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Caucasus Report: April 8, 2005

8 April 2005, Volume 8, Number 12

The next issue of "RFE/RL Caucasus Report" will be published on 22 April.

OSCE TO UNVEIL NEW KARABAKH PEACE PLAN. The foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Vartan Oskanian and Elmar Mammadyarov, will meet in London on 15 April to discuss new proposals drafted by the OSCE Minsk Group for resolving the Karabakh conflict, a Moscow correspondent for RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on 5 April quoting Yurii Merzlyakov, the Russian Minsk Group Co-chairman. Merzlyakov did not give details of the new peace plan, other than to warn that it will require mutual concessions from both sides. Armenian Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian warned last week that "painful" concessions are unavoidable (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 March 2005). The London talks will also determine whether Armenian President Robert Kocharian will meet with his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliev in Moscow next month on the sidelines of a Council of Europe summit in Warsaw.

Two trends in recent weeks had seemed to call into question the prospects for further progress towards a peaceful solution of the Karabakh conflict. In late February, Oskanian fell ill with pneumonia, and was unable to travel to Prague for a further round of talks with his Azerbaijani counterpart Elmar Mammadyarov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 March 2005). Oskanian had hinted at the beginning of a "new phase" in the conflict settlement process following his previous meeting with Mammadyarov in January (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 21 January 2005). But the Minsk Group's failure to reschedule the Prague meeting fuelled speculation that unanticipated obstacles to the peace process had emerged.

Second, a considerable number of minor violations of the ceasefire agreement signed 11 years ago have been registered in recent weeks on the Line of Contact separating Armenian and Azerbaijani forces. At least six servicemen have reportedly been killed in those exchanges of fire (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 March 2005). Several Armenian politicians have construed that escalation of low-level hostilities, which Oskanian said on 29 March is the result of Azerbaijani efforts to move their front line closer to Armenian positions, as evidence that Azerbaijan is preparing for a major new offensive -- an assumption that is corroborated by the militant rhetoric of Azerbaijani President Aliev and Defense Minister Colonel General Safar Abiev. Oskanian initially told journalists on 23 March he thinks such rhetoric is intended for a domestic audience, Noyan Tapan reported. But one week later, addressing the Armenian parliament, he admitted the possibility that Baku may seriously intend to start military actions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 March 2005).

It is not clear whether, as Oskanian and defense officials from the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) have claimed, Azerbaijan was indeed the aggressor during the recent spate of shootings along the Line of Contact. But it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Baku was prepared to risk provoking such limited exchanges of fire and blaming them on the Armenian side in order to deflect public attention from the recent report released by the OSCE Minsk Group on the situation in the seven districts adjacent to the NKR which are under Armenian control. That report, presented to the OSCE's Permanent Council in Vienna last month, effectively demolishes Azerbaijani allegations that the Armenian government has over the past decade engaged in a deliberate and systematic attempt to resettle tens of thousands of Armenians on those territories. An OSCE fact-finding mission that toured the districts in question in late January and early February at the request of the Azerbaijani government concluded that resettlement is "quite limited," strictly voluntary, and not the result of a deliberate Armenian government policy, and that most of the Armenians resettlers involved are displaced persons from other regions of Azerbaijan. It estimated the total number of such Armenian settlers as less than 15,000, in contrast to Azerbaijani projections of over 30,000 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 March 2005).

Despite the recent ceasefire violations, both Oskanian and Mammadyarov remain publicly committed to the search for new blueprints for resolving the conflict -- even though their respective priorities may be difficult to reconcile. On 29 March, Oskanian addressed a special two-day session of the Armenian parliament devoted to the conflict settlement process. As the only senior official in either country who has been actively engaged in that process since the early 1990s, Oskanian provided an overview of the OSCE's efforts to resolve the conflict, which he subdivided into four stages. Oskanian reiterated the three principles which Yerevan considers central to any formal solution: that the unrecognized NKR not be vertically subordinated to the Azerbaijani central government (which would rule out autonomous status, but not a joint or federal state); that the NKR should have an overland link with Armenia (which would entail de facto recognition of Armenian control over the so-called Lachin corridor); and that the security of the Armenian population of the NKR should be guaranteed.

At the same time, Oskanian made some statements that are in all likelihood unpalatable, if not anathema, to Baku. He argued that the international community should abandon its insistence that the principle of territorial integrity, which Azerbaijan consistently adduces as central to any settlement of the conflict, should not automatically take precedence over the right to national self-determination. In that context, he cited the examples of East Timor and the ongoing discussion over the future status of Kosova, independence for which could set a precedent for Karabakh. He substantiated the argument in favor of self-determination for the NKR by pointing out, as he has done on previous occasions, that the region has never been part of an independent Azerbaijani state; that it seceded legally from Azerbaijan (in a referendum in September 1991) in accordance with the Soviet legislation in force at that time; and that the Azerbaijani government has had no control whatsoever over the region for the past 15 years, during which time democratization has made far deeper inroads in Karabakh than in Azerbaijan itself. Finally, he argued that by perpetrating violence against the Armenians of the Nagorno-Karabakh when the region was still formally a part of Azerbaijan, Azerbaijan "lost the moral right" to hegemony over them.

Mammadyarov, too, has new suggestions to air at his next meeting with Oskanian, according to OSCE Chairman in Office Dmitrij Rupel, who met with Armenian leaders in Yerevan on 30 March and in Baku with President Aliev and Mammadyarov two days later. Also during his talks with Rupel, Mammadyarov signaled a softening of Azerbaijan's position on one key issue: he admitted that "sooner or later" the Armenian community of the NKR should join in the Armenian-Azerbaijani talks on resolving the conflict because "we cannot take any steps without them," according to the independent ANS television station. But Mammadyarov added that "we think we should continue the talks with Yerevan and achieve some results." Previously Baku has ruled out the participation of the NKR in such talks unless the Azerbaijanis who fled the enclave in the late 1980s are also included. (Liz Fuller)

AZERBAIJANI AUTHORITIES SEEK TO COUNTER BURGEONING OPPOSITION YOUTH MOVEMENTS. At present, at least two youth organizations in Azerbaijan have hopes of spearheading regime change that will result in the advent to power of a truly democratic leadership. But while one of those movements focuses on the short-term, and has voiced its intention to support a specific bloc in the run-up to the parliamentary elections due in November, another takes a longer-term view.

On 25 March, students from Baku State University and the State Oil Academy announced the creation of the Orange Movement of Azerbaijan, Turan reported. The founders of that movement, whose names are not known, are not members of any political party. They expressed their opposition to the present Azerbaijani leadership, which they described as "corrupt, killers and kidnappers," and they pledged to support the three-party opposition election alliance forged last month between the Musavat party, the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, and the progressive wing of the divided Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP). Membership of the Orange Movement is open to anyone under 25 years of age. It plans to conduct its activities underground, according to Turan, presumably in order to minimize the likelihood of the arbitrary arrest of its members and possibly also its infiltration by informers.

The very name of the Orange Movement suggests that its founders aspire to play the same decisive role in the event of falsification of the outcome of the November parliamentary ballot as the Ukrainian youth movement Pora played in Ukraine last fall in the wake of the rigging of the outcome of the presidential ballot to ensure a victory for Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, the candidate of the incumbent "party of power." But the Orange Movement already has a competitor in Yokh! (No!), an organization that came to public notice in early February when Razi Nurullaev, chairman of the Azerbaijani Society for Democratic Reform, announced his resignation from the AHCP progressive wing in order to work with it (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 February 2005). At that juncture, according to Nurullaev, Yokh numbered only between 20-30 activists, primarily people with no previous political experience. It is not clear whether and to what extent its membership has grown since then.

Nurullaev told journalists on 9 February that he travelled to Kyiv in late December to consult with Pora activist Vladislav Kaskiv, a revelation that has given rise to ongoing speculation in the Azerbaijani press that Pora activists may provide training and advice to Yokh! in the same way as members of the Serbian youth organization Otpor did to the embryonic Georgian youth movement Kmara in the summer of 2003. Some Azerbaijani media have reported that hundreds of young Azerbaijanis have traveled to Ukraine where they are allegedly undergoing such training in special camps, the online daily reported on 19 March. But Pora activist Evgenii Zolotarev denied those reports as reminiscent of Soviet-era propaganda. He also denied that Pora activists plan to travel to other former Soviet republics in a bid to "export" revolution.

Following U.S. President George W. Bush's meeting with Pora leaders in Bratislava in February, however, Pora activists wrote to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev warning him to ensure that the November parliamentary elections are free, fair and democratic, or risk a replay in Azerbaijan of the mass protests last November that forced the incumbent Ukrainian leadership to agree to repeat the presidential election runoff, www.echo-azcom reported on 26 February.

That warning suggests that Pora may have overestimated Yokh's potential influence. Nurullaev was quoted by AFP on 2 March as saying that it would be unrealistic to "expect what took 10 years to achieve in Ukraine to happen in Azerbaijan in 10 months," meaning by the time of the parliamentary elections. Nurullaev said that instead, Yokh intends to launch protests on issues to which the government cannot object, such as corruption. He also said the movement will espouse passive resistance, presumably in order to avoid a repeat of the violent clashes in Baku in the wake of the disputed presidential ballot in October 2003. Seven prominent opposition politicians were arrested and sentenced to up to five years in prison for their imputed role in that violence.

The Azerbaijani leadership, however, appears unwilling to risk the emergence of a powerful youth movement. On 28 March, Ruslan Bashirli, leader of the youth organization Yeni Fikir (New Thought), told journalists in Baku that the presidential administration issued orders six weeks previously to create pro-regime student organizations across the country, Turan reported. Bashirli said the authorities have also stepped up pressure on students, convening meetings at universities at which speakers routinely disparage those opposition youth groups that are beyond their control. (Liz Fuller)

ABKHAZ PRIME MINISTER DETERMINED TO ROOT OUT CORRUPTION. Former Interior Minister Aleksandr Ankvab, whom President Sergei Bagapsh named in February to head the new Abkhaz government, has survived two assassination attempts within the space of just over one month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 March and 4 April 2005). Both attacks on his motorcade took place at the same spot, on the road from Sukhum to Ankvab's home in Gudauta, and he and other Abkhaz officials are convinced they were undertaken by the same persons or group.

In an extensive interview published in "Russkii kurer" on 31 March -- the day before the second assassination attempt -- Ankvab said he believes the February attack, in which three bullets were fired at his car, was intended to kill, not just to intimidate him. He said that "criminal elements" have taken control of large sectors of the unrecognized republic's economy, and repeated his pre-election pledge to do all in his power to bring them to account. He also stressed his commitment to truth and transparency, saying he has taken as his motto "Don't lie." He said he intends to promote talented young people to official positions regardless of their family background, in contrast to the policy of his predecessor.

Ankvab also revealed details of Abkhazia's economic dependence on Russia, explaining that in recent years the budget existed only on paper, and the republic could not have survived without subsidies from Moscow. He pointed out, for example, that monthly payments in pensions and state sector salaries for the military, teachers and doctors amount to 22 million rubles ($790,000), while there is currently no more than 3 million rubles in the state treasury. (In January 2005, former Tax Minister Adgur Lushba said budget revenues for 2004 totaled 194.1 million rubles, Apsnipress reported.)

Asked to comment on Abkhazia's future relations with Russia, Ankvab stressed that Abkhazia is already an independent, sovereign and democratic state, and that the norms of international law preclude its incorporation into the Russian Federation. That statement, assuming it was not misconstrued, would seem to contradict Bagapsh's statement in March to the Russian State Duma, in which he was reported to have said that Abkhazia will continue to aspire to the status of an "associate member" of the Russian Federation. Ankvab further rejected as unacceptable and outdated the possibility of Abkhazia and Georgia agreeing to form a confederation, let alone Abkhaz acceptance of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's repeated offers of "broad autonomy." (Liz Fuller)