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#14 - JRL 7070
February 18, 2003
By Ariel Cohen

Continued European Union resistance to US plans for a quick blitz of Iraq is forcing the countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia to choose sides. Caucasus nations have so far tended to side with the United States. Central Asian countries, meanwhile, appear divided with Uzbekistan generally backing Washington’s position, and Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan drifting toward the European viewpoint.

EU leaders, meeting at an emergency summit February 17, issued a statement demanding Iraq’s immediate and unconditional disarmament. At the same time, the EU insisted that an attack against Iraq should be the option of "last resort." Russia has come out in support of the European position, which contrasts sharply with Washington’s. The Bush administration seems intent on launching military operations possibly within weeks.

In staking out positions on the Iraq question, the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus are influenced heavily by their own individual relationships with the United States, EU and Russia. The rise of radical Islam in both regions, Central Asia in particular, is also a major factor.

Georgia and Azerbaijan consider Washington as their main benefactor, especially following the September 11 terrorist attacks. The same holds for Uzbekistan. All three countries have prickly relationships with Russia and are wary that Moscow desires to reestablish a sphere of influence in the old Soviet space.

Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov stated after Secretary of State Colin Powell’s February 5 speech to the United Nations Security Council that there was sufficient evidence to justify Washington’s stance. "Powell’s address … reinforced the US call for more decisive and dramatic steps to exclude any possibility of Iraq having weapons of mass destruction or resources and technologies for their production," the Interfax news agency quoted Kamilov as saying.

In Georgia, internal politics have exerted influence on the government’s Iraq position. President Eduard Shevardnadze, whose domestic popularity is at or near its nadir, is reluctant to alienate the United States, which has emerged over the last 18 months as Tbilisi’s key strategic partner. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archives]. Another influence on Shevardnadze is the fact that during his tenure as Soviet foreign minister he worked closely with Washington during the first Iraq war. In explaining his Iraq position, the Georgian president openly admits that his administration considers itself obligated to support Washington.

"The totalitarian regime [in Iraq], which produced weapons of mass destruction, poses an enormous threat to the region and to the whole world. This is why it must be punished," Shevardnadze said recently. "Another reason for Georgia assuming this stand on the Iraqi problem is that the United States has rendered enormous assistance to Georgia since 1992. This is why our duty is to support the friendly country [the United States]."

Azerbaijan has also expressed support for the United States on the Iraq question, but in a somewhat more equivocal fashion. A recent foreign ministry statement, for example, lauded US efforts to eliminate weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, while calling for a settlement to be resolved in full compliance with the UN charter.

Armenia has traditionally excellent ties with the Arab countries and a thriving Diaspora in Lebanon and Syria. Armenian foreign policy is also viewed as pro-Russian. Nevertheless, some statements issued by the Armenian foreign ministry are cautiously supportive of the US position. Jyunik Agadjanian, a foreign ministry official, stated earlier in February that "Iraq’s disarmament is inevitable, otherwise the situation could lead to undesirable consequences," the Arminfo news agency reported. "Official Yerevan supports the complete and unconditional disarmament of Iraq."

"Colin Powell’s data submitted to the Security Council deepened Armenia’s concern over the Iraqi issue," Agadjanian continued.

Support for the United States is far from universal. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are the Central Asian nations most leery of the Bush administration’s rush to war in Iraq. Their chief concern appears to be that the looming campaign to oust Saddam will subtract from Washington’s commitment to stabilization efforts in Central Asia, including countering the expansion of radical Islamic activity in the region. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archives]. Such concerns are pushing Astana and Bishkek to support the EU’s preferred course of action.

"The UN Security Council must issue authorization to handle such questions," the Itar-Tass news agency quoted Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev as saying in late January. "A one-sided war in Iraq would be a great mistake. In their hearts and souls the peoples of Islamic states are absolutely against this war that can only bring about integration of the world extremist forces."

Some of Nazarbayev’s domestic political opponents suggest the president’s Iraq stance in part is influenced by ongoing investigations in both the United States and Switzerland into bribe-taking by top Kazakhstani government officials. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archives]. They add that Nazarbayev is keen to score points with both Russia and the EU, seeking to cultivate additional sources of political support as a hedge against the bribery scandal, known as Kazakhgate. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archives].

Kyrgyzstan, bolstered by the recent deployment of Russian aircraft at the Kant military base, also echoed a Russian position. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Kyrgyz officials have expressed opposition to Washington’s use of Manas Air Base in potential military operations against Iraq.

Editor’s Note: Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Heritage Foundation and author of Russian Imperialism: Development and Crisis (Praeger, 1998).

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