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Caucasus Report: May 15, 2008

Analysis: Bluster, Bathos Permeate Georgia's War Of Words Against Russia, Abkhazia

By RFE/RL analyst Liz Fuller

Temur Iakobashvili: "Very close to a war."

Since early May, Georgian officials have turned up to full blast the rhetorical heat of their arguments that the international community should unequivocally condemn recent Russian moves perceived in Tbilisi as tantamount to the creeping annexation of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and that Russia's actions disqualify it from playing any further role in the search for a solution at least to the Abkhaz conflict.

But while affirming unconditional support for Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity, both the United States and the European Union have implicitly rejected the underlying Georgian argument that Russia bears the sole responsibility for the spiraling tensions, and the United States has dismissed as unfounded Georgian warnings that a new war is imminent. Meanwhile, a U.S. delegation visited Sukhum(i) on May 10 for talks with the Abkhaz leadership.

Speaking in Brussels on May 6 after two days of meetings with NATO and EU officials, Georgian State Minister for Conflict Resolution Temur Iakobashvili told journalists that as a result of the deployment of additional Russian troops to Abkhazia, Georgia is "very close to a war" that it is trying to avert.

Then, on May 12, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili told a delegation of four EU foreign ministers -- Dmitrij Rupel (Slovenia, which currently holds the EU Presidency), Carl Bildt (Sweden), Radek Sikorski (Poland), and Petras Vaitiekunas (Lithuania) -- that Russia's actions constitute "the most aggressive attempt to revise the world and European order since the end of the Cold War." Saakashvili compared the current situation with that in February 1921 when the international community failed to intervene to prevent the annexation of independent Georgia by the Red Army, and expressed the hope that "Europe will never again make a similar mistake, because the occupation of Georgia was followed by the attack on Poland, the occupation of the Baltic states, and the bloody war in Finland," according to

The United States has criticized as potentially destabilizing both former Russian President Vladimir Putin's April 14 edict on intensifying economic and humanitarian cooperation with the two breakaway republics and the subsequent deployment to Abkhazia of several hundred additional peacekeeping troops. During a press conference in Tbilisi on the eve of his trip to Sukhum(i), U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza described Russia's recent moves as "provocative" and as working against a peaceful solution to the Abkhaz conflict. But at the same time, Bryza added that Washington "[does not] believe that Georgia and Russia have been close to war; not at all." "Russia has taken some provocative steps...but thus far it says it has not recognized Abkhazia's independence; it claims it has only moved more so-called peacekeepers in accordance with the 1994 Moscow cease-fire agreement, still below the limit to which Russia is allowed. So under these circumstances there is no talk of war."

The EU, while repeatedly affirming its support for Georgia's territorial integrity, is clearly reluctance to jeopardize cooperation with the Russian Federation -- which is the EU's largest single supplier of oil and gas -- by openly siding with Georgia in its standoff with Russia. Indeed, Slovenian Foreign Minister Rupel said explicitly on May 9 that the EU will not take sides in that standoff. Ambassador Peter Semneby, who is the EU's special envoy for the South Caucasus, told RFE/RL's Georgian Service on May 13 that there is a "great deal of interest and concern" among the bloc's 27 members over the rising tensions between Russia and Georgia in general, and the situation in Abkhazia in particular. But at the same time, he stressed that Russia is, and will remain, Georgia's largest and most influential neighbor, and for that reason cannot be excluded from the ongoing search for a solution to the conflicts between Georgia and its breakaway regions. On the contrary, Semneby reasoned, Georgia can and must seek a modus vivendi with Russia.

The flaws in Georgia's argument that the ongoing crisis is entirely of Russia's making were expertly and elegantly laid bare by British expert Thomas de Waal in a commentary published on May 14 in "The Wall Street Journal." He noted that not only the Abkhaz, but also the Georgians, engaged in ethnic cleansing during the 1992-93 war that culminated in ignominious defeat for Georgia and Abkhazia's de facto independence. He further made the point that President Saakashvili, presented with the opportunity to play the role of a Caucasus Charles de Gaulle, instead "maintained a policy of economic isolation and moral outrage" vis-a-vis the secessionist would-be state. Finally, he expressed the fear that by unveiling his most recent peace proposal without prior consultation with the Abkhaz side, Saakashvili virtually guaranteed that they would reject it.

If the EU foreign ministers' visit to Tbilisi was little more than a PR exercise, that to Sukhum(i) by Bryza and U.S. Ambassador to Georgia John Tefft may at least have served to clarify what leeway, if any, exists for seeking rapprochement between the conflict sides. The two men undertook a similar mission two years ago, which Bryza told RFE/RL's Georgian Service afterward focused on "confidence-building measures, specific confidence-building measures that can reduce tension, reduce the risk of something bad happening, and lay the foundation of a peaceful settlement, frankly, that shows the entire international community how responsible an actor Georgia is, how committed Georgia is to a peaceful settlement, how important it is for us to help Georgia maintain its territorial integrity."

This time around, the U.S. diplomats' meeting with de facto Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh was reportedly difficult: Apsnypress quoted Bagapsh's spokesman Kristian Bzhania as describing it as "a very frank and sometimes sharp exchange of views." According to Bzhania, the U.S. side offered help in defusing tensions with Georgia but "did not make concrete proposals." But Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba for his part sounded cautiously upbeat, telling that "the U.S. delegation did not insist on the superiority of any principles" (meaning territorial integrity as opposed to the right to self-determination.) Shamba told RFE/RL's Georgian Service on May 12 that Bryza acknowledged that there are two alternative peace plans on the table, thereby implying that the United States does not reject out of hand the "Key To The Future" that Bagapsh unveiled in June 2006, and might even urge the Georgians to incorporate into President Saakashvili's most recent peace proposal selected elements from it. That peace initiative envisaged an official Georgian apology to Abkhazia for its "state policy of assimilation, war, and isolation"; an end to Georgian political and economic pressure on Abkhazia; signing a peace treaty guaranteeing security in the air, on the ground, and on the Black Sea; guarantees by the international community and the UN Security Council to preclude the resumption of hostilities between Georgia and Abkhazia; consultations between Bagapsh and Saakashvili on peaceful coexistence; cooperation in the fight against organized crime; and broad regional cooperation, including Abkhaz participation in multilateral cooperation within the parameters of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation Organization and the European Union's New Neighborhood Policy.

However, Bagapsh's position is probably weaker today, and his leeway for compromise narrower, than two years ago. Even if Russia is not, as Shamba claimed in an interview with "Izvestia" on May 6, planning to structure its future relations with Abkhazia on the model of U.S. relations with Taiwan, Bagapsh is apparently under domestic pressure: Raul Khadjimba, his Moscow-backed erstwhile rival in the disputed 2004 presidential ballot is still waiting in the wings for a chance to come to power. Meeting in emergency session on April 30, the Abkhaz parliament adopted a statement calling on Bagapsh not to resume talks with Georgia within the framework of the so-called Group of Friends of the UN Secretary-General until that body adopts an "objective" assessment of Georgia's recent "aggressive actions," and until Georgia complies with its obligations under the May 1994 UN-mediated cease-fire agreement, reported. The Abkhaz insist that that agreement precludes the presence of Georgian troops to the Kodori Gorge; the Georgians counter that it does not extend to the Interior Ministry forces deployed to Kodori in August 2006. The Abkhaz have nonetheless over the past 18 months pegged a resumption of UN-mediated bilateral talks with Tbilisi to the withdrawal of those troops from Kodori.

One possibly encouraging signal was a meeting in Sukhum(i) on May 12 between Shamba and Georgian Ambassador to the UN Irakli Alasania. The two men established a good, if short-lived, working relationship two years ago when Alasania served as Saakashvili's special envoy for the Abkhaz conflict. According to, their May 12 meeting focused on unspecified "security issues." The lack of clear-cut security guarantees, and specifically Georgia's refusal to consider signing a formal pact abjuring the use of force against Abkhazia and South Ossetia, has been a weakness of successive Georgian peace proposals, as Brussels-based scholar Bruno Coppieters has pointed out.

International efforts to bring about a rapprochement between the two sides are not helped, however, by the comments of some Georgian politicians. For example, Nikoloz Rurua, the chairman of the Georgian parliament Defense and Security Committee, appears to rule out any Abkhaz input in resolving the conflict; he told RFE/RL's Georgian Service on May 13 that "we cannot be guided by [the Abkhaz] world view and their judgment because they are an illegal entity, and therefore most of their demands have one aim. As long as these kinds of demands are put forward by separatist groups, a real, rational dialogue with the potential of mutual compromise will never take place."

Former Georgian Foreign Minister David Bakradze for his part issued a thinly veiled warning to the Abkhaz on May 13 that Georgia is the sole guarantor of their survival as an ethnic group and the survival of their culture. It was, however, the Georgians who, after securing control of Sukhum(i) in October 1992, torched the building housing the Abkhaz national archive, which was almost completely destroyed.

Meanwhile, the military situation in the Abkhaz conflict zone remains unclear. On May 10, Iosif Chakhvishvili, a department head at the Georgian Reintegration Ministry, told that Russian moves over the past two months suggest that Russia plans to launch a military operation in the Kodori Gorge, and on May 12, Georgian Deputy Defense Minister Batu Kutelia was quoted by Caucasus Press as telling journalists that Russia has indeed deployed some 400 servicemen under the command of an Abkhaz deputy defense minister to the lower reaches of the gorge in Tkvarcheli Raion. U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Bryza was quoted by Georgian media on May 12 as saying that during his visit to Sukhum(i) he saw a large number of Russian forces, and also armor and artillery. And on May 13, Georgian Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze commented on aerial photos released by the Georgian Interior Ministry that reportedly show a concentration of military equipment and personnel in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion, Caucasus Press reported. The UN Observer Mission (UNOMIG) has not yet commented on those claims.

Analysis: Armenian Opposition Issues New Ultimatum

By RFE/RL analyst Liz Fuller
The standoff between the Armenian authorities and opposition that resulted from the flawed February 19 presidential ballot and the violent police crackdown 11 days later on opposition supporters who rejected the official election returns looks set to continue.

Speaking on May 12 on Armenian Public Television, Levon Zurabian, who is an aide to former President and defeated presidential candidate Levon Ter-Petrossian, said that unless the Armenian authorities revoke by June 20 the restrictions on public meetings and demonstrations enacted by parliament in March, the opposition Pan-National Movement that supports Ter-Petrossian will defy that ban and convene a meeting on Yerevan's Freedom Square. Former Justice Minister David Harutiunian, who now chairs the parliament commission on legal affairs, pledged on April 22 that the legislature will ease the restrictions by the end of May, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported.

Freedom Square was the site of the mass protests that followed the announcement that according to official returns, the February 19 presidential ballot was won by then-Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian with almost 53 percent of the vote. Ter-Petrossian, who polled only 21.5 percent, claimed he had been denied an outright victory. The Freedom Square protests lasted until early on March 1, when they were broken up by police. A subsequent assault on opposition supporters later that day resulted in 10 deaths, including one police officer. Outgoing President Robert Kocharian declared a state of emergency that was lifted three weeks later, but the restrictions on public rallies enacted by the parliament on March 17 remain in force.

Ter-Petrossian's supporters initially sought to circumvent those restrictions by staging "protest walks," but police intervened. Then, on April 19, the Yerevan municipal authorities gave permission for a pro-Ter-Petrossian rally in Yerevan that was attended by several thousand people. But permission for a second such rally, to be held on May 5, was withheld.

On May 2, Ter-Petrossian convened a congress of his Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh) in a government conference hall in Yerevan. In his 90-minute address to that gathering -- his first public address since March 1 -- Ter-Petrossian said, as he had done earlier, that while he does not consider Sarkisian the legitimately-elected president, he is ready to accept his invitation to dialogue provided that the authorities first comply with the demands contained in a resolution adopted on April 17 by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).

They include conducting an "independent, transparent and credible inquiry" into the March 1 violence; the release of persons detained in the wake of those clashes "on seemingly artificial and politically motivated charges;" and the immediate repeal of the legal amendments effectively banning opposition rallies. Ter-Petrossian's staff estimate the total number of those detained or arrested at over 100; according to the Prosecutor-General's Office, 59 people have been formally charged. Those still in detention include several of Ter-Petrossian's closest associates within the HHSh, among them former Foreign Minister Alexander Arzoumanian.

Ter-Petrossian further told the May 2 congress that he thinks the only way to defuse the persisting tensions is to hold preterm parliamentary and presidential elections; at the same time, he admitted that neither the Armenian leadership nor the international community is likely to welcome that proposal, Noyan Tapan reported. And he argued forcefully that the HHSh should be restructured and strengthened, given that "it is obvious that thanks to its broad public support, the...movement will play a permanent and decisive role in all future political processes in Armenia," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported.

Ter-Petrossian further proposed that the two dozen mostly small opposition parties and groups that backed his presidential bid should form an alliance, to be called the Armenian National Congress, that might eventually coalesce into a single political party. But at least one of his backers was cool to such a merger: People's Party of Armenia leader Stepan Demirchian, who ran unsuccessfully against incumbent President Kocharian in the February-March 2003 presidential ballot, told journalists on May 9 that while the consolidation of opposition forces is welcome, it is "too early" to talk about merging parties, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported.

Meanwhile, the Armenian authorities have agreed to the PACE demand for an independent investigation into the March 1-2 violence, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on May 12, quoting Avet Adonts, a members of Armenia's PACE delegation. Adonts said the commission will be formed by the end of this month and include representatives of both parliamentary and extraparliamentary parties and "international forensic experts." And in a further small gesture of goodwill, two close Ter-Petrossian associates arrested in the wake of the March clashes, former deputy parliament speaker Karapet Rubinian and Union of Painters of Armenia member Tigran Baghdasarian, were released from detention on May 13, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported.

Analysis: Does Azerbaijan Face A New Irredentist Threat?

By RFE/RL analyst Liz Fuller
Two separate recent developments have served to focus attention on the potential for conflict posed by the division between Russia and Azerbaijan of the historic homeland of the Lezgins. The first is the need to legalize the status of the two villages of Khrakhoba (Qıraqoba) and Uryanoba in northern Azerbaijan that under an agreement signed in 1954 and extended for a further 20 years in 1984 were designated Russian exclaves within Azerbaijan, and whose Lezgin population is now reportedly demanding that the districts again be formally declared a Russian enclave. The second is a conference that opened in Moscow on May 14 at which printed materials were distributed outlining and apparently endorsing Lezgin territorial claims on Azerbaijani territory.

The Lezgins are a northeastern Caucasian ethnos who claim to be the descendants of the ancient kingdom of Caucasian Albania that fell to Arab conquerors in the 8th century A.D. Their historic homeland was divided in 1860 between two gubernias of Tsarist Russia, Daghestan, which in 1918 remained part of Russia, and Shemakha, which formed part of the shortlived Azerbaijan Democratic Republic that was subsumed into Soviet Russia in 1920. The border between the two entities, which since the collapse of the USSR in late 1991 has become an international frontier, is the Samur River. At the time of the 2002 Russian Federation census, there were 336,698 Lezgins living in Daghestan, primarily in the south of the republic. Estimates of the number of Lezgins in Azerbaijan vary widely. According to official data, they number only 178,000, while unofficial estimates range from 400,000 to 850,000.

The first demands by Lezgins in the USSR for a separate territorial-administrative unit date back to 1965, and were swiftly suppressed. In July 1990, inspired by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost, Lezgins in Daghestan formed an informal organization named Sadval (Unity) to campaign for the "unification" of Lezgin-populated territories, a demand that resonated with at least some of their co-ethnics in the Azerbaijan SSR. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, some Sadval members, primarily in Daghestan, advocated lobbying for an independent state. Possibly for that reason, the Russian Justice Ministry suspended the organization's registration in July 1993. Following infighting among its members in 1995, Sadval officially renounced its campaign for an independent Lezgin state at its sixth congress in April 1996.

Two years later, however, Sadval split into a radical wing and a more moderate wing. The former resurrected the dream of an independent Lezgin state, while the latter advocated the creation of an autonomous territory for the Lezgins within Daghestan that would have the status of a separate federation subject and of a free economic zone, according to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on January 27, 1999. Infighting between the two factions continued for several years, during which the movement apparently forfeited much of what popular support it once enjoyed.

In an interview with "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on August 25, 2004, one of Sadval's co-chairmen, Nasyr Primov, admitted that Sadval was experiencing "a period of stagnation." Primov nonetheless insisted that Sadval's goals remain unchanged, namely, "to unite the Lezgin nation, make the frontiers transparent, and give people the opportunity to meet and move freely." Asked whether Sadval still harbored territorial claims on Azerbaijan, Primov denied that it pursues any aims in Azerbaijan, but in a seeming contradiction he added that "our only desire, our dream if you like, is to unite the entire Lezgin people in one state."

As of early 2006, indications surfaced that the moderate wing of Sadval intended to resurrect that goal, by redrawing the borders of Azerbaijan to incorporate the Lezgin-populated regions of southern Daghestan and creating a Lezgin autonomous region, according to an article published on January 26, 2006, in the Azerbaijani online daily The paper quoted an unidentified source within Sadval as arguing that "the Daghestan Lezgins cannot remain within a republic that is being turned into a breeding ground for international terrorism and which is choking in the grip of an interethnic confrontation in which several foreign countries have a hand." In other words, by 2006 Sadval's ultimate objective had apparently shifted from an independent state, to an autonomous Lezgin region within Daghestan that would subsume part of northern Azerbaijan, to an autonomous Lezgin region within Azerbaijan, which would have necessitated the surrender of Russian territory.

There still exists, however, a government-backed body within Azerbaijan that claims to represent the Lezgins' collective interests. Named Samur, that organization abjures any territorial claims on the Russian Federation; in a May 15 interview with, its chairman, Shair Gasanov, insisted that the rights of Lezgins in Azerbaijan are not infringed in any respect.

The sponsors of the Moscow conference, which is formally devoted to the history and culture of the Lezgin peoples from the era of Caucasian Albania to the present day, include the Russian Foreign Ministry, the Regional Development Ministry, and the Russian State Duma, implying official backing at the very highest state level. And among the materials distributed at the conference, according to the online publication on May 15, is a brochure published jointly by the Federal National-Cultural Autonomy of the Lezgins and the State Duma's Committee for Nationality Affairs, the author of which calls for official condemnation of the division and "ethnocide" of the Lezgin people in the 1920s. He further slams the current border between the Russian Federation and Azerbaijan as "illegitimate" and demands it be redrawn to incorporate the northern districts of Azerbaijan into Daghestan.

Speaking on May 15 at a press conference in Baku, Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesman Xazar Ibrahim said the Azerbaijani Embassy in Moscow is following developments at the conference, and that Azerbaijan will "respond appropriately" to any "separatist" moves or threats to its territorial integrity, reported.