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Caucasus Report: July 7, 2006

July 7, 2006, Volume 9, Number 24

RYBKIN'S WARNINGS ON CHECHNYA PROVE ACCURATE. As Russian Security Council secretary under Russian President Boris Yeltsin, Ivan Rybkin played a key role in transforming relations between Russia and Chechnya after the end of the first Chechen war (1994-96). But his advice to Russia's current leaders on how to end the war in Chechnya has fallen on deaf ears. In a June 27 interview with RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, Rybkin again called on Moscow to embark on peace talks with the Chechen resistance.

On June 28, 2002, former Russian Security Council Secretary Ivan Rybkin addressed an open letter to President Vladimir Putin urging him to embark on peace talks with then-Chechen President and resistance leader Aslan Maskhadov on ending the war in Chechnya, and warning in detail of the anticipated adverse consequences for Russia if Putin declined to do so.

Three years later, he openly challenged Putin to "begin peace talks or resign!" And in an extensive interview last week with RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, Rybkin affirmed that his prognoses have proved accurate. He pointed not only to the perceived radicalization of the Chechen resistance, but also to the decline of political and economic freedoms in Russia and its ham-handed and inconsistent policies in the South Caucasus, trends that he said have combined to alienate both Georgia and Azerbaijan.

Rybkin characterized the current situation in the North Caucasus as "contradictory and tense." He compared the spiraling violence in that region to a pernicious disease that is spreading throughout the entire organism, but which the patient -- Russia -- chooses to ignore. Moreover, he affirmed that the army, Interior Ministry, and Federal Security Service are now extrapolating the experience they gained in the course of two successive Chechen wars on to the entire country, and Russian citizens "from Kamchatka and Sakhalin to our westernmost borders, are experiencing that arbitrary brutality in full measure."

As he did in an interview with RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service in August 2005, Rybkin argued that the Russian leadership should have sought years ago to reach a lasting agreement with those Chechen leaders whom he termed "the most sane and responsible," meaning the late President Djokhar Dudayev (who was killed in April 1996) and Aslan Maskhadov, both of whom, as Rybkin stressed, served, and were promoted to senior ranks, within the Soviet army.

Rybkin noted that Moscow's failure to bring to the negotiating table men who represent what he termed the moderate wing of the armed resistance, in the first instance Maskhadov and U.K.-based Chechen Foreign Minister Akhmed Zakayev, has contributed to a "radicalization" of the resistance in that each successive slain Chechen leader has been followed by an even more radical figure -- culminating in the selection last week by President Doku Umarov of radical field commander Shamil Basayev as his vice president and designated successor. The Russian authorities, Rybkin argued, are themselves largely to blame for that radicalization.

Rybkin, who was born in southern Russia and spent the first 30 years of his career there, stressed the significance of the "terrible scar left on the [collective] memory, on the heart" of the North Caucasus peoples deported by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin during World War II.

He said that deportation is one of the reasons why young leaders in the North Caucasus embraced the "revolutionary changes we lived through in the early nineties" even more enthusiastically than people in some other parts of Russia. But instead of respecting and deferring to the North Caucasians' desire to live according to the customs they inherited from their ancestors, Moscow has moved to circumscribe their freedom by, among other things, introducing the practice of imposing regional governors "like a pig in a poke" rather then permitting free elections.

And, Rybkin continued, Moscow has demonstrated in other ways, such as opening fire on demonstrators in Daghestan in April, that it does not consider the lives of its citizens in the North Caucasus worth "a brass farthing." Those moves, Rybkin said, have totally alienated the peoples of the North Caucasus from the Russian leadership, and it is therefore not surprising that some of the former resort to armed resistance.

Rybkin also spoke at some length of the impact of Russian domestic policies on the South Caucasus. He pointed out that people in Georgia and Azerbaijan -- and in other former Soviet republics -- see how political and economic freedoms are being systematically curtailed in Russia, how economic competition is being destroyed and a corporate state is being imposed, with the most important business concentrated in the hands of some 10 companies run by six or seven of the president's closest friends.

The ensuing monopolization of the economy in turn is destroying political competition, he argued, given that political parties need to be funded by people who are financially independent and have serious money at their disposal.

But it is not only Russia's economic policies that are alienating Georgia, Rybkin continued. He pointed to the annoyance that builds up in Georgia when people see how on the one hand Russia proclaims that no one has the right to interfere in Chechnya -- neither the Council of Europe, nor the OSCE -- while at the same time Russia blatantly meddles in Georgia's breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Summing up, Rybkin agreed with the interviewer that it is largely due to Russia's own actions that it is being "squeezed out" of the North Caucasus, and that blaming the erosion of its influence in that region on the United States or "the West" is misplaced.

Rybkin professed himself both skeptical and suspicious of the approach taken by international organizations to the war in Chechnya. "Unfortunately I watch with bitterness how the position of many observers from the OSCE and the Council of Europe undergoes a transformation the closer they approach to Grozny."

He explained that when flying from Strasbourg to Moscow those officials express one position, but between Moscow and Grozny they adopt a different position, which they modify again on arrival in Grozny. In short, Rybkin quipped, they arrive with their own opinion and depart with someone else's. "Something extremely dubious is going on here," he commented.

Rybkin was even more scathing in his assessment of the pro-Moscow Chechen leadership, in particular Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, whom he dismissed in his 2005 interview with RFE/RL as an uneducated "whippersnapper." Commenting on the announcement in late June that Kadyrov has been awarded the degree of candidate of economic sciences from an Institute in Makhachkala, Rybkin, whose own academic credentials as a cyberneticist are far more impressive, commented: "I can say only one thing. Two Chechen campaigns have led to a situation in which an entire generation of these fighting lads has been unable to get a decent education, including Ramzan Kadyrov."

The fact that Moscow has taken to showering "former captains, majors, and lieutenant colonels" with promotions and prestigious awards, Rybkin continued, does not augment either the professionalism or the intelligence of those singled out for such treatment. He contrasted the "very modest" potential of the current generation of North Caucasus leaders with those who preceded them.

Asked what he personally would do, given a free hand to tackle the problems besetting the North Caucasus, Rybkin said that his detailed proposals -- drafted in close cooperation between the central leadership and the previous generation of elected North Caucasus leaders -- are gathering dust on a shelf in the Security Council. The two most effective steps Moscow could take, Rybkin said, would be, first of all, "to sit down at the negotiating table with all those in the resistance, especially the moderate wing of the armed resistance in Chechnya" and other North Caucasus republics, and "stop pretending that nothing is happening there." Second, Rybkin advocated giving the entire North Caucasus the maximum of autonomy and of economic freedom with the aim of encouraging small business and private investment, which he considers the key to reversing economic stagnation. (Liz Fuller)

WHY IS THE GEORGIAN LARI GAINING IN VALUE? Over the past two-three months, Georgia's currency, the lari, has gained in value against the U.S. dollar, rising from 1.816 laris:$1 on May 1 to 1.77 laris:$1 in late June. That rise may partly reflect the dollar's loss in value vis-a-vis the euro and the British pound. But in Georgia, RFE/RL's Georgian Service reported on June 28, the rise in value of the lari has been accompanied by a rise in consumer prices that has led statistical experts and independent commentators to warn of a danger of inflation. The inflation figure for 2006 is officially estimated at 10 percent, but observers believe it is in fact higher.

Roman Gotsiridze, chairman of the Georgian National Bank, said the strengthening of the lari is partly the result of what he called "seasonal trends" related to the country's trade balance. He also noted that recent privatizations have resulted in a large influx of foreign currency, and that foreign direct investment in Georgia is on the increase, both trends that have contributed to the weakening of the dollar.

But parallel to the strengthening of the lari, Georgia is experiencing an increase in consumer prices. One Tbilisi resident told RFE/RL's Georgian Service that "I have not experienced any improvement [in the economic situation]. On the contrary, the cost of living has gone up and I now have to pay far higher prices than I did last year or the year before... Everything has become more expensive."

Gotsiridze for his part believes that the rise in consumer prices would be even greater were it not for the rise in value of the lari. But economic expert Nika Orvelashvili disagreed, arguing the "artificial" strengthening of the lari is damaging Georgia's export potential and hurting those Georgians whose main if not sole source of income is cash transmitted from family members working abroad. (Liz Fuller)

ARMENIAN JUSTICE MINISTER REAFFIRMS 'POLITICAL PLANS.' Justice Minister David Harutiunian reaffirmed on July 5 his plans to become more actively involved in political processes in Armenia, which may well take the form of his participation in next year's parliamentary elections. "Do I aim to engage in politics? Yes, I do," he said. "Do I have [political] plans? Yes, I do."

Speaking to RFE/RL in March, Harutiunian admitted that he is considering "returning to parliament." But he would not be drawn, either then or now, on details of his possible comeback which looks even more likely after the resignation on July 4 of Ara Saghatelian, his press secretary and confidant. "I have some plans relating to the field of mass media and am confident that they will prove useful for the development of the entire field," Saghatelian told RFE/RL without elaborating.

There has been speculation that Saghatelian quit the Justice Ministry in order to organize and manage Harutiunian's pre-election activities. Harutiunian appeared to implicitly confirm this. "I can't refute any comments," he said. "To be an independent political force one needs to have a team," added Harutiunian. "That I do have a team is out of question. I think the society or any political force does not doubt that."

Despite his relatively young age, the 43-year-old minister is one of the longest serving members of President Robert Kocharian's cabinet. He is believed to have had considerable influence on Armenia's courts throughout his eight-year tenure. Harutiunian's increased political clout have led some observers to consider him a potential candidate to succeed the Armenian president after his anticipated resignation in 2008. It remains to be seen whether he will dare to challenge Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian if the country's second-most-powerful man officially confirms his widely anticipated participation in the 2008 presidential ballot. (Karine Kalantarian)