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Caucasus Report: February 24, 2006

24 February 2006, Volume 9, Number 7

KARABAKH LEADER URGES ARMENIA TO PULL OUT OF SETTLEMENT TALKS. Arkady Ghukasian, who is president of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, has called on Armenia to refrain from further negotiations with Azerbaijan unless they involve Karabakh representatives, thereby underscoring his frustration with the unrecognized republic's effective exclusion from the peace process.

In an 18 February interview with RFE/RL in Stepanakert, Ghukasian said that Azerbaijan's refusal to negotiate directly with the Karabakh Armenians is the main obstacle to a resolution of the Karabakh dispute. He claimed that Baku is dealing only with Yerevan for "propaganda" purposes.

"I will see an indication that Azerbaijan is looking for a solution to the problem only if Azerbaijan starts talking to Karabakh," he said. "There is only one way Karabakh can enter the negotiating process: Armenia's refusal to negotiate with Azerbaijan. There is no other way out of this situation." "They have to make a choice," Ghukasian added, referring to Armenia's leadership. "Either to continue negotiations in the hope of finding a formula more or less acceptable to all sides, or to refuse to talk to Azerbaijan until the latter understands that it is impossible to resolve the conflict without Karabakh."

Representatives of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) regularly held face-to-face negotiations with Azerbaijani officials in the presence of international mediators until 1996. Although the U.S., French, and Russian co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group continue to visit Stepanakert on their periodic tours of the conflict zone, the NKR has since been largely excluded from the peace process.

Armenian opposition politicians say President Robert Kocharian himself drove the NKR out of the process by agreeing to largely confine the process to regular meetings between the presidents and foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan. But officials in Yerevan insist that the authorities in Stepanakert will eventually be brought into the picture. Some of them have also argued that the format of negotiations is less important than the content of peace proposals made by the mediators in recent years. None of those proposals would reportedly restore Azerbaijani control over the disputed region.

Ghukasian admitted that he is unconvinced by such assurances. "We have been assured that Azerbaijan may give up more by negotiating with Armenia only," he said. "But we see that that is not the case. Azerbaijan's rhetoric doesn't change regardless of whether it talks to Armenia only or Armenia and Karabakh."

Those remarks are another indication that the Karabakh leadership is unhappy with the peace accord currently discussed by Baku and Yerevan, which reportedly envisages the holding of a referendum on Karabakh's status 10-15 years after the start of a gradual liberation of Azerbaijani territories around the disputed region that are currently controlled by Armenian forces. Kocharian and his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev were widely expected to sign a preliminary agreement based on this formula during two-day talks in Rambouillet, outside Paris, earlier this month, but they failed to do so.

The Minsk Group co-chairs are due to meet in Washington in early March to discuss ways of salvaging the peace process. Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian said on 20 February that they will specifically discuss a date for another meeting between himself and Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov. According to Armenian media reports, Aliyev and Kocharian could also meet again as early as this March.

Oskanian indicated last week that a peaceful settlement of the Karabakh conflict may still begin this year despite the failure to sign any agreement at the Rambouillet summit. (Karine Kalantarian)

KARABAKH PLANS TO ADOPT CONSTITUTION. The unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) is to enact its first-ever constitution that will reaffirm its secession from Azerbaijan unilaterally declared more than 15 years ago, according to officials in Stepanakert. A commission formed by NKR President Arkady Ghukasian has for years been working on the text of the basic law and plans to submit its first draft to the local parliament in the second half of this year. Karabakh officials say it will likely be put to a referendum before the end of 2006. "I assume that we will pass the constitution in the course of this year," Ghukasian told RFE/RL in an interview.

It is not clear whether these plans or the content of the proposed Karabakh constitution would be affected by a possible breakthrough in the ongoing Armenian-Azerbaijani peace talks. Baku and Yerevan have reportedly been discussing a peace settlement that would allow Karabakh's predominantly Armenian residents to decide the disputed region's status in a referendum. The Karabakh Armenians would almost certainly vote to become a part of Armenia proper in such a referendum.

The planned adoption of the constitution appears to be connected with a presidential election in the NKR that is due to take place next year. The existing law on the NKR presidency bars Ghukasian from seeking a third term in office, but the constitution may drop that restriction.

Ghukasian, who has held the post since 1997, said he has yet to decide whether to try to stay in power after 2007. "Whether or not the constitution will allow for such possibility is an open question," he said. "I don't know, it's the people who are going to adopt the constitution.... And even if the constitution gives me such a possibility, I still don't know whether my participation [in the 2007 election] would make sense."

Ghukasian added that he will not follow the example of other Karabakh leaders, notably Robert Kocharian, and move to Armenia after resigning from the NKR government. "I don't think I will relocate to Armenia," he said. "I don't think I have such [moral] right. I don't think that my place is in Armenia, regardless of which positions I occupy here." (Karine Kalantarian)

STAVROPOL GUN BATTLE HIGHLIGHTS NOGAI ROLE IN CHECHEN RESISTANCE. Russian police have claimed that the eight to 12 militants killed during an extended battle on 9-10 February in a village in the Neftekum district of Stavropol Krai were all Nogais, members of a djamaat, or militant group, based in the Shelkovsky district of northeastern Chechnya. If true, that report provides further evidence that in recent years ever-larger numbers of young men from other ethnic groups and regions of the North Caucasus have joined the ranks of the Chechen resistance.

The Nogais are a Turkic people descended from the Qipchaks who in the 13th and 14th centuries coalesced with their Mongol conquerors to form the Nogai Horde. They adopted Sunni Islam in the 14th century. Their language is most closely related to Kazakh and Kara-Kalpak. In other words, the Nogais are not ethnically or linguistically even remotely related to the Chechens and Ingush.

According to the brief history of the Nogais in Shirin Akiner's "Islamic Peoples Of The Soviet Union," which still remains an invaluable reference source 15 years after the demise of the USSR, the Nogai Horde split in the mid-16th century, with the Great Horde remaining on the lower Volga and the Little Horde settling on the right bank of the Kuban River and the shores of the Azov Sea, and in southern Ukraine. The two groups reunited in the mid-17th century after the Great Horde moved southwest, and became nominally subject to the Crimean Tatar khanate. In the 18th century, under pressure from the Tsarist Russian authorities, many Nogais moved either west to present-day Ukraine, south into the Caucasus, or emigrated to Ottoman Turkey.

At the time of the 1979 Soviet census, there were 59,546 Nogais in the USSR, while a decade later, that number had increased to 75,564, of whom 28,294 lived in Daghestan, primarily in the northern Khasavyurt district. The Nogais constitute the eighth-largest of Daghestan's numerous ethnic groups.

There are also Nogai communities in neighboring Chechnya, Stavropol Krai, Karachayevo-Cherkessia, and Kabardino-Balkaria. In 1979, over 90 percent of Nogais in the USSR considered Nogai their native language, and 75 percent also claimed fluency in Russian.

An informal Nogai association, Nogai Birlik (Unity), representing the Nogais in Daghestan, in 1991 called for a separate Nogai state, according to a 1995 briefing paper compiled by the British nongovernmental organization International Alert. At that time, the Nogais reportedly opposed sovereignty for Daghestan on the grounds that it would make it more difficult for them to maintain contacts with their co-ethnics in other regions of the Russian Federation.

Possibly because they considered themselves victimized, oppressed, or simply neglected and forgotten by the Russian authorities, the Nogais, who are overwhelmingly rural dwellers engaged in agriculture, were among the first non-Chechens to join the Chechen resistance. In a 13 February article, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" traces that involvement as far back as 1996, claiming that between 1996-99 a group of Nogais from Neftekum traveled to Chechnya for training at so-called Wahhabi camps, presumably meaning the training camp established in Serzhen-Yurt by Saudi-born field commander Khattab.

The Russian daily further claims that the so-called Nogai battalion participated in the 1999 incursion into Daghestan spearheaded by Khattab and radical field commander Shamil Basayev that precipitated the second Chechen war. Whether Nogais from other regions of the North Caucasus have since formed comparable, separate djamaats remains unclear.

In December 2005, the head of the Stavropol directorate of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), Lieutenant General Oleg Dukanov, claimed that the leader of the so-called Nogai djamaat, which he claimed comprised residents of the Neftekum, Levokum, and Stepnov districts of Stavropol Krai, was killed in August 2005 while resisting arrest, reported on 15 December.

If so, the Nogai djamaat apparently retained both its cohesion and its fighting capacity despite the death of its commander. Police claimed to have secured arms -- including six assault rifles, two mortars, and three grenade launchers, together with quantities of ammunition and several walkie-talkies -- in the wake of the Neftekum operation, and claimed that the fighters in question were preparing to launch a major terrorist attack, possibly involving the seizure of a school or orphanage, during the last week of February.

Simultaneously with the Neftekum operation, police detained six alleged militants -- four men and two women -- in Pyatigorsk, also on suspicion of preparing a terrorist act, Interfax reported on 10 February. It is uncertain whether those six were also Nogais, and whether they were coordinating their activities with the Nogai djamaat. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "Azerbaijan's main foreign policy priority is the absence of any priorities. Our foreign policy will be built on maintaining and developing mutually advantageous relations with all countries." -- Mubariz Gurbanly, deputy executive secretary of the Yeni Azerbaycan Party, in a 21 February interview with

"It would take Georgia just a few hours to settle the South Ossetian problem by force, but we want to do it only by peaceful means." -- Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, speaking at an international security conference in Tbilisi on 18 February. Quoted by Caucasus Press.

"There's no blood on the floor and they're still in the room." -- Unnamed international official during the 20 February round of the Kosova talks in Vienna. Quoted by Reuters.