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Caucasus Report: August 3, 2006

August 3, 2006, Volume 9, Number 28

THE KODORI OPERATION: SMALL VICTORIOUS INTERVENTION OR INCONCLUSIVE SHOW OF FORCE? Georgian officials have sought to present last week's incursion into the Kodori Gorge as a major territorial gain. But such claims gloss over the Georgian failure to apprehend former Kodori Governor Emzar Kvitsiani, whose defiance of the Georgian authorities served as the catalyst for what Tbilisi claims was simply a police operation.

Speaking on national television on July 28, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said that Georgia now "directly controls a very important strategic part of the territory of Abkhazia," and will "establish Georgian jurisdiction and constitutional order in the heart" of that breakaway region. Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili said the same day that "practically the whole of the gorge is under the control of the police."

Such claims are, however, an exaggeration, insofar as Georgia has merely extended its control over the upper reaches of the gorge -- formerly a no-man's-land controlled by Kvitsiani's Monadire (Hunter) militia -- as far as the border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia.

Kristian Bzhania, spokesman for Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh, derided the Georgian claims, telling that "we have another word for what Saakashvili calls the heart." Bagapsh himself warned when the Georgian forces first entered Kodori that he would mobilize his army if the Georgian contingent actually advanced onto Abkhaz territory.

Saakashvili and Okruashvili praised the conduct of the Kodori operation, which was supervised by Okruashvili and Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili personally as both army and Interior Ministry troops took part. (Okruashvili subsequently clarified the division of responsibilities between the Defense and the Interior ministries, saying that the latter carried out the operation and the armed forces merely provided "logistical support," according to "Novye izvestia," as quoted on August 1 by

U.S. military personnel in Georgia described the Georgian troops' performance to one Washington analyst as less than stellar, noting that morale among the Georgian servicemen was not good and that at one point the operation was halted due to "inclement weather conditions." The Russian newspaper "Vedomosti" on July 28 likewise quoted unnamed "experts" as saying the Georgian military is not yet professional enough to conduct large-scale operations.

Former Kodori Governor Kvitsiani, who managed to evade the advancing Georgian troops and whose current whereabouts are unknown, was particularly scathing. He said in video footage broadcast on July 30 by the independent Georgian television channel Imedi that claims his fighters were surrounded were "laughable." Kvitsiani claimed that the Georgian troops "do not know the area and cannot read maps.... We have a good army in Georgia. They are really good boys...but the an idiot. He knows nothing about military strategy."

Russian experts have pointed out that even if, as Abkhaz presidential envoy to Gali Raion Ruslan Kishmaria has alleged, Georgia is deploying more troops to the upper reaches of the Kodori gorge with the aim of advancing into the lower reaches and attacking Sukhum, the Abkhaz capital, such an offensive is fraught with risk. "Izvestia" on August 1 quoted an unnamed Russian general as saying that "starting a campaign in Kodori in summer would be suicidal." He pointed out that the mountains are covered in foliage, providing the enemy with excellent cover, and that it would be virtually impossible to use armor or heavy artillery. A Russian military analyst similarly noted that at one point the gorge narrows to the point that two platoons of Abkhaz special forces could easily block any further Georgian advance.

Georgian First Deputy Foreign Minister Valeri Chechelashvili said on July 31, however, that Tbilisi has no intention of using Kodori as a bridgehead to advance further into Abkhazia. And Abkhaz President Bagapsh apparently sees no danger of such an advance at this point. Bagapsh told volunteers from the North Caucasus on August 1 that there is no need at this juncture to mobilize the entire male population of Abkhazia, Caucasus Press reported, although he added that "there are people within the Georgian government whose ambitions are so high they are incapable of rational decisions."

But Abkhaz Defense Minister Lieutenant General Sultan Sosnaliyev told Interfax on August 1 that Tbilisi is secretly replacing the Interior Ministry troops deployed to Kodori with regular military personnel -- a claim that has not been verified.

The Russian Foreign Ministry released a statement on July 31 demanding the immediate withdrawal of all Georgian forces from Kodori. That statement warned that the Georgian authorities' actions risk fueling tensions and provoking an unanticipated "confrontation."

Meanwhile, Okruashvili responded on July 31 to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov's demand for international monitoring of the Georgian troops in Kodori by saying Tbilisi would consent only after international military experts have been allowed to inspect the former Russian military base in Gudauta, Abkhazia. Under an agreement signed in November 1999, Moscow undertook to withdraw its troops and materiel from that base by July 1, 2001, but the Georgian government claims that some Russian personnel are still there. Whether Okruashvili is trying to buy time in order to prepare for a new offensive is as yet unclear. (Liz Fuller)

U.S. OFFICIAL SAYS KODORI OPERATION COULD CONTRIBUTE TO STABILITY. Last week, Georgia launched an offensive in the Kodori Gorge, an area that straddles the breakaway Republic of Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia. Georgian leaders have hailed the operation as a success; former Kodori Governor Emzar Kvitsiani, whose defiance of the Georgian authorities served as the catalyst for the incursion, has rubbished such claims.

RFE/RL's Georgian Service spoke to Matthew Bryza, a U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs. Bryza is also the U.S. co-chair of the OSCE's Minsk Group, set up to monitor peace negotiations over the disputed Nagorno- Karabakh region. Bryza told RFE/RL that Georgia's recent incursion could actually be a force for stability.

RFE/RL: Some people are saying that the police operation in the Kodori Gorge has tested the situation between Tbilisi and Sukhumi, irritated Moscow and many people, many leaders in the North Caucasus. Do you think this could hinder the continuation of peaceful negotiations between Georgia and Abkhazia?

Matthew Bryza: No, I don't think it needs to at all hinder the peaceful negotiations between Tbilisi and Sukhumi. I think that if the Georgian government continues the operation the way it's been begun, in accordance with international agreements, executed with great care to make sure that tension remains as low as possible through contact between Tbilisi and Sukhumi and if the Georgian government demonstrates its ability to take care of the needs of Georgian citizens in the Kodori Gorge, I think this could actually contribute to stability in the long run.

And I think this operation, by eliminating an organized criminal gang that was really creating a terrible situation for the local inhabitants in the Kodori Gorge -- a place where they hadn't had any significant efforts to fight crime. I think it underscores how important it is to have an international policing unit or international policing force in Abkhazia -- maybe not so much in Kodori, but for certain in the Gali region where there are similar problems in terms of serious criminality, which then prevent the return of IDPs [internally displaced persons].

RFE/RL: You mentioned the police forces quite recently. What did you mean exactly?

Bryza: Well, we meant in the Gali district in particular, there is serious criminality and because of the level of crime internally displaced persons are unable to return to the Gali district -- and those are ethnic Georgians. The CIS peacekeeping force that's in place there, it has a different mandate. Its mandate does not include fighting crime, so there is a lack of a capability to create the conditions, the secure conditions free from crime that allow IDPs to return. And what I'm saying now is there was a similar situation in Kodori where there was lawlessness. In this case, the Georgian government is eliminating the lawlessness and restoring the rule of law. In Gali, that's not happening.

RFE/RL: On more broader issues, the Georgian parliament recently adopted a resolution on the CIS peacekeepers in Abkhazia. So what does the future hold? Has the issue of the possible replacement of the CIS peacekeepers been discussed by the U.S. State Department? Or did the Georgian government ask the State Department to help solve this issue, to replace the peacekeepers there?

Bryza: That's not really an issue for the United States. The government in Tbilisi, the authorities in Sukhumi, they need to talk through -- along with the United Nations and, of course, those who are participating in the CIS peacekeeping operation, which includes Russia, of course -- they need to talk through a solution. The Georgian government, the Georgian parliament, the Georgian people have expressed their sovereign desire to have what is recognized by my government as Georgian territory, free from CIS peacekeepers. Again it's not up to us to come up with a solution. What I am saying, however, that there is a gap, a hole, in the abilities of the authorities to fight crime in this particular area of Gali and elsewhere -- and there needs to be an additional capability -- and we're saying an international police force.

RFE/RL: Through the UN?

Bryza: We've been talking about doing it through the UN, yes, and whether or not. We haven't said it would be a replacement for the CIS peacekeepers, but a complement, an additional capability.

RFE/RL: Did you discuss how big this police force would be?

Bryza: No, there'll be a fact-finding mission, I think, in the next few weeks coming from the United Nations that will examine what is needed and then I think will probably make a recommendation about numbers.

RFE/RL: What do you think will be the next step in Georgian-Abkhaz relations. I mean the work of the Coordination Council [an umbrella structure set up in 1998 under the aegis of the UN to promote direct talks between Georgian and Abkhaz government officials on everyday issues].

Bryza: The next step would be first of all to meet. Then the Coordination Council would -- and it's really not for me, from the U.S. government, to say what the Coordination Council should do. But in a general sense I think what needs to happen, it's important for the government of Georgia to consolidate its ability to take care of the needs of the people in the upper Kodori Gorge and then the Coordination Council and everyone participating in it needs to reestablish the sort of dialogue you talked about in your first question. The two sides need to be in constant contact to reduce the level of tension, to make sure no one miscalculates, and stumbles into a more serious dispute or conflict. And then I think the sides, as I said, I hope they can work through a way to develop an international policing force.

RFE/RL: You came here at a moment where the interest toward the U.S. approach on the Kodori Gorge operation was quite high, whereas there have been plenty of negative opinions about this operation. Maybe it's misunderstood or something like that. Did you come here to help the Georgian people understand the Georgian government better because you came and said 'Well done, guys, that's a good operation going on but keep doing it.' So was that the aim of your visit here?

Bryza: No not at all.

RFE/RL: To help the Georgian government with public relations?

Bryza: Not at all. I am here in this region as a co-chair of the OSCE's Minsk Group for mediating in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and helping the parties come up with a just and lasting settlement. I just happened to be nearby and couldn't resist coming to Georgia.

Actually, I want to be clear, I'm not saying "Good job, guys" and that's not why I'm here. That's not my message. My message is so far the operation seems to have been conducted well. We haven't made an assessment as to whether or not there were any violations of the 1994 cease-fire agreement. We haven't said if there were violations or if there weren't as we don't have the capability to make such an assessment.

What I was saying was that, if indeed, this operation was conducted within accordance of international law, and if it continues in the same direction, and the Georgian government shows it can take care of the Georgian people in the upper Kodori Gorge, and if tension remains at a low level, then this will be a very successful operation. So instead of saying it has been good, I'm encouraging the Georgian government to keep going in this same direction.

By the way I'd like to add, we're hoping there can be similar progress in reducing tension and moving toward a political settlement in South Ossetia. I just wanted to say a word about that. There needs to be progress on a political settlement in South Ossetia, just as we've worked on Nagorno-Karabakh to create a political framework. There is no such framework yet that's on the table in South Ossetia. There's been a lack of movement, frankly, on the South Ossetian side. The Georgian side has made a proposal, a very promising proposal that's on the table -- there's been no response.

The Georgian side has taken unilateral steps to demilitarize, there's been no positive response. What's happened now with the Verkhny Lars border crossing is a significant increase in tension, makes life hard for Georgians, makes life hard for Armenians, and so we call on the Russian side to open that border crossing immediately, because it was closed in violation of the agreement that we understood was on the table for a 90-day notification.

Also, we believe that the time has come for there to be joint monitoring of the Roki tunnel, the other border crossing, that's not a legal crossing because right now there's no way for the Georgian government to participate in the monitoring of that tunnel. We frankly are worried about what can move through that tunnel. We don't know what's going through there, but we know what moves through the region: arms, radioactive materials.

We know in South Ossetia there's counterfeiting of American dollars taking place, moving through that area. It's a national-security interest of ours to have that stop. And we believe as well that there ought to be monitoring of the OSCE throughout all of South Ossetia. So it's not the same as all of Nagorno-Karabakh, but in general we need to have a similar process getting toward regulation and resolution of a conflict in South Ossetia, as in Karabakh.

U.S. MEDIATOR SAYS ELECTIONS NOT AN OBSTACLE TO KARABAKH PEACE. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict will not necessarily remain unresolved in the immediate future if Armenia and Azerbaijan fail to hammer out a framework peace accord this year, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza said in an exclusive interview with RFE/RL on July 29. He insisted that elections due in the two countries in 2007 and 2008 will not be an insurmountable obstacle to a compromise solution.

"I think it's possible to work through an election season and still make progress," Bryza said. "It's up to the [Armenian and Azerbaijani] presidents as to whether or not they have enough good will and political courage to do so. [Their failure to cut a deal in 2006] doesn't have to be the end of the process. It's just easier, much easier, if we get the heavy lifting done now."

Bryza said he still hopes that Presidents Ilham Aliyev and Robert Kocharian will iron out their differences in the coming months on the most recent peace proposals of the OSCE Minsk Group (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," June 30, 2006). "Of course I'm still hopeful," he said. "If I weren't hopeful, why would I even want to put in an effort? This isn't about theater, it's about results."

Bryza was speaking in Yerevan after what he described as "encouraging" talks with Kocharian that marked the start of his first tour of the conflict zone since his appointment as U.S. co-chair of the Minsk Group. He replaced another State Department official, Steven Mann, in that position in early June following the failure of Kocharian's last face-to-face negotiations with Aliyev that all but dashed hopes for a near-term solution to the Karabakh dispute.

In two subsequent statements, the mediating group's American, French and Russian co-chairs indicated their frustration. They said they will initiate no more Armenian-Azerbaijani talks until the two sides display greater commitment to a lasting peace.

Bryza, who proceeded to the Karabakh capital Stepanakert later on July 29, said he is visiting the region to get "some more guidance from the presidents themselves to determine how they would like to take the process further." He said he was assured by Kocharian that the Minsk Group plan is essentially acceptable to Yerevan.

"I enjoyed hearing his account of where things stand and how we got here," he said. "I felt a constructive, candid attitude on his part. He was very open. And he helped me think through what sort of recommendations I might bring to my fellow co-chairs."

Asked whether he found the kind of "political will" for compromise which was demanded by the mediators, Bryza replied: "I think there is political will here definitely to keep the process going. There have been public statements that the [Minsk Group's proposed] framework, the principles are agreeable [for Armenia]. What's never clear is whether or not there is enough will on both sides to eliminate or to resolve the distance that still stands between them. But I will just say I feel encouraged after today's discussions."

Armenian officials have claimed implicitly that the two rounds of negotiations between Kocharian and Aliyev this year collapsed because the latter backtracked on his earlier acceptance of the key principles of the peace plan that were officially disclosed by the Minsk Group co-chairs in June. Bryza effectively denied this and was careful not to blame either of the parties for the deadlock, saying that they both want to "enact some changes to the ideas that are on the table."

"The principles that are on the table don't constitute an agreement," he explained. "They are principles, suggestions. So it's not possible for anyone to walk away from an agreement, if there isn't an agreement."

At the heart of those principles is the idea of holding a referendum on Karabakh's status after the liberation of most of the Armenian-occupied districts in Azerbaijan proper surrounding the disputed enclave. Bryza confirmed that the mediators believe the status should be decided by the "people of Karabakh." "But the question is how do you define the people of Karabakh? And there were residents there in 1988 who wish to participate," he added in a clear reference to the region's displaced Azerbaijani minority. "All these things have still to be worked out as part of a broad package."

Aliyev and other Azerbaijani officials have repeatedly stated in recent weeks that they will never accept any deal that could legitimize Karabakh's secession from Azerbaijan. Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov was quoted by the news service last week as indicating that Baku is only ready to let the Karabakh Armenians decide the extent of their autonomy within Azerbaijan. "The principle of self-determination does not mean a breach of territorial integrity," Mammadyarov said.

This might explain why, unlike the authorities in Yerevan, the leadership of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) has expressed serious misgivings about the proposed peace formula.

Bryza, who is apparently the highest-ranking U.S. official to ever visit Karabakh, appeared to downplay the Stepanakert government's objections, implying that it is Baku and Yerevan that have final say in the peace process. "It's really up to Presidents Kocharian and Aliyev whether or not they will agree to the formula," he said. "We are just waiting for a sign from the presidents as to whether or not they would like to restart a formal process," he added.

The mediators stressed in their recent statements that "now is the time" to resolve the Karabakh conflict. Some of them warned earlier that failure to do so before the end of this year would keep the peace process deadlocked for at least three more years. They pointed to parliamentary and presidential elections due in Armenia in 2007 and 2008 respectively and an Azerbaijani presidential ballot scheduled for 2008. Many observers believe that it will be even more difficult for each side to make painful concessions to the other in the run-up to the polls.

But in an indication of the mediators' fading hopes for 2006, Bryza insisted that a Karabakh settlement will be feasible even during the election period. "I don't necessarily feel that there needs to be a hard deadline on the peace process," he said. "It's better if we have a sense of what compromises might be suggested before other political events [in Armenia and Azerbaijan] move forward. But it doesn't have to be by the end of this year."

"I would argue that the elections in Armenia and Azerbaijan don't pose an obstacle to reaching an agreement," continued the U.S. mediator. "They just pose an additional complicating factor. It's up to the presidents to guide their populations or societies, their voters in whatever direction they wish: a) to win the vote for themselves and their political parties, but b) to build support for the agreement. If the presidents succeed, with our help as mediators, in finalizing and eliminating the final differences with regard to this framework agreement and if they come up with an agreement that's mutually acceptable, that should be a plus in an election. That's a huge achievement that should actually help political leaders and their parties to win votes. So it could be useful to have elections. The is question is, though, will the presidents have decided to take these tough decisions in time?" (Emil Danielyan)

FORMER ARMENIAN FOREIGN MINISTER DEPLORES POPULAR APATHY. Addressing a congress of his opposition Zharangutiun (Heritage) party on August 1, Raffi Hovannisian lamented widespread popular apathy toward politics, saying that Armenians must engage in civic activism more energetically if they want prosperity and rule of law. He expressed concern in particular at the prospect of massive vote buying by pro-government forces and candidates in next year's parliamentary elections, in which Zharangutiun is expected to be a major opposition contender.

"It has to be understood that he who sells his and his children's future will not have a place in the company of those who are building a homeland of vote bribes," Hovannisian said, referring to a practice that was commonplace in the last local and national elections. "The public itself must realize that it must actively participate in all processes."

The congress was the first such gathering since the start of Zharangutiun's bitter confrontation with the Armenian authorities that was sparked by Hovannisian's stinging attacks on President Robert Kocharian late last year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12 and 13, 2006). The party's leadership was evicted from its Yerevan headquarters last March and has still not been able to reclaim the state-owned property despite a court verdict that effectively declared the eviction illegal.

The congress, attended by over 200 party activists, took place in the small conference hall of the Armenian Writers Union. Zharangutiun leaders said they planned to gather 600 delegates but could not lease a larger hall due to an unofficial government ban. It followed the launch late last month by Hovannisian and another prominent opposition leader, former Prime Minister and National Democratic Union Chairman Vazgen Manukian, of a broad-based "apolitical" movement tasked with trying to boost the civic consciousness of Armenia's population (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 20, 2006). They say this is much more important for the democratization of Armenia's political system than government assurances that the next Armenian elections will be free and fair.

"In my opinion, a civic mobilization, a reassessment of civic activism is imperative," Hovannisian told RFE/RL. "Citizens of the Republic of Armenia must finally realize that the fate of our country hinges on their votes, their participation, their activism." "A whole people are outside the opposition and government camps, indifferent, not affiliated with any party, stripped of rights. We should bring that overwhelming majority into play," the U.S.-born politician said. Civil society representatives and politicians committed to democracy have a big role to play in getting this message across, he added. (Anna Saghabalian)