Monday, July 21, 2008

Briefly: Congress approves military aid to Turkey, GUAM reps visit U.S., Western embassies in Baku threatened, Georgia to sell its railroad

This was originally published in November 3, 2007 Armenian Reporter.

From Washington, in brief
by Emil Sanamyan

Members of Congress speak of Genocide affirmation;
Committee approves military aid to Turkey

Reps. Frank Pallone (D.-N.J.) and Joe Knollenberg (R.-Mich.), co-chairs of the 155-member Congressional Caucus on Armenian Issues, confirmed on October 29 their determination to bring the House resolution affirming the U.S. record on the Armenian Genocide to a vote before the end of 2008. Last week, the resolution’s co-sponsors decided to ask the Speaker not to bring it up this month because of the erosion of support for the resolution as a result of strong opposition from the Bush Administration.

In a letter to fellow members of Congress, the co-chairs noted that “although the events of the resolution took place more than ninety years ago, denial of its historical fact remains. And until this denial is removed, we must stand up to injustice and refuse to allow another country to impede our efforts to speak out against inhumanity.”

During a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on October 24, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R.-Calif.) said that the committee’s approval of the resolution on October 10, strongly opposed by the administration, was “a human rights vote and recognition of a violation of human rights.” In response, Secretary Rice said that she “recognize[s] that it was a difficult vote for some who supported the administration’s position,” but that the administration would continue to oppose passage.

A day earlier, on October 23, the committee approved a transfer of decommissioned U.S. military ships worth nearly half a billion dollars to Turkey, Reuters reported same day. The legislators denied that the bill – drafted by committee chair Tom Lantos (D.-Calif.), who supported the Armenian Genocide resolution – was intended to placate Turkey.

Committee member Rep. Brad Sherman (D.-Calif.), who led the fight for the Genocide resolution’s passage in the committee, wondered how the vessels would help in Turkey’s fight against Kurdish rebels, which Ankara identifies as a top priority. “In dealing with the defense concerns on its Iraqi and Iranian border, where will Turkey deploy these naval vessels? The last time oceangoing ships were seen in Eastern Anatolia, it was Noah’s Ark,” Rep. Sherman was quoted as saying.

More talks held on Turkish-Kurdish conflict The U.S. military began providing “actionable intelligence” to help Turkish forces attack Kurdish rebel positions, BBC News and others reported this week.

While the Turkish military continued operations in the country’s southeast region and just across the border with Iraq, a major invasion of Iraqi Kurdistan appeared less likely, as Turkish media reported that no action would be taken before Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Washington for talks with President George W. Bush on November 5.

In a recent speech, Mr. Erdogan said that future U.S. steps on the Kurdish issue “will determine the nature of our relationship.” About 50 Turkish soldiers were killed and eight captured in clashes over the past month, and the Turkish public has pressured the government to retaliate. But Iraqi Kurdish leaders said they would fight a Turkish invasion, and U.S. and regional governments cautioned against it.

Secretary of State Rice, who was in Turkey on November 2, again promised a joint struggle against the forces of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). While Turkish leaders demanded immediate U.S. action against the PKK, Ms. Rice cautioned that the struggle against the PKK “is going to take persistence, it is going to take commitment. This is a very difficult problem.”

The Jamestown Foundation reported on October 31 that amid fears of intercommunal violence between Turks and Kurds, the liberal Democratic Society Party (DTP) represented in the Turkish parliament called for giving Kurdish-populated regions more autonomy as a way to end the conflict. Following that statement, DTP leaders were charged with “supporting a terrorist organization.”

U.S. interest in GUAM said to be reviving

Officials from Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova (GUAM) visited the U.S. earlier this week to discuss efforts to strengthen the grouping first established in 1997 on Azerbaijan’s initiative.

While GUAM is often perceived as an anti-Russia initiative in the former Soviet space, members’ interests have since diverged, with Azerbaijan and Russia enjoying warmer relations, just as Georgia appeared near an open confrontation with Moscow.

Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) at a workshop on October 31, Tofig Musayev of the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry recalled that the four countries were brought together by shared concerns over “aggressive separatism” and conflicts “accompanied by . . . genocide.”

GUAM members have tried to jointly lobby larger international organizations, including the United Nations, to adopt a more favorable attitude to the states’ interests. But the U.S. and the European Union have avoided taking a uniform approach to conflicts affecting GUAM states.

A former U.S. State Department official, Steven Pifer, said at CSIS that the U.S.’s interest in GUAM reached a low point five years ago, but has since revived, with former
Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage playing a key role. (Prior to joining the Bush Administration, Mr. Armitage was on the board of the U.S.-Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce, a lobbying group.)

Amb. Thomas Adams, the State Department’s assistance coordinator for Europe and Eurasia, also recalled Mr. Armitage’s desire to make GUAM a successful organization and welcomed the organization’s focus on specific projects, funded in part by the United States.

While in Washington this week, the officials from GUAM countries met Assistant Secretary of State Dan Fried and gave a briefing on Capitol Hill organized by the offices of the Azerbaijani Caucus co-chairs, Reps. Solomon Ortiz (D.-Tex.) and Bill Shuster (R.-Pa.).

In addition to Rep. Shuster, the briefing was attended by the Turkish Caucus co-chair Ed Whitfield (R.-Ky.); two Armenian Caucus members, Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D.-Ohio) and Joe Wilson (R.-S.C.); and former House Speaker Bob Livingston – currently the main congressional lobbyist for the Turkish and Azerbaijani governments.

Western embassies reportedly threatened in Baku

The U.S. and British embassies in Azerbaijan limited their operations earlier this week after the Azerbaijani government claimed there was a “credible threat” that Islamic “radicals” planned to attack Western interests in Baku, the State Department’s spokesperson Sean McCormack confirmed on October 29.

According to official claims carried by Azerbaijani media, the “plotters” included about a dozen army officers who espouse radical Islamic beliefs. One suspect was killed and several dozen were detained. The crackdown reportedly included the police shaving and burning the beards of pious-looking individuals in rural areas.

As of November 2, police were still looking for more plotters, including an officer who is said to have left his unit weeks ago with a weapons cache. While mutinies in the Azerbaijani armed forces have occurred in the past, this is the first reported case of religiously motivated insubordination.

Meanwhile, on October 30, in what Human Rights Watch described as an “unrelenting crackdown on media,” dissident Azerbaijani editor Eynulla Fatullayev was sentenced to an additional eight and a half years in prison.

Earlier this year, Mr. Fatullayev was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for an article he wrote questioning the nationalist government narrative of the war in Karabakh. (See this page in the May 26 Armenian Reporter .) New charges stemmed from Mr. Fatullayev’s article about the potential impact of a U.S.-Iranian confrontation on Azerbaijan.

In comments reported by, the imprisoned editor described the Azerbaijani court system as “worse than in Nazi Germany,” but also “thanked” the government for not murdering him outright. The March 2005 murder of Fatullayev’s colleague Elmar Huseynov remains unresolved.

Georgian railroad up for sale

The Georgian government has put the national railroad up for sale, after a long-term management deal with an anonymous offshore investment company fell through, reported. The rail line is a key part of the transit infrastructure for goods transported to and from Armenia.

According to an ad in the October 28 Economist, the Georgian Economics Ministry is inviting investment proposals by January 25, 2008, for a general tender, but “reserves the right to withdraw from the purchasing procedures at any time; or suspend or change procedure, or exclude any interested party from the purchasing procedure.”

In the same issue, Georgia also invited bids for the construction of the highway between Tbilisi and Armenian-populated Javakheti, to be funded through a U.S. grant. A deal with offshore firm Parkfield Investment to manage the Georgian railway for 99 years, agreed in August (see this page in the August 25 Armenian Reporter ), has been reportedly annulled, with officials offering no explanation for the cancellation.

Georgian media speculated that businesspeople linked to Russian interests may have been behind the August deal. It also came shortly after Azerbaijan transferred the first tranche of a $220 million low-interest loan to Georgia to build a railroad to Turkey bypassing Armenia.

Nareg Seferian contributed to this week’s column.

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