(Washington, DC--June 3, 2003) The ambassadors to the United States from Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia gave a largely positive assessment about the prospects for stability in the Caucasus after the Iraq conflict during a panel discussion in Washington on May 27. The event was sponsored by the Caucasus Initiative of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Ambassador Levan Mikheladze of Georgia said his country had a "moral and political" obligation to join the anti-Saddam coalition and saw it as an opportunity to forge even stronger relations with the U.S. "Full integration into the Euro-Atlantic structures represents one of the key strategic goals for Georgia, and we believe that its completion cannot be accelerated without participation in the coalition of the willing." Ambassador Mikheladze stressed that Georgia is prepared to send military and police troops to Iraq and to participate in reconstruction activities. The country would also open an embassy in Baghdad once an Iraqi government is in place, he said. "Changes in Iraq will play a key role in dismantling the Old War Order and establishing a new one."
Mikheladze said a failure by the UN and OSCE, over the last decade, to address important security concerns in Georgia has made the U.S. the only "credible" vehicle for establishing peace in the region. Mikheladze warned, however, that closer ties with Washington could strain the country's already difficult relations with Russia. He said that Russia is afraid of losing influence in the Caucasus and sees Georgia's relationship with the U.S. as a direct threat.
The Ambassador also noted that as a result of American counter-terrorism assistance, there are no Arab nationals associated with international terrorism operating in the Pankisi Gorge. However, the Chechen conflict has spilled over into Georgia and Chechen rebels are "disappearing" into the local populace. Additionally, Moscow holds a "monopoly" on the secessionist peace process in Abkhazia and Ossetia, and international intervention is needed or those territories risk being integrated into the Russian Federation, he said.
Azerbaijani Ambassador Hafiz Pashayev expressed "deep regret" over the UN's recent disunity and stressed the importance of UN approval of the coalition as vital to the international legitimacy of the military operation -- "Azerbaijan never lost its belief that the operation in Iraq would promote the United Nation's role in maintaining international peace and security." As a secular, Muslim country, Pashayev said Azerbaijan is in a "precarious position" with regard to terrorism, but it has always endorsed the supremacy of norms and the rule of international law.
Pashayev said Azerbaijan opposed Saddam for several reasons: the oppression of Iraqi Shia by Saddam; its belief that Hussein's weapons of mass destruction undermined regional stability; and its conviction that Iraq should adhere to all U.N. resolutions. Pashayev said that Azerbaijan's parliament has approved the deployment of 150 peacekeeping forces troops to the Shiite cities of Karbala and Najaf. The country can also offer humanitarian, health care, infrastructure and oil experts as well as Arabic translators, he said.
Ambassador Pashayev expressed concern over Iraq's reconstruction saying Turkish-Kurd and Iran-Shia issues must be closely watched. He also called for a representative Iraqi government to be established, citing it as a positive element in the larger Middle East peace process.
Ambassador Arman Kirakossian of Armenia said his country remains concerned about the ongoing unrest in Iraq, only 300 miles from Armenia's border. In conjunction with Armenia's commitment to non-proliferation, Kirakossian said his government fully endorsed the disarmament of Saddam Hussein. The presence of 30,000 Armenians living and working in Iraq, however, prevented Armenia from providing overt military support to the U.S. Armenia also intends to offer support "to the degree possible" for Iraq's reconstruction.
Kirakossian noted that Turkey's continued blockade of Armenia and its disruption of railroad traffic between Central Asia and the Near East continue to destabilize Armenia's economy. As long as the Turkish-Armenian border remains closed, he does not think that stabilization in Iraq will seriously benefit the South Caucasus.
Relations with the US, the Ambassador said, are based on "solid and shared values." "The U.S. has legitimate strategic and economic interests in the region and as co-Chair of the Minsk group" he said. Kirakossian said he remains optimistic for the future. "The stabilization and democratization of Iraq, progress in the Middle East Peace process, peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and Turkey's positive engagement in the South Caucasus can unlock the potential of greater cooperation between the countries of the South Caucasus and the Middle East."
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