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Caucasus Report: November 25, 1999

25 November 1999, Volume 2, Number 47

Moscow's Surprise Concession On Closing Bases In Georgia. Among the less-publicized accords reached at last week's OSCE summit in Istanbul was a preliminary agreement between Russia and Georgia whereby, in accordance with the revised CFE Treaty, Moscow will close the two largest of its four military bases in Georgia by 1 July 2001. Georgian Defense Minister David Tevzadze told journalists in Tbilisi on 20 November that an inventory of the military hardware currently deployed at those bases (at Vaziani, near Tbilisi, and Gudauta, in Abkhazia) will be undertaken very soon. The exact terms of the Russian withdrawal are to be decided in bilateral talks.

Georgian opposition parties and some members of the ruling Union of Citizens of Georgia have long been lobbying for the withdrawal from Georgia of the Russian military presence, which some Georgians consider poses a threat to the country's security.

Until now, Moscow has consistently rejected Georgian demands for a reduction of its military presence in that country, pointing to the 1995 inter-state agreement which allows Russia to maintain its four bases in Georgia for a period of 25 years. But the Georgian parliament has never ratified that agreement.

Following the most recent failed round of talks in early November, Tbilisi hinted that during the final negotiations on redefining national quotas under the revised CFE Treaty, Georgia might state publicly that it is no longer prepared to host the Russian bases. As recently as 15 November, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze had affirmed that "the withdrawal of the Russian military base in Vaziani is not on the agenda yet; the main target of Georgia is to decrease the armament of Russia and to manage the above base jointly. Only after that will the issue of the withdrawal of the Russian troops from the territory of Georgia will be raised."

Precisely what kind of behind-the-scenes bargaining preceded last week's surprise Russian concession is not clear. Moscow's stated willingness to pull out may have been intended to deflect Western pressure over the present concentration of Russian forces and arms in Chechnya, in violation of Russia's existing CFE quota. Or, alternatively, Georgia may have agreed to drop its demands for the return of Russian military equipment to the value of $8-10 billion which Tbilisi claims was illegally withdrawn from Georgia to Russia following the collapse of the USSR (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 2, No. 25, 25 June 1999) in exchange for a partial Russian troop withdrawal.

Assuming that the Russian offer to close the Vaziani and Gudauta bases was made in good faith, its implementation may still prove problematic. Moreover, this offer could conceivably delay a settlement of the Abkhaz conflict. Astamur Tania, an aide to Abkhaz President Vladislav Ardzinba, warned on 19 November that the Russian base in Gudauta "performs peacekeeping duties" and that the Abkhaz leadership would therefore construe its closure as a deliberate attempt to sabotage the ongoing peacekeeping operation in Abkhazia. Such an attempt, Tania continued, could trigger a deterioration in relations between Tbilisi and Sukhumi. That latter statement presumably means that Sukhumi would adopt an even less flexible position on negotiations over its future political status vis-a-vis Tbilisi.

But Georgian presidential advisor Levan Aleksidze rejected the argument that the closure of the Gudauta base will negatively impact on the ongoing Russian peacekeeping operation in Abkhazia. He said that the administrative functions performed by the Gudauta contingent can equally well be undertaken from Georgian territory. And Abkhaz Defense Minister Vladimir Mikanba has denied that the Russian withdrawal will negatively affect Abkhazia's defense capacity. Mikanba also announced that Sukhumi will take over the Gudauta facility after Russia formally abandons it and transform it into a military airport. It is not clear, however, whether the unrecognized republic has any air capacity.

Negotiating Moscow's pullout from its two remaining bases, in Batumi and Akhalkalaki, may likewise prove both complicated and fateful. The Akhalkalaki military base is by far the largest employer in that predominantly Armenian-populated region of southern Georgia. Its closure would have a negative effect on the region's economy, leaving most of the able-bodied population unemployed, and thus more receptive to arguments by the nationalist movement Virk that the region should be granted formal autonomous status within Georgia (see "End Note," "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 September 1999). A refusal by Tbilisi to accept Russia's terms for its withdrawal from the Vaziani and Gudauta bases could conceivably prompt Moscow to suggest that the first of the four bases to close should be Akhalkalaki instead.

In short, predictions by Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and Foreign Minister Irakli Menagharishvili that the 17 November agreement heralds a new and more felicitous phase in Georgian-Russian relations may prove to be premature and overly optimistic. (Liz Fuller)

OSCE Mediators To Resume Shuttle Diplomacy On Karabakh. The Russian, U.S. and French negotiators from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe are expected to visit Armenia and Azerbaijan by the end of the year to provide fresh impetus for the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process, Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian said on 24 November. But he added that the three co-chairs of the OSCE's Minsk Group on Karabakh will not discuss concrete peace proposals and will only "re-assess the situation and look for ways of continuing the Armenian-Azerbaijani dialogue."

Speaking to reporters in Yerevan by telephone from Los Angeles, Oskanian said final discussions on a peace deal on Karabakh are unlikely to begin before "the beginning of next year."

Both Oskanian and President Robert Kocharian said earlier this month that the 27 October assassinations of Armenian leaders pushed international efforts to resolve the Karabakh dispute several months back as he had to "take time out" to deal with political uncertainty in the country.

Asked to comment on French President Jacques Chirac's remark at the OSCE summit in Istanbul last week that an Armenian-Azerbaijani peace accord could be signed within a month, Oskanian said Chirac's "optimism is not very justified." "To accomplish that in one month's time is almost impossible, but the co-chairs can give new momentum to negotiations," Oskanian argued.

Oskanian told a correspondent for RFE/RL's Armenian Service in Istanbul on 19 November that the OSCE summit played a "very positive" role for a further progress in ongoing efforts to settle the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The Karabakh dispute was mentioned in the final document approved by the summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

"Of course, it does not offer solutions but at least it does not hamper the [peace] process," Oskanian said. The Armenian leadership suffered an embarrassment during the OSCE summit in Lisbon three years ago when it found itself alone in vetoing a clause upholding Azerbaijani sovereignty over Karabakh. The latest document did not make any reference to Azerbaijan's territorial integrity, and is more neutral.

"We have managed to remove the negative consequences of Lisbon and secure the international community's backing for the process led by the [Armenian and Azerbaijani] presidents," Oskanian said. He welcomed a report submitted to the summit by OSCE mediators which said the ethnic Armenian authorities of Karabakh should join peace talks at some point. (Hrach Melkumian/Hrair Tamrazian)

Armenia Seeks To Expand Relations With Kazakhstan. In a 15 October interview with Noyan Tapan, Armenia's ambassador to Kazakhstan, Eduard Khurshudian, enumerated the reasons why the Central Asian states in general, and Kazakhstan in particular, should figure more prominently among Armenia's foreign policy priorities.

On the one hand, he said, the focus on Central Asia is just one facet of Yerevan's multivectoral foreign policy. On the other, as Khurshudian pointed out, "Central Asia is an integral part of the Eurasian subregional structure Armenia belongs to." Consequently, Armenia is interested in the maximum participation in the ambitious and far-reaching regional schemes for multilateral cooperation in the spheres of transportation, in the first instance the TRACECA project, but also schemes for building oil and gas export pipelines. That cooperation, as Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian and his Azerbaijani and Georgian counterparts agreed during talks in Luxembourg two weeks ago, is contingent on finding a solution to regional conflicts, including the Karabakh conflict.

There is also, Khurshudian continued, a second aspect to potentially mutually beneficial economic cooperation between Armenia and Central Asia, namely, restoring ties that were severed by the collapse of the USSR, given "the structure of the countries' economies which are mutually complementary."

And finally, there are security and geostrategic aspects to closer ties with the countries of Central Asia. Khurshudian specifically noted that during his visit to Kazakhstan in early September, Armenian President Robert Kocharian remarked upon the importance of his Kazakh counterpart Nursultan Nazarbaev's initiative in promoting the concept of an Asian counterpart to the OSCE.

Without stating so explicitly, Khurshudian implied that Kazakhstan occupies first place among Armenia's Central Asian priorities. There are cogent reasons why this should be the case. Kazakhstan is the largest of the Central Asian states, and offers the greatest potential for economic cooperation by virtue of being what Khurshudian called "a kind of El Dorado of natural wealth." Among the possible areas of economic cooperation explored during Kocharian's September visit (his first to any of the Central Asian states since his election as president last year) were expanding bilateral trade, with Kazakhstan selling grain and precious metals to Armenia and purchasing chemicals, food products, tobacco and machinery. Nazarbaev also signalled his desire for more Armenian investment, suggesting that it would be appropriate to open either an Armenian center or restaurant in Astana. (The Armenian minority in Kazakhstan numbers some 30,000.)

But the convergence of interests between Armenia and Kazakhstan goes beyond the purely economic. Both countries seek to balance the maximum openness to foreign investment and the maximum freedom of maneuver in foreign policy with the preservation of cordial relations with Moscow. And both have publicly expressed regret that the positive potential of the CIS for cementing beneficial ties between its members states has not been adequately exploited. (Liz Fuller)

Quotations Of The Week. "Today our common challenge is the transformation of the Caucasus into a zone of economic crossroads, a zone of peace and stability, but not into a region of conflicting armies and the arbitrary rule of terrorists." -- Armenian President Robert Kocharian addressing the OSCE summit in Istanbul, quoted in Noyan Tapan, 20 November 1999.

"Negotiations are needed with Maskhadov and the Chechen parliament on ending the war and on the nature of future relations between Russia and Chechnya." -- Confederation of Peoples of the Caucasus President Yusup Soslambekov, quoted in "Vek," No. 45, November 1999.