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Caucasus Report: August 5, 2004

5 August 2004, Volume 7, Number 31

Barring a full-fledged war in South Ossetia, a coup in Azerbaijan, or a major new Chechen offensive to retake Grozny, the next issue of "RFE/RL Caucasus Report" will appear on 19 August.

GEORGIA FAILS TO SECURE OSCE SUPPORT OVER SOUTH OSSETIA. On 29 July, Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili formally asked the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna to amend the mandate of its mission in South Ossetia, Caucasus Press reported. Specifically, Zourabichvili asked that the OSCE increase the number of its observers and deploy them across the territory of the unrecognized republic, including at the entrance to the Roki tunnel where they would inspect all freight transported from Russia to South Ossetia to preclude shipments of arms reaching the unrecognized republic's leadership. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili had discussed the possibility of expanding the OSCE presence in South Ossetia during a 14 July telephone conversation with OSCE Chairman in Office and Bulgarian Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi, Caucasus Press reported on 15 July. Zourabichvili told the Permanent Council that the South Ossetian leadership has a vested interest in preserving the current tense situation, dpa reported on 30 July. She said Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is against resorting to military action against South Ossetia, but that stability and security must be restored lest Georgia "lose everything we have gained since the Rose Revolution" that brought Saakashvili to power in November 2003.

The OSCE Permanent Council failed to take an immediate decision in response to Zourabichvili's request, according to Caucasus Press on 30 July. But instead it proposed opening field offices in districts of South Ossetia where tensions are most acute, an offer that Georgia reportedly declined. The head of the OSCE Office in Tbilisi, Roy Reeve, was quoted by Caucasus Press on 5 August as having told the independent television station Rustavi-2 following a visit to Tskhinvali the previous day that the Permanent Council would decide on 5 August to extend the mission's mandate. Meanwhile, OSCE Chairman in Office Pasi issued a statement in Sofia on 30 July expressing his "deep concern" at the recent deterioration in the situation in the conflict zone and calling on "both sides" to remove immediately unauthorized check points, withdraw from the conflict zone "all paramilitary and police personnel not required for normal policing duties," and demobilize local "self defense units."

Russia, which Tbilisi apparently hopes the international community will brand as the real villain behind its standoff with South Ossetia, denounced the Georgian proposal to expand the OSCE mission's mandate as inherently unworkable, Interfax and ITAR-TASS reported on 31 July. A statement posted on the website of the Russian Foreign Ministry ( accused the Georgian authorities of deliberately misrepresenting the situation in South Ossetia, "turning things upside down" in an attempt to offload on to the South Ossetian leadership the responsibility for their own unspecified "mistakes." It specifically decried the Georgian proposal to deploy observers along the South Ossetian section of Georgia's border with Russia (although such observers have monitored the Georgian border with Chechnya for the past several years.) The Russian Foreign Ministry stressed that the primary objective of the OSCE's mandate in South Ossetia remains helping to promote a peaceful political solution to the conflict.

In what may prove to be merely a token gesture toward defusing tensions, the Joint Control Commission that monitors developments in the conflict zone, and on which Georgia, Russia, and South Ossetia are represented, decided on 31 July to set up a control post manned by representatives of all three parties near the Georgian-populated village of Tamarasheni, which reportedly came under artillery fire from South Ossetian positions during the night of 29-30 July (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 July 2004).

Whether such moves are adequate to prevent a major outbreak of hostilities is questionable, however. South Ossetian officials allege that Georgia has deployed up to 3,000 Interior Ministry troops to the conflict zone. And according to the commander of the Russian peacekeeping contingent in the conflict zone, Major General Svyatoslav Nabdzorov, Mikheil Kareli, the youthful Georgian governor of the region that theoretically encompasses South Ossetia, has distributed weapons to local youths of 15-17 who do not even know how to use them, Caucasus Press reported on 30 July. Indeed, the greatest danger may be that a random exchange of small-arms or artillery fire could trigger an unintended major Georgian offensive.

To date, all military action on the Georgian side has been undertaken by Interior Ministry troops, reportedly on occasion under the personal command of Interior Minister Irakli Okruashvili (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 July 2004). Georgian Defense Minister Giorgi Baramidze told journalists in Tbilisi on 9 July that Georgian Army units will be sent to the conflict zone only in the event of large-scale hostilities, ITAR-TASS reported. The use of Interior Ministry forces, rather than the army, is dictated in part by the terms of the June 1992 agreement ending 18 months of increasingly bloody fighting in South Ossetia, and which mandated the deployment of a maximum of 500 Georgian Interior Ministry forces in the conflict zone. The sidelining of the regular army may be particularly galling to Baramidze, who has adopted a more hawkish stance in his condemnations of South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity than have most other senior Georgian officials. Caucasus Press on 10 July quoted Baramidze as comparing talks with Kokoity to "negotiating with a terrorist," while the website of the independent television station Rustavi-2 quoted Baramidze as predicting that "Kokoity will pay dearly for everything."

In addition, Baramidze himself was interior minister until quite recently (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 10 June 2004), which raises the question: Was his transfer from the Interior Ministry to the Defense Ministry perhaps intended partly to preclude the possibility that he might overreact in an anticipated standoff with South Ossetia? Not only has Baramidze been deprived of the chance to participate personally in a campaign to neutralize a man he clearly loathes but, according to the findings of an opinion poll conducted by the weekly "Kviris palitra" and summarized by Caucasus Press on 2 August, Okruashvili is currently the most-trusted minister in Georgia, at least partly as a result of his hands-on role in South Ossetia. Baramidze, who according to the "Financial Times" on 11 May enjoyed "near pop-star status" as interior minister, now ranks in third place, after Foreign Minister Zourabichvili. (Liz Fuller)

FORMER SENIOR AZERBAIJANI OFFICIAL WARNS OF IMMINENT COUP. The online daily "Ekho" on 4 August quoted former Baku mayor Rafael Allakhverdiev as announcing that he plans to convene a major press conference at which he will make public materials compromising presidential administration head Ramiz Mekhtiev, whom he has publicly accused of corruption (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 July 2004). Allakhverdiev accused Mekhtiev of orchestrating the ongoing campaign of pressure against himself and members of his family, stressing that President Ilham Aliyev is not behind that pressure. There has been bad blood between Allakhverdiev and Mekhtiev for years, even though both were among the closest associates of deceased former President Heidar Aliyev. In October 2000, Allakhverdiev complained about Mekhtiev's unhelpful and uncooperative attitude, and implied that he considered him a pernicious influence on then President Aliyev (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 13 and 27 October 2000).

"Ekho" also quoted Allakhverdiev as saying he is "extremely concerned" by the plans of unnamed powerful individuals within the top leadership who, he alleged, are preparing "anticonstitutional actions." In that context, he warned that "the possibility of an anticonstitutional coup in Azerbaijan is very great."

Allakhverdiev predicted that "some forces" may attempt to strip him of the immunity from prosecution he enjoys as a parliament deputy (he represents the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party) in a bid to prevent him from making further damaging disclosures, but vowed that no such pressure will have the desired effect, and that he is intent on "trying to avert the major cataclysms which I foresee."

Meanwhile, the acrimonious exchange of insults and mutual accusations between Allakhverdiev and his successor as Baku mayor, Hadjibala Abutalibov, shows no sign of abating. Allakhverdiev was summoned on 2 August for the third time to the Prosecutor-General's Office to answer questions concerning his former deputies' involvement in the embezzlement of funds awarded as compensation to Baku residents whose homes were demolished during reconstruction work at the U.S. embassy (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 June and 8 September 2003). After 10 hours of interrogation, Allakhverdiev was hospitalized with circulatory problems, the opposition daily "Azadlig" reported on 3 August.

Late last month, Abutalibov brought a criminal case for libel against both Allakhverdiev and the opposition newspaper "Yeni Musavat," which published damaging statements about Abutalibov by Allakhverdiev, according to "525-gazeti" on 28 July. The court hearing has been scheduled for 12 August, "Yeni Musavat" reported on 4 August. (Liz Fuller)

NEW GOVERNMENT BODY TO COORDINATE ARMENIAN POLICY ON EU. The Armenian government has set up a special high-level body tasked with coordinating its policy on the European Union and promoting closer ties with the bloc, Samvel Mkrtchian, who is head of the European directorate at the Armenian Foreign Ministry, told RFE/RL on 30 July. "The government has decided to create a commission that will develop a national program of implementing the [Armenia-EU] Partnership and Cooperation Agreement," Mkrtchian said.

"We still have large room for developing our relations within the framework of that partnership agreement," he said, referring to the document which was signed in 1999. He said the commission is headed by Prime Minister Andranik Markarian and comprises senior representatives of "all ministries and government agencies that deal with the European Union in one way or another."

The agreement provides the legal framework for Armenia's political and economic relationships with the EU. One of its key stated aims is to promote democracy, the rule of law, and the respect for human rights in the country. The EU has signed similar agreements with neighboring Azerbaijan and Georgia.

Mkrtchian acknowledged that the increased urgency of putting that agreement into practice results from the recent inclusion of Armenia and the two other South Caucasus states in the EU's European Neighborhood Policy. The move raised the prospect of increased EU assistance to the three impoverished nations and their easier access to the world's wealthiest single market. But European diplomats have been at pains to caution that none of the countries will be able to draw material benefits from the scheme before 2007. They say each of them will have to agree with the EU separate "action plans" on economic and political reforms that will determine the extent of their integration.

According to Mkrtchian, the EU, for its part, is to come up with an "assessment document" detailing Armenia's reform priorities. "That assessment will serve as a basis for the action plan," he explained. (Armen Zakarian)

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK. "If you can name even one minister who takes bribes, I shall be very surprised, but Minister of Internal Affairs Irakli Okruashvili will be glad." -- Georgian Economy and Finance Minister Kakha Bendukidze, speaking at a government session on 4 August (quoted by Caucasus Press).