Between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea lie the countries of the Caucasus – Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. Due to disputes that have festered over the course of many years, there are enough compelling questions involving these three countries and their neighbors to occupy us all day long. During the course of this hearing I’d like to focus on the frozen conflicts affecting economic and political integration in the region, and how U.S. foreign policy is responding to them.
I’d like to start with one of the most puzzling and problematic matters: the Turkish land blockade of Armenia, in place since 1993. It’s a punishing policy that holds the Armenian economy back and enormously increases the cost of much of Armenia’s trade with other nations.
The land blockade is also, quite possibly, illegal, as it seems to breach Turkey’s undertaking in the 1922 Treaty of Kars to keep its border-crossings with Armenia open. And it violates the spirit of the World Trade Organization, of which both Turkey and Armenia are members.
It’s baffling why Ankara would want to pursue this land blockade, which also harms the economy of eastern Turkey, and is therefore clearly contrary to its own interests. It’s no secret that many Turkish businessmen, especially in the east, have been lobbying for lifting the land blockade.
It also seems manifestly contrary to the strategic interests of Turkey, which purports to be a solid member of the Western alliance. Without an outlet to Turkey or Azerbaijan, Armenia is forced to rely on its connections to two of Turkey’s historical rivals, Russia and Iran – and given how antithetical the Iranian regime is to the secular, modern Turkish government, it seems odd that Ankara would want to undertake any actions that will enhance Tehran’s influence in Yerevan.
Furthermore, the land blockade has done absolutely nothing to persuade Armenia to alter its policies on the Nagorno-Karabakh issue – the ostensible cause of the land blockade in the first place. Nor is there any prospect that it will do so. Armenia has demonstrated its resolve to support the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey is more likely to win influence with the Armenian government if it pursues a policy of good-neighborliness than if it slams the border closed.
Why hasn’t the State Department – which opposes the land blockade – spoken out more forcefully on this matter? Certainly it’s in our interest to diminish Iran’s influence among its neighbors, not to enhance it. Ambassador Fried, I’m hoping you’ll lay out for us the steps our government has taken and is taking to convince our ally Turkey to end, once and for all, this counter-productive practice of closed borders.
And by no means is Turkey Armenia’s only problem in the region. I’m deeply concerned by the series of increasingly bellicose statements made over the past year about Nagorno-Karabakh by senior Azerbaijani officials, as well as the steady increase in Azerbaijan’s defense budget as that nation acquires more oil wealth. The serious breakdown earlier this year in the 14-year-old cease-fire has been widely blamed on Azerbaijani provocations. Mr. Ambassador, how do you see this situation, and what is the status of negotiations over Nagorno-Karabakh?
Turning to Georgia, in recent weeks, we’ve seen increasingly aggressive Russian behavior toward the region of Abkhazia: Moscow has established official ties with the separatist government there, issued passports and citizenship to its residents, dispatched a Russian jet to down a Georgian reconnaissance craft, and deployed railway troops to the region under dubious pretenses.
It was dispiriting to hear the new Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, dismiss offers of foreign mediation of this conflict during his first official meeting in early June with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvilli. Although the United States and the European Union expressed support for the Georgian President’s peace initiatives during their recent summit in Slovenia, follow-up efforts by EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and your deputy Matt Bryza to encourage peace talks have garnered little traction. Mr. Ambassador, what steps will this Administration take in the coming months to help prevent further escalation of this conflict? And do you support calls for the Russian-dominated CIS peacekeeping force to be replaced by a neutral EU contingent as one means of mitigating the conflict?
And finally, I’d like to address an issue with long-term implications for U.S. foreign policy throughout the region: the prospect of democratization and political development in the South Caucasus. Lately in the wake of elections in the region, there has been a worrying trend of large-scale protests and forceful police reaction. This explosive combination has the effect of silencing the opposition and strengthening ruling political regimes in a region that is still struggling to establish its democratic credentials.
Last fall, the Georgian government imposed a sweeping state of emergency following demonstrations by thousands of protesters over a government that appeared out of touch with the people. Armenia experienced violent clashes that left eight people dead following March presidential elections. And Azerbaijan could suffer a similar fate during its presidential elections in October, as the government is already cracking down on the media and opposition.
Mr. Ambassador, we would welcome your assessment of the democratic prospects of these countries, which are of such great strategic importance to the United States. Given unstable regimes and considerable political acrimony, what is the potential for fostering sustainable dialogue on a multi-party, parliamentary level? I would also be grateful if you could address the question of how the U.S. administration is holding these governments accountable for human rights abuses, while at the same time working to achieve lasting peace between them.
It’s a tall order; we don’t have all the time in the world to address all the matters we’d like to today, so I’m going to stop at this point and turn to my colleague and friend Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the ranking member of the committee, for any comments she may wish to make.