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Caucasus: U.S. Diplomat Sees No Evidence Of 'Georgian Provocation'

Daniel Fried (file photo) (OSCE) August 9, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Georgian authorities say two Russian jets on August 6 violated the country's airspace and fired a missile that failed to explode. It's a charge Russia denies.

RFE/RL Azerbaijani Service acting Director Kenan Aliyev spoke to U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia Daniel Fried about the latest developments in Georgia and the hopes for peace in Nagorno-Karabakh. They also discussed the results of the August 3 round of the U.S.-Azerbaijani dialogue on democracy and human rights.

RFE/RL: Are you concerned about the latest developments in Georgia? What is the U.S. position on this issue?

Daniel Fried: We are very concerned. In fact we condemned, we condemn this attack. We have been in close touch with the Georgian government, which has shown us the evidence it has. The evidence seems to show that there was an overflight, an incursion.

We, at the same time, urge both Georgia and Russia to continue to work together cooperatively, to resolve issues related to South Ossetia and Abkhazia. We think that it would be a terrible mistake if this latest incident, as bad as it is, derailed some of the progress that has been made and we hope both sides continue to work together. I should also add that we've been in touch with the Russian government, both in Washington and Moscow, and we're aware that the Russian government has denied any involvement in these attacks.

We've also been assured that the Russian government wants to work with Georgia in a constructive spirit and we hope that now the way forward is for Russia and Georgia to cooperate both on South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but also to cooperate in the Georgian investigation of this incident. We're going to follow it closely, we're going to evaluate the information.

I must say there is absolutely no evidence that I've seen that this is somehow a Georgian provocation. This doesn't appear to be the case at all. It was certainly a problem, but not one of Georgia's making. So while we're clear about the problem that exists we also want both sides to work together and the indications are that both the Georgian and Russian governments are going to continue to work together and if that is the case we welcome it.

RFE/RL: And what is the status of the discussion of the radar station at Qabala in Azerbaijan? Is this off the table?

Fried: We're consulting with the Russians about this. We thought [Russian President Vladimir] Putin made a very interesting offer. We immediately made sure, of course, that the Azerbaijani government was comfortable with it. We're not going to do something with Russia that involves anything on Azerbaijani territory without consulting the government of Azerbaijan. It affects the sovereign territory of that country.

It's on the table, we want to work with Russia, we see the Russian offer as interesting and promising. It's not a substitute for what we want to do with the Poles and Czechs, but we see rather that all of these ideas -- the American ideas with the Poles and the Czechs, the Russian ideas with Qabala and their own radar installations in southern Russia, European projects for short- and mid-range missile defense-- the best case would be for all of these [proposals] to be brought together in a large compatible system that provided everybody with the best possible protection.

RFE/RL: With both Armenia and Azerbaijan entering their election cycles, are you less optimistic about the chances for success in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process and do you think that the presidents have missed an opportunity?

Fried: I don't want to be critical, I think that we were all disappointed that the last trip of the Contact Group didn't yield the results we had hoped. There have been good negotiations, well good talks I should say, some progress has been made and at some point I hope that the leaders of the two countries will find a way forward.

Ultimately, it's in everyone's interests. The future of Azerbaijan will be under a cloud as long as this issue is not resolved and it can only be resolved peacefully. A war is going to destroy Azerbaijan's future and do no one any good. A peaceful settlement is the way to go. We've come this far and I hope that we can resolve it.

RFE/RL: Can you tell us about the latest round of the U.S.-Azerbaijan democracy and human-rights dialogue? What are your main concerns in terms of Azerbaijan's democratic development?

Fried: Step back a little bit. Azerbaijan is emerging in two senses. It's emerging from the wreckage of the Soviet Union and it's also emerging in its own right as a nation and it takes both political will and time to build functioning democratic institutions. So we want to be very clear about problems that exist -- and there are problems in the media in particular -- but we also want to work with Azerbaijan to build institutions, to help Azerbaijan build the institutions of free media and the practice of free media and we're going to tackle these issues one at a time.

RFE/RL: Many critics of U.S. policy in Azerbaijan point to the fact that the United States has strategic relations with Azerbaijan, when it comes to security and energy. But they say that the United States is not tough enough on the democracy-development issues in Azerbaijan.

I'm aware of the charge but it just isn't true. If we didn't care about democracy issues, we wouldn't be having this dialogue. The Azerbaijani authorities know very well that this is important to us and that progress in this area will mean that our relations are deeper and stronger. Lack of progress means the problems will be a constant drag on our relations.

Obviously some of the NGOs and the human-rights organizations in Baku are principally concerned with the problems of democracy in that country, and the shortcomings, and I don't blame them. We keep in good contact with them and we share some of their concerns, but we've got to find the right way to pursue all of our interests at once and not allow our interests in security or economics to drown out our relations in greater freedom and, at the same time, not allow our interests and commitment to freedom paralyze us from cooperation in other areas. Saying that is one thing, doing it is another, and we will do our best.

RFE/RL: Can we expect that there will be any immediate results of this ongoing dialogue? For example, do you think the government will release the seven imprisoned journalists? The U.S. State Department, the U.S. government, and international organizations have all raised this issue many times.

They certainly should find a way to resolve this problem. I can't promise you what the actions will be because the Azerbaijani government will make its determination and the processes there will work and hopefully there will be good results but I can't guarantee this. What I can say though is that we will continue to raise these issues even when it is difficult for the Azerbaijani government to hear it.

We will continue to raise it. But I also don't want to leave the impression that our discussions are confrontational. They were not. [Azerbaijani] Foreign Minister [Elmar] Mammadyarov knows Americans very well. He knows our concerns, he knows how serious we are about expressing them. I think he approached this in good faith, he listened carefully, and we also had a discussion about areas where we can work together.

RFE/RL: You're in constant contact with the Azerbaijani authorities. Do you have a sense that the Azerbaijani government is really committed to democratic reform?

Fried: I think that the government has a vision of a modernized, well-run country and I think that they are more inclined to work with us on projects of building institutions. I think some of the problems exist with respect to individual cases and represent, frankly, the lack of such institutions. Azerbaijan still needs to build a strong, independent judiciary. It needs to strengthen the rule of law, it needs to strengthen sanctity of contracts, it needs to build independent institutions of government, which will be credible regulators of the economy. So it has a lot to do.

I think that the Azerbaijani government is more inclined to build new institutions and I think that the problems arise when individual cases come up and are not handled well by the institutions that now exist. Now that's a general view, that's my observation. I wouldn't argue that it's accurate in all respects, but it's my effort to give a general picture of what we see.

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