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Caucasus Report: January 28, 2005


28 January 2005, Volume 8, Number 4

SOUTH OSSETIA REJECTS GEORGIAN PRESIDENT'S OFFER OF AUTONOMY. Addressing the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) winter session in Strasbourg on 26 January, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said Tbilisi is prepared to grant the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia greater autonomy within Georgia than the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania has within the Russian Federation, according to the text of his speech posted on the Georgian Foreign Ministry website (http://www.mfa.gov.ge/news.php?newsid=updates/EEpFlAEkyAIWrpvPLk.php). But the unrecognized republic's president, Eduard Kokoity, fully rejected that offer the same day, telling journalists in Moscow that "we do not see any autonomy" in Saakashvili's offer. "We are an independent state," http://www.rustavi2.com quoted Kokoity as saying.

Saakashvili explained in his address to PACE that Tbilisi's proposal comprises "a constitutional guarantee of autonomy, that includes the right to freely and directly elected local self governance -- including an executive branch and a parliament for South Ossetia. South Ossetia's parliament will...control...issues such as culture, education, social policy, economic policy, public order, the organization of local self governance, and environmental protection." South Ossetia would also, Saakashvili said, have representatives in the national government, parliament, and judiciary. He further said Tbilisi is ready to discuss with the South Ossetian leadership "innovative ideas," including free economic zones, and to permit that leadership to tailor its economic policies to local needs. Saakashvili proposed a three-year transition period during which a mixed Georgian-Ossetian police force would be set up under the guidance of international organizations and the South Ossetian army would be absorbed into the Georgian armed forces. He appealed to the OSCE, the Council of Europe, the EU, the U.S., and Russia to support and facilitate the peace process.

Kokoity, however, dismissed Saakashvili's offer of "broad autonomy" for South Ossetia as "an attempt to aggravate the situation," ITAR-TASS reported. He explained to journalists at a press conference in Moscow that South Ossetia's status was fixed by a referendum in 1992 during which 99.8 percent of the population voted to secede from Georgia, and that 95 percent of the population now have Russian passports and aspire to integration with the Russian Federation. Kokoity said he is ready for dialogue with Tbilisi "on equal terms," and to expand economic cooperation with Georgia, but he added that South Ossetia does not need Georgian humanitarian aid.

Kokoity further argued that "our history shows that autonomy within Georgia does not guarantee the security of the people of South Ossetia," an allusion to the fighting unleashed in 1990-1992 by Georgian nationalists in which over 1,000 people were killed and some 2,500 wounded (of a population estimated at between 65,000-70,000). He told Ekho Moskvy on 26 January that "all our government institutions are functioning, all democratic norms are being observed. Unlike neighboring Georgia, we held presidential elections and parliamentary elections. We are now being invited to join a federation, well, what sort of federation, in which not even a single president was elected legitimately, where presidents are routinely deposed in all manner of armed coups, revolutions, whether with or without roses."

In fact, Saakashvili carefully avoided using the term "federation" in the context of his discussion of South Ossetia's future relations with the central Georgian authorities, even though his adviser, Soso Tsintsadze, was quoted by Interfax on 21 January as saying that "the plan implies the formation of a state with a federal system." On 24 January, outlining his peace proposal to journalists in Tbilisi before departing for Strasbourg, Saakashvili had stated that the people of South Ossetia "do not want independence," but merely to preserve their language and culture, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 January 2005).

Even if one assumes that Kokoity's response to Saakashvili's offer of "broad autonomy" was not dictated to him by Moscow, that concept has only negative connotations for anyone who grew up in one of the autonomous soviet socialist republics or autonomous oblasts of the USSR. That status in practice guaranteed little more than that the first secretary of the Oblast Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union would be a member of the titular nationality; in some, but not all, cases, local schools offered tuition in the national language. As a commentary posted on 17 August 2004 on the Chechen website chechenpress.com pointed out, "compared with the union republics, the inhabitants of autonomous formations were second-class citizens." It is not clear to this writer whether the Georgian authorities are incapable of comprehending the Ossetians' collective aversion to any form of "autonomy" or whether they simply prefer to pretend it does not exist.

There is, however, another possible explanation why Saakashvili should have chosen not to define his South Ossetian peace proposal as based on federal principles, and that is the emerging domestic opposition to federalism. Meeting in Tbilisi on 9 January, several dozen Georgian scholars and members of the creative intelligentsia formed an NGO named Unitary Georgia that will campaign to prevent Georgia from becoming a federation, ITAR-TASS and Caucasus Press reported. Its leaders, Lasha Tabukashvili and Mikheil Naneishvili, argued that "a federative structure is unacceptable for Georgia because it may result in the country's disintegration." (Liz Fuller)

COUNCIL OF EUROPE CALLS FOR TALKS BETWEEN AZERBAIJAN, KARABAKH LEADERSHIP. In the late summer of 2004, British parliamentarian David Atkinson, who succeeded Terry Davis as the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe's rapporteur for Nagorno-Karabakh, was tasked with completing a report begun by Davis for the assembly on the situation in the disputed region. Even though such reports, when adopted, are only recommendations, ever since that draft was unveiled two months ago, legislators and political commentators in both Armenia and Azerbaijan have evaluated, and lobbied to amend, criticisms they consider unwarranted and terminology they consider inappropriate or misleading.

Specifically, the Armenian side objected from the outset to the assertion that "considerable parts of the territory of Azerbaijan are still occupied by Armenian forces, and separatist forces are still in control of the Nagorno-Karabakh region." The Armenian PACE delegation sought to substitute "supporters of democracy" for the term "separatist forces," presumably in order to underscore that the elections that have taken place in the disputed republic were free and democratic, in contrast to those in Azerbaijan which the OSCE has consistently criticized as not meeting international standards for free and fair elections. The Armenian side also considered inappropriate the use of the term "ethnic cleansing" in connection with the exodus from the region of its minority Azerbaijani population.

The Davis/Atkinson report was the subject of a three-hour debate on 25 January during the PACE winter session. The Armenian delegation's efforts to tone down wording that it considered unfair proved largely unsuccessful, partly, delegation head Tigran Torosian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on 20 January, due to lack of Russian support. According to zerkalo.az on 26 January, most speakers expressed support for Azerbaijan's territorial integrity and for the withdrawal of Armenian forces from areas bordering on Nagorno-Karabakh. The report was finally approved by a vote of 123 in favor and seven against. Moreover, the final version of the report terms the occupation of the territory of one Council of Europe member state by another "a grave violation" and stresses that the independence and secession of a territory may be achieved only through a lawful and peaceful process and not in the wake of an armed conflict leading to the expulsion of part of the region's population. It calls for compliance with four UN Security Council resolutions adopted in 1993 calling for the withdrawal of unnamed occupying forces from districts of Azerbaijan bordering on Nagorno-Karabakh. And it calls on the cochairs of the OSCE Minsk Group to expedite a formal agreement on cessation of the conflict that would "eliminate the major consequences of the conflict for all parties" and pave the way for the so-called Minsk Conference that would address the region's future status vis-a-vis Azerbaijan.

That approach is tantamount to endorsement of the so-called "phased" approach to resolving the conflict, and it would apparently require the withdrawal of Karabakh Armenian forces from the seven districts of Azerbaijan bordering on Nagorno-Karabakh that they currently control, and the return of the region's Azerbaijani minority to their abandoned homes, prior to the beginning of any formal discussion of the region's political status and of the measure of self-rule to which it would be entitled as part of Azerbaijan. The Armenian government considers this approach anathema, insofar as it would deprive the Armenian side of its sole bargaining chip (the occupied territories) before talks on Karabakh's status got under way.

Azerbaijani commentators on 26 January termed the final wording of the report a major defeat for Armenia. But the report also contained at least one recommendation that is unacceptable to Azerbaijan: the Armenian delegation succeeded in having it amended to include a call on the Azerbaijani leadership to embark immediately and unconditionally on talks with the leadership of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic on the region's future status. Moreover, addressing the assembly on 25 January, Atkinson argued that Azerbaijan should be expelled from the Council of Europe if it attempts to restore its hegemony over Nagorno-Karabakh by military means, Turan reported. Atkinson reminded PACE that he visited Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1990s, and added that he "will never forget" the Azerbaijani bombing of Stepanakert.

Armenian PACE delegation head Torosian sought to portray the report in a positive light, pointing out on 26 January to Noyan Tapan that it admits that a disputed territory may secede from a state democratically; that it implicitly recognizes Nagorno-Karabakh as a separate state by including an appeal to Armenia to exert its influence on Nagorno-Karabakh to further the peace process; and that it rules out the use of military force to resolve the conflict. (Liz Fuller)

CHECHNYA SPELLS OUT DEMANDS TO MOSCOW. The long-awaited draft power-sharing agreement between Chechnya and the Russian federal government is finally ready for signing, Chechen State Council Chairman Taus Djabrailov announced on 18 January -- almost two years after Russian President Vladimir Putin dubbed it the logical next step in the process of "normalizing" Chechnya following the adoption in a controversial referendum of a new constitution for the region.

But the main provisions of the seven-page agreement, especially the financial concessions Chechnya demands, are so exorbitant as to raise the question: does Moscow really believe that the problem of Chechnya can be solved simply by throwing money at it? Or is the draft intended to serve as a basis for negotiations in which Grozny too will be required to make substantial concessions -- even if those concessions are not publicized?

According to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 20 January, the main provisions of the agreement include granting Chechnya the status of a "region of intensive economic development" for a period of 10 years, during which time the republican government will have exclusive rights to the land and mineral resources, including the right to develop and sell those resources. In addition, all taxes collected in Chechnya will be transferred to the republic's budget; residents of Chechnya will be provided with free electricity and gas; Chechnya will receive annually a credit of 3 billion rubles ($100 million); and any intervention into Chechnya's internal affairs by Russian "force agencies" will be forbidden.

Those last two provisions will almost certainly serve to strengthen the position of First Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, who is already widely suspected of using budget funds for his own purposes, and whose so-called presidential security force engages with impunity in the abduction for ransom, torture, and killing of Chechen civilians. At present, the federal forces in Chechnya constitute the sole constraint on the "kadyrovtsy"; removing that constraint would be tantamount to granting Kadyrov carte blanche to perpetrate unlimited human rights violations.

The draft treaty also entitles Chechen survivors of Stalin's repression to a lump sum comprising 1,000 times the minimum monthly wage for the loss of housing (a total of 720,000 rubles, or $25,762) and 5,000 times the minimum monthly wage for the loss of other possessions. By contrast, the federal law on the rehabilitation of victims of the Stalin purges foresees maximum compensation of 4,000 rubles, "Vremya novostei" noted on 24 January. Finally, the draft treaty raises the question of revising the demarcation of the border between the republics of Chechnya and Ingushetia agreed upon in 1993 by the then presidents of the two republics, Djokhar Dudaev and Ruslan Aushev. According to "Vremya novostei," Chechnya hopes to recover territories in Ingushetia's Sunzha and Malgobek raions that were part of Chechnya prior to the amalgamation in January 1934 of the Chechen and Ingush autonomous oblasts to form the Checheno-Ingush Autonomous Oblast (which was upgraded in December 1936 to the status of an autonomous Soviet socialist republic).

Former Chechen Prime Minister Mikhail Babich, now a State Duma deputy, told "Vremya novostei" that the demands enumerated in the draft treaty exceed by far the most intemperate claims made by the late President Dudaev. But Aleksei Malashenko of the Moscow Carnegie Center was quoted by "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 20 and 25 January as expressing doubts that Moscow would agree to all the Chechen leadership's demands, as doing so would be "a defeat" in the eyes of Russia's political and military elite, and of President Putin personally. Malashenko predicted a process of horse-trading in which Ramzan Kadyrov would be forced to make unspecified concessions. Mercator Group Director Dmitrii Oreshkin pointed out that if Moscow agrees to the Chechen leadership's conditions, it would unleash a storm of protest from other federation subjects objecting that Chechnya should receive such largesse while they receive proportionately far less in subsidies despite their loyalty to the Russian leadership.

On 25 January, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" quoted unnamed Kremlin administration officials as confirming that the treaty would merely designate Chechnya a "zone of special economic development" and provide unspecified tax breaks. And in what may be an attempt at saving face, Djabrailov told the paper, "So far there has been no reaction at all from the Kremlin." But he also said that the draft he had described was simply the final version as proposed by the Chechen side, and that "it still needs to be worked and worked at" -- a process that the paper likened to "bargaining in a mine field." Meanwhile, Chechen Finance Minister Eli Isaev told a cabinet session on 24 January that Chechnya's annual budget for 2005 has been cut by 400 million rubles in connection with the planned streamlining of the republican government, kavkaznet.web reported.

RFE/RL CAUCASUS SERVICES LAUNCH NEW REGIONAL DISCUSSION PROGRAM. The Armenian, Azerbaijani, and Georgian broadcast services of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) are launching a new jointly produced, regional program designed to help bridge the divisions that exist among the peoples of the South Caucasus.

The 20-minute program will be heard as part of RFE/RL's regular programming every Saturday at 6 pm (local time) on Georgian State Radio, and at 5:15 pm and 11:15 pm (local time) on Azerbaijan's Teleradio network, and on Sunday evenings at 7 pm on Armenian State Radio. The broadcasts will be available on RFE/RL's local private affiliates as well as on the Internet and via shortwave and direct-to-home satellite broadcast (see http://www.rferl.org/listen for more schedule information). Below is a slightly abridged translation of the 15 January program in which experts from Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan discuss the transportation agreement signed several days earlier between the Georgian and Russian governments.

RFE/RL: You are listening to the weekly program Caucasus Crossroad, in which we discuss various issues that are important for the countries of our region: Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. The subject of today's [15 January 2005] program is transport links and their significance for the South Caucasus.

On 10 January, Russian Transport Minister Igor Levitin and Georgian Economy Minister Aleksandr Aleksishvili signed an agreement [in Tbilisi] that paves the way for opening a ferry service between the Georgian port of Poti and the Russian port of Kavkaz [beginning in late January 2005]. How important is this agreement for the South Caucasus? Our guests are Georgian expert on economic issues Archil Gegeshidze, Azerbaijani expert Togrul Djuvarly and, from Yerevan, Atom Markarian.

Mr. Gegeshidze, how important is this agreement for Georgia?

Archil Gegeshidze: Russia is one of Georgia's biggest trade partners, and for that reason any links, any connections with this vast neighbor of ours are of primary importance for us. Unfortunately the only transport link connecting Georgia and Russia today is the Lars crossing point in the Caucasus mountains, which is impassable for part of the year and does not permit the transportation of large quantities of goods in either direction. The agreement signed this week will, of course, be an important alternative and will contribute to expanding economic ties between Georgia and Russia.

The planned ferry is also an important factor in increasing Georgia's transit potential, because Georgia's geographical location is one of the country's key advantages and can contribute to its further economic development.

RFE/RL: Mr. Djuvarly, how will the ferry benefit Azerbaijan?

Togrul Djuvarly: You know that we have a functioning rail connection with Russia that has functioned quite well for most of the past decade, and so it would be an exaggeration to say that the ferry is of primary significance for Azerbaijan but, nonetheless, I think that part of Azerbaijan's exports, especially oil products, will probably be transported by that ferry.

RFE/RL: Mr. Markarian, how important is the ferry for Armenia?

Atom Markarian: First of all, the ferry will reduce the cost of transporting cargo by rail to Armenia, and it is most economical -- not only in terms of the cost -- but also of the time involved. If I am not mistaken, it says in the agreement that the cost of transporting goods from Kavkaz to Poti and from there by rail to Armenia will be 35-40 percent cheaper. I think that the agreement is mutually advantageous, both Russian and Armenian businessmen will benefit from it as will Georgia, because Poti will handle an increased volume of freight. In this respect, the agreement is the first step towards normalizing relations between the countries of the South Caucasus and Russia.

On the whole I assess the signing of this agreement positively.

RFE/RL: In November last year the Russian transport minister proposed the creation of a joint Russian-Georgian-Armenian-Azerbaijani company that would set about restoring the rail network across the South Caucasus that stopped functioning as a result of the conflicts in Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh [in 1992-1993]. Mr. Gegeshidze, would this entail economic losses for Georgia? Is the transport blockade of Abkhazia beneficial or detrimental for Georgia?

Archil Gegeshidze: This is a very important, and at the same time a very delicate question, because this is unfortunately not just an economic issue for Georgia, because of the conflict situation in Abkhazia. I cannot cite precise figures, I don't even know whether any such calculations have been made, but I can say that over the whole period when this very important transport link between Georgia and Russia -- or rather between Russia and the South Caucasus -- stopped functioning, all sides incurred losses. I recall one figure cited by a Russian deputy prime minister who visited Georgia -- this was in the late 1990s -- and he said that as a result of the suspension of rail communication between Russia and the South Caucasus Russia was losing $8 billion annually. I cannot cite a precise figure for Georgia but its economic losses, too, were considerable.

RFE/RL: Mr. Markarian, how important is the restoration of rail traffic for Armenia?

Atom Markarian: I will say straight out, this is vitally important for Armenia, although it cannot be compared with the freight transported to and from [Armenia via] Georgia by sea. The 40 percent reduction in transportation costs will make Armenian products more competitive [on world markets] and it will contribute to the development of industry in Armenia, especially heavy industry.

The suspension of rail traffic [from Russia via Georgia to Armenia] in 1993, more than a decade ago, inflicted damage not only on Armenian businessmen but also their counterparts in Georgia and Russia, and it still has a negative impact on the economies of all the South Caucasus republics. The restoration of rail transport via Abkhazia is, of course, a political issue and it is contingent on Georgian-Abkhaz relations [in the first instance], but I think a gesture of goodwill from the Russian side is also needed here.

As for the cost of restoring this railway, the economic aspect, I think this is of secondary significance, the main thing is to resolve the Abkhaz problem, Abkhazia's status, and the entire complex of Georgian-Abkhaz relations.

RFE/RL: Mr. Djuvarly, how realistic is the restoration of rail communication throughout the whole South Caucasus, bearing in mind that this is not just a technical issue but a very complex political issue?

Togrul Djuvarly: This is indeed more of a political issue, and to be honest the situation reminds me of the situation with the legal status of the Caspian Sea, where after the five Caspian littoral states failed to reach an overall agreement among themselves they decided to take the path of bilateral agreements, and each has signed such bilateral agreements with all the others, the only exceptions being that Azerbaijan has not signed such agreements with Turkmenistan and Iran. Today each of the South Caucasus countries is trying to find its own transport routes. Azerbaijan is eager to join the North-South Transport Corridor that links Russia with Iran, and also to link up with the [planned] rail link from Kars [in eastern Turkey] to Akhalklaki [in southern Georgia] that would give Azerbaijan an outlet to Turkey via Tbilisi.

In that respect I think [statements of support for transregional communications] are more political [than practical] in nature, because it is clear that in conditions of unresolved conflicts each country will look for its own outlets [to the outside world].

RFE/RL: Mr. Markarian, what do you think of the prospects for restoring rail transport across the South Caucasus?

Atom Markarian: I think that one should proceed here from the economic aspect of resolving this very complex issue in order to resolve the political questions, which I think can be resolved in the longer term [once the economic problems have been successfully dealt with]. We need to begin by trying to restore economic relations -- this applies not only to Abkhazia but also to Nagorno-Karabakh.

I think [Georgian] President [Mikheil] Saakashvili is inclined towards this approach, because I am aware of a shift in his attitude, especially recently. Everything depends on the goodwill of politicians. As for the peoples, living in this region, I think that they are more favorably inclined towards cooperation than the politicians are.

RFE/RL: Georgia is the connecting link between Turkey and Armenia. How much does Armenia lose from the fact that all its cargo is transported via a third country?

Atom Markarian: Of course Armenia's economy incurs huge losses, but I think that this is only temporary. There have been signs recently of a rapprochement between Georgia and Turkey in the field of transport as exemplified by the signing [in late December 2004] of the intergovernmental agreement of the Kars-Akhalkalaki rail link. I think that this is more of a political agreement than an economic one, because a railway already exists between Kars and Akhalkalaki, via Giumri [in northern Armenia], and traffic along that route could be restored without any major financial outlay.

Of course it is not economically advantageous to transport goods from Turkey to Armenia via Georgia or Iran but, since Armenia is being subjected to an economic blockade by Turkey and Azerbaijan, there is no alternative.

RFE/RL: Mr. Markarian, do you think it is possible that the Turkish-Armenian border will be opened in the near future?

Atom Markarian: I am inclined to be optimistic at the prospects because Turkey is insistently seeking to be admitted to the European Union, and the issue of Armenian-Turkish relations is an obstacle -- one of the many obstacles -- to this. I think this will play a positive role because the international community [and] the U.S.A. are interested in the border being opened and in cooperation between Armenia and Turkey. I think that even if this problem is not solved in the near future, it could be solved in the medium term in three, four, or five years, and the borders will be opened.

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK. "The term 'soft authoritarianism' has replaced 'managed democracy' in describing Russian President Vladimir Putin's regime." -- Commentary in "The Washington Post" on 21 January.

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