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Caucasus Report: January 17, 2002

17 January 2002, Volume 5, Number 3

AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENT TO VISIT RUSSIA, IRAN. Within the next few weeks, Heidar Aliyev is scheduled to make high-profile official visits to both Moscow and Tehran. In both capitals, agreements will reportedly be signed that represent concessions on the part of Baku. But it is not yet clear what, if anything, Azerbaijan will gain in exchange for those concessions.

Aliev's visit to Russia on 24-27 January was first scheduled to coincide with the CIS 10th anniversary summit in Moscow last November. In mid-October, however, it was reported that the visit had been postponed until January as the terms of the most important of the agreements to be signed -- that regulating the terms on which Moscow would have continued use of the Gabala over-the-horizon radar facility in central Azerbaijan -- had not yet been finalized. It was originally hoped that that agreement would be signed during Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to Baku in January 2001 (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 2, 11 January 2001). During a visit earlier this week to Moscow by Azerbaijan's Prime Minister Artur Rasizade at which the final touches were given to the 10 or so bilateral agreements to be signed, Rasizade and his Russian counterpart Mikhail Kasyanov agreed on a 10-year lease for Gabala -- but not on the annual fee Moscow would pay. Baku had earlier been willing to discuss only a three- to five-year lease.

The remaining documents to be signed are six inter-governmental agreements, including a political statement to be signed by Putin and Aliev, and several agreements on economic cooperation over the period until 2010. Some Azerbaijani commentators believe that Baku originally pushed for the signing of a special document on the status of the estimated 2 million citizens of Azerbaijan currently living and working in the Russian Federation, but that Moscow rejected that demand.

Aliev's planned visit to Iran, which Iran's ambassador in Baku, Akhad Gazai, told Turan on 15 January will take place in mid-February, was originally scheduled for September 1999 but has been repeatedly pushed back. (It will be only Aliev's second official visit to Iran since he was elected president in 1993.) In 1999, the delay was apparently primarily due to Tehran's rejection of Baku's repeated requests to extradite Mahir Djavadov, one of the key figures in what Azerbaijani leaders insist was an attempt in March 1995 to overthrow President Aliev. More recently, bilateral relations were clouded by Iran's sending of a gunboat and military aircraft into Azerbaijan's section of the Caspian in July to halt exploratory works by a vessel chartered by an international oil consortium (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 30, 16 August 2001).

Notwithstanding that standoff, Aliyev agreed to travel to Tehran in mid-September, only to reach agreement during a telephone conversation with his host, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, one day before his scheduled departure to postpone the visit yet again (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 and 18 September 2001). The reason cited for the delay was that the most important of the 12 documents scheduled for signing required further work. The accords in question are believed to include amendments to the Memorandum on the Principles of Relations of Friendship and Cooperation signed in Baku in October 1993 and a Declaration on the Caspian Sea. As for possible concessions, Mubariz Gurbanli, who is deputy executive secretary of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party, hinted to the newspaper "525-qazeti" on 5 January that Baku may drop its demand, which dates back several years, to open a consulate in the northern Iranian city of Tebriz, which has a large Azerbaijani population. Doing so, Gurbanli said, "is not so important." The opening of the Tebriz consulate was the condition Azerbaijan set for permitting the opening of an Iranian consulate in its exclave of Nakhichevan.

In the case of both Russia and Iran, the anticipated concessions are presumably intended to allay apprehension at the possible long-term impact on the regional balance of power of Azerbaijan's enhanced strategic importance to the U.S. as a partner in the international antiterrorism operation. (Liz Fuller)

U.S. WANTS KARABAKH CONFLICT RESOLVED IN 2002. Within the next few weeks the co-chairmen of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Minsk Group are expected to travel to the South Caucasus in a bid to give new impetus to the deadlocked Karabakh peace process, Caspian News Agency reported on 14 January, quoting U.S. Minsk Group co-Chairman Rudolf Perina. Speaking in Washington several days earlier, Perina said that in the new global conditions created by the 11 September terrorist attacks on the U.S., Washington is keen to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as belonging to the previous, "post-Cold War" era. At a separate meeting in Washington, Perina acknowledged that "the key to resolving the Karabakh conflict is neither in Moscow nor Washington, but the region itself." "I hope the sides find the key for themselves," he added.

Perina's remarks were echoed by the U.S. ambassadors to Armenia and Azerbaijan. U.S. envoy in Yerevan John Ordway, who told an Armenian radio station in New Jersey that the co-chairmen recently met in the U.S. to discuss "a new stage" in the settlement process. Ordway, however, implied that rather than wait for Armenia and Azerbaijan to hammer out a compromise among themselves, the U.S. would prefer to offer a new framework for continuing talks. "Washington would like to change the situation and establish mutually acceptable conditions for the parties to the conflict to resolve the Karabakh problem," Arminfo on 7 January quoted Ordway as saying.

Ross Wilson, who is the U.S. ambassador in Baku, recently assured Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev that, "President Bush is optimistically disposed and considers that the Karabakh problem should be solved by the end of this year." That timeframe is crucial: Armenian President Robert Kocharian faces re-election early in 2003, and Heidar Aliyev in October of that year. Neither can afford to make concessions unpalatable to the electorate in the run-up to an election campaign. (Liz Fuller)

RESIGNATION OR DISMISSAL OF THREE ARMENIAN MINISTERS ANTICIPATED. Over the past week, the Armenian press has suggested that no less than three government ministers may either resign or be fired in the near future. In early December, Prime Minister Andranik Markarian declined to rule out changes in the cabinet within the near future.

The first is Agriculture Minister Zaven Gevorgian. Gevorgian is currently in France, according to Noyan Tapan on 15 January. But that agency noted that while a government spokeswoman said Gevorgian is on vacation, his ministry claimed he is on a business trip.

The second is Economy and Finance Minister Vartan Khachatrian, who on 29 December publicly criticized the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank on Armenian National Television. Khachatrian said that although the Armenian authorities have met all conditions set by the IMF, the Fund continues to hold up the disbursement of a $15 million tranche of a World Bank SAC loan. The World Bank's permanent representative in Yerevan, Owaise Saadat, rejected that criticism on 15 January, noting that release of the tranche is contingent on improved tax collection. Saadat suggested the Armenian government should make a more determined effort to crack down on tax evasion rather than blame others for the delay in releasing the tranche. "Haykakan Zhamanak" on 16 January suggested that President Robert Kocharian may adduce Khachatrian's critical statements as the rationale for replacing him as minister with the current head of the presidential staff, Artashes Tumanian.

The third member of the government who is believed to be in danger of losing his job is Transport and Communications Minister Andranik Manukian, whom some observers believe may be dismissed in the wake of the failed talks between the government and the Armentel telecommunications monopoly. The government is insisting that Armentel abandon its plans to introduce per-minute telephone charges, which Armentel refuses to do. But on 17 January Manukian rejected the rumors of his imminent firing, saying that it is not he but Justice Minister David Harutiunian that represents the government in the talks with Armentel. (Liz Fuller)

ARMENIAN-TURKISH RECONCILIATION EFFORT 'CAN BE SALVAGED.' The controversial Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC) may still resume its activities despite its virtual collapse in December, according to one of its Turkish members. Ustun Erguder, who runs a private think tank in Istanbul, told RFE/RL on 18 January that he and five other Turkish members of the TARC believe that the U.S.-backed initiative "can be salvaged." He said they did not renege on an earlier agreement to seek an independent judgement on whether the 1915 mass killings of Armenians constituted a genocide.

The TARC's four Armenian members said in a statement on 11 December that the private body "is not going to proceed" because the Turks "unilaterally" told a New York-based human rights organization not to conduct a study on whether the 1948 UN Genocide Convention is applicable to the Armenian massacres (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 41, 13 December 2001). The decision to request such an analysis from the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) was taken at a TARC meeting in New York in late November. It was seen as an important element of the reconciliation effort launched in July after months of confidential negotiation.

But Erguder, who is director of the Istanbul Policy Center at Sabanci University, effectively denied Armenian claims that the Turkish members unexpectedly scuttled the genocide study. "I think there were some misunderstandings, and I don't think we ever intended to do that," he said in a telephone interview.

"I think the reason [the commission] probably looks dead right now was technicalities. We were pressed for time. If we had more time, we probably could have made the thing live," he said.

Erguder added that the Turkish and Armenian participants have not had direct contacts since the New York meeting and he does not know what their further plans are. He said the Turkish members, among them three retired top diplomats, remain strongly committed to the TARC's continued existence. He said: "The feelings of my colleagues and myself are that we would like to see it exist. But that may be just a wish. The time will show. I personally think that it could be salvaged."

In Erguder's words, David Phillips, the U.S. scholar and State Department adviser who has moderated TARC meetings, is also making efforts to resurrect the commission. "I believe that he wants this thing to go on and has some plans to salvage it," he said.

Another Turkish member of the commission, Gunduz Aktan, charged in a recent article in the Turkish daily "Radikal" that the initiative has all but failed because "the Armenians are not yet ready for such a peace process." Aktan also argued that the two sides should not have dealt with the genocide issue at this stage.

The Armenian members, on the other hand, believe that a normalization of relations between the two peoples is impossible without addressing the painful subject. Their numerous critics in Armenia and the Diaspora insist that Turkish recognition of the 1915 genocide should be the starting point of any dialogue. They believe that the TARC's creation was a Turkish ploy to keep more Western countries from passing resolutions condemning the mass killings as a genocide.

But Erguder strongly disagreed with this argument. "I believe the future holds a lot of opportunities for both Armenians and Turks. I think they have shared a very important common history," he said. "There might be some debate about that history. A good way of looking at that history is looking at future opportunities of cooperation, opening up borders, economic relations, cultural activities. Once you get this will rolling, you can turn around and look at history in a more detached manner."

Erguder confirmed that the six Turks sitting on the TARC believe that Ankara should establish diplomatic relations with Yerevan without any precondition. He said this week's abolition of visa restrictions for Armenian nationals traveling to Turkey was "the first fruits" of their efforts to improve relations between the two neighboring states. "I think that especially my colleagues, who are former ambassadors, were very influential in getting this. It's a good step forward," he said.

However, Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit reiterated late on 17 January that the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations depends on the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. "If and when Azerbaijan and Armenia solve their problems, if the occupation on Azerbaijan territory is ended, then we will be very glad to establish diplomatic relations with Armenia," he told a news conference in Washington at the end of his official visit to the United States.

Ecevit also cast doubt on recent allegations by the chief of Turkish army's general staff, General Huseyin Kivrikoglu, that Armenia has weapons of mass destruction (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 and 10 January 2002). (Emil Danielyan)

GEORGIA MOVES TO RESTORE ORDER IN PANKISI GORGE. On 15 January the Georgian Interior Ministry finally made the first move toward restoring its control over the Pankisi Gorge in northeastern Georgia, widely described as a hotbed of drug trafficking and kidnappings for ransom and home to an estimated 7,000 refugees from Chechnya and, some observers believe, bands of Chechen fighters.

The catalyst for the Interior Ministry's operation in Pankisi was an ultimatum issued by the Union of Afghan War veterans, who earlier this month launched a protest in a village near the entrance to the gorge against the Georgian authorities' failure to secure the release of a hermit monk abducted in November. The veterans threatened to mobilize 10,000 men and restore order themselves in the gorge. The leadership of Akhmeta Raion, in which the gorge is situated, has threatened to resign en masse unless the Georgian authorities take immediate action, "Trud" reported on 18 January.

It is not clear, however, whether the Georgian authorities were motivated by the desire to forestall possible fighting in the gorge between the Afghan vets and local inhabitants (most of them ethnic Chechens whose families have lived there since the late 19th century) or to control both the clean-up operation developments in the gorge and the information that is released about how it is conducted.

In recent months, there have been repeated reports in the Georgian media that senior Interior and National Security Ministry officials were implicated respectively in drug trafficking via Pankisi and in several high-profile abductions, including that in November 2000 of two Spanish businessmen. Those two hostages were finally released in a "special operation" in December 2001, shortly after Valeri Khaburzania was named national security minister. The details of that operation were never made public.

Koba Narchemashvili, who succeeded Kakha Targamadze as interior minister in November, issued orders to his men that during the operation in Pankisi they are forbidden to establish any contacts with the local population -- presumably in a bid to prevent any leak of information that would benefit criminal elements. A ministry spokesman said on 17 January that the "first stage" of the operation has been completed and several criminals detained. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK: "I would give a friendly piece of advice to the current government: Let's reject populism, let's buckle down to work.... We must proceed with liberal reforms and tell people frankly that the opinion that reforms were wrong is erroneous: Half-completed reforms did not produce a good result." -- Former Armenian Premier Hrant Bagratian, interviewed by Noyan Tapan on 15 January.