15 August 2005, Volume 8, Number 27
WHO IS THE REAL TARGET OF THE RUSLAN BASHIRLI SCANDAL? The Azerbaijani authorities and supporters and associates of Ruslan Bashirli, leader of the opposition youth movement Yeni Fikir, have offered widely diverging accounts of, and explanations for, the events that culminated in Bashirli's arrest last week on charges of plotting to overthrow the Azerbaijani leadership.
According to a statement released on 4 August by the Azerbaijani Prosecutor-General's Office, Bashirli traveled in late July to Tbilisi at the behest of his mentor, Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP) Chairman Ali Kerimli. On the sidelines of a conference, Bashirli is said to have met with three men, one ethnic Georgian and two Armenians, all of them Armenian intelligence agents, and told them he was working on instructions from the U.S. National Democratic Institute to prepare for a revolution in Azerbaijan. His interlocutors reportedly expressed approval, promised help, and presented him with an initial payment of $2,000 to help fund the revolution, promising to provide a further $20,000 within days.
One of the Armenians then informed Bashirli that the encounter had been filmed, including his acceptance of and signing a receipt for the $2,000. The Armenian reportedly told Bashirli that if he reneged on his promise to cooperate, the incriminating film footage would be handed over to the Azerbaijani authorities.
Bashirli was accompanied to Tbilisi by his deputy, Osman Alimuradov, who, according to day.az on 4 August, was reluctant to collaborate with the Armenians and who denounced Bashirli to the authorities on his return to Baku. Bashirli was duly apprehended on 3 August.
In an interview with Azerbaijan's Lider TV on 6 August, a transcript of which was posted on day.az on 8 August, Azerbaijani Prosecutor-General Zakir Garalov quoted from what he said was a written statement by Alimuradov. Alimuradov said he spent the night after the meeting with the three Armenian agents brooding over the implications of the course of action Bashirli had agreed to, and came to the conclusion that it was morally wrong. He said he tried to persuade Bashirli after their return to Baku to abandon the entire undertaking, but Bashirli said they should wait to do so until he received the additional $20,000. Therefore, according to Alimuradov, he decided to hand over to the Azerbaijani authorities the video footage of the meeting he was given by the Armenian.
Bashirli's fellow oppositionists, however, have dismissed the prosecutor-general's account as a crude and clumsy fabrication intended to discredit the AHCP in the run-up to the 6 November parliamentary election, and Kerimli personally. Bashirli himself reportedly told his attorney, Elchin Garalov, on 8 August that he was being pressured to incriminate Kerimli, whom the website day.az on 6 August identified as one of Azerbaijan's most popular and respected opposition politicians. The online daily echo-az.com on 6 August quoted pro-government political scientist Mubariz Akhmedoglu as saying Bashirli is clearly guilty of treason, and the links between him and the AHCP are adequate grounds for revoking that party's official registration.
Speaking at a press conference in Baku on 5 August, two deputy chairmen of Yeni Fikir, Said Nuriev and Fikret Faramazoglu, said that Bashirli was offered the $2,000 by representatives of Georgian and Armenian "democratic forces." They said he was drunk at the time, and hypothesized that his drink may have been spiked. They said that the following day, Bashirli returned the money.
Both the official charges against Bashirli and the opposition objections to those charges are based on the incriminating video materials, which show Bashirli sipping cognac in the company of three men and uttering incriminating statements. Specifically, he is said to have agreed to the proposal made by one of the Armenian agents to take advantage of the tense domestic political situation in Azerbaijan, and even open fire at an opposition demonstration.
But Bashirli's lawyer Gambarov told journalists in Baku on 8 August that the video footage was edited, and that Bashirli's words were "taken out of context," zerkalo.az reported on 9 August. Moreover, as several Azerbaijani commentaries have pointed out, Bashirli's drunken pronouncements cannot be conflated with a statement of intent to overthrow the present leadership.
Even more problematic than the content of the videocassette is the way the Azerbaijani authorities allegedly acquired it. As Bashirli's lawyer Gambarov observed on 8 August, "No intelligence service in the world would hand over a videocassette with compromising footage to someone whom it was seeking to co-opt."
In an article titled "Armenian recruitment or planned operation?" the independent online daily zerkalo.az on 6 August similarly asked why the Armenians should have given the cassette to Alimuradov. Are the Armenian special services really so stupid, the daily asked, that they would play into the hands of their Azerbaijani counterparts?
The daily further noted that the Azerbaijani Prosecutor-General's Office acted unprofessionally in immediately making public the contents of the cassette, rather than handing it to the National Security Ministry to permit it to try to identify, and obtain more watertight evidence against, the purported Armenian agents. Zerkalo.az went to far as to suggest that the case against Bashirli was fabricated by the Azerbaijani authorities. But Akhmedoglu dismissed that possibility, telling day.az on 6 August that "I do not think that the Azerbaijani authorities are powerful enough to try to manipulate the Armenian special services or certain Georgian circles."
Pending the emergence of new evidence, it is impossible at this juncture to determine with any certainty which of the above hypotheses is correct. But if, as Bashirli's supporters claim, the case against him was fabricated in Baku, then the question arises: by whom, and to what end? Was it simply a bid to discredit Kerimli and his party in the run-up to the 6 November ballot, or even to trigger widespread unrest that could be adduced for postponing that ballot?
Or could the real object of the exercise be totally different? Given the rumored existence of rival factions within the upper echelons of the Azerbaijani leadership, was the hapless Bashirli simply a pawn in a larger scheme either to embarrass President Ilham Aliyev and call into question his professed commitment to building a democratic society, or to reignite popular hostility towards Armenia at a point when Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe mediators have expressed cautious optimism that a negotiated settlement to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict may be closer than ever before? (Liz Fuller)
CAN INITIAL MOVES TOWARDS ABKHAZ-GEORGIAN RAPPROCHEMENT BE SUSTAINED? The Tbilisi office of the UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) is encouraged by the "constructive" atmosphere at the 4 August UN-mediated talks between Abkhaz and Georgian delegations and at a 10 August meeting in Sukhum between top Abkhaz leaders and the diplomatic representatives in Tbilisi of the five member states of the "Friends of the UN Secretary-General for Georgia" group, an UNOMIG spokeswoman told RFE/RL on 11 August.
But the spat earlier this week over plans to resume rail traffic between Russia and Tbilisi via Abkhazia demonstrated once again how both Tbilisi and Sukhum still seek to occupy the moral high ground and depict the other as the primary obstacle to a peaceful and mutually acceptable settlement of the conflict.
Georgian and Abkhaz representatives met in Tbilisi on 4 August under the aegis of Ambassador Heidi Tagliavini, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special representative for Georgia, to discuss security guarantees for the nonresumption of hostilities and confidence-building measures in the Abkhaz conflict zone, which are necessary preconditions for the return to their homes of those among the estimated 200,000-250,000 Georgians who fled Abkhazia during the 1992-1993 war who have not already done so. As Annan noted in his most recent (13 July 2005) report to the UN Security Council on the situation in Abkhazia, the focus in UN-mediated talks in recent months on repatriation and economic cooperation -- including the planned resumption of rail traffic from Russia to Tbilisi via Abkhazia -- is intended "to improve confidence between the two sides so that negotiations on a comprehensive political settlement of the conflict can take place, using the paper entitled 'Basic Principles for the Distribution of Competences Between Tbilisi and Sukhumi'...as a starting point." That draft settlement plan envisages Abkhazia remaining a constituent part of Georgia.
The 4 August meeting was the latest in a series convened on the basis of a declaration signed in Yalta four years in which the Georgian and Abkhaz sides appealed for the support of the international community in addressing two key issues: the nonresumption of armed conflict, and the safe and unconditional return of refugees and displaced persons, in the first phase to Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion (within its old borders). The Georgian representation to the most recent talks was headed by Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava and the Abkhaz one by Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba. As on several earlier occasions, the two sides reaffirmed their commitment to the nonresumption of hostilities and the unconditional return of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), and they discussed a new draft document, authored by Tbilisi-based Abkhaz government-in-exile Chairman Irakli Alasania and augmented by Abkhaz suggestions, aimed at formalizing "at a high level" their shared commitment to resolving the conflict peacefully and to ensuring "the safe and dignified return" to their homes in Abkhazia of refugees and IDPs.
That draft document has not been made public, but during an interview with Eurasia View published on 1 July, Alasania shed some light on Georgia's new approach to resolving the conflict. He explained that Russia's clumsy attempt last fall to engineer the outcome of the Abkhaz presidential ballot made it clear to the new leadership headed by President Sergei Bagapsh how "dramatic, unstable and insecure" Abkhazia's relations with Russia are. (That line of argument fails to take into consideration the extent to which Abkhazia is economically dependent on Russia.)
As a result of that Abkhaz shift, Alasania believes, the new leadership in Sukhum is more amenable to considering a new Georgian policy of "pro-active engagement," of which Alasania is presumably the architect. That policy, Alasania said, "should be carefully tailored to provide incentives to the Abkhaz side to engage more actively in the peace process." It will, he continued, "address their concerns on a priority basis and, at the same time, be adequately receptive to the legitimate aspirations" of Georgian displaced persons to return to their abandoned homes. (Although Alasania did not say as much, Georgia also now has greater room for maneuver following the death one year ago of Alasania's hawkish predecessor, Tamaz Nadareishvili, who with the tacit support of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze lobbied tirelessly for a UN Security Council peace enforcement operation in Abkhazia.)
Alasania further admitted that the previous Georgian policy of seeking to isolate Abkhazia politically and economically has proven a failure, and that Tbilisi is now "seriously considering all possible ways to bring the [Abkhaz] community out of isolation." As a first step towards doing so, Georgian, Abkhaz, and Russian government experts agreed during talks in Moscow in June and Sukhum last month on measures that, if implemented, will result in the resumption of rail traffic from Russia via the Abkhaz Black Sea littoral to Tbilisi and then Yerevan.
The heads of the Abkhaz and Georgian delegations, Shamba and Khaindrava, both positively evaluated the 4 August Tbilisi talks; Khaindrava even raised the possibility of a meeting between Bagapsh and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. The cautious optimism engendered by the 4 August talks was reinforced on 10 August, when the diplomatic representatives in Tbilisi of the five states that are members of the Friends of the UN Secretary General for Georgia group (France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) met in Sukhum on 10 August with Bagapsh, Abkhaz Prime Minister Aleksandr Ankvab, and Foreign Minister Shamba. Bagapsh and German Ambassador Uwe Schramm both subsequently described the meeting as "constructive," and Bagapsh expressed his appreciation of the work of the UN, specifically of UN Special Representative Tagliavini, to resolve the Abkhaz conflict.
At the same time, Bagapsh stressed that while Abkhazia is "ready to discuss any topic conducive to peaceful dialogue," it will not compromise on its self-proclaimed independent status, which remains the main point of dispute between Tbilisi and Sukhum. In a 5 August interview with regnum.ru, Bagapsh argued that that disagreement should not be an obstacle to economic cooperation, especially as such cooperation benefits Georgia as well as Abkhazia. He recalled that he has always advocated a competition with Tbilisi to determine which state can develop its economy and crack down on crime faster and with greater success. Asked what he considers the ideal compromise solution to the conflict, Bagapsh replied "the best compromise [would be] two neighbor states -- Georgia and Abkhazia," and he adduced the example of the Czech Republic and Slovakia as proof that such a solution is feasible. Bagapsh's stated commitment to building an independent state is, however, difficult to reconcile with the political settlement based on the "Basic Principles" that continues to be the UN's ultimate objective.
Nor is Abkhazia's ultimate status vis-a-vis the central Georgian government the only issue still to be resolved. Still under discussion are the UN requirement that Georgian children whose families are repatriated to Gali be able to attend Georgian-language schools, and the Abkhaz leadership's continued reluctance either to condone the deployment in Gali of UN civilian police (to complement the 11 UN civilian police officers currently deployed in Zugdidi Raion in the Georgian section of the conflict zone), or to open a UN office in Gali to address human-rights issues. Both institutions are badly needed in light of the sporadic reprisals against and abductions of Georgian returnees by Abkhaz criminal formations and what appear to be tit-for-tat attacks by Georgian smugglers on Abkhaz police and customs officials. Annan's 13 July report to the Security Council noted 11 armed robberies, one shooting, one abduction, five detentions, and one explosion in Gali over the previous six months, and three weeks ago Abkhaz police detained 18 Georgians in Gali; six of them were subsequently released, but the remaining 12 face criminal charges of illegal logging.
It is possible that less than one year into his presidency Bagapsh does not yet feel secure enough to agree to any concessions that his political opponents might later seek to use against him. But in a summary of the 10 August talks posted on the UNOMIG website (www.unomig.org), German Ambassador Schramm noted Bagapsh's "pragmatism" and direct approach, qualities that raise hopes that he is both committed and flexible enough to continue the search for mutually acceptable agreements with Tbilisi, first on economic issues and then on more sensitive political issues.
That search is likely, however, to be fraught with tension and bedeviled by repeated setbacks, some of them induced by the intransigence of the conflicting sides. For example, the beginning of a joint Georgian-Abkhaz-Russian operation to assess the extent of the repairs needed to render operational the railway running from Russia via Abkhazia's Black Sea coast onwards to Tbilisi, initially scheduled for 9 August, was delayed because three Georgian railroad engineers who had fled Abkhazia during the 1992-1993 war were refused entry to Abkhaz-controlled territory. (Liz Fuller)