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Caucasus Report: March 9, 2001

9 March 2001, Volume 4, Number 10

WHAT IS BAKU'S GAME PLAN? Like other Azerbaijani politicians, Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev has been remarkably consistent in his comments over the past two years in placing the blame for the Karabakh conflict entirely on Armenia and arguing that the OSCE Minsk Group has failed because it has not come up with a draft acceptable to both Baku and Yerevan.

But even given that record, Aliyev's decision to authorize the leak to the press late last month of the three draft peace plans proposed by the OSCE in 1997 and 1998 raises questions about what he intends to do next. Publication of those drafts, all of which Aliyev has now pronounced "history" and "unacceptable to Azerbaijan," has strengthened domestic Azerbaijani political opposition to any "defeatist" settlement, discredited the OSCE Minsk Group, and fuelled calls by the Azerbaijani opposition for a new war to bring the Nagorno-Karabakh back under Baku's control.

Can Azerbaijan -- and Aliyev personally -- risk that?

During a two-day Azerbaijani parliament debate on Karabakh that took place within days of the leak, Aliyev provided some possible clues in two long speeches that outlined his view of how the conflict arose, why efforts to resolve it have failed, and what a fair solution should comprise.

In both those speeches, Aliyev depicts Azerbaijan as having been the eternal victim in this conflict and suggests that he personally bears no responsibility for what has taken place.

According to Aliev, Azerbaijan has been at every stage an innocent victim: first of Soviet nationality policy, then of the incompetence of Gorbachev's Politburo, then of the incompetence of its first post-Soviet leadership under Abulfaz Elchibey, and most recently of the international community's failures: including but not limited to its unwillingness to pressure Armenia to withdraw its forces from seven occupied raions bordering on Nagorno-Karabakh, the OSCE Minsk Group's failure to draft an acceptable peace plan.

At the same time, Aliyev argues that ever since he was a member of the CPSU Central Committee Politburo in the 1980s, he personally has done everything that anyone could have done, first to prevent a conflict with Armenia over Karabakh, and then to achieve a solution to the conflict that would not betray Azerbaijan's interests or forfeit its territorial integrity. But in his 23 February address to the parliament, Aliyev signalled that he plans to take his tactic of disclaiming any personal responsibility one step further, by submitting an eventual formal peace agreement first to parliament and then to a nationwide referendum.

What can Aliyev hope to achieve by these tactics, and why has he chosen to take this risk now? He has recently scored a major victory by having his country accepted into full membership of the Council of Europe despite egregious violations during the November 2000 parliamentary elections and the Council's initial desire to postpone admitting either Armenia or Azerbaijan until they had made tangible progress towards resolving the Karabakh conflict. Even prior to the signing of a key Memorandum of Understanding by Azerbaijani, Georgian, Turkish, Kazakh, and U.S. officials last week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 March 2001), the prospects that the planned Baku-Ceyhan pipeline may actually be built were now better than six months ago. The U.S. and Turkey are therefore likely to go to considerable lengths to preempt a crisis that could jeopardize the realization of that project. And without that pipeline to carry Caspian oil to the West, Azerbaijan is of only marginal importance to the international community.

Aliyev presumably must have gauged what sort of reaction the leak of the three OSCE draft peace proposals was likely to provoke, and calculated that he could contain it. But at the same time, in his talks with the international community he can now adduce the groundswell of support for a new war to support his argument that either the OSCE or Armenia must present new peace proposals.

But international reaction has been muted -- and much of it has not been particularly favorable to Baku. Visiting Baku shortly after the Azerbaijani parliament debate, OSCE Chairman-in-Office Mircea Dan Geoana made it clear that the international community would not condone an Azerbaijani offensive. He said that it is up to Aliyev and Kocharian to reach an agreement between themselves. The co-chairmen have said the same thing on previous occasions, adding that the OSCE would then endorse and help to implement such a peace accord. That approach -- trying to preserve the staus quo until the two presidents feel they are strong enough domestically to withstand the criticism that concessions would inevitably incur -- is almost certainly dictated by the need to avoid compounding domestic political presures on either Aliyev or Kocharian.

Armenian leaders also have downplayed the risk of new hostilities. President Kocharian said on the eve of his departure for the Paris talks that Aliyev himself had not advocated a military solution to the conflict, while Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian was quoted by "Golos Armenii" on 6 March saying that he does not believe the Azerbaijani armed forces are capable of waging a successful campaign to win back the occupied territories. "If the Azeri army had the ability to solve the problem by use of force it would have done so a long time ago," Sarkissian said, adding that "today we are even more prepared" to repulse such an offensive.

Most if not all key players outside Azerbaijan thus appear to view the leak of the OSCE drafts and the ensuing parliament debate as part of a carefully crafted bluff by Baku, what some have referred to as "pass the buck," rather than "pass the ammunition," and they have decided to stand back and give Aliyev breathing space while emotions in Azerbaijan subside. Yurii Chanchurian, an advisor to Armena's ambassador in Moscow, for example, may have been speaking for many when he told the independent Azerbaijani TV station ANS TV on 7 March that "as long as Heidar Aliyev is president of Azerbaijan, the likelihood of war in Karabakh is minimal. First, he is a wise politician and understands that a resumption of hostilities would not lead to good results. Second, Heidar Aliyev is preparing for a compromise to settle the Karabakh problem. If it was not so, he would not have met Robert Kocharian." But Aliyev will turn 78 in May, and there is no predicting what might happen were he to die suddenly next week.

Moreover, even though support among the Azerbaijani opposition for a new war appears to growing, Azerbaijani defense experts fail to agree whether the armed forces are ready and capable to launch a new offensive. Bilik Dunyasi on 6 March quoted retired Major General Dadash Rzaev, who served as defense minister from February-June 1993, as saying that the army has attained a high level of combat readiness and could embark on a full-scale attack and liberate the seven districts currently controlled by Armenian forces "in a short period of time." But retired Major General Tacaddin Mehdiev, who served as defense minister from December 1991 until mid-February 1992, said that at least six months of preparations would be needed before launching an offensive. He dismissed as "groundless" claims that a new war could be won "within 15 days or two months." (Liz Fuller)

FORMER LEADING AZERBAIJANI OFFICIALS COMMENT ON PROSPECTS FOR KARABAKH PEACE. In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL's Armenian Service on 6 March, former Azerbaijani President Ayaz Mutalibov said that he did not expect any concrete results from the 4-5 March round of peace talks between Armenian President Robert Kocharian and his Azerbaijani counterpart Heidar Aliev.

Most observers expected some progress to be announced after the Paris talks that ended on 5 March. However, both sides and President Jacques Chirac, who hosted the talks, decline to divulge any details.

Mutalibov nonetheless believes that frequent meetings between the two presidents are important in creating better mutual understanding which in turn would facilitate the ultimate resolution of the conflict. He added that compromise is possible without a further change of the ruling elites in the two countries. The former president also indicated that he does not believe there is a serious danger of renewed armed conflict.

Asked to define what he considers an acceptable peace formula, Mutalibov said that if the OSCE proposals are amended in such a way as to provide guarantees that Azerbaijan's territorial integrity will be preserved, then peace will become feasible.

Former Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Tofik Zulfugarov, however, was less optimistic. He told RFE/RL's Armenian Service the same day that he considers the five-week period between the previous Aliev-Kocharian meeting in Paris on 26 January and the 4-5 March talks too short to iron out the major differences between the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides.

Zulfugarov said he believes only a "phased" approach to resolving the conflict stands any chance of succeeding, claiming that there is no international precedent for resolving an analogous conflict by means of a "package" peace deal. He said such a "step-by-step" approach should begin with the withdrawal of Armenian forces from the seven raions adjacent the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic that they have occupied since late 1993. Such a withdrawal, Zulfugarov said, "would create conditions for a more relaxed discussion of the status issue, because the tactic of the Armenian side -- an exchange of the occupied territories for status -- appears to Azerbaijan as a capitulation, as a forced admission of defeat. That is unacceptable to Azerbaijan, and I think that tactic should be changed for one that is more rational."

Zulfugarov said that a solution to the conflict must guarantee Azerbaijan's sovereignty and territorial integrity, and that only in that case could Karabakh be granted some measure of autonomy, which would extend not only to the enclave's current Armenian population but also to its former Azerbaijani minority -- a formulation that implies those Azerbaijanis must be allowed to return to Karabakh if they wish to do so.

As President Aliyev has done, Zulfugarov ruled out establishing bilateral economic cooperation until the issue of Karabakh's status has been resolved. (Artur Terian in Moscow, Armen Koloyan in Prague)

HAIRIKIAN DEMANDS RETURN OF NAKHICHEVAN, KARS, ARDAHAN. The head of the Presidential Commission on Human Rights, Self-Determination Union leader and Soviet-era dissident Paruir Hairikian, read out his party's statement to a press conference in Yerevan today on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the signing between Turkey and Bolshevik Russia on 16 March 1921 of the Treaty of Kars.

According to the Kars agreement, Russia agreed to place the Nakhichevan and Nagorno-Karabakh regions under the control of Azerbaijan, and the Kars and Ardahan regions under Turkish control. The statement issued by Hairikian's party condemns the Russian Bolshevik authorities and Vladimir Lenin personally for selling out Armenian territories to Turkey. The statement issued by Hairikian accused the communists in Russia of helping Turkey to complete the genocide against Armenians.

The statement calls on Armenian parties to launch a campaign demanding the annulment of that treaty and the return of Nakhijevan, Kars, and Ardahan to Armenian control. Hairikian told journalists in Yerevan that his party has already started such a campaign and will hold its first rally on 16 March.

According to Hairikian, the foreign policy of the previous Armenian leadership under Levon Ter-Petrossian was against the interests of Armenia. He added that the current leadership is not doing enough to address the issue of Nakhichevan, Kars, and Ardahan. Hairikian also said the Armenian parties should ask Armenia's ally Russia, which he characterized as "now a democratic country," to annul the Treaty of Kars and to return Nakhichevan, Kars, and Ardahan to Armenia. (Karine Kalantarian, Harry Tamrazian)

INADEQUATE FUNDING, LOW SALARIES SEEN AS FUELLING CORRUPTION IN GEORGIAN ARMY. The last-ditch attempt last November by the Georgian military to increase their share of budget funding for 2001 appears to have failed. Defense Ministry officials told parliament hearings on 6 March that the ministry has received only between 20-25 percent of the 5.5 million laris ($2.63 million) it was due for the first two months of this year. That allocation implies total funding for this year of 33 million laris, which is the sum envisaged in the final draft budget submitted to parliament in late November (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, No. 47, 2 December 2000). Promises by a Finance Ministry representative at the 6 March hearings that the balance for January-February will be paid during the second quarter elicited the protest from Gia Djanqeli, deputy chairman of the Parliament's Committee for Security and Defense, that "you cannot tell soldiers that they have to starve for some time and will be fed later."

The parliament commitee chairman, Giorgi Baramidze, who is also head of the majority Union of Citizens of Georgia parliament faction, complained of the high rate of corruption among the armed forces, which he attributed to low salaries. Caucasus Press quoted representatives of unnamed NGOs as stating that highest-ranking officers receive a monthly salary of 200-300 laris, and lieutenants and majors 80-100 laris. They said that servicemen must pay a bribe of 60-100 laris to be granted one month's leave.

Baramidze argued that it is necesary to raise military salaries by 300-400 percent in order to attract "real professionals." In the present financial conditions, however, such plans seem little short of utopian. (Liz Fuller)

TWO CONFLICTING VIEWS OF NORTH OSSETIA'S ECONOMY. In a 1 March address to the parliament and people of North Ossetia, President Aleksandr Dzasokhov announced that thanks to the improving economic situation, he has decreed a 20 percent salary increase for teachers. An analogous wage hike for medical personnel will take effect in April, Dzasokhov said, and a further rise for cultural sector employees may follow.

Dzasokhov said that the economic upswing of the past two years (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 2 No. 38, 24 September 1999 and Vol. 3, No. 3, 21 January 2000) has resulted in a 26 percent increase in real incomes. He added that last year, for the first time in a decade, North Ossetia paid 212.5 million rubles ($7.2 million) more in taxes to the federal center than it received from Moscow in subsidies.

But Budget and Economy Commission Chairman Georgii Kozaev paints a somewhat different picture, according to Glasnost-North Caucasus on 2 March. Kozaev said taxes collected amount to only 10 percent of what is planned, and that two thirds of the republic's budget is made up of monies transferred from Moscow, much of which is embezzled. He also said that 90 percent of the 135,000 square meters of new housing construction last year was privately built. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "Sensible forces in Azerbaijan perfectly understand that whatever position Azeri top officials may take, Nagorno-Karabakh is de facto already a state." -- "Unity" parliament faction chairman Galust Sahakian, in an interview published in "Golos Armenii," quoted by Mediamax on 3 March (courtesy of Groong).

"I have said on many occasions, I am saying this now and will say this in future -- there is only one way to solve the Karabakh problem. War, war and war. I will say nothing else. [...] There is a saying -- you can chase pigs out of a millet field only with sticks....What kind of peace can we discuss with the Armenians?... We must get ready. We will fight this war sooner or later..."-- Retired Azerbaijani Army Colonel Fatulla Huseynov, interviewed on ANS TV, Baku, 26 February (courtesy of Groong).