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Caucasus Report: January 17, 2003

17 January 2003, Volume 6, Number 3

RUSSIA, GEORGIA AGAIN AT ODDS OVER ABKHAZ SETTLEMENT. In the run-up to the 31 January United Nations Security Council session to be devoted to the ongoing search for a political solution to the Abkhaz conflict, Georgia and Russia are pushing widely diverging approaches. In addition, Georgia has sought to pressure Moscow by threatening to end the mandate of the Russian peacekeeping force that has been deployed under the CIS aegis in the Abkhaz conflict zone since mid-1994.

As it has done for the past two years, Georgia continues to insist that Abkhazia should be constrained to begin discussion of the "Basic Principles for the Distribution of Competencies between Tbilisi and Sukhumi" drafted by former UN special envoy Dieter Boden. Russia for its part is pushing for confidence-building measures between the two sides, including the resumption of economic ties. The UN hopes that confidence-building measures and talks on Abkhazia's future status could take place in tandem, Boden's successor, Ambassador Heidi Tagliavini, told RFE/RL last month (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 13 December 2002).

Tagliavini visited Sukhum on 10 January, where she met with Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Valerii Loshchinin, who is Russian President Vladimir Putin's special envoy for the Abkhaz conflict. Tagliavini was subsequently quoted as having told Georgian journalists in Tbilisi that she and Loshchinin discussed convening a new meeting of the UN-sponsored Coordinating Council that serves as a forum for discussing confidence-building measures between the Abkhaz and Georgian sides. The Abkhaz suspended participation in the council's sessions last April, demanding that Georgia first withdraw its forces from the upper reaches of the Kodori Gorge. Loshchinin, for his part, said in Moscow on 13 January that while in Sukhum he presented to Abkhaz Prime Minister Gennadii Gagulia unspecified new Russian proposals aimed at breaking the stalemate in the talks. Loshchinin said the Abkhaz side undertook to consider those proposals.

Meanwhile, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze said during his traditional Monday radio broadcast on 13 January that he will oppose the renewal of the Russian peacekeepers' mandate unless Moscow suspends the recently resumed train service between the Russian city of Sochi and Sukhum and stops issuing Russian passports to residents of Abkhazia. That threat was, however, as Shevardnadze must have been aware, a hollow one: The peacekeepers' mandate cannot be terminated without the consent of the Abkhaz, who have repeatedly insisted that the peacekeepers must not be withdrawn as they constitute the sole deterrent to a new Georgian offensive. And any agreement on the peacekeepers' mandate must be approved by the presidents of all CIS states.

Moreover, subsequent reports called into question the circumstances surrounding the resumption of rail traffic between Sochi and Sukhum and whether in fact the wholesale distribution of Russian passports to residents of Abkhazia has taken place. During talks in Moscow on 14-15 January, Russian Ministry of Transport officials disclaimed responsibility and assured their Georgian counterparts that the train service is being run by an unidentified commercial company. They urged the Georgian delegation to raise the issue with the Russian Foreign Ministry (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 January 2003).

As for the passports dispute, Georgian National Security Minister Valeri Khaburzania admitted on 14 January that reports that Russian passports have been distributed in Abkhazia are premature and based on erroneous information circulated by Tamaz Nadareishvili, the head of the Tbilisi-based Abkhaz parliament in exile. Abkhaz Prime Minister Gennadii Gagulia said on 31 December, and Abkhaz presidential aide Astamur Tania on 10 January, that, although some 70 percent of the population of Abkhazia have applied for, and been granted, Russian citizenship, they have not yet received new Russian passports. Abkhaz State Security Minister in exile Levan Kiknadze told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" of 15 January that in 2002 the Abkhaz received either special inserts for their Soviet-era passports or a special stamp confirming their Russian citizenship.

It is not clear whether Khaburzania's identification of Nadareishvili as responsible for a major misunderstanding (other senior Georgian officials including Foreign Minister Irakli Menagharishvili have publicly criticized the Russian leadership over the alleged distribution of passports in Abkhazia) was undertaken specifically to compromise him. Nadareishvili has consistently adopted a far tougher line than other Georgian officials toward resolving the Abkhaz conflict, arguing in favor of lobbying the UN to mount a "peace-enforcement operation" in the breakaway republic and calling for Georgian government support for the Georgian guerrilla formations operating in the Abkhaz conflict zone (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 January 2003). And Nadareishvili told journalists that during a meeting on 13 January with Tagliavini, he demanded that she inform the UN that his parliament in exile insists that the peacekeepers' mandate be changed.

It is not clear whether Shevardnadze plans to attend the informal CIS summit in Ukraine on 28 January that will presumably address the issue of whether or not the CIS peacekeepers' mandate should be renewed. Caucasus Press reported on 14 January that Shevardnadze may travel to New York to address the 31 January UN Security Council session. (Liz Fuller)

STARTING OVER. Arriving in Baku on 7 January on the first leg of a tour of three Turcophone former Soviet republics, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the leader of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party, announced that his government will aim at a higher level of economic and cultural cooperation and closer political contacts with the Turcophone states of the former USSR than did its predecessors. Erdogan also called for strengthening what he termed the "strategic partnership" between Turkey and Azerbaijan. But subsequent statements suggest that while Baku also hopes for an improvement in bilateral relations, it is the Turkish side that is seeking to dictate its demands and conditions in return for continued support for Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Speaking at a joint press conference after their talks, Erdogan called for beginning "a new page" in bilateral relations, while Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev acknowledged that unspecified errors of judgment negatively affected relations in the past. He apparently did not specify to journalists which side he considers was to blame for those mistakes, but the opposition newspaper "Yeni Musavat" reported that Aliyev complained to Erdogan, to the latter's surprise, about his problems with former Turkish President Suleyman Demirel and other Turkish leaders.

At an 8 January meeting in Baku with Turkish businessmen operating in Azerbaijan, Erdogan expressed concern at the decline over the past two years in bilateral trade (from $326 million in 2000 to $295 million in 2001) and called for reversing that trend and raising trade turnover to $500 million this year and $1 billion in 2004. But some of those businessmen complained about the difficulties they encounter in Azerbaijan, for example, the high transit tariffs and the cost of visas, RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service reported. Azerbaijan charges Turkish citizens $40 for a single-entry visa or $250 for a one-year business visa; Turkey charges Azerbaijanis $10.

Erdogan also expressed concern that the planned Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan export pipeline for Caspian oil will not be operational until late 2005 (two years ago, it was anticipated that construction would be completed in 2004). And Erdogan implicitly ruled out any concessions to Azerbaijan over the purchase of the gas it hopes to export via the planned Baku-Tbilisi-Erzerum pipeline. Erdogan said Turkey intends to take advantage of the comparatively low price of that gas to buy it either for domestic consumption or reexport to Europe -- thus, implicitly ruling out the possibility of paying transit fees to allow Azerbaijan to export its gas via Turkey's pipeline system.

There is, moreover, one further issue clouding Azerbaijani-Turkish relations, namely the Azerbaijani opposition's persistent allegations that some senior Azerbaijani officials collude with the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 7 June 2002). Meeting with the speaker of the Azerbaijani parliament, Murtuz Alesqerov, Erdogan expressed concern that members of the PKK could be operating in Azerbaijan under the guise of cultural activities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 January 2003). That remark prompted the nine-party Opposition Coordinating Council to issue a statement on 9 January demanding that the Azerbaijani leadership clarify what prompted Erdogan's remark. The council also demanded that Azerbaijan's parliament adopt a resolution branding the PKK a terrorist organization. (Liz Fuller)

ARMENIAN PRESIDENT SAYS ARMENIANS, AZERBAIJANIS 'ETHNICALLY INCOMPATIBLE.' Addressing a diplomatic academy in Moscow on 16 January on the first day of a two-day visit to Russia, Armenian President Robert Kocharian cited "ethnic incompatibility" between Armenians and Azerbaijanis as an argument in favor of international recognition of the hitherto unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.

"The Armenian pogroms in Sumgait [in February 1988] and Baku [in January 1990] and the attempts at the mass military deportation of Armenians from Karabakh in 1991-92 point to the impossibility for Armenians to live in Azerbaijan in general. We are talking about some sort of ethnic incompatibility," Kocharian declared.

"It is not pleasant to talk about this, but it's a fact," he went on. "Something like that has already been seen in the Balkans. This motivated our statement that Armenia is responsible for the security of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh. A nation that has survived genocide cannot allow it to recur."

Kocharian reiterated the Armenian argument that the disputed region has never been a part of an independent Azerbaijani state. "In the past, when Karabakh voluntarily entered the Russian Empire, it was not in order to find itself later within the Republic of Azerbaijan," he said. (Artur Terian)

ARMENIAN OPPOSITION PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES ESCHEW BODYGUARDS. Leading opposition candidates in the 19 February presidential elections are ignoring security risks to conduct their campaigns without armed bodyguards, either because they are unable to afford them or they are unwilling to use the services offered by the police. Incumbent President Kocharian is the only contender with a trained security service.

His main opponents said on 16 January they are not seeking armed protection despite the possibility of assassination attempts, highlighted by the recent killing of the chief of Armenia's Public Television and Radio, Tigran Naghdalian (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 January 2003).

"The risk is high. But if you don't take risks, you shouldn't be in politics," said Vazgen Manukian, leader of the National Democratic Union party. Manukian said he had state-appointed bodyguards only when he served as defense minister in 1992-1993. Another top opposition leader, Artashes Geghamian, said his security is ensured by friends and political supporters "armed only with [their] convictions."

An unofficial "security service" is believed to exist inside the opposition People's Party of Armenia, whose leader, Stepan Demirchian, is also a top presidential contender. Demirchian said his unarmed security guards have been "more careful" since the 28 December killing of Naghdalian. "Everyone, not just politicians, is unprotected in Armenia. Their security is not guaranteed by the authorities," he said.

Despite boasting a fairly low crime rate, Armenia has seen numerous high-profile assassinations of political figures and senior government officials over the past decade. The most shocking such crime occurred on 27 October 1999 when gunmen forced their way into the country's parliament, killing its speaker Karen Demirchian (Stepan's father), Prime Minister Vazgen Sargsian, and six other officials. Neither Demirchian nor Sargsian had professional bodyguards.

According to the deputy chief of the Armenian police, Hovannes Varian, there are no private security agencies in Armenia and only the state can provide public figures with armed guards. He said there is a special police unit providing such services for a hefty fee.

This may be why opposition politicians are reluctant to turn to the law-enforcement agencies for protection. Or, as Communist Party leader Vladimir Darpinian put it, they feel that an armed security service is not an absolute safeguard against possible attempts on their lives. (Shakeh Avoyan)

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK. "The idea that a fair test of Chechen opinion can be carried out in the present climate of intimidation is ludicrous." -- Editorial comment in "The New York Times" of 14 January on the planned referendum on a new draft Chechen constitution.