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Caucasus Report: July 2, 2004

2 July 2004, Volume 7, Number 26

NATO SUMMIT FAILS TO NAME GEORGIA AS POTENTIAL MEMBER. Among Mikheil Saakashvili's first statements following his inauguration as Georgian president on 25 January was the prediction that that NATO summit in Istanbul in late June would herald the beginning of "a new phase" in Georgia's relations with the alliance. But if Saakashvili was hoping that Georgia would be formally designated a candidate for the next round of NATO expansion, then this week's summit will have proved a disappointment. In the final communique released on 28 June, the 26 heads of state and government of NATO's 26 members affirmed that "our seven new members will not be the last. The door remains open." But it identified as possible future candidates only Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia.

Saakashvili nonetheless sees Georgian membership in NATO as "a realistic goal": in an interview published on 30 June in "Le Figaro," he said that Georgia could be officially designated a candidate for NATO membership two years from now, and actually join NATO two years after that. In February, National Security Council member David Sikharulidze said Georgia could be officially designated a candidate for NATO membership within one year, according to the daily "Rezonansi" on 17 February.

Saakashvili explained the four-year time frame in terms of a comparison between Georgia on the one hand and Romania and Bulgaria on the other, claiming that Georgia is currently at the stage those two countries were at four or five years ago. He attributed Georgia's desire for NATO membership to pressing security concerns, arguing that "the security of the region between the Black and Caspian seas should be considerably strengthened" by means of "multilateral mechanisms" in order to prevent it becoming "a source of permanent conflicts." (He did not acknowledge in that context that the actions of the previous Georgian leadership largely contributed to two of the region's conflicts.) At the same time, Saakashvili acknowledged Russia's adamant opposition to Georgian membership in NATO, and said Georgia should make every effort not to humiliate Russia, as doing so "would be very dangerous." He characterized bilateral relations as "still very difficult," but "more honest" than in the past, adding that with the advent to power in Moscow of Russian President Vladimir Putin "at least we know who is in charge."

Georgia's difficult and unpredictable relationship with Moscow, encompassing the latter's refusal to compromise on its conditions for closing its two military bases in Georgia, is, however, by no means the only obstacle to Georgia's NATO membership. Saakashvili and his fellow "young reformers" sometimes give the impression that they have inherited from the corrupt and ineffective leadership of Eduard Shevardnadze the latter's apparent conviction that the international community would turn a blind eye to the country's failings and welcome it into NATO with open arms purely on the basis of Georgia's advantageous geo-political position and its role as a conduit of Caspian hydrocarbons to international markets. To that end, the United States, Turkey, Germany, Greece, and the United Kingdom have provided Tbilisi with millions of dollars worth of military equipment, hardware, and training programs.

Thanks to the U.S.-funded "Train and Equip" program launched two years ago, Georgia has four crack 400-man battalions; it also has an impressive array of tanks and artillery, demonstrated at a 26 May military parade to mark the anniversary of the declaration in 1918 of an independent Georgian republic. And the new Georgian government has increased defense spending to 79 million laris ($41.2 million) in 2004, Rustavi-2 reported on 11 May. That compares with 67 million laris in 2003, but it is still less than half the minimum 1.8 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) that NATO candidates are expected to spend on defense. (GDP for 2004 is projected at 9.4 billion laris.) But to claim, as Saakashvili did in his interview with "Le Figaro," that Georgia's army is "small, but conforms to NATO standards," is an exaggeration. The Defense Ministry unveiled plans in early March to slash manpower by 25 percent to a maximum of 15,000 men, and reduce administrative personnel by 50 percent.

True, Georgia has fulfilled one of NATO's key requirements by appointing a civilian defense minister. But there are grounds for suspecting that the original version of its Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP), which Saakashvili personally submitted for consideration in early April, was rejected as inadequate: then Defense Minister Gela Bezhuashvili told Caucasus Press on 31 May that the draft would be "polished" and resubmitted on 7 June. He said that some NATO officials had queried whether funding for the Georgian armed forces was adequate. On 9 June, Bezhuashvili said again that his deputy, Paata Gaprindashvili, was then in Brussels "polishing" the final version of the plan.

As noted above, the final communique issued at this week's NATO summit failed to name any former Soviet republics as potential candidates for the next round of expansion -- even Ukraine, with which Georgia is coordinating its efforts. The communique did, however, stress the "strategic importance" of the Caucasus and Central Asia, and promise enhanced engagement and liaison with the countries of those two regions. It also welcomed the decision of Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Uzbekistan to develop IPAPs, a move that was designated "an important step in these countries' efforts to develop closer Partnership relations" with the alliance.

Two further factors may be of relevance to NATO's apparent reluctance even to stipulate a tentative time frame for Georgian accession. The first of those is the continued presence in Georgia of two Russian military bases. Russian officials have repeatedly claimed that those bases cannot be closed in less than 11 years; Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov last month estimated the cost of building new facilities in Russia for the troops to be withdrawn from Georgia (although many of those servicemen are in fact Georgian citizens) at $300 million (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 June 2004). The second factor is the unresolved conflicts between Georgia and its breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In recent months, Georgian officials, including Saakashvili, have repeatedly pledged to "restore Georgia's territorial integrity," implicitly threatening the use of force should the former autonomous republics not voluntarily renounce their aspiration to independent statehood. Saakashvili's bellicose rhetoric is in stark contrast to the paragraph of the NATO summit communique that expressly notes the contribution made by Croatia, Albania, and Macedonia "to regional security and stability." (Liz Fuller)

ARMENIAN FOREIGN MINISTER UPBEAT ON CHANCES FOR RAPPROCHEMENT WITH TURKEY. Vartan Oskanian appeared buoyed by his talks with Turkish leaders in Istanbul this week, saying on 30 June that he found a "sincere desire" to improve the historically strained relations with Armenia. But he indicated that the long-awaited opening of the Turkish-Armenian border is still not in the offing.

Oskanian met with Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul and had an impromptu 10-minute encounter with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the sidelines of the NATO summit that ended on 29 June. He described his brief conversation with Erdogan as "quite interesting." "It confirmed my impression...that the Turkish government really has a sincere desire to achieve progress in relations with Armenia," Oskanian told a news conference in Yerevan.

Erdogan's Islamist-leaning cabinet, Oskanian continued, is more willing to soften Turkish policy on Armenia than its more pro-Western predecessors were. "There is really a difference. This government does have a desire [to normalize ties], it's just that conditions are not yet ripe," he said, referring to the possibility of Turkey lifting its economic embargo imposed on Armenia in 1993.

Ankara signaled throughout last year its intention to stop linking bilateral ties to the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and reopen the border, only to revert to its traditional policy under apparent Azerbaijani pressure earlier this year. President Robert Kocharian decided not to attend the NATO summit in Istanbul as an indication of his administration's frustration with perceived Turkish intransigence.

The Erdogan government now seems anxious to find a solution that would be acceptable to both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Political observers view the separate trilateral meeting between Oskanian, Gul, and Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov on 28 June as part of that effort.

Speaking at a news conference on 29 June, Erdogan welcomed such talks. "We hope that this process will continue and pick up speed and that we will reach a solution here as well based on the concept of win-win," he said.

"We saw the sides had a positive approach," the Turkish prime minister added. "Hope, however, is not sufficient. What is sufficient is to get results. At the moment we are in the phase of wishes. We see that they are determined to achieve results. We are saying that one should continue on this path."

Oskanian confirmed that both Karabakh and the border issue were high on the agenda of the trilateral meeting. But he made it clear Turkey cannot become a full-fledged mediator in the Karabakh peace talks because of its staunchly pro-Azerbaijani line. "Turkey understands very well that it cannot act as a mediator because its policy is one-sided and tilted towards Azerbaijan," he said. (Gevorg Stamboltsian)

EU RANKS GEORGIA AS MOST REFORMIST STATE IN SOUTH CAUCASUS. The November "Rose Revolution" and the drastic anticorruption initiatives launched by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili are earning Georgia greater support from the European Union than neighboring Armenia and Azerbaijan can boast, according to Heikki Talvitie, the special EU representative to the South Caucasus. Speaking in Yerevan on 28 June on a tour of South Caucasus capitals that also took him to Stepanakert, capital of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, Talvitie indicated that Georgia is likely to benefit most from the recent inclusion of the three South Caucasus states in the EU's European Neighborhood Policy.

"The focus has been on Georgia because of the Rose Revolution and the initiatives President Saakashvili has taken," Talvitie told RFE/RL in Yerevan. "They are so active and enthusiastic about reforming their society that nobody can be expected to stay cool with respect to what is happening in Georgia." "As long as they try to change the course of their history from corruption to good governance we will really back them. Armenia and Azerbaijan are different from Georgia and I do not expect the same kind of developments there. In order to get a positive international response to your problems it will take some efforts from your part," Talvitie added, implying that rivals Armenia and Azerbaijan are lagging behind Georgia in political reform.

The EU initiative, also known as "Wider Europe," does not make participants automatically eligible for membership in the union. Still, it paves the way for free trade, more aid grants, and extensive political dialogue. EU officials admit that the Georgian revolution served as the catalyst for the South Caucasus countries' inclusion in the scheme. Talvitie effectively reaffirmed their view that the current reform-minded administration in Tbilisi deserves star treatment.

Each of the three countries now has to negotiate with the EU a separate "action plan" on economic and political reforms, which will determine the extent of their future integration into the bloc. EU officials say each will be free to decide how far it wants to go in complying with pan-European standards.

Talvitie was speaking at the start of his first regional trip since EU foreign ministers approved on 14 June the South Caucasus states' formal inclusion in Wider Europe. "The EU has very high expectations from Armenia," he said. "The Armenian side needs to make real efforts to meet those expectations."

Unlike the United States, the Council of Europe, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the EU has not officially reacted to the recent reprisals against participants in the now-stalled opposition campaign to force President Robert Kocharian's resignation. (Armen Zakarian)

ARMENIANS OVERWHELMINGLY REJECT RETURN OF KARABAKH TO AZERBAIJAN. An opinion poll publicized by a leading Yerevan-based think tank on 25 June shows that less than 1 percent of Armenians support Nagorno-Karabakh's return to Azerbaijani rule as part of a possible peace settlement. The Armenian Center for National and International Studies (ACNIS) said nearly 60 percent of some 2,000 people around the country interviewed recently by its researchers want Karabakh to formally become a part of Armenia, while 39 percent of them would agree to its independence. The pollsters said only about a third of those surveyed oppose the return of the Armenian-controlled territories in Azerbaijan proper under any circumstances, the others being ready to trade them for Karabakh's independence or a lasting peace.

According to the poll, 30 percent of ordinary Armenians regard Russia as the most trustworthy of international mediators and only 3 percent believe the United States tends to have a pro-Armenian stance on the issue. This perception contrasts sharply with the findings of a separate poll conducted by the ACNIS among 50 political and public-policy analysts. Eighteen percent of them said U.S. interests in the region are good for a pro-Armenian solution to the Karabakh dispute. Only 10 percent mentioned Russia in that regard.

Presenting the poll findings, the head of the center, former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian, said political tensions stemming from last year's disputed presidential election have put the administration of President Robert Kocharian in a weaker position to negotiate a settlement that would meet public expectations in Armenia and Karabakh.

"The Armenian authorities' foreign-policy mandate is indeed in doubt," Hovannisian said. "That is directly connected with last year's elections. The weak mandate can only negatively affect the upcoming processes." (Ruzanna Khachatrian)

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK. "I don't know how Russia can pull out of Chechnya because if it does, mass graves will be uncovered, as in Katyn. Compared to [the concentration camp for Chechen civilians maintained by the Russian military at] Khankala, Abu Ghurayb will look like a sanatorium." -- Russian political commentator Yulia Latynina, writing in "The Moscow Times" on 30 June.