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Caucasus Report: June 23, 1998

23 June 1998, Volume 1, Number 17

Conflict Resolution (1): Ideology vs. Pragmatism. On 19 - 21 June CIS Executive Secretary Boris Berezovskii travelled to Sukhumi, Tbilisi, Yerevan and Baku for talks aimed at expediting a solution to the Abkhaz and Karabakh conflicts. Interviewed by Ekho Moskvy before leaving Moscow, Berezovskii said that his mission to Abkhazia, on which he was accompanied by Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Boris Pastukhov, reflects an agreement he reached with Russian Foreign Minister Yevgenii Primakov on the benefits of coordinating the efforts by the Russian Foreign Ministry and the CIS on mediating between Tbilisi and Sukhumi.

If true, this seemingly innocuous statement could signal a major watershed. For several years, in what many observers have interpreted as an attempt to promote instability in Georgia, the Russian Foreign Ministry has acted as spoiler in Abkhazia, using its mediation efforts to play Tbilisi and Sukhumi off one against the other. (The most recent instance of this tactic was two weeks ago, when the Russian Foreign Ministry produced printed drafts of preliminary agreements reached during talks in Moscow by Abkhaz and Georgian presidential representatives that differed substantively from the points agreed upon.) Berezovskii's affirmation that the CIS and the Russian Foreign Ministry are now coordinating efforts suggests that Russian President Boris Yeltsin has finally realized (or been forcibly persuaded) that the unresolved conflicts in Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh do indeed constitute a timebomb under the already moribund CIS. (Both Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and Azerbaijan's Heidar Aliyev have repeatedly argued that the inability of the CIS to resolve conflicts on the territory of its member states mirrors the ineffectiveness of the CIS as a whole. ) It seems, therefore, that Yeltsin has appointed Berezovskii as fireman, with instructions to find acceptable solutions to both conflicts, rather than risk the demise of the CIS as a whole. How Yeltsin managed to secure Primakov's approval for this new policy departure (assuming that the latter's agreement was not merely tactical) is unclear.

Conflict Resolution (2): Wholesale Or Piecemeal? Following his talks with Aliyev in Baku on 21 June, Berezovskii told journalists that all conflicts within the former Soviet Union are inter-connected, and that he therefore hopes that progress towards a solution in Abkhazia could help promote a settlement of the Karabakh conflict. Berezovskii went on to argue that all CIS presidents should "say no to separatism," pointing out that "peaceful skies and political stability" are necessary preconditions for creating solid foundations for greater economic integration within the CIS.

Berezovskii's line of reasoning is logical, given the undoubted economic benefits to all three Transcaucasus states that would accrue from permanent solutions to both the Abkhaz and the Karabakh conflicts, but it is less than realistic in the light of substantive differences in the nature of the concessions Tbilisi and Baku are prepared to offer. According to "Nezavisimaya gazeta," Shevardnadze has proposed that Georgia should be an "asymmetric federation" in which theAbkhazia, Adjaria and South Ossetia would enjoy varying degrees of autonomy. Within this framework, the Abkhaz president would simultaneously be either vice-president of the federal state, or deputy speaker of the Georgian parliament, and Abkhazia would be entitled to keep its own army. But either of these proposals, if applied to Karabakh, would be anathema to the Azerbaijani leadership, which continues to insist that it can offer Stepanakert only "broad autonomy." Moreover, Azerbaijani Presidential advisor Vafa Gulu-zade has made it clear that Azerbaijan's definition of autonomy precludes Karabakh either keeping its armed forces or conducting a separate foreign policy.

In short, any formal agreement resolving one conflict sets a precedent that could be adduced by the parties to another. And as the German scholar Uwe Halbach has pointed out with reference to Chechnya, part of the problem of devising acceptable solutions to territorial conflicts in the former USSR is purely semantic, in that the very term "autonomy" has been utterly devalued by decades of misapplication to territorial units within the union republics.

Conflict Resolution (3): Resurrecting Old Initiatives The "Peaceful Skies" metaphor employed by Berezovskii in Baku echoes an earlier proposal by Shevardnadze, who in early 1993 unveiled his own blueprint for a settlement of the Karabakh conflict. Named "Peaceful Skies," it reportedly combined a brokered ceasefire agreement with unspecified economic incentives. (The timing of that initiative was also tantalizing, coming within days of a visit by Shevardnadze to Tehran in January, 1993, and at a time when the CSCE Minsk Group peace process had been deadlocked for several months -- a coincidence that prompted speculation that Tehran had coopted Shevardnadze as stalking horse rather than allow Turkey to seize the initiative and launch an alternative mediation bid.)

Economic cooperation was similarly a major component of the "Peaceful Caucasus" initiative drafted in early 1996 by Shevardnadze and then North Ossetian President Akhsarbek Galazov. That initiative in turn formed the basis of a declaration signed in the North Caucasus resort of Kislovodsk in June, 1996, by the Presidents of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and the Russian Federation.

Shevardnadze has now either resurrected or recrafted the "Peaceful Caucasus" plan, which, together with Abkhazia, figured on the agenda of Foreign Minister Irakli Menagharishvili's talks in Tehran ten days ago. According to IRNA, Iran voiced its approval of the new Shevardnadze initiative, while Georgia likewise gave a positive assessment to Tehran's efforts to promote multilateral regional cooperation. (Liz Fuller)