AAA: Armenia This Week – 07/12/2004

Monday, July 12, 2004

Georgians and Ossetians were shooting at each again last week, following
twelve years of relative peace in the breakaway province of South Ossetia.
The province lies in direct proximity to the Russia to Georgia gas pipeline
and highway, both of key economic significance to Armenia. Foreign Minister
Vartan Oskanian noted that any tension in Georgia is of concern to Armenia
and expressed hope for a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

Georgia’s President Mikhail Saakashvili claimed this Monday that a new
conflict “has been averted” this week due to diplomatic efforts involving
Russia and the United States. But media reports suggest both sides are being
reinforced with personnel and equipment. The fighting came amid
Saakashvili’s effort to regain control over parts of the country that had
effectively broken away in the early 1990s and comes on the heel of
Saakashvili’s success in re-imposing Tbilisi’s authority in Ajaria. But
unlike Ajarians, who are ethnically Georgian and whose long-time leader
Aslan Abashidze never sought secession from Georgia, Ossetians are a
separate ethnic group, who speak a language related to Persian, and are
seeking to become part of Russia.

South Ossetia was an autonomous province within Soviet Georgia and as of
1989 had a largely ethnic Ossetian population of 90,000 people. A larger
North Ossetia autonomous republic just to the north was and is to this day
part of the Russian Federation. As the Soviet Union disintegrated, the new
post-Soviet Georgian government of nationalist President Zviad Gamsakhurdia
stripped South Ossetia of autonomy in an effort to reassert control.
Following bitter fighting in and around the provincial capital of
Tskhinvali, Ossetians ousted the Georgian forces and by 1992 the two sides
negotiated a cease-fire agreement brokered and policed by Russia and
endorsed by the OSCE.

Despite the war, there has been considerably less ethnic tension between
Georgians and Ossetians than in other Caucasus conflicts. Although Tbilisi
has lost control of the province, economic ties remained and there are still
Georgians living in South Ossetia and Ossetians in the rest of Georgia.
Saakashvili has made an effort to woo in the Ossetians by launching
Ossetian-language TV broadcasts and distributing “humanitarian aid” to the
province. While stating that Georgians and Ossetians are “brothers,”
Saakashvili assailed South Ossetia’s elected leader Eduard Kokoiti and
unnamed “imperialistic” forces in Russia for driving a wedge between the two
nations. Saakashvili has said that he is committed to a peaceful settlement
of the conflict.

But in a simultaneous show of force, Georgia sent additional security forces
to the area, which the Russian peacekeepers said was in violation of the
1992 cease-fire. Also, some 1,000 volunteers from Russia, particularly from
North Ossetia, and Georgia’s other breakaway province, Abkhazia, reportedly
arrived in Tskhinvali following Kokoiti’s call to join in defense of South
Ossetia. In a weekend speech, Saakashvili, in apparent reference to these
volunteers, said, “their blood… will flow. We will kill them off without
mercy.” Saakashvili, who has committed to regain control over South Ossetia
“within a year,” is currently in London to drum up Western support.
(Sources: Armenia This Week 6-7; Arminfo 6-8, 7-8; RFE/RL 7-8, 9, 12;
7-10, 12; 7-12)

Members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) pledged renewed
attention to the “strategically important regions of the Caucasus and
Central Asia.” The commitment came in a joint communiqué issued at the
conclusion of the alliance summit held in Istanbul, Turkey. Foreign Minister
Vartan Oskanian led the Armenian delegation to the event.

NATO will now assign a special representative and two liaison officers to
the regions. The Caucasus countries cooperate with the alliance through
NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) program. So far only Georgia has publicly
opted to join NATO, but both Armenia and Azerbaijan desire closer links with
the alliance. Georgia’s President Mikhail Saakashvili said that he expects
NATO to officially designate his country as a candidate in 2006 with formal
accession in 2008. But in its statement, NATO identified only three
countries, Albania, Croatia and Macedonia as possible future candidates.

While in Istanbul Oskanian held talks with his Turkish counterpart Abdullah
Gul and, briefly, with Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan. Oskanian said
the talks “confirmed his impression… that the Turkish government really
has a sincere desire to achieve progress in relations with Armenia.”
However, following several years of meetings, no such progress has been
achieved yet. (Sources: NATO 6-28; RFE/RL Armenia Report 6-30; RFE/RL
Caucasus Report 7-2)

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