The political spin and double talk coming out of this State Department official is absolutely breathtaking...“We are not transferring weapons to the Georgians” — interview with Matthew Bryza
REGNUM: The tension in the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict has been increasing every day. Georgia has reportedly become the most militarized country in the region with the help of other powers, including the United States. Do you find it appropriate that a conflict party in two ethnic conflicts is being supplied with weapons and at the same time a stir is generated about deployment of unarmed railway troops in Abkhazia?
We believe there is no military solution to the Abkhazia conflict. I want to make that clear. We urge our Georgian friends not to consider a military resolution, because we think that would be a disaster for everybody. The only way forward is through a peace plan that is agreed by both parties – by both the Georgians and the Abkhaz – and that becomes a plan that we all can guarantee in the international community, especially, but not only, Russia and the United States. There is no military solution. In response to the specific question about arming parties to a conflict — if people are asking that question in Russia, then I wonder what the [Russians] are doing with the Armenians and others in the area who have benefited from large transfers of weaponry including the relocation of Russian military forces from Georgia, when the bases closed, to Guimry and elsewhere in Armenia. I’m not complaining about the relocation of Russian forces or the arms transfers to Armenia, I’m just saying that Russia sees the need to help one of its friends, Armenia, strengthen its military forces. From our perspective, there is nothing illegitimate in that, nor is there anything illegitimate in our helping the Georgians develop a professional military, because that’s what we’ve done.
We are not transferring weapons to the Georgians. We had a very limited training and equipping program that began back in 2001 to create a professional force that was capable to do what? To clean up the Pankisi Gorge. That’s how that whole program began back in 2001 – 02. We thought we were responding to a legitimate Russian desire/ request/ demand that the problem in the Pankisi Gorge be cleaned up, and that Georgia restore its authority and rule of law. That’s what happened and we are proud of that. We helped train these forces, and they have been serving with us in Iraq, but we never intended that they would be used for any military operation in Abkhazia, and we’ve made that clear repeatedly to our Georgian colleagues and Georgians friends. In terms of arms transfers, it happens pretty extensively from Russia, including to other countries in the region. I just want to make clear as well – Armenia is a friend too, Armenia is a party to a conflict, and Azerbaijan is a friend, and Azerbaijan is re-arming itself — I am not criticizing Russia for helping Armenia develop its armed forces, and we think it’s important that Azerbaijan has a professional military, as does Georgia. I just wanted to be clear about that. On the railways troops, our concern is not that railroads are being rebuilt. It’s good to restore communication, help the Abkhaz gain access to markets in Georgia, and help build economic cooperation. Our complaint is that there was no consultation. Why did the step just happen without somebody in the Russian government picking up the phone and saying to the Georgian leadership, “beware this is going to happen; we’ve talked about developing railroad together; let’s do it together.” Doing it unilaterally raised tension, and that’s just not necessary. In fact, it’s counterproductive at a point that we need to decrease the tension between the parties.
REGNUM: There is an assumption that in their aspiration to force Russia out of the negotiation and the peacekeeping formats in Abkhazia, the European Union and the United States can propose some kind of initiatives of a draft status to Abkhazia and this can be including even independence. Do the EU and the USA have any ready-to-use initiatives for Abkhazia that can bring the conflict out of the deadlock?
I don’t agree with the first thing you said, that the EU and United States are trying to move Russia out of the negotiation and peacekeeping format. Not at all. There is no way to resolve any of these conflicts in the Caucasus without Russia, it’s impossible. Russia has to play a role, a decisive role, a constructive role, or there will never be a solution. Everything we do ought to be developed in partnership in conjunction with Russian government to make sure that we all are pushing in the same direction. The United States and the EU don’t have any ready made plan. What we do have is the sense that there needs to be a process – a new process – that allows the Georgians and Abkhaz together to figure out whatever the plan should be. All we can propose is a process; we do not have ready made ideas.
In discussions with my friends and colleagues in Georgia, I suggested elements that I think could be useful in a peace plan to make it attractive to the Abkhaz so that the Abkhaz want to move forward. But that’s not a ready made plan, that’s just ideas out there that we develop after we talk to the Abkhaz to see what their needs are for security: physical security, political security, and cultural security. It’s a consultative process that must involve Russia, must involve the Abkhaz, and must involve the Georgians. If we as outsiders, but concerned outsiders, can help then we want to do everything we can.
REGNUM: Why does the West believe that the Kosovo conflict can be settled only by granting independence to the Kosovars, but rejects the same solution to the conflicts in the South Caucasus – especially for Nagorno-Karabakh? Is there any reason to believe that Karabakh can someday be returned to Azerbaijan?
I wonder why in Russia people sometimes say that Kosovo has to be a universal precedent. That would mean there would have to be independence not just of Abkhazia, but of many regions in the North Caucasus. I don’t believe people in Russia who talk about universal precedent want any of that to happen. My country is the country that began with separatism, and after we get gained our independence, many separatists appealed to us for support; sometimes we supported them, sometimes we didn’t. The same in the case of Russia. There is an international legal principle of territorial integrity, and that has developed in recent years since the early days of my country. It’s a principle we have to support, we are obligated to by law. It’s only on an exceptional basis when we can deviate from that principle. Kosovo was an exception; there was a series of Security Council Resolutions, and direct UN action, in the case of Kosovo that made that situation different, made it unique in terms of international law, because it is the UN and its Security Council that are the highest purveyors of international law. So there is a fundamental difference there. I know that the Russian government and my government certainly do not want Kosovo to become a precedent for other separatist movements all over the world.
On Nagorno-Karabakh, it doesn’t matter whether I am as individual American diplomat believe Karabakh will or will not return to Azerbaijan, it legally is part of Azerbaijan, let’s start with that. It happens to be under the political and military control of others, of separatists, who are ethnically Armenian. What matters is simply whether we succeed in developing an agreement or formula that would allow the two sides here – Armenia and Azerbaijanis – to agree on the status of Karabakh. I do not know what their agreement will be. All I know is that we need to try to get two sides to get to an agreement on status and that’s going to take a long, long time. In the meantime, while the mood changes and evolves, while people alter their views about status, because there is no way to move on status if Armenia says one thing and Azerbaijan says another, there is a lot we can do to reduce the risk of war and make the situation much better on the ground for all the people there. We can get the seven Azerbaijani territories around the Azerbaijani territory of Karabakh returned to Azerbaijan, and we can bring the Armenians and Azeris back to living together. The hope is as they live together and work together and trade together, the issue of status will become less acute. Eventually the parties can reach their own agreement on the status of Karabakh.
REGNUM: In what time limits it possible that Armenia returns the Azeri territories around Nagorno Karabakh to Azerbaijan? What will the influence of it upon the situation in the region in general and the political situation in Armenia?
Good question. I should underscore at the outset that the views I’m expressing I think are absolutely shared by the Russian government, at least my colleague Yuriy Nikolayevich Merzlyakov, who has helped me understand this conflict in much greater depth, as has our French colleague. The impact in Armenia of the return, I hope would be positive. I hope there would be greater sense of security for our Armenian friends knowing that the risk of war has deescalated significantly. Again, once the territories go back to Azerbaijan they will be demilitarized, there will be international peace keepers there, the Armenian troops will pull back; they won’t be in this tense situation they’re in now, where the Armenian troops are staring at Azerbaijani troops and vice versa, across, in some cases, a hundred meters of mine fields. That’s obviously a very dangerous situation. People are killed every month by sniping, landmines. So I would hope that our friends in Armenia would feel a heightened sense of security once those territories go back to Azerbaijan. I hope that that echoes throughout the political system in Armenia in very positive way.
REGNUM: I think this question is a bargaining point inside Armenia’s political system. Do you think that this will not affect the current authorities?
It depends on what sort of an overall package can be pulled together. There will not be the return of Azerbaijani territories unless the Armenian side feels it has gotten something in return that of sufficient value. Your question will actually answer itself. The agreement won’t be there unless it’s agreeable to the Armenians, but I take your point that for an Armenian leader there is a risk to agreeing to give the territories back to Azerbaijan. I accept that point. Similarly on the Azerbaijani side there is a political risk to giving to Armenia what Armenia needs to agree to give back the territories. That’s why tomorrow’s meeting is so important between Presidents Aliyev and Sargsyan. They need to have a chance to get to know each other and build a certain level of trust so they each can take those difficult decisions to make return of the territories acceptable. I want to make clear too that there are many elements of this peace plan that are attractive to Armenia: there will be a corridor connecting Karabakh to Armenia, there are question about procedure to determine the status of Karabakh. That is a possibility that should say should be appealing to the Armenian side as well. So again I just want to emphasize that this agreement must be acceptable to Armenia as well.
REGNUM: Let’s talk about Azerbaijan where the presidential election is to be held this fall. In the context of recent developments in Tbilisi and Yerevan when people took to the streets to protest against current authorities, do you expect the same thing to happen in Baku? Is the Azeri opposition capable of taking people to the streets?
During the last round of elections there were street demonstrations. I understand – I have not had a chance to look at it – that there is a new package of electoral reforms just passed that allow for freedom of assembly, however, as I understand it, not in the center of Baku. You can argue over where the demonstrations are to take place. We are not in favor of democracy or political change through street protest. We are in favor of political change through voting and through democratic institutions and processes. It’s not accurate to say we somehow encouraged any revolution, the Rose Revolution, Orange Revolution, Tulip Revolution. We did not to step in to try to block them, nor did we encourage them. In this current case in Azerbaijan, what we want to see is that the Azerbaijani voters determine their country’s political future. We have made our own statements about difficulties, problems with limitations on freedom of the press.
We’ve also commented on the importance of the press being professional and adhering to professional ethical standards in Azerbaijan, as in many countries. The raw material is there for an election that could be the freest and fairest that Azerbaijan has ever had. Demonstrations will be part of that, but the real element of this moment in Azerbaijan’s democracy will be how free and how fair the election is both in the campaign period and then in the immediate aftermath of the election when the vote counting happens. I feel that the leadership of Azerbaijan understands what an important moment this is, but I can’t predict how it’s going to play out. I do not have a clear feeling about what is going to happen. The last thing I’ll say is that Russia has to be a part of the process, or there will never be any progress towards settlement. That’s why I’m here, to explore how we can work together to develop such a viable peace plan.