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Caucasus Report: February 4, 2005


4 February 2005, Volume 8, Number 5

GEORGIAN PRIME MINISTER DIES. Zurab Zhvania, who died at the age of 41 in the early hours of 3 February, reportedly of gas poisoning, was one of Georgia's most urbane, intelligent, astute and experienced politicians.

Born on 9 December 1963, Zhvania studied biology at Tbilisi State University, graduating in 1985. In the late 1980s, when then CPSU General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of liberalization gave the green light for the emergence of informal political organizations across the Soviet Union, Zhvania founded Georgia's Green Party, and in late 1992 he was elected to the country's first post-Soviet parliament. It was in his capacity as a young and eloquent parliament deputy that Zhvania first came to the notice of then parliament chairman Eduard Shevardnadze, who catapulted Zhvania to the chairmanship of the Union of Citizens of Georgia (SMK), the political party Shevardnadze created as his personal power base in 1993.

Following the parliamentary elections in 1995, in which the SMK won an absolute majority, Zhvania as head of the SMK became parliament chairman, the de facto second most influential post in the country. Within a couple of years, many observers concluded that Shevardnadze was grooming Zhvania to succeed him as president.

But the period of close political cooperation between Zhvania and Shevardnadze proved to be comparatively short-lived. In July 1998, Zhvania warned that corruption and the government's failure to implement systemic reform had brought the country to "the edge of the abyss." "The fact that laws are not implemented has generated a lack of popular trust in the leadership," he told a meeting of Georgia's NGOs.

Zhvania threatened to resign and take on the role of "constructive opposition" within parliament unless radical measures were adopted to kick start reform. Six week later, in late August, the SMK parliament faction elected as its chairman U.S.-trained lawyer Mikheil Saakashvili, a Zhvania protege. Over the next few years, the two men took an increasingly tougher stand on Shevardnadze's apparent unwillingness to implement a drastic crackdown on corruption, which they perceived as hindering economic revival and tarnishing Georgia's international reputation. They also took a far more radical position than did Shevardnadze on the issue of relations with Russia.

In late 2000 and early 2001 Zhvania and Shevardnadze both repeatedly denied persistent rumors of tensions between them, but those tensions between the president and the would-be young reformers within the SMK came to a head in November 2001 when, faced by mass popular protests over a crackdown on the popular independent television station Rustavi-2, Shevardnadze outmaneuvered Zhvania and forced his resignation.

Even before that, the SMK had split into rival factions, but it was not until May 2002, when he was refused registration as a candidate in local elections, that Zhvania definitively broke with that party and formed the United Democrats parliament faction, which was headed by another close Zhvania associate, Giorgi Baramidze. In November 2002, Zhvania announced that he planned to run in the presidential elections due in 2005 when Shevardnadze's second presidential term was set to expire.

Despite his close ties with Saakashvili, Zhvania was reluctant to align closely with him: the newspaper "Akhali versia" on 4 February 2002 quoted Zhvania as criticizing what he termed Saakashvili's "excessive radicalism." In the run-up to the 2 November 2003 parliamentary elections, Zhvania's United Democrats forged an election alliance not with Saakashvili's National Movement but with the eponymous political bloc formed by Zhvania's successor as parliament speaker, Nino Burdjanadze.

When the election bloc cobbled together by Shevardnadze to replace the SMK set about manipulating the election returns, Zhvania, Burdjanadze and Saakashvili joined forces to mobilize popular protest. Initially their objectives differed: Burdjanadze and Zhvania, who was on record as telling "Akhali versia" that "I hate all revolutions," wanted the election returns invalidated and new elections held, whereas Saakashvili demanded that the authorities acknowledge his bloc as the winner.

Shevardnadze's forced resignation on 23 November paved the way for a division of power in which Saakashvili ran for, and won, the presidency, and then named Zhvania to the reintroduced post of prime minister and Burdjanadze as parliament speaker. In that post, Zhvania demonstrated his authority as a statesman, seeking to ensure that the government functioned as a cohesive team, and conducting difficult negotiations in August and November 2004 to defuse tensions between Tbilisi and the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia. Opinion polls consistently listed Zhvania among the most intelligent and intellectual political figures in Georgia, but not as one of the most popular or the most trusted. Rumors of his involvement in questionable business activities were never substantiated, nor is it clear whether economic factors were behind the periodic alarms, most recently in August 2003, that he was a possible assassination target, or his uncompromising criticism of Moscow's policy towards Georgia.

Those rumors may fuel speculation about the somewhat bizarre circumstances of his death.

Speaking on 3 February, a clearly shaken Saakashvili paid tribute to Zhvania as a close friend and trusted political adviser. His loss will be felt the more acutely in that there is no figure of comparable political stature, authority and ability to replace him. (Liz Fuller)

ARMENIAN GOVERNMENT 'ENDORSED' TARC. The Armenian government endorsed and was directly involved in the creation of the Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC) despite its subsequent statements to the contrary, according to a renowned American scholar who chaired the U.S.-sponsored panel. In a book that was due to be officially unveiled at the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations on 1 February, David Phillips accuses Yerevan of reneging on its pledge to publicly support the initiative in the face of fierce criticism from nationalist circles at home and in the Armenian diaspora. He also reveals that in late 2001 the Turkish government nearly scuttled a crucial international study that affirmed the 1915 genocide of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.

The 170-page book, titled "Unsilencing the Past," provides a detailed account of TARC's three-year and largely confidential activities that caused a lot of controversy on the Armenian side. Phillips strongly defends the initiative, disclosing information hitherto unknown to both the Armenian and Turkish publics.

"I had met with [Foreign Minister Vartan] Oskanian on several occasions to brief him," he writes. "At every turn, he endorsed the initiative. [President] Robert Kocharian also directly communicated his support for TARC." "Instead of publicly endorsing the initiative, which Oskanian had committed to do, the Armenian government got nervous about being associated with TARC," he adds. The Armenian government's first reaction to news of TARC's creation, announced on 10 July 2001, was rather positive. "Armenia has always had a positive attitude towards public contacts and dialogue between the two peoples, which allow for the exchange of opinions and discussions on the existing problems," the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said at the time. But Yerevan began to change tack amid a mounting uproar from nationalist parties represented in Kocharian's cabinet, notably the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutiun). Oskanian assured a group of angry historians on 24 July 2001 that "the government of Armenia has absolutely nothing to do with this dialogue" -- a position which the Kocharian administration maintains to this day.

But Dashnaktsutiun leaders remained unconvinced, demanding further explanations at a meeting with Oskanian the next day. They went on to initiate a statement by the pro-presidential factions in the Armenian parliament that denounced TARC as an "artificial" initiative aimed at preventing worldwide recognition of the Armenian genocide. Dashnaktsutiun, which is particularly influential in the diaspora, believes that genocide recognition must be a precondition for any Turkish-Armenian dialogue. "Instead of standing by its commitments, the Kocharian government ran for cover," Phillips notes with bitterness. Phillips says the idea of such a dialogue was suggested to him in 2000 by Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Marc Grossman, the number three figure in the U.S. State Department under the Clinton and Bush administrations. Phillips already wore many hats at the time, holding senior positions at the Council on Foreign Relations, the American University in Washington, and the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna. In addition, he advised the State Department on issues of democracy and regional stability.

More importantly, Phillips had decade-long experience in fostering dialogue between Turks and Kurds and promoting similar contacts between the estranged Greek and Turkish communities of Cyprus. Those contacts were practical manifestations of the American concept of Track Two diplomacy. It holds that various sections of civil societies can facilitate the resolution of long-running ethnic disputes through meetings and open discussions of their root causes. According to Phillips, the U.S.-funded Track Two efforts in Turkey and Cyprus were a success and Grossman thought they could also be applied to the Turkish-Armenian conflict, "one of the world's most intractable problems." He insists that the State Department covered only "some of TARC's direct costs" and "never interfered in my work."

That work was effectively catalyzed by Armenian threats to veto the choice of Istanbul as the venue for the December 1999 summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, in protest against Turkey's refusal to normalize relations with Armenia. Phillips contends that the threats were used by the authorities in Yerevan to cause stronger U.S. pressure on Ankara. He says they asked Van Krikorian, the then chairman of the Armenian Assembly of America who would later become a key member of TARC, to "undertake discussions with the State Department," circumventing Armenia's ambassador to Washington.

A few months later, senior State Department officials approached the Armenian and Turkish governments with a formal offer of dialogue and eventually received positive replies from both sides, it is claimed in the book. Phillips recounts that the process ground to a halt in October 2000 when President Clinton controversially blocked a resolution in the U.S. Congress recognizing the Armenian genocide. But it resumed in early 2001 with the first meeting in Vienna of what would later be called TARC. "Having tacitly endorsed the truth and reconciliation process, the Turkish and Armenian governments had a keen interest in the outcome. Both sent 'unofficial' representatives to keep an eye on the discussions," writes Phillips.

The Armenian side was represented by Krikorian, former Foreign Minister Alexander Arzumanian and David Hovannisian, a Foreign Ministry official who Phillips says was handpicked by Oskanian. The Turks sent two retired top diplomats with close government connections: Ozdem Sanberk and Gunduz Aktan. The latter is notorious for his hard line on the Armenian question.

The group grew bigger by the time it held its next meeting in Geneva on 9 July to announce TARC's formation. The Armenians were joined by Andranik Migranian, a prominent Moscow-based pundit, and the Turks by former Foreign Minister Ilter Turkmen, retired army general Sadi Erguvenc, political scientist Ustun Erguder and Vamik Volkan, a Virginia-based professor of psychiatry.

Phillips claims that Oskanian distanced himself from the initiative as soon as Hovannisian informed him about TARC's establishment from Geneva. "He instructed David to say that he had left the Foreign Ministry and was participating in his private capacity. At the same time, he told David that he was expected in his office at the ministry on Monday morning. David was visibly shaken when he returned to the meeting."

In its first statement, TARC pledged to promote "mutual understanding and good will between Turks and Armenians" and strive for improved relations between their states. "The commission will not determine the validity of either position [on the genocide issue]," Turkmen told reporters in Geneva. "Instead, it will explore ways to bridge the gap."

Armenian critics of TARC argued that it has no popular mandate to deal with the issue, and they accused the Armenian members of the commission of participating in a Turkish and U.S. conspiracy to derail international recognition of the genocide. But Phillips makes it clear that the Armenian commission members insisted all along on the need for Turkey to come to terms with its past and were "incensed" with Aktan's aggressive denials of the genocide, which he says nearly disrupted the reconciliation effort even before it was formally launched.

"Do you know how we feel when you try to embarrass us by introducing resolutions in parliaments around the world? Our feelings are hurt," Aktan is quoted in the book as telling his Armenian counterparts at the Vienna meeting in 2001. "How do you think we feel?" Arzumanian is said to have replied. "We are the ones who were genocided."

"The Armenians saw TARC as a vehicle for approaching Turkish elites and initiating a dialogue about the genocide. Even if the Turks are sympathetic to the suffering of Armenians, they were not prepared to have TARC acknowledge the genocide," Phillips explains. That, he continues, is rooted in the "selective memory" of the modern Turkish state founded by Mustafa Kemal in the aftermath of the Armenian genocide. "Turks refuse to acknowledge the genocide because acknowledgement contradicts their noble self-image.... In addition, the government of Turkey fears that the campaign is laying the legal groundwork for reparations or territorial claims."

In an April 2002 interview with RFE/RL, Migranian, described by the TARC chairman as the most hard-line of the Armenian participants, likewise argued that the Turks will not face the darkest period of their Ottoman past without knowing what the consequences of that would be. "As long as these issues remain unresolved the Turkish side will never recognize the genocide," Migranian said.

The Americans hoped that the prominent Turks and Armenians would first reach agreement on less sensitive issues. But as Phillips reveals, it became obvious that TARC could not make progress without addressing the genocide issue. And the way out of the deadlock, he says, was suggested by none other than Aktan.

Meeting in New York in November 2001, TARC agreed to ask the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), a New York-based human rights organization, to conduct a study on the applicability of the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide to the mass killings and deportations of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey. Phillips says the decision was meant to be confidential. "But within minutes of adjourning, Andranik Migranian was on the phone with Radio Free Europe," he says, adding that the former Russian presidential adviser thus "deeply upset the Turks."

In fact, RFE/RL, learned about the ICTJ study from the New York meeting's concluding statement signed by Phillips, not from Migranian. The latter spoke to RFE/RL's Armenian Service only the next day. Shortly afterward, Sanberk and Aktan, bypassing their colleagues, wrote to the ICTJ, telling it to "refrain from studying the subject matter." The Armenian members responded with an angry statement saying that "TARC is not going to proceed."

"I insinuated that Ankara was responsible for scuttling the initiative. Just mentioning the Genocide Convention stirred anxiety in the Turkish Foreign Ministry," Phillips writes. He then appealed to U.S. officials to help salvage the endeavor and behind-the-scene talks between Krikorian and Turkmen followed. "Unless TARC found a way to address the genocide, Van was convinced it should be disbanded," he says.

The commission members decided to go ahead with the ICTJ study when they met in the Turkish resort town of Bodrum in July 2002. The agreement remained strictly confidential this time around. Few people knew that Krikorian and Aktan appeared before an ICTJ panel in September 2002 to present the Armenian and Turkish interpretations of what happened in 1915. Aktan, in Phillips's words, promised to "destroy" ICTJ researchers with his legal arguments but appeared "nervous" after making his case.

He had reason to be edgy. On 4 February 2003, the ICTJ submitted to TARC a detailed analysis that concluded that the slaughter of an estimated 1.5 million Ottoman Armenians includes "all the elements of the crime of genocide as defined by the [UN] Convention." The study at the same time found that the Armenians cannot use the convention to make "legal financial or territorial claims arising out of the Events." "In a private conversation with Van, Oskanian 'offered congratulations' and said it was a great accomplishment," Phillips says. "However, he refused to publicly embrace the ICTJ analysis." Armenian political groups and public figures also barely reacted to it.

Phillips's discontent with the Armenian government's repudiation of his work found an outlet in his article on Armenia that appeared in "The Wall Street Journal" last April. It slammed Kocharian's regime as "corrupt and inept" and welcomed opposition attempts to topple the Armenian president. In his book, Phillips accuses Kocharian of "stealing" the 2003 presidential election from opposition leader Stepan Demirchian.

TARC, meanwhile, held several more meetings before announcing the end of its mission in Moscow on 14 April 2004 and submitting a list of policy recommendations to the Turkish and Armenian governments (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 15 April 2004). The first and foremost of them was an unconditional opening of the Turkish-Armenian border. However, Ankara seems unlikely to drop its preconditions for lifting Armenia's economic blockade in the foreseeable future.

So was the whole thing worth the trouble? Phillips believes it was, pointing to "permanent civil society contacts" established parallel to TARC's activities as part of what the U.S. government calls the Track Two Program on Turkey and the Caucasus. "TARC broke the ice and helped catalyze a wide array of civil society Track Two activities," he concludes. "It was also a lightning rod for criticism, thereby enabling other civil society initiatives to proceed 'under the radar.' Though people-to-people contacts cannot solve core political problems, they can help prepare the ground for negotiations." (Emil Danielyan)

SURVIVOR OF NAKHICHEVAN 'POLICE STATE' SEEKS TO UNITE AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITION. Commentaries on the political situation in Azerbaijan since October 2003, when Ilham Aliyev was elected to succeed his father as president in a ballot that international human rights organizations said was not free and fair, consistently focus on two points: the seeming inability of opposition parties to stop squabbling among themselves and join forces, and the need for new blood in the form of a political leader who is not perceived as sharing responsibility for, and hence compromised by, past failures.

In both respects, Azerbaijan's exclave of Nakhichevan has emerged as the exception that proves the rule, even though both the political situation and socio-economic conditions are harsher there than in many other regions of the country -- certainly than in Baku. In the spring of 2004, Asef Guliev, then chairman of the Nakhichevan branch of the conservative wing of the divided Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHChP), succeeded in uniting the local branches of all Azerbaijan's opposition parties in a Center for Democratic Development (DIM) (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 April 2004). The DIM launched a hunger-strike in June 2004 to protest police reprisals against the opposition, and sought to participate in the 17 December 2004 municipal elections, but every single one of its almost 2,000 proposed candidates was refused registration. What's more, since May 2004, local National Security Ministry officials exerted constant pressure on Guliev's deputy, Elman Abbasov, in an attempt to induce him to inform on Guliev, Abbasov told journalists in Baku last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 January 2005).

That heavy-handed harassment is typical for Nakhichevan, which has "a police regime that can be compared only with the Gestapo," Guliev said in an interview published on 28 January in the independent online daily zerkalo.az. He added that "people are afraid even to enter the headquarters of opposition parties."

Nor is police harassment confined to political activists. Police also systematically target those petty traders and owners of tea-houses who have not secured protection from the republic's authorities, and they demolished at least 290 such businesses in early 2004 in the town of Nakhichevan and a further 200 three months later near the Djulfa border crossing with Iran, Turan reported on 2 February and 27 April.

Guliev explained in his interview that as petty trade is virtually the only way to earn a living in Nakhichevan, such reprisals have served to aggravate out-migration in search of employment. He said that while official data give the republic's population at 360,000, the true figure is only 150,000: the remainder, Guliev said, have left for Turkey, Russia or Baku, as "there is no work, no electricity, and no gas." Those figures are in stark contrast with statistics cited during a visit by President Ilham Aliyev to Nakhichevan in May 2004 to open a new airport. Meeting with Aliyev, Nakhichevan government chairman Vagif Talybov claimed that the exclave's economy was booming, that it is self-sufficient in food production, and that 500 new jobs were created in 2003 and a further 2,285 since the beginning of 2004, Turan reported on 13 May.

Guliev complained in his interview with zerkalo.az that the DIM did not receive the anticipated degree of support from the headquarters in Baku of the political parties it represents. He attributed that failure to the rivalries among opposition parties, saying outright that "I do not like the relations that exist between political forces in the country. I consider it imperative that we find new forms of cooperation, coexistence, and political competition." He specifically condemned the recourse to insult and ad hominem attacks in political diatribes.

Guliev said that as a first step towards promoting greater cohesion among the opposition, he will run for the post of chairman of the conservative branch of the AHChP at that party's upcoming congress with the ultimate objective of seeking to reunite the two wings of the AHChP. (He mentioned AHChP progressive wing leader Ali Kerimli as one of several opposition party chairmen with whom he has recently held talks.) At the same time, Guliev acknowledged that he has little chance of defeating incumbent Mirmahmud Fattaev, but he argued that even if he loses that ballot, he and his supporters should be given leading positions within that party's apparatus in proportion to the number of votes he receives. He said that despite losing many of its prominent members when the AHChP split in the aftermath of the death of its first chairman, Abulfaz Elchibey, in August 2000, the conservative wing of the AHChP still enjoys considerable grassroots support in rural districts of Azerbaijan. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "We did not see the anticipated progress towards conducting free and fair elections either during the parliament by-elections in October [2004] or during the municipal elections in December last year." -- Maurizio Pavesi, head of the OSCE office in Baku, in an interview with echo-az.com on 28 January.

"Everything in this republic that moves has been subordinated to the control of Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria President Valerii Kokov's clan." -- Former RKB presidential candidate Albert Kadjarov, quoted by "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 28 January.

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