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Caucasus Report: October 6, 2006

October 6, 2006, Volume 9, Number 34

GEORGIA: SOLANA FEARS KOSOVO 'PRECEDENT' FOR ABKHAZIA, SOUTH OSSETIA. EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana on October 4 acknowledged that Kosovo's campaign for independence could set a precedent for Georgia's breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Solana also said the European Union could not meet a request made by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili for peacekeepers, but that Brussels is actively trying to "build confidence" between Moscow and Tbilisi.

Solana told the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee in Brussels on October 4 that during a recent phone conversation, Saakashvili had confessed to "tremendous worry" about the possible consequences that ongoing UN-sponsored Kosovo status talks could have for Georgia.

The Serbian province is seeking independence for its 2 million citizens, more than 90 percent of whom are ethnic Albanians. Belgrade is staunchly opposed, but international negotiations -- begun earlier this year -- seem destined to end in eventual independence.

Solana indicated that he, too, considers it possible that independence for Kosovo could have a negative effect on Georgia's territorial integrity, acknowledging it would set a "precedent."

"We are trapped here," he said. "President Saakashvili is trapped, all of us are trapped in a double mechanism that may have good consequences for one, but not for the other. It may not be a win-win situation -- although we should be able to look [for] and find a win-win solution. But it will not be easy."

The United States and the European Union both expect that Kosovo will achieve independence. Russia has warned that if Kosovo becomes independent, it will push for the secession of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Tensions between Russia and Georgia are running high. Moscow has blocked all transportation and postal links between the two countries in a continuing dispute over Tbilisi's arrest on September 27 of four Russian military officers on spying charges.

Solana also said today he himself is worried about "the manner in which Saakashvili is concerned about" the issue, but did not elaborate.

Solana said the EU will continue to stand up for Georgia's territorial integrity.

Solana said Saakashvili had also "complained" about the format of the negotiations it is currently involved in with South Ossetia -- where it is faced by Russia and its autonomous area of North Ossetia alongside South Ossetia.

According to Solana, Saakashvili would prefer the format used in Moldova for talks with Transdniester, where the European Union and the United States participate as observers, and Ukraine is also a participant.

But, Solana said, "for the moment it is difficult to do that," adding that the talks framework for Moldova "is not working very well either."

Responding to a question by Estonian deputy Toomas Hendrik Ilves suggesting the EU send peacekeepers to Georgia, Solana also said Saakashvili had made that request during their conversation.

However, Solana said no. He said today it would be a "very difficult decision" for the EU, and that the EU could not respond positively "at the moment." France, Germany, Italy, and a number of other EU member states have long blocked moves to send EU monitors to Georgia's borders, in fear of angering Russia.

Solana noted that sending EU peacekeepers might not be "the best solution" for Georgia in any case. "I mean, for the moment, we have to see what is the best solution for the security of Georgia," he said. "[It] may not be peacekeepers, [it] may be something different. But I think to begin committing European peacekeepers there is something that I would not do at this moment. I said what I told you, I told him [Saakashvili]."

The EU foreign-policy chief did not specify what alternative solutions he might have in mind. He did say the EU would continue talking to both Moscow and Tbilisi about the crisis, in a bid to restore confidence. (Ahto Lobjakas)

GEORGIA: EU URGES 'CONFIDENCE BUILDING' WITH SEPARATISTS. Officials in Brussels are taking a markedly critical line toward Georgia in their analyses of the country's most recent flare-up of tensions with Russia.

Although the EU has urged Russia to lift its blockade of Georgia, the EU's special representative for the South Caucasus, Peter Semneby, said on October 5 that the current crisis is the "culmination" of a long process of escalation.

At the root of the troubles between Georgia and Russia lie the "frozen conflicts" of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. And while the EU is critical of Russia's lack of constructive engagement, Georgia's role is coming under sharper scrutiny.

Semneby told the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee on October 5 that the while the EU "keeps sending messages" to Georgia that the conflicts can only be resolved peacefully, Tbilisi appears to be paying little heed when it comes to creating the necessary conditions for moving forward.

"In addition to that, in order to create the conditions for resolving the conflicts by peaceful means, the rhetoric that has been at some points fairly sharp on the part of some Georgian officials will have to be toned down and will have instead to be replaced by confidence-building measures of various kinds to create the conditions for a real dialogue between Georgians and Ossetians and [the] Abkhaz," Semneby said.

As an illustration of the rhetoric he has in mind, Semneby said massive international pressure headed by EU foreign-policy coordinator Javier Solana was needed to "moderate" the speech Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili gave to the UN General Assembly in New York in September. As a result of the pressure, Saakashvili decided against publicly laying down "timelines" for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Semneby today acknowledged as "legitimate" Georgia's attempts to replace Russian peacekeepers in the separatist regions with international forces, and to change the format of peace talks -- which are perceived by some to be tilted against Tbilisi.

But, Semneby said, the Georgian approach contains "serious weaknesses." He said it has been presented in ways that are "unnecessarily provocative" toward Russia. The Georgian plans also do not address the need to "build confidence," nor has there been a commitment to withhold from using force, nor any clear indications as to how Tbilisi would deal with the "security vacuum" that would result from a sudden withdrawal of peacekeepers.

Semneby noted that Georgia's peace plans for both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, unveiled last year and early this year, respectively, have stalled. The reason, according to Semneby, is the removal of the "relatively moderate" Georgian chief negotiators.

The EU special representative also warned of further dangers.

"It has to be said that the conflict potential in the Caucasus is far from exhausted," Semneby said. "Indeed, there are several other large minorities in Georgia, which means that as long as prosperity has not been more evenly distributed within Georgia, the country contains potential for further conflicts."

Semneby noted that a greater focus on minority issues within Georgia itself would also send a strong and useful "message of reassurance" to the populations of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Semneby warned today that what he called a "critical juncture" is fast approaching with the scheduled renewal of the UNOMIG peacekeeping force in Abkhazia. He said the force is dependent on a Russian-dominated local operation for security, which Russia may choose to discontinue. Semneby said both Russia and Georgia appear to have difficult demands. Russia wants Georgia to remove its forces from the upper Kodori Gorge, the only part of Abkhazia presently controlled by the Georgian government. Georgia, in turn, wants the UN mission to include a police component and human rights monitors in Georgian-populated southern Abkhazia.

Semneby today reiterated that the EU rejects attempts to link the future of the Albanian-dominated Serbian province of Kosovo with those of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He said the circumstances differed to make the cases "unique." However, Semneby also confirmed the EU would not send peacekeepers to either breakaway Georgian region, nor press for observer status during their peace talks. He said EU assistance is going to remain limited to assisting "confidence building," rehabilitation of areas that have suffered from conflict, and refugee return and aid to internally displaced persons.

The relative absence of any criticism of Russia in Semneby's remarks today may be explained by the fact that his remit only covers the South Caucasus.

Most European deputies in Semneby's audience, on the other hand, where not as reticent. Charles Tannock, speaking for the right-wing European People's Party faction, attacked Russia's practice of handing out its citizenship to Abkhaz and South Ossetian populations. He noted that as the EU has agreed to ease its visa rules for Russians, this could result in a "paradox" in which Georgians could find it more difficult to visit the EU than Abkhaz or South Ossetians carrying Russian passports.

Accordingly, Tannock said, the EU should withhold recognition of such Russian passports.

"I am suggesting that one way forward might be that we would not recognize those passports as having the same validity as those Russian passport holders who are resident in the territory of the Russian Federation," Tannock said. "Somehow we need to prevent these Russian citizens, or these so-called Russian citizens living in the 'frozen conflict' territories from enjoying privileges which were not intended for them but were intended for the Russians who actually reside in Russia proper." (Ahto Lobjakas)

ARMENIA, AZERBAIJAN AGREE TO RESUME DIRECT TALKS. The foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan will meet in Moscow on October 6 for face-to-face peace talks that could be followed by another crucial Armenian-Azerbaijani summit on Nagorno-Karabakh, international mediators said on October 3.

The senior French, Russian, and U.S. diplomats co-chairing the OSCE Minsk Group made the announcement after talks with the leaders of the two states. They were in Baku on October 2 and were scheduled to meet with the Armenian leadership of Karabakh in Stepanakert the next day in their latest round of shuttle diplomacy.

Speaking at a joint news conference in Yerevan, the mediators said Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian and his Azerbaijani counterpart Elmar Mammadyarov will likely hold another round of negotiations next week in an attempt to kick-start the deadlocked peace process.

In the words of Bernard Fassier, the group's French co-chair, the two ministers will specifically look into the possibility of organizing yet another meeting of their presidents. Fassier and his American and Russian colleagues refused to speculate on the chances of a breakthrough.

"We are not saying that we are on the verge of a grand breakthrough or that the difficult problems have gotten any easier," said, Matthew Bryza, the U.S. co-chair. "But we do sense a willingness by the sides to think in a deeper way and to look for a way to move ahead."

Oskanian and Mammadyarov were already scheduled to meet in New York late last month on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. Oskanian effectively cancelled the meeting in protest against the assembly's decision to discuss the conflicts in Karabakh and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union during its ongoing session. Armenia is strongly opposed to any UN involvement in Karabakh talks.

The issue was included on the assembly agenda at the insistence of Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova, which make up a loose grouping of former Soviet republics known as GUAM. They are expected to submit a relevant resolution to the body this fall.

Bryza indicated that the United States will oppose any GUAM resolutions that would blame the Armenian side and run counter to the main points of a framework peace deal disclosed by the Minsk Group in June. "If the GUAM states put forward a resolution that is not balanced, that is not fair, that is accusatory, or simply doesn't call for a settlement based on the basic principles we've articulated, it won't be helpful and we won't like it," he said.

The mediators favor a gradual resolution of the Karabakh dispute that would lead to a referendum on the disputed enclave's status after the liberation of surrounding Azerbaijani districts controlled by Armenian forces. They made it clear on October 3 that this formula remains at the heart of their revised peace proposals. "We still believe that our basic principles that we have articulated provide the best hope for a fair, just, and lasting settlement," Bryza said.

Presidents Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan and Robert Kocharian of Armenia were widely expected to accept those principles as a basis for a more comprehensive peace accord during two rounds of intensive negotiations earlier this year. However, the talks yielded no agreement, all but dashing hopes for the conflict's settlement before the end of this year.

Aliyev has since repeatedly ruled out any settlement that would stop short of restoring Azerbaijani control over Karabakh. He reportedly reaffirmed this stance in an address to the Azerbaijani parliament on October 2. Azerbaijani media quoted him as saying that Baku is under pressure to accept a deal "contradicting the interests of our people."

"Some forces wonder why the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict has still not be solved," Aliyev said, according to the Trend news agency. "This is so because we are not opting for agreements that are not acceptable to us."

Bryza refused to comment on this, saying that there are discrepancies between remarks attributed to the Azerbaijani leader by various Azerbaijani media outlets.

Aliyev was also quoted by AFP as also pledging to "increase pressure on Armenia." "Otherwise they are not likely to give back our territories. We must be ready for war," he said, according to the French news agency.

Bryza reiterated in that regard the mediators' view that "there is no military settlement to the Karabakh conflict." (Emil Danielyan)

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK. "The rhetoric...on the part of some Georgian officials will have to be toned down and will have instead to be replaced by confidence-building measures of various kinds to create the conditions for a real dialogue between Georgians and Ossetians and [the] Abkhaz." EU special representative for the South Caucasus Peter Semneby, in a report to the EU Foreign Affairs Committee on October 5, 2006. (RFE/RL)