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Caucasus Report: December 15, 2000

15 December 2000, Volume 3, Number 48

HOW CLOSE IS A SETTTLEMENT OF THE KARABAKH CONFLICT? The recent visit by the co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group to Ankara, Yerevan, Stepanakert and Baku has again raised hopes that a solution to the Karabakh conflict may be within reach. The co-chairs apparently hope that the promise of substantial economic benefits could induce the conflict parties to rethink their positions and show a greater readiness for compromise than they have done in the past. And the stopover of two of the three co-chairs in Ankara prior to arriving in the Transcaucasus highlights the role envisaged by the international community for Turkey in providing economic assistance to both Armenia and Azerbaijan once a final peace agreement is reached.

The U.S. co-chair, Carey Cavanaugh, told journalists in Yerevan on 11 December after his meeting with Armenian President Robert Kocharian that "the impression we have now is that all conflicting parties want to move forward and get a concrete result as soon as possible." The previous day, Cavanaugh had lauded as "a wonderful idea" the recent pledge by both Kocharian and his Azerbaijani counterpart Heidar Aliyev to try to reach a peace agreement before the expiry of their respective terms of office in 2003.

Notwithstanding Cavanaugh's optimism and the stated desire of the two presidents to hammer out a permanent settlement, there are serious obstacles to any forward movement. First of all, it remains unclear what form the final settlement might take. Armenia continues to favor the so-called "common state" model proposed by the Minsk Group in November 1998, and which envisages horizontal relations between Azerbaijan and the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. Azerbaijan, however, to judge by recent statements by its Foreign Minister Vilayat Guliev, rejects the "horizontal" in favor of the "vertical" model, and is prepared to grant the disputed enclave only "the highest degree of autonomy" within Azerbaijan. Guliev also told Vienna's "Die Presse" earlier this month that any settlement is contingent on compromise by Armenia. Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, for his part, told the same paper that "as long as Azerbaijan insists Karabakh must remain under its control as an autonomous region, there will be no solution to the conflict."

True, the Russian Minsk Group co-chairman, Nikolai Gribkov, told journalists in Yerevan on 11 December that all four peace proposals offered by the Minsk Group since early 1997 remain on the table. Oskanian had similarly told journalists in Yerevan in July, after the co-chairs' previous visit, that it may prove possible to draft a new composite peace plan that combines elements of two or more of those proposals. He said that Yerevan would not rule out that approach provided that 1) Karabakh's status is not pre-determined and 2) the "package" rather than the "phased" approach is adopted.

Given that Stepanakert rejected the two "package" peace proposals offered by the Minsk Group in May and July 1997, and that Azerbaijan voiced serious reservations about them, the most promising framework from which to select elements of a new composite peace plan is the September 1997 Minsk Group proposal. According to Gerard Libaridian, who served as advisor to former Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrossian, the September 1997 proposal, although based on the "phased" rather than the "package" approach, was more acceptable than the two previous drafts to both Armenia and Karabakh insofar as it did not include a mention of either Azerbaijan's territorial integrity or of Karabakh's future status vis-a-vis Baku. In addition, it provided security guarantees for the enclave's population that were absent from the two earlier drafts. Azerbaijan formally signaled its acceptance of that draft in October 1997, while Armenia agreed to it "in principle," "with reservations" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 October 1997). But the Karabakh leadership, despite Yerevan's urging, rejected it.

Moreover, it is unclear who is to assume responsibility for crafting a new, composite draft peace plan. Aliyev has said that he considers that doing so is the Minsk Group's responsibility. The co-chairs, in turn, have said that they do not intend to offer yet another draft peace proposal, but that the OSCE will endorse any settlement that Aliyev and Kocharian agree to.

Nor is the peace plan itself the only bone of contention. Armenia and Azerbaijan also disagree over the participation of the NKR leadership in the peace process. Proceeding from Armenia's stated readiness to endorse any settlement that proves acceptable to the Karabakh leadership, Armenian President Kocharian has consistently argued that the Azerbaijani leadership should conduct direct talks with Stepanakert. Meeting in Stepanakert on 11 December with the co-chairs, NKR President Arkadii Ghukasian argued that Karabakh representatives should participate in the ongoing series of talks between Kocharian and Azerbaijan's President Heidar Aliev. But Guliev in his recent interview with "Die Presse" ruled out talks with what he termed "a puppet regime," arguing that "it was Armenia that supported and waged the war."

It could be argued that Baku's rejection of Stepanakert as a negotiating partner calls into question the sincerity of the Azerbaijani leadership's stated desire to resolve the conflict. But Baku's action could, however, equally reflect its concern that direct talks with the Karabakh leadership could trigger mass protests in Azerbaijan by the estimated 800,000 persons forced to flee their homes during the 1993 Armenian offensive, most of whom still live in appalling conditions in temporary housing.

The Armenian leadership, too, must contend with a domestic opposition that has repeatedly warned against "selling out" Karabakh. But Oskanian told "Die Presse" that in light of the "preparatory work" conducted by the two presidents during their meetings since July 1999, he hopes it may prove possible to reach a settlement in 2001. (Liz Fuller)

ARMENIA, TURKEY EXPRESS RESERVATIONS OVER TURKISH ROLE. Both the Armenian and the NKR Foreign Ministry have reacted coolly to U.S. Ambassador Carey Cavanaugh's comments about an enhanced role for Turkey in the search for a solution to the conflict. In a statement released on 12 December, the Armenian Foreign Ministry reiterated that Ankara cannot play "a positive role" in resolving the conflict until it normalizes relations with Armenia and adopts a more balanced stance "as other large countries in the region have done." The statement further called on Turkey to abandon its "narrow-minded ethnic-oriented policy." Snark the same day quoted NKR Foreign Minister Naira Melkumian as commenting that while Cavanaugh's statements "place a lot of responsibility on Turkey," they could also be interpreted as reflecting tacit U.S. tolerance of the fact that Turkey will not change what she termed "its unconstructive stance" or seek to improve relations with Armenia until the conflict is resolved. Turkey has earlier stipulated that a Karabakh peace settlement must include an Armenian withdrawal from all occupied Azerbaijani territories, among which it presumably includes the Lachin corridor which links Karabakh and Armenia.

It is not in fact clear from these quotations precisely what the co-chairs discussed in Ankara: greater input by Turkey into the ongoing quest for a settlement (presumably within the parameters of the Minsk Group of which Turkey is a member), or Turkish participation in economic projects in the region once such a settlement has been signed, or both. "The New York Times" on 10 December quoted Cavanaugh as saying that the aim of the stopover in Ankara was "to highlight the important role that Turkey would play and to coordinate with Turkey the steps that we are taking to try to move forward in the peace talks." The French co-chairman, Jean-Jacques Gaillard, for his part told journalists in Yerevan the following day that "a peace agreement needs to have the support of all countries in the area, particularly of such a big and very important country as Turkey." (Liz Fuller)

IS AZERBAIJAN'S DEFENSE MINISTER A LOOSE CANNON? In recent months, Azerbaijani leaders have repeatedly signaled their desire for improved ties with Russia, primarily in the economic, but also in the political sphere. That emphasis on mutually beneficial cooperation was in marked contrast to statements early last year by then Presidential Foreign Policy Advisor Vafa Guluzade calling for Azerbaijan to host either U.S., NATO or Turkish military bases.

But according to "Kommersant" on 9 December, Azerbaijan's Defense Minister Colonel-General Safar Abiev has recently resorted to the anti-Russian rhetoric characteristic of Guluzade. The paper quotes the minister who, it notes, is not in the habit of making controversial statements to the press, as accusing Russia of training a group of PKK terrorists at its military base in the north Armenian town of Gyumri, and of redeploying to Nagorno-Karabakh military hardware withdrawn from its bases in Georgia. "The Russian Federation still cherishes its imperial habits. By putting pressure on Baku it intends to turn us into a satellite, like Armenia," "Kommersant" quoted Abiev as saying. In order to thwart those Russian plans and safeguard Azerbaijan's security, Abiev reportedly advocated closer cooperation with NATO.

"Kommersant" construed Abiev's statement as evidence of his imminent fall from favor, referring to last year's investigations into financial malpractice within his ministry (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 2, No. 34, 26 August 1999 and Vol. 3, No. 5, 4 February 2000). In that case, the paper suggests, he may have decided to abandon his customary discretion.

But there is an alternative explanation: in neighboring Georgia, whose pro-Western orientation has served to sour relations with Russia, parliament speaker Zurab Zhvania and, more recently, former parliament Defense and Security Committee chairman Revaz Adamia have frequently expressed opinions on relations with Russia that were far more negative and accusatory than those of President Eduard Shevardnadze. Those extreme statements presented Shevardnadze with the opportunity to pose as a moderate defending a constructive point of view, and thus raised the possibility that Zhvania and Adamia were acting according to a pre-agreed scenario that served the president's purpose. Could Abiev be acting a similar role?

Russian President Vladimir Putin is due to visit Baku next month and sign seven or eight documents including "a political declaration." That visit should serve to clarify how serious Baku's stated desire for improved relations with Russia really is, or at least how sincere Moscow perceives it to be. (Liz Fuller)

CHECHEN WAR TAKES TOLL ON SOCIAL INFRASTRUCTURE. Speaking at a press briefing on 11 December at RFE/RL's Washington office, two representatives of Chechen NGOs warned that Russian military attacks on Chechnya both over the last 14 months as well as during the 1994-96 have destroyed so much of the basic cultural infrastructure that it will be difficult if not impossible to restore conditions for normal life.

Lechia Ilyasov, who is director of the Chechen Center for Pluralism (LAM), and Edibek Khasmagomadov, one of LAM's founders and director of Chechnya's National Library, said that unless the Russian assault stops soon, and unless there is greater international involvement in helping to produce a political settlement to the conflict that both sides can accept, there will be little chance of avoiding an Afghan scenario in which young men have little choice but either to become involved in criminal activity or to join armed resistance groups. (In an article published in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" in May, former Russian Supreme Soviet speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov had similarly warned of the imminent emergence of a generation of young, brutal, alienated Chechen fighters -- see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol, 3, no. 21, 26 May 2000).

Such a development would be especially unfortunate, Ilyasov said, because Chechens are "part of Europe," and "by virtue of their culture" they favor the kind of society that could allow for the rise of democracy. They are not, he said, the "savages" they are portrayed as in the Russian and international media.

Both speakers bemoaned the fact that there appears to be less and less international attention to and concern about developments in Chechnya. They complained that many international groups that do come to inspect and assess the situation there either ignore the situation on the ground or rely entirely on Russian sources in filing their reports. This is all the more likely, Ilyasov said, because Chechen culture discourages people from either complaining about their situation, however desperate it may be, or from asking outsiders for help.

"Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 1 December listed a total of 38 international delegations that had visited Chechnya between 29 October 1999 and 25 November 2000. The paper commented that the sums spent by international organizations and individual states on those "fact-finding" trips could have been better spent on humanitarian aid for the thousands of Chechens who have suffered as a result of the conflict. (RFE/RL)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "Russia wants to ascertain that the circle of those former Soviet states are unconditionally loyal to it. Armenia is more friendly than alien to the Russians although it is not aligned with any of the two rival economic groupings inside the CIS. Having said that, nobody knows what will happen if our older brother suddenly decides to demand heftier guarantees of loyalty from Armenia." -- "Aravot," 8 December.

"Unless Georgia quits the CIS, it will be impossible to speak of our genuine integration into European structures." -- Union of Georgian Traditionalists' chairman Akaki Asatiani, quoted by "Izvestiya," 9 December.