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Caucasus Report: March 11, 2005

11 March 2005, Volume 8, Number 9

GEORGIAN PARLIAMENT UPS ANTE OVER RUSSIAN MILITARY BASES. Recent threats by the Georgian parliament to declare the remaining two Russian bases in Georgia illegal appear to have induced Moscow to offer to cut by half the time it says is required to comply with that demand. Under an agreement signed at the OSCE Istanbul Summit in November 1999, Russia undertook to close by 1 July 2000 its military bases in Vaziani, near Tbilisi, and Gudauta, Abkhazia, and to begin talks with the Georgian leadership in 2000 on the timeframe for closing its two remaining bases in Batumi and Akhalkalaki (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 November 1999). Russia complied with first of those commitments, and embarked as required on talks on shutting down the latter two bases. But in the course of those talks, Russian officials have consistently argued that a lengthy time period is required to build housing in Russia for the troops to be withdrawn from Georgia. (That argument is specious insofar as many of the personnel at the base in Akhalkalaki are in fact ethnic Armenians who are citizens of Georgia.) Initially, Russian officials said they needed 15 years to close the bases, then 14 (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 3 January 2003); that figure was revised downwards to 11, and then eight years, according to Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli on 9 March.

After the Georgian and Russian sides failed during Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's visit to Tbilisi last month to make any progress towards solving either the bases deadlock or any of the problems bedevilling bilateral relations, it was agreed to establish working groups that, it is hoped, will manage to narrow the disagreements and report on 1 May to the countries' two presidents (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 February 2005). Those working groups will focus on six issues, including the proposed framework treaty on friendship and cooperation and the timeframe for the closure of the two bases.

Despite that agreement, Givi Targamadze, chairman of the Georgian parliament's Defense and Security Committee, announced within days of Lavrov's departure that the two remaining Russian bases should close by 1 January 2006 at the latest. On 25 February, parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze suggested that the Georgian leadership might declare the Russian bases illegal if agreement was not reached soon on a date for their closure. Then on 7 March, parliament deputy Giga Bokeria unveiled a draft bill requiring Russia to agree formally by 15 May to close the two remaining bases by 1 January 2006. If Russia rejects or refuses to meet that deadline, the Georgian parliament would declare the bases illegal and measures would be taken to prevent them from functioning: Georgia would, for example, decline to issue visas to Russian military personnel.

Bokeria's draft bill appeared to take the Georgian leadership by surprise. ITAR-TASS on 8 March quoted parliament speaker Burdjanadze as telling the independent television station Rustavi-2 that parliament should not adopt such a bill until after the expiry of the two months agreed by Moscow and Tbilisi to try and reach a compromise. President Mikheil Saakashvili too implicitly cautioned the parliament against adopting the bill. He reaffirmed on 8 March Georgia's "crystal-clear" position that the bases should be closed, but proposed waiting to see whether it is possible to reach an agreement with Russia within the two month period, as did Prime Minister Noghaideli. Parliament was scheduled to debate the draft bill on 9 March, but postponed the debate until 10 March at Burdjanadze's request. On 10 March, deputies unanimously approved a resolution setting a deadline of 15 May for Russia to agree to close the bases by 1 January 2006.

On 8 March, a senior Russian military official condemned the planned debate as an attempt at blackmail, and on 9 March the Russian Foreign Ministry warned that the debate would make it more difficult for the two sides to reach the hoped-for compromise agreement. "The Russian side will shortly submit its proposals aimed at finding solutions to existing problems," the Foreign Ministry statement continued.

In what have may have been a deliberate leak intended to defuse mounting tensions, on 10 March, quoted an unnamed Russian Defense Ministry official as saying that Russia does not want to keep the bases in Georgia forever, but their personnel will be redeployed to the Caucasus to serve in a new mountain rifle division which will be formed only three or four years from now. Another senior Defense Ministry official told Interfax later on 10 March that the offer to close the bases within three or four years is "the official position of the Defense Ministry." Also on 10 March, both Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili and presidential spokesman Gela Charkviani told journalists that Moscow has signaled its readiness for a compromise agreement on the bases' closure, to be drafted by late May, and which the presidents of the two countries would sign (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 March 2005).

There remains, however, the problem of the ethnic Armenians who account for up to one-third of the privates and sergeants serving at the Akhalkalaki base. (The total number of servicemen at the Akhalkalaki and Batumi bases is estimated at 3,000, according to Interfax on 10 March.) The Georgian State Employment Agency is already addressing the problem of providing employment for the Armenian contingent at Akhalkalaki, who are expressing disquiet at the prospects of losing their livelihood in a region with few alternative employment opportunities. The Georgian daily "Rezonansi" on 10 March quoted the agency's chairman, Levan Peradze, as saying that a job-creation program is in the works, and he suggested some of the personnel in question may find jobs in private security services. And Goga Khachidze, who was recently named governor of the Djavakheti region where the Akhalkalaki base is located, pledged the same day that the Georgian leadership will do everything possible to ensure that its closure "is painless" for the local Armenian population.

As the Georgian authorities have failed consistently to deliver on earlier promises to improve conditions in the remote, mountainous and impoverished region, the Armenians are, understandably, skeptical. David Rstakian, leader of the Virk party that represents the local Armenian community, was quoted by Caucasus Press on 10 March as saying "the Armenians of Javakheti will do all they can to prevent the Russian troops from leaving Akhalkalaki. If Russia refuses to pull out its troops, it may need our help," which, he implied, would be willingly offered. (Liz Fuller)

CHECHEN PRESIDENT SAYS WAR COULD SPREAD ACROSS ENTIRE NORTH CAUCASUS. Aslan Maskhadov supplied extensive answers on 4 March to questions submitted two weeks earlier via the Internet by RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service. The Russian text of the interview was also posted on 4 March on the pro-Maskhadov website

Asked about the rationale for the unilateral cease-fire he declared in January in a bid to persuade Moscow to agree to unconditional talks on ending the war in Chechnya, Maskhadov said he believes that Russian President Vladimir Putin has been "profoundly misinformed" about the situation in Chechnya by the Russian security services, top Russian generals, his aides, and what Maskhadov refers to as the "puppet" pro-Moscow regime installed in Grozny.

Maskhadov said he thinks that as a result, Putin's understanding of the situation in Chechnya "is far from reality." He acknowledged that "there is a well-established practice in the army of reporting what your superior wants to hear from you," and that Russian intelligence probably operates according to a similar practice. In a disparaging reference to pro-Moscow Chechen First Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, for whom Putin apparently has considerable respect, Maskhadov asked rhetorically "What reliable information can a traitor who has only completed two years of high-school education provide?"

Maskhadov went on to say that he believes a 30-minute face-to-face "honest dialogue" with Putin would be sufficient to explain to the Russian president what the Chechens want, and thus to end the war. He added that the Chechens for their part have no idea what Russia wants from Chechnya. Maskhadov proposed taking as a basis for the proposed talks the twin issues of security guarantees for the Chechen people and a Chechen commitment to respect Russia's regional and defense interests in the North Caucasus.

Asked whether the cease-fire he proclaimed in January was observed, Maskhadov said "I do not think there are detachments on Chechen territory that would ignore my orders, or in Ingushetia, Daghestan, and Kabardino-Balkaria.... All military detachments on the territory of Chechnya and neighboring republics are subordinate to the leadership of the Chechen resistance." That assertion is an implicit rejection of Russian officials' claims that most fighters in the North Caucasus, including the militants operating in republics bordering on Chechnya, take their orders not from Maskhadov but from radical field commander Shamil Basaev.

Maskhadov added, however, that he issued a caveat to field commanders that despite the unilateral cease-fire they were free to resort to force to protect themselves, which they did when surrounded in the suburbs of Grozny on 21 February. On that occasion, the Chechen fighters escaped but the Russian forces sustained numerous casualties entering a mined building -- casualties that could, Maskhadov argued, have been avoided if "the politicians had enough sense to comprehend one thing -- that this conflict cannot be solved by force."

Maskhadov went on to discuss the geographical expansion of hostilities since the second Chechen war began in the fall of 1999. He disclosed that on the eve of hostilities he appealed to the leaders of all North Caucasus republics, convinced that if they presented a united antiwar front Moscow would not dare to launch a new incursion, but only former Krasnodar Krai Governor Nikolai Kondratenko and "respected" Ingushetian President Ruslan Aushev promised their support. Maskhadov said he waited in vain for three hours in Aushev's office for Putin -- then Russian prime minister -- to arrive for talks, but Putin telephoned and said that President Boris Yeltsin had ordered him not to come. Maskhadov said he believes that was merely an excuse on Putin's part, and that Yeltsin himself did not want a second war.

Maskhadov went on to say that "already at the beginning of this war it was clear that it was impossible to confine it within the limits of Chechnya. The same sort of punitive operations that were launched in Chechnya also began in Ingushetia, Daghestan, North Ossetia, and Kabardino-Balkaria. It was the Federal Security Service that inflicted the war on those republics," not Osama bin Laden or Al-Qaeda. Maskhadov said he is certain that "bin Laden couldn't even find Chechnya on a map."

In that context, Maskhadov claimed that "we were constrained to broaden the front of military resistance. On my orders, additional sectors were established: Ingush, Kabardino-Balkar, Daghestan, etc. Amirs [commanders] of these fronts were appointed, and they are all subordinate to the military leadership of the Chechen resistance."

This is the first time that Maskhadov has claimed any personal responsibility for military operations beyond the borders of Chechnya; in earlier interviews and addresses to the Chechen people, for example in June 2003, he explicitly ordered his subordinates not to engage in hostilities elsewhere in the Russian Federation.

Maskhadov further defined as the objective of the ongoing armed resistance "saving our people from arbitrary Russian reprisals and barbarity," and he added that "we shall consider we have achieved that goal when we deprive Russia of the right to continue killing Chechens with impunity." Maskhadov said that the Chechen side is ready to sit at the negotiating table together with "any international experts" and discuss with Russia the optimum model for future bilateral relations. In this context, he pointed to the contradiction between Russian officials' claims, on the one hand, that Chechnya is "an internal domestic Russian problem," and, on the other hand, those officials' allegations of external involvement in the form of Al-Qaeda.

Invited by RFE/RL to speculate about Putin's motives for beginning the war, Maskhadov replied that it is not clear whether Moscow's priority is to defend Russia's territorial integrity or to defend Russia's regional and defense interests. He pointed out that Chechnya is a relatively small republic encompassing only 17,000 square kilometers, and that "while Russia has been at war with Chechnya, the Chinese have occupied the whole of Primorskii Krai and Trans-Baikal."

Maskhadov denied that his January cease-fire offer was prompted by the abduction of his relatives. Asked how the situation will develop if peace talks do not take place in the near future, Maskhadov said, "the war will continue.... Chechen mujahedin will resist to the end in this struggle, and the flame of this conflagration will spread to the entire North Caucasus." And in seeming contrast to his earlier prohibition on terrorist acts outside Chechnya and directed against the Russian civilian population (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 June 2003), Maskhadov continued: " The people of Russia will experience constant fear of possible retribution by suicide bombers in revenge for the evil deeds of the [Federal Security Service] and the federal forces in Chechnya."

Maskhadov did, however, admit the possibility that "when the interests of Western states and those of Russia collide in the Caucasus, when the leaders of those Western states comprehend the level of danger to the entire civilized world that emanates from Russia, then they will line up and beg us Chechens to agree to end the war."

Asked about the West's role, Maskhadov said the West is sitting it out, playing with Putin and trying to achieve its own global strategic objectives, and that the Russian leadership for its part is taking advantage of Western forbearance to "continue to commit monstrous crimes on Chechen territory."

Maskhadov dismissed as "risible" the proposed roundtable on Chechnya to be convened by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe's (PACE) rapporteur for Chechnya, Swiss parliamentarian Andreas Gross. That event is scheduled for later this month, but the venue remains unclear. The Council of Europe originally proposed Strasbourg, but over the past week several members of the pro-Moscow Chechen government have insisted that it should be held in Grozny. The interlocutors are Russian and pro-Moscow Chechen officials; Gross tried to include Maskhadov's representatives, but his envoy Umar Khanbiev declined to attend. Khanbiev told the information agency Daymohk on 2 March that Maskhadov has ordered the Chechen Foreign Ministry to consider "freezing" all contacts with PACE.

Maskhadov contemptuously dismissed the various pro-Moscow Chechen "bandit formations" running loose in Chechnya as "traitors" to the Chechen cause, adding that this phenomenon dates back to the 1994-96 Chechen war when mavericks such as Ruslan Labazanov, Umar Avturkhanov and Bislan Gantamirov headed such bands. The difference, according to Maskhadov, is that those commanders "had brains," the inference being that Ramzan Kadyrov does not.

Maskhadov admitted that occasional clashes occurred in 1994-96 between such bands and the resistance forces (of which he at that time was commander in chief), and that he personally participated in such clashes, but that they were never protracted. He said that "history should teach us" that Chechens should never fight among themselves, and he went on to claim that "there is a clear understanding -- and I mean today -- how a Chechen from one side or the other should behave during a forced clash. Not a single self-respecting Chechen policeman...would ever refuse help to the mujahedin," because those Chechen police know how the war will end, and that "tomorrow we shall have to live together."

Maskhadov implied that Federal Security Service Director Nikolai Patrushev was the "godfather" of the pro-Moscow Chechen police force and that Patrushev created that force in the hope of triggering a civil war in Chechnya -- but to no avail. (Liz Fuller)

ARMENIAN PRESIDENT PLAYS DOWN COALITION DISCORD. President Robert Kocharian played down on 1 March the significance of continuing squabbles within the ruling three-party coalition, saying that they are inevitable under power-sharing arrangements. He also implied that he has no plans to sack Prime Minister Andranik Markarian and his cabinet. "Try to find another country where there is a coalition government and there are no such phenomena happening from time to time. You won't find such a country," Kocharian told reporters during a visit to a carpet factory in Yerevan.

Kocharian was commenting on the recent bitter war of words between Markarian and parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 and 28 February and 2 March 2005). The two men lead two of the three pro-presidential parties represented in the government. The row was sparked last month by rumors about Markarian's imminent dismissal, which the Armenian prime minister and his Republican Party (HHK) say were spread by Baghdasarian's Orinats Yerkir Party. The latter were also accused of setting up illegal parliamentary bodies to win Baghdasarian more supporters. Orinats Yerkir rebutted the allegations and publicly lashed out at the HHK-dominated government last week.

The row highlights the uneasy relations between the HHK, Orinats Yerkir, and the third coalition partner, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, raising fresh questions about the future of their power-sharing agreement signed in June 2003. But Kocharian insisted on 11 March that differences between the three parties are not as serious as they are presented by the media. "Look at things more coolly," he advised journalists.

The Armenian leader indicated that he has no reason to change his government, singling out its improving tax collection record. "The greater the stability of a government implementing the budget [successfully], the better for the country and its economy," he explained. Kocharian also said that his high-profile campaign against tax evasion is already bearing fruit. "The first two months of this year show that the influence which I am trying to exert over those [tax-collecting] bodies is clearly yielding positive results," he said. "Both in January and February, we more than met our budgetary targets. I am sure that we will not have problems with that this year as well."

Kocharian held a series of much-publicized meetings with Armenia's leading businessmen and tax officials in late December and early January, warning that tax fraud and corruption among tax and customs officials will no longer be tolerated. (Shakeh Avoyan)