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Caucasus Report: July 14, 2006

July 14, 2006, Volume 9, Number 25

BASAYEV'S DEATH CREATES FATEFUL CHOICE FOR RUSSIAN LEADERSHIP. The death late on July 9 of Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev creates a window of opportunity for those few Russian officials who advocate peace talks as the only logical way to end the ongoing fighting across the North Caucasus. At the same time, if the Russian leadership chooses to spurn that opportunity, the North Caucasus resistance is already planning -- apparently in line with an eight year plan of action drafted and endorsed four years ago -- to take the fighting across the Volga and into the heartland of Russia.

The circumstances of Basayev's death remain sketchy: he is said to have been killed when a lorry packed with explosives detonated near the village of Ekazhevo, south-east of the Ingushetian town of Nazran. Whether the explosion was freakishly fortuitous -- as the deaths of Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov in March 2005 and of Maskhadov's successor Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev last month appear to have been -- or whether it was the result of a sophisticated Federal Security Service (FSB) operation remains unclear.

Basayev's death, coming as it does less than a month after the death of Sadulayev, is undoubtedly a major blow to the Chechen resistance, especially in light of his fighting experience and role as strategist and as coordinator between the various North Caucasus fronts. But as both Sadulayev and his successor Doku Umarov have made clear, the strength of the resistance to Russian domination both in Chechnya and in other North Caucasus republics long ago reached the point where the death of one man -- even of a legendary figure such as Basayev -- cannot derail it, given that a younger generation of fighters is waiting in the wings to take over. Neither the death of Maskhadov nor that of Sadulayev appears to have deterred young men across the North Caucasus from flocking to join the ranks of the resistance. Umarov said in an interview with RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service in April, and again in a recent interview with the Turkish daily "Vakit," that the resistance has far more potential recruits to choose from than it can provide weapons for. In other words, the weak point of the resistance is not a lack of man-power but a lack of funds.

Moreover, the resistance drafted and endorsed four years ago -- while Maskhadov was still alive -- a plan of action for the period until 2010. The decision by Sadulayev in May 2005 to establish six "fronts," four within Chechnya, one in Daghestan, and one for the rest of the North Caucasus, the latter subdivided into separate sectors for Ingushetia, North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Stavropol, Karachayevo-Cherkessia, and Krasnodar Krai, is presumably part of that plan, as is the decision taken on July 8 by the State War Council to establish new fronts in the Urals and the Volga region.

Under Sadulayev, the resistance finally abandoned the tactic of large-scale terrorist attacks against the Russian civilian population that became synonymous with the name of Basayev. Such attacks -- launched first by Basayev in Budyonnovsk in June 1995 and again with devastating effect in the hostage takings in Moscow in October 2002 and Beslan in September 2004 -- more than anything else undercut international support and sympathy for the Chechen cause. Even more crucially, such tactics played into the hands of a Russian leadership that sought to persuade the West that the fighting in Chechnya was part of the international war on terrorism. In 2003, the UN and the U.S. government designated Basayev's Riyadus-Salikhin battalion a terrorist organization; the Russian leadership placed a reward of $10 million on his head.

The death of the man whom Moscow branded Terrorist No. 1 at least theoretically removes the major obstacle to a negotiated settlement of the conflict, given that the U.S. too regarded Basayev as a terrorist. By contrast, the international community would be less likely to discourage Moscow from embarking on peace talks with Umarov, who is not known to have participated in any terrorist attack, or with London-based Chechen Foreign Minister Akhmed Zakaev, described by former Russian Security Council Secretary Ivan Rybkin in a recent interview with RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service as representing the moderate wing of the armed resistance. Many senior Russian officials, however, claim that both Umarov and Zakayev are, like Basayev, tainted by terrorism or war crimes. One of Russian Prosecutor General Yury Chaika's first actions following his appointment last month was to launch a new bid to have Zakayev extradited from the U.K. And Umarov recently announced the creation of what is tantamount to a death squad tasked with the assassination of "international terrorists and war criminals" outside Chechnya who have been sentenced to death by a Sharia court for the "genocide of the Chechen people." Whether Umarov would be prepared at this juncture to impose a moratorium on the activities of that death squad to signal his readiness for peace talks is unclear, however.

Moreover, the resistance still intends, as Umarov stressed in his first public statement as president in late June, to continue to target Russian military and police facilities both in the North Caucasus and elsewhere. (The location at which Basayev was reportedly killed suggests that the intended target of the lorryload of explosives may have been the Russian military base at Mozdok in North Ossetia.) And the example of the October 2002 Moscow theater hostage-taking suggests that the logistical problems involved in launching such attacks thousands of kilometers from Chechnya are not insurmountable.

The Russian leadership thus faces a choice between, on the one hand, abandoning President Putin's policy of Chechenization -- in other words offloading on to Moscow's quislings most of the responsibility for hunting down the remaining Chechen resistance forces and trying to revive Chechnya's war-shattered economy and infrastructure -- and embarking on peace talks, or, alternatively, ignoring the opportunity and risking an indefinite series of attacks on military, police and security facilities across Russia. Some of those attacks will in all likelihood fail, as did the October 2005 raids in Nalchik, capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, and the planned assault that appears to have killed Basayev. But the planned opening of the Volga and Urals fronts could herald an entire new dimension to what is no longer just the second Chechen war.

As for the continuing resistance in the North Caucasus, it will face its most serious challenge when Umarov is killed -- which he himself accepts with equanimity is simply a matter of time. His death will remove the last military leader of influence still in Chechnya whose combat experience expands an entire decade, and possibly one of the last to have been close to Maskhadov. True, Basayev and Umarov will have shared their experience with a younger generation of commanders who have fought under them for the past seven years, even though the names of those men may be unknown outside the North Caucasus. But that younger generation of men in their 20s and early 30s, possibly with only a rudimentary formal education and only hazy childhood memories of an era when Chechnya was not at war or in turmoil, are less likely either to consider peace talks an option, or to be taken seriously as negotiating partners either by Moscow or by the international community. From that point of view, President Putin and other members of the Russian leadership now have a window of opportunity that could slam shut in a matter of weeks if Umarov too is killed. (Liz Fuller)

KARABAKH OFFICIALS MAKE THEIR CASE FOR JOINING PEACE PROCESS. During a visit to Washington in late June, Giorgi Petrosian and Ashot Ghulian, who are respectively foreign minister and parliament speaker of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR), replied to the following questions submitted via e-mail by RFE/RL.

RFE/RL: Why has the NKR remained aloof from the process of rapprochement and pledges of mutual support between the other unrecognized republics -- Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transdniester -- in recent months? Do you see those republics as gravitating too closely towards Russia?

Georgi Petrosian: The dissolution of the USSR resulted in uncertainty about the status of several territories, and this situation continues to date. The Nagorno-Karabakh Republic carefully follows developments in the entire former Soviet space, while taking into account specifics of each conflict and possible ways to resolve them. Certainly, the republics to which you refer are closely tied to Russia both geographically as well as through the citizenship of their residents. This is not the case for the NKR. We nonetheless maintain contacts and exchange information of mutual interest with these republics. While developing our policy on this issue, we certainly take into account the specific trends of the past several years in the international effort to address the conflict between NKR and Azerbaijan.

RFE/RL: Do you see the ongoing talks on Kosova's status as any kind of potential model for the NKR for formalizing independence from Azerbaijan?

Georgi Petrosian: All such processes can serve as some kind of a precedent, but not all of them are born out similar developments due to specific conditions elsewhere. The Kosova model is one of the potential settlement options. In my view, the Karabakh conflict should not just be settled, but rather exhausted on the basis of both political and legal realities in order to guarantee long-term peace in our complex region. For this to happen, the Azerbaijani government, with help from the international community, needs to step back from its aggressive posturing and genocidal rhetoric and engage in direct talks with NKR.

RFE/RL: How realistic is the prospect of the NKR joining the talks between the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers (the so-called Prague process), and when might that happen?

Georgi Petrosian: The NKR has always been ready to enter into negotiations with Azerbaijan without any preconditions. As you know such direct talks had taken place through most of the 1990s, but in recent years Azerbaijan has repeatedly refused to negotiate with the NKR. At the very least, participation of NKR's elected representatives in the negotiations is necessary in order to reflect the true nature of the conflict. At the same time, NKR's participation would reflect the understanding that the issue should be resolved on the basis of both political and legal realities, and Azerbaijan's readiness to hold talks with NKR would remove the initial hurdle on the way to ending the conflict. As a party to the 1994 cease-fire, NKR shares the responsibility for upholding today's relative peace and cannot be excluded from talks, if their goal is to finally end the conflict.

Speaking at a roundtable on the prospects for resolving the Karabakh conflict sponsored jointly by the U.S. Institute for Peace and Germany's Marshall Fund, NKR parliament speaker Ghulian similarly reasoned that formally drawing the NKR into the peace process "would demonstrate Azerbaijan's readiness to exist peacefully with Nagorno-Karabakh regardless of Karabakh's eventual future status." He further made the point that direct talks between Azerbaijan and NKR representatives would "help to alleviate the ongoing propaganda [by Azerbaijan] of revanchism, militarism, and ethnic hatred." Such talks would also help to neutralize the Azerbaijani argument that it is Armenia that is the "aggressor," and thus to undercut "the tendency in regional policy to isolate Armenia," Ghulian added.

RFE/RL: The NKR parliament is scheduled to begin debating the new draft constitution in September. Was the opposition represented on the commission that prepared the draft? Do you envisage any major amendments to the draft as a result of the debate?

Ashot Ghulian: The NKR State Commission working on the constitution only recently submitted its draft to the National Assembly. This commission was chaired by President Arkady Ghoukasian and included experts and representatives of all parliamentary and nonparliamentary groups active in NKR. In particular, parliament deputy Armen Sargsian represented the parliamentary opposition Bloc Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Movement 88 and Hrant Melkumian represented the opposition Communist Party, which is not currently represented in parliament. All members of the commission had an opportunity to provide their comments and proposal as the current draft was being developed.

The National Assembly will begin debates on the draft in September or October. These debates will be preceded by parliamentary hearings, which will involve the entire spectrum of the Karabakh civil society. I hope that this will help us develop a wide consensus on conceptual issues reflected in the constitution and I expect further changes made to the draft as part of this process. Should the parliament agree on and endorse the final draft, it would then go to a national referendum.

RFE/RL: The NKR parliament naturally maintains close ties with Armenia's National Assembly. Does it also have either formal or informal contacts with Russia's State Duma, or with the parliaments of any other states?

Ashot Ghulian: The NKR National Assembly has full-fledged parliamentary ties with the National Assembly of the Republic of Armenia. Just recently we held a session of the Armenia-NKR Inter-Parliamentary Commission in Stepanakert, where we reached specific agreements on developing further cooperation. We also have ties with parliaments of other countries, which while being unofficial are nevertheless quite intensive. Our most recent visit to the United States [June 22-30, 2006] and meetings we had in the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives confirm that there is great potential in interparliamentary cooperation. These ties, particularly with the parliaments of those countries that co-lead the mediation effort [i.e. France, Russia, and the United States], make a positive contribution to the peace process.

SURVEY SHOWS MOST ARMENIANS PESSIMISTIC ABOUT DEMOCRACY. Most Armenians believe that their country is on the wrong track, and they do not expect next year's parliamentary elections to be democratic, according to the findings of a U.S.-funded opinion poll released on July 12. The survey commissioned by the U.S. Agency for International Development was conducted in late April and early May by three Western nongovernmental organizations, including the U.S. International Republican Institute and Gallup. Some 1,200 respondents across Armenia were asked to express their opinion on a broad range of issues, including democracy building, the economy, and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Fifty-five percent of them said Armenia is moving in the wrong direction and only 32 percent claimed the opposite. The critical evaluation appears to primarily stem from lingering socioeconomic problems which, according to the poll, top the list of ordinary Armenians' preoccupations.

Nearly half of those polled described high unemployment as the most pressing challenge facing the country. The overall socioeconomic situation was the second-most frequently mentioned issue, followed by the unsolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the near-term resolution of which is considered "very important" by about 80 percent of Armenians. By comparison, only 4 percent singled out the need for international recognition of the 1915 Armenian genocide. Although 42 percent of respondents admitted that the economic situation in Armenia has improved in recent years, only 23 percent said they and their families have become better off as a result.

The poll also exposed popular concerns about political problems such as vote rigging and human rights abuses, with 58 percent seeing a serious lack of democracy in the country. Its findings also suggest that Armenians widely distrust their government's assurances that the next parliamentary and presidential elections, due in 2007 and 2008 respectively, will be more democratic than past ballots. Seventy percent of them do not think that the 2007 elections will be free and fair, according to the survey.

Parliament speaker Tigran Torosian played down the survey findings on July 13, telling RFE/RL that the Armenian authorities will do their best to stamp out chronic electoral fraud and hold polls recognized as democratic by the domestic public and the international community. "It would be interesting to gauge public opinion after good elections," he told RFE/RL. Torosian described the findings of the voter survey as "somewhat worrisome" but said they should be taken with a pinch of salt. "Do not think that in established democracies a large percentage of citizens trusts the government's steps and objectives," he said. "People are unhappy with government in all countries. And quite a lot of them." Torosian, who is a senior member of the governing Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), also argued that openly voicing support for government is considered a "bad thing" across the former Soviet Union.

Torosian and other senior officials admit that a repeat of the serious fraud reported in virtually all Armenian elections held since independence would deal a severe blow to Armenia's democratic credentials. They say the authorities in Yerevan are committed to ensuring the proper conduct of the upcoming elections.

Such assurances, however, were dismissed as "demagoguery" by Stepan Demirchian, the top leader of the main opposition Artarutiun (Justice) alliance. "It would be surprising if the public believed in free and fair elections after the bitter [electoral] experiences of 1998 and 2003," he told RFE/RL. "Having said that, we will certainly continue our struggle.

We will do everything to rule out vote falsifications." But Demirchian would not say what specifically the Armenian opposition can do to prevent such falsifications next time around. (Armen Dilanian and Ruzanna Khachatrian)