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Ekho Moskvy radio station, October 2, 2002

Russian liberal calls for change of tack on Georgia, firm policy on Iraq

Interview with Alexey Arbatov

The deputy chairman of the Russian State Duma Committee on Defence, the liberal Yabloko deputy, AlexeiArbatov, has criticized Russia's policy on Georgia, which, he says, is driving it into the arms of NATO and the West. In an interview with Russian Ekho Moskvy radio, Arbatov also diverged from the Russian government's line on Iraq. He said he supported a new UN resolution against Baghdad, although he would not endorse a US attack on Iraq which was not thoroughly justified. The following is an excerpt from the interview broadcast live on Ekho Moskvy radio on 2 October. Subheadings have been inserted editorially:

Presenter: Today's guest is Alexei Arbatov, the deputy chairman of the State Duma Committee on Defence... Has Georgia done its job? Today we have had an important statement from the [Russian] presidential administration. In particular, [presidential aide] Sergei Yastrzhembsky has been speaking today about the problems of Georgia and Chechnya. For example, he said the terrorist infrastructure used to train fighters had finally been smashed - this was quite a sensational statement... How do you react to this quite powerful statement from the presidential aide, that the terrorist infrastructure has been swept away?

Arbatov: He obviously knows more than I do. If he is talking about Georgia, and first and foremost the Pankisi Gorge, and in particular the destruction of fighter bases in this area, this means that Georgia has taken the measures which Russia has long been urging them to take. And this can be welcomed as a positive development. However, I must say that I hadn't heard about any major operations that had been conducted in the Pankisi Gorge. An operation is going on there, but it is quite a low profile operation, as far as one can judge from media reports. It may be that only a few fighters are left there. Perhaps there are no more there at all. Perhaps they have moved away somewhere else. There haven't been any major armed clashes. Russian forces are not carrying our operations there. So, if one can believe Mr Yastrzhembsky, this means that in some way or other Georgia has managed to destroy this infrastructure. And thank God for that. We can welcome this. This rids Russia of the need to carry out any strikes, which would have had the most adverse impact on relations between Russia and Georgia.

Presenter: Of course, Sergei Yastrzhembsky was talking first and foremost about Chechnya, when he was talking about the destruction of the fighters' infrastructure... What has actually been happening there [in the North Caucasus] lately? Quite unexpectedly some sort of group emerges [from Georgia] onto Russian territory. Fighting starts in Russia. What happened? Were they driven out of there [Georgia], and, as it were, exposed to Russian fire? Is that what happened? Rebels dream of conflict between Russia and Georgia.

Arbatov: I don't think so. I think that things happened differently. The fighters move quite freely between Chechnya and Georgia, and in the North Caucasus as whole, and Transcaucasus, as the borders there between Georgia and Russia are very poorly guarded and equipped. These fighters are interested in continually trying to provoke conflict between Russia and Georgia. Their ultimate dream is some sort of armed conflict between Russia and Georgia. This would open up the field for them, and they would have the best conditions to conduct and expand their operations. They would really be in their element, if an armed conflict broke out between Russia and Georgia. Therefore I believe that they are continually provoking these conflicts, by passing from one country to the other. And this includes the recent clash in Ingushetia. To judge from all we know, it is highly likely that these were the motives behind this move. It is important for them to keep on provoking Russia and Georgia to confront each other. That's why they stage these sensational raids. Either they break through from the Pankisi Gorge to the Sharo-Argun Gorge, where there was fairly heavy fighting in August. Or they break through into Ingushetia and shoot at helicopters and engage in armed clashes. All this is done really for show.

After all, everybody knows that there are many ways to get into Chechnya: through Ingushetia, through Dagestan, through Stavropol. And even in Chechnya itself there are still a significant number of fighters, who conduct guerrilla warfare there.

The infrastructure referred to by Mr Yastrzhembsky may have been destroyed. However, unfortunately new infrastructure is created very quickly, as the fighters' bases are not the same as army bases, which can be destroyed and put out of action. Fighters' bases are depots and shelters, types of settlement, which can be recreated in a instant, when one has been destroyed. So they can make good their losses very quickly, primarily from civilians who go off to join the fighters for one reason or another, and also, to some extent, from mercenaries, who come from abroad...

Russia needs to help Georgia with separatism

Presenter: If Russia helped Georgia regain Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in return for a change in their geopolitical orientation, would [Georgian President Eduard] Shevardnadze go for this kind of deal?

Arbatov: Yes, of course he would. In principle and in theory Russia is attempting to achieve this goal, as Russian troops are stationed in these places as peacekeepers.

Unfortunately, for many years there has been no progress towards a settlement. And talks between Georgia and the Georgian separatists, considered separatists in Georgian eyes - the authorities in Abkhazia and South Ossetia - these talks are in a state of stagnation that stretches back over many years.

Your listener [who put the question] is quite right to mention this.

When you listen to statements by a number of our TV stations about Georgia, and hear how their accusations that the Georgians are aiding the Chechens, you hardly ever hear about a number of serious problems in the history of our relations.

These problems primarily concern Abkhazia, and, to some extent, South Ossetia. Several hundred thousand refugees from Abkhazia are living in Georgia, which creates a big social and economic problem for them.

This forms the permanent background for Georgia's relations with Russia. Even if someone wanted to cooperate with Russia over the Pankisi Gorge, or on the Kodori Gorge, you have to consider that a great mass of the Georgian people, and people in Georgian government and political circles, are very negative about Russia. And this is due to a number of factors linked to separatism in Georgia.

Just imagine if Russia did not have eastern Siberia, or the Far East, if these areas were occupied by peacekeepers from another country. What. in these circumstances, would Russia's attitude be to this country? We should bear in mind, that in relation to Georgia's territory Abkhazia and South Ossetia are the same if not greater than the regions which I referred to [relative to Russia]...

Presenter: Why doesn't Russia want to resolve the Abkhaz-Ossetia question and why is it fuelling separatism by illegally issuing Russian passports to the people there, and introducing separate visa arrangements for them? Do you not think that these actions are driving Georgia into the arms of NATO?...

Arbatov: On the first question I would say that, in my view, Russia really hasplayed a negative role in the events in Abkhazia, when it secretly supported the Abkhaz separatists. However, if Russia now suddenly withdrew, there would be war again. There would be bloodshed and violence, and no good would come of it.

In fact, Russia should contribute more actively to a peaceful settlement. Russia recognizes the territorial integrity of Georgia. And Georgia should grant the maximum amount of autonomy to Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

A particularly thorny problem concerns the return of refugees and the restitution of property. All the property in Abkhazia which previously belonged to Georgians has been divided up among other people. Still, international experience shows that with the requisite diligence and patience, and with some financial contributions these problems can be resolved. Russia should work more intensively to achieve this goal. This would make it easier to cooperate with Georgia to resolve Russian problems of a similar nature, namely the Chechen problem.

Regarding the passports, until the passage ofthe new citizenship law recently, the process for obtaining citizenship and a Russian passport was very simple. An overwhelming proportion of the Abkhaz population exploited this situation and became Russian citizens.

However, this does not mean that Abkhazia is no longer part of Georgia, albeit it a part which occupies a special position at present, owing to the previous war. Russia should seek a solution to this issue in a way which is acceptable to all the parties. Primarily this should be on the basis of the territorial integrity of Georgia. We apply the same main principle to Chechnya. We refer to the territorial integrity of Russia. Thousands of our people have died to defend this principle in Chechnya: This clearly indicates how important this issue is for every state...

Wanted: Money for borders

Presenter: The border in the North Caucasus should be well equipped. We are talking about 1,500km of mountainous border. Is this at all realistic?

Arbatov: This is completely realistic. And we have the means to achieve this goal.

Why are the funds not being made available for this goal ? I would say that this is attributable to bureaucratic irresponsibility. In our country, the bureaucracy decides how the budget is deployed. The Duma can only make marginal corrections.

Let me give you an example. Not long ago a government representative appeared at a closed session of the Duma, and said that we needed something like RUR100 billion to equip all our dangerous and porous external borders, in the south, the west, or the east. At first sight, this appeared to be an enormous amount. However, if we consider that RUR20 billion a year would be spent on the borders over five years - you don't have to equip all the borders at once, let's start with the most dangerous, those in the Caucasus, in Chechnya, and Central Asia - and remember that we spend RUR600 billion on the army and law-enforcement agencies, then RUR20 billion is quite a small sum in comparison.

If the state is not capable of concentrating resources on what is important, then there is not a proper authority in this country. In principle, RUR20 billion out of RUR600 billion may be spent defending the borders. Over five years this would provide comprehensive protection for our borders. This is not being done at present.

Into the arms of the West

Presenter: While we are thinking about ways to strengthen our borders, it looks as if the West is making inroads. For example, the USA and the UK have announced plans to play an extremely active role in settling conflicts in Georgia.

The secretary of the Georgian National Security Council, [Tedo] Dhaparidze, told Interfax that the process of conflict resolutin was entering a very interesting phase. He said this because a special advisor to the US president and state secretary [Rudolf Perina] had come to Tbilisi. And it would seem to be true that Georgia is drawing closer and closer [to the West] and is moving further away from Russia. It is getting close to the West, NATO and Washington. In these circumstances, what role would you say is there for the USA in settling these conflicts in Georgia?

Arbatov: If the USA and UK become actively involved in these issues, the role of Russia will dwindle sharply. This is crystal clear. However, it should be understood that this is a not a cause but a consequence of our differences with Georgia.

The most recent stage in our relations, when Russia warned Georgia that it might carry out strikes on its territory, has driven Georgia even further away. This is despite the fact that it would be possible to cooperate with them.

They want to hand over to the fightersthey have captured. It might also be possible to cooperate in the Pankisi Gorge. However, overall, Georgia is being driven away from Russia.

In foreign policy, it is very important to be able to put yourself in the shoes of another country, and not be restricted to your view of events.

In this regard, if we put ourselves in Georgia's place, then we can see that from their point of view Russia is very far from doing everything it could to resolve the extremely serious territorial problems Georgia faces with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

And in the final analysis, which is, of course, bad for Russia, Georgia has started to turn to other powers, especially after the threats of strikes issued by Russia. If you say that powers in Georgia are directly provoking the conflict, by wanting to side regardless with NATO, the USA or the UK, you should remember that these forces are not in the majority. They are becoming stronger, however, owing to the growing differences between Georgia and Russia. This needs to be borne in mind today...

The bigger Caucasus picture

Presenter: There is a question on our pager. What are Georgia's relations with Azerbaijan and Armenia like and what is their impact on Georgian-Russian relations?

Arbatov: Georgia has very close relations with Azerbaijan. They signed an agreement the other day to lay down an oil pipeline from the Caspian shelf via Azerbaijan to Georgia and on to Turkey, that is, bypassing Russia. Passions have been running high on this project for many years. For obvious reasons Russia wanted this oil pipeline to pass through its territory to Novorossiysk terminals. But not long ago this problem was resolved in a different way. So Georgia and Azerbaijan have good and close relations, they cooperate, and this is yet another example showing that religion is not always a defining factor. Azerbaijan is a predominantly Islamic country while Georgia is a Christian country but they cooperate because they have common economic and political interests.

Georgia's relations with Armenia are much worse. Obviously, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been almost in a state of war for a long time because of Karabakh. Russia supports and always supported Armenia, first of all, from the mid-90s onwards, at least.

But Armenia is separated from Russia by Georgia, and without good relations with Georgia Armenia can't overcome this blockade. Russia's presence in Armenia is very vulnerable, as there are no direct communications with Russia. So Georgia is a crucial country for Russia in all respects - in relations with Azerbaijan, Armenia and the Russian presence [in the area] in general. And the current crisis in our relations is damaging our interests...

Pressure on Iraq

Presenter: We have just a few minutes to talk about the problem of Iraq. When presenting the 2003 draft budget to parliament [Prime Minister] Mikhail Kasyanov said that Russia was ready for America's war with Iraq. Certain risks pertaining to the possible military operation against Iraq have been planned, regarding first of all oil prices. In your view, how realistic is a US strike against Iraq?

Arbatov: Unfortunately, it is very realistic. Today the USA made its draft Security Council resolution available to the permanent members of the UN Security Council and the UN secretary-general. This draft effectively gives the USA carte blanche to interpret [Iraq leader] Saddam Husayn's actions, to decide whether he hampers inspectors and, consequently, to decide on whether to deliver a strike.

Presenter: But perhaps these are still measures of intimidation?

Arbatov: I think that the USA is in no mood to frighten Iraq. If it wanted to, it would have frightened it a long time ago, brought the inspectors back and clarified the real situation with nuclear materials and weapons of mass destruction.

The USA's real goal is to abolish this regime and establish a different one. And in this respect the worse Saddam behaves, the better for the USA. It is using this as a pretext. It is good that the USA has rejected immediate unilateral actions, tried to proceed through the UN Security Council and tabled a relevant resolution. But I think that it would be wrong to simply pass the resolution, as it doesn't stipulate what the Security Council should do next, while the UN Charter and international law state that this is the main body which may sanction such actions.

I agree with those calling for a new resolution. This is at variance with Moscow's official view. They believe that nothing new is needed and what is already there is sufficient. Experience has shown that Saddam Hussein is obstructing inspections, constantly manoeuvring and changing tactics. He needs fairly harsh treatment to ensure that there are no weapons of mass destruction there. But it is wrong to set the goal of changing a regime, as in this case arbitrary rule will serve as the grounds for using force in world politics.

Presenter: Let's imagine that the strike has already been carried out and you as deputy are to vote on a certain resolution in the State Duma. What resolution would you support in this case?

Arbatov: If this strike is carried out by the USA unilaterally and without sufficient grounds, that is there are no clear facts to show that Saddam Hussein has violated inspections, I would vote to condemn this action. But if this resolution stipulated Russia's involvement in a war on Saddam Hussein's side, I, the Yabloko faction and, in my opinion, many other deputies, would vote against such a resolution, as Russia's interests are much broader and serious than relations with this quite notorious regime which wages war on its neighbours, uses chemical weapons against part of its own population and in general behaves like an international criminal. But even criminals should be treated on the basis of law rather than arbitrariness.

Presenter: We were talknig to AlexeiArbatov, deputy chairman of the Duma Defence Committee and member of the Russian democratic Yabloko party.

See also:
Relationships between Russia and Georgia

Ekho Moskvy radio station, October 2, 2002

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