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Caucasus Report: May 19, 2006

19 May 2006, Volume 9, Number 17

TBILISI MEETING RAISES HOPES OF PROGRESS IN RESOLVING ABKHAZ CONFLICT. The Coordinating Council established by the UN in late 1997 to serve as a forum for discussing issues related to resolving the Abkhaz conflict convened in Tbilisi on May 15 for the first time since January 2001.

Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba, who headed the Abkhaz delegation, formally presented to the Georgian side Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh's new plan for resolving the conflict (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," May 12, 2006). Shamba also said that talks will continue on the implementation of a plan drafted by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to enable Georgian displaced persons to return to Abkhazia.

Both sides expressed optimism that the very real differences between them could be resolved over a period of time. The risk still remains, however, that maximalist demands by Georgian parliamentarians for the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeepers from the Abkhaz conflict zone, or reprisals against Georgians in Gali, might again return the peace process to deadlock.

The decision to resume sessions of the Coordinating Council was made in late March during talks in Sukhum (Sukhumi) between Shamba and Irakli Alasania, who is Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's special representative for the Abkhaz conflict. Two months earlier, during a meeting in Geneva, the so-called Friends of the UN Secretary-General Group of countries (France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Russia) had appealed to Abkhaz and Georgians to begin talks on confidence-building measures, including the nonresumption of hostilities, and on what they termed "core political issues" -- meaning Abkhazia's ultimate status vis-a-vis the central Georgian government.

Alasania told RFE/RL on May 16 that the resumption of talks within the Coordinating Council format constitutes "a good first step," and reflects the political will on both sides to tackle contentious issues they have not addressed in previous talks. Abkhaz Foreign Minister Shamba told a press conference after the council session that the participants focused on a broad range of issues including security in the conflict zone, the return of refugees, and social and economic issues. A press release issued afterward by the UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) said that sessions of the council's three working groups (on confidence-building measures, economic issues, and the repatriation of displaced persons) will take place within the next few weeks.

Speaking at the same press conference, Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava described the meeting as '"an important initiative," and expressed the hope that regular bilateral contacts will lead to progress in resolving the conflict, Civil Georgia reported. Shamba for his part described the council meeting as "productive" and without "serious controversies."

Possibly the most tangible outcome of the May 15 Council meeting was the announcement that agreement has been reached, according to Shamba, on permitting an estimated 200,000 Georgian displaced persons who fled Abkhazia during the 1992-93 civil war to return to their abandoned homes. Shamba noted that a formal agreement on repatriation was signed in Moscow in April 1994, but has not been systematically implemented. He said that the working group on repatriation will convene next month to discuss implementing, over a period of two years, a repatriation plan drafted by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

In addition, Alasania was quoted by Caucasus Press as telling the Georgian parliament after the Coordinating Council session that Abkhazia has agreed that instruction at schools in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali district, where the majority of the prewar population was Georgian, will be in Georgian. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has repeatedly urged the Abkhaz both to give the green light for repatriation, and to make provision for Georgian-language schooling in Gali.

A further indicator of the improved prospects for resolving the conflict was the Georgian side's measured reaction to the new Abkhaz peace proposal, which Shamba described to journalists as the Abkhaz vision of how to achieve "peaceful coexistence." "We think there are issues that we can start to discuss today and on which we can find mutual understanding," Shamba said. At the same time, he acknowledged that the Abkhaz leadership is aware that some aspects of Bagapsh's proposal may be unacceptable to the Georgian side, but that Sukhum is willing to "work gradually" on such questions, Civil Georgia reported. He did not cite examples, but the plan envisages recognition of Abkhazia as an independent sovereign state -- a concept that is anathema to Tbilisi, which is currently prepared to offer only "very broad autonomy" -- and calls for a formal apology by the Georgian leadership for the suffering inflicted on Abkhazia during the war.

Khaindrava for his part told journalists that while he has not studied the Bagapsh plan in depth, "I can say that there are issues that can be regarded as a basis for mutual understanding." Khaindrava also said that Tbilisi too has a new "road map" for resolving the conflict, which will be presented to the Abkhaz side after it has first been discussed with representatives of the Friends of the UN Secretary-General group who are to visit Georgia next week.

In short, the resumption of talks under the aegis of the Coordinating Council is regarded with cautious optimism both by the two conflict sides and by the UN. An UNOMIG spokeswoman, Envera Selimovic, told RFE/RL that the UN is much encouraged by the willingness shown by both sides, and hopes they will avail themselves of a "great opportunity" to push the peace process forward. She also stressed the importance of the visit next week by the Friends of the UN Secretary-General group, which will travel to Sukhum and Gali to familiarize themselves with the problems and attitudes of those on both sides most affected by the conflict.

But success in building on the apparent willingness to compromise demonstrated by both Georgians and Abkhaz on May 15 does not depend solely on the negotiators, and the entire fragile peace process could be jeopardized by incautious or maximalist moves or statements. Speaker Nino Burdjanadze warned on May 15 that the Georgian parliament will not withdraw its demand to the Georgian government that the Russian peacekeeping force currently deployed in the Abkhaz conflict zone be withdrawn (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 16, 2006). Shamba was quoted by Caucasus Press as saying that such insistence on the part of Tbilisi that the Russian peacekeepers leave would call into question not only any progress achieved toward a settlement of the conflict, but the entire future of the negotiation process.

Alasania, meanwhile, told RFE/RL on May 16 that he sees the main danger to the peace process in "provocations" in the conflict zone, and the militarization of the situation in Gali. He stressed the need for enhanced security guarantees for the Georgians who wish to return to Gali, including the opening of a UN Human Rights office in that district. Alasania said that the two sides discussed (bilaterally, not at the Coordinating Council session) the possible signing of a formal document on the nonresumption of hostilities, but concluded that they need more time to finalize such a document, which could be signed at a meeting between Bagapsh and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. Alasania said Tbilisi sets no preconditions for such a meeting, and hopes that it could take place within the next few months.

Alasania also said that Georgia would like to "change the format" of the peacekeeping operation to make it more effective and better suited to conditions on the ground, but he declined to specify what, if any, alternatives Tbilisi might propose to the current exclusively Russian peacekeeping force. (Liz Fuller)

ARMENIAN PRESIDENT PLANS TO BECOME PRIME MINISTER IN 2008. Robert Kocharian will be succeeded as president by Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian and become prime minister after completing his second five-year term in office in 2008, a controversial nominally independent lawmaker claimed on May 17. Hmayak Hovannisian presented to journalists what he called a scenario drawn up by Armenia's two most powerful men for the approaching parliamentary and presidential elections. Under that scenario, Hovannisian said, Sarkisian will contest and secure victory in both polls, due in 2007 and 2008 respectively, on the ticket of the governing Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) led by the current prime minister, Andranik Markarian.

"After the parliamentary elections [in 2007], Serzh Sarkisian will become prime minister and Andranik Markarian speaker of the National Assembly," Hovannisian said. "What will Robert Kocharian do? Who else is to occupy the post of prime minister when Serzh Sarkisian becomes president of the republic?"

The Armenian constitution bars incumbent presidents from holding the post for a third consecutive term, and Kocharian has so far left no indication that he will try find a legal loophole for contesting the 2008 presidential ballot. But meeting with university students in Yerevan last November, Kocharian indicated that he is not averse to continuing to run government affairs in another capacity. "Who is better than I in terms of knowledge, experience, hard work and resilience?" he declared. Some local analysts and politicians have speculated over the past year that Kocharian is aiming for the post of prime minister, which he had occupied for about a year before being catapulted to the Armenian presidency in March 1998.

Hovannisian further said that helping Kocharian become prime minister is the main mission of the ambitious Prosperous Armenia (BH) party that was set up recently by Gagik Tsarukian, an influential "oligarch" close to the ruling regime. Hovannisian claimed that the authorities will ensure that BH, the HHK and another pro-establishment party linked to Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian have an absolute majority in the next parliament to put the alleged scenario into practice.

The Kocharian administration has assured the West that the upcoming elections will be more democratic than previous ballots, but some opposition leaders are skeptical of such assurances, and fear that Armenia's post-Soviet history of electoral fraud will continue as long as the Kocharian-Sarkisian duo remains in power. Some oppositionists have threatened to boycott next year's legislative vote, saying that the authorities may have already predetermined its outcome.

Hovannisian has several time switched his allegiance from political parties opposed to successive Armenian governments. He was elected to the current National Assembly from the electoral list of the opposition National Unity Party (AMK) in May 2003, but quit it a year later for reasons that still remain unclear. AMK leader Artashes Geghamian has repeatedly accused Hovannisian of secretly collaborating with Sarkisian, a view shared by other politicians and journalists. Hovannisian has flatly denied those allegations. (Ruzanna Stepanian)

PROSPECTS FOR A SOUTH CAUCASUS STABILITY PACT RECEDE. Hopes for an internationally sponsored Stability Pact for the South Caucasus suffered a setback on May 12 when the European Union, which was expected to be the Stability Pact�s chief sponsor, made clear it would not support such an undertaking. EU officials told a hearing on the subject in Brussels organized by the Political Affairs Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe that the bloc�s neighborhood policy would make a separate Stability Pact redundant. Representatives of the three countries of the region also appeared lukewarm in their support to the idea, which was first floated by regional leaders at the 1999 Istanbul summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Robert Liddell, a senior official of the EU�s executive European Commission told the May 12 hearing he �does not see much difference� between the mooted Stability Pact and the EU�s own neighborhood policy (ENP). He pointed out that "If you then build in other aspects of the European Union policy, of [its] security strategy, and other aspects of the [EU] Common Foreign and Security Policy -- those may not be part of the ENP exactly, but they are flanking policies that lead to a total package from the European Union." Liddell said the ENP already embodies a statement of the EU's desire for stability, good governance and economic reforms in the region.

Speaking on behalf EU member states, the bloc's recently appointed special representative for the South Caucasus, Peter Semneby, discouraged parallels with the successful, EU-backed Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe. Semneby said most progress made in the Balkan countries would not have been possible without the "overwhelming incentive" of EU membership which those countries have -- unlike the three South Caucasus states. "[An] EU membership perspective is not present in the Southern Caucasus unlike the Balkans. It is indeed the European membership perspective that has played the most important role in the Balkans in terms of reforms that have been undertaken," Semneby said.

Semneby also noted the South Caucasus is far more unstable than the Western Balkans, pointing to its lingering "frozen conflicts" and the continuing Russian involvement which he said creates "many problems."

Both Semneby and Commission representative Liddell hinted that the EU also prefers to see the South Caucasus in a wider context. This is partly due to the active interest taken in the region by key countries such as the United States, Russia, Turkey and Iran. But the EU's evolving quest for energy security also plays an important role. Liddell said the EU views the Black Sea region as integrally linked to the Caspian Sea and the energy reserves in Central Asia.

The representatives of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan present at the May 12 hearing appeared to give the idea of a Stability Pact at best lukewarm support. Georgia's ambassador to the EU, Salome Samadashvili, said her country is keen to follow its own path towards integration with the EU and NATO, unencumbered by regional commitments.

"We do see ourselves as the crucial link between the -- if you wish -- the more stable Black Sea region, and the Southern Caucasus, and we are ready to do what we can in order to strengthen stability in the region, strengthen regional cooperation. However, as the Georgian government has mentioned many times, we will not be captive of any regional approach, and Georgian society will move forward steadily on the course which it has chosen [pursuing closer links with the EU and NATO]," Samadashvili said.

Armenia and Azerbaijan spoke in favor of a more regionally oriented view. However, both made cooperation conditional on progress in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. Varuzhan Nessissian, head of the Armenian foreign ministry's department for the OSCE, said his country sees mainly economic benefits in a possible Stability Pact. But, he said, Armenia's support for the project remains "qualified," and will depend on its acceptance by other countries, as well as a promise of eventual EU membership.

"We do believe in Armenia that such an arrangement [that is, a Stability Pact] is possible and workable if at least two preconditions are met. First, there must be strong political will on the part of the countries in the region to enter into [a] long-term stability arrangement, notwithstanding existing problems between some of them. Second, as in the case of [the] Stability Pact for the Balkans, there should be some concrete and eventual European prospect [that is, a promise of EU membership] in a reasonable time frame. With these two in place, the Stability Pact for the South Caucasus has a chance to happen."

Azerbaijan's ambassador to the EU, Arif Mammadarov, said Armenia's withdrawal from Azerbaijani territory is key to any prospects of regional cooperation. "Without [the] fundamental principle [of] respect for each other within our identified territories, which is internationally recognized territories, without this principle, without recognizing each other['s] houses, to be good neighbors is impossible. The first principle is [the] recognition of [the] internationally recognized borders of each other," Mammadarov said.

Although the EU appears to have dashed hopes for a South Caucasus Stability Pact, its involvement in the region will grow significantly with the impending signature of neighborhood policy action plans with Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. The EU is also likely to increase its funding for the three countries significantly from 2007 onwards. (Ahto Lobjakas)

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK. "Liberalising the economy is quick -- you just cut the ropes that constrain private business. Building a judicial system is a much longer process. It is like a good cognac - you can't make it in two months or even two years. All you can do in that time is a surrogate." --Georgian State Minister for Economic Reform Kakha Bendukidze, quoted by the "Financial Times" on May 16.