Georgia and Russia are eyeing each other warily over Abkhazia. There are rumblings about rapprochement between Armenia and Turkey. Peace talks on Nagorno-Karabakh are gaining fresh momentum.
The volatile South Caucasus has been making more than its share of news recently, and Matthew Bryza, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, has been in the center of the action.
Bryza spoke on July 18 with RFE/RL's Brian Whitmore about the developments in this explosive and strategically important region.
RFE/RL: There's currently a lot of movement on Georgia and Abkhazia. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier is engaging in a bit of shuttle diplomacy between Georgia, Abkhazia, and Russia to push that peace plan. Can we expect to see movement on this issue, given that each side has already rejected key components of the plan?
Matthew Bryza: I am just beginning to see the press reports on the Steinmeier visit and it looks like the Abkhaz side echoed [Russian] Foreign Minister [Sergei] Lavrov's statement yesterday (July 17) extremely unhelpfully and rejected the core concept of what it takes to negotiate a peaceful solution to the Abkhazia conflict. That is, the link of Georgia issuing a nonuse-of-force pledge with the return of internally displaced Georgians to Abkhazia.
That is the absolutely essential bargain that must be struck to be able to move a peace process forward. So I think we're quite worried when Abkhazia, echoed by Moscow, says they won't now agree to that bargain, which we have talked about for years. It makes me think that somebody wants to scuttle this good-faith effort by the UN Friends [for Georgia, grouping Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States], and by the German foreign minister, not to mention by the U.S. secretary of state, who was in Tbilisi last week, and all of us in the UN Friends process, to which I am the U.S. representative.
So those are very worrisome public statements coming out of both Sukhumi and Moscow, and I hope it's just posturing. I hope we will get back to where we were during my own visit to Tbilisi and Sukhumi in May, which was quite close to an announcement of a bargain, or the outlines of a bargain or a deal based on what I said before -- the pledge not to use force on the Georgian side, and the pledge that Georgian IDPs (internally displaced people) could return to Abkhazia. And then we would hope that there would be a de-escalation of the military tension in the sensitive Abkhazian-Georgian region of the Kodori Valley.
'Not A Good Faith Set Of Preconditions'
RFE/RL: The Georgians have also rejected signing the nonuse-of-force pledge, arguing that this would constitute sort of a de facto recognition of Abkhazia's statehood. But a lot of people are interpreting that as posturing. Do you find the Georgian position unhelpful in this regard?
Bryza: What the Georgians have said is we are not going to issue a nonuse-of-force pledge as a precondition for starting direct negotiations with the Abkhaz. The Russian position and the Abkhaz position is the same: There cannot be direct peace talks unless the Georgians issue the nonuse-of-force pledge as a precondition and unless the Georgians pull out their police from the Kodori Valley, which is sovereign Georgian territory.
It is impossible for any negotiating party to agree to the core elements of the bargain that needs to be struck as a precondition for launching the negotiations. That is not a good-faith set of preconditions. The Georgians have clearly said that of course they are willing to issue that nonuse-of-force pledge as part of a broader bargain -- that I outlined a moment ago -- during direct negotiations with the Abkhaz and the Georgians. I just can't understand how anybody who is in favor of peace could possibly say at this moment of high tension regarding the Abkhazia conflict, that there ought to be preconditions to the Abkhaz and Georgians sitting down for direct talks. I think Tbilisi shares that view, but that is U.S. policy.
RFE/RL: Russia appears to be playing two roles in this process. One official, as a member of the Friends group; the other unofficial, as the de facto patron of the Abkhaz side. Can Russia be an honest broker in this situation?
Bryza: That's a fair question. We have said clearly that Russia's behavior since April 16, when the Kremlin issued instructions for the Russian government to strengthen its ties to the separatist regions of Georgia, that those actions undercut Russia's role as "facilitator" of the UN Friends process. And Russia took further steps that undercut its role as the facilitator when it shot down the Georgian unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) on April 20, and then moved paratroopers with heavy artillery into Abkhazia without consulting Georgia, which violates the 1994 Moscow cease-fire agreement. Not to mention that the shootdown is a violation of the UN Charter. And just as we got Georgia to a point where it was de-escalating by not flying any more of those UAVs, the next day Russia sent in rail construction troops without consulting the Georgians again.
So every step of the way when we've worked with the Georgians meticulously to get them to de-escalate, the Russian side has decided to take a very provocative step. And so if that's the way it is going to behave and still be a member of the Friends process, it is very difficult practically to get the Friends process to move forward and to finalize this useful paper that our German coordinator of the Friends helped us agree upon back on June 30 in Berlin.
So you ask a core question. And the question really is, to put it in a different way: Does Russia wish to behave as the facilitator of the Friends process, or as a mediator, rather than as a party to the conflict? That is an open question.
RFE/RL: Georgia wants Russia out of the UN Friends Group, but I don't know that the United States have gotten officially to that point yet.
Bryza: Definitely not. Russia has to be part of the process; it's just inevitable. Russia has the peacekeepers on the ground, Russia is geographically contiguous to Abkhazia, Russia is trying to use Abkhazia as a construction site or colony for the Sochi Olympics. Russia is going to be part of the game and, frankly, the Abkhaz look toward Russia today for security -- physical security, economic security, political security.
So the way out of this can't be that Russia is not part of the process, that is absolutely impossible. We want Russia in the process.
The way out of this is that the international community, and most importantly Georgia, provides the Abkhaz with those types of security -- physical, economic, cultural, and political. What I mean by the latter is that for any agreement to resolve the Abkhazia conflict, 250,000 Georgian internally displaced persons will have to return to Abkhazia, and there are only 55,000 or so Abkhaz. So when those Georgians come back, the Abkhaz must not be worried about being overwhelmed politically or culturally. Their cultural rights need to be preserved, and of course they need to retain some kind of disproportionate political role in Abkhazia, just as we've negotiated in Bosnia for minorities there, and just as we've talked about in Cyprus, or as Kofi Annan had incorporated into his Cyprus settlement plan.
'No Restrictions, No Preconditions'
RFE/RL: The United States has its own proposal to replace, or supplement, the peacekeeping mission with an international police force. Is this plan working in concert with the Friends Group plan?
Bryza: Yes, everything we do aims to support the Friends process, and at the same time get direct talks going between Abkhazia and Georgia. If one of the Friends has decided it is against Abkhaz-Georgian direct talks, then that party is making it impossible for the Friends' agenda to be realized; and we are still going to do everything we possibly can to get the Abkhaz and the Georgians to be able to talk face to face with no restrictions and no preconditions. But we believe that by so doing, we are actually moving the Friends process forward, because that's the only way you can fulfill the Friends' mandate of trying to resolve the conflict.
We are also working to try to implement, or further develop, Phase One of this Friends plan. So everything we've been doing -- when Secretary [Condoleezza Rice] was in Tbilisi and my boss, Assistant Secretary [Daniel] Fried was there, which led to this talk of some other U.S. paper -- is really an attempt to get phase one of this Friends plan moving. The Phase One focuses on military de-escalation.
So we're supporting the Friends process. Our proposal is definitely -- at this point at least -- not to replace the CIS peacekeepers. That's an issue that has to be worked out between Georgia and Russia in the context of the existing agreements. The 1994 Moscow cease-fire agreement calls for the consent of the host government, as do CIS documents. So Georgia and Russia have to work out the status of the CIS peacekeepers.
We're not calling for the removal of the CIS peacekeepers; that's not our business, we have said in Security Council resolutions that we encourage cooperation between CIS peacekeepers and the UN observer mission in Georgia. That said, we do definitely see the need for some security capabilities to complement the CIS peacekeepers -- not necessarily to replace, but to complement. Why? Because in the Gali district, in southern Abkhazia, Georgia, there is a serious law-enforcement problem. The Abkhaz police are unable to provide law enforcement for the population there, which is where the largest concentration of ethnic Georgians are; the CIS peacekeepers don't have a mandate there. Something has to happen, there needs to be a capability.
What we could see there could be a joint Georgian and Abkhaz police with international oversight, be it UN or EU oversight. Back up in the Kodori Valley, similarly, there could be joint Georgian and Abkhaz police that have strong international oversight in the form of the EU or the UN. So we're trying to think through whether or not these models are workable as a way to complement the existing CIS peacekeepers.
RFE/RL: The U.S. and Georgia are holding joint military exercises near Tbilisi, and Russia is conducting military exercises in the North Caucasus. Both sides said these exercises were planned a long time ago. But some commentators said that with tensions so high, this isn't really a good idea. Do you think these exercises harm, help, or are neutral as far as the peace process goes?
Bryza: I can't comment on Russian plans or motivations. What I can say is that we had had this exercise planned for a couple of years. In fact, the participants are not just the U.S. and Georgia, it is also Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Ukraine as part of the NATO Partnership for Peace partners effort. We do one such annual exercise in some country among the NATO PfP partners, and this year it had just so happened to fall to Georgia.
Our decision was, do we cancel it or do we go ahead after Russia turned up the pressure on Abkhazia? And our decision was we should go ahead, this was planned for a long, long time. It is mostly a tabletop exercise in Tbilisi; there aren't massive maneuvers planned, it's much more modest than what I've heard is going on on the Russian side in the North Caucasus. I would hope it enhances security throughout the region by helping to increase the professionalization and cooperation of all these military forces; professionalism is of course the key to military security.
'Effort Under Way That Is Genuine'
RFE/RL: Let's take a look at Armenia. The new president, Serzh Sarkisian, has published a comment in "The Wall Street Journal" intimating that a rapprochement with Turkey is in the works. He invited Turkish President Abdullah Gul to Armenia to watch a football match in September. And now Turkish newspapers are reporting that Turkish and Armenian officials recently held secret talks in Bern. Do you think something is up?
Bryza: Yes, I do. I was just in Yerevan a week and a half ago and saw President Sarkisian, Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian. I was with the foreign minister extensively during his visit in Washington this week. We spent a couple hours together over lunch. And then I was in Ankara last week, on Thursday and Friday (July 10-11) meetings with the prime minister and deputy foreign minister and the Caucasus team and the prime minister's adviser on foreign policy and the military. So I think I have a pretty good feel for what people are thinking and can say with some confidence that yes, there is an effort under way that is genuine in both Yerevan and Ankara to try to normalize relations between the two countries. RFE/RL: Are we to assume that Gul will accept Sarkisian's invitation?
Bryza: I sure hope so. I certainly cannot speak for President Gul or the Turkish government, but we sure hope that he does takes advantage of this golden opportunity to use an international event that just is a gift on the calendar to advance all these processes that I've just mentioned.
I should also recognize that President Sarkisian took a courageous step by inviting President Gul, and then also by talking about the possibility of a historical commission which engendered a lot of opposition and criticism from Armenian politicians who used to call for those very same steps.
RFE/RL: Russia seems to be taking the lead on this possible detente. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has traveled recently to Armenia and Turkey; Sarkisian was in Moscow when he made his invitation to Gul. Is it acting in concert with the United States?
Bryza: I don't know of any single step the Russian government has taken to encourage rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia. That's not a critical statement; that's just a statement of fact. So I am taken aback by the notion that Russia is somehow leading in this effort. Turkey and Armenia are doing this themselves. Maybe the Russians are saying things quietly behind the scenes; I don't know. I'm completely unaware of that.
RFE/RL: One analyst we've spoken to -- someone who follows these things really closely -- said he thinks the Russian diplomats got the order to surpass the American initiative on this one.
Bryza: Great! Great if they did! I haven't seen any evidence thereof, but we'd welcome it. If Russia is encouraging rapprochement between these two countries, that would be a terrific thing.
RFE/RL: Were your recent trips to Turkey and Armenia tied to the rapprochement talks, or was this just a routine visit?
Bryza: Whenever I go to these places, there are just so many items on the agenda. And so agenda items include energy -- I was in Turkey with [U.S. Special Envoy for Eurasian Energy] Boyden Gray. And then all the stuff I do bilaterally with Turkey -- of which Armenia and reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia is a top-level issue, as are general issues in the Caucasus and Georgia.
So we talked about that, Cyprus, Turkey's EU accession, and the domestic situation in Turkey, and of course our cooperation with Turkey in Iraq, not only against terrorists but also to facilitate the participation by Sunnis in the political life in Iraq. So there's a lot on the agenda in Turkey.
In Armenia, I went there also with Turkey-Armenia rapprochement as an issue, but primarily, of course, in my capacity as a Minsk Group co-chair to focus on Nagorno-Karabakh. And, of course, the domestic political situation as Armenia recovers from the problems with the elections and the tragic aftermath.
'Talks Actually Are Jump-Started'
RFE/RL: The Turkish-Armenian relationship is of course bound up in the Nagorno-Karabakh talks. But those negotiations appear to be stalled. Is there any way to get them jump-started?
Bryza: The talks actually are jump-started. We don't talk so openly about what's happening, and so I wouldn't expect folks on the outside to know the degree of movement that's under way, but on June 6, the presidents Sarkisian and [Ilham] Aliyev had their first meeting, in St. Petersburg, and the statements that they made afterward were indicative of a process that is indeed full of life. President Aliyev said that the two presidents established a certain degree of trust in each other, which was amazing. And President Sarkisian echoed that. And then both presidents called on the Minsk Group to reinvigorate its actions now that the Armenian elections are over. And both presidents called on us, the Minsk Group co-chairs, to work with their foreign ministers to try to bridge the gaps in the remaining couple of issues out there in the Basic Principles that were proposed by us co-chairs back in November in Madrid.
So obviously that was a key focus of Foreign Minister Nalbandian's visit here in Washington, and we the Minsk Group co-chairs are going to get together with the foreign ministers again; I hope it's going to be on the 31st of July or 1st of August in Moscow. So the process is going, yeah! The question is, of course, can the two sides bridge the gaps on the final couple of issues. Of those issues, a few of them are quite easily resolvable, and then one or one and a half will require some tough compromises.
RFE/RL: Can you tell us any more about these outstanding issues?
Bryza: I can't, because that would not be fair to the negotiators themselves.
RFE/RL: But what you seem to be suggesting is that there's movement on Nagorno-Karabakh, and movement on a Turkey-Armenia detente. Is something really big going on?
Bryza: I don't know. You've got wheels that are turning, but wheels that may not lead to a resolution of any of these issues. But diplomacy is about both process and results. And the art of diplomacy is using the process to help parties who think they can't find common ground to find that common ground. So I'm feeling positive momentum as a result of the process, but it would be a little bit reckless to predict a positive outcome -- or a negative one, for that matter. We've got to keep our noses collectively to the grindstone, and embrace this positive momentum and try to channel it toward the results we seek.
RFE/RL: We all know there have been a lot of false starts on this. How optimistic are you right now compared to previous times when we thought progress was at hand on this issue?
Bryza: I guess I remain kind of "skesimistic." We invented that term, skesimistic, in our Minsk Group. Lots of skepticism and optimism as well. I don't know if I can quantify it, but I can say the prerequisites on Karabakh for reaching agreement on the basic principles may be falling into place.
The two presidents seem to have a certain level of trust in each other and have demonstrated a readiness to engage in a give-and-take that does take into account each side's needs and interests. Those are the key prerequisites. But that is not a guarantee that the final differences are bridgeable. In any negotiation on something as sensitive and complex as Nagorno-Karabakh, it's the last issue, or the last couple issues, that are often the hardest to resolve. So I can't predict what will happen, but I am paid to be an optimist and I feel that those who pay me for that optimism are being well served.
'We Have Seen Some Progress'
RFE/RL: Before we move on to issues pertaining to Azerbaijan, is there anything you would like to add about Armenia, Turkey, and Karabakh?
Bryza: Yes, there is. President Sarkisian came into office under very difficult circumstances: an election that was questioned and unprecedented postelection violence for the South Caucasus on March 1 and 2. He faces really serious challenges, but he seems to understand what these challenges are, and I personally have confidence in his ability to address those problems, which still require some work.
What those are are arrests of opposition politicians, opposition activists for their participation in the events of March 1 and 2. There still is a political divide between the government and opposition that we would like to see closed. There are still some restrictions on freedom of assembly. So all those issues need to be worked through.
We really want to see the release of those activists and politicians who are still under arrest. There are some trials pending for people who were arrested on March 1st and 2nd for political reasons. We would like to see all that go away and be resolved in accordance with the rule of law and democratic principles.
Again, though, that all said, we do sense that the president, Sarkisian, does recognize these serious challenges and the need to restore democratic principles. We have seen some progress on rule of law in the economic sphere under his prime minister, [Tigran] Sarkisian -- same surname, no relationship. So overall, the domestic situation in Armenia is hopefully on a more positive trajectory.
There will be a big decision that our Millennium Challenge corporation will have to take -- I mean the board will need to take -- in September about whether to continue the program. And the board decided in June to follow a wait-and-see approach and hope that the, at that time, very nascent signs of a restoration of democratic momentum will gain their own momentum. I hope that is what we are now seeing, but it is too early to tell.
I think that it is by virtue of restoring the democratic momentum that Armenia will become more confident and more able to advance the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process. Just as I would argue that rapprochement with Turkey should also help Armenia become more able to be more flexible in the negotiations. And we want to see the same thing happen on the Azerbaijani side.
We hope that as these processes move forward, Azerbaijan will see it in itself to use its burgeoning economic wealth as a way to bring the parties together, rather than increase any sort of tension. And as far as using wealth to build understanding, President Aliyev has actually shown that vision and we commend him for that.
RFE/RL: Azerbaijan's presidential election is scheduled for October. Do you think the current environment in that country, with so many journalists in prison and the atmosphere of intimidation so strong, is conducive to free and fair elections?
Bryza: President Ilham Aliyev seems to understand the importance of conducting an election that the international community recognizes as free and fair. That goal is a central focus of our relationship with Azerbaijan, with his government, and with him. So we hope that his election will prove to be just that.
It's true, however, that the arrests of journalists, what people are reporting as harassment of them, and limitations on freedom of assembly, work against the perception and perhaps the reality that the election will be free and fair. We have been working through our embassy and our assistance programs that are managed here and in Baku to try to get the mechanisms of democracy of an election in place so that the election will be as free and fair as possible.
I can't handicap what the outcome will be now, but I can say that as in Armenia, where we had an unprecedented level of violence after the election -- an election that was questioned -- so do we want to make sure that the procedures are in place to make sure this election is seen as free and fair as possible.
RFE/RL: How much leverage does the United States have to get these journalists out of prison?
Bryza: I don't know how to assess how much leverage we have, I can just say that getting these people out of jail is a high priority, it's something we work on every day -- I do, and our ambassador does. We need to be constantly pushing on that issue. I should just add that Azerbaijan is an important friend of the United States -- Azerbaijan overall, the entire country. We have a lot of important issues on the agenda.
We have three key sets of strategic interests -- expansion of political and economic freedom to reform, or democratic and market economic reform; security cooperation; and, of course, energy cooperation with Azerbaijan. We need to be moving forward in all three sets of those interests and encouraging Azerbaijan's evolution toward democracy as a key element. We know that in the long run, stability will come from legitimacy, which requires free and fair elections. So that's what we're pushing toward.