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Caucasus Report: November 28, 2002

28 November 2002, Volume 5, Number 38

GEORGIAN, ARMENIAN PRESIDENTS SPEAK AT RFE/RL. In separate addresses at RFE/RL's Prague headquarters on the sidelines of the 21-22 November NATO summit, Eduard Shevardnadze and Robert Kocharian discussed their respective attitudes to democratization, NATO expansion, and regional security.

Shevardnadze stressed during his 21 November speech that Georgia has historically always been a part of Europe in terms of culture and mentality and that despite "hellish difficulties" over the past decade, including the threat of civil war, territorial conflicts, economic collapse, and the virtual disintegration of its infrastructure, it has nonetheless succeeded in building a democratic state. He said he believes his greatest achievement as Georgia's leader has been to consolidate his country's freedom, and he expressed the hope that Georgia will ultimately find itself within a security system in which it will no longer be threatened (he did not say by whom).

Shevardnadze pointed out that NATO was established to fulfill a specific function and that the ideas on which NATO was founded will not change as long as threats persist to the freedom of its members. He greeted the formal invitation to join the alliance extended earlier that day to seven former Eastern European states, including Romania and Bulgaria. The membership of those two countries in NATO, he said, will increase its focus on the Black Sea region.

Shevardnadze reaffirmed his commitment to securing NATO membership for Georgia, which he said would result in permanent guarantees of the country's security. But at the same time, he acknowledged that Georgia is far from meeting NATO standards and that preparations for accession, which he described as "not a reward but a huge responsibility," will take "not one year and not two." (Speaking in Tbilisi the previous day, Minister of State Avtandil Djorbenadze had predicted that Georgia could be accepted into full NATO membership within two or three years.)

As the most serious obstacles to Georgia's acceptance into NATO, Shevardnadze singled out the economic situation and the need to restore the central government's control over the unrecognized breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He avoided a direct answer to a question about what specialized skills the Georgian armed forces could bring to an enlarged NATO.

Asked whether the presence of Russian military bases on Georgian territory constitutes a barrier to NATO membership, Shevardnadze pointed that Russia signed an agreement (at the OSCE Istanbul summit in November 1999) outlining the time frame for the closure of its four bases in Georgia. It has partly complied with that agreement, but at present does not have the $80 million needed to finance the closure of two remaining bases. Georgia must be realistic, Shevardnadze said, in the face of Russia's delaying tactics, adding, however, that the Russians must leave as soon as possible -- "there is no other alternative," he said.

In his address to RFE/RL on 22 November, Armenian President Robert Kocharian vowed to ensure that the February 2003 presidential election is free and democratic. He argued that by doing so, he is helping the Armenian people and state, rather than the opposition. In September, Kocharian had expressed regret that the opposition could not agree on a single candidate to run against him, reasoning that a two-candidate race would obviate the need for a runoff and thus save the country political tensions and scarce financial resources (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 September 2002). Some observers construed that argument as an indication that Kocharian's supporters would not shrink from manipulating the results in order to ensure his victory in the first round. Kocharian added that his presidential campaign and program will differ greatly from that of five years ago, because Armenia has made great progress over that time both in terms of democratization and economic growth.

Touching on his hour-long meeting on 21 November with his Azerbaijani counterpart Heidar Aliev, Kocharian acknowledged that some observers have questioned the rationale for continuing such meetings, given that they have not yet yielded a breakthrough in resolving the Karabakh conflict. Kocharian explained that he and Aliyev agree that it is better to meet than not to meet in order to maintain the 1994 cease-fire and that the meetings contribute to finding a solution to what he termed "a highly complex issue." He added that he and Aliyev have by now a pretty good idea of each other's approach to resolving the conflict and what the other side considers acceptable. He admitted, however, that no final peace deal should be expected before next year's presidential elections in both Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Kocharian said that the leadership of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic has mandated him to negotiate on its behalf, but he admitted that it will ultimately become difficult to make any further progress toward a settlement unless representatives of the republic join the negotiations as a direct participant. He did not, however, offer any indication of when and under what conditions that might become feasible.

Kocharian reaffirmed one of the most basic tenets of Armenia's security policy, namely that it values, and seeks to expand, cooperation with NATO but does not intend to seek NATO membership. "I think that the line to get into NATO is long enough already," he quipped. But at the same time, he pointed out that improved relations between the Atlantic alliance and Russia could facilitate the emergence of a new security system in the South Caucasus, possibly on the lines of what he proposed in his speech to the 1999 OSCE summit in Istanbul (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 November 1999 and "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 21 January, 14 April, and 15 June 2000).

Asked how Armenia views Georgia's aspiration to NATO membership, Kocharian said every state is free to decide its foreign-policy priorities and its place in existing security systems. But at the same time, he made the point that "the South a very sensitive place because there are historically shaped influences and powerful neighbors each of which has its own interests in this region. In this light, it is necessary to have a balanced and cautious approach in order not to create new dividing lines in the region."

As for relations with Turkey, Kocharian reaffirmed that Armenia is ready to establish diplomatic relations and open borders with no preconditions. (Liz Fuller)

COULD THE TAJIK PEACE PROCESS SERVE AS A MODEL FOR CHECHNYA? "Moskovskie novosti" on 12 November summarized proposals drafted by unidentified Russian diplomats who were involved in mediating an end to the 1992-1997 Tajik civil war and who have suggested that that experience could prove valid and beneficial in trying to bring about a peaceful settlement to the ongoing war in Chechnya. Their proposals complement and elaborate upon suggestions made by former Russian Foreign Minister Yevgenii Primakov in a chapter from his book "The World After September 11" titled "Six Points About Chechnya." That chapter was published on 10 September in "Rossiiskaya gazeta" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 September 2002). As head of Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service from 1991 to 1996, Primakov was directly involved in the Tajik peace process.

Primakov's "six Chechen points" are as follows. First, the civilian Chechen population should be protected more effectively from reprisals by the Chechen militants. This argument is specious insofar as Chechen civilians suffer more from arbitrary looting, hostage taking, murder, rape, and the destruction of their homes by Russian troops than from terrorist activities by the Chechen resistance, which are aimed specifically at the Russian forces and those Chechen officials who cooperate with the Moscow-backed Chechen government. Some Chechen villages have been subjected to search operations by Russian troops between 20 and 30 times since the start of the current war. Yet Primakov seeks to pin the blame for the "sweep" operations on the Chechen militants, arguing that such operations would not be necessary if the Chechen militants did not take refuge in Chechen villages.

Second, Moscow should embark on peace talks with those Chechen field commanders who are ready for such talks, as plans to hold a referendum and new elections in Chechnya will not of themselves help to stabilize the situation there. Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov has repeatedly expressed his readiness for talks with no preconditions. Yet even before last month's theater hostage taking in Moscow by Chechen radicals, Russian officials argued that the only topic on which peace talks could be conducted with Maskhadov was the conditions on which he and his men would surrender unconditionally. And since the hostage taking, which Russian leaders claim Maskhadov condoned and approved, the percentage of Russians who hold a negative opinion of Maskhadov has reached 70 percent, while 45 percent of those questioned in a recent poll (summarized by Interfax on 21 November) are against any peace talks with the Chechen resistance. Those figures are an additional disincentive for the Russian leadership to embark on peace talks with moderate representatives of the Chechen resistance that could be sabotaged by new terrorist attacks by the radical wing.

Third, prior to any peace negotiations, the field commanders involved must publicly foreswear any terrorist acts. And the start of peace talks with those field commanders who do so should not preclude continued military activity against those irreconcilable Chechen elements who reject negotiations. That point may, however, already be obsolete: In the wake of the Moscow hostage taking Russian officials are increasingly inclined to argue indiscriminately that all Chechen field commanders espouse terrorism and therefore "there is no one left to negotiate with."

Fourth, Russia should make it clear to the leaders of neighboring North Caucasus republics that they will be held responsible if they enable Chechen fighters to use their territory for logistical or other purposes. Curiously, Primakov did not mention Georgia in this context.

Fifth, President Vladimir Putin should appoint a personal representative to govern Chechnya. That representative would "be in charge of everything in Chechnya, including the economy, armed actions against rebels, and political work with the population," and the Russian Defense Ministry, Interior Ministry, and FSB forces currently deployed there would all be subordinate to him.

Sixth, Moscow should launch a concerted public-relations operation to convince international opinion that the ongoing hostilities in Chechnya indeed constitute an "antiterrorism" operation and to win backing for that crackdown. Russian officials have argued this point with redoubled fervor since the Moscow theater hostage taking, which, in turn, has made some Western politicians more sympathetic to that argument.

The advocates of applying the experience gained during the Tajik peace process to the present situation in Chechnya mainly focus and expand on Primakov's first and second points, namely the need to begin peace talks. But their basic premise, that the conflict in Chechnya, like that in Tajikistan, is one between two Chechen factions and that Russia is fighting on the side of one of those factions, is fallacious, although it was true at the onset of the first Chechen war, when Russia covertly backed attempts in October-November 1994 by Umar Avturkhanov's Provisional Council to overthrow then-Chechen President Djokhar Dudaev.

The promoters of the "Tajik variant" further argue that peace talks in Chechnya should focus, as in Tajikistan, on the conditions on which the Chechen resistance would be prepared to disarm and the benefits it would receive for doing so, which in the Tajik case included the possibility of individual groups of Tajik fighters being absorbed into the country's police or armed forces and 30 percent representation for the former opposition in government at both the national and local levels. The Russian diplomats apparently fail, however, to examine in detail the implications for this proposal of one of the two key differences they point out between the two conflicts, namely, that Tajikistan was (and remains) an independent country, while Chechnya is, and under any peace proposal acceptable to Moscow must remain, a constituent part of the Russian Federation. Chechnya will not have its own armed forces, there is a limit to the number of former Chechen militants that its police force can absorb, and the Russian top brass is not likely to welcome the prospect of the remainder being incorporated into the Russian Army.

They also argue that, as was the case in Tajikistan, even those field commanders known to have committed atrocities should not be barred from participation in eventual peace talks. But having pledged to wipe out the remaining Chechen field commanders on the grounds of their alleged complicity in the Moscow hostage taking, the Russian leadership is likely to reject that proposal as anathema. In short, in Tajikistan, Russia could afford to push solutions that it considers totally unacceptable in the domestic context.

The second key difference the unidentified diplomats pinpoint between the Tajik and Chechen conflicts is the role of Russia. They point out that Russia was in a position to mediate, together with other interested countries, in the Tajik talks but cannot do so in the Chechen case. They therefore propose that Tatarstan assume the role of mediator in Chechen peace talks. Tatar President Mintimer Shaimiev, one of the leaders of the Unified Russia party, was one of four prominent Russian politicians, together with former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, Krasnoyarsk Krai Governor Aleksandr Lebed, and then-CIS Executive Secretary Boris Berezovskii, who appealed in 1998 to then-Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko to formulate a "coherent policy" vis-a-vis Chechnya in the wake of a failed attempt to assassinate Maskhadov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 and 31 July 1998).

There is, moreover, one further point not addressed in the "Moskovskie novosti" article but that could be adduced as an argument against applying the Tajik approach to Chechnya. Several prominent Tajik field commanders who now occupy top government posts managed to preserve their former military contingents as virtual private armies, thereby posing a long-term threat to President Imomali Rakhmonov. They include Minister for Emergency Situations Mirzo Zieev and Major General Sukhrob Kasymov, who heads the Interior Ministry's special-assignment brigade.

A similar situation emerged in Chechnya in 1997 when Chechen field commanders who rose to prominence during the 1994-1996 war retained their respective units under the guise of the National Guard, the Islamic Regiment, or some other title. Having failed the first time around to disarm the former Chechen resistance, Moscow is unlikely to make the same mistake again. Indeed, that failure to disarm the Chechen militants in 1997, which made possible Shamil Basaev's ill-fated incursion into Daghestan in August 1999, may well be one of the reasons behind Putin's avowed determination to "wipe out [the remaining Chechen fighters] in the outhouse." (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "In the first instance, it must be made very clear that the imminent NATO expansion will not impinge on Russia's legitimate security interests." -- Russian presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembskii, writing in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" on 20 November.

"I believe that NATO is a regional organization that cannot expand infinitely in all directions. Such an expansion would have little point, as the alliance would ultimately no longer be in a position to define clearly its relations with others if it no longer had a clear concept of its own identity. NATO expansion definitely has limits, and this should be the subject of an open, unemotional debate." -- Czech President Vaclav Havel, quoted by the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" on 20 November.

"NATO is now going to become a military alliance for the first time in its history. What you've seen in the last couple of days is that NATO is going to become the new definition of the international community." -- Unidentified senior NATO diplomat, quoted by "The Wall Street Journal" on 26 November.

"Stalin would never have allowed Georgia's accession to NATO.... Shevardnadze is making a fatal mistake." -- Stalin's grandson Yevgenii Djughashvili, quoted by "RFE/RL Caucasus Report" on 21 November.