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Caucasus Report: March 24, 2000

24 March 2000, Volume 3, Number 12

Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Pays Low-Key Visit To Tehran. Vilayat Guliev travelled to Tehran last week on a two-day visit that was intended to finalize preparations for an anticipated state visit to Iran by Azerbaijan's President Heidar Aliev. Last fall, it was announced that that visit, originally scheduled for September, would take place before the end of the year (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 2, No. 41, 14 October 1999). On 1 February, Guliev predicted that the presidential visit would take place in February or March. Coverage of Guliev's trip to Iran by IRNA and Turan referred passim to Aliev's "upcoming" visit. But no date for it has been officially announced, nor was any press conference convened or Foreign Ministry statement issued after Guliev's return from Tehran.

Guliev's talks with Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, Iranian parliament speaker Ali-Aqbar Nateq-Nouri, and his Iranian counterpart Kamal Kharrazi reportedly also focused on bilateral relations in general, regional security, the Karabakh conflict, and the prospects for expanding economic cooperation, especially in the sphere of oil and gas.

Discussing regional security, Khatami noted that it is "contingent on strengthening ties based on mutual understanding and the principle of non-interference in each other's affairs." That statement could be construed as a possible oblique warning against attempts by some Azerbaijani opposition parties to promote national self-awareness, or even separatist aspirations, among Iran's sizable ethnic Azeri population. But equally, it may have been intended as reassurance that Azerbaijan has nothing to fear from the continued presence in Iran of former Azerbaijani special police officer Mahir Djavadov, whom Baku has accused of plotting to overthrow the present Azerbaijani leadership. Commentators have suggested that Terhan's refusal to agree to repeated requests for Djavadov's extradition to Azerbaijan is the main obstacle to improving bilateral relations in general, and in particular to setting a firm date for Aliev's visit.

Guliev for his part reportedly acknowledged Tehran's "contribution to resolving the Karabakh crisis." (Meeting with President Aliyev in January in Davos on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum, Kharrazi had assured him of Tehran's willingness to try to mediate a settlement of the conflict.)

Guliev further admitted that there had been ups and downs and even "periods of estrangement" in relations between the two countries, but he added that "there can be no problems that cannot be solved." He also affirmed that Baku supports the inclusion of Iran in the proposed South Caucasus Security Pact. Such an agreement, Guliev said, cannot function without Iranian participation.

Guliev and Kharrazi agreed that experts from the two countries will continue talks within the next two weeks on a schedule for the repayment of Azerbaijan's debts to Iran. (How large those debts are, and how serious an obstacle they constitute to improving bilateral relations, remains unclear.) They also discussed the prospects for routing an export pipeline for Azerbaijan's Caspian oil south through Iran -- which Guliev said Baku supports -- and the possibility of oil swaps and deliveries of Azerbaijani gas to northern Iran.

The prospects for transporting Azerbaijani oil to Iran may have receded, however, following the agreement reportedly reached in Tbilisi on 22 March between Heidar Aliyev and his Georgian counterpart Eduard Shevardnadze on the transit tariffs for the transportation of Azerbaijani oil via the planned Baku-Ceyhan pipeline. Azerbaijan State Oil Company First Vice President Ilham Aliev, had told journalists earlier that day that Baku could not afford to allow the disagreement with Tbilisi over those tariffs to "last forever," and is therefore pursuing the Iranian option more intensively. But Ilham Aliyev stressed that the Iranian pipeline route should be viewed as complementing, not replacing, the Baku-Ceyhan project. He added that international companies engaged in exploiting the Shah Deniz oil field have held talks with Iranian officials and are giving serious consideration to the possibility of exporting the natural gas from that field to Iran. (Liz Fuller)

Armenian Church To Enjoy State Sponsorship. Having weathered centuries of oppression and constraint, the Armenian Apostolic Church is on course to gain a semi-official status in Armenia, a development which would cement its already privileged position among the country's main religions.

This appears to be the purpose of a landmark "covenant" between the Church and the Armenian state slated to be signed by the end of this year. A "memorandum of intent" initialed by top clerics and government officials at the weekend set a nine-month period for drawing up and signing the document that is supposed to boost Christianity's role in Armenian society after decades of Soviet atheism. They hope that a stronger presence of the Armenian Church, one of the oldest in the world, in the life of ordinary people will help them to cope better with enormous woes facing their country.

"The covenant will contain explicit provisions that will lead the church to play a major role in our society within a very short period of time," said the head of the government agency on religious affairs, Levon Mkrtchian. The memorandum outlines the main points of the future covenant. Given its "exceptional role in the historical fate of the Armenian people," the church will enjoy a wide array of privileges ranging from tax breaks to state support for its greater involvement in public education. The state will promote through its media outlets "the supremacy of the doctrine and history of the Armenian Apostolic Holy Church." Also, the two sides will work out a procedure for the clergy's participation in "state ceremonial undertakings."

According to Archbishop Shahe Ajemian, dean of the Theology Department at Yerevan State University, the agreement will set out "all the spheres where the state and church will cooperate." "Our church has always stood by the state," he said.

At the heart of this rapprochement is a widely held belief about the church's invaluable contribution to the nation's heritage. It was the sole Armenian institution from the loss of statehood in the 14th century until the restoration of independence in 1991. For centuries it was the bearer of national aspirations and culture.

The independent and distinctly ethnic character of the Armenian Church also contributed to its image as a "national value." Together with other denominations of the so-called "oriental family" it split from the World Church long before the 11th century Great Schism that gave birth to Roman Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy.

The ancient Armenian kingdom was the first in the world to adopt Christianity as a state religion in 301 AD. Next year's celebrations of the 1700th anniversary of the event will be another occasion for the church to underline its significance.

However, the fact that the Armenian church now seeks state assistance reflects its current weakness. Confined to the fringes of the society during the Soviet period, the church lost its grip on people's consciousness. Most religious holidays were forgotten, while the remaining ones were largely treated as a secular tradition.

The end of Communist rule saw not only re-opened and newly built churches. The rapid spread of Western Christian cults soon became the chief concern of the Apostolic Church, which increasingly favored government action against "proselytism." The perceived threat posed to the traditional Armenian faith by "sects" is a driving force behind the idea of an alliance with the state. It will be built upon the already existing privileged position of the Armenian Church, guaranteed by a 1991 law on religion.

While declaring Armenia a secular state, the law grants the church a special status, including an exclusive right to conduct religious education in public schools. Human rights experts say such legal provisions call into question freedom of conscience guaranteed by the constitution. Theresa Khorozyan of the American University of Armenia believes that "the law provides a possibility for serious unjustified restrictions on the freedom to manifest religion or belief."

Criteria for the registration of religious groups are strict in Armenia. A group must have a "historically recognized Holy Scripture," and have at least 200 adult members. And though only Jehovah's Witnesses have so far been denied registration, Khorozyan sees "an explicit discriminatory approach to non-traditional religions."

Officials claim that the government's desire to have closer ties with the church will not deepen the alleged discrimination. An obligation to protect religious freedom is one of the conditions for Armenia's expected membership in the Council of Europe.

"Under our constitution, the church is separated from the state. With this step we just want to show that the Armenian government will always stand by the church," Shahen Karamanukian, chief of the government staff, told reporters last Saturday.

Education is the primary area where an ecclesiastical presence will be tangible. Less than a third of secondary schools in Yerevan have optional religious classes at the moment. In 1993, the church took over three former "pioneers' palaces," Soviet-era cultural centers for children, in the Armenian capital. Instead of Communist slogans, their interior is now decorated with crosses and other Christian symbols. The Armenian General Benevolent Union, a leading Diaspora charity, provides the bulk of their funding.

Over 2,500 children are taught music, arts, crafts and religion. "We don't force them to study religion," Reverend Torgom Tonikian, supervisor of the three centers, assured. In his words, the church wants to combine children's aesthetic education with "spiritual upbringing." Tonikian said: "Every Armenian must learn the history of his or her people and church. The two are so inextricable that one cannot be separated from another." (Emil Danielyan)

New Tensions Reported In Karachaevo-Cherkessia. Representatives of the ethnic Cherkess and Abazin population of the Republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia (KChR) embarked on a new picket last week to demand the restoration of the Cherkess Autonomous Oblast within Stavropol Krai that was abolished in 1957 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 November 1999 and 14 March 2000).

Boris Akbashev, one of the leaders of the Cherkess minority, explained the Cherkess demand in terms of the alleged failure of the republic's president, Vladimir Semenov, to make good on his pledge last fall to include Cherkess and Abazin representatives in the republic's new government, and to offer the post of premier to his defeated rival in last year's presidential poll, Cherkessk Mayor Stanislav Derev. The Cherkess had suspended protest demonstrations in October and November last year after first Russian Premier Vladimir Putin and then businessman Boris Berezovskii met with both Semenov and Derev.

Berezovskii, who was elected to the Russian State Duma last December from a constituency in the KChR, broke off a visit to London on receiving the news of last week's demonstration and flew to Cherkessk in the hope of meeting with Semenov and Derev. Berezovskii did meet briefly with Derev, whom he subsequently characterized as " a completely responsible person," but not with Semenov.

The only media coverage of Berezovskii's visit was by newspapers in which he has a major financial interest ("Nezavisimaya gazeta" and "Kommersant-Daily"), and for that reason should be treated with caution. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 16 March reported that Semenov had refused to meet with Berezovskii to discuss the Cherkessk picket on the grounds that the number of participants did not exceed one hundred. The paper further quoted Semenov as saying that what he hoped for from Berezovskii in the latter's capacity as a Duma deputy was financial aid, in particular for the agricultural sector.

"Kommersant-Daily" reported the same day that Semenov had been unable to meet with Berezovskii because he was touring the rural areas of the republic. Semenov then flew directly to Moscow where, he told "Kommersant-Daily," he hoped to meet with members of acting President Putin's staff and with Russian Security Council representatives. That statement suggests that Semenov is more concerned by the new protest than he had publicly admitted. It could be construed as an attempt by Semenov to undercut Berezovskii's authority by soliciting the support of the acting president. Relations between Putin and Berezovskii are reportedly cool if not strained.

Two days earlier, on 14 March, "Kommersant-Daily" had reported that the primary reason for the renewed Cherkess protests was a decision taken by the KChR parliament in January to divert two rivers that flow through predominantly Cherkess-populated agricultural land. That undertaking, some Cherkess believe, is aimed at coercing them to leave the republic. (Liz Fuller)

Wildlife Fleeing Chechen Hostilities. Spokesmen for hunters' unions in the North Caucasus told ITAR-TASS on 22 March that wild boar, deer, mountain goats, foxes and other animals are fleeing westwards in packs from Chechnya to the forests of Kabardino-Balkaria. Wolves in particular pose a problem in their new environment, where packs of up to 18 beasts attack sheep and cattle in broad daylight. Packs of bears also venture into villages to kill cattle. (Liz Fuller)

Quotations Of The Week. "It would be a crime not to elect me president." -- Incumbent Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, opening his re-election campaign in Poti on 20 March (quoted by Caucasus Press).

"Terrorism has become an inseparable part of our daily routine." -- Armenian Presidential Human Rights Commission chairman Paruyr Harikian (quoted by Armenpress on 22 March).