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Caucasus Report: October 17, 2005

17 October 2005, Volume 8, Number 36

NALCHIK: TACTICAL DEFEAT, OR A SWITCH IN TACTICS? Although many details of the 13 October multiple attacks in Nalchik, capital of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic, remain unclear, and estimates of the number of militants who participated, and of those captured or killed, diverge significantly, the militants do not appear to have scored a military victory in the classic sense of the word. While they succeeded in sowing chaos and terror, the losses they inflicted may prove to be numerically smaller than in any single large-scale punitive action undertaken by the Chechen resistance since 1995.

The decision to launch a near simultaneous attack on multiple targets (20, according to the Institute of War and Peace Reporting, including the Federal Security Service, the antiterrorism unit, the Interior Ministry's central offices, the penal institutions directorate, three police stations, the city airport, and a gun shop) is reminiscent of the attacks on Nazran and other towns in Ingushetia during the night of 21-22 June 2004, in which up to 80 police and security personnel were killed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 and 23 June 2004).

But on that occasion the attackers -- identified as young Chechen and Ingush fighters under the command of radical Chechen field commander Shamil Basaev -- inflicted far more casualties than they sustained. In Nalchik, by contrast, the assailants, whose numbered have been variously estimated at between "several dozen" and 500, lost between 50-70 men killed and up to 30 captured, but according to official Russian data killed only 24 Russian police and security organs personnel. Twelve civilians were killed, and some 120 hospitalized with injuries: it is not known how many, if any of those may have been caught in crossfire or hit by mistake by Russian bullets.

If accurate, that ratio of casualties sustained to enemy killed suggests that the Nalchik attackers were less experienced, less well-trained and possibly less expertly commanded than the fighters who attacked Nazran last year. Eyewitnesses quoted by the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) noted that some of them were wearing civilian clothes rather than the camouflage uniforms favored by the Chechen resistance. Wearing civilian clothes would, of course, make it easier for the militants to assemble in an urban area without attracting undue attention, given that the Nalchik raids were perpetrated in broad daylight while the Ingush raids were carried out at night.

Chechen accounts of the Nalchik operation, predictably, claimed it was a military success. In a statement posted on 14 October on the website, Chechen Deputy Prime Minister Akhmed Zakaev termed the assault the first victory of a "new campaign" by the Caucasus Front established in May by Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev, the successor to slain Chechen President and resistance leader Aslan Maskhadov.

A companion statement gave a considerably lower number of casualties among the militants than have Russian officials, claiming that as of 7:30 p.m. local time on 13 October 11 fighters had been killed and four others were missing. That statement claimed that the attackers killed between 140-160 "infidels," wounded a further 150, and took over 100 police prisoner while seizing quantities of weaponry.

But the relevance of the Nalchik raids may be totally unrelated to the number of casualties inflicted or sustained. Attacking in broad daylight suggests that the primary aim of the operation was to terrorize the local population -- which the attackers indubitably succeeded in doing. Zakaev's comment implies that the Chechen resistance and its allies across the North Caucasus are preparing to launch similar attacks in other Russian cities, in line with Sadulayev's threat to bring the war to all those Russians who fail to register publicly their rejection of Moscow's "genocide" of the Chechen people. (Liz Fuller)

ARMENIAN DEFENSE MINISTER TAKES ISSUE WITH BRITISH DIPLOMAT... Serzh Sarkisian took issue on 7 October with a hypothesis expressed the previous day at a NATO-organized seminar in Yerevan by Sir Brian Fall, who is the British special representative for the South Caucasus, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Fall suggested that the Armenian government's continued willingness to host a Russian military base is due to fears of renewed aggression from Azerbaijan, and he asked rhetorically whether Armenia would want a "substantial Russian military presence on its territory" even after the Karabakh conflict is resolved. Fall also suggested that the Russians themselves might feel that their continued presence in Armenia was no longer needed once a Karabakh peace had been signed.

Sarkisian responded on 7 October that the Russian military presence has "nothing to do with the Karabakh problem and our relations with Azerbaijan in general." He said those troops constitute "an integral part" of Armenia's security and "could be useful" in light of the hypothetical threat from Turkey, which, Sarkisian continued, "has until now pursued a hostile policy toward us." But he conceded the possibility of improved ties with Turkey, adding "As for what [Turkey's] policy will be in the future, let us wait and see."

Speaking at a press conference in Yerevan on 11 October, Sarkisian was dismissive of Azerbaijani plans to double military spending. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said on 17 September that Azerbaijan's defense spending amounted to $175 million in 2004, increased to $300 million in 2005, and will reach $600 million in 2006, Turan reported. Armenia's planned budget for 2006 envisages for the first time expenditure in excess of $1 billion, of which $166 million is earmarked for the military, a 21 percent increase over 2005 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 September 2005). Sarkisian suggested that the Azerbaijani authorities are simply "drunk" and "dizzy" with petro-dollars, and questioned the ability of the country's top brass to use those funds efficiently, Noyan Tapan reported. (Liz Fuller and Karine Kalantarian)

...ON EVE OF U.S. VISIT. Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian will leave for the United States on 23 October on a five-day official visit that will underline Armenia's growing military ties with America. Sarkisian is scheduled to meet with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and visit the U.S. military's Central Command in Florida. His itinerary also includes a visit to Kansas. The Kansas National Guard has established direct contacts with Armenia's armed forces as part of U.S.-Armenian military cooperation.

"We will discuss ways of deepening bilateral cooperation," Sarkisian said on 11 October. Sarkisian told reporters that the political situation in Armenia will not be on the agenda of his talks in Washington. "I rule out any discussion of internal political issues there," he said. "I'm not used to discussing our domestic political issues in any foreign country. That would be kind of humiliating."

The visit will come less than a month after the latest annual "defense consultations" that were held in Yerevan by senior U.S. and Armenian military officials. The Pentagon delegation was led by Scott Schless, the Eurasia director at Rumsfeld's office. The two sides reportedly agreed on a plan of joint defense-related activities for next year. They also discussed continuing U.S. military assistance to Armenia, which has totaled over $20 million since 2002. The assistance is being mostly used for upgrading the communication facilities of the Armenian armed forces as well as training Armenian military personnel in the United States. Washington's ambassador in Yerevan, John Evans, was reported after the talks to hail the "broadening and deepening" of the bilateral defense relationship.

Sarkisian's trip will highlight Armenia's efforts to "complement" its military alliance with Russia with closer defense cooperation with NATO and the United States in particular. In a speech on 7 October, Sarkisian said that cooperation is now among "the guarantees of ensuring Armenia's security."

The Armenian defense chief, widely seen as President Robert Kocharian's most likely successor, was interviewed by journalists after decorating some members of an Armenian Army platoon that performed noncombat tasks in Iraq for six months this year. Addressing the unit, he thanked the servicemen for "keeping high the prestige of the Armenian armed forces." He also defended Armenia's continuing participation of the U.S.-led occupation force there.

Armenian-American lobbyists say Yerevan's highly unpopular decision to send the small contingent to Iraq in January helped to neutralize senior Pentagon officials who question the wisdom of helping the Armenian military. The U.S. military aid is expected to amount to at least $5.75 million in the fiscal year 2006. (Ruzanna Stepanian)

ABKHAZ OPPOSITION APPEALS TO RUSSIA FOR INDEPENDENCE RECOGNITION. Deputies to the founding congress of the opposition Forum of People's Unity of Abkhazia (FNEA), which took place in Sukhum on 7 October, issued two statements that, taken together, could be construed as a warning or even a challenge to the Abkhaz leadership that came to power in January as a result of Sergei Bagapsh's victory in a repeat presidential election.

The first statement noted that the tensions generated by the struggle for power between Bagapsh and his main rival Raul Khadjimba (Moscow's preferred candidate) have not yet dissipated, but gave credit to Bagapsh's team for amending its domestic, economic, and foreign policies in response to criticism from the FNEA. The second called on Russian President Vladimir Putin and the international community as a whole to recognize the Republic of Abkhazia as an independent state, adding that the FNEA supports the prospect of Abkhazia becoming an "associate subject" of the Russian Federation.

The FNEA was founded in early February as an umbrella organization grouping together 12 opposition parties and groups, including the Apsny party of former President Vladislav Ardzinba, the Social Democratic Party of Abkhazia chaired by Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba, and the Abkhaz chapter of Vladimir Zhirinovskii's Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 11 February 2005). It immediately announced that it would support Bagapsh's administration "to the extent that it serves the interests of the Abkhaz people."

And within months, it publicly criticized government initiatives that it considered run counter to those interests. In mid-July, the FNEA issued a statement denouncing the new government's privatization plans and its imputed willingness to allow Georgian displaced persons who fled Abkhazia during the 1992-93 war to return to their former homes -- many of which have since been taken over by Abkhaz families. It called for legislation to bar returning Georgians from reclaiming their former houses or apartments. It also slammed purported plans by the Abkhaz government to invite Russian oil companies to prospect for oil in Abkhazia on the grounds that such development would negatively impact on the tourist industry, which is Abkhazia's largest single source of revenues.

The government responded, deploring the tone of the FNEA criticism, but it apparently did not address the criticism of its privatization plans. It stressed that the repatriation of Georgian displaced persons takes place in accordance with international agreements the previous Abkhaz leadership signed, and challenged the FNEA to list specific cases in which Georgian repatriates have obviated the requirements stipulated in those agreements. In that context, Bagapsh ordered police to question FNEA members to determine whether they were engaging in "political speculation," according to on 19 July.

The government response denied the existence of concrete plans to prospect for oil, while reaffirming the government's right to "hold consultations" on the possibility of doing so. (In a rare public statement to the media, former President Ardzinba too warned against drilling for oil either on- or offshore, on the grounds that doing so would inflict irreversible damage on Abkhazia's unique tourist potential, Caucasus Press reported on 18 August.) Finally, the response affirmed the Abkhaz government's readiness for constructive dialogue with all opposition forces.

The estimated 500 delegates to last week's FNEA founding congress (they included Vice President Khadjimba, parliament speaker Nugzar Ashuba, and Deputy Prime Minister Leonid Lakerbaya) noted that in the nine months since its inception, the FNEA has evolved from a political bloc to a full-fledged political movement with chapters in all six of Abkhazia's districts. They listed as the forum's main objectives defending the right of the Abkhaz people to self-determination and independent statehood; creating the conditions for implementing political, economic and social reform; and establishing close ties with Russia. They also elected a political council and three co-chairmen: Avtandil Gartskia, Vitalii Gabunia, and Daur Arshba. Ardzinba's former aide Astamur Tania was elected FNEA executive secretary, according to on 8 October.

Noting with approval that the government has taken its previous criticisms into consideration, the FNEA reaffirmed its readiness for cooperation and dialogue. At the same time it implicitly claimed a greater political role, proposing the establishment of formal mechanisms for dialogue, including live TV debates, according to on 8 October. The Abkhaz authorities have not yet commented on those proposals.

If one reads between the lines, however, the two appeals adopted at the FNEA congress could be interpreted as conveying a very different message to Bagapsh's administration, namely: we've forced you to make concessions before, and we can do so again if we want. And, the Russian leadership is watching and waiting, ready to intervene if you go too far in making concessions to Tbilisi. If you do prove too conciliatory, Moscow is ready to engineer your overthrow and install us in your place, especially as we have demonstrated our loyalty by signaling our willingness to accept associate membership of the Russian Federation as an alternative to full-fledged independence.

If, under international and UN pressure, Bagapsh did agree to concessions to Georgia that Russia considered unpalatable, securing his replacement by representatives of the opposition grouped under the FNEA umbrella could serve Moscow's interests in the short and medium term. Whether it would benefit the people of Abkhazia in the long term, however, is another question.

In an analysis published in "Ekho Abkhazii," No. 35, in August of this year, historian Guram Gumba identified three parallel trends that he considers pose a danger to Abkhaz' collective aspirations to independent statehood. They are the fragmentation of the political spectrum; the ongoing rapprochement with Russia; and the concomitant erosion of the cultural component of national identity.

Gumba complained that "we still do not have a political elite that is capable of thinking in the categories of an independent state. Instead, we have an administrative elite with a deficit of national consciousness and which personifies narrow group and clan economic and financial interests."

He went on to argue that in the wake of last year's bitterly contested and divisive presidential ballot, "our society is divided not into two [conflicting] sides, but as before into dozens of groupings and clans." During the presidential election campaign, Gumba explained, those multiple groupings coalesced into two larger groups, on two levels: micro-groups from within the administrative elite that sought to defend not political but their own personal financial interests, and individuals who enjoyed broader social support.

Gumba suggested that the new leadership wants to promote societal consolidation, but is setting about doing so by attempting to win over the first group by brokering compromises between the various micro-groups, rather than by reaching out to the second category of influential individuals.

The narrow obsession with protecting personal and group financial interests to the detriment of broader national interests could, Gumba warned, ultimately destroy Abkhazia's chances of winning international recognition as an independent sovereign state. In that context, he quoted Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava's recent prediction that "one day you [Abkhaz] could wake up and find yourselves in Krasnodar Krai," meaning without even the status of a separate subject of the Russian Federation -- a fate to which, Gumba suggested, many Abkhaz would not object. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK. "Freedom of speech should not turn into freedom of misinformation." -- Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev, quoted by Interfax on 13 October.