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Caucasus Report: April 30, 2005

30 April 2005, Volume 8, Number 14

COUNTING RUSSIAN CHICKENS. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's 25 April statement after talks in Moscow with his Georgian counterpart Salome Zourabichvili that Russia could begin withdrawing troops from its two remaining military bases in Georgia before the end of this year is being hailed as a breakthrough in bilateral relations.

But Lavrov did not specify any deadline for completing that process, which he stressed is contingent on the signing of a formal bilateral agreement by the presidents of the two countries. And, on 26 April, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov (playing "bad cop" to Lavrov's "good cop?"), said that the pullout will take between three and four years, and that it is contingent on a formal agreement signed by the two presidents that will stipulate the date for completing the withdrawal.

Zourabichvili, for her part, suggested on 25 April that if the remaining problems are ironed out within the next week, such an agreement could be signed on 8-9 May during the celebrations in Moscow to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili told an Israeli television station on 25 April that he will attend those celebrations if relations with Russia improve by then.

Zourabichvili was quoted as telling Ekho Moskvy on 25 April that Georgia considers 1 January 2008 the optimum date for completing the Russian military withdrawal, and on 27 April the Caucasus Press quoted her as saying Russian forces would leave the Akhalkalaki base by the end of 2006 and the base in Batumi by the end of 2007. Speaking in Tbilisi the same day, Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli similarly said he hopes the withdrawal could be completed by late 2007.

During a visit to Tbilisi last week, Russian Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov proposed the 1 January 2008 deadline to Georgian Parliament Speaker Nino Burdjanadze, but she rejected it as unacceptable. The Georgian Parliament has consistently taken a tougher line than the government on the bases issue, and on 10 March it passed a resolution calling on the government to set a deadline of 15 May for reaching agreement with Russia that the bases be closed by 1 January 2006. The nonbinding resolution stipulated that failure to meet that deadline would incur sanctions, including a refusal to issue visas to Russian military personnel and restrictions on the movement of those personnel and hardware on Georgian territory.

Insofar as Russian officials continued to insist as recently as two years ago that between 11-15 years were required to close the two remaining military bases in Georgia, the 1 January 2008 date constitutes a major concession on Moscow's part. The timeframe for the withdrawal is, however, not the only sticking point. Other disagreements focus on who will pay for the withdrawal and the fate of the materiel currently deployed at the two bases. In May 2001, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov estimated the cost at 4 billion rubles ($143.9 million) but, one month later, U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Kenneth Spenser Yalowitz said Moscow had declined an offer of $10 million from the U.S. to help cover the costs of the withdrawal, Caucasus Press reported. Great Britain and other OSCE member states subsequently likewise offered to provide more modest sums towards Russia's withdrawal expenses, but made clear they would not contribute to the cost of constructing new barracks in Russia to house the returning troops, according to a Georgian Foreign Ministry statement quoted by Caucasus Press on 17 January 2004. Russian Defense Minister Ivanov said last month the withdrawal would cost $300 million.

Zourabichvili admitted on 25 April that issue of financial compensation for the Russian withdrawal did not figure in her talks that day with Lavrov, adding that she considers it "a good sign" that Russia did not demand "absurd sums." Prime Minister Noghaideli said on 5 April that Tbilisi will not pay anything towards the costs of the withdrawal.

The more hawkish Georgian officials have made it clear that Tbilisi expects Russia to leave behind most, if not all, of the weaponry currently deployed at the two bases, while Russian military officials have suggested that a part of it will be redeployed to the Russian base in Armenia. (Whether this would constitute a violation of the ceilings imposed under the revised Treaty of Conventional Forces in Europe is not clear.) Tbilisi has also hinted that Moscow will be required to pay outstanding taxes and debts for supplies of water and electricity to its bases in Batumi and Akhalkalaki dating back to 1991. Georgian Deputy Finance Minister Giorgi Godabrelidze told the Georgian parliament Defense and Security Committee on 22 April that those debts exceed 1 billion laris ($550 million).

In an interview published on 27 April in "Nezavisimaya gazeta," Zourabichvili attributed the apparent progress towards a civilized withdrawal agreement to a fundamental shift in both Georgian and Russian perceptions of the causes of the current tensions in bilateral relations. "What in Moscow would once have been considered a defeat or even a humiliation is now seen as a mutual process that serves our common interests," she explained. But it is by no means certain that the legislatures of the two countries share that altered perception. Interfax on 26 April quoted Gennadii Gudkov (Unified Russia), a member of the Russian State Duma's Security Committee, as saying he will call for an official inquiry into the terms of any withdrawal agreement Russia plans to sign. And Article 65 of the Georgian Constitution stipulates that the parliament must ratify any interstate agreement of a military nature.

Nor is it clear whether Russia continues to push for the creation on the infrastructure of one or other of the two bases of the joint antiterrorism center which Georgian officials last year proposed establishing. Caucasus Press on 25 April quoted Lavrov as saying in Moscow that such a center could be created at one of the two bases. But Nika Rurua, deputy chairman of the Georgian Parliament's Defense and Security Committee, told RFE/RL's Georgian Service on 27 April that the issue of establishing an antiterrorist base should not be linked to the Russian withdrawal. He added that the proposed center should not be located on the premises of one of the two bases, nor should any weapons be deployed there. It should, Rurua said, be a purely analytical center.

A further possible obstacle to the closure of the Akhalkalaki base are the objections of the predominantly ethnic Armenian local population, many of whom are among the estimated 2,000 servicemen stationed there. If, or when, the base is closed those personnel are likely to find themselves with no alternative employment prospects in an economically backward and isolated region. Zourabichvili on 27 April sought to allay such fears, telling local residents, as has President Saakashvili, that the government will find them new jobs.

Even assuming that both sides are prepared to resolve or abandon their financial claims and counterclaims within the next week in order to remove the last remaining obstacles to a formal withdrawal agreement, it is still possible that Russia might at some future juncture suspend the withdrawal process, as it has done in withdrawing excess ammunition from Moldova's breakaway Transdniester region. (Liz Fuller)

EU TO EMBARK ON POSTCONFLICT RECONSTRUCTION IN NORTH CAUCASUS. Building on gradually lessening Russian sensitivities about the conflict in Chechnya, the EU is on the brink of proceeding from providing purely humanitarian aid to acquiring a formal role in the postconflict rehabilitation of the region.

A team of European Commission experts visited the North Caucasus on 9-16 April and met the political leaders of Chechnya, Ingushetia, and North Ossetia. Emma Udwin, a spokeswoman at the European Commission, told RFE/RL on 27 April that the team is advising EU authorities that while humanitarian assistance must continue, the bloc could "add value" to local efforts in social and economic reconstruction. Udwin says health and education are key sectors where the EU may become involved.

"Part of the mission was to hold discussions with the ministries of health and education in each case, and we are looking at how we might be able to, for example, help expand the administrative capacity of those ministries to improve services in those key areas -- that might be one example." Udwin said it is too early to specify what precise projects the EU may propose.

Speaking privately, an EU source told RFE/RL that the European Commission feels reconstruction work can start before a formal end to the conflict in Chechnya, provided the security situation remains favorable.

Udwin also appeared to say a formal end to the war is not an absolute precondition for EU involvement in rehabilitation efforts. "It is clear that the assistance, the support we give will be more meaningful if it takes place in the context of a political solution that has the broad consensus of the local population," she reasoned.

The anonymous official quoted previously said the EU intends to conduct its reconstruction projects in "close contact" with the Russian authorities, but indicated that the bloc will retain full control over their financing. The official also indicated that budgeting for projects may begin next year or even earlier, before the start of the 2007-2013 EU budget cycle. (Ahto Lobjakas)

EXPERT PERCEIVES DECLINE IN WAHHABISM IN NORTH CAUCASUS. The influence of Wahhabism -- the Saudi form of fundamentalist Islam that Russian President Vladimir Putin and others say threatens the Russian Federation -- is currently declining in Chechnya and elsewhere across the Northern Caucasus, according to a senior Muslim official with long experience there.

In an interview carried on the Rosbalt agency on 28 April, Mufti Shafig-Khadzhi Pshikhachev said that Wahhabism is on the decline because the conditions which had powered its rise in the region during the 1990s have fundamentally changed

While many may be inclined to dismiss Pshikhachev's statement as self-interested -- after all, he was in charge of many Muslim communities there, is certainly interested in shifting the blame to others, and is currently asking for the government to help fund traditional Islam -- the thrust and detail of his argument suggest he should be taken seriously.

Pshikhachev, who is currently the executive director of the International Islamic Mission but also served for 15 years as the chief mufti of Kabardino-Balkaria, argued that three factors contributed to the explosive growth of Wahhabist influence in the North Caucasus a decade ago.

First, because of Soviet antireligious policies, he notes, Islam in 1991 -- both organizationally and ideologically -- was in a bad state. On the one hand, few Muslims knew much about their faith, which had been corrupted by a variety of non-Islamic ideas. And on the other, the number of mosques and well-trained mullahs was extremely small.

Second, the opening of the southern border of the Russian Federation allowed the influx of large numbers of Muslim missionaries from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. These missionaries presented themselves as representatives of "true" or "pure" Islam who had come to rescue the Muslims of the North Caucasus from their past and from themselves.

And third, large numbers of young people in the region found themselves unemployed and otherwise neglected by government institutions. As a result, they were open to mobilization by the missionaries who urged them to challenge not only their elders but the existing Muslim leaders and hierarchies.

Many young people in that region, Pshikhachev said, did just that. But very quickly they, and especially their parents, became disillusioned with the Wahhabis, many of whom did not practice what they preached and who seemed more concerned with pursuing a nakedly political agenda rather than promoting the Islamic faith.

Moreover, the mufti continued, the number of mosques staffed by local people increased. The mullahs in them received the kind of instruction that gave them a better chance to defend the Islamic traditions of the region against the ideas of foreign missionaries. And traditional Muslim leaders found they could count on the government for help.

And finally, Pshikhachev said, after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington D.C. on 11 September 2001, external support for the missionaries fell precipitously. As a result, the Wahhabi missionaries found themselves without the resources to continue their work, and consequently left Russia.

As a consequence, the mufti continued, there is now no possibility of any repetition anywhere in the North Caucasus of the kind of events which shook Daghestan in 1999. That does not mean, however, that there is no Wahhabist influence in the North Caucasus, Pshikhachev said. But now, what influence there is is "ideological" rather than "practical" and, consequently, Wahhabism as an organized force has relatively little impact on social and political life there.

Because of that trend, he continues, those who say that the second post-Soviet Chechen war is increasingly a religious one are simply wrong. "The longer the war goes on," Pshikhachev added, "the more one senses its nonreligious quality." Of course people there use the language of Islam, he adds, but that in no way means that they are fighting on its behalf.

At the same time, however, Pshikhachev warned that the heavy-handedness of regional officials is resulting in the radicalization of some local Muslims, but he added that this radicalization should not be equated with Wahhabization. He further suggested that despite some bumps on the road, relations between the state and believers are relatively good and improving.

If Russian government officials both in the North Caucasus and in Moscow understand the importance of that, and if they defend the rights of believers and provide support to mullahs in registered congregations and Muslim spiritual directorates, Pshikhachev concluded, then the influence of Wahhabism will continue to ebb. (Paul Goble)

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK. "The collapse of the Soviet Union was the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the century." -- Russian President Vladimir Putin in his annual address to the Russian people (quoted by RFE/RL on 25 April).

"The young Georgian Parliament deputies who are considered democrats are dangerous because, unlike us, they have not seen a war. It is usually those who have never fought in a war who aspire to a blitzkrieg." -- Abkhaz Parliament National Security Committee Chairman Harri Samanba, in an interview published in "Voenno-Promyshlennyi Kurier," No. 10, 23-29 March 2005.