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1997 in Review: Transcaucasus - No Resolutions to Abkhaz, Karabakh Disputes

Prague, 22 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Impelled by the need for political stability in the Transcaucasus as a prerequisite for the anticipated export of Azerbaijan's Caspian oil via Georgia, the international community in 1997 redoubled its efforts to resolve the deadlocked Abkhaz and Karabakh disputes.

Separate ceasefire agreements signed in May, 1994 had reduced the likelihood of a full-scale resumption of hostilities in either region, but progress towards a political settlement of both conflicts during 1994-6 was minimal.

During the early months of 1997, the Georgian leadership repeatedly argued that the mandate of the CIS peace-keeping force currently stationed along the internal border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia should be expanded to enable its members to protect more effectively those ethnic Georgians forced to flee Abkhazia's southernmost Gali raion during the hostilities of 1992-3.

The refugees now wish to return to their abandoned homes. Opposition parliament deputies argued that the peace-keeping force should be withdrawn, if this was not done.

The CIS heads of state summit in Moscow in late March adopted a decision to broaden the peacekeepers' mandate, but the Abkhaz leadership immediately objected to its implementation, arguing that no changes can be made in the peacekeepers' mandate without Abkhaz consent.

In June, the Russian Foreign Ministry mediated intensive talks in Moscow, but failed to persuade Abkhaz and Georgians to sign a seven-point interim protocol formally ending the conflict.

In mid-August, at Russian Foreign Minister Yevgenii Primakov's instigation, Abkhaz leader Vladislav Ardzinba flew to Tbilisi for a face-to-face meeting with Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze at which the two men abjured the future use of force in bilateral relations. This meeting paved the way for lower-level discussions at restoring economic ties between Georgia and Abkhazia.

Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin's November decree permitting imports of Abkhaz agricultural produce into Russia evoked outraged protests in Tbilisi, but failed to prevent a meeting of Abkhaz and Georgian representatives in Geneva later that month, under the auspices of the "Friends of Georgia" group created by former U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros Ghali.

At those talks, the two sides agreed to create working groups to address security issues in the region of the border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia, and conditions for the repatriation of the ethnic Georgian diplaced persons.

At the end of the year, however, although relations between Tbilisi and Sukhumi had undoubtedly improved, no substantive progress had been made towards signing a political agreement formalizing Abkhazia's future political status within Georgia.

The ongoing negotiations under the aegis of the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe's Minsk Group on resolving the deadlocked Karabakh conflict were suspended during the early months of the year following a contretemps in December 1996 at the OSCE heads of state summit in Lisbon. On that occasion, Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrossyan had vetoed a declaration affirming support for Azerbaijan's territorial integrity and defining Karabakh's future political status in terms of "broad autonomy" within Azerbaijan.

In early 1997, France was named to succeed Finland as co-chair of the Minsk Group together with Russia. The United States then sought and finally was named as a third co-chair. Talks resumed in Moscow in April, but made no progress.

The three co-chairs travelled to Yerevan, Stepanakert and Baku in late May, mid-June and mid-July to discuss with the three conflict parties a new draft peace plan which Armenia and Azerbaijan subsequently accepted as a basis for further negotiations.

But Nagorno-Karabakh Foreign Minister Arkadii Ghukasyan, who was elected president of the unrecognized enclave in late August, rejected the proposals, which envisaged a phased solution to the dispute.

Ghukasyan called instead for a package solution that would resolve all contentious issues within one framework document; he also insisted that Karabakh will never accept any formal status that subordinates it to the central Azerbaijani government.

Ghukasyan's arguments were supported by several leading Armenian officials in Yerevan, including Prime Minister Robert Kocharyan and Defense Minister Vazgen Sargsian.

Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrossyan, however, argued first at a press conference in September and then in a lengthy newspaper article in November in favor of a compromise solution to the conflict based on concessions.

Further visits to Baku, Yerevan and Stepanakert by the Minsk Group co-chairs in November and early December failed to induce the Karabakh leadership to reconsider its rejection of the "phased" peace plan.

Intensive lobbying by senior Armenian diplomats prevented the adoption at the OSCE Foreign Ministers' summit in Copenhagen in mid-December of a document reaffirming the so-called "Lisbon principles" that a solution to the conflict must comprise autonomous status for Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan.

Given the Karabakh leadership's intransigence, however, the prospects for a resumption either of mediation within the Minsk Group framework or direct talks between Baku and Stepanakert are bleak.