27 January 2006, Volume 9, Number 3
ARMENIA, AZERBAIJAN HOPE TO AGREE ON BASICS OF KARABAKH PEACE DEAL. Recent talks between Armenia's and Azerbaijan's foreign ministers failed to shed much light on the likelihood of a major breakthrough in the Karabakh peace process.
The discussions, held in London on 18-19 January under the aegis of the OSCE Minsk Group, were being watched closely for any indication that a February meeting between Armenian President Robert Kocharian and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev might result in a compromise.
Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian did confirm the day after the London talks that the two sides are seeking to reach agreement on a half-page document that enumerates general principles that could then form the basis for a more detailed peace plan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 January 2006). But Oskanian said that while the two sides' positions vis-a-vis some of those principles have drawn closer, on others their positions are still far apart, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported.
Day.az on 26 January similarly quoted Mammadyarov as telling journalists in Baku that the two sides are still trying to reach agreement on the "general principles." It therefore remains unclear whether the two countries' presidents will indeed succeed in reaching a compromise on the contested points, let alone publicly endorse those basic principles, during their upcoming summit near Paris, which Kocharian's spokesman has said will take place on 10 February. Azerbaijani presidential administration official Novruz Mammadov hinted in a 20 January interview with the online daily echo-az com that it is unlikely the two presidents will sign any agreements during their "first meeting of the year."
The basic principles have formed the focus of what has become known as the Prague process talks between Oskanian and Mammadyarov (so-called because the first few meetings took place in Prague in the summer of 2004 and January 2005). On 7 June 2005, Mammadyarov told journalists in Baku that the two sides were discussing between seven and nine issues related to a peace settlement, and that those issues had to be addressed in a specific order, with each made secure before the following is added, "like pearls knotted on a silk thread."
Mammadyarov said Azerbaijan insists on the liberation of the seven Azerbaijani districts bordering on Karabakh that are currently occupied by Armenian forces. He also claimed the two sides were discussing which countries or organizations could provide peacekeeping forces to be deployed on those territories after their liberation, according to day.az. Echo-az.com quoted Mammadyarov as saying that the two sides were discussing both "phased" and "package" approaches to resolving the conflict. But a senior Armenian Foreign Ministry official told RFE/RL on 8 June on condition of anonymity that the final agreement will be a package one, although its various provisions may be implemented one after the other, rather than simultaneously.
Then, in early July 2005, a senior Armenian official told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that under the anticipated peace deal, Armenia would return to Azerbaijani control five of the seven Azerbaijani districts adjacent to Karabakh currently occupied by Karabakh Armenian forces, not including the strategic Lacin corridor. An international peacekeeping force would be deployed in the conflict zone under the aegis of the OSCE. Then, at some unspecified future date the population of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic would be required to vote in a referendum on the region's future status.
That blueprint is very similar to those proposed in December 2004 by former Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio and NATO Parliamentary Assembly President Pierre Lellouche (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 January 2005); and by the International Crisis Group in a document released on 11 October 2005 (http://www.crisisgroup.org/home/index.cfm?l=1&id=3740), although the ICG plan envisages the withdrawal of Armenian forces from all seven occupied Azerbaijani districts including Lacin.
Haik Kotandjian, an adviser to Armenian Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, outlined an alternative "road map" for resolving the conflict in a 22 November interview with regnum.ru. That three-stage plan comprised the same elements, but in reverse order: it envisaged a referendum on the status of the NKR, followed by the deployment of international peacekeepers and the simultaneous withdrawal of Armenian forces from five of the occupied districts (not including Lacin and Kalbacar); the third stage comprised the rehabilitation of the conflict zone.
In early July 2005, Armenian officials told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that Armenia and Azerbaijan had reached agreement on the key points of a formal peace accord ending the Karabakh conflict, and that agreement could be signed by the end of this year (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 22 August 2005). The two ministers, and the two presidents, subsequently met in late August in Kazan on the sidelines of a CIS summit, but failed to announce any major progress toward a settlement. Then, on 4 December, Oskanian told RFE/RL that he and Mammadyarov failed during talks in Ljubljana on the sidelines of the OSCE foreign ministers' annual meeting to agree on a date for the next meeting between the two presidents -- a meeting that Oskanian hinted could prove a pivotal moment in the search or a settlement.
But despite that failure to schedule a meeting between the two presidents, preparations were launched for one aspect of a peace settlement: provision was made for a high-level OSCE planning group to visit the Karabakh conflict zone to assess the requirements for deploying an international peacekeeping force in the event of the withdrawal of the Armenian forces from the Azerbaijani territory contiguous to the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic that they currently occupy. Noyan Tapan reported on 22 January the arrival of that delegation in Stepanakert.
In a 19 January interview with APA news agency that was posted the following day on day.az, Azerbaijani presidential administration official Mammadov said that Azerbaijan's overriding priorities are for Armenia to agree to a settlement of the conflict that would preserve Azerbaijan's territorial integrity, and the withdrawal of Armenian forces from occupied Azerbaijani territory. Mammadov dismissed as "unimportant" the issue of including representatives of the NKR in the peace process, which the ICG plan advocates. He said that peacekeeping forces should be deployed along the entire length of the Armenian-Azerbaijani border and "between Armenian- and Azerbaijani-populated villages." He said it was premature to discuss the possibility of a referendum, which would, he estimated, be held only in 15-20 years' time.
Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov, President Aliyev's special representative for the Karabakh talks, was more categorical, telling journalists in Baku on 23 January that talk of a referendum is no more than "rumors," day.az reported.
Neither Mammadov nor Azimov appears to have made the crucial point, noted on 19 January by the online daily zerkalo.az, that Article 3 of the Azerbaijani Constitution explicitly bars the possibility of changes to the country's borders being submitted to a nationwide referendum. For such a referendum to take place, a preliminary referendum would first have to be held to amend those articles of the constitution, and few Azerbaijani voters are likely to endorse any amendments that would facilitate the loss of Azerbaijani jurisdiction over Karabakh.
Even if the two presidents succeed during the coming year in finalizing a set of "general principles" intended to serve as the blueprint for a more detailed peace plan, there is still no guarantee that one side or the other will not find it expedient to renege on them at some future date. The so-called "Paris Principles" agreed on in the spring of 2001 were elaborated on in further talks in Florida in April 2001 and during subsequent meetings between Kocharian and Ilham Aliyev's father and predecessor, Heydar Aliyev. U.S. diplomat Rudolf Perina, who served as the U.S. Minsk Group co-chairman during those talks, later revealed that in 2002 the two sides came "incredibly close" to hammering out a peace agreement. But Armenian officials say Baku reneged on that deal shortly before a planned summit between Kocharian and Heydar Aliyev in June 2002 that was cancelled at the last minute. (Liz Fuller)
GEORGIA LOBBIES FOR EU BACKING IN STANDOFFS WITH RUSSIA. Georgia has launched a diplomatic offensive, trying to enlist extensive EU support in its disputes with Russia. Addressing the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee in Brussels on 25 January, Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili solicited greater EU involvement on a whole range of its problems -- most urgently in the South Ossetian conflict and in energy disputes with Russia. He also reiterated Georgia's interest in a new five-year EU New Neighborhood Policy "action plan" it expects to sign in February. But he left little doubt that Georgia needs considerably more than long-term support for political and economic reforms in the country.
Two issues above all seem to have arrived at a critical juncture for Georgia. One is the "frozen conflict" in the breakaway Republic of South Ossetia, the other its recent problems with gas supplies. Both involve Russia and specific requests for EU backing.
Bezhuashvili said South Ossetia will be "very high" among Georgia's priorities in 2006. Together with another breakaway republic, Abkhazia, he said, South Ossetia presents the gravest threat to Georgia. He explained: "The most serious impediment for the consolidation of democracy and economic development in Georgia has been internal so-called 'frozen conflicts' in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. [The] existence of conflicts poses a major threat to the security and development of not only Georgia, but is detrimental to democracy, security, and stability in the South Caucasus region as a whole."
Bezhuashvili indicated that Georgia believes Russia remains the greatest obstacle to a settlement. He said Russia appears to have no intention of supporting a Georgian peace plan for South Ossetia despite its expression of qualified approval for that plan last month at the OSCE Foreign Ministers meeting in Ljubljana (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 13 December 2005).
Bezhuashvili urged the EU to use its leverage with Russia. He explained: "We very much expect the issue of South Ossetia settlement to become part of the EU agenda in dialogue with Russia. Assistance in finding solution to such issues as [Georgian- Russian] border delimitation, border monitoring, as I mentioned, [the] promotion of cooperation between Georgia's and Russia's border-guard services, in order to ensure [the] proper management of Georgia's entire border with Russia, would significantly improve the conditions of conflict resolution."
There were other specific requests. Bezhuashvili said that if a settlement is reached, Georgia wants the EU become involved in the Joint Control Commission which, he said, is heavily biased against Georgia. The commission comprises Russia, North Ossetia, South Ossetia, and Georgia. Bezhuashvili said he wants the mandate of the EU's special representative to the South Caucasus to be extended. The present incumbent, Heikki Talvitie, is expected to be replaced at the end of February, but EU sources speaking to RFE/RL ruled out significant changes to the special representative's mandate. In the event that a settlement is reached, Georgia also wants an EU commitment to send an assessment mission to ensure the breakaway region is demilitarized, and to contribute peacekeeping troops.
An EU official told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity that there is little chance that the bloc, which has long been split over how to deal with Russia, will meet any of Georgia's requests in the foreseeable future. The official said the EU is aware the Georgian parliament appears to be forcing the government's hand, threatening to formally declare the presence of Russian troops in South Ossetia illegal next month. Such a development would drastically complicate any settlement talks.
The deputies of the European Parliament nonetheless appeared sympathetic to Bezhuashvili. Alfred Gomolka, a senior German Christian Democrat on the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, spoke for many when he identified the EU's splits vis-a-vis Russia as a serious weakness. Gomolka said Russia has tried to exert political pressure on its neighbor before, but that the ongoing gas disputes underline the gravity of the situation.
"[But] now this whole matter has become more acute, and therefore we should, on the one hand, make it very clear that the EU does not even allow the attempt to be made to drive a wedge between its different member states. The EU can and will respond in a single voice," Gomolka said.
The recent disruption of Russian gas supplies to Georgia was the other major concern expressed by Bezhuashvili. Asked by European deputies about claims made by Georgian officials that Russia itself might be behind the series of explosions in North Ossetia that cut gas deliveries and some electricity supplies to Georgia, Bezhuashvili said he has no such evidence. But, he stressed, Tbilisi finds the circumstances surrounding the disruptions extremely suspicious: "Certainly, [I am not making a] final judgment [as to] who is behind it, but there are many, many coincidences, you know, and I really don't know why exactly yesterday [Tuesday, 25 January] morning the technical pumping station on [the] Azeri-Russian border was broken. I mean, on the Russian side. I don't know, maybe its technical, but [there are] too many technical [problems] at the same time."
Bezhuashvili said Georgia had been receiving limited amounts of gas from Azerbaijan until then, and that Tbilisi has decided to accept an offer of emergency gas deliveries from Iran. (Ahto Lobjakas)
COUNCIL OF EUROPE WARNS GEORGIA. The Council of Europe on 24 January hailed the Georgian government's achievements over the past year, but warned too of many problems that remain to be overcome. A resolution passed that day by the Parliamentary Assembly, or PACE, said that post- revolutionary euphoria has given way to greater pragmatism, but it also warned that Georgia is still only at the beginning of its path to democratization and that major challenges lie ahead.
Matyas Eorsi, the Hungarian parliamentarian who is co-rapporteur for Georgia, noted in his report: "By and large, I would say that several of the commitments that Georgia undertook are fulfilled and there are large-scale reforms in the pipeline and they are launched and we feel that they are on the right track."
All the same, despite kind words and pats on the back, it was made clear that the period of grace granted after the 2003 Rose Revolution is over. The resolution on Georgia said previous resolutions took into consideration the extraordinary circumstances resulting from the revolution -- but now the time has come to start delivering. Two years on, it said, the new authorities have to keep their promises.
Eorsi identified the Council of Europe's disagreement with Georgia over the status of Adjara as a case in point. The Georgian authorities only re-established full control over the Black Sea region, which borders Turkey, in May 2004, after President Saakashvili came to power. The Council of Europe recommended that Georgia grant Adjara extensive autonomous powers -- a move it argues would send a positive signal to Georgia's other breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Eorsi reasoned that "One of the major issues is the constitutional status of Adjara, because when we speak of South Ossetia and Abkhazia it is very easy to criticize external powers why there is no progress. But Georgians could do more because if the framework for Adjara were better, if the second [parliament] chamber would be established, then I think it would be a proper message to the people in Abkhazia and also South Ossetia that when they come back to Georgia they will have fair treatment. And that was a promise made by the Georgian authorities."
But the Georgian government has resisted, arguing that Strasbourg is making a mistake by comparing Adjara to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Adjara, they point out, is populated predominantly by ethnic Georgians, most of whom support the existing central authorities. Elene Tevdoradze, a Georgian parliament deputy and a member of the Georgian delegation to the PACE, told RFE/RL: "We didn't fulfill the recommendations -- not because we couldn't, but because we considered these recommendations not essential for Georgia today. We don't agree with the Council of Europe. We have our own arguments. The main thing is for us to fulfill those obligations on the basis of which we were accepted into the Council of Europe -- and only two of those are left."
It's an argument made forcefully by Giorgi Bokeria, a senior figure in the Georgian administration and head of the delegation to Strasbourg. Bokeria stated that "Georgia is making progress along a stable, democratic, modern, European path -- and this is clearly stated in the Council of Europe's resolution. The Council of Europe is an important forum for us and an instrument that helps us in our progress along this path. But that does not mean that we have to agree on every single issue. It is our choice to be in the Council of Europe and it is an unshakeable choice that is not subject to revision. But the difference between the Kremlin and Strasbourg is precisely that in Strasbourg there is discussion and not just orders."
That point will no doubt be well taken in Strasbourg. But the council, like the European Union in Brussels, is showing signs of losing patience. Georgia is ignoring the council's recommendations on Adjara, on reducing the electoral threshold for parties under its system of proportional representation from 7 to 5 percent, and on the reduction of presidential powers. The 24 January resolution makes clear that Georgia's future progress will be measured in part at least by the progress it makes on these issues. (Robert Parsons)