Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Briefly: Spanish FM on Karabakh, Azerbaijan ups anti-Armenian diplomacy, Georgia vs. Abkhazia, new Turkish FM and Israel vs. Syria

First published in the September 8, 2007 Armenian Reporter

From Washington, in brief
by Emil Sanamyan

Senior European official calls for “new initiatives” toward Armenian-Azerbaijani normalization

Spain’s Foreign Minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos, Chairman-in-Office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), under whose aegis talks on the Karabakh settlement have been held since 1992, reportedly called for expanding the existing efforts to deal with the conflict.

The Azerbaijani Trend news agency reported that during a September 4 visit to Georgia, Mr. Moratinos revealed that while meeting with Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers the previous day, he had told them that “the time has come to launch a new dialogue and find a way out of the present-day situation.” He went on to say that “the situation now is such that we need new cooperation frameworks, and I believe that that will serve as a catalyst for development of relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan.” He expressed hope that “some progress” in that direction would be made before the end of the year.

Several recent developments suggest that Azerbaijan may be dropping its past policy of refusing or discouraging all contacts with Armenians, whether official or informal.

Last June, Azerbaijan for the first time ever sent an official delegation to Karabakh in an apparent effort to “build bridges.” Over the past decade and a half, senior Armenian officials and individual visitors were kept out of Azerbaijan, and even out of most international events organized there.

But this week, Armenia’s Chief of Police, Gen. Hayk Harutiunian, attended a Commonwealth of Independent States ministerial meeting hosted by Azerbaijan, becoming the second most senior Armenian official ever to visit Azerbaijan (then–
Prime Minister Armen Darbinian attended a regional trade summit in Baku in September 1998.) And starting next week Armenian wrestlers are due in Baku to compete in the world championship.

Azerbaijan continues to seek international endorsement for its claim on Karabakh

A draft resolution endorsing Azerbaijan’s claim on Karabakh is likely to be again introduced at the United Nations General Assembly following consultations with other interested states later this month, Foreign Minister Elmar Mamedyarov told the Trend news agency on September 5.

General Assembly resolutions, unlike those of the Security Council, are nonbinding and frequently ignored by member states. Still, Azerbaijan has sought an alliance in the General Assembly with members of the Organization of Islamic Conference and other states to bring up a resolution.

Most recently the effort took the form of a more watered-down draft resolution floated jointly by Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova – the members of the Baku-initiated GUAM organization – that addressed four post-Soviet conflicts, including Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transdnistria. But past efforts to have the General Assembly pass a resolution with pro-Azerbaijani wording have run into opposition from the U.S. and France. In addition, Russia objects to a GUAM resolution that would criticize its policies in Moldova and Georgia.

The Americans, French, and Russians have led Karabakh conflict mediation efforts for the past decade, and believe that the Armenian entity’s final status should be determined through negotiations.

On August 17, Armenia’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Armen Martirossian, told Armenpress news agency that U.S. and French officials continue to support amendments to the GUAM draft that would be acceptable to Armenia. GUAM states have pulled the most recent draft they introduced at the end of 2006, following apparent internal disagreements and a failure to garner sufficient support in the General Assembly.

As part of a strategy to expand its foreign political reach – in large part to secure international support on the Karabakh issue – Azerbaijan has since 2004 nearly doubled the number of its diplomatic representations around the world to 46, with new embassies established as far afield as Argentina and Malaysia and, most recently over the summer, in Lithuania and Tajikistan.

By contrast, Armenia has 36 diplomatic representations.

Georgia defies UN call for restraint, promises further military buildup

President Mikhail Saakashvili expressed unhappiness with the United Nations’ recent calls for restraint over Georgia’s unresolved conflicts, reported this week. In July, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon issued a report calling on Tbilisi to remove a militarized youth camp from the Abkhazia conflict zone.

Speaking at the camp on September 6, Mr. Saakashvili said: “I want to tell bureaucrats in the international organizations: we do not need amoral and meager recommendations and friendly advice about removing this camp from the Abkhaz border.” Instead, he called on the UN to “undo the results” of the 1992–93 war in Abkhazia, which forced most ethnic Georgians from the area.

Outlining the Georgian government’s program on September 5, Mr. Saakashvili noted a further boost to the military, bringing the 2007 defense budget to $783 million (more than a quarter of the total $2.9 billion projected budget). He said the increase was “badly needed” and that “in the nearest future we will be fully ready to repel any type of foreign aggression based on our combat readiness and resources.”

Georgia has repeatedly accused Russia of such aggression. But it is still unclear whether Georgia – with its 30,000-strong active-duty military and 100,000 reservists, trained and aided by the U.S. and other Western states – would be able to counter a much larger and better-equipped Russian military. The military buildup is part of a strategy of regaining control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where Tbilisi has for years sought Western help in limiting Russian support for the two de facto entities.

Also on September 5, the Georgian Defense Ministry announced the launch of a new military-run television channel with the aim of boosting Georgia’s “patriotic spirit,” Agence France Presse reported.

Next week, Georgia’s Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili will be in Washington to raise his country’s concerns with U.S. officials. On September 4, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin met with the U.S. ambassador to Russia, William Burns, to brief him on Moscow’s position regarding developments in Georgia, the Russian Foreign Ministry reported.

Turkey’s Europe negotiator appointed foreign minister

A businessman-turned-politician who has been credited with Turkey’s economic successes in the last five years was appointed Turkey’s Foreign Minister on August 29.

Born in 1967, Ali Babacan became Turkey’s youngest foreign minister ever. Since May 2005, Mr. Babacan has served as the chief negotiator in Turkey’s talks with the European Union, and from 2002 he was economics minister. He is a founding member of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), having previously worked in the private sector in Turkey and the U.S., where he earned a master’s in business administration degree from Northwestern University in 1992.

Syria accuses Israel of aerial raid

Several Israeli fighter jets entered Syrian airspace, dropping munitions and coming under air defense fire shortly after midnight on September 6, officials in Damascus reported later in the day, according to Reuters and other news agencies.

Israeli and U.S. officials have so far refused comment. The U.S.–made F-16s reportedly flew in from the direction of the Mediterranean Sea near the Syrian-Turkish border and dropped “ammunition” in a desert area in northern Syria, northeast of the city of Ar-Raqqah causing no casualties or damage. A Syrian official claimed its military’s air defense repulsed the raid.

For months increased tensions have been reported between Syria and Israel. Israeli officials have warned that a “miscalculation” due to heightened alert might lead to fighting. The two countries have no formal relations, after fighting three full-scale wars in 1948, 1967, and 1973 that left Israel in control of the strategic Golan Heights, within striking distance of Damascus. They have since engaged in proxy fighting in Lebanon.

The last time Israeli aircraft were reported to have bombed Syrian territory was in 2003. According to Stratfor, since the summer of 2006 war with Hizbollah Israeli jets have flown regularly over Syria, “since the country’s air defense is ill-equipped to respond in time.”

The last time Israeli jets came under Syrian fire was when they flew over the Syrian president’s Latakia residence in June 2006.

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