6-8 October 2005 - ROSE-ROTH SEMINAR, YEREVAN, ARMENIA: CONCERNS ABOUT THE SOUTH CAUCASUS MITIGATED BY RECENT ENCOURAGING SIGNALS
Progress in the South Caucasus region remains hindered by the persistence of "frozen conflicts", but members of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly also identified a number of more positive signals during a three-day Rose-Roth seminar, held in Yerevan on 6-8 October. The 61st seminar in the series, initiated 14 years ago by US Congressman Charlie Rose and Senator Bill Roth, brought together the now traditional mixture of government officials, legislators, academics, diplomats, NGOs and media representatives from the region, as well as from international organisations.
The first positive signal came from the host country. On the one hand the leadership is clearly intent on seeking greater integration into Euro-Atlantic structures, particularly closer co-operation with NATO through the development of their Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP), while maintaining friendly relations with Russia. On the other, there is a determination to implement necessary democratic reforms. Both trends were demonstrated by the active participation in the discussions by the Armenian parliamentary delegation led by Defence Committee Chairman Mher Shahgeldyan, but also by the contributions of members of the government, such as Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian and Defence Minister Serge Sargsyan. Equally significantly, participants were able to hear the voices of representatives of the Armenian civil society, who criticised the persistent level of corruption which prevented the effective implementation of economic reforms and the limited availability of, and public attention to, printed media capable of correcting the dominance of the largely state-controlled television. While the content of such criticism was disquieting, the openness with which it was discussed was a positive sign.
Regional conflicts in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno Karabakh remain "frozen", but discussions offered some reasons for optimism. According to Sir Brian Fall, UK special representative to the South Caucasus, certainly "we can hope that the time of major battles is behind us", despite the fact that "there is something not un-glacier-like about the pace at which the diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict seem to be going". Moreover, in his view there was too much loose talk about the use of force and too little willingness to discuss the need "to give the other varmints something" and the all-important but persistently neglected "opportunity cost" of the current situation continuing - categorically "too much". Sir Brian, however, also underlined the positive aspect of recent and improved international determination and co-ordination to solve these conflicts by the different organizations involved with the various conflicts. In this regard, he urged that Russia and the United States, "should be encouraged to give a higher priority to these conflicts in their bilateral agenda". Above all, the situation in the South Caucasus should not be seen as a zero-sum game.
Discussions on Nagorno-Karabakh, with the participation of OSCE PA Special Rapporteur on the conflict Goran Lennmarker and International Crisis Group South Caucasus Project Director Sabine Freizer, allowed some room for optimism. In her presentation, Ms Freizer indicated that a compromise peace in Nagorno-Karabakh appeared possible but significant stumbling blocks remained. Despite a grim situation on the ground, in particular with regard to the internally displaced people, the two sides appeared to be close to agreeing on some key principles of a peace deal. She also stressed, however, that it was essential that the governments immediately began preparing their people for the compromises that inevitably would be involved. According to the ICG analyst, major elements of the proposed settlement package could include: withdrawal of Armenia-backed Nagorno-Karabakh forces from the occupied districts of Azerbaijan surrounding the entity; renunciation by Azerbaijan of the use of force to reintegrate the entity; deployment of international peacekeepers; return of displaced persons; and re-opening of trade and communication links. Nagorno-Karabakh's status should ultimately be determined by an internationally sanctioned referendum with the exclusive participation of Karabakh Armenians and Azeris, but only after the above measures have been implemented. However, Ms Freizer warned that there is an urgent need to counter the hate propaganda and demonising engaged in by both sides; and to unlock the potential for confidence building and dialogue between Azeris and Armenians before the memories of cohabitation in Nagorno-Karabakh fade and the divide becomes virtually unbridgeable.
Other discussants stressed that much of the above would be very difficult to accept for the publics and the populations most directly concerned, in both countries, unless the leaders demonstrated their determination to start to interact with each other with a view to establishing real, if limited, co-operation. Dennis Sammut, Executive Director of the London-based NGO LINKS, made some proposals in this sense, such as setting up an air bridge between Baku and Yerevan; begining a process to establish preliminary diplomatic relations with the help of a third country; or co-operating in regional projects in areas such as civil emergency planning and the environment. In the larger context, deepening relations with the European Union and NATO could obviously help create more opportunities for Armenians and Azerbaijanis to interact. Neighbouring countries such as Georgia, Turkey, Iran and Russia, Mr Sammut reminded, could also offer some contributions to regional reconciliation and understanding, if not co-operation proper.
In this regard, participants were impressed by a presentation by Professor Halil Berktay of Istanbul's Sabançi University, on the recent conference in Istanbul on the 1915 Armenian question. Professor Berktay indicated that one of the conclusions of the conference was that on the basis of all available evidence - both official records and "very strong circumstantial evidence" - the events of 1915 did fall within the definition established by the 1948 UN Convention on Genocide. This ran totally contrary to the official Turkish policy which recognized the deportation of the Armenian population during the dramatic demise of the Ottoman empire, but persisted in denying a deliberate intention to exterminate them. He stressed that the common denominator of the group was not so much over the explicit application of the "G word" but that "the prevailing official Turkish discourse over this question had been basically rubbish".
He also elaborated the historical background - the decline of the Ottoman Empire, the relatively late rise of Turkish nationalism in a particularly virulent form, the aftermath of the First World War and the creation of the Turkish republic and the circumstances of the 1970's specifically, the military dictatorship and the assassination of Turkish diplomats by Armenians - to explain how the official policy of denial took root and why it was so difficult to dislodge.
He urged the international community to assist Turkey to open a public debate on the issue in order to move gradually toward an acknowledgment of responsibility. How could Turkey be helped to get out of the hole it had dug itself into? Not through coercion, but rather by opinion leaders persuading Turks that the Unionist warlords of 1915 had perpetrated this enormity, "without the present Turkish state falling apart". Given the official position, this, he emphasised, would be very difficult. He further urged Armenians to be as objective about the role of their own nationalists in the events of that period. If both Turkey and Armenia succeeded in coming to terms with their respective nationalist heritage and resume normal relations, this could, in his view, greatly contribute to stability in the South Caucasus.
The seminar concluded with presentations on Russian perspectives and interests in the South Cauasus. Russian contributions veered from somewhat sardonic assessments of the current situation, which concealed a fundamental resentment at the intrusion of western influence, to a more balanced view that this should not be seen as a region of competition. Hopes that the latter view could be the basis for a meeting of the minds on Russian involvement in the region were promptly dashed by the uncompromising interventions of Georgian representatives and the consequent exchanges with the Russian participants which highlighted the concerns of many informed observers about the current situation in South Ossetia.