TBILISI (Reuters)–Russia and the United States–rivals for control over the Caspian Sea’s enormous oil wealth–forged a pragmatic alliance to ensure a smooth transfer of power in turbulent Georgia–diplomats and analysts said.
They said Moscow and Washington had agreed their own interests were best met by engineering a peaceful exit for long-time President Eduard Shevardnadze–weakened by weeks of mass protests over general elections marred by fraud.
Russia feared a fresh bout of turmoil on its sensitive southern border could allow militants to step up attacks on Russian forces in rebel Chechnya.
The United States was concerned prolonged political unrest could disrupt construction of oil and gas pipelines that cross Georgia to bring Azerbaijan’s huge energy reserves to Western markets via Turkey.
With thousands of people massed outside parliament demanding Shevardnadze resign or hold new elections and the threat the increasingly embattled president could call out the army–a transatlantic strategy–born of coalescing interests– emerged from a flurry of high level phone calls.
"Thanks to a more flexible policy–Russia has set down a marker in Georgia by becoming a sort of political patron to the opposition now in power," said Igor Bunin–head of the Moscow-based Institute of Political Technologies.
"This is almost certainly a result of a compromise agreement of some sort with the United States."
Moscow–the former imperial power–was irritated when US advisers were sent to Georgia to train and equip the ex-Soviet state’s dilapidated armed forces to deal with Chechen militants using the lawless Pankisi Gorge as a base for attacks on Russia.
The cooperation–portrayed by Washington as part of its war on terrorism–further extended US influence in the Caucasus region–traditionally Moscow’s "back yard" but a key element in the strategy of the energy-hungry United States.
MARRIAGE OF REASON
A Western diplomat said Washington had not put pressure on Moscow to ensure calm heads prevailed in Georgia–but said US national security advisor Condoleezza Rice had contacted her Russian counterpart to discuss the deepening crisis.
Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his foreign minister–Igor Ivanov–to Tbilisi at the weekend to mediate–prompting a timely call from US Secretary of State Colin Powell.
"Secretary Powell spoke with Foreign Minister Ivanov after he arrived in Tbilisi," the Western diplomat said on condition of anonymity. "Before he met Shevardnadze–Powell called Ivanov."
The diplomat said Washington stopped directly communicating with Shevardnadze two days before he quit–but kept channels open with other government officials and the increasingly bold opposition.
Russia’s stake in a peaceful resolution of the Georgian political crisis was spelt out by independent Moscow analyst Vitaly Tretyakov: "If the authorities again prove weak in Tbilisi–it can only mean one thing for Russia–more sources of conflict in the Caucasus region in which Russia will have to intervene in one way or another."
Georgia is dependent on cut-price Russian oil and gas. The planned pipelines across Georgia would not only provide millions of dollars for empty state coffers–but offer the energy-poor state an alternative source of supply–from a US ally.
But for the Russian daily Kommersant–Moscow’s pragmatism aimed to send a clear signal to Georgia’s would-be rulers: "The United States is far away while Russia is very near and it is worth taking this into consideration."