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Caucasus Report: February 21, 2002

21 February 2002, Volume 5, Number 7

OSCE MINSK GROUP TO UNVEIL NEW KARABAKH PEACE PROPOSAL. International mediators trying to broker a settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict will bring new, revised peace proposals during a new round of shuttle diplomacy next month, according to a senior French diplomat.

In an interview with RFE/RL on 21 February, Ambassador Philippe de Suremain said he and the American and Russian negotiators who co-chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group will try to build on progress made by the conflicting parties last year when they again visit Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic in early March.

"We intend to travel to the region very soon and have some new practical proposals to go farther on the basis of what has been done before, which certainly has not been lost," Suremain said. "We are rather confident that we could get some results."

The envoy refused to give any details of the new proposals, saying that they do not represent a "complete change in what has been done before." The mediators have only tried to "improve" their previous ideas of how to end the long-running dispute, he explained.

Early last summer the parties appeared to be closer to a peace deal than ever before following a series of talks between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan mediated by the Minsk Group troika. Armenian officials say expectations of a breakthrough did not materialize because Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev unexpectedly scrapped a framework agreement reached in Paris in March. Azerbaijani officials have systematically denied the existence of such an agreement. But French President Jacques Chirac said recently that he hopes the two sides will agree on a peaceful settlement based on the so-called "Paris principles."

De Suremain said the mediators have already submitted "some suggestions" to the conflict parties who are currently "working on them." "We have the feeling that both sides are supporting our efforts. This is a quite positive element," he said. "We are working very actively and are convinced that more progress can be made." The troika discussed details of their upcoming visit with Aliyev and Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian in separate meetings held in New York earlier this month.

De Suremain also claimed that despite the recent deterioration in U.S.-Iranian relations, the Minsk Group will continue to inform Iran about its peace efforts. The French diplomat said President George W. Bush's harsh attacks on the Iranian regime have "absolutely no impact" on the mediators' contacts with official Tehran.

The group decided in April to put Suremain, who was France's ambassador to Iran before taking up the current post, in charge of liaising with the Iranians. (Harry Tamrazian)

ARMENIAN JOURNALISTS UNCONVINCED BY EFFORTS TO ALLAY FEARS OVER MEDIA BILL. Armenian President Robert Kocharian responded on 20 February to rising media outcry over a new government bill on mass media, saying that it will not be enacted without the Council of Europe's approval. But in a statement issued the following day, journalists and political figures restated their objections to the bill, arguing that it should not even be submitted to the legislature. The overwhelming majority of newspapers and broadcasting organizations, including those usually supporting the authorities, has condemned the draft law, warning that it threatens press freedom in Armenia. They say the government would gain more levers to suppress criticism of its activities.

"Until we get Council of Europe experts' conclusion regarding this bill, we will not discuss it," Kocharian told reporters on 20 February in a bid to reassure them. "If we get a positive conclusion, that will mean that the bill meets European standards. If not, we will bring it into conformity with those standards. So don't worry." Kocharian also said he is committed to protecting press freedom, but at the same time believes that the work of the media must be regulated by law. "We all need free media. But we all need responsible media as well," he said without elaborating.

Among the controversial clauses of the proposed law is a requirement that government officials interviewed by journalists be paid honoraria. Journalists wishing to interview officials would have to file a written request and await a reply for several days. Newspapers would also need officials' consent for publishing their photographs or cartoons.

Local editors and media watchdogs claim the bill makes it easier for government officials to file libel suits and envisages heavier fines for alleged slander.

The Ministry of Justice, the main author of the controversial bill, insists that it will on the contrary boost freedom of speech, which is guaranteed by the Armenian Constitution. The ministry argues, in particular, that the suggested replacement of the mandatory registration of all media outlets with their licensing would facilitate creation of newspapers, magazines, and TV and radio stations. But critics counter that a government agency in charge of issuing licenses would also be empowered to revoke them (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 February 2002). They insist that the new bill is even worse than the existing 1991 media law, which is widely seen as outdated and flawed. On 18 February, Justice Minister Davit Harutiunian dismissed criticisms of the draft as not serious but at the same time pledged to withdraw it if EU experts find fault with it. But on 21 February, Hakob Avetisian, editor of the independent daily "Azg," argued that submitting the bill to the Council's Venice Commission for approval "would be a big disgrace" for Armenia.

There are several hundred media outlets registered with the Armenian Justice Ministry. But only some 150 newspapers and magazines, more than 60 national and local TV stations, nine radio stations, and five news agencies function on a regular basis. (Atom Markarian and Liz Fuller)

GEORGIAN PRESIDENT LAUNCHES PURGE OF REGIONAL OFFICIALS. In the past two weeks, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze has dismissed no fewer than six regional administrators, and a state chancellery spokesman has indicated that six more may also lose their jobs. Most of the officials in question were criticized at a government session in early February for their failure to balance local budgets or other shortcomings. But many observers believe that at least one of the sacked administrators was a scapegoat and that the charges of corruption leveled against him do not hold water.

In his traditional Monday radio broadcast on 11 February, Shevardnadze explained his decision to dismiss Koba Buchukuri, who was governor of the Mtskheta-Mtianeti region northeast of Tbilisi, in terms of evidence supplied by the Anticorruption Council that Buchukuri was involved in the illegal privatization of several small hydroelectric power stations. But several prominent Georgian politicians questioned that statement. Parliament Speaker Nino Burdjanadze said she was "surprised" by the sacking and does not consider Buchukuri "the most corrupt in a corrupt line-up." Buchukuri figured in a list of the six wealthiest regional governors published by the independent newspaper "Alia" on 14 February. According to that list, he has 466,800 laris in the bank ($209,000) and owns real estate worth a further 103,000 laris.

Georgian parliament Defense and Security Commission Chairman Giorgi Baramidze suggested that Buchukuri's only crime was that his wife, Marina Molodini, was one of the members of the former majority Union of Citizens of Georgia faction that disassociated itself from Shevardnadze last fall (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 33, 8 October 2001 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 October 2001).

Buchukuri himself was quoted by the independent newspaper "Alia" on 12 February as affirming that he had been loyal to his president and his country, and had fallen victim to "political intrigue."

Speaking at a press conference in Tbilisi on 21 February, former Georgian parliament Chairman Zurab Zhvania similarly dismissed the corruption charges against Buchukuri as "ridiculous," adding that "there are far more corrupt people among the governors." Zhvania added that Anticorruption Council Secretary Mirian Gogiashvili's recommendation to Shevardnadze to fire Buchukuri has destroyed what faith he had in the impartiality of the Council which, Zhvania said, has "become a political instrument for settling scores." (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK: "Restoration of the conditional status quo that existed in the region 10 years ago would not be detrimental to the sovereignty of the Transcaucasus states. Stability in the region would enable them to have a civilized dialogue with all interested sides. This would open new possibilities for economic cooperation and integration into the world community for the Transcaucasus republics." -- Former Azerbaijani President Ayaz Mutalibov, quoted by Turan on 18 February.

"I am glad [former parliament Speaker Zurab] Zhvania supports my policy abroad. But it would be more useful if he did the same thing at home." -- Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, quoted by Caucasus Press on 18 February.

"I think that the supporters of the parliamentary state system have clearly demonstrated that such a system cannot operate in Armenia." -- President Robert Kocharian, commenting on 20 February on the opposition decision to withdraw its proposed draft constitutional amendments after an acrimonious debate the previous day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 February 2002).