Confronted with widespread international criticism over its actions in Georgia, Russia is eager to show that it can still serve as a peace broker the post-Soviet area. A primary Kremlin aim appears to be checking any further advance of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
"The South Ossetian crisis will not constitute a precedent," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the Federation Council's Foreign Affairs Committee on September 18. "We will continue to responsibly fulfill our mediation mission in the negotiation process and peacemaking [and] that fully applies to [the separatist conflicts of] Transdniester and Nagorno-Karabakh," he said.
The signal the Kremlin wants to send is that "it is not restoring its empire and that it is ready to reconcile warring parties while playing a leading role in the process," wrote Sergei Markedonov of the Moscow-based Institute for Political and Military Analysis in the September 16 issue of Russia's "Kommersant" daily.
Russia has been expending a lot of energy since the August crisis to revive the Transdniester and Nagorno-Karabakh peace processes outside the framework of the existing international settlement mechanisms.
Concerning Karabakh, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev met twice in September with his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sargsyan and once with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "It seems to us that there is now a good basis for a resolution of the conflict, which would fit with the interests of all states and would be based on the principles of international law," Aliyev said after his meeting with Medvedev on September 16. He did not elaborate.
Russian diplomats are now trying to arrange a Sargsyan-Aliyev meeting that would be hosted by Medvedev.
Information on what Russia could offer to prompt a rapprochement between Armenia, its partner in the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and Azerbaijan remain sketchy. However, Russian media outlets have reported that a bottom-line condition for the Kremlin is Baku's formal agreement that Azerbaijan will never host NATO troops.
In its peacemaking efforts, Moscow has found unexpected support from Turkey. In the midst of the August Georgian-Russian crisis, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan proposed launching a Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform (KIIP), modeled on the 1999 Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe. In Erdogan's view, the KIIP should bring together five regional states -- Russia, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey -- with a view to acting as a comprehensive conflict prevention mechanism, as well as an instrument to foster confidence, democracy and economic prosperity in the Caucasus.
With the exception of Georgia, all regional countries have welcomed the Turkish initiative, and Russia has offered to help get the project off the ground.
The US reaction to the Turkish initiative has been predictably wary. For example, Zeyno Baran, a Washington-based Caucasus expert, recently described Ankara's initiative as a coordinated Russian-Turkish attempt to "keep the United States and the EU at arm's length."
There is also an element of suspicion in Yerevan. Armenian opposition leaders in particular see Turkey's proposed KIIP as an attempt to supplant the OSCE's Minsk Group as the chief mediator in the Karabakh peace process. President Sargsyan's administration has dismissed those concerns, insisting that it intends to keep on working with the Minsk Group, of which the United States, France and Russia serve as co-chairs. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In a commentary published September 24 in the International Herald Tribune, Turkey's Foreign Minister Ali Babacan -- whose country is a member of the OSCE Minsk Group -- said the KIIP was "not designed as an alternative to any institution, mechanism, or any international organization that deals with the problems of the Caucasus." What Ankara is offering, he said, is "an additional platform to facilitate communication between countries of the region, a framework to develop stability, confidence and cooperation, a forum for dialogue."
Not everyone agrees with that view, however.
For Sinan Ogan, the chair of the Ankara-based TURKSAM think tank, the existing international mechanism has demonstrated its inability to solve the Karabakh conflict. "Therefore," he wrote in Turkey's Today's Zaman daily, "one may expect the dissolution of the OSCE Minsk Group in the days ahead and its replacement with a new mechanism to be generated within the framework of the [KIIP]."
Russian expert Andrei Areshev in turn believes that, despite Lavrov's recent assurances that "no one is walking away from the OSCE Minsk Group," the Kremlin intends to go it alone. "One can already state that [the OSCE Minsk Group] is quietly dying a natural death," he said in a commentary posted on the fondsk.ru website.
On the Transdniester issue, Moscow's efforts to initiate a rapprochement between Moldova and its separatist-minded, Russian-speaking territory preceded the recent August clash in South Ossetia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Transdniester's "5 + 2" internationally-monitored peace process -- which brings together the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Russia and Ukraine as mediators, along with the European Union and the United States as observers -- had been stalled for more than two years. But Russia in April single-handedly arranged for direct talks between Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin and Transdniestrian leader Igor Smirnov. The meeting was the first of its kind in seven years.
Soon after war between Russia and Georgia broke out, Transdniester's authorities said they would no longer negotiate with Moldova and called upon Moscow to increase the number of its peacekeepers deployed in the region to 3,000 from a current 500. In a speech made on September 2, Smirnov said recognizing Transdniester's independence and building good-neighborly relations with Tiraspol was Moldova's "only chance to survive as a state."
Yet, following talks with Russian President Medvedev the next day, the separatist leader said he stood ready to resume talks with the Moldovan leadership, adding that, in his view, "a bad peace is better than a good war."
"Kommersant" on September 3 quoted an unidentified Russian official as saying Medvedev made it clear to Smirnov that he had "little room to maneuver" and should adopt a "constructive approach." Among others, the Russian side reportedly reminded Smirnov of Tiraspol's huge gas debt toward Moscow and threatened him with an investigation into the suspected embezzlement of Russian humanitarian aid to Transdniester. Medvedev reportedly submitted to both Smirnov and Voronin -- whom he had met a few days earlier in Sochi -- draft peace proposals.
Those proposals stem from a memorandum written in 2003 by Dmitry Kozak, then a first deputy head of the Russian presidential administration. Following this plan, Moldova would regain formal jurisdiction over its separatist republic in return for a pledge not to join NATO. Transdniester would have its own constitution, parliament and executive. As guarantor of the pact, Russia would maintain troops in Transdniester for a period of up to 20 years.
The Moldovan president, who initially rejected the "Kozak plan" under western pressure, now seems willing to accept it. In addition, he has said that he wants the United States and all other parties involved in the "5 + 2" mechanism to formally recognize Moldova's constitutional neutrality -- in other words, a renunciation of a desire to seek NATO membership.
Moscow is trying to arrange for another Voronin-Smirnov meeting that it hopes could be the prelude to the signing of some sort of peace agreement. Russian media speculate the Kremlin would like to achieve concrete results before NATO's next ministerial meeting in December. "For Russia it is important to show a positive result by December. Given the recent events in the Caucasus that would be a nice move," an unnamed high-ranking Moldovan official was recently quoted as saying by Kommersant.
Jean-Christophe Peuch is a Vienna-based freelance correspondent, who specializes in Caucasus- and Central Asia-related developments.