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Caucasus: U.S. Says Aliyev, Kocharian Must Show 'Political Will'

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Mathew Bryza (file photo) (InterPressNews) PRAGUE, June 23, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Matthew Bryza, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, recently gained a second job title: he has replaced Steven Mann as the U.S. co-chair of the Minsk Group tasked by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) with moderating negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Bryza spoke on June 22 with RFE/RL Armenian Service head Harry Tamrazian and RFE/RL Azerbaijani Service correspondent Kenan Aliyev about the prospects for a resolution of the Karabakh conflict, Russia's role in the South Caucasus, and America's strategic priorities in the region.

RFE/RL: Your post -- deputy assistant secretary -- is more senior than those occupied by previous U.S. co-chairs of the Minsk Group. Does that mean the United States is paying more attention to the Karabakh question? Could that in turn mean that there is a sense the sides are coming closer to resolving this conflict?

Matthew Bryza: I wouldn't read too much in particular into the fact that you now have a deputy assistant secretary, rather than someone who wasn't, doing this. A lot of this just depended on personalities and my own background. I've been so deeply involved in the region for a long time. It made sense that I would be the person to pick this up, because it was time for Ambassador Mann, coincidentally, to move on to his next assignment. So that's all. I wouldn't read anything more into it. I'm just very happy that I'll be able to play a more active -- and, in fact, daily -- role on this conflict and make sure those efforts are integrated with all the other broader things I'm trying to do in the Caucasus.

"We just don't know where the presidents are right now. We're encouraging them, we're nudging them by taking a step back. Nudging them to show that they have this political will."

RFE/RL: You have said in recent statements that there is a framework on the table that makes an agreement on Karabakh possible. You have also said that next year the political calendar will be more complicated in Armenia, and therefore the presidents should do something this year while there is still a window of opportunity. First of all, what kind of framework is that? And do you still believe there is room for a resolution this year? Some experts say the issue is already very complicated today, even before we get into the elections next year.

Bryza: It is complicated today. We see how complicated the situation is based upon the fact that the presidents haven't gotten to the point where they've agreed to this framework that's on the table. That gets back to the first part of your question. What we have is a framework agreement, as we described today here at the OSCE -- as Ambassador Mann did, and Ambassador [Yury] Merzlyakov [the Russian co-chair] and Bernard [Fassier, the French co-chair] as well -- we have a framework agreement that would call for the removal, or the withdrawal, of Armenian troops from those territories in Azerbaijan where they currently are. That's on the one side. On the other side we have a normalization of Armenia's ties -- economic, diplomatic -- and other features having to do with peacekeepers and international economic assistance to the Karabakh region, and economic development. So there's a package proposal on the table that, in the end, would involve as well a vote at some point on the future status of Karabakh. So that's kind of the basic outline of the proposal on the table, and we would very much encourage the presidents to accept this framework. Which requires a lot of political courage, which I've said publicly before.

A Breakthrough This Year?

The Nagorno-Karabakh army conducts military exercises in 2005 (Photolur)

RFE/RL: Have you noticed any sign that the two sides may be softening their positions? Did they appear more willing to consider the framework agreement you're describing during their talks in early June at a Black Sea summit in Bucharest than they were when they meant for talks in February with the French president in Rambouillet?

Bryza: Put it this way: At Bucharest, they talked throughout the whole meeting to each other, really went through the issues in detail, and [they] haven't issued any negative statements really since. So I'm not sure how to interpret that. I know what I hope, what the co-chairs hope: The co-chairs hope that this reflects political will on the part of the presidents to really get serious about some tough compromises each side will make. I'm not sure if that's where they are, and the co-chairs talked today about taking a bit of a pause throughout the summer to find out whether or not the presidents do in fact have that sort of political will.

RFE/RL: What is the next step for the co-chairs? Are you planning to bring the presidents together again after the summer?

Bryza: At this point, as I was saying, the co-chairs have decided to take a pause throughout the summer. We will reconvene in September, October, to report back here [to Vienna, the headquarters of the OSCE], I hope. But we're taking some time off in terms of trying to facilitate meetings between the presidents. It's really up to the presidents now to decide whether or not they want to take the politically difficult and challenging decisions that are critical to bringing the framework agreement home. So we're giving them some space, and we want them to demonstrate that they really do have the political will to take these next difficult steps. That doesn't mean we're quitting the process. That doesn't mean we're walking away from it. I myself still have to make my first trips in this capacity to Yerevan and Baku, and you can bet that I'll be encouraging the presidents to take these tough decisions. And there will be opportunities at major international gatherings this summer to discuss this issue.

RFE/RL: At the turn of the year, there were a lot of optimistic statements -- from you as well as others -- that the Karabakh conflict could be resolved in 2006. We're now halfway through the year. Are you still optimistic about 2006?

Bryza: I don't know. My optimism, if you look carefully at my statements, was about the fact that there is a framework on the table that provides a workable foundation for a just and lasting settlement. I was optimistic that the Minsk Group negotiators had gotten the two presidents as close as they could get to an agreement without the presidents taking some very difficult decisions and making some very difficult compromises. We are still in that same place. I don't know if that's optimistic or pessimistic. But the Minsk Group itself has decided that there's no sense in us trying to arrange another round of presidential meetings or trying to broker an agreement, because we have taken the process as far as we can, and all that's left to do is for the presidents to make these tough decision. Is that pessimistic? I don't know if it is. It depends on what the presidents themselves decide to do next. If they decide that they simply don't have the political will to keep going, well, that's a pessimistic outcome. But we just don't know where the presidents are right now. We're encouraging them, we're nudging them by taking a step back. Nudging them to show that they have this political will.

Russia's Role In The South Caucasus

A Russian tank embarks at Batumi on the start of its journey out of Georgia (ITAR-TASS)

RFE/RL: Russia does not always play what some would consider a constructive role in the South Caucasus, particularly with regard to the "frozen conflicts" in the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But Russia has been very cooperative with the United States on Nagorno-Karabakh. Some Russian officials, like Sergei Ivanov, have occasionally said there should be no Karabakh resolution imposed from abroad. But otherwise the relationship has been constructive. How would you evaluate relations between the United States and Russia with respect to Karabakh, in particular and the Caucasus, in general?

Bryza: First, let me say you made a statement of fact with which I agree. We are working quite well with Russia on Karabakh. Our level of cooperation has not been as significant when it comes to South Ossetia and Abkhazia and Transdniester. I don't work on Transdniester [a separatist region of Moldova], but I was just in Abkhazia and I think there is a lot of room for much better cooperation -- and I would argue that the Georgian side has shown a significant amount of goodwill and a readiness to work on significant confidence-building measures. I would also say the United States has worked hard to keep the Georgians as constructive and moderate as possible, and I hope our Russians colleagues and friends will do the same in terms of encouraging the Abkhaz to be constructive and moderate. I saw today that [Sergei] Bagapsh, the leader of the authorities of Abkhazia, issued a rather incendiary statement, threatening to put mines along the Line of Contact between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia. That's the last thing that needs to be happening right now.

We don't see that happening in the case of Karabakh. I leave that to analysts like yourselves to figure out why that may be. Geographic differences, perhaps? Where Karabakh is placed? I don't know what the reason is. Maybe it's because the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan themselves have demonstrated a commitment to work in a constructive way -- although I would argue the Georgians have done so as well. But we are working quite well with the Russians, and especially with the Russian co-chair, Ambassador Merzlyakov. He's a creative and constructive diplomat whom I've known for a long time, ever since we worked together on Caspian energy issues.

The U.S. Interest In Nagorno-Karabakh

RFE/RL: Your predecessor, Ambassador Mann, said repeatedly that the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, created pressure to resolve the Karabakh conflict in order to put an end to one source of instability in the region. Even so, high-level involvement on the part of the United States has not materialized. How does Nagorno-Karabakh fit into U.S. security interests?

Bryza: I think Steve [Mann] is right to say that any time we have an area that could become a gray area on the map, where nefarious transactions or transit of goods and materials could transpire because of legal grayness. That's a potential threat. Where does Karabakh fit into our broad national security calculus? Well, hopefully there will be a discussion of it at the G8 [summit of the eight leading industrialized nations, to be held in mid-July in St. Petersburg]. The G8, one could argue, may be the world's most elite grouping of states and political leaders. So if we have a discussion on Karabakh at the G8 -- along with a discussion of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transdniester -- that would imply it figures pretty prominently on our agenda. But we're still working out the agenda of the G8.

RFE/RL: So it's not yet clear if Karabakh will be included? The "Washington Post" has reported that the Georgian and Moldovan conflicts would be discussed, but Karabakh will not be.

Bryza: I don't believe that will be the case. We are working with our secretary of state -- we have already recommended to her that she raise all of those conflicts at the ministerial [meeting in Moscow on June 29]. Undersecretary [Nicholas] Burns has already made that suggestion a couple of times. And so we would like to make sure all of those conflicts are on the agenda.

RFE/RL: There is always the lingering possibility that the conflict could resume. Both sides have made attempts to raise their military budgets. That is particularly the case with Azerbaijan. How would the international community react to either side attempting to shift the balance of power away from the status quo?

Bryza: You've put me in that classic situation of having to answer a hypothetical question. So I won't answer that question directly. What I will say is what I've been working on with my friends in the government of Azerbaijan -- because that's the side where you most often hear those sorts of threats; that's a fact -- and what I feel the government of Azerbaijan doing as well is focusing on the positive aspects of Azerbaijan's burgeoning wealth that's going to come from the energy sector. It's really quite unhelpful to make statements that imply that this increased wealth is going to lead to purchases of arms and military threats. It's quite constructive, however, to talk about how this wealth can open new channels of cooperation, how such wealth would provide Azerbaijan an opportunity to invest in the well-being of the region, [how it could] help develop Karabakh, all the territories, create the opportunities for business, for commerce, and for the ethnic Armenians and Azeris to come together and get to know each other, and therefore, over time, to reduce the level of tension and the level of animosity surrounding the status question of Karabakh. So I guess what I'm saying is there's really no reason to expect that armed conflict will come out this. It's really unwise even to talk about it, and we urge the sides not even to think about it.

The United States, The Caucasus, And Oil

RFE/RL: The United States clearly has strategic interests in Azerbaijan, not least Caspian oil. Does the United States look at the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in the context of its energy interests?

Bryza: Throughout the Caucasus, we have three sets of strategic interests. These are valid in all three countries. Yes, we have energy interests, and we're not embarrassed to say that energy is a strategic interest. We have pure security interests, or traditional security interests -- meaning fighting terrorism, fighting proliferation, avoiding military conflict, and restoring (or preserving, in some cases) the territorial integrity of the states of the region. What I really mean is, resolving the conflicts, in the case of Georgia, within Georgia's international boundaries; in the case of Karabakh, our official line is we support Azerbaijan's territorial integrity. And then we have a third set of interests: in the internal reform of each country -- democratic and market economic reform, for all the reasons the [U.S.] president has articulated, based on our belief that stability only comes from legitimacy. And legitimacy requires democracy on the political side and prosperity on the economic side, and you only get both -- democracy and prosperity -- through serious reform. So all three sets of interests are being pursued by us at any one time.

"It's diversity we care about -- diversity of supply, which leads to energy independence."

In Armenia, obviously the significance of energy is not the same as in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is a producer. Keep in mind that we Americans will consume little if any of that energy produced in Azerbaijan. The energy produced in Azerbaijan matters in terms of its contribution to global energy diversity, especially for our European allies. So it's diversity we care about -- diversity of supply, which leads to energy independence. When it comes to Armenia, energy is similarly important in terms of making sure that Armenia has independent or multiple sources of energy supply so that it feels independent, and therefore more stable, and more willing to negotiate in good faith.

So that's a long answer to say that of course energy is part of our strategic calculus. But that's not what's driving us. We're looking for balance. And we do recognize, however, that, God forbid, if there was a resumption of conflict [over Karabakh], that that would undermine the entire investment climate across the Caucasus, all three countries. And we certainly don't want that.

Armenia And Regional Powers

RFE/RL: The relationship between Turkey and Armenia, which is also crucial to regional stability, is slowly showing signs of improvement. Is the United States actively engaged in trying to help make ties between Ankara and Yerevan warmer?

Bryza: We are working, consulting, talking, strategizing with our friends in both Turkey and in Armenia. When it comes to Armenia, I think it's clear that the Armenian side is willing and ready to move toward normalization. I think the same is true in Turkey. Besides just encouraging the sides to get together and find a common language, I can tell you that what we've tried to do over the last few years is try to develop this particular framework for Karabakh that's on the table. Because if the sides are able to implement what the framework indicates -- meaning, again, the withdrawal from the territories in Azerbaijan where Armenian troops are present, and then the normalization of diplomatic and economic relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia -- then full normalization of Turkish and Armenian relations follows naturally. Another way to put it is, all of our diplomatic efforts with regards to Karabakh also aim at normalizing Turkish and Armenian relations.

RFE/RL: A question on the issue of Russian military bases in Armenia: Some military hardware was recently moved from Georgia to Armenia. There are essentially no Russian troops in Georgia and Azerbaijan, but there is a significant presence in Armenia. How does the United States view that? Will you ask the Armenian government to ask the Russians to withdraw?

Bryza: First of all, let's be clear that there are Russian troops in Georgia. They have not all withdrawn yet from [military bases at] Akhalkalaki or Batumi. They are on the way, the heavy equipment is moving. And there will be Russian troops in the context of the CIS peacekeepers in Abkhazia and South Ossetia for some time, depending on how the discussions go between Russia and Georgia. When it comes to the movement of the heavy equipment from Akhalkalaki to Gyumri [site of a Russian base in Armenia], no, we're not asking Armenia to press for the removal of those Russian bases. We didn't ask the Georgians to do that. We respect the sovereignty of our friends, be they Georgia, Azerbaijan, or Armenia, and it's up to those sovereign governments to take their own decisions. We simply welcome the fact that Russia and Georgia have agreed mutually that Russian bases will close down. That was Georgia's expressed ambition. Russia agreed. That's simply a good thing. But it's not for us to try to encourage the removal of the bases.

Promoting Democracy

One of many Azerbaijanis who claimed Novembers's parliamentary elections were rigged (ITAR-TASS)

RFE/RL: Neither Azerbaijan nor Armenia have had truly democratic elections in the past 10 years. So can we say these governments have the mandate, the popular support, to make the difficult decisions outlined in the framework agreement?

Bryza: Certainly they have the mandate if they build popular support. I think that's the most important next step. I've been talking about the fact that the presidents need to take tough decisions. And to get to the tough decision, they need to prepare their populations for a compromise. That's another way of saying they either build, or do have, that mandate. You raise a good question about the legitimacy of a government depending on its elections. I would argue that the pace of democracy in both of those countries isn't a disaster. A lot more work needs to be done. But in the case of Azerbaijan's [parliamentary] elections [in November 2005], there were some significant improvements in this last round of elections. But they didn't go as far as we would like.

RFE/RL: How serious is the United States about promoting democracy in Azerbaijan? We see your serious efforts in Georgia, and we see the results. But in Azerbaijan, the international community seriously criticized the elections, but the United States decided to invite President Ilham Aliyev to Washington. What makes Aliyev different, for example, from an autocratic leader like Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka?

Bryza: I categorically reject the statement that the United States isn't serious about democracy in Azerbaijan. As President Bush said in his second inaugural address, long-term security requires democracy. It's the thirst for political and economic freedom that is the most powerful motivating factor in international politics. That really is the source of long-term stability. We fool ourselves if we think that we can achieve our long-term interests in any country -- be they energy interests or security interests -- and turn away from democracy. You talked about September 11. Well, the great lesson we learned from September 11 is that we were wrong, as the president has said, for 50 years. We looked at the Middle East and said 'these countries are too strategically important for us to focus on democracy.'

"Just because Azerbaijan hasn't gone as far as we would like on democracy doesn't mean we're going to ignore our energy interests or our military interests."

So we understand that long-term security and therefore the ability to achieve our energy interests requires democracy. In Azerbaijan, we have pressed very hard on democracy. You said the international community was critical of the Azeri elections -- well, we're part of that community, and our statements were critical. However, we have to make a judgment at some point whether or not we think the trend in a country is positive or negative. And we don't have unidimensional relations with countries, either. I talked about three sets of interests. Just because Azerbaijan hasn't gone as far as we would like on democracy doesn't mean we're going to ignore our energy interests or our military interests. That's not to say that our energy interests or our military interests or our counterterrorism interests are driving us to ignore democracy. I said before, we have to pursue a balance. Why would we freeze out President Ilham Aliyev from contact with our president forever because we think he needs to do more on democracy? That doesn't make sense. Our president made a judgment. His judgment was that we could do more to elicit democratic reform in Azerbaijan by embracing Ilham Aliyev right now rather than freezing him out. That's because we do feel the trend on democracy is positive, even if Azerbaijan hasn't gone as far as we wish.

So, finally, I'd say there is simply no similarity between Lukashenka and Aliyev. We just don't feel there is at all. Ilham Aliyev, we believe, is working to modernize the political system of Azerbaijan, to create democracy in the context of Azerbaijan's culture and traditions -- which the president said is necessary, because democracy looks different in every country. That said, they haven't gone far enough. And we will continue to press President Aliyev -- and his opposition as well -- to behave constructively, to build and strengthen democratic institutions as we pursue our full range of interests.

RFE/RL: Ilham Aliyev has been to Washington; Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has been invited to the White House just ahead of the G8. Are there any plans to invite Armenia's President Robert Kocharian as well?

Bryza: We obviously don't look at balancing presidential meetings like that, but there's no reason not to want President Kocharian to come to Washington. Let me just say I hope we can see a similar series of positive steps on democratic reform in Armenia as we hope we are starting to see in Azerbaijan. Maybe we're wrong about Azerbaijan. Maybe we're overly hopeful. But we think things are moving in a positive direction. And we hope to see more of that from Armenia. We signaled our support for Armenia, quite dramatically, with the Millennium Challenge Account [a development fund set by the United States, whose recipients -- including Armenia -- are chosen using competitive, reform-based criteria]. That is, in many ways, one of our highest forms of stating that we seek a partnership with a country, to help it move forward on democratic reform. So we began that program this year. When we began it, we issued a letter saying we really had problems with the way the constitutional referendum was conducted in November [2005], and we're waiting to see positive changes implemented. So that's kind of the key to the next steps in our relationship.

The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

Click on the image to view an enlarged map of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone

In February 1988, the local assembly in Stepanakert, the local capital of the Azerbaijani region of NAGORNO-KARABAKH, passed a resolution calling for unification of the predominantly ethnic-Armenian region with Armenia. There were reports of violence against local Azeris, followed by attacks against Armenians in the Azerbaijani city of Sumgait. In 1991-92, Azerbaijani forces launched an offensive against separatist forces in Nagorno-Karabakh, but the Armenians counterattacked and by 1993-94 had seized almost all of the region, as well as vast areas around it. About 600,000 Azeris were displaced and as many as 25,000 people were killed before a Russian-brokered cease-fire was imposed in May 1994.

CHRONOLOGY: For an annotated timeline of the fighting around Nagorno-Karabakh in 1988-94 and the long search for a permanent settlement to the conflict, click here.

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