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Caucasus Report: August 22, 2005


22 August 2005, Volume 8, Number 28

EXPECTATIONS MUTED ON EVE OF KARABAKH TALKS. The foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan are scheduled to meet on 23 August in Moscow to resume their talks on approaches to resolving the Karabakh conflict. Days later, the two countries' presidents, Robert Kocharian and Ilham Aliyev, will meet in Kazan on the sidelines of a CIS summit to address the same issue. But although international mediators from the OSCE Minsk Group expressed cautious optimism after visiting Baku, Stepanakert, and Yerevan in early July, both they and senior officials in Baku have warned in recent days that there is little chance the two presidents will sign a major peace accord in Kazan.

The Kazan talks between the two presidents will be their second within four months. The first took place in Warsaw in mid-May on the sidelines of a Council of Europe summit, and according to an Armenian Foreign Ministry statement released several days later, that meeting constituted "yet another step forward in the resolution of the Karabakh conflict," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The statement added that the Warsaw meeting "makes it possible to continue the discussions" between the two countries' foreign ministers that began one year earlier. On 17 May, the French, Russian, and U.S. co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group that is mediating the search for a solution to the Karabakh conflict released a statement similarly noting that the two presidents "confirmed their strong interest in reaching a peaceful, negotiated solution of the conflict" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 and 19 May 2005).

In early July, Armenian officials told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that Armenia and Azerbaijan have reached agreement on the key points of a formal peace accord ending the Karabakh conflict, and that the agreement could be signed by the end of this year. Days later, the Minsk Group co-chairs likewise expressed cautious optimism. U.S. co-Chairman Steven Mann told journalists in Yerevan on 14 July that "there is a possibility of a Karabakh settlement in the course of this year," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Mann repeated that prognosis the following day, but qualified it, saying that "there are very difficult issues that are still on the table and real gaps between the two sides." Azerbaijani Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov, President Aliyev's special envoy for the Karabakh conflict, was even more upbeat, telling journalists in Baku on 18 July that "we are closer to peace than ever before," according to the website day.az.

Citing the need for confidentiality, the Minsk Group co-chairs have consistently declined to divulge any details of specific issues under discussion. But both Azerbaijani and Armenian officials have gone public in recent months, identifying aspects of the hypothetical peace agreement. In mid-May, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov claimed that Yerevan had agreed to -- and the two sides were already discussing the time frame for -- the withdrawal of Armenian forces from seven districts of Azerbaijan bordering on the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR). The Armenian Foreign Ministry rejected Mammadyarov's claim the following day (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 20 May 2005).

Three weeks later, on 7 June, Mammadyarov told journalists in Baku that the two sides were discussing between seven and nine issues related to a peace settlement, and that those issues have to be addressed in a specific order, with each made secure before the following is added, "like pearls knotted on a silk thread." Mammadyarov said Azerbaijan insists on the liberation of the seven districts currently occupied by Armenian forces, and that the two sides are discussing which countries or organizations could provide peacekeeping forces to be deployed on those territories after their liberation, according to day.az. He also said that "after the frontiers are opened we must revive trade links and transport." Echo-az.com quoted Mammadyarov as saying that the two sides are discussing both the "phased" and the "package" approaches to resolving the conflict. But a senior Armenian Foreign Ministry official told this writer on 8 June on condition of anonymity that the final agreement will be a package one, although its various provisions may be implemented one after the other, rather than simultaneously.

Then, in early July, a senior Armenian official told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that under the anticipated peace deal Armenia would return to Azerbaijani control five of the seven districts adjacent to Karabakh currently occupied by Karabakh Armenian forces, not including the strategic Lachin corridor. A peacekeeping force composed of troops from countries that are not members of the OSCE Minsk Group would be deployed in the conflict zone. Then, after 10-15 years, the population of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic would be required to vote in a referendum on whether the region should become independent, become a part of Armenia, or revert to Azerbaijan. That blueprint is very similar to one proposed last December by former Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio and NATO Parliamentary Assembly President Pierre Lellouche (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 January 2005). But both Azerbaijani Deputy Foreign Minister Azimov and NKR Foreign Minister Arman Melikian promptly denied that the two sides were discussing a possible referendum. Azimov made the point that the constitution of the Azerbaijan Republic does not provide for a referendum to be held only on selected parts of Azerbaijan's territory, or on issues related to the country's territorial integrity.

Since the beginning of August -- when Mammadyarov visited Washington -- the upbeat statements by both the Minsk Group co-chairs and by Azerbaijani and Armenian Foreign Ministry officials have given way to more guarded pronouncements. Commenting on 6 August on Mammadyarov's visit, U.S. Minsk Group co-Chairman Mann said the Karabakh conflict was one of the issues Mammadyarov discussed with his U.S. counterpart Condoleezza Rice, day.az reported. Mann added that despite "certain progress" in the peace talks, the degree of consensus reached to date is not sufficient to sign a peace treaty. In an interview published on 17 August in the online daily zerkalo.az, Mann similarly said that "it is still early to speak of a specific document. It would be a mistake to affirm that we shall sign some document right now." At the same time, he stressed repeatedly that the two sides "have achieved a great deal over the past 18 months," and he predicted that the upcoming Kazan meeting between Kocharian and Aliyev "will give an additional impulse to the talks."

Also on 17 August, Mammadyarov echoed Mann almost word for word, telling day.az that "the negotiations have not yet reached the level of signing a document." Echoing his comments of 7 June, he said that seven to nine issues will be on the agenda during his 24 August meeting with Armenian Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian, and "we shall try to reach agreement on certain elements and inform the presidents, so that they can discuss them in Kazan."

The timing of the Kazan summit -- two months before the 6 November Azerbaijani parliamentary election -- in itself makes it unlikely that the two presidents would sign a formal peace deal that would require a major concession from Baku, in that any such concession could alienate many voters. But Russian Minsk Group co-Chairman Yurii Merzlyakov was quoted on 17 August by day.az as suggesting that the two presidents might issue a joint statement hinting that a formal peace deal is imminent. A 17 August Eurasia Net analysis similarly quoted an unnamed Azerbaijani official as saying that the most that can be hoped for from the Kazan meeting is "a statement by the presidents in which they would order their foreign ministers to start working on the text of a future agreement." Such a joint statement would serve to send the message to Azerbaijan's electorate that peace is finally within reach -- provided they elect a parliament in which Aliyev's Yeni Azerbaycan Party has a comfortable majority. (Liz Fuller)

WHAT IS THE BIGGEST THREAT TO STABILITY IN KABARDINO-BALKARIA? Senior Russian officials and human-rights activists alike have predicted in recent weeks that Kabardino-Balkaria, with a total population of some 800,000, could become the next North Caucasus federation subject to descend into chaos, following Chechnya and Daghestan. Periodic reports in the Russian media of the "neutralization" of individual, or groups of, Islamic militants would seem to substantiate the comparison with Chechnya and Daghestan. But armed Islamic militants are not the only -- and may not even be the most serious -- threat to stability in the Kabardino-Balkarskaya Respublika (KBR). Other contributing factors include tensions between the Kabardians, who constitute some 50 percent of the population, and the Balkars, who account for just 10 percent; widespread official corruption that has concentrated wealth and power in the hands of President Valerii Kokov and his family and close associates; socioeconomic problems, including high unemployment (20 percent average, reaching 70 percent in some mountain villages), and the lack of basic amenities in many mountain districts; spillover from the war in Chechnya, in the form of Chechen displaced persons; and popular resentment at recent redistricting legislation.

This is not to say that radical Islam has not gained in strength in the KBR in recent years. (Both the Kabardians and the Balkars are Sunni Muslims.) The problem, however, lies in assessing the relative strength of, and degree of overlap and interaction between, the Islamic factor and two other key determinants: interethnic rivalry and political alienation fuelled by official corruption and economic stagnation.

The first two waves of destabilization to hit Kabardino-Balkaria in the 1990s resulted from demands by the Balkars for the restoration of the separate Balkar Autonomous Okrug (district) that existed briefly between 1918 and 1922 prior to the formation in January 1922 of the Kabardino-Balkar Autonomous Oblast, which was upgraded in 1936 to an Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR). That ASSR was renamed simply the Kabardian ASSR in the wake of the 1944 deportation to Central Asia on orders from Soviet dictator Josef Stalin of the entire Balkar people, who like the Karachais, to whom they are related, were accused of collaborating with advancing Nazi German forces. Both the Karachais and the Balkars were exonerated in 1956 by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev of the charge of collaborating with Nazi Germany and allowed to return to the North Caucasus the following year. In January 1957, the Kabardian ASSR reverted to its previous title of Kabardino-Balkar ASSR.

In April 1991, the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic's (RSFSR) Supreme Soviet adopted a law on the rehabilitation of oppressed peoples, which many representatives of those ethnic groups construed as heralding the righting of decades-old wrongs. Accordingly, the Balkars formed an unofficial National Congress that launched two successive campaigns, first in November 1991 and the second five years later, to demand a Balkar autonomous region within the Russian Federation. Both campaigns were unsuccessful, and the suppression of the second was accompanied by mass arrests and reprisals (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 3 June 2005).

After several years of comparative calm, the Kremlin's redistricting plans for the North Caucasus republics, which entailed the transfer to Kabardian control of two predominantly Balkar villages, triggered mass protests by Balkars in late May in Nalchik, the republican capital (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 May 2005). But rather than negotiate with the angry villagers, the republic's authorities chose to discuss the issue with Alan, a "public organization" claiming to represent the Balkar people and headed by the former leader of the Balkar National Congress, retired General Supyan Beppaev, according to "Gazeta Yuga" on 28 July, as cited by kavkazweb.net. During that discussion, Alan Executive Committee Chairman Mukhtar Gazaev accused unspecified "forces" of seeking to destabilize the situation on the republic. He presumably had in mind the Balkar villagers who launched the protest two months earlier, and who at that time voted no confidence in Alan, which they perceived as colluding with the KBR leadership, according to adygeanatpress.net on 30 May.

Russian media have devoted less coverage to this summer's Balkar protests, and to the tensions between the KBR's two titular ethnic groups, than to the second potentially destabilizing trend, militant Islam. KBR police claimed to have destroyed most members of one armed Islamic djamaat, Yarmuk, in late January, and to have killed or apprehended members of a second such group in a shoot-out three months later (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 January and 2 May 2005). Since then, a major "antiterrorist" operation has resulted in the arrest of several dozen suspected militants, Interfax-Yug reported on 30 July.

But an in-depth analysis of the situation in the North Caucasus posted by kavkazweb.net on 10 August makes the point that not all Islamic djamaats are the armed fighting units they are portrayed as by local police. Rather, that analysis suggests, they are "rapidly developing parallel power structures" that do not seek to perpetrate terrorist atrocities but "to create a separate social space where Russian social and legal norms no longer obtain": a description reminiscent of Chechnya under its then-President Djokhar Dudaev in the period 1992-94, and under Dudaev's successor Aslan Maskhadov in 1997-99.

The appeal of what is variously dubbed "radical" or "conservative" Islam is fueled by widespread dissatisfaction with socioeconomic conditions in Kabardino-Balkaria, according to a brief comment posted on kavkazweb.net on 4 February. The author, whose name suggests he is Kabardian, suggests that people are turning increasingly to "conservative" Islam as a form of protest as the political opposition is perceived as marginalized and ineffective.

Moreover, the appeal of "conservative" Islam is reportedly particularly strong among the younger generation: Nalchik police chief Beslan Mukozhev was quoted in late June as saying that there are currently 22 Islamic youth groups in the KBR that are not subordinate to the government-backed Muslim Spiritual Board (DUM).

But Igor Tsagoev, a journalist from the North Caucasus, believes that it is not only the younger generation that is attracted to the djamaats. Writing in "The Moscow Times" on 14 April, Tsagoev claimed that "taking advantage of economic crisis, corruption, and the failings of official religious figures, the radicals [in the KBR] are winning over increasing numbers of followers, and not only among the uneducated young. They have already legalized part of their operation in the form of various commercial and apparently even some government organizations. At present, the Wahhabis have already gained enough influence to have a significant impact on the political situation in the republic."

At a roundtable discussion convened on 12 July by the KBR government, a DUM official identified the lack of qualified Muslim clergymen and the neglect to which they are subjected by the republican government as among the main reasons for the drift away from officially sponsored Islam. That official noted that imams are entitled to a monthly stipend of 400 rubles ($14) from the presidential fund, but that this stipend has not been paid since the beginning of the year.

What is not clear is whether radical Islam is being embraced equally by Kabardians and Balkars, or primarily by just one of those ethnic groups. (In the neighboring Karachaevo-Cherkessia Republic, whose ethnic composition is the reverse of that in the KBR, it is the Turkic Karachais, who make up approximately 34 percent of the population, who identify with radical Islam, rather than the minority Cherkess, who account for just 11 percent.) Are alienated Balkars, having given up on the dream of a separate republic, turning increasingly to Islam? Is a predominantly Kabardian police force adducing Islamic extremism as a pretext to target Balkars? Even if police are not doing so now, might they act in that way in future if the "Islamic threat" is perceived (or portrayed in Russian media) as becoming more acute? Alternatively, are the tensions between Kabardians and Balkars totally unrelated to the surge in popularity of "conservative" Islam?

Tsagoev implied in his "The Moscow Times" article that religious radicals are "encouraging nationalist sentiments and interethnic tensions between Russians and non-Russians," a formulation that suggests that some Balkars and Kabardians alike identify themselves as Muslims first and foremost, rather than as representatives of a specific ethnic group.

Whatever the underlying trends may be, some residents of the republic fear that relentless media coverage of the perceived threats to stability in that republic may prove counterproductive, according to kavkazweb.net on 29 July. The website posted a letter from a Nalchik resident who took issue with statements by prominent Russian human-rights activists who visited Nalchik in late July. That writer rejected Moscow Helsinki Group Chairwoman Lyudmila Alekseeva's observation that "the Balkars have accumulated numerous grudges against the authorities resulting from the failure to resolve the problems they encountered after their return from deportation." He claimed that, on the contrary, the Balkars have received far greater privileges than have some other deported and rehabilitated peoples such as the Ingush and the Crimean Tatars. He similarly condemned a prediction by Lev Ponamarev, head of the human-rights group Memorial, that "Kabardino-Balkaria is heading for an explosion and spreading violence." Warning that "you don't extinguish a fire by pouring oil on it," the author of the letter appealed to Russian human-rights activists not to allow themselves to be used by "those who have far-reaching plans that run counter to the interests of the other peoples of the republic and of the state as a whole." (Liz Fuller)

A THREE-WAY STRUGGLE FOR CHECHEN ISLAM. Three Islamic groups in Chechnya are competing for influence over the Muslims of that republic -- the state-controlled and pro-Moscow muftiate, the traditional Sufi tariqats and the radical Islamist djamaats, according to Shamil Beno, a former Chechen foreign minister who now works as an political analyst and activist in Moscow. And because mosques are "the only social institution that is functioning more or less normally in that republic," Beno argues in an interview in the 10 August issue of "Nezavisimaya gazeta -- Religii," the outcome of their competition will play a major role in defining Chechnya's future (http://www.religion.ng.ru/politic/2005-08-10/3_muftiy.html).

Moreover, he emphasizes, as have many others, in any political conflict, people in Chechnya and its adjoining regions inevitably use Islamic slogans to advance their cause, something that makes it critically important to know where they derive these slogans from and what the precise connotations of each of the terms they use are.

The official muftiate, according to Beno, currently an analyst at the Foundation for the Support of Democracy, has very little influence with the population because most Chechens view it as an agency of the pro-Moscow government. Indeed, he says, the muftiate is "the weakest link in this chain." That is especially true because the leaders of the muftiate are not selected by genuine elections but rather imposed by the government authorities, something that contributes to the deep divide that now exists in Chechnya between society, on the one hand, and the people in power, on the other.

Sufi tariqats, another faction involved in this competition, continue to exercise an independent influence over believers, not only because of the traditional authority of tariqat leaders at the village level but also because they currently refuse to have anything to do with the muftiate and its appointees. As a result, Beno says, it is now -- as has been the case for most of the last century -- "only the leaders of the tariqats" who are in a position to adequately express "the pubic opinion of Muslims" in Chechnya. But their status, influence, and power is being challenged by the third group, the so-called radical djamaats.

In Arabic, the term "djamaat" means nothing more than "community of believers" and can be applied widely. But in the last decade, it has come to designate in Chechnya and elsewhere in the northern Caucasus only those Muslim groups who reject the traditional muftiate and tariqat-based Islam in favor of a radical fundamentalism. That would seem to put these two groups at loggerheads to a degree almost as great as the conflict that exists between each of them and the official muftiate, Beno continues, but in fact, he says, "the incompetence" of government officials in seeking to manage the affairs of the muftiate has driven the tariqat and djamaat leaders together.

Indeed, at the present time, Beno says, the two of them are "gradually consolidating" into a single anti-muftiate movement, one in which the social standing of the tariqats and the radicalism of the djamaats are converging to form an ever more explosive challenge to the mufti and to his government backers.

Obviously, the government must seek to resolve the problem of radicalism, Beno says, but it will fail to do so if it continues as it has up to now. Its approach reflects the continuing impact of "the principles of totalitarianism" and a failure to understand the importance for Chechens of personally selecting their leaders through either a formal or informal process. But because the pro-Moscow officials and their appointees in the official Islamic establishment do not understand that reality, Beno argues, they are undermining their own position and ensuring that the situation will only deteriorate further, as Moscow's opponents gain in strength.

Beno concludes with the following alarming prophecy. "I consider," he says, "that the radicalization of Islam in the Northern Caucasus will gradually reach a critical level. And that in its turn can lead to the beginning of a new war, the consequences of which will be unpredictable both for the North Caucasus and for the country as a whole." (Paul Goble)

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK. "It is fair to say that since the [November 2003] Rose Revolution, our government has had its ups and downs." -- Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, in a commentary published in "The Wall Street Journal Europe" on 19 August.

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