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Caucasus Report: June 20, 2002

20 June 2002, Volume 5, Number 22

RUSSIA STRONG-ARMS GEORGIA OVER FRAMEWORK TREATY. Since the collapse of the USSR in late 1991, Georgian-Russian relations have been marred by constant tensions and mutual recriminations, first over Russia's role in the Abkhaz conflict, then over Georgia's increasingly bold pro-Western and pro-NATO orientation, and most recently as a result of the presence in Georgia of Chechen militants. Acknowledging that such tensions are in the interest of neither country, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, agreed in December 2000 on the need to draft a new bilateral framework treaty to supercede that signed by Shevardnadze and Boris Yeltsin in 1994. Shevardnadze had argued the need for a new framework treaty at an earlier meeting with Putin in August 2000, pointing out that the 1994 treaty was already out of date. (The Georgian parliament ratified that pact in 1995, but the Duma never did so.)

Even before the December 2000 meeting between Putin and Shevardnadze, the Georgian Foreign Ministry had begun work on a new draft treaty on friendship, cooperation, and good-neighborly relations which was completed in late March 2001 and endorsed by the National Security Council in May. In mid-June, Deputy Foreign Minister Merab Antadze said Moscow had been informed that the Georgian draft was ready. But although Shevardnadze and Putin had agreed in December 2000 that the two drafts should be completed within two months, as of September 2001 the Russian side still had not finished work on its version.

It was finally agreed in October that teams from the two countries' foreign ministries would meet in Tbilisi in mid-November to begin the work of coordinating a final version on the basis of the two drafts. In the event, however, that meeting was delayed until December due to the domestic political crisis that erupted in Georgia in early November, and only the Georgian draft was discussed. (The newspaper "Alia" on 24 October quoted Irakli Gogava, chairman of the Georgian parliament's subcommittee for CIS affairs, as saying the one major difference between the 1994 treaty and the new draft was that the latter did not include in its title the term "friendship.")

A second round of talks, to review the Russian version, was scheduled for Moscow in mid-January but postponed first until late January and then until mid-February. The third round of talks was similarly first scheduled for mid-March, then postponed until April -- and then postponed again following the crisis in diplomatic relations that followed the abortive attempt by Russian peacekeeping troops to set up a monitoring post in Abkhazia's Kodori Gorge (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 and 15 April 2002).

That third round of talks, which addressed economic and humanitarian aspects of bilateral relations, finally took place in Tbilisi on 10-11 June. A fourth round, on military and political issues, is scheduled for mid-July.

Following the third round of talks, Georgia's ambassador to Moscow, Zurab Abashidze, expressed the hope that the final version of the treaty will be ready to submit to the Russian and Georgian presidents for their approval and signature "soon." He told RIA-Novosti on 14 June that, "We would like to restore Russian-Georgian relations to normal and natural conditions and reach a completely new level in order to elaborate a model of cooperation between a large and small country." Shevardnadze for his part said on 17 June that he believes the treaty will be signed in the fall.

In accordance with accepted diplomatic practice, both Russian and Georgian official comment on the progress of the talks has been positive but vague. But one of the participants in a roundtable discussion broadcast by RFE/RL's Georgian Service on 12 June highlighted one unpublicized aspect of those talks that, he said, gives rise for concern. Parliament deputy Yurii Chikhradze, who is deputy chairman of Georgia's Socialist Party, said that during the process of coordinating the Russian and Georgian drafts of the framework treaty the Russian delegation has made a large number of demands which go beyond those it has made of either Moldova or Armenia, despite Moscow's extremely cordial relations with Armenia. Specifically, Chikhradze said, Moscow is demanding that Georgia be described in that treaty as a "strategic partner" of Russia. He said this demand has been under discussion for six months (presumably since the first round of talks in December) and that the Georgian leadership has not stated publicly that it is under pressure to agree to it.

The other participant in the discussion, Aleksandre Rondeli, who heads the Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, pointed out that "strategic partnership" is a formula that can be interpreted in different ways, and Russia's insistence on it in this context does not necessarily imply major concessions on Tbilisi's part. Rondeli predicted that, in the course of further negotiations, the nature of the "strategic partnership" Russia is insisting on will be specified and that the phrasing may well be modified and toned down. From which one could infer that, to paraphrase George Orwell, "all partnerships are strategic, but some partnerships are more strategic than others." (Liz Fuller)

KADYROV MARKS TWO YEARS IN OFFICE. Two years ago, President Putin named Chechen mufti Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov as head of the interim Chechen administration (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 June 2000). Kadyrov has thus occupied the post of Russia's chosen administrator in Chechnya for longer than both the puppet leaders who served in that capacity during the first Chechen war (Salambek Khadjiev from March-October 1995 and Doku Zavgaev from October 1995-November 1996). Seven months later, in January 2001, Kadyrov was confirmed in that position and granted powers to form a government (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 4, 25 January 2001). And last month Putin extended his powers even further, formally authorizing him to appoint ministers without first seeking the approval of presidential envoy to the South Russia Federal District Viktor Kazantsev.

During his two years in office, Kadyrov, who turned 50 in August, has survived several assassination attempts and two major standoffs with Beslan Gantemirov, the controversial former Grozny mayor for whom the term "loose cannon" could have been invented. And yet, as "Nezavisimaya gazeta" recently pointed out, current media reports of the situation in Chechnya are virtually identical to reports published two years ago. On the military front, Russian forces and Chechen fighters are engaged in a low-level guerrilla war marked by ambushes, the laying of landmines, and sporadic skirmishes involving small numbers of combatants. Meanwhile, Russian troops conduct repeated search operations in Chechen villages, looting and indiscriminately killing civilians as they proceed. And the Russian-installed administration tries to create the impression that normal life is being restored at least in the northern, lowland levels of the republic, where schools, hospitals, and infrastructure are reportedly being restored.

Parallel to those efforts, elections have been held for a deputy to represent Chechnya in the Russian State Duma (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 August 2000), and a constitution has been drafted that is designed to help Kadyrov achieve his stated ambition of being elected Chechen president (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 5, No. 17, 17 May 2002).

Kadyrov's political survival has been attributed to the fact that he enjoys the support of Putin and Kazantsev on the one hand, and of the Russian military on the other. But reports have surfaced in the past of tensions between Kadyrov and Prime Minister Stanislav Ilyasov, the one senior official not subordinate to him (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 36, 29 October 2001). But even that challenge to his authority may soon disappear: "Izvestiya" on 18 June quoted Chechen Deputy Premier Jan Sergunin, the third-most-influential official in Chechnya after Kadyrov and Ilyasov, as predicting that Ilyasov's days as prime minister are numbered. (Liz Fuller)

MEDIA FUNDING IN ARMENIA REMAINS LESS THAN TRANSPARENT. Aram Abrahamian needs an extra 2 million drams (about $3,500) each month to be a happy man. That, says the editor of "Aravot," would spare one of Armenia's leading newspapers the routine headache of scrambling for funds to pay for its printing and other production costs. That is quite a sum for the paper, whose net monthly revenues from sales and advertising do not exceed 5 million drams.

So where does it hope to get the money? "From political, official and business circles," Abrahamian replies smilingly. "Unfortunately, things are now not so good that I can get the entire sum from one source and live comfortably. I have to beg for the money."

Abrahamian's woes are typical of the vast majority of Armenian newspapers that are far from being self-sufficient, let alone profitable. Their main preoccupation is how to close budget gaps arising from their poor commercial performance. Recourse to so-called "sponsors," their editors admit, is the most common way of staying afloat. That, as one Western media watchdog put it recently, leaves Armenia's print media "at the mercy of government officials and wealthy sponsors."

No wonder that most publications have little incentive to improve the quality of their reporting, which still leaves much to be desired after 12 years of overall press freedom. Nor do they see an urgent need to become truly commercial by attracting more readers and boosting their extremely low circulation.

There is, however, one newspaper that claims to have extricated itself from this predicament. The "Iravunk" (Right) biweekly, which is close to a small opposition party, the Union of Constitutional Rights, prints the highest number of copies per issue: 15,000. It tends to present news from the leftist and somewhat nationalist perspectives.

"Our main source of revenues is sales [circulation]. That is followed by advertising," says "Iravunk" editor, Hovannes Galajian. Most publications aspire to see those numbers reversed.

But Gagik Mkrtchian, the editor of the "Hayots Ashkhar" (Armenian World) and a staunch supporter of President Robert Kocharian, dismisses such claims of self-sufficiency as "fairy tales." He says: "All newspapers have sponsors. One paper could cover 30 percent of its costs, another one 50 percent. Unfortunately, no media outlet can survive without sponsors."

Mkrtchian does not deny that his newspaper is mainly funded by Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, Kocharian's most powerful associate. "I don't think it is appropriate to talk about the financial situation of my newspaper and the names of its sponsors. I will never find it shameful to accept aid from a person like Serzh Sarkisian."

"Hayots Ashkhar" is not the only publication with which Sarkisian has had links. Abrahamian stunned many people in 1999 when he revealed that "Aravot" (Morning) had been funded by the minister for the past two years. He said the payments began in 1997 when Sarkisian was serving as national security minister in the administration of then-President Levon Ter-Petrosian, whom "Aravot" has always supported. The liberal daily has never forgiven Kocharian and his allies for forcing Ter-Petrosian to step down in February 1998. Hence, its hard-hitting coverage of the current regime.

Abrahamian says if the powerful defense chief offers to resume the funding he will "think" before accepting or rejecting the money. "Taking money for publishing a newspaper is the same as taking a stone for hewing. I don't see anything bad in it," he explains.

His comments are echoed by Nikol Pashinian, the young editor of "Haykakan Zhamanak" (Armenian Time), another pro-opposition daily. One of the country's best-selling periodicals, it prints only 3,500 copies a day to avoid higher production costs. "We cover 80 percent of our costs from our sales," Pashinian says, adding that the remaining 20 percent comes from "business circles" which he refuses to name. He says the sponsors do not decide on the content of his paper because they only want to "promote liberal values" in Armenia.

A brief look at the Armenian print media is enough to understand why local businesspeople prefer sponsorship to ownership and rarely order newspaper advertisements. There now exist seven national dailies, two biweeklies, and two weeklies offering a broad range of opinion. All but one are privately owned, belonging to their editors, staff, or political parties. At least six of them support Kocharian despite occasionally criticizing some government policies. Their average print run is between 4,000 and 5,000 -- the main reason why they are unattractive to major business advertisers. The latter prefer to deal with national and regional television stations that have far bigger audiences and are mostly profitable.

Businesspeople giving cash to the newspapers seem to be doing so for political considerations. Those who have close government connections are simply told by their political patrons to help the pro-presidential media. The Russian-language newspaper "Golos Armenii" (Voice of Armenia), for example, is rumored to be sponsored by a local bank which is linked to Aleksan Harutiunian, a top Kocharian aide.

Things are less clear-cut in the case of pro-opposition media funding. The money appears to come mainly from opposition politicians or their cronies involved in business. This is especially true of "Aravot" and "Haykakan Zhamanak," whose editors complain that many entrepreneurs are wary of placing their advertisements in the anti-Kocharian publications for fear of government retribution. They therefore want to change the existing political order by helping the liberal-minded independent media, the editors claim.

Says Pashinian: "They are sponsoring us because we are saying what they can't say [openly]. In Armenia, the authorities can ruin any business in half an hour."

Just like "Aravot" and "Haykakan Zhamanak," those businessmen are likely to be sympathetic to Ter-Petrosian. Gurgen Arsenian of the Arsoil petrol company and Khachatur Sukiasian, the owner of the SIL group, are thought to be among them. Both men built their fortunes under the former regime and are now independent members of the Armenian parliament. They admit "helping" some media but deny having any political agendas except the promotion of "liberal ideas."

Sukiasian, who is one of Armenia's wealthiest people, claims that publications with different political orientations frequently turn to him for assistance and that he never refuses them. But with altruism not commonplace in modern-day Armenia, that kind of assistance should come at a cost. According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), severe financial constraints are limiting the influence and independence of the Armenian media.

"Dire economic conditions proved to be the greatest obstacle for the independent media in Armenia," CPJ said in its annual report on press freedom in Armenia released in March. As a result, the report concluded, Armenian journalists "censored themselves and slanted their reporting in exchange for the financial support of wealthy patrons." (Ruzanna Khachatrian)

NOT GOING TO THE DOGS. Azerbaijan may not have qualified for this summer's World Cup football championships, but in at least one other field it has scored a modest success. A survey published in "Zerkalo" on 1 June of this summer's international dog shows in Baku and Tbilisi quoted international judges as praising a marked improvement in the general standard of several breeds.

But detailed comments, together with photos of specific winners, suggest that some breeds may not meet all international standards. The champion Doberman pinscher, for example, had spindlier hind legs than is the norm, while the German shepherd champion was smaller than the average for the breed (perhaps 3-4 inches shorter at the shoulder than the German shepherds this author encountered daily while RFE/RL was still headquartered in Munich). "Zerkalo" admitted that the breeding of German shepherds in Azerbaijan is "chaotic" and "indiscriminate." The winning rottweiler, too, appeared to be on the small side.

By contrast, the champion English cocker spaniel, with his nobly domed cranium, broad muzzle, muscular torso, and meticulously combed ears and feathers would have given many Crufts champions a run for their money. But both cocker spaniels and "Russian spaniels," not to speak of setters and pointers, are said to be a rarity at Azerbaijani dog shows. What is more, the Azerbaijani hunting fraternity tends to keep its dogs exclusively for working purposes and eschew shows.

In addition to the widespread "inbridingi" mentioned by "Zerkalo," a second possible explanation for the apparent discrepancy between the standard of the larger dogs compared with the smaller breeds is that some owners may simply not have been able to afford to provide rottweilers and Doberman pinschers with the optimum high-protein diet. Measured against the average per capita income, the cost of keeping a Doberman pinscher in Azerbaijan is probably close to that of maintaining a racehorse in western Europe.

A special place in dog-breeding in the South Caucasus belongs to the local Caucasian sheepdog, the hero of Georgii Vladimov's de-Stalinization novel "Faithful Ruslan" and, according to Caucasus Press, the devoted companion of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze. But here, too, it was admitted that standards in Azerbaijan could be higher. (Regrettably, "Zerkalo" did not send a journalist to attend the exhibit of Caucasian sheepdogs in Batumi on 27 April, at which Shevardnadze's Batura vied with a dog belonging to Adjar Supreme Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze and 520 other representatives of the breed.)

One possible reason for the decline in standards among show-bred Caucasian sheepdogs is that those young dogs which display the breed's notorious aggressiveness are prized for another purpose. On 3 February, according to Turan, 12 Caucasian sheepdogs participated in an illegal dog-fight in Nakhichevan which attracted nearly 100 spectators, including some high-ranking police officers. Most of the spectators arrived in Mercedes or BMW cars; the average bet was $100 and the grand prize $1,200, in comparison with which the 10-kilogram bags of Chappi presented to the winners at the Baku shows are small beer indeed. (Liz Fuller)

STATISTIC OF THE WEEK: The total monthly fines imposed by traffic police in Azerbaijan for violations amount to 525 million manats ($108,247), Colonel Ramiz Zeynalov, head of the State Road Police Department said in his interview with TURAN on 17 June. The total number of registered vehicles in Azerbaijan is 460,000. Over 1 million of the country's 8.17 million people have a driver's license.

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK: "Such a famous politician as I am does not need to falsify elections to come to power." -- Azerbaijan's President Heidar Aliev, addressing the parliament of the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic on 18 June (quoted by Turan).