunteers, Georgia was "effectively at war with Russia."


The Georgian leader has been forced to change his tune. The friends he made in the West while he was the Soviet Union's most open-minded Foreign Minister have given him little more than words of support since he became turbulent post-Soviet Georgia's head of state.


In October of last year, after Abkhaz separatists and their supporters from the Russian Federation had taken control of Georgia's most westerly province, Abkhazia, Shevardnadze was given a choice by Moscow: enter the Commonwealth of Independent States or watch your country fall apart. In November, an insurrection led by the former president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, was quelled only after Russian troops were deployed on the railway running through the conflict zone.


Shevardnadze was once seen in Georgia as the man who could take the former Soviet republic closer to the West. Now he is seen as more of a Russian governor-general, albeit an unwilling one.


A special committee is to be set up to explore the thorny question of Georgia entering the ruble zone, and Russia is understood to have agreed to give Georgia 40 billion rubles ($25 million) in trade credits.


In the words of one Georgian academic, Alexander Rondeli: "Mr. Shevardnadze's problem is that he has to feed this generation, but in the future many may feel the price he paid in terms of Georgian independence was too high."


In neighboring Azerbaijan, President Heidar Aliyev is struggling to stave off the inevitable. The Russian Defense Minister General Pavel Grachev made it clear while in Tbilisi with Yeltsin that he wanted to establish military bases throughout the Transcaucasus. Only Azerbaijan has yet to accept publicly the Russian "request." The Russians officially left the former Soviet republic in May 1993. Moscow also wants the right to station its soldiers along Azerbaijan's borders with Turkey and Iran.


Aliyev has been dealing with anyone who he thinks can prevent the Russians either turning him into a puppet leader or replacing him. But Iran and Turkey are too scared of Russia to be much help and the Western oil companies currently negotiating for drilling rights to the Azeri part of the Caspian Sea have yet to persuade their governments, as Aliyev would like, that their economic concerns should coincide with the West's strategic concerns.


In a desperate effort to gain political capital and some breathing space, Aliyev has thrown waves of young Azeris into the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh since mid-December. According to aid workers, thousands of young conscripts have lost their lives. Furthermore, the signs are that the great Azeri winter offensive has become bogged down having only retaken one of the string of towns outside Karabakh which the Armenians captured and then sacked last year.


If the Armenians manage to regain the military initiative -- with or without Russian help -- Azerbaijan could easily disintegrate. The Armenians already control nearly a fifth of Azerbaijan's territory. In other words, it looks like only a matter of time before President Aliyev, like Shevardnadze before him, has to accept everything General Grachev wants.





Alexis Rowell reports for the BBC and The Moscow Times from the Caucasus. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.