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Caucasus Report: May 16, 2005

16 May 2005, Volume 8, Number 16

BUSH GIVES GEORGIA HALF A LOAF. U.S. President George W. Bush's pronouncements during his 9-10 May visit to Tbilisi were significant primarily for what he did not say. As anticipated, Bush expressed praise and approval for the November 2003 Rose Revolution; for the aspirations of the Georgian people to build on that foundation a new and democratic state; for the new Georgian leadership's success in cracking down on corruption and implementing badly needed reforms; and for President Mikheil Saakashvili personally, whose "spirit, determination, and leadership in the cause of freedom" Bush singled out for special mention.

Further, Bush endorsed Georgia's territorial integrity and Saakashvili's professed commitment to achieving a peaceful solution to the conflicts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia; he termed "very reasonable" Saakashvili's offer to those regions of broad autonomy, self-government, and economic cooperation. But, at the same time, Bush made it clear that Washington cannot and will not intervene to impose a peace settlement nor, apparently, will it lean on Russia to scale back its support for the leaders of the two breakaway unrecognized republics. "This is a dispute that has got to be resolved by the Georgian government and by the folks in the separatist regions. The United States cannot impose a solution nor would you want us to," Reuters quoted Bush as saying.

Moreover, on two other key issues on which Saakashvili had made clear he hoped for a statement of Washington's support, Bush was cautious and equivocal. First, Bush said during a joint press conference with Saakashvili on 10 May that Russia is ready to work with the Georgian side on the problem of the closure of its two remaining military bases from Georgia, thereby implying that the failure during talks last week between the Russian and Georgian foreign ministers to finalize an agreement on that closure was due at least in part to Tbilisi's intransigence. Bush added that "I know that this issue is very important for Georgia, and Russia is ready to fulfill its commitments at the [1999] OSCE Istanbul Summit related to [the] withdrawal of its bases." Saakashvili had said last week he had asked Bush to raise the issue of the bases with Russian President Vladimir Putin, apparently hoping that Bush would pressure Moscow to comply with Tbilisi's demands that the two bases be closed by 1 January 2008.

Second, Bush told Georgians congregated on Freedom Square on 10 May that the U.S. supports Georgia's "desire to join the institutions of Europe" and encourages "close cooperation with NATO," but he stopped short of endorsing unequivocally Georgia's desire for NATO membership. Similarly, in an interview two days earlier with the independent television station Rustavi-2, Bush had stressed that neither Georgia nor Ukraine should expect to be admitted to NATO "overnight." Georgia's Individual Partnership Action Plan -- the document that enumerates the measures the country must take to qualify to make a formal request for membership in the alliance, the initial draft of which President Saakashvili presented to NATO in April 2004 -- had to be reworked extensively before its formal approval last fall.

The precise geopolitical implications of President Bush's circumspect phrasing may not have been clear to some Georgians who simply construed his one-day visit to Tbilisi as a gesture of U.S. support and goodwill. But it was greeted with some satisfaction in Moscow. Russian State Duma International Affairs Committee Chairman Konstantin Kosachev, for example, was quoted by Interfax on 11 May as saying he believes Bush failed to deliver the degree of support the Georgian leadership was hoping for. He added that the United States "has repeatedly played a constructive role in the context of Georgian-Russian relations by restraining Georgian emotions" which, Kosachev claimed, are becoming increasingly heated.

Stratfor, however, in an 11 May analysis reports that while Bush's public statements gave the impression that for Washington, relations with Georgia do not warrant any step that could jeopardize the more important relationship Bush has forged with Russia and with President Putin personally, Bush was more supportive of Georgia's objectives in private talks with Georgian leaders. At the same time, Stratfor quoted unnamed Georgian government sources as saying that, as Kosachev implied, Bush sought to persuade Saakashvili to temper his aggressive pressure on Russia, on the grounds that domestic problems will, in the medium term, erode Russia's geo-political position and its ability to play spoiler in the South Caucasus.

"The Guardian" on 10 May highlighted a further element that may also have contributed to a reappraisal in Washington of relations with Tbilisi. The British paper quoted U.S. academic Professor Charles King as saying that the initial euphoria generated in Washington by the November 2003 Rose Revolution has given way to "greater realism," and to the realization that "democratic assistance is all very well, but you have to have a functioning country first." In that spirit, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is cited as having impressed on the Georgian leadership that improving living standards would help to persuade the populations of the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia of the benefits of renouncing their self-proclaimed independent status. (Liz Fuller)

TURKISH SCHOLAR DRAWS ON ARMENIAN ARCHIVES. Yeftan Turkyilmaz is the first Turkish scholar given access to Armenia's state archives relating to Ottoman history, and believes the reason for that is more simple than one would think. "There are no people in Turkey who can work with these archives," the young doctoral candidate explains in perfect Armenian. "I just don't know of any other Turkish scholar who speaks Armenian. That is the main obstacle."

Turkyilmaz, who was taught the language by an Armenian teacher in Istanbul, is pursuing a Ph.D. in history at the University of North Carolina. His doctoral thesis will focus on the creation and activities of Turkish, Kurdish and Armenian nationalist parties during the final decades of the Ottoman Empire. He began looking for relevant documents kept at the Armenian National Archive on 2 May and says he has had no trouble accessing and photocopying them. "Interestingly, people in Turkey believe that Armenia's archives are closed, especially for Turkish citizens," says Turkyilmaz. "That is not true. Here I am, easily working with them."

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to be one of those laboring under that misperception. As part of his government's efforts to counter international pressure for Turkish recognition of the 1915 mass killings and deportations of Ottoman Armenians as genocide, Erdogan has repeatedly stated in recent weeks that Ankara has declassified its Ottoman-era archives and urged Yerevan to follow suit.

Armenia, however, maintains that its archives have always been open to Turkish and other foreign researchers. "Many foreign scholars have used them to date and none of them was Turkish," an Armenian Foreign Ministry spokesman said just days before Turkyilmaz arrived in Yerevan.

The Armenian archive director, Amatuni Virabian, reiterated in an RFE/RL interview this week that any Turkish scholar can have unfettered access to its approximately 12,000 documents related to the mass killings. Most of them contain information on tens of thousands of massacre survivors who found refuge in Armenia between 1915 and 1918.

Turkyilmaz says that as far he is concerned, Virabian and other Armenian archive officials have been true to their words. "They have helped me a lot and I have no problems interacting with them," he tells RFE/RL.

Armenian historians, for their part, remain skeptical about Turkey's regular pledges to open its Ottoman-era archives. They also suggest that the Turkish archives have long been purged of any incriminating evidence. "Sadly, young people in Turkey know nothing about the subject," Turkyilmaz says. "All they know are nationalist things written in school textbooks. And because they lack that knowledge, they believe that the Armenians are plotting bad things against their country."

Will Turkey recognize the mass killings as genocide in the near future? "No, it won't," says the Turkish scholar. "But maybe future generations will tackle the subject in a more reasonable and calm manner." (Gayane Danielian)

CHECHENS: NEGLECTED ALLIES IN THE WAR ON TERRORISM. The current Russian government has missed an opportunity to cultivate a "potential ally" in the war on terrorism, according to an expert on the peoples of the North Caucasus. Because the Russian government is "indiscriminate" and "treats all Chechens as terrorists," it has fewer allies in its fight against terrorism, Chechen ethnographer Zalpa Bersanova told a recent RFE/RL audience.

According to Bersanova, the "emergence of terrorism" in Russia is "inextricably linked to the war in Chechnya," where Russian troops have engaged in human rights abuses and attacks against civilians. Bersanova, who has surveyed public attitudes among Chechens for a number of years, says her data shows that "over 79 percent of Chechens do not hold the Russian people responsible" for the "tragedy" that has befallen the Chechens, since they have concluded that "Russians don't have influence over the government of Russia."

Chechen society, Bersanova said, is "defined by customary laws and social traditions more than religion," and is opposed to the beliefs and practices of the terrorists. Her survey data shows that the "majority of Chechens say the greatest threat are Wahhabists," because "they contradict Chechen traditions, as well as Islam." In her survey, Bersanova found "no admiration" for the recent phenomenon of "shakhidki" (female suicide bombers) among Chechen women. These women have brought "shame on their families in Chechnya," according to Bersanova.

Although Chechens "are victims themselves, they nevertheless reject terrorism" and "see no justification for terrorist acts," Bersanova said. In her survey, Bersanova noted, "not one survey member approved of the taking of hostages at the Beslan elementary school." Bersanova also said that few media reports have noted that Chechen teachers offered to take the place of the children inside the school during the hostage crisis. Although they live in an area impoverished by war, Bersanova reported that many Chechens offered "one day's salary" to help the victims of Beslan, while many others waited hours to donate blood. (RFE/RL)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "I think we are seeing with Mr. Putin the final gasp of the Soviet era. The Soviet system is dead and the Soviet Union has disintegrated, but the Soviet elite still dominates Moscow, politically, and through Moscow, it dominates Russia. But that elite is increasingly fading from the scene. It is also increasingly self-isolated.... I expect that over the next several years, we'll see far-reaching changes in Russia. Especially when the younger, more genuinely post-Soviet elite begins to push to the top." -- Zbigniew Brzezinski, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, in a 7 May telephone interview with RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service.

"Part of the dilemma that Russia faces is that its nostalgia for an imperial status creates sustained and extensive hostility with all of its neighbors. It is impossible to mention a single neighbor of Russia with whom Russia has genuinely good relations. It is impossible to mention a single neighbor of Russia that likes Russia. And that is a problem which only the Russians can correct. It cannot be corrected for them by the Americans." (ibid.)

"The Kremlin must launch bold, difficult, long-term initiatives before it can hold fair elections in Chechnya and stabilize its increasingly shaky south. Mr. Putin needs to rebuild Chechnya's society and economy; restore effective government in the North Caucasus; counter the xenophobic trends in Russia's society and state; and seek the assistance of other governments and international organizations for rebuilding Chechnya. Moscow must rethink its entire strategy. World leaders should impress this fact on Mr. Putin without delay. It is in the West's interest as well as Russia's." -- From a commentary published in the "Financial Times" on 12 May.