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Today's Silk Road is Paved with Oil and Empires

MOSCOW: A perverse dialectic is at work in the Transcaucasus. The more Russia is accused of neo-imperial ambitions, the weaker Russia's actual sway becomes. All the while, Turkish and American influence grows stronger.

It is a grave mistake to think of Russia, like the Ottoman Empire of a century ago, as a "sick man of Europe," incapable of maintaining its strategic and commercial interests, and to regard its traditional allies in the region as available for anyone to poach. Indeed, the idea that Russia and the Transcaucasus can be disentangled is nonsense. The cat's cradle of connections between Russia and the Caucasus are centuries old and impossible to cut. Russia's presence runs deeper than the troops it maintains in the area. Mixed marriages abound; Russian is the region's lingua franca; Russian businesses (like Gazprom) dominate.

Oil, unsurprisingly, is at the root of divisions over the Caucasus. Westerners seek to redraw the medieval "Silk Road" with air and land routes, railways, and multi-billion dollar pipelines but also with wishful thinking. America believes oil can grease the wheels of democracy, insuring independence. Turkey sees its growing influence in the region as a card to play in bargaining for EU membership. Uncertain governments in the region think oil as a magic bullet with which to buy prosperity and social peace without hard work and risky reforms.

Georgia and its president Eduard Shevarnadze are perhaps the most guilty of this. President Shevardnadze dreamed of a new Silk Road back in the 1980s, when still the USSR's foreign minister. Like most policies of the perestroika era, this was another goal pursued by the Soviet leadership in a way unconnected to economic reality.