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Caucasus Report: February 17, 2006


17 February 2006, Volume 9, Number 6

GEORGIAN PARLIAMENT ISSUES ANTICIPATED ULTIMATUM. As most observers had expected, the Georgian parliament voted unanimously on 15 February by 179 votes in favor to demand that the government embark on measures to secure the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeeping force deployed in the South Ossetia conflict zone and its replacement by an international peacekeeping force (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 February 2006).

The parliament resolution characterized the performance of that force as "extremely negative" and Russia's policies as "a permanent attempt to annex" that unrecognized republic. It called on the Georgian government to begin immediately measures to secure the peacekeepers' withdrawal and their replacement by an international force, including abjuring the Russian-Georgian agreement signed in Sochi in June 1992 by the then Russian and Georgian heads of state, Boris Yeltsin and Eduard Shevardnadze, that serves as the legal basis for the peacekeeping mission. The resolution further stressed the need for increased cooperation between the Georgian government and the international community to preclude destabilization in the conflict zone.

But in contrast to the parliament's 11 October resolution setting a deadline of early February for the Russian peacekeeping force to demonstrate its effectiveness and impartiality, the 15 February resolution set no specific deadlines either for the Georgian government to take action, or for the Russian force's final pullout.

Parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze explained that omission was deliberate. The demand for the peacekeepers' withdrawal, she said on 15 February, is "a delicate issue" and the Georgian authorities wanted to leave room for maneuver. Georgian parliament Defense and Security Committee Chairman Givi Targamadze, hitherto one of the more hawkish Georgian proponents of a swift and unconditional Russian withdrawal, similarly told journalists on 16 February that "No matter how tough the parliament's resolution sounds, it implies negotiations. It would be great to have those negotiations started right now."

Those two statements raise the question whether the seeming standoff between the Georgian legislature and the executive over the Russian peacekeepers was perhaps a carefully crafted smokescreen designed to obscure a long-term strategy intended to force the international community into siding with Georgia against Russia.

But whatever the Georgian rationale, the international community has reacted with consternation at the prospect of a further deterioration in Georgian-Russian relations and of a possible upsurge of hostilities in the actual conflict zone. Russia, for its part, has chosen to construe the Georgian parliament resolution not as a call for dialogue with the aim of amending the format of the current peacekeeping operation, in which Russian, Georgian and Ossetian contingents serve, but as a deliberate slap in the face for Moscow and as undermining efforts to resolve the South Ossetian conflict and as potentially destabilizing the "entire region."

A statement posted later on 15 February on the Russian Foreign Ministry website (http://www.mid.ru) expressed the hope that the Georgian government will act "responsibly and with restraint," and stressed that Moscow will continue to act in compliance with its international obligations and in accordance with its responsibility for preserving security and stability in the conflict zone. It called for addressing all aspects of the conflict at the negotiating table, and advocated convening a meeting of the Joint Control Commission (JCC) to discuss a joint program for resolving the conflict. The JCC is scheduled to convene in Vienna on 20-21 February.

Finally, and crucially, the Russian Foreign Ministry statement suggested taking as a basis for reaching a negotiated settlement to the conflict the peace plan Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili unveiled to the UN General Assembly in 2004 and South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity's peace proposals of December 2005. Saakashvili subsequently modified his September 2004 peace proposal three times: in January 2005, August 2005, and October 2005 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 September 2004 and 27 January and 11 July 2005). The international community expressed cautious approval of successive versions; Russia, however, dismissed the most recent version as "unworkable" and insisted on reverting to the original one (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 4 November 2005). Participants at the annual OSCE Foreign Ministers' meeting in early December 2005 issued a statement welcoming Georgian initiatives to resolve the conflict, and singling out "the peace plan built on the initiatives of the president of Georgia presented at the 59th UN General Assembly."

Like the earlier versions, the most recent Georgian peace proposal envisages granting South Ossetia "broad autonomy" within Georgia. But it contains new proposals regarding the actual peace process, specifically, drawing the United States, the European Union, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) into the search for a political settlement to the conflict alongside Russia. It also advocates the immediate demilitarization of the conflict zone and imposing strict border controls at the Roki tunnel linking South Ossetia with the Russian Federation, both moves that would undercut Russia's ability to channel support to the South Ossetian leadership and thus use the conflict as leverage against Georgia. And while Saakashvili's September 2004 peace plan contained no time frame and the January 2005 version provided for a three-year transition period, the October 2005 version envisages resolving the conflict by 2007.

Georgian officials have claimed that Kokoity's counterproposals, outlined in a December 2005 letter to both Saakashvili and Russian President Vladimir Putin, largely coincide with Saakashvili's. Kokoity endorsed Saakashvili's proposed three-stage format for resolving the conflict, which comprises demilitarization and confidence-building measures, followed by social and economic reconstruction, and then a decision on South Ossetia's political status. But, crucially, Kokoity offered no time frame whatsoever for implementing those measures (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 December 2005).

Meanwhile, the international community is now faced with the choice of either seeking to persuade Georgia to backpedal, or soliciting pledges of troops for an alternative peacekeeping force, most likely under the aegis of the OSCE. Speaking in Moscow on 16 February, Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava pled for precisely such a force under either the OSCE or EU aegis, saying the more countries participate in it, the better, Caucasus Press reported.

But whether the United States and major European powers would be prepared to antagonize Moscow by providing troops for such a force -- even if Russia too were included -- is more than doubtful. A Eurasia View analysis of 10 February made the key point that Tbilisi may have badly miscalculated the extent to which Washington is prepared to back Georgia in its ongoing deliberate baiting of Moscow.

The Russian leadership, meanwhile, will be monitoring Washington's response, possibly with the express intention of triggering an incident in the conflict zone that would provoke a military response from Georgia, or in anticipation that Georgia's chief hawk, Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, will precipitate such an incident. Any such armed clash, regardless of who shoots first, would only serve to substantiate the Russian argument that the peacekeeping force in its current format remains indispensable. (Liz Fuller)

PRESIDENTIAL AIDE HOPES TO JOIN FUTURE ARMENIAN GOVERNMENT. Artashes Tumanian, the chief of Armenian President Robert Kocharian's staff, staked a claim to greater political influence on 13 February, saying that his newly created party will seek to be represented in Armenia's next government alongside other pro-establishment groups. In an interview with RFE/RL, Tumanian admitted that the party called Nor Yerkir (New Country) hopes to make a strong showing in next year's parliamentary elections for that purpose.

"It would be strange to aspire to having a parliament faction and not to seek participation in the formation of the next government," he said. "Of course, we would like to be in the next parliament and to participate in the formation of the next government."

Nor Yerkir was officially unveiled on 10 February with the publication of its program and ideological platform in three major Armenian newspapers. One of its key declared aims to make sure that Armenia joins the European Union by 2015. Tumanian said he founded the party because he believes that the numerous other pro-presidential forces do not enjoy sufficient public support. "Opinion polls show that the existing political spectrum does not enjoy full [popular] sympathy. So there is room for new entrants," he said.

Tumanian has long cooperated with one of the parties represented in Kocharian's cabinet, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation -- Dashnaktsutiun (HHD), twice contesting parliamentary elections on the Dashnaktsutiun ticket. He insisted on 13 February that he still thinks highly of the HHD. "I find my relations with them very positive," he said. "They are as friendly as they were a few years ago.... I think our relations will remain good and perhaps there will be opportunities for cooperation." Tumanian did not rule out the possibility of teaming up with the HHD and other forces before or after the 2007 elections. "There could be different formats of cooperation," he said without going into details.

The HHD and its two coalition partners seem uneasy about the emergence of new pro-Kocharian parties. They are particularly worried about another new party formed by Gagik Tsarukian, one of Armenia's wealthiest businessmen, who is seeking to play a key role in next year's vote. Some coalition leaders have publicly complained about what they see as the growing role of money in Armenian politics (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 February 2006).

Tumanian's financial resources are hardly comparable to Tsarukian's. Nor is he likely to lure political heavyweights or prominent public figures into his party. Still, he insisted that his little-known associates can quickly make a name for themselves before the elections. "It is not impossible to turn an intellectual into a prominent political figure in one, two, or six months by using well-known PR techniques," he said.

Tumanian refused to be drawn on the number of parliament seats Nor Yerkir expects to win next year. "The more, the better," he said. (Ruzanna Khachatrian)

KARABAKH OFFICIAL COMMENTS ON RAMBOUILLET TALKS. The failure of the 10-11 February talks in France on approaches to resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict shows that the Karabakh leadership's skepticism about the prospects for a speedy resolution of the conflict are justified, according to Arman Melikian, who is a top aide to Arkady Ghukasian, president of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR).

Melikian argued that the peace process will remain deadlocked as long as Azerbaijan refuses to comes to terms with Armenian control over the disputed territory. He said that was the reason why the two-day peace talks at the Rambouillet Chateau near Paris failed to produce an agreement. "I don't know what the international community and the co-chairs expected from the meeting," Melikian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on 16 February. "Nothing special could have come out of that meeting."

The Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents, Robert Kocharian and Ilham Aliyev, failed to agree on the key principles of a peaceful settlement despite cautiously optimistic prognoses by international mediators, and even by some Armenian and Azerbaijani officials, that they might succeed in doing so. Karabakh officials, by contrast, were notably more reserved in the run-up to the Rambouillet summit, inclining observers to infer that they are unhappy with the framework peace accord currently being discussed by Baku and Yerevan. That accord would reportedly enable Karabakh's predominantly Armenian population to decide its status in a referendum after the gradual liberation of most Armenian-occupied Azerbaijani territories bordering Karabakh.

Melikian, who served as Ghukasian's foreign minister until recently, admitted that the NKR is not enthusiastic about that formula. "Azerbaijan's ruling elite and public in general must be prepared for Karabakh's independence, whether through a referendum or otherwise," he said. "But that realization is totally absent. I therefore find it inappropriate to even talk about a referendum."

Melikian said the NKR's continuing exclusion from the peace talks is also a "serious obstacle" to peace. "No lasting solution is possible without the acceptance of Nagorno-Karabakh's position," he said. (Ruzanna Stepanian)

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK. "It's always easy to determine when a transition period starts and very difficult to pinpoint when it ended.... It's possible to say that we have completed the first stage of the transition." Azerbaijani Economic Development Minister Heydar Babayev in an interview with echo-az.com on 11 February.

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