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Caucasus Report: June 2, 2006

June 2, 2006, Volume 9, Number 19

ARMENIAN, AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENTS TO MEET IN BUCHAREST. Armenian President Robert Kocharian will fly to Romania on June 4 to attend a summit of Black Sea states and resume talks on Nagorno-Karabakh with his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev. Kocharian's office confirmed on June 2 that the meeting with Aliyev, the second in four months, will take place on June 5 on the sidelines of the forum.

The two leaders are facing growing pressure from mediators to reach a framework agreement on a gradual settlement of the Karabakh conflict. The mediators appear to regard the Bucharest meeting as their last chance to broker a compromise solution to the dispute in the near future. High-ranking diplomats from France, Russia, and the United States, together with the three co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group, underlined their high expectations on a joint visit to Baku and Yerevan last week. They emphasized in a statement that "now is the time for the sides to reach agreement on the basic principles of a settlement." "We are at the point where a mutually beneficial agreement is achievable," the mediators said, noting substantial progress made in Armenian-Azerbaijani peace talks in the last two years.

A statement by Kocharian's press service said the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents will start their talks in the presence of their foreign ministers, the Minsk Group co-chairs and the OSCE's current chairman-in-office, Belgian Foreign Minister Karel de Gucht. "The two heads of state will then continue their conversation in a tete-a-tete format," the statement said.

Aliyev and Kocharian are expected to try to cut a peace deal that would enable Karabakh's predominantly Armenian population to determine the region's status in a referendum. The referendum would reportedly be held at least one decade after the start of a gradual Armenian pullout from six of the seven Azerbaijani districts surrounding Karabakh.

The conflicting parties were believed to have agreed on the key terms of such a deal ahead of the last Aliyev-Kocharian encounter that took place at the chateau of Rambouillet near Paris on February 10-11. However, the Rambouillet talks failed to produce any written agreement. Aliyev has since repeatedly declared that Azerbaijan will never agree to Karabakh's independence or reunification with Armenia.

In a May 28 address to the nation, Aliyev also reiterated his view that time is on Azerbaijan's side. "Armenia will not be able to compete with Azerbaijan in the future," he said. "They should think thoroughly, look a bit further ahead and see that the gap between Azerbaijan and Armenia is growing in all spheres. Our budget has reached $4.5 billion this year and will increase even more next year."

Aliyev seems to be facing more international pressure to embrace a compromise settlement than Kocharian, though. French President Jacques Chirac reportedly pressed him during a meeting in Paris on May 30 to a pursue a "peaceful, negotiated settlement" in a meeting in Paris. Chirac had already urged Aliyev in a written message sent to Baku a few days earlier not to miss the "unique opportunity" for Karabakh peace. The Azerbaijani leader also received last week a letter from U.S. President George W. Bush that contained a similar wish. There have been no reports of Bush or Chirac communicating with Kocharian in recent weeks. (Emil Danielyan)

ARMENIAN PARLIAMENT ELECTS NEW SPEAKER. The Armenian parliament elected Tigran Torosian, a close ally of Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, as its new speaker on June 1, completing the removal of his predecessor Artur Baghdasarian's Orinats Yerkir party from the ruling coalition. The National Assembly voted for Torosian by 94 to 1, in line with an agreement reached by President Robert Kocharian and leaders of his loyal parliament majority on May 29.

Torosian, 50, is a senior member of Markarian's Republican Party (HHK), which has the largest faction in the parliament and is the biggest of the three parties represented in Armenia's government. An engineer by training, he previously served as deputy parliament speaker.

"We are faced with very difficult problems and serious challenges," Torosian said in his acceptance speech. "I am sure that those of our colleagues who did not take part in the election agree that we are facing such challenges," he added, referring to the opposition minority that boycotted the vote.

Baghdasarian said before the secret ballot that he and eight other lawmakers remaining in the Orinats Yerkir faction will unanimously vote for Torosian, praising his former deputy as "one of the few professionals in our parliament." "I think that his personal and professional qualities make him fit to run the National Assembly," said the ex-speaker.

Opposition deputies who took part in a debate preceding the vote also commended those qualities, but claimed that Torosian will not make any difference in the Armenian political stage in his new capacity. They dismissed the parliament as a rubber stamp body that has little impact on government policies. "Do you believe that the chairman of the National Assembly is the number two figure in the country?" asked Grigor Harutiunian of the Artarutiun alliance, arguing that Torosian's election was decided by Kocharian.

"Naturally, the president of the republic too must have a role in political processes," countered Torosian.

In his speech, the new speaker said one of the key challenges facing Armenia is to holding "democratic elections" next year and in 2008. And in a thinly veiled reference to the growing involvement of government-connected "oligarchs" in politics, he urged the country's main political groups to prevent a possible collapse of the "multi-party system." (Ruzanna Khachatrian)

HOW CLOSE IS GEORGIA TO NATO MEMBERSHIP? On May 11, the Georgian Parliament passed a resolution expressing support for the country's aspirations to NATO membership. And three weeks later, on May 30, NATO's Parliamentary Assembly adopted a resolution noting Georgia's "significant progress" in implementing the goals set out in the Individual Partnership Action Plan endorsed in late 2004 and calling for the beginning of Intensive Dialogue -- the next stage in cooperation -- with Georgia. But Georgia's chances of joining NATO before President Mikheil Saakashvili's first presidential term expires in January 2009 are nonetheless slim, if not non-existent.

Accession first to NATO and then at some later date to the EU has been one of the cornerstones of Georgian foreign policy ever since the advent to power of a young and enthusiastically pro-Western leadership in the wake of the so-called Rose Revolution of November 2003. But Georgia's chances of joining NATO have been clouded over the past 18 months by significant inconsistencies in defense policy apparently dictated by the need to resolve the deadlocked conflicts with the breakaway unrecognized republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and by growing misgivings over the new leadership's seemingly cavalier attitude to Western standards of democracy and human rights.

For example, the downsizing of the armed forces advocated in the late 1990s by the International Security Advisory Board (ISAB) of Western advisers has been reversed. The ISAB noted in its report for 2005 that plans to raise the number of brigades to four and increase the size of the reserve force "represent an increase of 25-30 percent on the figures enshrined in the original IPAP and "raise questions of affordability" (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," July 22, 2005). That planned increase in manpower is difficult to reconcile with the pledge enshrined in Georgia's IPAP to seek a peaceful, not a military, solution to the conflicts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and with Saakashvili's argument, cited in a May 4 article in "Jane's Defense Weekly," that Georgia needs small, efficient armed forces that can inter-operate with NATO troops. Nor is it clear, despite extensive U.S. financial assistance and training, whether the Georgian armed forces as a whole, rather than just one or two individual crack brigades, meet NATO standards.

Some skeptics have questioned the rationale for the intensive program of training reservists that got under way in late 2004. Military lawyer Shalva Tadumadze of the NGO Law and Freedom told Caucasus Press in February 2005 that the training program as then constituted was of no practical benefit, and a waste of money. But Giorgi Tavdgiridze, who was dismissed as rector of the Georgian Military Academy when that body was closed last year, made the point at a conference in Tbilisi in March 2006 that the reservist battalions are headed by members of President Saakashvili's United National Movement (GEM) and could theoretically be deployed to defend its hold on power. "What we are witnessing today is the formation of the ruling party's armed units on tax payers' money," Caucasus Press on March 23 quoted him as saying. One month earlier, when a GEM member was named to head the National Guard, Tavdgiridze expressed similar fears that the guard could mutate into "the military wing of the National Movement."

In addition, while funding for the armed forces has been raised substantially since 2003, little information on how those funds were spent was made available until last month, when Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili provided a breakdown of expenditures for 2005. Okruashvili's detractors have accused him of spending millions of dollars at his own discretion, without subsequently accounting for how those funds were used.

Visiting Tbilisi in late May, Robert Simmons, who is the special representative of the NATO secretary-general for the South Caucasus and Central Asia, positively assessed Georgia's progress in recent months in implementing defense and security reform, but added that this process was a "difficult" one, Caucasus Press reported on May 25. Simmons also noted that other aspects of the IPAP still need to be addressed, specifically developing an inventory of both manpower and equipment and ensuring budget funds are spent effectively. Unnamed Western officials cited by "Jane's Defense Weekly" focused on those IPAP requirements that address domestic politics and human rights, and questioned "whether Georgia is really a democracy."

In his annual address to parliament in February of this year, President Saakashvili confidently predicted that Georgia will receive a formal invitation to join NATO this year and "has a very good chance" of being accepted into the alliance, along with Ukraine, in 2008. But NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Sofia in April that the NATO summit in Riga in November will not take any decisions on the next round of enlargement, although candidates instead, including Georgia and Ukraine, will receive an unspecified "signal," according to a report on NATO's website ( Ukraine has already embarked on the Intensified Dialogue that is intended as a preliminary to a Membership Action Plan (MAP).

Moreover, in the two previous rounds of NATO enlargement there has been an interval of up to two years between the issuing of a formal invitation to begin accession talks (made to Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic at the NATO summit in Madrid in 1997, and to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, and Romania at the Prague summit in 2002) and those countries' formal acceptance into membership (in 1999 and 2004 respectively). And three more countries -- Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia -- are in the process of implementing their respective MAPs and are thus ahead of Georgia and Ukraine in the "queue"; they were identified in the final document adopted at the Istanbul summit on 2004, and again in Sofia in April, as the most likely next candidates for admission.

So, assuming that Georgia does not receive a formal invitation to begin accession talks in 2006, and that, as has been past practice, such invitations are formalized at a NATO summit, the soonest Georgia could expect to receive such an invitation would be 2008, with membership possibly following in 2010. Georgia may nonetheless be hoping to persuade Washington, and other NATO members, that its situation is unique, and that in light of the perceived threat Russia poses to Georgia, Georgia should be exempted from the normal procedure. But decisions within NATO are taken by consensus, and it is debatable how many of its 26 members would be prepared to antagonize Russia by bending the rules in Georgia's case.

Both Simmons and the May 30 NATO Parliamentary Assembly resolution registered Georgia's desire to make the transition from IPAP to Intensified Dialogue and then to MAP. But while Simmons declined to specify any timeframe for doing so, the assembly resolution called for NATO governments to decide "as soon as possible, and preferably by summer 2006," on beginning an Intensified Dialogue. It did not, however, suggest when Georgia might make the transition from Intensified Dialogue to MAP. Whether the prospect of an imminent Intensified Dialogue will serve as an incentive to the Georgian authorities to take decisive action to curtail human rights violations, especially on the part of the Interior Ministry, and to step up efforts to achieve a peaceful solution to the Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflicts remains to be seen. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK. "I am deeply convinced that the Chechen conflict, and a conflict in the northern Caucasus overall, can be solved only through peaceful negotiations. We will continue to seek peace and I am sure there is no other way out. I think the Russian authorities also clearly understand this and that there are more and more people in Russia who seek a peaceful solution. I know that officials of the Russian government discuss this problem, not to mention nongovernmental organizations." -- Chechen Foreign Minister Akhmed Zakayev, interviewed by RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service on May 28.