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Caucasus Report: May 20, 2005

20 May 2005, Volume 8, Number 17

GEORGIAN PARLIAMENT SPEARHEADS CAMPAIGN FOR CLOSURE OF RUSSIAN MILITARY BASES. If -- and it is a very large "if" -- Russia and Georgia finally reach a consensus at their talks in Tbilisi on 23 May on the final timeframe for the closure of Russia's two remaining military bases in Georgia, the Georgian parliament will be in a position to claim much of the credit. Conversely, the legislature will also risk being branded responsible if such an agreement again proves elusive.

Since agreeing at the November 1999 OSCE summit in Istanbul to close two of its four military bases in Georgia by mid-2001, the Russian leadership gradually and grudgingly, under pressure from the international community and successive Georgian leaderships, reduced the time it claims is needed to close the two remaining bases -- in Batumi and Akhalkalaki -- from 15 years, which Georgia rejected (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 December 2000) to eight years (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 3 January 2003). In February, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov traveled to Tbilisi for talks with his Georgian counterpart Salome Zourabichvili that, it was hoped, would yield a compromise agreement acceptable to both sides. When neither side proved willing to modify its position, it was agreed to establish working groups in the hope of ironing out all remaining differences by mid-May (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 11 March 2005).

At that juncture, the Georgian parliament upped the ante by adopting a nonbinding resolution calling on the Georgian government to declare the two Russian bases illegal if the two sides failed by 15 May to reach a firm agreement that the Russians would leave Georgia by the end of the year. The chairmen of the parliament's committees on defense and security and foreign relations subsequently hinted that they would present Moscow with a bill of several hundred million U.S. dollars for unpaid land tax and utilities supplied over the past decade. The Russian State Duma retaliated by accusing its Georgian counterpart of blackmail.

The Georgian Constitution does not clearly define which branch of government has ultimate responsibility for foreign policy. According to Article 48, "The parliament of Georgia shall be the supreme representative body of the country, which shall...determine the principle directions of domestic and foreign policy," while Article 69 (2) affirms that "the president of Georgia shall lead and exercise the internal and foreign policy of the state." But in recent months it has been the parliament that has sought to pressure not only Moscow but the Georgian Foreign Ministry to reach an agreement on the swiftest possible departure of the Russian military contingent. On the one hand, the sometimes intemperate rhetoric resorted to by Georgian legislators risked triggering a major crisis in bilateral relations. But on the other hand, Moscow's aggressive and threatening response to those Georgian demands served to heighten the awareness of the international community of the need to resolve the problem. That awareness has been reflected in countless statements by foreign leaders in talks in recent months with both Russian and Georgian officials, and culminated in the 13 May resolution passed by the U.S. Senate insisting that Moscow comply with its obligations to withdraw the two bases from Georgia.

Despite the war of words between the Georgian parliament and the Duma, and trenchant statements from Russian military officials including Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, the two sides' positions are now apparently very close. Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okrushavili said earlier this week that Tbilisi "might" agree to a deadline of mid-2008 for completion of the Russian withdrawal, while Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko said it could hypothetically be completed by the end of that year. That prediction is, however, at odds with the position of the Russian Army General Staff, which is sticking fast to the argument that a minimum of four years is required to complete the withdrawal, meaning it would be completed some point in 2009. That 2009 deadline is, moreover, contingent on the transfer of part of the Russian personnel and materiel currently deployed in Georgia to Armenia, according to Chief of General Staff General Yurii Baluevskii as quoted by Interfax on 19 May. Azerbaijan has already threatened to protest that redeployment, according to Caucasus Press on 20 May. (Liz Fuller)

ARMENIA DENIES AGREEING TO LIBERATE SEVEN OCCUPIED DISTRICTS OF AZERBAIJAN. Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov made headlines on 17 May by claiming that Armenia is prepared to agree to the return of seven districts of Azerbaijan bordering on the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR).

But on 18 May, the Armenian Foreign Ministry released a formal rebuttal of Mammadyarov's statement.

The seven districts in question have been under the control of Armenian forces for the past 12 years, and many observers consider them Yerevan's sole "ace," to be traded for a major concession by Baku on the NKR's final future status under any eventual peace agreement (the so-called "land for status" model of conflict resolution).

Mammadyarov said on 17 May that talks are already under way on the timeframe for an Armenian withdrawal from the seven occupied districts. He added, however, that this would be a lengthy process, in light of the need to address related problems such as mine-clearing, postconflict rehabilitation of the districts in question, and the return to their abandoned homes of those districts' ethnic Azerbaijani population, according on 17 May.

On 18 May, however, Armenian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamlet Gasparian released a statement in Yerevan denying that Armenia has agreed to liberate the seven Azerbaijani regions. At the same time, Gasparian described as "a further step forward" towards resolving the Karabakh conflict the talks between Armenian President Robert Kocharian and his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev in Warsaw on 15 May on the sidelines of the Council of Europe summit. In line with the long-standing confidentiality agreement surrounding the negotiations (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 9 July 2004), Gasparian did not divulge any details of what the two presidents discussed. But both he and the three co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group, which is mediating the peace talks, said the Warsaw meeting opens the way for a continuation of the so-called "Prague talks" between Mammadyarov and his Armenian counterpart Vartan Oskanian that began one year ago. Mammadyarov and Oskanian met in Warsaw on 15 May with the Minsk Group co-chairs.

Rumors of a possible Armenian withdrawal from three, five, or all seven of the occupied Azerbaijan districts have been circulating for several years. In early 2004, the European Parliament rapporteur for the South Caucasus, Per Gahrton, circulated a draft report on the South Caucasus that included a proposal that Armenia should cede five of the occupied districts in exchange for the resumption of rail traffic from Azerbaijan to Armenia. The five districts in question were Jebrayil, Fizuli, Zangelan, Agdam, and Gubadla, but not the strategic Lachin corridor that serves as the sole overland road link between the NKR and Armenia. Senior Azerbaijani officials, including Parliament Speaker Murtuz Alesqerov, were quoted as expressing support for Gahrton's proposal. Alesqerov told the European Commission's special envoy, Antonius De Vries, in Baku on 29 January that "Azerbaijan accepts this plan. We believe the liberation of the districts can promote the restoration of the territorial integrity of the country," Interfax-Azerbaijan reported on 30 January 2004. But the European Parliament ultimately deleted that proposal from the draft resolution before adopting it (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 27 February 2004). Mammadyarov's deputy, Araz Azimov, told journalists in January 2005, following the most recent Prague meeting between the two foreign ministers, that an Armenian withdrawal from all seven districts was on the agenda of the Prague talks, according to on 14 January. But Armenian officials, including Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, have dismissed any talk of an exchange of the occupied districts for the resumption of rail traffic as "unserious."

If Presidents Kocharian and Aliyev did indeed make progress at their meeting in Warsaw -- their first meeting in eight months -- it is unclear why Mammadyarov should have immediately jeopardized that progress by violating the confidentiality of the talks with a statement that Yerevan immediately rebutted as untrue. One possible explanation, suggested by Armenian majority Republican Party of Armenia parliament faction head Galust Sahakian in an interview with A1+, is that Mammadyarov's announcement was intended first and foremost for domestic consumption to create the impression that Baku has scored a major diplomatic victory at a time when the Azerbaijani leadership is under increasing pressure from the international community to amend its election legislation and take other related steps to ensure that the parliamentary elections due in November are free, fair, transparent, and democratic. Alternatively, Mammadyarov's statement may have been intended to derail the Karabakh peace talks temporarily (until after the parliamentary elections?) by putting the Armenian side on the defensive in the face of accusations from the opposition that it has sold out and compromised the future security of the NKR by ceding control of the Lachin corridor. Such a delay would obviate the need for Azerbaijani to announce publicly in the run-up to the November ballot any unpalatable concessions on Karabakh which the opposition could seek to turn to its advantage. (Liz Fuller)

ARMENIAN PREMIER SAYS 'REALISM' THE KEY TO HIS POLITICAL LONGEVITY. Andranik Markarian singled out pragmatism on 12 May as the main reason for his political longevity as he marked the fifth anniversary of his appointment as Armenia's prime minister. "It is all down to teamwork, realistic objectives, and an ability to achieve them, rather than my beautiful eyes," he told journalists after presiding over a weekly session of his cabinet.

Markarian, who will turn 54 next month, is the longest serving of Armenia's 10 postcommunist prime ministers. Very few expected him to hold on the post for so long when President Robert Kocharian chose him in May 2000 to replace Aram Sargsian, now an outspoken opposition leader.

Markarian's appointment sealed Kocharian's victory in a power struggle with a government faction led by Sargsian. It was sparked by the October 1999 attack on the Armenian parliament in which Sargsian's brother and predecessor Vazgen was shot dead along with seven other officials. Markarian noted that he will have to remain on his guard as "there has been and there will be no lack of candidates for the post of prime minister." He claimed that his economic track record has been very positive, pointing to robust economic growth registered by Armenia in the last five years. He said the existing macroeconomic situation allows his government to speed up the implementation of its poverty-reduction strategy approved by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Asked about his 2000 pledge to combat endemic corruption in Armenia in a "merciless" fashion, Markarian admitted that few government officials have since been prosecuted on corruption charges. "There are few such cases. But an anticorruption struggle is not just about catching someone giving or taking a bribe red-handed," he said, pointing to a program of mostly legislative anti-corruption measures approved by the government last year.

Markarian was further forced to answer embarrassing questions about a financial statement filed by his 27-year-old son Taron, who is poised to become the prefect of Yerevan's northern Avan district as a result of an upcoming election in which he is the sole candidate. According to the "Haykakan Zhamanak" daily, Taron Markarian has stated in his income and property declaration that he owns three apartments in downtown Yerevan in addition to two apartments in Avan which he co-owns with his parents.

"That has nothing to do with my tenure," the premier said, adding that the expensive apartments in the city center are his daughter-in-law's dowry. He also denied that his son owns Avan's biggest supermarket as well as large chunks of property mentioned in the financial statement. (Atom Markarian and Shakeh Avoyan)

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK. "By installing its own cadre of corrupt politicians and brutal commanders, the Kremlin continues to destroy the prospects for peace in Chechnya, while compromising the security of its own people from Makhachkala to Moscow." -- American Committee for Peace in Chechnya (ACPC) Executive Director Glen Howard, quoted in an ACPC press release on 13 May.