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Caucasus Report: March 31, 1999

31 March 1999, Volume 2, Number 13

Russia Seeks To Mollify Baku. An exchange of letters last week between Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev and his Russian counterpart, Boris Yeltsin, suggests that Moscow is seriously disquieted by statements of Azerbaijan's willingness to host U.S., Turkish, or NATO military bases on its territory. Over the past three months, state foreign policy advisor Vafa Guluzade, presidential advisor on military issues General Tofik Agaguseinov and Defense Minister Safar Abiev have all argued that Russia's military cooperation with Armenia, in particular the recent delivery to Russia's military base in that country of MiG-29 fighter aircraft and S-300 air defense systems, upsets the strategic military balance in the south Caucasus and thus leaves Baku no option but to seek either a NATO or U.S. military presence or a formal defense alliance with Turkey.

True, Aliyev has underscored that such statements do not reflect formal Azerbaijani policy, while Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem has expressed concern at the possible repercussions of a further military buildup in the south Caucasus. Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian has similarly objected that a Turkish military presence in Azerbaijan would seriously upset the military balance in the region.

Aliev's protests at the ongoing Russian-Armenian defense cooperation, which he said "contradict the letter and spirit of the agreement on friendship and cooperation between Russia and Azerbaijan," were only one of a series of grievances he expressed in a 20 March letter to Yeltsin. Aliyev also deplored the failure to clarify responsibility for previous shipments of Russian arms worth $1 billion to Armenia. (The trilateral intergovernmental commission established in July 1997 to investigate those arms shipments has met only on a couple of occasions, and not released any formal findings.) In conclusion, Aliyev reaffirmed his commitment to maintaining the ceasefire that has held since May 1994 along the Line of Contact between Karabakh Armenian and Azerbaijani forces, and to seeking a peaceful solution of the Karabakh conflict. He also assured Yeltsin of his desire for "friendly relations" with Russia.

In a response hand-delivered to Aliyev in Baku by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Leonid Drachevskii four days later, Yeltsin assured the Azerbaijani president that Russian-Armenian military cooperation is not, and never will be, directed against Azerbaijan. He also offered to provide Azerbaijan with the same weaponry as it has stationed in Armenia -- an offer that Aliyev said on 29 March he has rejected. "It is necessary to disarm, not to arm today, especially in the Caucasus where the situation is complex," Interfax quoted Aliyev as adding. That statement is clearly at odds with calls for a foreign military presence in Azerbaijan.

With regard to the Karabakh conflict, Yeltsin advocated direct talks between Aliyev and his Armenian counterpart, Robert Kocharian, offering to host such talks in Moscow. (The Armenian leadership, for its part, advocates direct talks between the Azerbaijani leadership and that of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.)

Then, in an apparent retreat from the most recent peace proposal put forward by the three co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group (of which Russia is one), Yeltsin wrote that Moscow will no longer insist on taking the most recent Minsk Group proposal that Azerbaijan and the NKR should form a "common state" as the basis for continuing the mediation process. Armenia and the NKR had endorsed that proposal, while Baku had categorically rejected it.

It is not clear whether Yeltsin's statement signals a modification of Russia's position on Karabakh, and thus by extension dissent within the Minsk Group, whose U.S. representatives recently told visiting NKR officials that the most recent draft peace proposal would not be amended to take into consideration Azerbaijan's rejection of the "common state" principle. It is possible that the message Yeltsin sought to convey was that Moscow will not sacrifice its own strategic interests in Azerbaijan for the sake of Armenia, and is prepared to make concessions on various issues in return for a cooling in Azerbaijan's enthusiastically pro-NATO rhetoric. The Azerbaijani leadership's failure to take a stance over last week's NATO air strikes against Yugoslavia could, in turn, mean that Azerbaijan is engaged in a reassessment of its strategic priorities, and is trying in the meantime to avoid offending either Moscow or the West. (Liz Fuller)

Georgia Again Confronts The Specter Of Regional Separatism. The launch earlier this month of a new political party which intends to represent, and to promote the interests of the population of the west Georgian region of Mingrelia has met with almost unanimous disapproval from politicians across the Georgian political spectrum.

There are several complementary aspects to that negative response. First, Georgians are still coming to terms with, and the country's leadership is seeking political means to reverse, Tbilisi's loss of control in the early 1990s over the former autonomies of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. And the leader of a third autonomous formation, Adjaria, effectively governs totally independently of the metropolis, with the tacit support of Moscow. Georgians are thus ultra-sensitive to any development that would seem to portend a further threat to the country's territorial integrity.

Second, the population of Mingrelia is regarded as less than 100 percent loyal to the central government. Much of the local population backed former President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who was descended from the Mingrelian nobility. Because of that support for the ousted president, the population of Mingrelia was subjected to vicious reprisals by paramilitaries loyal to head of state Eduard Shevardnadze in 1992-1993. It was Mingrelians who perpetrated the February 1998 abduction of four members of the UN observer force from the regional capital, Zugdidi. And Akaki Eliava, who led the botched insurgency in western Georgia in October 1998, also hailed from Mingrelia.

And third, the founder of the new Union for the Revival of Mingrelia, Aleksandre Chachia, is a former advisor to Adjar Supreme Council chairman Aslan Abashidze -- a connection that some observers in Tbilisi construe as evidence that Chachia, like Abashidze, is being used by Moscow as a tool to destabilize Georgia.

Chachia himself has said his party aims to revive Mingrelia's moribund economy, inter alia by using the income from the port city of Poti, which is geographically part of Mingrelia but directly subordinated to the central government in Tbilisi. But few Georgian politicians appear convinced by that seemingly innocent and altruistic argument.

An additional problem that Chachia and his party face is that the Georgian Constitution bans parties that represent one single geographical region. That ruling could, however, theoretically be circumvented by renaming the party the All-Georgian Union for the Revival of Mingrelia, by analogy with Aslan Abashidze's All-Georgian Union for Revival and the All-Georgian Union "Lemi," which represents the indigenous population of Svaneti. But in the case of Mingrelia, the Georgian body politic appears to be guided not by reason but by the panic fear of a new separatist threat. (Liz Fuller)

Russia, U.S. Seek To Expedite Solution To Abkhaz Conflict. Donald Keyser, who is the U.S. State Department's coordinator for conflicts in the Caucasus, held talks with leading Georgian and Abkhaz political figures in Tbilisi and Sukhumi last week. Keyser himself told journalists that his trip was a fact-finding one. But addressing a session of the Georgian parliamentary committee for defense and security, Keyser said the U.S. advocates a compromise solution to the Abkhaz conflict in which neither side emerges as either the clear winner or the clear loser, Caucasus Press reported on 25 March. He also rejected any comparison between Abkhazia and Kosova, implying that the U.S. would not condone any moves towards peace enforcement in Abkhazia. As for what form the required compromises might take, Keyser said he had told Abkhaz President Vladislav Ardzinba that "no one will ever recognize Abkhazia as an independent state." What reciprocal measures Georgia would be required to agree to in exchange for a hypothetical Abkhaz abjural of independent statehood was not clear from the available accounts of Keyser's various meetings.

One week earlier, from 17-20 March, senior Russian diplomats Lev Mironov and Leonid Drachevskii met in Sukhumi with Ardzinba and in Tbilisi with Minister of State Vazha Lortkipanidze to discuss formalizing the procedure for the repatriation to Abkhazia of ethnic Georgian displaced persons. Since 1 March, the Abkhaz authorities have officially registered almost 900 returnees. The Georgian authorities have sought to discourage that spontaneous process, arguing that it should not have begun until both sides had agreed on the optimum procedures and on adequate security measures to prevent returning Georgians from physical reprisals at the hands of military formations not subordinate to the Abkhaz government.

ITAR-TASS on 23 March quoted Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Vladimir Rakhmanin as saying that the talks resulted in "a considerable rapprochement of the parties' positions" on the draft protocol on the coordinated repatriation of the displaced persons and on measures to revive the economy of Abkhazia's southernmost Gali raion. The population of Gali was 90 percent Georgian prior to the 1992-1993 war. Rakhmanin added that the only remaining point of dispute concerned the role the CIS peacekeeping force in Abkhazia should play in ensuring the safety of the returning Georgians. There has, however, been no confirmation from official Georgian sources of Rakhmanin's statements. (Liz Fuller)

Quotations Of The Week. "It is imperative to realize that the primary threat to Russia's national security emanates from the Caucasus ... Russia does not have the right to lose the Caucasus, or the Caucasus -- Russia. Russia's retreat from the Caucasus would be tantamount to the political suicide of the Russian state as a great Euro-Asian power." -- Akhsarbek Galazov, former president of North Ossetia, in "Nezavisimaya gazeta," 19 March 1999.

"Our fateful mistake was that during the transition phase the state drastically abandoned management of the economy." -- Former Armenian CP First Secretary Karen Demirchian, quoted by "Golos Armenii," 25 March 1999.

"Lavrenti Beria was an outstanding person and a good organizer." -- Valeri Chkheidze, commander of the Georgian Frontier Guards, speaking at a ceremony in Tbilisi to mark the centenary of Beria's birth (Caucasus Press, 29 March 1999).