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Caucasus Report: June 26, 2008

Analysis: Georgia Reverses Decision To Cut Defense Spending

By Liz Fuller and Richard Giragosian
Among other proposed amendments to the annual budget, the Georgian Finance Ministry has submitted to parliament a request to increase defense spending for 2008 by 295 million laris ($202.8 million), or approximately 29 percent, reported on June 24.

The additional funding will reportedly be used to increase defense capabilities and bring the armed forces even closer to NATO standards, continuing a sustained effort to forge a new military capability in line with the key NATO concept of "inter-operability." Total defense spending for 2008 was initially set at 1.1 billion laris, down from 1.495 billion in 2007, and in early May, the government announced that defense spending will be reduced over the next five years from 5.6 percent of GDP in 2008 to 2.3 percent in 2012.

Three months ago, however, President Mikheil Saakashvili told armed forces personnel that Georgia's geopolitical situation necessitates massive defense outlays to defend its burgeoning democracy, Caucasus Press reported on March 15. That assertion reflects the perception of both external and internal threats to Georgian sovereignty. Saakashvili claimed that every single lari of the defense budget is being spent on "enhancing the country's defensive capacity." He added that Georgia currently has 33,000 professional servicemen and 100,000 reservists, plus "dozens" of state-of-the-art self-propelled artillery pieces, while the number of combat helicopters has been increased by a factor of three and that of battle tanks by a factor of 10.

The procurement in recent years of new military hardware and modern weapons systems was indeed in line with Georgia's single-minded commitment to joining NATO. Georgian defense experts quoted in an analysis published by "Novoye vremya" on February 25 made the point that the high level of dependence on Soviet-era or Russian-manufactured armaments is the Georgian armed forces' greatest vulnerability. Leading specialist Irakli Aladashvili predicted that it will take a minimum of five years to complete the process of re-equipping the Georgian armed forces to meet Western standards.

Less easy to explain, however, is the Georgian leadership's ongoing defiance of Western experts' advice to cut the number of armed forces personnel -- which would in turn reduce overall defense expenditure and thus enable the government of Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze to focus on its proclaimed priority of increasing social spending. Acting on the recommendations of the International Security Advisory Board (ISAB), which was established in 1998 at the request of the Georgian government, the government slashed the total manpower of the armed forces from approximately 38,000 in the late 1990s to 20,000 in early 2004. That figure was still higher than the recommended optimum of 13,000-15,000 men advocated by the ISAB. But in late 2004, following Saakashvili's election as president and his formal pledge to restore Georgia's hegemony over the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, then-Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili announced plans for reversing the downsizing by adding a fifth brigade to the existing four. The ISAB challenged the rationale for that decision, noting, first, that it would "represent an increase of 25-30 percent" over target figures written into the Individual Partnership Action Plan Georgia concluded with NATO in 2004, and second, that it "raises questions of affordability." Saakashvili himself was quoted in May 2006 by "Jane's Defence Weekly" as saying that Georgia needs a small but highly trained army that can interact with NATO troops.

This seeming contradiction between President Saakashvili's professed commitment to pursuing NATO membership at all costs and his rejection of advice solicited from NATO and Western military experts stems from an entrenched "threat perception" among top Georgian leaders that finds expression in their sometimes strident arguments that Georgia merits NATO membership on the grounds of its vulnerability as a "front-line state" seeking to contain Russia's aspirations to expand its power and influence in the South Caucasus.

While there is of course a nugget of truth in that argument, Tbilisi's decision to further increase military spending in defiance of NATO recommendations on defense reform could negatively impact on Georgia's bid for membership. Georgia has already suffered a serious setback in failing to secure a formal Membership Action Plan at the NATO summit in Bucharest in April. The issue will be reconsidered at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in December 2008.

Armenia: Controversial Parliamentary Commission Begins Work

On June 16, the pro-government factions within the Armenian National Assembly voted unanimously in favor of setting up an ad hoc commission to investigate the March 1-2 clashes in Yerevan between supporters of defeated presidential candidate Levon Ter-Petrossian and security forces that resulted in 10 deaths. The conduct of an "independent, transparent, and credible inquiry" into the postelection violence was one of the key demands addressed to the Armenian authorities by the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) in a resolution adopted in mid-April.

At its first session later on June 16, the newly established commission, which is due to present its findings to the National Assembly by October 25, elected Samvel Nikoyan (Republican Party of Armenia, HHK) as its chairman. The deputy-chairman's position was reserved for a representative from Zharangutiun (Heritage), the sole opposition party represented in parliament. The commission was initially to include two parliament deputies from each faction and one independent deputy, giving a total of at least eight pro-government lawmakers and two opposition representatives. But on June 19, it decided to invite to participate in its work all political forces that received more than 3 percent of the popular vote during the May 2007 parliamentary elections but less than the minimum 5 percent needed to win seats in the National Assembly, and also defeated candidates in the February 19 presidential elections, including Ter-Petrossian, or their representatives.

As of the afternoon of 19 June, seven invitations had been sent out, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. In addition to Ter-Petrossian, the other forces invited were the National Accord party of Artashes Geghamian, the United Labor Party of Gurgen Arsenian, and the Nor Zhamanakner (New Times) Party of Aram Karapetian. Invitations were also sent to former presidential candidates Tigran Karapetian, Aram Harutiunian, and Vazgen Manukian. Geghamian and Manukian have both named representatives who attended a session for the first time on June 24, Noyan Tapan reported.

The Zharangutiun (Heritage) faction opted out of the June 16 vote on setting up the commission and was not even present at the chamber at the time of voting. Zharangutiun faction member Armen Martirosian told RFE/RL the same day that the faction was unlikely to participate in the commission's work because "our basic proposals were not accepted." Zharangutiun faction secretary Stepan Safarian similarly told RFE/RL that "there is a preliminary decision to abstain from having any representative in the commission."

But on June 17, Zharangutiun Chairman Raffi Hovannisian proposed Myasnik Malkhasian and Sasun Mikaelian, both of whom are currently being held in pretrial detention on charges of organizing mass unrest and attempting to seize power stemming from their alleged involvement in the March 1 violence, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Both men are nominally still members of the HHK parliament faction despite having thrown their support behind Ter-Petrossian. Commission Chairman Nikoyan rejected that proposal as "insulting" and "not serious," given that under the commission's statutes factions may only nominate their own members, Noyan Tapan reported on June 18.

Speaking to RFE/RL's Armenian Service in prison on June 19, Malkhasian and a second arrested pro-Ter-Petrossian parliamentarian, Hakob Hakobian, both questioned whether the newly formed commission will prove capable of conducting an "impartial and objective inquiry" in light of the imputed bias of some of its members, including Nikoyan, who Malkhasian said has made televised statements exonerating the Armenian authorities. "The commission cannot work independently," Malkhasian said. "There can be no impartial inquiry because no particular investigation is being conducted today in connection with what should be the main focus of the investigation -- the people who died. There has been no clarification regarding who fired the shots and under what circumstances those people died. There should have been an investigation concerning the wounded, those who inflicted damage on state property. But the investigation today is moving in a different direction. They arrest people and after that they try to fabricate charges against them."

Hakobian for his part expressed regret that the ad hoc commission chose not to co-opt the proposed opposition parliamentarians. "If the commission wanted to clarify anything, they should have been happy to involve Myasnik Malkhasian and Sasun Mikaelian in its work. Because both of them were on the ground and did not commit any wrongdoing," Hakobian said.

The sole nonaligned deputy on the commission, Lyova Khachatrian, stepped down on June 24, explaining that he did not wish to contribute the widespread negative perception of the commission, a perception he feared was reinforced by his own friendship with Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian, Noyan Tapan reported on June 25.

Also on June 17, the same day that it ruled to establish the ad hoc commission, the Armenian parliament adopted by a vote of 80 votes in favor and four against a statement enumerating measures the authorities have taken to fulfill the demands outlined in the PACE April resolution, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Those demands included the conduct of an independent inquiry into the March 1 violence; the immediate release of opposition supporters detained in the aftermath; and the annulment of legal amendments restricting the right to stage public rallies and demonstrations.

While up to 70 opposition supporters remain in pretrial detention, the parliament voted in the second reading on June 11 to lift those restrictions. Two PACE rapporteurs who visited Armenia on June 16-17 concluded that the Armenian authorities were dragging their feet in complying with the resolution's requirements. But during a vote late on June 25 during its summer session, the PACE declined to discipline Armenia for its perceived failure to meet its demands, instead granting the Armenian authorities six more months to comply fully with the April resolution, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on June 26. One of the two rapporteurs, former British Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, reasoned that "two months is not enough time to implement all the changes for which we've called.... We believe that Armenia is going in the right direction, and changes are being made."

On June 20 between 10,000-30,000 people attended a rally in Yerevan in support of Ter-Petrossian, who interpreted that show of support as evidence that the population at large does not believe the official election results that gave Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian over 52 percent of the vote compared to 21.5 percent for Ter-Petrossian. It was the first opposition mass rally for which the municipal authorities granted permission since the restrictions imposed by parliament in the wake of the March violence. Addressing that rally, Ter-Petrossian again demanded the immediate and unconditional release of those of his supporters still in detention as a precondition for "dialogue" with the authorities, and for the holding of preterm parliamentary and presidential elections in order to restore political stability. A follow-up rally is scheduled for July 4.

by Karine Kalantarian, Ruzanna Khachatrian, and Liz Fuller

Analysis: Do Azerbaijan's Ethnic Minorities Face Forced Assimilation?

By RFE/RL analyst Liz Fuller
Over the past 10 days, representatives of ethnic minorities in Azerbaijan have issued two separate public statements affirming their fear of assimilation and soliciting international support. Azerbaijani commentators have dismissed those appeals as unfounded and orchestrated by Moscow.

The ethnic groups in question are the Avars, Tsakhurs, and Lezgins, and according to official statistics together they constitute less than 1 percent of Azerbaijan's total population of 8.65 million. They live compactly in several districts of northern Azerbaijan bordering on the Russian Federation. Avars are the largest ethnic group in neighboring Daghestan, where they account for approximately 29 percent of the population, and Lezgins the third largest (13 percent). The Tsakhurs, who number around 8,000, constitute less than 0.5 percent of Daghestan's population.

Estimates of the number of Lezgins in Azerbaijan range from 178,000 to 400,000 or even 850,000. Azerbaijan's Lezgins have lobbied sporadically for greater protection of their rights since the early 1980s; some Lezgins in both Daghestan and Azerbaijan have gone so far as to propose creating an independent state that would encompass their historic homeland to the north and south of the Samur River that forms the border between Russia and Azerbaijan. A conference on the Lezgins organized in Moscow last month under the aegis of the Russian Foreign Ministry was construed by some Azerbaijani commentators as possibly heralding a new Lezgin separatist threat.

On June 16, the website posted an appeal "To all people of good will" signed by eight separate organizations representing the Avars, Lezgins, and Tsakhurs. One of those organizations is the Imam Shamil Avar National Front headed by Dagneft President and Russian State Duma Deputy Gadji Makhachev, who many observers believe has close ties with, and on occasion acts on orders from, the Kremlin.

The appeal deplored the fact that the creation in 1918 of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic effectively split the ancestral homeland of the three ethnic groups, and that during the seven decades that those lands were part of the USSR, they were subjected to "nightmarish" discrimination. It claimed that they were the only ethnic minorities in the entire Soviet Union who were obliged to pay for secondary and higher education. It further argued that Azerbaijan's secession in 1991 from the USSR was illegal as it was not preceded by a referendum, in which they would have voted against (Armenia was in fact the only Soviet republic to comply with the referendum requirement), and that "twice during the 20th century Azerbaijan occupied our homeland and unlawfully seized power there."

The appeal claimed that the leadership of the newly independent Azerbaijan Republic then embarked on the systematic annihilation of the three ethnic groups, sending "tens of thousands" of young men to fight in Nagorno-Karabakh, of whom "thousands" were killed. (That figure is difficult to reconcile with official population figures.) Members of the intelligentsia from all three ethnic groups were allegedly thrown into prison, and Azerbaijanis from other regions of Azerbaijan or from Georgia resettled in their abandoned homes in what the appeal terms a systematic "Turkicization" process. Those resettlers allegedly hold most official posts in the districts where the three groups constitute the majority of the population. The most recent crackdown was in March 2008 against the predominantly Lezgin population of the Kusar and Khachmas raions of Azerbaijan. The appeal concluded by requesting help in clarifying what has happened to those arrested and support for the creation of autonomous regions for the three groups.

Two days later, on June 18, the Daghestan-based Avar National Council, which was not a signatory to the June 16 appeal, addressed an open letter to Daghestan's President Mukhu Aliyev (himself an Avar) to "protect" Azerbaijan's Avar minority from the threat of "genocide," reported. The agency quoted Magomed Guseinov, a leading Council member, as estimating the size of Azerbaijan's Avar minority at 200,000, and the number of Avars currently imprisoned in Azerbaijan at almost 300. Guseinov repeated the claim that in the Zakatala, Belokany, and Kakh raions Azeris, mostly resettlers from the Naxcivan Autonomous Republic, occupy most prominent political posts even though they account for just 27 percent of the population. He contrasts the plight of the Avars in Azerbaijan unfavorably with that of Daghestan's Azerbaijani minority, which at the time of the 2002 Russian Federation census numbered 111,656 people, or approximately 4 percent of the republic's population. As one of Daghestan's 14 titular nationalities, the Azeris have the right to radio broadcasts and education in their native language.

Guseinov recalled that during a visit to Baku in late April 2007, President Aliyev discussed the plight of Azerbaijan's Avars with President Ilham Aliyev, who declared on that occasion that the Avars have no grounds for complaint and accused unnamed "forces" of seeking to stir up unrest among Azerbaijan's ethnic minorities. Mukhu Aliyev is scheduled to visit Azerbaijan again on June 26.
Meanwhile, political scientist Vafa Quluzade, who served as an adviser to Ilham Aliyev's late father Heydar, was quoted by on June 19 as accusing Russia of deliberately seeking to fuel disaffection among Azerbaijan's Avar, Lezgin, and Tsakhur minorities on the eve of a visit to Baku by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Quluzade suggested the objective is to coerce Azerbaijan into accepting a recent offer from Gazprom to buy natural gas from Azerbaijan's offshore Shah Deniz field. A commentary published on June 19 in the online daily similarly argued that separatism on the part of the Lezgins, the Kurds, and the Talysh (who live in the southern districts of Azerbaijan bordering on Iran) constitutes a very real threat to Azerbaijan's territorial integrity, and compared the Lezgins in Azerbaijan with the Ossetian population of the breakaway Georgian republic of South Ossetia.