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1998 In Review: Little Progress In Caucasus Conflicts

  • Liz Fuller



Prague, 14 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- While little progress has been made this year toward political solutions to any of the simmering conflicts in the Caucasus, only Georgia's Abkhazia region has seen a serious resumption of violence.

In his New Year's address to the Georgian people, President Eduard Shevardnadze proposed a "Bosnia-style" solution to the Abkhaz conflict. The solution would have involved deployment of NATO troops to enforce a settlement and protect returning Georgians forced to flee their homes during the 1992-1993 war.

But the international community failed to endorse the option, which Russia flatly rejected. Low-level terrorist activity in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali region continued in early 1998.

In late May, attacks by Georgian guerrillas on Abkhaz Interior Ministry forces in Gali escalated into full-scale hostilities which the Russian peacekeeping force deployed in the region failed to prevent. Up to 35,000 Georgians who had returned to Gali after having fled in 1992-3 were again driven from their homes, hundreds of which were destroyed.

After several rounds of UN-mediated negotiations and bilateral talks between top Abkhaz and Georgian representatives, Shevardnadze announced in late Fall that he would meet Abkhaz leader Vladislav Ardzinba to sign a formal protocol on the return of displaced persons and a second agreement renouncing the use of force.

But that meeting was repeatedly postponed, with each side accusing the other of seeking to revise previously agreed provisions.

The year is also ending without a resolution of the dispute over South Ossetia. Neither Shevardnadze's face to face meeting in June with South Ossetian President Lyudvig Chibirov, nor subsequent talks between Georgian and South Ossetian representatives, yielded a mutually acceptable framework for future relations. Chibirov, however, would accept autonomy within a federal Georgian state, in contrast to Ardzinba, who is holding out for a confederative agreement that would give Abkhazia equal status with Georgia and international recognition.

In Armenia, fundamental disagreements within the Armenian leadership over the merits of the Nagorno-Karabakh draft peace plan proposed in September 1997 by the OSCE Minsk Group sparked the resignation of Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrossian in February.

Ter-Petrossian:

"I have received a demand for resignation from state agencies well known to you. Taking into account that in the existing situation the use of constitutional prerogatives by the president could destabilize the country, I accept this demand and tender my resignation."

His successor, Robert Kocharian, called for a resumption of the peace talks without preconditions, but Baku declined. Following the October reelection of Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev, the Minsk Group co-chairmen proposed a new blueprint for resolving the conflict. That plan reportedly advocated that Azerbaijan and the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh republic should form a "common state."

Yerevan and Stepanakert both signaled their acceptance of that draft as a basis for further negotiations, despite reservations on certain points. But Baku rejected it categorically as violating the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, and repeated that it was prepared to offer Karabakh only "a high degree of self-rule."

Violence in Karabakh was confined to the occasional exchange of fire along the line of contact separating Karabakh Armenian and Azerbaijani troops.

In Russia's breakaway republic of Chechnya, the standoff between President Aslan Maskhadov and radical field commanders Shamil Basayev and Salman Raduyev continued, with the latter two repeatedly accusing the president of treason for his willingness to continue negotiations with Moscow. But those tensions erupted into violence only twice. In late June, Raduyev's supporters shot dead a senior Chechen security official in Grozny. Three weeks later, clashes erupted east of the capital between government troops and forces loyal to a militant Islamist field commander.

Kidnappings in Chechnya continued unabated, the most prominent hostage being Russian presidential envoy Valentin Vlasov, who was held captive for six months before Russian officials negotiated his release. Moscow, nonetheless, continued to back Maskhadov.

Two successive Russian prime ministers -- Sergei Kiriyenko and Yevgeny Primakov -- met with the Chechen president in August and in October respectively. Both assured him that Moscow would finally deliver on its promises of financial aid to restore the republic's war-shattered infrastructure. In late November, Russian President Boris Yeltsin suspended work on a formal treaty outlining relations between Moscow and Grozny. It was an indication that Moscow may have finally realized that continuing to pursue the illusion of a formal treaty is futile and could undermine Maskhadov's status.

Elsewhere in the Caucasus, the leadership of the Russian republic of Dagestan switched tactics in August, abandoning its policy of blaming domestic unrest and terrorism on militant Islamists and instead launched a major crackdown on crime.

The election in January of Aleksandr Dzasokhov as president of the Russian republic of North Ossetia raised hopes that tensions with neighboring Ingushetia over the return of ethnic Ingush could be resolved. They fled ethnic cleansing in North Ossetia in late 1992. But low-level violence between the two ethnic groups continued. In late October, Ingush President Ruslan Aushev accused Moscow of clear favoritism toward the Ossetians, and hinted that his republic, like Chechnya, might seek to leave the Russian Federation.

The potential for future inter-ethnic violence throughout the Caucasus therefore persists. So does the threat of political unrest within Russia's Caucasus region. That may be particularly true in the Republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia in the runup to presidential elections next spring in which the opposition is determined to oust long-time incumbent Vladimir Khubiev.

Preoccupied with its financial crisis and anticipating President Yeltsin's demise, the Russian government may find its ability to influence events in the region rapidly eroding.

Meanwhile, the international community is impatient to resolve the Karabakh and Abkhaz conflicts for fear that regional instability may jeopardize the export of Azerbaijan's Caspian oil via Georgia. Still, foreign governments may find it impossible to mediate solutions acceptable to all parties.

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