166 CSCDG 05 E - MINORITIES IN THE SOUTH CAUCASUS: FACTOR OF INSTABILITY?
BERT MIDDEL (NETHERLANDS)
TABLE OF CONTENTS
II. ETHNIC MINORITIES
A. THE STATUS OF ETHNIC MINORITIES IN THE THREE STATES
III. RELIGIOUS MINORITIES
A. RELIGION IN PUBLIC LIFE
1. Since they gained their independence from the Soviet Union, powerful movements towards depopulation and ethnic conflicts have led to increasing mono-ethnicity in states of the South Caucasus. Having lost the overarching protection of the Soviet central government - which guaranteed minority participation in public life and educational opportunities - and having largely escaped the attention of the international community, minorities seem to be the net losers in the changes of the independence period.
Demographic trends, 1989 - 2005
Sources: UN Population Division, World Bank Development Indicators, National Statistical Service of the Republic of Armenia, State Statistical Committee of the Republic of Azerbaijan, State Department for Statistics of Georgia
2. This report will examine the condition of minorities in the South Caucasus region, surveying the potential for conflict and instability emanating from their interactions with majority groups and neighbouring states. It will focus on the status and challenges posed by ethnic and religious minorities, paying special attention to the so-called "frozen" conflicts in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh.
3. Emigration from the three South Caucasus states - Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia - has been motivated both by war and ethnic hostilities as well as by falling living standards and economic malaise. Minority populations are most likely to emigrate. As mass emigration gives rise to more and more mono-ethnic communities and regions, the status quo has increasingly become "balkanisation" rather than peaceful co-existence. The political culture is increasingly characterised by insularity and exclusive ethnic nationalism that provide for little tolerance of minorities by majority populations. In a region that once hosted substantial ethnic and religious diversity, today the often-strained interaction between the region's minority groups and the majorities they live among threatens to destabilise the region's precarious equilibrium.
4. This report is not meant to provide a comprehensive picture of the situation of minorities in the South Caucasus, but only to highlight some of the challenges and problems related to the integration of certain minority groups in Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia. Your Rapporteur would like to thank all the delegations that have provided comments on the report.
5. Shortly after gaining independence from the Soviet Union, a number of ethnic clashes in the South Caucasus region led to damaging civil strife and huge waves of forced migration. Following this turmoil, the governments of the region have taken pains to smooth inter-ethnic relations. They have succeeded - both due to their own efforts as well as to the fact that mass emigration has meant that substantial ethnic and religious diversity has given way to largely mono-ethnic communities and regions - insofar as underlying tensions have not led to full-scale war.
6. Armenia is the only state in the Caucasus which is almost mono-ethnic. According to the latest available official census, an estimated 98% of the population is ethnic Armenian, up from 93% in 1989. The trend towards mono-ethnicity in Armenia was spurred both by the Karabakh conflict with neighbouring Azerbaijan, which led to the expulsion of more than 80,000 Azeris and 2,500 Muslim Kurds, and economic hardship, which prompted the emigration of many Russians. Azeris, who represented the largest minority in Armenia in 1989 (2.6%), have virtually all left. Today the largest minority group are the Yezidi Kurds, whose population is officially estimated at 40,000. Assyrians, Yezidis and Kurds are predominantly rural, while other groups of national minorities are concentrated in major cities. Armenia has engaged in an effort to promote the integration and representation of its minorities, but this is rendered difficult by the very limited size of this population which often does not live compactly in the same areas, and by the assertion of Armenian ethnic nationalism fostered by the country's strained relations with its neighbours, particularly in relation to the Karabakh conflict. Globally, it seems that if the situation of minorities in Armenia is not perfect, it is not the result of a perceived threat, since minority groups in Armenia are numerically too small and too spread out to represent any major security threat to the country's national integrity. This distinguishes the situation in Armenia from that of certain minority groups in Georgia or Azerbaijan.
7. Armenia ratified some of the main international instruments for the protection of national minorities, including the Council of Europe Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and the European Charter on Regional and Minority Languages. Implementation of both conventions is reviewed regularly through monitoring mechanisms. As part of the European Charter, Armenia granted Assyrian, Yezidi, Greek, Russian and Kurdish the status of national minority languages. However, since independence, the Armenian language has asserted its domination in all spheres. Only Russian is still relatively present and usually benefits from more favourable conditions than other minority languages. For example, education in minority languages is usually available, but a full curriculum exists only for Russian. Moreover, in most cases, shortage of teachers and the difficulty of procuring adequate textbooks have represented considerable obstacles. The same is true in other areas, such as television and radio broadcasts or printed media. Some TV and radio programmes about, or in a few cases in, minority languages exist and receive some level of state support, but this presence remains very limited.
8. Representation of minorities in government and administrative structures is also limited. In particular, Armenia's Constitution does not provide for any special arrangement for the representation of minority groups, and a law on the protection of national minorities still needs to be adopted. However, as a first step towards a better co-ordination of policy with regards to minority issues, Armenia created, in January 2004, a governmental Department on National Minorities and Religious Issues.
9. Despite these efforts, political, economic and social integration of minority groups is still imperfect, particularly in the case of the Yezidi Kurds. For a long time, this ethnic group has been prevented from asserting a separate national identity, but was assimilated into the Kurdish population. After independence, Armenia lifted these restrictions, but competition with the Kurdish community has often limited the capacity of Yezidi Kurds to organise a concerted effort towards recognition of their rights and culture. Yezidi Kurds mostly live in rural areas, have not benefited much from the process of land privatisation and have lower levels of education and employment than the rest of the population. Moreover, they are often excluded from policymaking and are only granted limited opportunities to promote their identity.
10. The situation of minorities in Azerbaijan is also mixed. According to the latest official census in 1999, 91% of the close to 8 million-strong population are ethnic Azeris; main minorities include Lezgins, Russians, Talish and Armenians. Apart from the Russians who mainly live in Baku, other minorities are concentrated in remote areas in the north and south of the country. The Constitution of Azerbaijan provides for a unitary state structure, and central authorities in Baku have endeavoured to keep a relatively tight control over local administration and organisations representing minority groups. Former President Aliyev promoted a policy aiming at integrating the representation of minority groups, while firmly suppressing political demands for autonomy. As an illustration, ethnic minorities are relatively well represented in public positions and the former regime has provided political and financial support for officially sanctioned minority organisations. On the other hand, the regime has systematically arrested and detained alleged separatist movements. Undoubtedly, the fear that an excessively lax policy regarding minorities might lead to another Karabakh-like situation strongly influences decision-making in this area.
11. Overall, minorities in Azerbaijan are relatively well integrated, but some areas offer a mixed picture. Minorities enjoy better proficiency in the majority language than other minorities in neighbouring countries, and benefit from a more widespread presence of Russian in public and private life in Azerbaijan. Minorities have access to education in their language, but only Russians have a complete system of education from primary to high school. As a result, Russian schools are relatively popular and receive more pupils than the estimated number of Russian children. In other cases, courses in minority languages are only provided periodically and there is a shortage of trained teachers and adequate textbooks. As for access to information and media, the Director of Azerbaijan's new Public Television Channel has recently announced plans to start broadcasting programmes for national minorities, including programmes in Armenian. Radio, newspapers and magazines in minority languages are usually available. However, a law adopted in 2002 on usage and protection of Azeri language poses a certain number of restrictions on the use of minority languages in the media, and in particular prohibits the creation of private local television and radio stations broadcasting in minority languages.
12. In the political field, the election of the Azerbaijani Parliament based on proportional representation allowed for a fair participation of minorities in the parliament. The suppression of this proportional rule and establishment of single-seat constituencies in 2003 has raised some concern among representatives from national minorities.
13. Azerbaijan has ratified the Council of Europe Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities in 2000 and submitted itself to the monitoring mechanism it establishes. In its resolution on the implementation of the Framework Convention adopted on 13 July 2004, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe acknowledged the mixed picture of Azerbaijan's protection of its minorities. It stated: "In Azerbaijan, the importance of the protection and promotion of cultures of national minorities is recognised and the long history of cultural diversity of the country is largely valued." However, the Committee of Ministers also pinpointed several areas of concern, such as the issue of education in minority language, access to media, and use of minority languages in relations with administrative authorities. In conclusion, it recommended the adoption of a new law on the protection of national minorities and improved participation of national minorities representatives in decision-making. It also noted that other general human rights issues - including freedom of expression and the registration of NGOs - "have an impact on the protection of national minorities and need to be addressed by the authorities as a matter of priority".
14. Finally and maybe most importantly, the issue of minorities in Azerbaijan is strongly connected to the resolution of the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, as stated in the Committee of Ministers' resolution: ''Despite the general spirit of tolerance in Azerbaijan, the continued occupation of large parts of Azerbaijani territory and the displacement of a high number of people have caused tensions which have resulted in disconcerting manifestations of intolerance." The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh is indeed the single most destabilising minority-related issue for Azerbaijan and involves many different aspects that are examined below, including the very difficult situation of ethnic Azeri IDPs (internally displaced persons) from Nagorno-Karabakh.
15. Georgia is the most multi-ethnic country in the South Caucasus and as such has had to face a more complex situation with regards to ethnic minorities on its territory. In Georgia, according to the 2002 census, minorities make up 16% of the population (as against one third in 1989). The main ethnic groups are: Azeris (284,000 today, compared with 308,000 in 1989); Armenians (249,000 today, compared with 437,000 in 1989); Russians (68,000, compared with 341,000 in 1989); Ukrainians (7,000, compared with 52,000 in 1989); Greeks (15,000, compared with 100,000 in 1989). Since 1997, however, ethnic group is no longer recorded on identity cards.
16. Georgia's political culture and attitude towards its minorities is largely characterised by a relatively high and lingering level of ethnic nationalism. Just as for Azerbaijan, the unresolved conflicts in Abkhazia and Ossetia have contributed to reinforcing Georgian perceptions that minorities represent a potential threat. President Saakashvili's talk of restoration of Georgia's territorial integrity and sovereignty is sometimes also accompanied by nationalistic rhetoric, supported in some cases by a tacit alliance with the Georgian Orthodox Church, that has awakened worries of a nationalistic backlash among minority groups. Overall, in relations between the majority and minorities, priority has been given to the assertion of the state's unity over the protection of minorities. Wary of encouraging other potential separatist movements, the government's policy towards minorities has often been hesitating and half-hearted. The situation is also complicated in some cases by the involvement of third party states for the protection of their ethnic populations in Georgia.
17. Senior government posts tend to be occupied by ethnic Georgians, and there is a firm perception of ethnic discrimination in personnel appointments, especially in law enforcement agencies. Because the government is too weak to pursue a coherent integratory or centralising approach, however, some minorities have managed to achieve de facto self-rule.
18. Regarding the issue of language and education, the Georgian Constitution only recognises Abkhazian as an official language, along with Georgian, in the Abkhaz region. No other language has been granted official status. However, the Constitution recognises the right of citizens "to express themselves in their mother tongue in private and in public". In its minority areas, Georgia has largely left intact the educational provisions inherited from the Soviet era, including primary and secondary education in minority languages. So-called national schools provide education in minority languages.
20. Simultaneously, Russian is losing ground and does not play the role of a possible lingua franca for and among minorities any more. These problems are even more acute for IDPs and refugees in Georgia or who return to Georgia, as in the case of Ossetians who return from Russia and have been educated in Russian. Those who have taken up Russian citizenship are also faced with strict Georgian legislation that does not allow dual citizenship.
21. Political representation is also an issue, both on national and local levels. Georgia's single-chamber parliament does not provide any special arrangements for the representation of minorities. Minorities are represented by only eight members in the 235 member-strong Parliament. As not all of these MPs understand Georgian perfectly, it is unclear how they participate in parliamentary legislative work. Also problematic has been the government's practice of appointing judges and administrators who speak only Georgian in minority-populated areas. Locals complain that this system leads to unfair treatment and court decisions.
22. There are, however, some positive signs and developments. Symbolically, President Saakashvili has appointed two representatives of regional minorities to his government. Zinaida Bestaeva, an ethnic Ossetian, became State Minister for Civil Integration Issues in December 2004. Lela Avidzba, an ethnic Abkhaz, became the spokesperson for the government in January 2005. A draft Concept on Protection of National Minorities was introduced in the Georgian Parliament in June and entails some far-reaching measures, which find their inspiration in main international conventions on national minorities. A new law on state television has allowed broadcasts in minority languages for the first time. Some measures are taken for the promotion of members of minorities to positions in the administration and public institutions. As part of this programme, labelled "affirmative action" by the government, representatives from minorities will receive scholarships for training courses that should allow them access to jobs in the public sector. A School of Public Administration for representatives of minorities and residents of Georgia's mountainous regions was also created and started functioning last September in Kutaisi. It aims at training 300 students to be employed in the local self-governance administrations. In his speech at the UN High-Level Summit in New York last September, President Saakashvili proudly announced that major progress had been made in the promotion of "ethnic inclusiveness and integration", particularly in the implementation of affirmative action programmes to bolster education and minority representation. Finally, Georgia's Parliament ratified the Framework Convention on 13 October 2005, after postponing this ratification many times in the past.
23. In none of the unresolved conflicts of the South Caucasus do the separatist powers (Abkhaz, Ossetian or Karabakh) exhibit any discernible desire to remain in a common state with Georgia or Azerbaijan. It is difficult to convince their leadership and populations that anything might be gained from this, given the economic and social turmoil as well as poverty in these regions. The common perception is that, if incorporated back into their original states, the breakaway regions would have much to lose, in particular their security and their dominant political position.
24. These conflicts are sometimes referred to as "frozen," although this word is misleading, because in none of these cases is the situation stabilised or pacified. It is therefore more appropriate to refer to these conflicts as unresolved. While Georgia and Azerbaijan both seem unlikely to reconcile themselves to the loss of these territories, neither has proven able to re-incorporate them. This unresolved situation poses several serious challenges to the stabilisation and development of the region. First, ongoing small-scale violence in the border zones may escalate into serious fighting at any time. Second, absence of settlement of these conflicts hampers the political transition and economic development of the three South Caucasian countries. In countries that are still undergoing processes of political transition, unresolved conflicts can easily be exploited by the politically ambitious. Moreover, the persistence of local conflicts places a heavy burden on national economies and prevents the development of regional co-operation. Lastly, unresolved conflicts largely hinder the full integration of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia into international structures, and in particular within the partnerships developed with NATO or with the European Union.
25. In the three breakaway regions, minority issues are complicated by the origins of the conflict and the current configuration of the regions. Several questions overlap: the status of the region within the state it is legally attached to; the status of populations that have been displaced by the conflicts, whether internally - in the breakaway region or in neighbouring regions of the national state - or to neighbouring countries; and the status of minorities within the breakaway regions. Under these circumstances, minority issues can play a true destabilising role for the governments of the region and represent a real challenge to their legitimacy.
1. Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Georgia)
26. After the peaceful resolution of the situation in Adjaria in May 2004, there was hope for new momentum in negotiations over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In particular, South Ossetia, whose ethnic composition is still somewhat diverse, allowing for contacts between Georgian and Ossetian populations, was said to be next on the agenda of the Georgian president. However, subsequent developments in the two regions - and in particular renewed fighting in South Ossetia in the summer of 2004 - have demonstrated the difficulty of replaying the Adjarian success in Abkhazia and in South Ossetia. An additional obstacle lies in the fact that Abkhazia and South Ossetia have both experienced a long struggle for independence, in which separatist forces have fought for secession from Georgia, with the support of external players.
27. Georgian authorities have committed themselves in various international fora - UN, OSCE, Council of Europe, EU, NATO, etc. - to the peaceful resolution of both conflicts and have made several proposals to this effect. To some extent, the situation in Abkhazia provides more ground for optimism than developments in South Ossetia. However, in both cases, Georgia still has a long way to go to ensure adequate protection and integration of its minorities.
28. At the time of the last Soviet census in 1989, Abkhazia had a population of about 525,000, of which only 17.8% were ethnic Abkhaz. At that time, 45.7% of the region's population were Georgians (principally Mingrelians), with the rest made up of Armenians and Russians, both representing around 15% of the population.
29. The Abkhaz conflict broke out in 1992 with social unrest and attempts by local authorities to separate from Georgia. It escalated rapidly and led to a succession of ceasefires and renewed fighting, during which hundreds of thousands of civilians, mostly Georgians, were displaced in what was alleged to be a campaign of ethnic cleansing. While a ceasefire agreement was signed in May 1994, the conflict has not been formally resolved and the breakaway Republic's independence, officially proclaimed in 1999 following a referendum, is not recognised by either Tbilisi or the international community.
30. The ceasefire line is patrolled by Russian troops under the aegis of the Commonwealth of Independent States Peacekeeping Forces (CISPRF) as agreed in the Moscow Treaty of 1994. The United Nations (UN) assumed a mediating role in the conflict in Abkhazia, based on the principle of territorial integrity of the Georgian state. A UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) was charged with monitoring implementation of the ceasefire, observing the operation of the CIS peacekeeping forces and contributing to the return of refugees and IDPs.
31. In past years, Abkhazia has achieved increasing de facto independence from Georgia. Russia's introduction of a visa regime for Georgian citizens in 2000 - with the exemption of those in Abkhazia and South Ossetia - has encouraged the incorporation of these territories into Russia's economic and social space.
32. About 80-85% of Abkhazians are estimated to have taken Russian passports. Abkhaz de facto authorities claim that by the end of the year, the whole population of Abkhazia will own a Russian passport. Abkhazians cited a host of reasons for this decision, including the desire to receive a Russian pension - worth around fifty times more than one in Abkhazia - and being able to travel abroad (because the Republic's sovereignty is not internationally recognised, Abkhazian "citizens" are considered stateless by the international community). Finally, bitterness from war with Georgia has prevented others from taking Georgian citizenship. In 2001, the breakaway republic - which had already adopted the Russian rouble as its main currency and was almost totally reliant on Moscow for its economic survival - expressed the desire to apply for 'Associate Status' with the Russian Federation. This offer was subsequently rejected by the Russian Duma.
33. Abkhaz leaders have repeatedly asserted that they must never again allow themselves to become a minority, categorically excluding the return of all Georgian IDPs that is called for by the 1994 Quadripartite Agreement on Voluntary Return and subsequent UN resolutions. As in Georgia proper, access to political power for minorities in Abkhazia is limited. Abkhaz are dominant in both the political and business arenas. However, inter-ethnic relations between the region's groups are generally stable, with the notable exception of the Georgians. In particular, the few Georgian IDPs who have been able to return to the district of Gali are faced with a series of difficulties, ranging from the impossibility of finding Georgian-language schools for their children to sporadic reprisals and abductions by Abkhaz criminal groups. The Abkhaz side's refusal to allow for the opening of a UN office in the district to monitor human rights issues and for the deployment of a small UN civilian police force is certainly not helpful in restoring confidence between populations.
34. In elections on 12 January 2005, Abkhazians chose Sergei Bagapsh as their president after months of controversy and stalemate following what analysts have called a "barely concealed attempt by Moscow to block the outcome of an earlier presidential election". Under the pressure of an economic blockade imposed by Moscow, Sergei Bagapsh agreed to a re-run of the election held on 3 October 2004 and accepted a partnership with his former opponent, the Russian-backed candidate Raul Khajimba, who was appointed vice-president and charged with co-ordinating the region's foreign, defence and security policies.
35. Bagapsh's election has changed little in relations between Georgia and its breakaway Republic. There are some encouraging signs of rapprochement, but distrust remains and is fostered by uncooperative moves, such as the massive military exercise organised by Abkhaz de facto authorities in August, simulating a sea attack from Georgia. A positive development came in April 2005, when Abkhaz and Georgian representatives attended a high-level "Friends of the Secretary General" meeting in Geneva on the conflict, for the first time in almost two years. A further meeting was held on 4 August in Tbilisi as part of the "Geneva process", after being postponed twice because of tensions between the Georgian and Abkhaz sides. The Georgian side presented a new initiative, which aims at promoting confidence building through a joint Abkhaz-Georgian declaration to guarantee the non-resumption of hostilities and through economic co-operation. It also includes measures regarding the return of IDPs and refugees. Co-operation on the assessment and rehabilitation of the Abkhaz portion of the Georgia-Russia railway, between Georgian, Abkhaz and Russian experts is also an encouraging development, although the process has experienced many difficulties.
b. South Ossetia
36. In South Ossetia, relations between the Ossetian population and Georgia started to deteriorate on the eve of the break-up of the Soviet Union. South Ossetians proclaimed full sovereignty in September 1990, following which Georgia abolished South Ossetia's status of autonomy and conflict erupted in January 1991. A ceasefire was signed in Sochi and entered into force on 28 June 1992. During those eighteen months, the composition of the population in the region was deeply altered. According to the 1989 Soviet census, 65,000 Ossetians and 25,500 Georgians lived in the South Ossetia Autonomous Region, while close to another 100,000 Ossetians lived in the rest of Georgia, making it the fifth largest ethnic group in the country. It is estimated that 60,000 Ossetians and 10,000 Georgians - from South Ossetia - were displaced during the conflict. According to the 2002 Georgian census, only 38,000 Ossetians were left in Georgia. A vast majority of Ossetians fled to North Ossetia or other regions in Russia, imposing an important financial burden on these regions.
37. In 1999, as part of its admission to the Council of Europe, the Georgian government pledged to facilitate the return of refugees and IDPs to their homes, as well as restitution of or compensation for lost property. Little progress has been made on these issues since then. According to the UNHCR, only 1,285 of the 10,000 displaced Georgians have returned to their homes, and only 3,500 Ossetians (1,500 from North Ossetia, 2,000 from within South Ossetia). The more time passes, the more difficult it is for displaced families to even consider moving back to Georgia.
38. The main framework for conflict resolution is the Joint Control Commission (JCC), a quadripartite body with Georgian, Russia, North and South Ossetian representatives, as well as OSCE participation, created as part of the ceasefire agreements. The JCC's mandate is to implement the ceasefire and assist with settlement and reconstruction issues, including the return of IDPs and refugees. Several agreements were signed by the parties over the years, but have not led to any significant result or comprehensive solution to the issue of the return of IDPs and refugees. Georgian authorities have started to challenge the legitimacy and efficiency of the JCC format, and have pleaded for further internationalisation through the involvement of other partners and international organisations in the negotiations. The Ossetian side, on the contrary, rejects any attempt at de-legitimising and bypassing the JCC, knowing it provides for a framework where it can count on the support of North Ossetia and Russia when needed.
39. Progress in talks over political settlement of the conflict has been very limited. In the summer of 2004, both parties were on the brink of war, following parliamentary elections in South Ossetia and an attempt by the new Georgian government to organise a large-scale campaign against illegal trade in the area. A ceasefire was agreed to on November 2004, but new tensions appeared in May and June 2005 after a shootout between Georgian police and an Ossetian detachment, followed by the kidnapping of four ethnic Georgians in the conflict zone, leading to fears of renewed conflict. Regular militaristic talk or demonstrations also contribute to a general atmosphere of distrust. The signature on 18 September of a friendship-and-co-operation agreement between the leaders of North and South Ossetia, explicitly setting the goal of reunification of both regions within the Russian Federation, was followed by another defiant move when an impressive military parade was organised by South Ossetia's de facto authorities for the celebration of ''independence'' on 20 September 2005. On the same day, the South Ossetian "capital" Tskhinvali was the target of a mortar attack, which injured at least ten civilians; the circumstances are still unclear. All these incidents are evidence of lingering tensions between Tbilisi and Tskhinvali. Some observers also start to worry about the growing influence of a group of "hawks'' in President Saakashvili's entourage, preaching for a military confrontation to resolve the situation in South Ossetia.
40. Despite these tensions, some attempts at a rapprochement have been initiated, mostly from the Georgian side. In January 2005, President Saakashvili presented a comprehensive South Ossetia Peace Initiative at the meeting of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE). The initiative was based on the recognition of South Ossetia's right to autonomy which, he announced, should be enshrined in the Georgian constitution, along with guarantees for representation of the region in all branches of government. It also provided for economic and social reforms to promote prosperity and stability in South Ossetia. Finally, it called on the international community to support the peace process.
41. A further plan unveiled at an international conference in Batumi on 10 July 2005 completed and detailed the Peace Initiative, adopting a comprehensive but step-by-step approach to resolution of the situation in South Ossetia. Initial steps would include a set of economic measures to help redress South Ossetia's economy, and several political measures to promote reconciliation and re-integration of Ossetians in Georgian society. The economic dimension would include a long-awaited plan on restitution and rehabilitation of victims of the conflict, as well as steps towards greater economic co-operation with South Ossetia (restoring railway, bus, and taxi connections from Georgia proper to Tskhinvali, resuming delivery of humanitarian aid, launching a small and medium-size enterprise development support programme, etc.). On the political dimension, the plan demonstrates a willingness of the Georgian authorities to take steps towards reconciliation ahead of negotiations on the final status, and to combine measures aimed at reconciliation with measures to increase autonomy for the region. Propositions include granting official status for the Ossetian language, in parallel with the Georgian language; legalising dual citizenship for those Ossetians who have taken up Russian citizenship; guaranteed representation of South Ossetians in Georgia's parliament and in government departments; a quota of 50 places annually for Ossetians in the newly-created School of Public Administration; air time on national television and radio for South Ossetian authorities and for Ossetian cultural programmes; assistance for the creation of NGOs; and possible reform of school textbooks to include some elements of Ossetian history.
42. All these propositions certainly represent an important step forward, and although they were immediately rejected by the South Ossetian side, Georgia should keep up efforts towards the completion of its programme for the protection and integration of minorities, as part of a comprehensive approach aimed at building confidence and trust between all parties. It should be clear that no major progress can be achieved towards the political settlement of the Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflicts, as long as Georgia does not demonstrate its willingness and ability to improve the condition of minorities within a multi-ethnic state.
43. On several occasions since its election, Georgian President Saakashvili has stressed that reunification with Abkhazia and South Ossetia is a priority of his government. Little progress has been made, however, in bilateral negotiations on the final political status of the provinces or the return of IDPs, whose numbers are estimated at around 215,000 by the UNHCR for both Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Restoring Georgian sovereignty over South Ossetia and Abkhazia, it seems, would require significantly improved relations between Tbilisi and Moscow. Given President Saakashvili's distrust of his larger neighbour's intentions, however, this seems unlikely. President Saakashvili, as well as other high-level Georgian officials, regularly condemns Russian involvement in the breakaway provinces of Georgia. At the meeting of the UN General Assembly last September, President Saakashvili and Minister of Foreign Affairs Salome Zourabishvili denounced the "untold" and "ongoing annexation" of Abkhazia and the establishment of an "apartheid" regime. Most recently, on 11 October 2005, the Georgian Parliament also decided to put pressure on Russia by passing a resolution calling for a withdrawal of Russian peacekeeping forces if no concrete results are achieved in the South Ossetian and Abkhaz conflicts by February and July 2006 respectively.
2. Nagorno-Karabakh (Azerbaijan)
44. The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, which in Soviet times was an autonomous region (oblast) with a predominantly ethnic Armenian population, dates for the most recent part back to 1988. Each party supports its own version of the origin and timeline of the conflict. For Azerbaijan, the war was triggered by Armenia's territorial ambition. For Armenia, Azerbaijan suppressed and crushed the right to self-determination of the overwhelmingly Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh. In December 1991, a self-determination referendum was organised in Nagorno-Karabakh and some 108,615 people voted in favour of independence. On 6 January 1992, independence was officially proclaimed but until now has not been recognised by any state. For more information see this Committees' General Report in 2004 on Stability in the South Caucasian Republics: Ten Year's after Independence, Progress and New challenges.
45. The conflict resulted in tens of thousands of dead and disabled, as well as in major movements of population and ethnic cleansing, which completely changed the ethnic composition of the region. Nagorno-Karabakh forces today occupy some 13.4% of Azerbaijan's territory, i.e. almost the entire territory of the former Soviet Nagorno-Karabkah Autonomous Oblast (NKAO), as well as the entirety or part of seven other districts (what is usually referred to as the ''occupied territories''), which together represent close to double the size of the former NKAO and provide the population of Nagorno-Karabakh with their only connection to Armenia, via the Lachin corridor. Although there is no agreement on the numbers of refugees and IDPs, it is generally estimated that some 413,000 Armenians fled Azerbaijan and neighbouring regions in Armenia, while 724,000 Azerbaijanis and Kurds were displaced from Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding districts. The last Soviet census in 1989 estimated the population of the NKAO at 189,085, with 145,550 ethnic Armenians (76.9%) and 40,700 ethnic Azeris (21.5%). Today, the de facto authorities of Nagorno-Karabakh estimate that the Armenian population is still around 140,000 individuals, but virtually no Azeris remain. It also considers that one third of its population has been displaced.
46. A ceasefire was agreed in 1994 and peace negotiations are conducted in the framework of the OSCE Minsk Group, which is co-chaired by France, Russia, and the United States. Peace talks between Armenian and Azeri presidents gained momentum in early 2001, but the two leaders, while close on many issues, could not make a final agreement. The major obstacle remains entrenched public opinion: many on both sides suspect that their president may betray the 'national cause' and give up 'their' territory to the enemy. Since May 2004, there have been some positive signs again. A process was initiated in which meetings are regularly organised between the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan, together with the co-chairs and supplemented by occasional presidential meetings. As part of this "Prague process", from May 2004 to September 2005, the foreign ministers met 11 times. The presidents recently met in May and August of 2005. Reports on the latest presidential meeting in Kazan indicate serious progress on several key issues. However, a lot will certainly depend on the result of the parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan in November 2005.
47. While the official positions of the two presidents seem to be 'ahead of their populations' in their understanding of the need for compromise, both governments have pursued policies that complicate the situation. Moreover, violations of the ceasefire have never really stopped. On the contrary, it has been reported that between March and May 2005, there have been more violations of the ceasefire than in the same period in 2004. This continued small arm fire has the potential to seriously derail ongoing negotiations at any time.
48. On the Azerbaijani side, there is a persistent attempt at proving by various means that Nagorno-Karabakh continues to be fully part of Azerbaijan, sometimes to the detriment of its own population. For example, the government has until recently insisted that the situation of Azerbaijani IDPs and refugees, displaced as a result of the conflict, was only temporary and has as a result tended to keep them in limbo while promising their return to their former homes. This policy has only changed in the last years of President Heydar Aliyev's rule. Overall, the situation of IDPs remains difficult in terms of economic and social standards of living, as well as in terms of political representation and participation.
49. Some observers also believe that militancy is on the rise in Azerbaijan, fed by frustration with the lack of progress of the peace process, and evidence thereof can be found in some high-level militaristic comments and moves. From 2003 to 2005, Azerbaijan has increased its military budget by 122% and has announced plans for another two-fold increase for 2006, bringing Azerbaijan's budget to the level of 60% of Armenia's overall budget for 2006.
50. Tensions have also arisen regarding allegations that the Armenian government is encouraging the resettlement of ethnic Armenians in the occupied territories around Karabakh. After Azerbaijan brought these claims to the United Nations General Assembly in 2004, the OSCE put together a fact-finding mission (FFM), which travelled to the region in January and February 2005. Its conclusions, presented in March, provided a mixed picture of the situation. The report states that, with the exception of the Lachin district, the "FFM found no clear indications that the NK or Armenian authorities directly organized resettlement. As well, there was no sign of non-voluntary resettlement in the territories. Likewise, the FFM found no evidence of systematic recruitment of settlers to come to the territories''. However, it also noted that the authorities gave various incentives to settle, from reactive low-level support to more proactive policies, including providing homes, infrastructure, tax exemptions, and free utilities. In Lachin, the report concluded that: "Settlement incentives are readily apparent (...) they include social welfare, medical care, a functioning infrastructure and administration, schools, decent roads, tax exemption or tax benefits, reduced rates for utilities, cheap or free electricity, and running water. (...) the FFM has concluded that the authorities pursue a proactive settlement policy." The mission also noted clear signs of involvement by the Nagorno-Karabakh authorities and support from the Armenian diaspora, but no indication of direct involvement of Armenian authorities.
51. The fact that Nagorno-Karabakh has grown increasingly dependent on Armenia in various areas also poses an enormous challenge for any future peace deal. Yerevan provides half of the budget of the province through an "inter-state'' loan. The Armenian dram is the main currency. The former Prime Minister and current President of Armenia, Robert Kocharian, was the first de facto president of Nagorno-Karabakh from 1994 to 1997. The armed forces of Nagorno-Karabakh include many Armenian citizens. No Azeris have returned to Nagorno-Karabakh and political, economic and social developments in Karabakh have only rendered this hypothetical return more complicated. Displaced populations have not been able to participate in the processes of privatisation of land, home and businesses and the de facto government has put in place mono-ethnic institutions.
52. There are many major obstacles, both internal and external, to a peace settlement. Moreover, there are still hesitations as to what the best approach for a settlement would be: a package deal including, from the start, decisions on the final status, or a progressive approach starting with confidence-building measures. In any case, building confidence between the parties will certainly prove crucial to the process, especially since the Armenian and Azeri populations are growing increasingly apart, with only very limited contact, a lot of resentment, and fading memories of the time when both communities actually lived alongside each other. If they are really serious about reaching an agreement, both governments need to start preparing their populations, in particular if a referendum on the final status of the province is to be held in the next decade.
C. THE SITUATION OF OTHER ETHNIC MINORITIES
53. The situation of other minorities in the three states of the South Caucasus is less dramatic, in the sense that no other minority group has yet organised into a separatist movement demanding independence from the state. In some regions, however, the situation of minorities is problematic to say the least and could play a destabilising role if not properly addressed. The situation in Georgia is certainly the most complicated, because of its less homogeneous society and a tendency towards centralisation of the state that has proved inadequate in promoting the integration of minority populations. Nevertheless, some issues also exist in Azerbaijan and Armenia.
1. Samtskhe-Javakheti (Georgia)
54. Tensions between the Georgian authorities and the Armenian population in Samtskhe-Javakheti have increased in recent years, as ever better organised minority political groups have become more critical of Georgian administration of the province. Samtskhe-Javakheti is divided into 6 districts, of which two (Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda, both forming Javakhetia) have an overwhelming Armenian majority, representing more than 90% of the population. Armenians represent the largest ethnic group in Georgia, with a population of approximately 300,000.
55. Historical and cultural factors have combined to create a sense of insularity among the Armenian population in Javakheti. All of these tendencies are reinforced by this population's nearly homogeneous ethnic composition, generally lacking Georgian language skills and poor communications with the rest of the country. Today, the region remains politically, economically and culturally isolated from the capital.
56. In March 2005, the leaders of "United Javakheti", an Armenian public organisation active in the Javakheti region, rallied thousands of people to protest the socio-economic hardships experienced by the Armenian community there. Protesters' demands included a stop to the withdrawal of the Russian military base there (based on the foreseen damage to the local economy and the need for protection against Turkey); the recognition by the Georgian Parliament of the Armenian "Genocide" of 1915-1923; and the ratification of a law protecting the rights of national minorities in Georgia. On the latter issue, local political organisations also complain about the impossibility of registering political parties representing minorities, based on a provision of the Georgian Constitution which prohibits any party founded on a regional basis. Already in December 2004, the Council of Armenian NGOs of Samtskhe-Javakheti had condemned an alleged policy of assimilation by the Georgian authorities carried out to the detriment of an economic and political integration policy in the rest of the country.
57. The March incidents were followed by another incident in July, when Armenian residents of Samsar blocked efforts by students and nuns from Tbilisi to help restore a local church. A brawl ensued, as well as a raid by local Armenians against a Georgian school nearby. Finally, in October, clashes erupted again between the local police and protesters reacting to the closing by the Georgian tax authorities of ten shops owned, for the most part, by ethnic Armenians, for financial irregularities.
58. Georgian authorities have tried to ease tensions in the region through several initiatives, in co-operation with Armenia and with the support of international donors. Meetings between the Presidents of Georgia and Armenia, and between the Prime Ministers took place respectively in April and July. Armenia provides funding for some local projects, in particular for Armenian schools in the region, and has pledged to increase funding if necessary. 100,000 Javakheti natives also live in Armenia.
59. Georgian initiatives aim mostly at rebuilding connections between Samtskhe-Javakheti and the rest of Georgia and at improving socio-economic conditions for the local population. On the first aspect, construction of a highway running from the Turkish border to Georgia and passing through Samtskhe-Javakheti was due to start in September. This project is financed by the US Millennium Challenge Account. The new railroad track between Kars in Turkey and Azerbaijan, which the three countries had agreed to last April, should also run through Akhalkalaki and break the relative "isolation" of the region. Turkey has agreed to contribute US$200 million to the cost of the Turkish-Georgian portion of the railroad.
60. Regarding minority rights, President Saakashvili has appeared open to initiatives aiming at the development of self-government and at addressing the language issue. However, Georgian authorities are also wary of encouraging any potential separatist forces and seem to hesitate between a "local solutions to local problems" line and a more comprehensive approach to the minority rights issue at the national level.
61. Finally, Georgian authorities have tried to address worries connected to the planned withdrawal of the Russian military base from Akhalkalaki, which until now has represented a pillar of local economic and social life. Fears linked to the departure of Russian troops played an important role in rallying protesters in March. As part of a state social programme for the region, the Georgian Ministry of Defence has announced plans to procure agricultural products for Georgia's armed forces in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region.
62. Overall, the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, who implements a "Conflict Prevention and Integration Programme for Samtskhe-Javakheti" and visited the region in April 2005, favourably judged the new government's attitude towards future development of the region. However, in many ways, the situation in Samtskhe-Javakheti is typical of the problems facing Georgia as it strives to better integrate its minorities. Regions like Javakhetia are very homogeneous ethnically and have developed some sense of insularity from the central authorities. Current administrative structures in Georgia do not allow for the adequate representation of minorities, even at the local level. If not addressed properly, these situations run the risk of being exploited by politically ambitious groups that can capitalise on fears of "Georgianisation" and on the support provided by neighbouring countries. Georgia's authorities have demonstrated some level of good will in responding to local fears and demands. However, the response has also too often been hesitant and partial. Similar elements characterise the situation in Kvemo Kartli.
63. According to the Soviet census taken in 1989, approximately 300,000 Azeris lived in Georgia. While the OSCE estimates that as many as 50,000 Azeris have emigrated since then - due either to economic difficulties or social conditions - birth rates remain high. Some 18,000 live in Tbilisi, but the majority live in the south-western region of Kvemo Kartli, on the border with Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Azeri population represents almost half of the 500,000-strong population. The region also has a small Armenian minority, representing 6.4% of the population.
64. The region is home to some large industrial complexes inherited from the Soviet era. These complexes are in the process of being privatised, but in the meantime, the local economy is still relatively weak. Estimates of unemployment rates range between 11 and over 20%.
65. In December 2004 and January 2005, tensions between Georgia's Azeri minority and the state rose after Georgian security forces raided Azeri border villages and arrested a number of residents in connection with a crackdown on cross-border smuggling. Following these incidents, Baku-based newspapers put forth allegations of extortion, arbitrary detentions, and other forms of harassment against Azeri community leaders by the Georgian authorities. Also in December 2004, an elderly ethnic Azeri woman was killed and several others injured as a result of clashes between the Azeri villagers and a security guard at a horse farm in the Marneuli district. The clashes were caused by a dispute over land ownership rights. Following this incident, a group of Azerbaijani NGOs sent an open letter to President Saakashvili to express concern over potential violations of human rights against the Azeri minority in Kvemo Kartli.
66. In Kvemo Kartli as in other parts of Georgia, the central authorities' response to the difficulties facing its regions has been to give priority to the restoration of order and to infrastructure reconstruction and development. Local authorities have launched a campaign against smuggling along the Georgia-Azerbaijan border and have tried to engage their counterparts in Azerbaijan. A major road project is also expected to benefit the economy of the region: the construction of a super-highway connecting the Black Sea port of Poti to the Red Bridge border between Georgia and Azerbaijan, in Kvemo Kartli. The construction of the road is planned for early 2006. Financing for this very expensive project should come in part from international donors and from privatisation revenues.
3. Meskhetian Turks (Georgia)
67. Having been deported to Central Asia from Samtskhe-Javakheti - in what is now Georgia - in 1944, and survived pogroms directed against them, in particular in Uzbekistan 1989, Meskhetians were resettled in Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkey. According to the last Soviet census of 1989, there were 207,500 living in the USSR. Current estimates place the Meskhetian population between 270,000 and 320,000.
68. Together with the UNHCR, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) led efforts to move Meskhetians back to Georgia during the 90s. As a condition for joining the Council of Europe in 1999, Georgia committed itself to repatriate the Meskhetians over a twelve-year period. Some measures have been adopted towards that aim. A state agency to handle repatriation was established in 1994; however, its activities have been very limited due to lack of funds. In 1996, a presidential decree signed by President Shevardnadze established a state commission, which issued a blueprint for the repatriation of up to 5000 Meskhetians by 2000. However, little progress has been made towards implementation of the principles embodied in the presidential decree. The law on repatriation of persons deported from Georgia in the 1940s by the Soviet regime, prepared with legal assistance by Council of Europe experts, is still outstanding. As explained in a resolution adopted by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in January 2005, "the Georgian authorities have made the fulfilment of this commitment conditional on the creation of appropriate conditions in the country for the return of this population",
69. Several reasons can indeed explain delays in the implementation by Georgia of its commitments. First, the economic burden caused by the repatriation of a large population would be difficult to bear for a country whose economy is already undergoing serious problems. Undoubtedly, there is also a certain level of fear as to the challenge of integrating a Muslim population in a country which already has serious issues with several minority groups. Due to a history of ethnic clashes with Georgians and Armenians in the period prior to their deportation, Meskhetian repatriation is also met with overwhelming local resentment, including threats to resist the return by force. The Georgian authorities also sometimes argue that, for the sake of inter-ethnic peace, it is more feasible to resettle Meskhetians around the country rather than return them to their ethnic homeland.
70. As a result, only 650 Meskhetians have succeeded in returning to Georgia. Moreover, Meskhetians were unable to obtain Georgian citizenship between 1994-97. Citizenshi, p be, gan to be granted - on a limited basis - after combined pressure from international organisations.
71. The number of Meskhetians willing to return is widely disputed. While the Georgian authorities fear that as many as 300,000 Meskhetians would seek to move to Georgia, observers argue that this seems unlikely, given that many have already settled in places where they are currently living, such as Azerbaijan. The Baku Institute of Peace and Democracy estimated that between 90,000 and 110,000 Meskhetian Turks lived in Azerbaijan in 2001, where they enjoy generally favourable state policies and attitudes. Wary of upsetting its relationship with Georgia, Azerbaijan supports the Meskhetians' right to return, conditional on acceptance by the Georgian side.
4. Lezgins (Azerbaijan)
72. Lezgins are the largest minority group in Azerbaijan. Official statistics indicate that the 178,000 Lezgins account for 2% of Azerbaijan's total population. However, independent estimates sometimes put this number at 250,000-260,000. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, the Lezgin population was split between Azerbaijan and the southern part of Russian Daghestan, where the Lezgin community is estimated at 200,000. At the beginning of the 1990s, a secessionist movement called for the unification of all Lezgin-inhabited areas inside Russia. In 1992, the movement, called Sadval, organised demonstrations on both sides of the border. The movement was banned and its members arrested. Tensions between Lezgins and Azeris appeared again in 1994, soon after the period of heavy casualties on the Karabakh front and resistance to conscription in the Azeri army. Since then, tensions have receded and claims from the Lezgin community have focused on the protection of the Lezgin language and culture, as well as on their economic and social condition.
73. Because Lezgins are generally bi- or trilingual, speaking Lezgin, Azeri and Russian, many live in Baku and occupy senior positions in the civil service, army and parliament. The Lezgin minority was represented by two members in the previous parliament and will have one member in the newly elected parliament, according to the new electoral rules adopted in 2003, which abandoned the system of proportional representation.
74. There is, however, some concern among the Lezgin population as to the progressive disappearance of their language and culture. As an illustration, Lezgin is taught at local schools, but is treated on an equal footing with English and Russian. Usually courses in Lezgin are only organised twice a week in primary schools with many Lezgin pupils. Moreover there is a shortage of teachers and modern textbooks. Although, as presented above, Azerbaijan's policy regarding minorities is generally relatively favourable, improvements could come from the ratification and implementation by Azerbaijan of the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages - which it promised to do upon accession to the Council of Europe in 2000 - as well as from the adoption of a new law on the protection of national minorities.
III. RELIGIOUS MINORITIES
75. The role of religion in the Caucasus has gained prominence in post-Soviet times. For many, it provides not only a pillar of national identity, but also spiritual guidance and psychological comfort at a time which has been rife with turmoil and hardship. Socially, it serves to assert and distinguish group identity, and it is sometimes used as a political weapon.
76. The majority of Armenians (98%) and Georgians (88%) are Christian, whereas most Azeris (94%) are Muslims. Georgia has a significant Muslim population (about 10% according to the 2002 official census). There are Zoroastrian believers in Azerbaijan as well as Armenia, and all three states have tiny groups of practicing Jews.
A. RELIGION IN PUBLIC LIFE
77. In all three states, constitutional provisions enshrine a theoretical separation between church and state. In practice, this separation does not always hold. In Armenia, although its Constitution technically provides for a separation between religion and government, the 1991 Law "On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organisations" grants special status to the Armenian Apostolic Church as the national church of Armenia, and requires all religious bodies to register with the state in order to operate without restrictions. Unregistered religious organisations may not publish newspapers or magazines, rent meeting places, broadcast programmes on television or radio, or officially sponsor the visas of visitors. Azerbaijan, for its part, adopted a Turkish secular model of statehood. The Constitution provides that persons of all faiths may choose and practice their religion without restriction. The Law on Religion expressly prohibits the government from interfering in the religious activities of any individual or group, except when a religious group "threatens public order and stability". However, in recent years, authorities have increased their monitoring of religion, with the creation of a State Committee on Work with Religious Associations (SCWRA) and the initiation of a process of re-registration of religious establishments. The creation of a Forum of Religious Communities of Azerbaijan "For the Sake of Peace and Harmony", bringing together 40 Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities with a view to improving relations between religious communities and putting an end to religious propagation, has also been criticised by some as state infringement on the freedom of religion. Georgia is the only country from the former Soviet Union without a law on religion to define the rights and obligations of religious communities. The status of the dominant church, the Georgian Orthodox Church, is regulated by a concordat signed in 2002 which provides various privileges, including the right to provide religious education in schools and broad powers to decide on the status of other religious communities. In recent years, the Orthodox Church has played an important role in the revival of the country's national identity.
B. NON-TRADITIONAL RELIGIOUS GROUPS
78. In general, states tend to respect the existence and practices of minorities who belong to other traditional creeds. In Azerbaijan, the Russian Orthodox Church is free to function, while Yezidi Kurds in Armenia - whose religion incorporates elements of sun worship, Christianity and Zoroastrianism - and Muslim groups (such as Azeris and Chechens) in Georgia are also free to practice their religion.
79. Non-traditional religious minorities, however, have been subjected to systematic harassment and even imprisonment in all three countries. In Shevardnadze's Georgia, Jehovah's Witnesses, Baptists and Pentecostalists suffered hate speech from violent attacks by right-wing Orthodox Christian vigilantes. Such attacks occurred with the covert support or even co-operation of the local authorities and the police, and consequently became more frequent and pervasive. The Jehovah's Witnesses were able to restore their legal status as a non-commercial organisation at the end of 2003. Incidents of intimidation and violence against religious minorities were again reported in 2004, for example in the report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Freedom of Religion and Belief for the year 2004, which refers to at least three cases where the Rapporteur had to intervene and concludes that "she is concerned that alleged incidents of religious intolerance continue to occur throughout the country". Nevertheless, upon taking office, President Mikheil Saakashvili clearly stated his determination to eliminate religious persecution.
80. Persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses is also a problem in Armenia, where it was linked to conscription. However, there has been recent progress in Armenia's legislation, if not yet in public opinion and attitudes. After years of international criticism, the Ministry of Justice finally granted official registration to the community of Jehova's Witnesses on 8 October 2004, despite a strong campaign of protest led by the Armenian Apostolic Church, some government members and the media. Moreover, the lack of a law on alternative military and civilian service has long resulted in Jehova's Witnesses being arrested and imprisoned for refusing to serve in Armenia's army. This situation changed only in 2004, with the adoption of a law on alternative service (from December 2003, effective in July 2004). This law recognises the right of Armenian citizens to opt for alternative service if their religious beliefs or convictions go against mandatory military service in military units or against bearing, keeping, maintaining and using arms. The law organises an alternative military service (for a duration of 36 months) and an alternative civilian service (for a duration of 42 months), compared to the 24 months of the regular military service. International observers have welcomed the new law, but criticised the excessive duration of the new alternative service, which makes it quasi-punitive. Shortcomings also include a lack of information about the new law and conditions for benefiting from the alternative service. As a result, only twenty applications for alternative civilian service were submitted during the fall 2004 call-up. All applicants were Jehova's Witnesses.
81. While Azerbaijan also experienced problems with tolerance of non-traditional religious groups in the past, the situation seems to have improved after a spate of attacks on evangelical Christians in 1999, when President Aliyev made a statement committing the country to greater religious freedom. This prompted the authorities' registration of Jehovah's Witnesses in December 1999. However, there is still no legislation allowing for alternative military or civilian service based on atheist or pacifist opinions, and the 1992 regulation "On the Order of Performing Alternative Service (Labour Duty)" has not been implemented. Only members of religious communities, such as priests and students of higher religious schools, can refuse to carry out military service.
82. In May 2002, Pope John Paul II travelled to Azerbaijan to plead for religious tolerance around the globe and for an end to violence in the name of God. Papal spokesman Navarro-Valls said the purpose of the Pope's visit to Baku was "to nurture a small Catholic community, to recognise a people who suffered under communism, to build more ecumenical bridges with an Orthodox community, and to respond to the hospitality of Muslim hosts".
83. Finally, although there are no state-sponsored policies to expel them, Russian Christian minorities such as Dukhobors and Molokans are reported to be under increasing local pressure to emigrate. Both groups - which fled religious persecution in Tsarist Russia and settled in remote areas of the Caucasus - have lodged complaints that some local groups have moved into their villages, harassing women and children, while the police did not act.
84. Azerbaijan is the only country of the South Caucasus with a predominantly Muslim population. The majority of its Muslim population (65-70% of the Azeri population) is Shi'a, but there are substantial Sunni communities in the north and west of the country. Most of the non-Azeri minorities - such as the Lezgins - are Sunnis. As a result of the Soviet legacy and the adoption of a Turkish model of nationalism and secularism, Islam has never flourished as a political force in Azerbaijan.
85. However, in recent years, Azerbaijan's authorities have become increasingly concerned about the rise of radical Islam and its growing influence in Azerbaijani society. As a result, government authorities have progressively tightened their grip on religious establishments. The process of re-registration of religious establishments has led to a significant reduction in the number of registered Muslim communities. The condition for registration was indeed to pledge to the Spiritual Board of Muslims of the Caucasus (SBMC), which many communities refused. Some non-registered Muslim organisations, such as the Jumaa mosque led by the popular Imam Ilqar Ibrahimoglu, were submitted to harassment or repression.
86. Signs of a growing influence of Salafi or Wahhabi movements have received the most attention. Salafist missionaries have expanded to Azerbaijan from Chechnya and Daghestan, but also from the Persian Gulf. By 2003, 65 new Salafi-controlled mosques had been established in Azerbaijan, the most successful being the Abu Bakr mosque in Baku. Salafist missionaries have been able to attract Sunnis and members of ethnic minorities, disillusioned with the government's economic and social policies, its pro-Western orientation, and seduced by the movement's talk of the restoration of moral and universal values.
87. During a recent conference in Baku on 3 August, Rafik Aliyev, Chairman of the SCWRA, reportedly warned against the increased activity of "Wahhabis", meaning radical and/or unregistered Islamic groups, and the potential threat they posed to Azerbaijan's political stability. He estimated that in December 2004 there were about 15,000 Wahhabis operating in Baku alone. Other government officials have indicated that the movement is becoming increasingly better organised, expanding its activities from the mere provision of literature and financial assistance to potential activists, to the active training of activists. The government's response has for now been one of firmness, as the multiplication of media reports about government crackdowns on so-called Wahhabi sympathizers indicate. Even the SBMC has recently been criticised for its links with a network importing radical Islamic books to Azerbaijan. It is not certain, however, what consequences this policy will have on the development of radical Islam in Azerbaijan. The danger is that by using force against these religious movements, the government may fuel opposition, rather than eliminate it.
88. Georgia has a significant Muslim population (officially about 10% of the population). It is mostly located in Adjaria and Kvemo Kartli (where it is made up of Azeri Shiites), and in the Pankisi Valley (populated by Sunni Kists). Claims of the development of radical Islam have focused on the latter region, fuelled by the conflict in Chechnya and the emigration of Chechen refugees to the region. In particular, Russia has claimed - and, on some occasions, continues to claim - that the Pankisi Valley serves as a sanctuary for Wahhabi fighters and a source of arms and ammunition. The Georgian authorities insist that the situation has changed and that there are no longer any Chechen fighters and no Islamic radicals in the Pankisi Valley.
89. As a result, the situation in the Pankisi Valley therefore continues to contribute to the tense relations between Georgia and Russia. The international community has developed initiatives to help ease the tension, by addressing the situation of Chechen refugees in Georgia or by dispatching an OSCE mission to monitor the border. However, in December 2004, Russia rejected the renewal of the OSCE Border Monitoring Operation's mandate.
90. After the fall of the Soviet Union, all three South Caucasus states have been confronted with various minority-related claims and challenges. In some cases, these have led to confrontation and violence. The ethnic composition of all three states has been deeply altered by these conflicts, leading to increasing mono-ethnicity and, to a certain extent, to a nationalistic revival aimed at crushing further claims for autonomy or independence that could threaten national and territorial integrity.
91. The unresolved conflicts in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh certainly constitute the most serious challenge to the stability of the region and to the establishment of an atmosphere of trust and tolerance in relations between minority and majority groups. The longer these conflicts last, the more difficult it will be for the populations concerned to learn to live together again peacefully. The resolution of the so-called "frozen" conflicts should therefore be the first priority for all the governments in the region. There have recently been some positive signs of rapprochement, but the situation is so unstable that events on the ground can derail the peace processes at any time.
92. Nevertheless, progress towards the protection and integration of minority groups should not wait for a final settlement of the unresolved conflicts. A lot has been achieved recently in this area, in particular as a result of the three countries' integration into several international structures, but much more needs to be done. Moreover, it should be clear that the protection of minorities is strongly connected to the overall improvement of the human rights situation and the completion of democratic transition in the three countries. Finally, regional co-operation in this area should be encouraged. Some initiatives already exist, but in most cases, neighbouring countries have played a destabilising role rather than facilitated the dialogue between minorities and the majority.
93. European and Euro-Atlantic institutions have an important role towards these aims. The Council of Europe has been a major promoter of the protection and integration of minorities in the South Caucasus. However, all three countries are still a long way from fulfilling their commitments to the Council. All three countries have now ratified the Framework Convention, but Azerbaijan and Georgia still need to ratify the European Charter. Most importantly, international standards need not only to be endorsed on paper, but also actively implemented, to ensure effective protection of both national and religious minorities.
94. NATO can and should assist in this process. Although Alliance officials have indicated that NATO will not get directly involved in negotiations over unresolved conflicts, it can certainly support other international efforts in promoting confidence-building measures in the region. Since the Istanbul Summit in June 2004, the Alliance has clearly indicated its interest in the region and adapted its structures by appointing a Special Representative for the South Caucasus and Central Asia, as well as a liaison officer for each of the two regions. In addition, all three countries are engaged in the conclusion or implementation of NATO Individual Partnership Action Plans (IPAPs). Georgia was the first country to sign an IPAP in October 2004. The agreement commits the authorities to a peaceful resolution of the Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflicts. The Plan states that: "Frozen conflict in Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali Region (South Ossetia) hinder the stable development of the country. They also pose a threat to the internal and international security, as they create fertile grounds for terrorism, organized crime, and drug and arms trafficking. The Georgian Government is committed to solving these problems by peaceful means, in co-operation with relevant international organizations in accordance with appropriate international standards." Azerbaijan followed in May 2005 and NATO is expected to approve Armenia's IPAP by December this year.
95. The Alliance, together with other international organisations and with the European Union in particular, needs to ensure that the three countries' commitments are fulfilled. It should be clear that support from Euro-Atlantic structures depends on each country's progress in achieving domestic reforms and promoting regional stability.
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