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Caucasus Report: July 15, 2004

15 July 2004, Volume 7, Number 28

SOUTH OSSETIA BETWEEN WAR AND DEMILITARIZATION. Having exchanged fire on 9-10 July and incurred casualties on both sides, Georgia and its breakaway Republic of South Ossetia have retreated from the threshold of an all-out conflict, agreeing during talks on 11 July in the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali to "cease shooting and other provocative actions." And at a meeting in Moscow on 14 July of the Joint Control Commission tasked with monitoring the situation in the conflict zone, both Georgian and Russian representatives tentatively agreed on the need to demilitarize the entire region. On 15 July, however, South Ossetian officials alleged that Georgia had sent an additional 200- 800 Interior Ministry troops into South Ossetia -- a claim that Georgian government officials dismissed as disinformation. But even if Georgia observes the informal ceasefire, the open contempt with which senior Georgian officials now refer to the South Ossetian leadership suggests that the former still expect the international community to step in and pressure Moscow either to abandon its support for the South Ossetians, or to persuade them to capitulate.

Georgian National Security Council Secretary Gela Bezhuashvili and Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava both told journalists on 14 July after the Joint Control Commission meeting that Georgia will insist on the total demilitarization of South Ossetia, ITAR-TASS reported. Interfax quoted Bezhuashvili as referring to the region as "an enclave of bandit groups, stuffed with weaponry" which, he added, poses a threat to Russia as well as to Georgia. He said the heavy armor currently deployed in South Ossetia should be put in storage and then scrapped.

First Deputy Foreign Minister Valerii Loshchinin, who represented Russia at the meeting, voiced support for the proposed demilitarization, but made clear that it must apply equally to South Ossetian and Georgian illegal armed groups, ITAR-TASS reported. South Ossetian officials alleged last week that Tbilisi has deployed to South Ossetia members of the guerrilla organizations that previously operated in southern Abkhazia. Tbilisi has countered by accusing the leadership of the breakaway Republic of Abkhazia of sending fighters to reinforce the South Ossetian army. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov claimed on 11 July that Georgia has up to 3,000 armed men in South Ossetia, rather than the 500 peacekeepers it is formally entitled to deploy there (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 July 2004). Loshchinin added that Moscow agreed to a Georgian proposal that inspections be conducted in the conflict zone, possibly on a permanent basis, to preclude the renewed penetration of illegal armed groups, Interfax reported.

Meanwhile, the Georgian leadership is continuing to solicit international pressure on Russia to induce the South Ossetian leadership to accept autonomous status for the unrecognized republic within Georgia. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said in London on 14 July that if the West exerts a "positive influence" on Russia, the crisis in relations with South Ossetia could be resolved within six months. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stressed on 15 July that the standoff in South Ossetia is not, as Georgian politicians claim, one between Tbilisi and Moscow but between the central Georgian government and the leadership of the would-be breakaway republic.

At the same time, Tbilisi has apparently not yet given up hope that the population of South Ossetia might be induced to turn against its leaders the way that the population of Adjara did. On 9 June, for example, the Georgian daily "Mtavari gazeti" claimed that South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity has alienated many people by firing any officials he suspected of being amenable to an accommodation with Tbilisi. Similarly on 29 June Interfax quoted Georgian Deputy State Security Minister Givi Ugulava as claiming that "political groups are being created in Tskhinvali who think that the Georgian and Ossetian peoples are bound to live together in a unified state." He predicted that it is "only a matter of time" before the antagonism of other Ossetians towards Georgia is overcome.

Georgian Interior Minister Irakli Okruashvili told journalists on 14 July that he made a clandestine visit to South Ossetia where he met with the population of several predominantly Georgian villages. He said the mood of the local people "is good." Also on 14 July, a spokeswoman for the government of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia told Interfax that two busloads of activists from the Georgian youth organization Kmara! (Enough!) arrived in the Georgian-populated village of Eregvi planning to "stage rallies that may lead to a further complication of the situation." Kmara! is the group that spearheaded the protests in Tbilisi last summer and fall that mushroomed into demands for the resignation of then-President Eduard Shevardnadze.

It is, however, questionable how many of South Ossetia's estimated 70,000 Ossetians, almost all of whom have acquired Russian passports, would welcome a return to Georgian hegemony. (Georgians, by contrast, reportedly account for just 20,000 of the unrecognized republic's population.)

Moreover, it is not clear whether the "demilitarization" discussed at the 14 July Joint Control Commission session would entail the withdrawal of the tripartite peacekeeping force that has been deployed in the conflict zone for the past 12 years. Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Loshchinin argued that "everyone acknowledges" the role that force has played in preventing a recurrence of hostilities, ITAR-TASS and Interfax reported. But the continued presence of the peacekeepers, especially if, as the Georgians have proposed, they are deployed throughout the republic, would preserve the potential for incidents such as those last week that triggered the most recent crisis: the interception by Georgian Interior Ministry troops of a Russian convoy, and the seizure by Ossetians of several dozen Georgian peacekeepers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 and 8 July 2004). (Liz Fuller)

WHO IS MOSCOW'S MAIN ADVERSARY IN CHECHNYA? Two years ago, in the summer of 2002, former Russian Security Council Secretary Ivan Rybkin embarked upon an attempt to mediate between the Russian leadership and Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov in the hope of ending a long-running conflict that Rybkin argued could inflict serious long-term damage on the fabric of Russian society (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 June 2002 and "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 13 September 2002). That mediation effort was, however, effectively demolished by the hostage-taking by Chechen militants at a Moscow theater in late October 2002 that ended with the death of almost all the hostage-takers and many of their victims.

Since late 2002, Russian officials have consistently ruled out any talks with Chechen "bandits and terrorists." In addition, they have routinely blamed all major terrorist attacks, whether aimed at Russian federal forces or members of the pro-Russian Chechen administration or both, on fighters loyal to Maskhadov and radical field commander Shamil Basaev, thereby implying that the two men coordinate and plan joint military operations. Basaev, however, absolved Maskhadov from any role in the Moscow theater hostage-taking, after which he quit as chairman of the State Defense Committee (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 October 2003).

Moreover, Maskhadov has repeatedly underscored his rejection of Basaev's tactics, stressing that he considers it unacceptable either to target civilians or to extend military operations from the territory of Chechnya to other regions of the Russian Federation. Asked by RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service in May 2003 whether the persons responsible for recent suicide bombings in Chechnya operated under his command, Maskhadov responded "the people under my control are Chechen mujahedin resisting Russian federal forces. I have never given orders to blow up buildings or to kill innocent people." Also in May 2003, Maskhadov ordered all field commanders subordinate to him to abide strictly by the Geneva Conventions and to avoid using weapons against Chechen citizens unless their own lives are in danger (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 June 2003).

Basaev, by contrast, claimed responsibility for a suicide truck-bombing in December 2002 that virtually demolished the government building in Grozny, killing over 70 people (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 February 2003). And Ingush who spoke to the young militants who staged the 21-22 June raids on Interior Ministry targets across Ingushetia said that some of those young men identified Basaev as having masterminded those attacks, according to on 22 June.

Chechen Interior Minister Major General Alu Alkhanov, widely regarded as the Kremlin's chosen candidate in the 29 August ballot to elect a successor to slain pro-Moscow leader Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, nonetheless blamed both Basaev and Maskhadov for the Ingush raids (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 June 2004). Maskhadov's announcement in an interview to RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service in mid-June of an imminent switch of tactics from "acts of sabotage" to "big attacks" was inevitably construed as a veiled reference to the Ingush raids. But "Novye izvestiya" on 23 June quoted Maskhadov's envoy Akhmed Zakaev as having told Ekho Moskvy the previous day that Maskhadov played no part in the Ingush operation.

Russian journalists have since pointed out that the Ingush raid only serves to underscore that Basaev and Maskhadov are now acting independently of each other. And even more important, as Anna Politkovskaya noted in "Novaya gazeta" on 24 June, it is Basaev, the more radical of the two, who is attracting a new younger generation of militants to fight under him. In a classic case of life imitating fiction, those young men are the real-life counterparts of the young Ingush "murids" (neophyte Muslim warriors) portrayed a decade ago by John Le Carre in "Our Game."

The Federal Security Service (FSB) too appears to have reached the conclusion that it is Basaev who at this juncture poses the more serious threat to Russian interests. "Rodnaya gazeta" on 9 July reported that the FSB has construed Basaev's statement screened on 2 July by Al-Jazeera (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 July 2004) as heralding either a major terrorist operation by his men in southern Russia, possibly targeting the nuclear power plant near Rostov-na-Donu, or an attempt to seize the Russian State Duma or the Prosecutor-General's Office in Moscow. (The Duma spring session formally ended on 10 July, but special sessions are scheduled for 31 July and 3 August.)

Meanwhile "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 13 July reported that leaflets were distributed last weekend at Grozny's central market warning residents to leave the city immediately as "active hostilities" are imminent.

The fact that Basaev has proven himself more ruthless than Maskhadov (in terms of his disregard for civilian casualties and his willingness to inflict major damage on enemy targets outside Chechnya) is only likely to fuel the arguments of those Russian officials who, for whatever reasons, choose to insist that there is no point in opening peace talks with Maskhadov. But their refusal to do so may mean that in three or five years time when Basaev's murids have inflicted major damage, there is no longer anyone left to negotiate with. (Liz Fuller)