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Sunday, 22 July, 2001, 11:53 GMT 12:53 UK
East meets West in the Caucasus
The Caucasus is a region rich in tradition. The faithful offering morning prayers in Yerevan, capital of Armenia, are celebrating 1700 years of Orthodox Christianity this summer.
History in the Caucasus is about confrontation too. Armenia is a small Christian nation squeezed for centuries by Muslims in Turkey to the West and Central Asia to the East. Independent Armenia needs Russia.
Vartan Oskanyan, Armenia's foreign minister, talks of historically good relations with Russia.
"Russia's military presence on Armenian soil is important for our security. Anti-Soviet sentiment did not mean anti-Russian in Armenia's case. There was a confluence of interest in our region," he says.
For the last ten years, Armenian rebels have been fighting Turkey's ally Azerbaijan for control of Nagorno Kharabakh - just one of several smouldering wars where East is fighting West by proxy in the Caucasus.
"Security is a number one priority for Armenia. Kharabakh is a security issue; it's not only self-determination, the right of Kharabakh to existence," says Oskanyan.
"Having major power as a neighbour which blockades Armenia, which refuses to normalise ties, which at the height of the Kharabakh conflict threatened Armenia with military intervention; having that relationship with your Western neighbour upsets the balance and makes us pretty nervous.
"Turkey's position has complicated the overall balance."
The Caucasus balance is getting more complicated. A few days ago Turkish troops joined others from NATO for a joint exercise across the Black Sea in Georgia.
The amphibious and airborne landing, Operation Co-operative Partner, was described as humanitarian emergency planning. Russia called it a provocation and put its troops on alert.
But the Russians should have left the base on July 1st following an international agreement signed two years ago.
Whether because of the NATO exercise or not, now they have refused to pull out.
Kaha Siharulidze, from the Georgian foreign ministry, says there is one big difference between 1999, when the pullout deal was agreed by Boris Yeltsin, and now:
"Of course the difference is Vladimir Putin. He is stronger, he is a new president. A new attitude to international affairs."
Unlike Armenia, neighbouring Georgia has always resented Russian control over the Caucasus. Now they want the Russians out for good.
"The agreement given to the Georgian side and to the international community two years ago at the Istanbul summit of the OSCE has been violated by the Russian side," says Siharulidze.
"Naturally the big neighbour has its interests in the region. But every country in the world has the right to be independent; to be treated in a civilised way."
It's not hard to see why Russia doesn't want to leave. NATO member Turkey's defence minister was in Georgia this month promising to help equip the base when the Russians are gone.
Why? Because the West wants to lay profitable oil pipelines through Georgia and Turkey from Central Asia and the Middle East.
Energy is Russia's biggest earner; it doesn't welcome competition.
The Great Game
All this bears the hallmark of history - the old Great Game. In the 19th century, that meant commanding the road to colonial possessions.
In the 21st century, oil and gas are the reasons for East and West to push for power in the Caucasus.
History doesn't repeat itself exactly. But there are empires competing to protect themselves in this region.
A new Great Game - and perhaps a new Cold War.
A gigantic statue of Stalin still stands in Gori, his birthplace in Georgia. This one was never knocked down, but elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, there are putting them up again.
At the Stalin Museum in Gori, Olga, a tour guide, remembers the old days with growing fondness.
For Olga and many others, freedom has meant only the few getting rich. The rest, have got nowhere.
This sentiment is echoed by a sunflower-seed seller at the railway station under a big new freshly-painted portrait of Stalin:
"He was strong, and our lives were much better. Look at what's happened to us now, it's all chaos. Those were good times, now we can't eat," he says.
Giya Nodia, who runs a charity helping the victims of the conflicts in the Caucasus - including Chechnya just over the border from Georgia - says the Great Game is on again:
"I'm afraid that this region will continue to be in some grey zone of geopolitical games which will not be a clear outcome."
"Great game is there also because local actors are so obsessed with this.
"The problem is not only that there are very complicated games around this region, but the countries, the states are very weak, so they feel themselves at the mercy of outside players."
Weak states with unstable governments and big powers struggling for a strategic balance of arms and control of resources.
The risks in this game with no rules and no end are becoming obvious again.
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