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Caucasus Report: April 27, 1999

27 April 1999, Volume 2, Number 17

Interview with Armenian Foreign Minster Vartan Oskanian. The following is an RFE/RL interview with Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian. It was conducted by Jeremy Bransten in Washington on 25 April, after the NATO summit and the meeting of the three south Caucasus presidents with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Q: Can you tell me about the meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and the other presidents? Oskanian: Regional cooperation was the main topic of the meeting. The presidents expressed their views as to how they see economic cooperation in the region and also, of course, the conflicts in the region, which are considered to be the main impediments for economic cooperation, were discussed. No concrete results emerged out of that meeting but everybody's assessment was that it was useful and views were exchanged and some conclusions were made. But there were no concrete steps that had been agreed [on] despite the fact that Secretary Albright outlined certain projects that the three Caucasian countries could consider for cooperation in the region.

Q: Can you give us more details about Secretary Albright's initiatives? Oskanian: She was very general and did not go into any detail or specify. She simply stated the areas where cooperation can be concluded -- one being the energy sector, the other ones being communications, transportation, and also the use of water resources. Those are the four main areas that were mentioned by Secretary Albright.

Q: The Turkish foreign minister [Ismail Cem] said today that the next such meeting is planned in Georgia, although he did not give a time. Can you tell us when that will happen and what kind of role Georgia can play in resolving differences with Azerbaijan, if any? Oskanian: Well, I wouldn't say that the next meeting has already been planned or finalized yet. What happened is that [Georgian] President [Eduard] Shevardnadze offered the venue for the next meeting and he proposed that this format be continued in the future and he proposed that the next meeting take place in Georgia. But no date or confirmation of that proposal was made today.

Q: Do you think the Georgian president or Georgia can play a useful intermediary role? Oskanian: First of all, let's say that there is no issue of having one of the three Caucasian republics as intermediary. The talk is about regional cooperation and the conflicts are certainly part of this whole scheme. But the three countries are equally represented and what needs to be discussed in this forum is developing cooperation between the three countries.

Q: You attended yesterday's meeting at the Capitol with Senator Sam Brownback. Today, of course, you had the meeting with Secretary Albright and the other presidents. Do you see a policy shift of greater U.S. involvement in the region and along with that, is there a policy shift in Armenia itself. Is Armenia shifting away from Russia and more towards the U.S.? Oskanian: The United States has been pretty active from day one and continues to remain active and that is a role which is very much appreciated by Armenia and, as I gather from that meeting, also by the other countries. For Armenia, there is no such issue as choosing between the United States and Russia.

Our policy is based on the whole notion of complementarity. We think that the post-Cold War era provides that opportunity -- that we can have equally good relations with Russia and the United States, have a military association with Russia while on the other hand develop strong ties with NATO. We think that opportunity is available now and Armenia is making use of it...We've never put ourselves in a position of having to choose between being pro-Russia or pro-America. We are simply guided by our national interest. We're employing a pro-Armenian policy and that policy today requires that we develop good relations with both Russia and the United States.

Q: What are your feelings on the Silk Road initiative -- Senator Brownback's initiative. I noticed you were the only leader yesterday who didn't really go out of his way to stress cooperation with neighbors. Oskanian: To be frank, Armenia has been opposing the Silk Road Act -- for one particular reason. That is, because the Silk Road Act, in its provisions, has a point where it says that this piece of legislation would supersede every other legislation that has been passed by Congress with regard to the region.

And one of the previous resolutions that has been passed is the Freedom Support Act, which has a clause where it limits or forbids American assistance to Azerbaijan unless Azerbaijan lifts its blockade on Armenia -- and since that blockade has not been lifted yet, Armenia will continue to oppose the removal of that section, which is called 907. As long as the Silk Road Act continues to include that provision, Armenia will continue to oppose it.

Otherwise, we welcome the whole idea of regional cooperation. We welcome it...But as long as that provision remains and as long as Azerbaijan and Turkey continue with their policy of isolation of Armenia, we have to be very careful on what we endorse and what we don't, so that we do not create certain activities around us which will preclude us from participating. So that is the main problem we have with the Silk Road Act.

But as I said in my statement yesterday (24 April)...the United States should not focus only on oil in the region, because that is not the only asset that this region has. There are many, many assets that need to be capitalized on.

Q: At the meeting with Secretary Albright and the others, did the topic of Turkey come up? What are the prospects for establishing diplomatic relations and will you have any contact with the Turks while you are here? Oskanian: No, that issue did not come up, despite the fact that the Turkish foreign minister was present and he also spoke and expressed his views on our region and matters of regional cooperation.

But the issues that you mentioned did not come up. During our stay here in Washington, no meeting is foreseen with the Turkish side, so that those issues will still remain as problematic issues that need to be discussed. But during this visit, those are not part of our agenda.

Q: President [Heidar] Aliyev of Azerbaijan seems to have used the summit to level quite harsh criticism against Armenia. Do you have any public reaction to that? Oskanian: That is their standard line. It was very predictable. They use every possible forum to continue that line, which is only half true. Every number that they give, both in regard to refugees and the territories which Aliyev claims to be occupied are only half-true. Besides all this, there is the other side of the story in regard to the refugees and other matters which I don't want to detail.

But as far as our public reaction, we usually do not respond, as the president [Robert Kocharian] did not, because he spoke after President Aliev. He only in passing mentioned the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh, simply saying to the other EAPC (NATO's Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council) member states that the fact is that the recent proposal by the three co-chairmen of the Minsk Group was accepted by Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. It was rejected by Azerbaijan. So the blame today has to be put on the Azerbaijani side for this deadlock that this process has been in.

Yet Another Organization Aims To Represent Interests Of Georgian Displaced Persons. On 22 April, RFE/RL's Tbilisi bureau interviewed Malkhaz Pataraia, chairman of the public organization "Dabruneba" ("Return"). That organization, which is the successor to the Union for the Liberation of Abkhazia that has existed since 1994, was officially registered two months ago.

Asked to outline Dabruneba's program, Pataraia explained that the organization's members (number unspecified) consider that "what happened in Abkhazia was not a conflict, it was a Russian-Georgian war, it was aggression, genocide and ethnic cleansing conducted by Russia against Georgia." And that Russian aggression was undertaken with the connivance of the Georgian leadership, Pataraia charged, without offering any arguments to substantiate his accusation. He went on to assert that the present Georgian leadership has no interest in assisting the Georgian displaced persons forced to flee Abkhazia during the war to return, and should therefore be replaced.

Two other organizations formed to represent the interests of the displaced persons already exist: the Abkhaz Liberation Party headed by Tamaz Nadareishvili, chairman of the so-called Abkhaz parliament in exile, and Boris Kakubava's Coordinating Council for the Persecuted (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 1, No. 37, 10 November 1998). Pataraia explained the differences in their objectives as follows. Characterizing Nadareishvili as "the Georgian leadership's stooge," he defined the latter's objective as working with the Georgian leadership to free Abkhazia from Abkhaz separatists. Pataraia claimed that Nadareishvili's rationale for insisting on the right of the Georgian displaced persons to return to Abkhazia is that their human rights have been violated. He rejects that logic, arguing that the right to a nation to self-determination on its own territory takes precedence over individual human rights, since the state can protect the people's rights only if it is in control of its entire territory. In this context, Pataraia said that he considers the Abkhaz to be "an ethnic component of the Georgian people, just like the Mingrelians, Gurians, and Imeretians."

Pataraia's party, by contrast, aims "to free Abkhazia from the aftermath of Russian aggression," a task he said can be accomplished only by replacing the present Georgian leadership. That, Pataraia said, is the only point on which his views coincide with those of Kakubava.

Pataraia insisted that the ongoing talks between Georgian and Abkhaz officials on conditions for the repatriation of Georgian displaced persons are not only useless but counterproductive, insofar as they do not make Russia's negative role clear to the international community, but, on the contrary, present the guilty party as a mediator.

Pataraia said that his movement intends to contend the Georgian parliamentary elections due this fall, and is seeking to align with other parties to that end. He termed equally, if not more important, his intention to monitor the conduct of those elections, which he predicted would not be democratic.

Finally, Pataraia listed as necessary preconditions for expediting the displaced persons' repatriation the advent to power of a new democratic Georgian leadership committed to the defense of national interests, the condemnation by the UN of the present leadership's alleged role in condoning genocide and ethnic cleansing, and the departure from Abkhazia of the Russian military presence, which might otherwise aid the leadership of President Vladislav Ardzinba in preventing the establishment of Georgia's jurisdiction over the region. (Liz Fuller)

Quotation Of The Week. "Russians treat us as enemies...Russia needs Azerbaijan's help." -- Presidential foreign policy advisor Vafa Guluzade, quoted by Turan on 21 April 1999.