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Caucasus: U.S. Explains Policy On Frozen Conflicts And Closed Borders

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Daniel Fried told lawmakers on June 18 that U.S. foreign policy toward countries of the South Caucasus -- Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia -- is to help them achieve the same freedoms and democracies that their neighbors to the west enjoy.

He also said U.S. officials do not believe that any outside power, including Russia, should have a sphere of influence over those countries or stand between them and European and trans-Atlantic alliances.

Fried was speaking before a U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing on June 18 to examine frozen conflicts and closed borders in the South Caucasus.

He told the committee that the wave of democracy that swept from Central to Eastern Europe in 1989 has yielded astonishing and successful results in terms of democracy, human rights, and free-market systems. The question now, he said, is whether that wave will extend to the easternmost borders of what he called "wider Europe."

By that, Fried was referring to the Caucasus: specifically, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia. They are three very different states that share similar problems. All are struggling to quell internal separatist conflicts, to establish independent judicial institutions and modern financial systems, and, in general, to build new identities as sovereign, successful nation-states.

Fried said U.S. foreign policy toward all three countries is to support them as they journey along the same path toward full democracy and market-based economies that their neighbors to the West have already traveled. He was added that no outside power -- here he mentioned Russia specifically -- should be able to extend its sphere of influence over the three.

"We do not believe that any outside power should be able to threaten or block the sovereign choice of these nations to join the institutions of Europe and the trans-Atlantic family, if they so choose, and if we so choose," Fried said.

Thanks to its abundance of oil and natural gas, Azerbaijan has enjoyed three straight years as the world's fastest-growing economy. But Fried said the United States remains concerned about "a relative lag in democratic reforms," including respect for fundamental freedoms such as a free press and the right to assemble.

He said finding a peaceful resolution of the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh is one of Azerbaijan's biggest challenges.

The United States, he said, supports Azerbaijan's territorial integrity but believes the region's final status must be determined through negotiations that take into account "international legal and political principles." He acknowledged the progress that Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev made when they met in St. Petersburg on June 6, but said more must be done and cooler heads must prevail.

"Renewed fighting is not a viable option," Fried said. "We have concerns about occasional bellicose rhetoric from Azerbaijani officials and we have urged the government, and will continue to urge the government, to focus on a peaceful resolution of this dispute, noting the benefits a resolution would bring for all of the Caucuses."

A few committee members expressed concern at what they said was Azerbaijan's "intent to go to war" with Armenia. Congressman Joe Knollenberg (Republican, Michigan) quoted President Aliyev as saying "at any moment we must be able to liberate our territories by military means." He asked Fried what the United States has done to stop "this war machine."

Fried agreed that bellicose rhetoric that sometimes comes out of Baku is "unhelpful" and said U.S. diplomats had cautioned Aliyev's government against using "war-like" language. The United States has also raised the issue of Azerbaijan's energy exports.

"We've also explained to them, frankly, that Azerbaijan's wealth comes from the export of gas and oil, and that a war puts that at risk very quickly," Fried said. "It is also the judgment of the United States that Azerbaijan does not have a military superiority over Armenia and that a war would be costly to both sides and unwinnable by either one."

Russian 'Campaign Of Pressure'

As for Georgia, Fried said the Black Sea country faces security challenges. Along with Ukraine, the country failed to win a Membership Action Plan at the NATO summit in Bucharest this spring.

Fried said Georgia's desire to join NATO has "provoked a campaign of pressure from Russia," and listed actions Moscow has taken to punish the Georgian government, including the suspension of air and land links, and intensifying its relationship with separatist authorities in Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions, where Russian peacekeeping forces have been deployed since the early 1990s.

"These steps counter Russia's own professed policy of supporting Georgia's territorial integrity, damage Russia's role as a facilitator of the UN's mediating process in Abkhazia, and risk destabilizing the broader Caucasus region," Fried said. "The United States supports Georgia's territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders and we hold that Abkhazia's status should be determined through a negotiated compromise. We've called on Moscow to reverse its unconstructive actions taken recently, and work with us and with others in a diplomatic process to resolve these conflicts."

On Armenia, Fried said geographic isolation, widespread corruption, and recent setbacks to democratic development have prompted the United States to make supporting Armenia's integration into the region "a particular priority." Solving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict would be a major step forward on that integration, he said.

So would normalizing relations between Armenia and Turkey, which has imposed a blockade on Armenia since 1993, Fried said.

Many members of the committee questioned Fried about what the United States is doing to help end the 15-year-old Turkish blockade of Armenia. The World Bank estimates that Turkey and Azerbaijan's blockades of Armenia reduce Armenia's GDP by up to 38 percent annually.

Four U.S. House members recently introduced the "End the Turkish Blockade of Armenia" bill, which calls upon Turkey to end its blockade of Armenia.

Fried said the United States supports a normalization of relations as well as the opening of the Turkish-Armenian border.

"Reconciliation will require political will on both sides and does require dealing with the sensitive and painful issues, including the issue of the mass killings and forced exile of up to 1.5 million Armenians at the end of the Ottoman Empire," Fried said. "Turkey needs to come to terms with this history, and for its part, Armenia should acknowledge the existing border with Turkey and respond constructively to efforts that Turkey may make."

In his description of the mass killings of more than a million Armenians by Turkish troops in 1915, Fried avoided the word "genocide," in line with the Bush administration's policy. No U.S. president has ever used that politically charged word to describe the event, and the Armenian government and Armenian diaspora have lobbied hard throughout the years to change that.

In October 2007, the committee holding the June 18 hearing narrowly passed a resolution to officially describe the massacre as "genocide," but the legislation was withdrawn when U.S.-Turkish relations quickly soured as a result.

At this hearing, Representative Diane Watson (Democrat, California), who represents hundreds of thousands of Armenia-Americans in her Los Angeles district, pressed Fried on whether the State Department has specifically instructed its officials not to use the term "Armenian genocide" even though it acknowledges that what happened was a mass, targeted killing of an ethnic group.

Fried said the massacre is a "matter of historical record" and the United States does not deny what happened, but confirmed that it does not use the term.

Fried said the government does not think using the term would "contribute to a reconciliation between Armenia and Turkey." Watson pressed Fried several more times to go on the record and answer "yes" or "no" to the question of whether the Bush administration considers what happened to be genocide. Fried continued to insist that it does not deny the massacre. Finally, Watson declared the exchange "fruitless" and turned off her microphone.

As the hearing proceeded, tensions between Georgia and Russia over Abkhazia were flaring anew, drawing a warning from Russian President Dmitry Medvedev not to provoke his country's troops in the breakaway zone.

On June 17, Georgian officials said they had detained four Russian peacekeepers transporting guided missiles near the western Georgian city of Zugdidi, outside the disputed territory.

Russian officials denied the charge and a Georgian Interior Ministry official said the soldiers would be released because Georgia had no authority over them.

But by late on June 18, Georgia had returned only the truck in which the soldiers were traveling.

In a statement, the Kremlin said that Medvedev spoke by telephone with his Georgian counterpart, Mikheil Saakashvili, telling him the "provocations were unacceptable." The statement said that "Saakashvili promised to sort the situation out" and the two leaders agreed on the need to stay in touch "with the aim of resolving existing problems and developing bilateral relations."

Copyright (c) 2008. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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