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Caucasus Report: January 31, 2002

31 January 2002, Volume 5, Number 5

GIVING AWAY THE STORE? Azerbaijan's president, Heidar Aliev, returned to Baku on 26 January after a three-day visit to Moscow with what he termed "a feeling of tremendous satisfaction" -- a statement that set commentators puzzling over what possible concessions he may have wrested from the Russian leadership that were not registered in the official communiques.

To be sure, one major agreement was signed under which Russia will pay Azerbaijan $7 million annually over a 10-year period to lease the Gabala over-the-horizon radar station in central Azerbaijan. That sum is higher than the $5 million Baku originally demanded, and which Moscow said it could not afford to pay (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 January 2002). In addition, Russia will pay a total of $31 million in expenses incurred between July 1997 and 31 December 2001 for use of the facility, which it has formally designated the property of the Azerbaijan Republic, and has promised to share with Baku the intelligence materials collected at Gabala. But as one commentator pointed out (in "Vedomosti" on 28 January), that combined total is still peanuts compared with the cost of building a comparable new radar station.

Moreover, the two presidents affirmed their unanimity of views concerning the division of the Caspian Sea bed along the modified median line. An accord on that division analogous to that signed by Russia and Kazakhstan is to be prepared.

In terms of concessions on the Azerbaijani side, Baku renewed an agreement, which expired last year, under which Azerbaijani state oil company SOCAR will export 2.5 million tons of oil annually via the Baku-Novorossiisk pipeline. And Aliyev even found something positive to say about the Commonwealth of Independent States, describing it as an organization "with a great future" and with which "my country is prepared for further active cooperation."

No agreement was reached, however, on two other key issues: the legal status of citizens of Azerbaijan now living and working in the Russian Federation, and the shared use of the waters of the border River Samur for irrigation purposes. In an interview published in "Izvestiya" on 28 January, Aliyev explained that no problems had arisen during the discussion of the first of those issues, but that work on the relevant accord has been shelved pending the passage by the Russian State Duma of a law on foreigners.

Both presidents were nonetheless upbeat in their comments on the significance of Aliev's visit. Putin described the Gabala agreement as heralding a "new phase" in bilateral relations, which Aliyev said he hopes can be parlayed into a "strategic partnership."

Several commentators have suggested that the most important aspects of Aliev's talks with Putin remained confidential. Both Russian and Azerbaijani commentators have suggested that Aliev's primary interest was to secure from Putin assurances that Moscow will not undertake any measures to thwart his plans for ensuring that his son Ilham succeeds him as president. If Aliyev did in fact receive such a guarantee from Putin, it would explain his "tremendous satisfaction" with the outcome of his visit. (The income from Gabala, while a tactical victory, is hardly crucial to the country's budget.) But in that case the question arises: What has Aliyev promised Moscow in exchange? "Russkie vesti" on 23 January suggested that the Russian leadership's primary concern was to obtain from Aliyev a commitment that Azerbaijan will limit the extent of its future cooperation with NATO and the U.S.

Possibly purely by chance, on 26 January Turan quoted the U.S. ambassador to Baku, Ross Wilson, as stating that Azerbaijan will not host a NATO military base. A further indication that Uzbekistan may have eclipsed Azerbaijan in terms of its perceived value as a strategic partner is the fact that on her recent tour of the five Central Asian states and Azerbaijan, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Elizabeth Jones spent three days in Tashkent but only a few hours in Baku. (Liz Fuller)

CONTROVERSIAL SOUTH GEORGIAN GOVERNOR FIRED. On 29 January, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze finally dismissed Gigla Baramidze from the post of governor of the predominantly Armenian-populated region of Djavakheti in southern Georgia. Last summer, the local councils of the six raions that comprise the region expressed their lack of trust in Governor Baramidze and appealed to President Shevardnadze to replace him. Melik Raisian, who is an ethnic Armenian Georgian parliament deputy and also reportedly a representative of one of the richest regional "clans," warned in July that local residents were planning to stage mass protests unless Baramidze was dismissed. In August, some 76 members of local councils staged a picket of the State Chancellery in Tbilisi to publicize their dissatisfaction with Baramidze.

Among the accusations leveled against Baramidze by his detractors were his inability to manage the budget of an impoverished, largely mountain region plagued by economic stagnation and high unemployment, his apparent connivance in illicit timber export to Armenia, and his indifference to the grievances of the population. They pointed out that the Georgian leadership's refusal to replace Baramidze risks fueling existing tensions in the region (see "End Note," "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 September 1999). They further claimed that in his reports to Shevardnadze, Baramidze exaggerated the seriousness of the problems facing the region and the tensions those problems had engendered in a bid to persuade the president that he was the sole individual capable of keeping a grip on the situation.

The Georgian authorities' seeming indifference to the problems in Samtskhe-Djavakheti did not go unnoticed in Armenia. Even before the calls for Baramidze's dismissal last summer, some Armenian parliament deputies had called for Djavakheti to be granted the status of a separate autonomous region within Georgia -- a demand which the Armenian government immediately distanced itself from. The issue of Djavakheti figured high on the agenda during Shevardnadze's visit to Yerevan last October.

On 31 January, Shevardnadze named as the new governor of Djavakheti another ethnic Georgian, Temur Mosiashvili. The report of Mosiashvili's appointment also disclosed that Baramidze was dismissed not as a result of last year's complaints against him, but following an incident in which he is said to have beaten up the administration head of Akhaltsikhe Raion. Whether Mosiashvili will be able to build a more harmonious and constructive relationship with the leaders of the six raions over which he has authority remains to be seen. (Liz Fuller)

ABKHAZ PRESIDENT'S HEALTH AGAIN GIVES GROUNDS FOR CONCERN. Vladislav Ardzinba, the 56-year-old president of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia, has been hospitalized in Moscow for a further course of medical treatment. Abkhaz officials, including Prime Minister Anri Djergenia and Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba, have both said that Ardzinba continues to control developments in Sukhum and is scheduled to return to Abkhazia within three weeks. But the uncertainty over the severity of his illness has sparked renewed speculation in Tbilisi that Ardzinba may soon be constrained to resign.

The nature of Ardzinba's illness is not known for certain; Djergenia and Shamba both declined to give any details, although Ardzinba's aide, Astamur Tania, was quoted shortly after Ardzinba completed his first round of treatment in Moscow last summer as saying that it is a disease of the vascular system, and is not life-threatening. (Unconfirmed Georgian press reports have claimed the Abkhaz president is suffering from Parkinson's disease, that he had a tumor removed from his nasal cavity, or alternatively that he is mentally sick.)

In a TV address to the population in October 2001, Ardzinba echoed Mark Twain's famous comment that reports of his death were greatly exaggerated; but the fact that it was Djergenia, not Ardzinba, who appeared on Abkhaz television on New Year's Eve to give the traditional New Year's greeting has been construed as evidence that Ardzinba's condition has since deteriorated.

On 31 January, Caucasus Press quoted Georgian Intelligence Service head Avtandil Ioseliani as predicting that Ardzinba will resign "in the very near future." Ioseliani had said in April-May that Ardzinba was virtually incapacitated and could work only for a few hours a day. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "Thanks to the broken promises of Vladimir Putin, Russia continues to brutalize the Chechen people, including innocent civilians. Mr. Putin continues his false statement that Russia's war on Chechnya is similar to our war on terrorism.... In fact, by refusing to negotiate with the elected government of Chechnya, Russia is providing fertile ground for the ilk of Osama bin Laden. The war in Chechnya will never be won militarily by either side. It is therefore imperative that negotiations begin as soon as possible." -- U.S. Senator Jesse Helms (R-North Carolina), following a meeting in Washington on 30 January with Chechen Foreign Minister Ilyas Akhmadov.

"No Balcerowicz will be able to help if you behave like a bull in a china shop in your own home." -- Former Georgian CP First Secretary Djumber Patiashvili, condemning the economic policy of the present Georgian leadership in an interview with "Obshchaya gazeta" (24 January 2002).

"Why should Paata leave his well-paid post at the UN, where he gets US $10,000 per month, and come here?" Georgian First Lady Nanuli Shevardnadze, asked to comment on rumors that her son Paata will succeed his father as Georgian president (quoted by "Dilis gazeti" on 31 January).

"The Armenian army has proved its reliability in the battlefield and today continues to consistently boost its combat readiness.... It must be acknowledged that the army is the strongest link in our state apparatus." -- Armenian President Robert Kocharian in a speech to top military commanders on the 10th anniversary of the founding of the Armenian armed forces (quoted by RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau on 28 January).