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Caucasus Report: May 20, 2004

20 May 2004, Volume 7, Number 20

GEORGIAN OFFICIALS SEND MIXED SIGNALS OVER ABKHAZIA. Georgian and Abkhaz officials accused each other last week of a planning new military operation to coincide with the anniversary on 26 May of the 1918 declaration of an independent Georgian republic. An attempt by Georgian guerrilla detachments in May 1998 to restore Georgian control over Abkhazia ended in failure (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 26 May and 9 June 1998). Today, however, there are signs that Georgia is planning not a military offensive, but a popular uprising in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion, the population of which is predominantly Georgian. Should the local population "spontaneously" demand that the Georgian government take the district under its protection, Tbilisi might deploy troops in a bid to exert psychological pressure on the Abkhaz leadership. But while such tactics against Adjara earlier this month culminated in the ouster of local leader Aslan Abashidze, the Abkhaz are likely to mobilize their entire armed forces to counter any threat to the unrecognized republic's unilaterally proclaimed sovereignty.

On 13 May, a Georgian military official accused the Abkhaz side at the weekly meeting of Georgian and Abkhaz security officials and representatives of the UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) and the CIS peacekeeping force deployed in the Abkhaz conflict zone of preparing a "provocation" to disrupt the planned Independence Day celebrations in Gali. The following day, Apsnipress reported that Abkhaz Defense Minister Vyacheslav Eshba has written to UNOMIG head Major General Kazi Ashfaq Ahmed accusing the Georgian leadership of planning to violate a protocol signed by the two sides two years ago (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 January, 12 February, and 2 and 3 April 2002) by deploying additional troops to the Kodori Gorge, the upper reaches of which are the sole stretch of Abkhaz territory militarily controlled by Georgia. Eshba alleged that the Georgian leadership plans to destabilize the situation in the Abkhaz conflict zone by simulating an uprising in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion and then sending troops to occupy that district. He claimed weapons and portraits of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili are being transported to Gali in preparation for the planned uprising. Interfax on 13 May similarly quoted Abkhaz Security Service head Givi Agrba as saying that Georgia plans to send troops to Kodori and to destabilize Gali on the eve of the 26 May celebrations.

Georgian officials, however, immediately denied either any buildup of Georgian forces or any intent to launch a new offensive. Kodori Governor Emzar Kvitsiani denied on 14 May that any further Georgian troops will be sent to Kodori, Caucasus Press reported. Chief of General Staff Major General Givi Iukuridze and Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava likewise denied on 14 and 15 May respectively that Tbilisi is planning a new military campaign to bring Abkhazia back under the control of the central government, ITAR-TASS and Caucasus Press reported.

But President Saakashvili hinted on 15 May that while Tbilisi is not contemplating a classic military incursion into Abkhazia, it may hope to mobilize the population of Gali as the first stage of a campaign to bring Abkhazia back under Tbilisi's control. Caucasus Press quoted him as saying while on an official visit to Bucharest that if Georgia needs another revolution, that revolution will occur in Abkhazia.

Any attempt to provoke a "spontaneous" uprising in Gali is fraught with risk, however. As noted above, the Abkhaz are likely to dispatch troops to retain their control over Gali, a move that would endanger the Georgian population and necessitate the deployment of Georgian troops to protect them. Given Georgian officials' mutually contradictory pronouncements on the issue, it is not clear whether or not Georgia is constrained by any commitment that the crack forces trained by the United States over the past two years under the "Train and Equip" program should not be used in any attempt to bring Abkhazia and South Ossetia back under Georgian control. If such a commitment does indeed exist, the less-well-trained Georgian troops might prove no match for the Abkhaz. Nor is it clear why Saakashvili would risk his international reputation at this juncture in an exercise that at best would return only a part of Abkhazia to Georgian control. Abkhazia is scheduled to hold a presidential election in October to select a successor to ailing incumbent Vladislav Ardzinba, and the new president may prove more open to compromise than the current Abkhaz leadership.

True, the Abkhaz have in recent months shown a marked reluctance to consider any concessions to Tbilisi. Two rounds of talks late last month on security and confidence-building measures intended to expedite the return to Abkhazia of the Georgian displaced persons who fled the region during the 1992-93 war yielded no results. The Abkhaz refused at the second of those meetings (in Moscow on 26-27 April) to sign a letter of intent on the repatriation to Gali under the auspices of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees of those former residents of the district who still live in temporary accommodation elsewhere in Georgia. Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba accused Georgia of "politicizing" the issue by insisting on the inclusion in the text of the letter of a phrase stressing that the entire international community recognizes Georgia's territorial integrity. Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Khaindrava was scheduled to travel to Sukhum on 20 May for talks with Abkhaz officials, UN special representative Heidi Tagliavini, the commander of the CIS peacekeeping force and foreign ambassadors to Tbilisi on international security guarantees to preclude a resumption of hostilities in the conflict zone. (Liz Fuller)

EU KEEN TO JOIN NAGORNO-KARABAKH PEACE PROCESS. On his first visit to Brussels as president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev visited European Union headquarters on 18 May for talks with European Commission President Romano Prodi. Prodi took the opportunity to underline the implications of the commission's recent decision to include the three South Caucasus countries in the EU's European Neighborhood Policy. Prodi also indicated the EU will be taking a closer interest in resolving the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Membership in European Neighborhood Policy offers near-total economic integration and political dialogue. In return, it asks for reforms and -- above all -- stability and a readiness to defuse conflicts peacefully. In the case of the South Caucasus, this is taking the EU into uncharted waters. So far, the bloc has sat back and let Russia, the United States, the United Nations, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) do the mediating in the region's so-called frozen conflicts. Prodi made clear during his talks with Aliyev that what he called the EU's "ring of friends" cannot tolerate conflicts. He said the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh has gone on too long. He strongly hinted that greater EU involvement may be needed.

"We're worried that the [peace process] has stopped since 10 years. [There was] an armistice 10 years ago, [but] no peace. Clearly, [the EU] don't want to interfere with the [OSCE] Minsk Group, but we're urging and pushing that the Minsk Group has some result. I expressed my will to be at the disposal of the two nations in order to help the Minsk Group [under the aegis of the OSCE] find a solution," Prodi said.

Prodi said there is "urgency" felt within the EU for a solution, and that the bloc could help "speed up the solution." At the same time, he acknowledged that the EU "cannot make positive proposals at this stage," as it has not been asked to get involved. The EU, Prodi said, has "complete respect" for the political autonomy of Azerbaijan and Armenia.

After meeting Prodi, Aliyev welcomed the extension of the EU's neighborhood program to Azerbaijan and the rest of the South Caucasus. He promised continued improvement through political, social, and economic reforms, as well as closer political dialogue with the EU. He declared: "Azerbaijan's strategic policy towards integration into European structures continues, and today's visit confirms that once again. We made that choice 10 years ago, and Azerbaijan is moving very actively and quickly into the more active integration with Europe."

But Aliyev stopped short of endorsing full EU involvement in the Karabakh peace process alongside the Minsk Group, which is co-chaired by Russia, the United States, and France. He stressed that the Minsk Group will continue to retain the mandate for mediation, adding that he hopes it will become "more active." Asked by RFE/RL what precise role Azerbaijan would like the EU to play, Aliyev said he has simply asked the EU to more actively support international efforts.

"We already asked [the EU] and during today's meeting once again. Of course, we all understand that [the] Minsk Group has a mandate from the OSCE, and nobody is going to question that mandate, and the Minsk Group is trying to do its best to find a peaceful resolution," Aliyev said. "But at the same time, we think that European organizations, [the] European Union, [the] Council of Europe, European public opinion can also be involved in the process." Aliyev then added, "We do not mean that any country or institution can be an alternative to the Minsk Group."

Aliyev said Azerbaijan is seeking a peaceful solution to the conflict, but that such a solution must be based on international law: "Of course, the Armenian-Azerbaijani Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was one of the topics of our discussions," he said. "Azerbaijan [intends] to continue its policy to a peaceful resolution of the conflict. But at the same time, this resolution must be based on the recognized principles of international law. The territorial integrity and sovereignty of Azerbaijan must be restored." He added that the immediate withdrawal of Armenian troops from Nagorno-Karabakh and other occupied territories is "one of the major conditions for finding a peaceful resolution."

Aliyev said dialogue with Armenia is continuing, but warned that if no concrete issues remain on the agenda, it is "not right to continue [and] imitate negotiations." (Ahto Lobjakas)

U.S. MAKES ADDITIONAL AID TO ARMENIA CONTINGENT ON POLITICAL REFORM. The Armenian authorities should improve their human rights record and continue political reforms if they are to receive additional multimillion-dollar assistance from the United States under its new global poverty-reduction program, a senior U.S. diplomat said on 18 May. Ambassador Carlos Pascual, a senior State Department official coordinating U.S. aid to Europe and the former Soviet Union, emphasized that respect for "political freedom" is among the criteria for the selection of 16 countries eligible for Washington's Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) program. He indicated in this regard U.S. concern at the Armenian government's heavy-handed response to the two-month opposition campaign for President Robert Kocharian's resignation.

"As you know, there have been issues here in Armenia that have raised questions about political and civil liberties in the past few months," Pascual told a news conference in Yerevan. "The expectation, in order to be able to move forward with the program, is that there would be progress on these issues and not movement backwards." "So we will continue to review carefully the development of political events in the coming months and these will also be taken into account along with the specific elements of any individual [aid] proposal that is developed by the Armenian side," he added.

Armenia is among 16 developing countries of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the former Soviet Union selected for the MCA earlier this month on the basis of 16 indicators of political and economic reforms. Six of those indicators, including protection of civil rights and freedom of expression, deal with what is defined as one of the three main objectives of the scheme: promotion of "just government rule."

"Experience has shown us that the way a government treats its people and the environment that is created for political participation is intricately connected with economic success," Pascual said. He noted that while Armenia ranks high in the MCA indicators of economic reform and market liberalization, its government's record on "political rights and civil liberties" leaves much to be desired.

This conclusion is in line with the findings of the latest State Department report on U.S. efforts to promote human rights and democracy around the world over the past year. "The [Armenian] government's human rights record remained poor; although there were some improvements in a few areas, serious problems remained," the 17 May report said. It points among other things to "numerous serious irregularities" in last year's Armenian presidential election as well as continuing reports of widespread arbitrary arrests.

The report covers events before the recent government crackdown on the Armenian opposition that was criticized by the United States, the Council of Europe, and other Western human rights watchdogs. Despite the criticism, Washington stressed its neutrality in the continuing confrontation between Kocharian and his political opponents.

Pascual, who co-chaired a two-day session of the U.S.-Armenian intergovernmental task force with Finance Minister Vartan Khachatrian, also said that Yerevan would further increase its chances of securing MCA funds by combating endemic corruption in earnest. "We had some very frank discussions about struggle to fight corruption in Armenia and the importance of translating the [government's] anticorruption strategy into specific steps," he said, calling for "concrete examples that can show the population the seriousness of the will to fight corruption."

Khachatrian agreed, saying, "We must do a lot of work to get that assistance." He confirmed that the Armenian government has "in effect" already drawn up a number of specific aid programs that will be submitted to the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a U.S. government agency in charge of the MCA's implementation. He said those programs will be discussed in detail with a team of other U.S. officials who are due to visit Yerevan later this month. The government will also initiate public debate on its proposals, Khachatrian added.

One of Khachatrian's deputies, David Avetisian, told RFE/RL on 17 May that Yerevan will ask for at least $60 million worth of additional U.S. assistance this year.

The task force also discussed the ongoing regular U.S. aid to Armenia which has exceeded $1.5 billion since 1992 and, according to Pascual, will total $94 million this year. More than half of the 2004 funds are to be spent on job creation, poverty reduction, and social services, while $15 million is earmarked for "security and law enforcement," officials said. (Emil Danielyan)

AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITIONIST AGAIN CALLS FOR DIALOGUE, UNITY. Mirmahmud Fattaev, who heads the conservative wing of the divided Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP), has again proposed to Ali Kerimli, leader of the AHCP "reformist" wing, that they meet one on one to discuss the possibility of reuniting their respective wings of the party, the online daily reported on 18 May. But as in the past, Fattaev's proposal is likely to founder over the rivalry between himself and Kerimli, and mutual distrust between the two parties' rank and file. Since the crushing defeat of opposition Musavat party Chairman Isa Qambar in last October's presidential ballot, Kerimli has sought systematically to portray himself as the best, if not the only qualified candidate to reunite the fragmented and demoralized Azerbaijani opposition.

The oldest, and one of the most influential, opposition parties in Azerbaijan, the AHCP split acrimoniously in the late summer of 2000, shortly after the death of its chairman, Abulfaz Elchibey, and during the run-up to the November 2000 parliamentary elections (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 24 August 2000). The Azerbaijani authorities subsequently recognized the "reformist wing" led by Kerimli, which decided to participate in the new parliament, while withholding registration as a separate political party from the "conservative" wing headed by Fattaev, who declared his intention to boycott the new legislature because of the gross procedural violations and falsifications that accompanied the voting (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 10 November 2000).

Fattaev made his first overtures to Kerimli in early 2002, but his bid to reunite the party failed, primarily because of internal opposition within both wings to a merger (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 21 March and 4 April 2002). A parallel effort by Hudrat Hasanquliyev, who was expelled in April from the AHCP "reformist" wing, to expedite the reunification of the party's two wings only deepened the rift between them (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 21 July 2002). Hasanquliyev subsequently created his own party, known as the "Three Gs" (Gruppa Gudrata Gasankulieva) (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 26 August 2002 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 14, 16, and 23 January 2003).

The question of reunification remained on the back burner for the next 18 months as Kerimli devoted his energy to trying to persuade fellow opposition party leaders to align behind a single opposition candidate for the October 2003 presidential ballot. In the aftermath of the election, he has unveiled proposals for reform of the constitution and a sweeping economic-reform program (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 6 February 2004 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 April 2004).

Fattaev proposed in February 2004 to both Kerimli and Hasanquliyev that the three parties again merge. But while Hasanquliyev consented to discuss such a merger, Kerimli said he would consider uniting with Fattaev's wing, but ruled out any rapprochement with Hasanquliyev, who is widely suspected of cooperating clandestinely with the Azerbaijani authorities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 February 2004). In his comments earlier this week to, Fattaev implied, as he had done two years earlier, that the merger was to all intents and purposes a fait accompli. But Kerimli's deputy, Fuad Mustafaev, told the same paper that this is not the case; he added that Fattaev continues to set the same conditions for a merger as before, and that if the "conservatives" were serious about reunification they should convene a party congress to demonstrate broad support for it.

In fact, both Fattaev and Kerimli stand to benefit from reunification, commented. The paper noted that Fattaev's dwindling authority derives primarily from his single-minded devotion to Elchibey (he continued to deny that Elchibey was suffering from cancer until the day before he died of that disease), and his party has in fact become little more than a junior partner to Qambar's Musavat. Fattaev's AHCP wing backed Qambar's presidential candidacy, whereas Kerimli initially registered as the progressive wing's candidate, then withdrew his candidacy in the interests of promoting a single opposition challenger. As for the "reformists," a merger would undercut rumors that they are engaged in clandestine talks with members of President Ilham Aliyev's entourage -- which has done nothing to dispel such rumors.

Past experience suggests, however, that nothing will come of Fattaev's most recent initiative. And the chronic disinclination of diverse opposition parties to form a united front may cost them votes in the municipal elections to be held this fall, and in next year's parliamentary election. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "I don't think that this situation can be characterized as a crisis. There is a problem, but not a crisis." -- Armenian Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, referring to the ongoing opposition campaign to force either President Kocharian's resignation or a nationwide referendum of confidence in him (from an interview published in "Hayots ashkhar" on 15 May).

"We offer apologies to President of the Chechen Republic Ichkeria Aslan Maskhadov that we were not able literally to throw [pro-Moscow Chechen leader Akhmed-hadji] Kadyrov's head at his feet, as we promised one month ago." --Radical Chechen field commander Shamil Basaev, in a statement posted on on 17 May claiming responsibility for Kadyrov's death in a bomb explosion eight days earlier.

"If we encounter Basaev face to face, we shall not try particularly hard to take him alive." -- Artur Akhmedov, head of Kadyrov's security force, quoted by "Kommersant-Daily" on 18 May.

"The fall of [Adjar leader] Aslan Abashidze is the signal for the dissolution of the CIS." -- Stanislav Belkovskii, writing in "Komsomolskaya pravda" of 18 May.