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Caucasus Report: June 23, 2006


June 23, 2006, Volume 9, Number 22

WHAT IS SLAIN CHECHEN LEADER'S LEGACY, AND WHO IS HIS SUCCESSOR? Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev, who was killed in a battle with combined Russian and Chechen forces in his hometown of Argun early on June 17, served just 15 months as president of the Chechen Republic Ichkeria. But over that period he succeeded in formalizing the organizational and logistical framework to expand the war into other North Caucasus republics. The resistance website chechenpress.org claimed on June 17 that under Sadulayev the resistance forces did not perpetrate a single attack on a civilian target that could substantiate the Russian argument that the resistance are "terrorists."

Sadulayev's predecessor Aslan Maskhadov consistently forbade the fighters subordinate to him either to target civilians or to extend hostilities beyond Chechnya's borders. Sadulayev, by contrast, issued a series of decrees in May 2005 setting up six "fronts:" four within Chechnya, one in Daghestan, and one for the rest of the North Caucasus. The North Caucasus front in turn is subdivided into seven sectors: Ingushetia, North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Stavropol, Karachayevo-Cherkessia, and Krasnodar Krai. Those six fronts, according to chechenpress.org on June 17, comprise 35 sectors, each of them the base for 10-20 separate groups of resistance fighters. Veteran field commander Doku Umarov, whom Sadulayev named in June 2005 as his vice president and designated successor, concurred with the decision to extend the struggle against Russian hegemony to other North Caucasus republics. In January 2006, Sadulayev issued a decree creating a council of alims (Muslim scholars) covering the entire North Caucasus.

In August 2005, Sadulayev named radical field commander Shamil Basayev, the man who claimed responsibility for the hostage takings in Moscow in 2002 and Beslan in 2004 and for the terrorist attack in May 2004 that killed then-pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, as first deputy prime minister in the separatist government (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 26, 2005). Apti Bisultanov, who is a former Chechen minister of social security, told "Caucasus Times" in a June 18 interview that he thinks Basayev will continue to serve as first deputy prime minister under Umarov, and will "operate within the restrictions imposed on him by that official post."

And just weeks before his death, Sadulayev named Akhmed Zakayev, formerly Maskhadov's envoy in Europe, as foreign minister (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 30, 2006). Earlier this year, Zakayev engaged in an Internet polemic with former Information Minister Movladi Udugov, who rejects an independent Chechen state in favor of an Islamic state encompassing the entire North Caucasus and who argues that resistance fighters should not be constrained by the norms of international law (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," February 10, 2006). Some Russian commentators construed Zakayev's nomination as foreign minister as strengthening the moderate faction within the resistance vis-a-vis a perceived more radical wing grouped around Udugov and Basayev. Zakayev himself, however, has consistently downplayed speculation about the existence of radical and moderate wings within the resistance.

Umarov still has to be confirmed as president by the State Defense Council. Zakayev told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service on June 17 that this is likely to happen "within a few days." On June 20 he was less specific, saying only that he thinks Umarov will be confirmed "in the very near future," after which, in accordance with the Chechen Republic Ichkeria Constitution adopted in 1992, Umarov will name a vice president who will succeed him in the event that he too is killed.

Umarov is widely acknowledged and respected as a skilled, experienced, intelligent, and courageous commander. Born in April 1964 in the village of Kharsenoi in Shatoi Raion in southern Chechnya, Umarov graduated from the construction faculty of the Oil Institute in Grozny, according to a brief biography posted on chechenpress.com on June 21. He told RFE/RL's Russian Service last summer that he was in Moscow when the first Russian-Chechen war broke out in 1994, and as a patriot considered it his duty to return to Chechnya to fight.

Zakayev told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service on June 20 that Umarov served under him during the first war, when Zakayev commanded the southwestern front, and that they have retained "very warm, very friendly" relations ever since then. During the first (1994-96) war, Umarov headed the Borz (Wolf) spetsnaz battalion that was subsequently expanded into a regiment, and was promoted to the rank of brigadier general; he also won two prestigious awards for valor.

Following the Khasavyurt accord that ended the first war in August 1996, Umarov served under Maskhadov (who was elected president in January 1997) as secretary of the National Security Council, a post that he told RFE/RL entailed constant efforts to restrain those of his fellow field commanders who were at odds among themselves. When Russia again invaded Chechnya in the late summer of 1999, Umarov again played a key role within the resistance. According to Zakayev, they were both wounded during the early stages of the fighting and were hospitalized together "in the same country," which he did not name.

Umarov, like Sadulayev, rejects the use of terrorism as a tactic: he told RFE/RL's Russian Service in a May 2005 interview that, "If we resort to such methods, I do not think any of us will be able to retain his human face." Zakayev stressed in his June 20 interview with RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service that unlike some people who in a state of "desperation" were "prepared to do anything" (a possible allusion to Basayev), Umarov "always acted responsibly, he assessed all his [planned] actions [beforehand to determine] how acceptable and beneficial they were likely to be to the people both at the present moment and in the future." "From that point of view," Zakayev continued, "Doku Umarov without doubt belongs to the ranks of thinking people, thinking politicians, thinking statesmen."

Anzor Maskhadov, Aslan's son, similarly described Umarov in a June 19 interview with AP as "bold, brave, and courageous.... Everyone, including fighters in neighboring republics, will give their oath to serve him."

In an interview with RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service in April 2006, Umarov admitted that the resistance is short of money, and cannot therefore provide to groups of militant fighters elsewhere in the North Caucasus all the help that they need. Umarov claimed that the men under his command are ready and able to launch any operation at any time, and that the only constraint on a major operation is the financial outlay involved. For that reason, he explained, such operations are undertaken "only when it is politically expedient to do so."

Asked whether young Chechens are still filling the resistance ranks, Umarov said that the lack of money and competent instructors prevents him from taking all those young men who aspire to join the resistance. For that reason, only those with the greatest powers of endurance are selected, given that "the most terrible thing about fighting in the forests is the cold" -- the remainder are weeded out. He added with clear regret that "in a situation where we can't take them and they can't live in the lowlands, they have to leave Chechnya."

Umarov rejected as Russian propaganda media reports that Arab "jihadist" commanders have replaced Chechens at the head of the various resistance groups. He said that there are no more than four or five such Arab commanders who "travel all over the place to wage the jihad." But for Chechens, Umarov explained, the first priority is liberty, not jihad: "Once we win our freedom, only a free man will be able to be a Muslim." He clarified this point, stressing that the resistance wants above all to build a free Chechen republic under the name of Nokhchiichoe (Chechnya).

Umarov's confirmation as president will reverse the previous relationship between Umarov and Basayev, in that to date Umarov has been subordinate to Basayev in the latter's capacity as overall military commander. But it seems unlikely that reversal will result in a major shift in resistance tactics, even though Umarov, like Sadulayev, has said he rejects terrorism.

The fact that Basayev has not undertaken any major attacks that targeted civilians since the Beslan hostage taking could suggest that he has finally realized that such attacks are counterproductive. A video clip of Umarov and Basayev, shot in early April and posted 10 days ago on chechenpress.org, gave no indication of any tensions between the two. Apti Bisultanov told "Caucasus Times" on June 18 that the greatest danger to the resistance forces is that their support base among the population is dwindling as a result of the ongoing arbitrary abductions and killings perpetrated by pro-Moscow Chechen police and security forces. (Liz Fuller)

FORMER ARMENIAN FOREIGN MINISTER SKEPTICAL ABOUT CHANCES OF KARABAKH SETTLEMENT. Armenia's former Foreign Minister Aleksandr Arzumanian said on June 20 he is highly pessimistic about prospects for a near-term resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, which he does not think is considered an urgent priority by either the conflicting parties or international mediators.

Arzumanian claimed that the replacement of the U.S. co-chairman of the OSCE Minsk Group, Steven Mann, was a clear indication that Washington no longer hopes that the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents will cut a framework peace deal this year. "It was obvious to me that if those upbeat statements [made by the U.S., Russian and French co-chairs earlier this year] led nowhere, then some face-saving steps would be taken," he told RFE/RL. "This is one such step." "The appointment of a new [U.S.] co-chair is just a way to prolong or review the process," he added.

Mann was replaced by a more high-ranking U.S. diplomat, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, following the collapse of the June 4-5 talks in Bucharest between Presidents Ilham Aliyev and Robert Kocharian. The mediators subsequently convened a meeting in Paris last week between the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 14, 2006), and Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov said on June 18 that he has agreed to the co-chairs' suggestion that he and his Armenian counterpart Vartan Oskanian meet again soon.

Arzumanian insisted, however, that international pressure on the parties is still not strong enough because Karabakh peace is "neither imperative nor vital" for France, Russia, and the United States. "The Karabakh conflict's being unresolved is not a big threat to strategic U.S. interests," he said. "The same is true for France and the European Union in general. As for Russia, it has never been interested in seeing the small nations and peoples of the region live in peace."

Arzumanian, who served as foreign minister from 1996-98 under former President Levon Ter-Petrossian, also claimed that neither Baku nor Yerevan is interested in a compromise settlement. "Any compromise would be painful for both Armenia and Azerbaijan. And because experience shows that the Karabakh issue is a brilliant trump card for seizing power, any president will think twice before accepting a compromise solution," he said. Arzumanian was clearly referring to the fact that Ter-Petrossian was forced by several of his key ministers, including then-Prime Minister Kocharian, to step down in 1998 after advocating more concessions to Azerbaijan. Kocharian supporters may counter that the current Armenian leader has not rejected any international peace plans since then. Still, Ter-Petrossian allies are convinced that Kocharian has been happy with the apparent rejection by Azerbaijan of peace proposals made by the Minsk Group in recent years. "He came to power to drag out a settlement," said Arzumanian.

Arzumanian also reiterated Ter-Petrossian's belief that the Karabakh status quo is more detrimental to Armenia than to Azerbaijan. "The [1998] regime change pushed Armenia several years back," he said. "As a consequence, Armenia is in complete international isolation and not involved in any regional project, and Armenian democracy is now far more comparable to the political systems of Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan." (Ruzanna Stepanian)

KEY ABKHAZ MEDIATOR NOMINATED AS GEORGIA'S UN ENVOY. On June 12, President Mikheil Saakashvili submitted to parliament his nomination of Irakli Alasania to succeed Revaz Adamia as Georgia's envoy to the UN. Alasania, 32, is a former chairman of the Tbilisi-based Abkhaz government in exile and Saakashvili's special aide for talks with the Abkhaz leadership on ways to resolve the Abkhaz conflict. Even if the parliament confirms his nomination for the UN post, he will retain his Abkhaz responsibilities, according to Civil Georgia on June 12.

Some observers and political figures, however, have questioned the wisdom of sending Alasania to New York. Civil Georgia on June 13 quoted opposition parliamentarian Giorgi Tsagareishvili (Industrialists) as saying "Alasania was the only shining light in the current government," while independent analyst Giorgi Khelashvili similarly commented that "I think Alasania would be much more useful here." Alasania's proposed transfer to the UN is all the more surprising in light of the good working relations he has established with leading Abkhaz officials, in particular Sergei Shamba, foreign minister of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia. Civil Georgia on June 13 quoted Shamba as having said at the time Alasania's appointment as Saakashvili's aide was made public that, "We have very positive impressions [of Alasania.] He is a person with whom it is possible to talk."

It is largely as a result of that rapport that the two sides agreed to resume sessions, suspended in January 2002, of the Coordinating Council established under the aegis of the UN. On the sidelines of a council session in Tbilisi in May, Alasania and Shamba discussed the crucial issue of signing an agreement on the nonresumption of hostilities, but Alasania subsequently told RFE/RL that "we need more time" to resolve that issue. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in his most recent (March 17) report on Abkhazia to the UN Security Council noted that the so-called Group of Friends of the UN Secretary-General urged the two sides during talks in Geneva in early February to sign such a document, which Abkhazia wants. But Alasania's most recent draft peace plan for Abkhazia, unveiled earlier this month, does not provide for any such agreement, although the third of its five articles affirms Tbilisi's readiness to abide by earlier agreements on the nonresumption of hostilities. That is presumably a reference to the accord signed in the wake of the abortive incursion by Georgian guerrillas into Abkhazia eight years ago (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," May 26, 1998).

At the same May meeting on the Coordinating Council, Shamba formally presented to the Georgian side Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh's new proposals for resolving the conflict, entitled "Key to the Future" (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," May 12, 2006). Initially, Georgian officials, including Alasania, said they thought it might prove possible to reach a compromise settlement comprising a synthesis of the two plans. But Shamba announced that Abkhazia has rejected the Georgian draft, on the grounds that it does not contain a single proposal acceptable to the Abkhaz side (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 2, 2006). Despite that rejection, Shamba told RFE/RL's Georgian Service on June 19 that the two sides have tried actively over the past year to narrow the differences between them, and that he believes a rapprochement is possible, but that this is "a complicated process" that will take some time. That process, Shamba continued, has already yielded "good results," but the culmination is "not yet in sight."

The question thus arises: if, as Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has repeatedly said, he wants a peaceful solution to the Abkhaz (and South Ossetian) conflicts as soon as possible, why render more difficult the participation in the search for such a settlement of Alasania, whose flexibility, moderate stance (despite the fact that his own father was killed in the 1992-93 war) and dispassionate approach resonated so well with the Abkhaz side? One possible explanation is that in acknowledgement of Alasania's talents, and the perception that unlike some senior officials he has not been implicated in corruption, Saakashvili is grooming him for a more senior position in which exposure to international politics would prove an asset.

Alternatively, as the "Georgian Times" recently hypothesized, the Georgian leadership may be split into two camps over Abkhazia, with Alasania representing the "doves" and Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili the "hawks." If that is indeed the case, Okruashvili may have pressured Saakashvili to distance Alasania from the negotiating process in the hope that it would reach a deadlock and thus bolster the rational for a new military assault to bring Abkhazia back under the control of the central Georgian government. Or, anticipating such pressure from Okruashvili, Saakashvili may have chosen to send Alasania abroad rather than have him implicated in the collapse of talks on resolving the conflict peacefully and a possible new war.

Whether this week's visit to Sukhum and Tbilisi by U.S. Assistant Deputy Secretary of State Matthew Bryza is intended to strengthen the position of the "doves" is unclear. Bryza told RFE/RL's Georgian Service on June 20 : "We are talking about confidence-building measures, specific confidence-building measures that can reduce tension; reduce the risk of something bad happening; and lay the foundation of a peaceful settlement, frankly, that shows the entire international community how responsible an actor Georgia is, how committed Georgia is to a peaceful settlement, how important it is for us to help Georgia maintain its territorial integrity." (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK. "If Azerbaijan's 'one step forward, one step back' approach in the negotiations [on resolving the Karabakh conflict] was simply alarming, their recent, desperate offers of autonomy are concrete examples of a retreat from the letter and spirit of those talks, and clearly not in sync with international trends. Offering autonomy to people who have for nearly two decades been in control of their lives is, at the very least, self-deception." -- Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, addressing the first session of the newly formed UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on June 21 (quoted by Noyan Tapan).

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