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Caucasus Report: January 21, 2005

21 January 2005, Volume 8, Number 3

MOSCOW SHEDS LIGHT ON PRAGUE KARABAKH TALKS. In order not to risk jeopardizing any rapprochement that has been achieved, the participants in what has come to be known as the "Prague process" of ministerial level talks under the aegis of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group on approaches to resolving the Karabakh conflict have until now abided by a gentlemen's agreement not to divulge to the press the specific topics under discussion.

In line with that agreement, neither Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian nor his Azerbaijani counterpart Elmar Mammadyarov have divulged any details of their most recent talks in Prague on 10-11 January. But four days after those talks, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a press release ( listing specific issues under discussion, adding that on some of those issues the two sides' positions have become closer.

Speaking to RFE/RL's Armenian Service after meeting with Mammadyarov on 11 January, Oskanian characterized the mood of the talks as "positive." He said that "full agreement" has not yet been reached on the principles of a settlement, but that "there is a general framework of issues, but as this meeting showed, they need to be consolidated." He added that "it is still too early to disclose any details." Briefing journalists in Yerevan the following day, Oskanian predicted that settlement talks this year will be "quite intensive," thus marking a qualitative shift to a new, more serious phase of discussions. Noyan Tapan quoted him as saying that "all elements" related to a peaceful solution of the conflict are on the table, without listing those elements.

Oskanian further noted that Azerbaijani media frequently misrepresent the nature and focus of the talks, and that "everyone" -- presumably meaning both Mammadyarov and the U.S., Russian, and French co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group -- agree that "officials should be more circumspect when making statements."

On 13 January, Azerbaijani Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov similarly briefed journalists in Baku on the Prague talks. Azimov said that while Baku insists that any solution to the conflict must preserve Azerbaijan's territorial integrity, the restoration of territorial integrity alone will not solve all problems: in that context he mentioned specifically the future peaceful coexistence of the Armenian population of Karabakh and those Azerbaijanis who fled the region over a decade ago when the conflict first turned violent and hope to return there.

Azimov also listed issues that could form part of a hypothetical solution to the conflict. He said that if Armenian troops are withdrawn from Azerbaijani territory, Azerbaijan would be ready to restore economic and other relations with Armenia. He was quoted by as saying that "a little later, the question of the return to the region of the Azerbaijani population and the coexistence of the Armenian and Azerbaijani communities in Nagorno-Karabakh must be addressed. Once interregional ties and ties between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia [on the one hand] and the government of Azerbaijan are established, it will be possible to achieve a normalization of the situation and set about seeking a solution to other political questions." Whether Oskanian and Mammadyarov have discussed that specific sequence of events is not clear, however.

Azimov dismissed as "speculation" reports that the liberation of three of the seven districts of Azerbaijan currently under Armenian control is under discussion: he said that "in the course of the Prague process the question of liberating all seven districts surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh at the first stage is being discussed." According to, Azimov likewise denied that the possibility of holding a referendum in Nagorno-Karabakh on the region's future status was addressed in Prague, and he expressed regret that such "unreliable information" finds its way into the press. In an article published in "Le Figaro" last month, former Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio and Pierre Lellouche, who is NATO Parliamentary Assembly president, argued that the Karabakh conflict differs fundamentally from those in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transdniester, and that "the Europeans, Americans, and Russians should jointly defend a compromise [settlement] that would give Armenia temporary control of Karabakh in exchange for the withdrawal of Armenian forces from Azerbaijani territory, [with] the final status of Karabakh to be decided by its inhabitants in a referendum in five or 10 years' time."

The Russian Foreign Ministry press release listed among the "contentious issues" under discussion: the withdrawal of (Armenian) troops, demilitarization of the previously occupied territories, international security guarantees for the Armenian population of Karabakh, and the unrecognized republic's future status vis-a-vis Azerbaijan. The press release reaffirmed Moscow's readiness to contribute, together with the other two Minsk Group co-chairs, to "deepening the mutual understanding between Armenia and Azerbaijan" with a view to bringing about a peaceful solution to the conflict. (Liz Fuller)

WAITING TO EXHALE IN ABKHAZIA... The 12 January repeat presidential election in the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia has effectively demolished all doubts concerning the depth of popular support for Chernomorenergo head Sergei Bagapsh, who garnered a resounding 91 percent of the vote (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 and 14 January 2005). But concerns persist that Russia, which had unequivocally backed then Prime Minister Raul Khadjimba in the initial vote three months earlier, may still try to sideline or undercut Bagapsh.

The Central Election Commission on 11 October declared Bagapsh the winner of the 3 October presidential ballot with 50.08 percent of the vote. But Khadjimba challenged the validity of that ruling, alleging widespread fraud. Outgoing President Vladislav Ardzinba threw his weight behind Khadjimba and demanded that the commission annul its ruling and schedule a repeat ballot. Following weeks of protest demonstrations and counterdemonstrations by supporters of Khadjimba and Bagapsh, Moscow intervened and imposed an economic blockade on the republic, then sent emissaries to Sukhum to mediate a reconciliation between the two rival presidential challengers.

Under the Agreement on Measures to Attain National Accord signed on 6 December, the two men agreed to run as a team in a repeat ballot, with Bagapsh seeking the presidency and Khadjimba as his running mate. The Abkhaz parliament then amended the law on the presidency to augment, for the next presidential term only, the powers of the vice president (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 December 2004) . In that capacity, Khadjimba will assume responsibility for the police, defense, security, and foreign policy.

But Ardzinba, together with Khadjimba's successor as prime minister, former Russian Emergency Situations Ministry official Nodar Khashba, did all in their power to undermine Bagapsh both in the run-up to the repeat ballot on 12 January and on polling day. On the eve of the elections, several hitherto pro-Khadjimba political parties, including the Apsny party of President Ardzinba, the Union of Defenders of the Motherland, and the Social Democratic Party of Abkhazia formed last fall by former Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba, called for the postponement of the repeat presidential election on the grounds that the time frame allocated was too short to ensure the holding of truly free and fair elections, and that holding the election could give rise to even greater tensions within society (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 and 11 January 2005).

In an apparent bid to lower voter turnout below the required 50 percent minimum and then declare the ballot invalid, it was announced early on 12 January that voters would not be permitted to use the temporary identity documents that many of them had acquired in the run-up to the 3 October poll; those documents were valid only for two months. And members of the presidential security forces were dispatched to Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion, whose largely Georgian population had voted overwhelmingly for Bagapsh on 3 October, where they cordoned off some polling stations and intimidated would-be voters. Bagapsh condemned that interference, but neither he nor his sole challenger, People's Party head Yurii Lakoba, lodged any formal complaint with the election commission, which dismissed the interference in Gali as "insignificant." On 13 January, Bagapsh told journalists that he planned to ask Ardzinba to agree to schedule his inauguration as president earlier than on the 30th day after the official announcement by the election commission of the final election returns, which is the latest possible date permitted under the amended election law. Bagapsh met with Ardzinba on 15 January, but apparently failed to persuade him to agree to his desired timeframe; Apsnipress reported on 15 January that the inauguration ceremony is planned for 14 February. Three days later, however, Interfax quoted Bagapsh as saying the ceremony will take place on 12 February.

Bagapsh has nonetheless already moved to form a government of national reconciliation, which will be headed by his running mate in the October election, former Abkhaz Interior Minister Aleksandr Ankvab. Ankvab's vowed determination to crack down on criminal clans who grew rich on the basis of privatization deals of dubious legality resonated with many Abkhaz struggling to make ends meet. But in the wake of the 12 January ballot, Ankvab was swift to explain that there will be no wholesale confiscation of privatized assets, a promise probably intended to reassure Russian businessmen who have invested heavily in Abkhazia's ramshackle but potentially lucrative tourist infrastructure.

Bagapsh stressed repeatedly in his postelection statements that he hopes for cooperation and friendly relations with Russia and will work for "a deepening of integration processes with the Russian Federation, attracting investment, and keeping borders open," according to "Gazeta" on 14 January. At least in the short term, however, Russia remains in a position to blackmail the new Abkhaz leadership with the threat of an economic blockade similar to that it imposed temporarily in late November-early December.

But trying to undercut Bagapsh too far could prove counterproductive, insofar as Khadjimba no longer appears a realistic alternative -- if indeed he ever was. Many of the political parties that supported Khadjimba's presidential bid in October withdrew their support after he aligned with Bagapsh and came out in favor of a boycott of the repeat ballot, "Trud" noted. True, Khadjimba now has powers almost as extensive as that of the president; but he may have little support either within the parliament, or the new government, or among the population at large. Whether such considerations are likely to deter Moscow from attempting to manipulate the postelection situation to its advantage remains an open question.

There may also be local factions out to undermine Bagapsh for their own ends by fuelling tensions in Gali. On the eve of the 12 January election, an Abkhaz armed group (whether police or irregulars is not clear) seized 11 Georgians in the village on Ganmukhuri in Georgia's Zugdidi Raion. Seven of the hostages were released on 13 January, and the others two days later, following the intervention of the UN Observer Mission in Georgia. (Liz Fuller)

...AND INGUSHETIA. Local and federal Interior Ministry troops launched a major security operation in Ingushetia on 11 January, searching homes, apartments, and hostels for displaced persons across the republic and checking identification documents, reported on 15 January quoting Interfax. Over 60 people were detained in the course of the four-day crackdown, during which the Republic of Ingushetia's borders with Chechnya, North Ossetia, and Kabardino-Balkaria were sealed. Ten of the detainees are suspected of belonging to illegal armed formations, 20 were on the all-Russian "wanted" list, and 30 were suspected on having committed various crimes. Police discovered several weapons caches and confiscated six antitank guns, 15 grenades, a grenade launcher and some 4,000 cartridges. Over 10,000 vehicles were checked, of which 15 were found to have been stolen.

The Ingushetian Interior Ministry claimed that police acted "correctly" throughout the searches, and did not violate citizens' constitutional rights. But Svetlana Gannushkina, who is a member of Russian President Vladimir Putin's Council to Promote the Development of Civil Society, disputed that claim. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 17 January quoted her as describing how armed men forced their way into the information office of the Council of NGOs and threatened members of its staff; the office director was summoned for questioning the following day by the Federal Security Service branch in Magas, the republican capital.

Gannushkina further told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" that "the whole republic is being turned upside down." She said that most of the persons detained were Chechens who were not registered as temporarily resident in Ingushetia. Ingushetian parliament deputy Magomed-Sali Aushev, who heads the republican branch of the Peace Party, was quoted in the same "Nezavisimaya gazeta" article as saying that people cannot comprehend why an estimated 1,500-2,000 additional troops were deployed to Ingushetia for the operation. He said people are in a state of terror, anticipating mass reprisals, while the elder generation say the current situation is reminiscent of the wave of arrests that preceded that the mass deportations of Chechens and Ingush to Central Asia in 1944. Aushev said the republic's leadership has not made any official statement that would allay the widespread fears. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK. "Russia is missing out on another phase of historic development. The worst foreign-policy danger boils down to the fact that we do not channel money and effort into the modernization of human resources, into the health and education of the nation, into new technologies. Russia is like a junkie, oil being the stuff it cannot do without. Russia is dooming itself to the status of some Latin American country at best -- with colossal resources and a foul climate." -- Political analyst Sergei Karaganov, quoted in "Nezavisimaya gazeta-Dipkurier," No. 16 (79), December 2004.