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Caucasus Report: January 15, 2004

15 January 2004, Volume 7, Number 3

GEORGIA, RUSSIA ASSESS PROSPECTS FOR TURNING A NEW PAGE IN BILATERAL RELATIONS. To infer, as some commentators have done, from the cordial pronouncements by Russian President Vladimir Putin and acting Georgian President Nino Burdjanadze after their two-hour talk in Moscow in late December that a new and less tense chapter has opened in bilateral relations seems to this writer to be premature. It was, after all, unlikely that Putin would state openly that he intends to continue to use every means at his disposal to highlight the inherent instability of the Georgian state and exploit the weaknesses of its leadership, or even that he has no interest whatsoever in trying to ease the tensions that have soured bilateral relations for years.

Russian, Georgian, and Western analysts alike attribute those tensions primarily to Russian resentment of the erosion of its hegemony over the Transcaucasus, which Moscow regards as part of its traditional Russian sphere of influence. From the viewpoint of the Russian leadership, the first major blow to Russia's domination of the Transcaucasus was the signing in September 1994 of the "Deal of the Century" that granted to a consortium of Western oil companies the right to develop three Azerbaijani offshore Caspian oil fields. Russia continues to oppose the ongoing construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline through which most of that oil is to be exported. On 9 January, Interfax quoted an unnamed Russian government official as saying that Russia still views that pipeline as economically inexpedient.

Most analysts view Russia's activities over the past nine years as being geared towards trying to slow, if not to reverse, U.S. economic, political, and military inroads in the South Caucasus, and to thwart the Georgian leadership's unequivocal aspiration to membership of NATO and the EU by seizing on every opportunity to highlight the country's weaknesses. But there appears to be an awareness in Moscow that acting too overtly and aggressively could be counterproductive: Putin is in all probability sincere in saying that it is not in Russia's interests that Georgia become a failed state. That does not, however, deter him and his ministers from suggesting that Georgia is on the road to becoming a failed state, an argument that serves to discredit the Georgian leadership in the eyes of the international community and call into question Georgia's aspirations to integration with European structures and the Atlantic alliance.

There are at present three main foci of tension in Russian-Georgian relations: the two remaining Russian military bases at Batumi and Akhalkalaki; Russian support, both political and economic, for the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia; and the presence on Georgian territory of Chechen fighters and Islamic militants with alleged links to Al-Qaeda.

If one assumes that the Russian leadership has not thrown in the towel and resigned itself to "losing" the Caucasus, then it follows that of the three issues listed above, Moscow has a vested interest in resolving the third, which constitutes a direct threat to its security. (Putin's warning in September 2002 that Moscow reserved the right to take unilateral military action against "international terrorists" in the Pankisi Gorge if Georgia failed to make good on its commitment to combat terrorism precipitated the worst crisis in bilateral relations in recent years -- see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 23 September 2002.) By contrast, the first and second are convenient instruments for exerting pressure on Tbilisi as and when it is deemed expedient to do so. For that reason, those in Moscow who wish to preserve a dwindling sphere of geo-political influence have little or no incentive to seek a solution to those problems.

The new Georgian leadership, for its part, has repeatedly stated its desire to arrive at a more manageable and less antagonistic relationship with Moscow. As Georgian Foreign Minister Tedo Djaparidze put in an interview with "Vremya novostei" on 15 December, "Our relations must become more predictable." In an "Izvestiya" interview three days later, Djaparidze admitted that Georgia had acted unpredictably in the past, and that "it gave promises but did not fulfill them."

Both Burdjanadze and President-elect Mikheil Saakashvili have conceded that Russia has legitimate security interests in the South Caucasus, and have averred that Georgia is ready to accommodate those interests insofar as they do not impinge on its own. Burdjanadze suggested in an interview with "Vremya novostei" on 11 December that "Russian and Georgian politicians should draw a red line that neither side should cross.... Georgia has such a red line, a raft of interests: its territorial integrity, sovereignty, democratic development. It [includes] our political orientation toward integration into western structures, an orientation that does not contradict Russia's security and does not mean bad relations with Russia."

It is, however, questionable whether Russia is prepared to make any such commitment or, in the event that it does so, whether it will abide by that commitment. On the contrary, the contrasting statements by Russian presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembskii on the eve of Burdjanadze's December visit to Moscow and by Putin during that visit suggest Russia will rather continue to try to keep Georgia off-balance by acting unpredictably.

Speaking to journalists on 24 December, Yastrzhembskii claimed that Georgia continues to serve as a "conduit" for "terrorists" to infiltrate Russian territory, whereas Putin, according to Burdjanadze, adopted a more "positive" approach in his talks with her the following day. That dual approach, incidentally, mirrors the tactic espoused by the Georgian leadership in the late 1990s, when then-parliament speaker Zurab Zhvania would accuse Moscow of undermining Georgian interests and then Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze would counter with a more conciliatory pronouncement.

As indicated above, Russia has a vested interest, apparently recognized by the new Georgian leadership as valid, in working together with Georgia to prevent Chechen militants and other undesirable elements from entering the Russian Federation from Georgian territory. Djaparidze in his "Vremya novostei" interview said that during his tenure as Georgian National Security Council secretary, he succeeded, primarily thanks to his personal rapport with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Rushailo, in establishing a good working relationship between the two bodies. (Djaparidze added that he "dreams" of establishing an equally harmonious working relationship between the two countries' foreign ministries.) Tbilisi would therefore be likely to react positively to any new proposal by Moscow aimed at restoring control over the Pankisi Gorge and rendering the Georgian-Chechen border 100 percent watertight. ("The Guardian" on 6 January quoted an unidentified Western diplomat in Tbilisi as saying that there are still an estimated 80-100 Chechen militants in thee Pankisi Gorge including "a handful" of international terrorists with links to Al-Qaeda.)

On the remaining two key issues, however, Russia seems less likely to make concessions. Russian First Deputy Chief of the Armed Forces General Staff Colonel General Yurii Baluevskii gave Djaparidze to understand during the latter's unofficial visit to Moscow last week that Russia will not yield on its insistence that it cannot withdraw its troops from Akhalkalaki and Batumi in less than 10 years unless funding is provided to build alternative facilities for them in Russia (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 3 January 2003). In a EurasiaNet interview dated 6 January, Djaparidze implicitly admitted that it will not be easy to reach a mutually acceptable framework for an earlier withdrawal. He said that "some people use the mere existence of the bases to retain Georgia in a state of weakness." Djaparidze also characterized Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov as "a very, very difficult" negotiating partner, albeit "nice and intelligent."

Even more problematic is the question of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. On the one hand, the Russian government has granted Russian citizenship to an estimated 125,000 residents of Abkhazia (or approximately one-third of the present population) and 90 percent of the population of South Ossetia. On the other hand, Moscow cannot agree to the request by the South Ossetian leadership to join with North Ossetia as a subject of the Russian Federation without setting a precedent for altering existing frontiers designated inviolable under the Helsinki Accord. The Chechen Republic Ichkeria could subsequently adduce that precedent in its campaign for independence from Russia.

But perhaps the most serious obstacle to beginning a new chapter in Russian-Georgian relations is the lack of consensus in Moscow over priorities, tactics, and strategy. In two of his recent Russian press interviews, Georgian Foreign Minister Djaparidze made the point that there still exist a number of disparate Russian interest groups with diverging and possibly even conflicting agendas in Georgia. To illustrate that point, he said he has frequently asked Russian officials whether they consider it more advantageous to have Russian banks or Russian tanks on the territory of neighboring states, but that answers to that question were not unanimous. "The problem," Djaparidze concluded, "is that each of the numerous Russian agencies has diverging interests," and for that reason their approaches to trying to resolve problems in bilateral relations also diverge.

In other words, it is both specious and simplistic to posit the existence of a single, uniform, consistent Russian policy towards Georgia in which the concerns of individual Russian agencies and interest groups are ranked in order of priority in accordance with a mutually agreed consensus. And that lack of clarity, in turn, puts the new Georgian leadership at a disadvantage as it seeks to identify possible areas for compromise and mutually beneficial cooperation. (Liz Fuller)

IS TIME RUNNING OUT FOR ASLAN ABASHIDZE? Georgian commentators are increasingly focussing on the possibility that a new "Rose Revolution" could result in the ouster of Adjar Supreme Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze, who since1992 has ruled his autonomous republic as his personal fiefdom. Abashidze has incurred the hostility and distrust of the new Georgian leadership, first by his alignment in November with embattled President Eduard Shevardnadze (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 November 2003), then more recently by his refusal (retracted just one week before the ballot) to allow voting in Adjaria in the 4 January presidential election.

Abashidze agreed only on 28 December to open polling stations to allow voters to participate in that ballot (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 December 2003). Voter turnout in Adjaria was only 24 percent, but as elsewhere in Georgia, 98 percent of those voters cast their ballots in favor of National Movement leader Mikheil Saakashvili, Caucasus Press reported on 6 January, quoting Young Barristers' Association Chairman Zaza Rukhadze.

That demonstration of support for the man who led the street protests that culminated in Shevardnadze's forced resignation substantiates other indications in recent weeks that Abashidze's iron hold over Adjaria may be weakening. In late December, an unofficial movement named "Our Adjaria" was formed in Tbilisi to serve as an umbrella movement uniting intellectuals and various NGOs. Its primary aim was to ensure that voting took place in Adjaria on 4 January in the Georgian presidential ballot. One of its founding members, Mikheil Machavariani, was quoted on 26 December by the independent television station Rustavi-2 as saying that it opposes Abashidze, and wants in the longer term "to bring Adjaria back into the Georgian legal field." Two weeks later, on 9 January, one of Our Adjaria's leaders, Tamaz Diasamidze, told journalists that the movement wants new elections to local bodies to be held soon. A "Eurasia View" analysis of 14 January quoted Diasamidze as saying that Our Adjaria, which is backed by Georgian President-elect Mikheil Saakashvili's National Movement, wants to replace Abashidze by democratic elections, rather than by street protests.

Diasamidze told Caucasus Press that he believes Abashidze's Democratic Revival Union has lost some of its power and influence in recent weeks, and that Abashidze will try to reach an accommodation with the new Georgian leadership. The transfer by the Adjar government of 2.5 million laris ($1.16 million) in back taxes owed to the central budget substantiates that hypothesis (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 January 2004). In return, Tbilisi has transferred to Batumi 450,000 laris earmarked for social spending, Caucasus Press reported on 13 January.

In other respects, however, Abashidze is clearly on the defensive. Police in Batumi last week arrested two activists from the Georgian youth movement Kmara (Enough!), claiming that a search of their apartments yielded weapons and leaflets calling for Abashidze's overthrow. The two young men have been remanded in pre-trial custody for three months.

Meeting in Tbilisi on 13 January with visiting U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Lynn Pascoe, Georgian acting President Nino Burdjanadze deplored the arrest of the two Kmara activists and said she has asked Abashidze to prevent any further such violations of human rights. But at the same time, she pointed to the Adjar transfer of funds to the central budget as evidence that "the differences [between Tbilisi and Batumi] are gradually being mitigated," Caucasus Press reported.

Burdjanadze's conciliatory statement suggests that the new Georgian leadership is anxious to avoid -- at least for the present -- an open confrontation with Abashidze into which Moscow might be drawn. The question remains whether Abashidze, who may well be banking on such restraint from Tbilisi, will exercise equal restraint, and how he would react if his Democratic Revival Union suffers a major defeat in the parliamentary elections scheduled for 28 March. (Liz Fuller)

AZERBAIJAN WARNS TURKEY AGAINST LIFTING ARMENIAN EMBARGO. Azerbaijan's Foreign Minister Vilayat Guliev has warned Turkey against reopening its land border with Armenia before a resolution of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. The warning, issued during a 9-10 January visit to Baku by Guliev's Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gul, apparently reflects Azerbaijan's unease over attempts in recent months to improve Turkish-Armenian relations. The United States has actively encouraged those efforts.

"If Turkey makes even a minor move towards Armenia, it may harm both Azerbaijan's and its own national interests," Guliev told reporters. "Any move of this nature should be attentively examined, and we hope that in general, moves of this nature will not be made until the Karabakh conflict is settled."

"Turkey and Armenia are independent states and are conducting their policies independently," he said, according to Azerbaijani TV. "But naturally we have, so to speak, many expectations from Turkey because Turkey is a country that is giving much support to Azerbaijan with regard to the occupation that Azerbaijan has been suffering. That is why we are naturally following Armenian-Turkish relations with special sensitiveness."

Turkey closed its border with Armenia for travel and commerce at the height of the Karabakh war in 1993, making the lifting of the blockade conditional on the disputed region's return under Azerbaijani rule. But Ankara's decade-long linkage of bilateral ties with Yerevan to the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict appears to have been weakened by the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan over the course of last year.

The apparent policy change came to light during a series of face-to-face talks between Gul and Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian. The most recent of their meetings took place in Brussels on 5 December and, according to Oskanian, saw further progress towards the normalization of bilateral relations. Armenian officials say Ankara is now considering a gradual reopening of the Armenian border that would not entail the immediate establishment of diplomatic ties.

Pressure on Ankara to soften its Armenian policy mainly comes from the U.S. government and domestic business circles that stand to gain from cross-border commerce with Armenia. Mehmet Cirav, head of the main business association in the Black Sea city of Trabzon, was quoted in the Turkish press as saying last month that the embargo should be scrapped "as soon as possible." Cirav argued that an open border with Armenia would benefit the Turkish economy.

Support for improved relations is also strong among Armenia's leading businessmen, who view Turkey as a potential market for their goods and a cheaper transit route for import and export operations. Azerbaijan, however, fears that the lifting of the Turkish blockade would ease Armenia's socioeconomic hardships and thereby strengthen its bargaining position in Karabakh peace talks. Guliev said he "always" brings up the issue at his meetings with Gul and other Turkish leaders.

Gul, meanwhile, was rather ambiguous on the subject during his trip to Baku. The Associated Press reported that he ruled out the border's opening "for now," while Turkish television quoted him as saying that such a move is "out of question" before a Karabakh settlement respecting Azerbaijan's territorial integrity.

Gul at the same time made it clear that Turkey will maintain diplomatic and civil society contacts with Armenia, the absence of which he said was in the past exploited by unspecified "other countries." He also called for a trilateral meeting on Karabakh between the Armenian, Azerbaijani, and Turkish ministers.

The Karabakh dispute was not among the preconditions for the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations mentioned by Erdogan in a speech last June. But he did demand a halt to the continuing Armenian campaign for international recognition of the 1915 genocide of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. (Emil Danielyan)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "Anyone who disturbs the sleep of an ordinary citizen will be ruthlessly punished and exterminated." -- Georgian President-elect Mikheil Saakashvili, speaking in Tbilisi on 12 January (quoted by RFE/RL's Georgian Service).

"Authoritarian practices like intimidation of voters, pressures on elections commissioners or clear bias of the media in favor of the ruling party's candidate were again observed during the 2003 election. In a member state of the Council of Europe, which has been independent for more than 10 years, such practice is unacceptable." -- From a summary by Turan on 14 January of a report by Council of Europe rapporteurs on Azerbaijan's compliance with the commitments it made in January 2001 on being accepted into full membership of that organization.