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Caucasus Report: March 22, 2003


22 March 2003, Volume 6, Number 12

PUTIN WARNS CHECHENS THEIR FUTURE IS IN THEIR OWN HANDS. In a televised address to the Chechen people on 16 March, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke in unprecedentedly sympathetic terms of the suffering the Chechens have endured, first during the "unjust" 1944 deportation to Central Asia, and again during the "tragedy" of recent years which, Putin acknowledged, "has not spared a single family."

But, at the same time, he argued that it is now up to the Chechens themselves to determine whether they prefer a peaceful and prosperous future to the continuation of "hostilities." (Putin did not, in this address, use the term "antiterrorist operation.")

The key to peace, Putin told his audience, lies in approving the draft Chechen Constitution and election legislation in the 23 March referendum. "I am convinced that the constitution is the basis for a political settlement in Chechnya. Its adoption will make it possible to elect truly democratic authorities that function with the people's trust," Putin declared. He went on to assure his audience of the Russian government's commitment to restoring Chechnya's economy, putting an end to reprisals and human rights violations -- including nocturnal detentions and the extortion of bribes by military personnel manning checkpoints -- and to create conditions in which "people in Chechnya, like those elsewhere in Russia, have the opportunity to live, relax, receive medical attention, and bring up their children normally." But he concluded his address by implying again that the Russian authorities will be in a position to deliver on those promises only in the event that the Chechens vote in the 23 March referendum for constitutional order. "The future of your children and grandchildren, the future of the Chechen land itself is in your hands," Putin said.

What the "Neue Zuercher Zeitung" referred to as Putin's Chechen "charm offensive" has, moreover, been bolstered by the offer of other concessions intended to convince the electorate of Moscow's preference for the constitutional, rather than the military, approach to restoring "order" in Chechnya. Those proposals include a power-sharing treaty with Moscow that would grant Chechnya broad "economic autonomy," a reduction in the number of military checkpoints, and financial compensation for those Chechens whose homes were destroyed during the fighting. In addition, Kremlin officials have hinted they will not reject out of hand proposals by Chechen clergymen and parliament deputies to grant an amnesty to all Chechen fighters, with the exception of those suspected of abductions for ransom or terrorist activities.

Some Chechens, including some deputies to the parliament elected in 1997, indeed believe that at this juncture the referendum constitutes the most acceptable, if not the only, alternative to what Putin referred to as ongoing "devastation." Others, however, doubt whether the adoption of a new constitution can effect any positive changes. Some may refuse to vote to protest ongoing human rights abuses. German journalist Tomas Avenarius, who recently visited Grozny, quoted Chechen officials and human rights activists as saying that since last October's hostage taking by Chechen militants at a Moscow theater, there has been a massive increase in the nocturnal abductions by Russian forces of Chechen civilians, few of whom are ever seen again alive. Avenarius quoted the head of the local election commission in Staraya Sunzha, on the outskirts of Grozny, as predicting that "if people continue disappearing almost every night, our village will boycott the referendum." In some villages, feelings are running even higher: the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" on 7 March reported that leaflets were being distributed urging people not to vote, and that local election staff had received death threats.

And among those Chechens who do not reject the referendum on principle, there is considerable confusion over precisely what sort of relations the new constitution provides for between Chechnya and the federal center. The "Moscow Times" on 18 March quoted several Chechen displaced persons in Ingushetia, all of whom confessed that they are puzzled by seemingly contradictory articles of the draft constitution affirming that, on the one hand, Chechnya is a sovereign entity, and on the other, that it is an inalienable part of the Russian Federation.

Officials in both Moscow and Grozny are anxious to dispel any suspicions that the outcome of the 23 March voting will be adjusted to yield the desired result -- a high turnout and an overwhelming vote in favor of both the draft constitution and the new election legislation. Strict security measures have been introduced, with all polling stations under guard to prevent the theft of ballot papers; and some 5,000 police will be deployed to preserve order. Two polling stations will be set up at camps in Ingushetia for displaced Chechen to enable the inmates to cast their ballots.

Cynics might ask why Moscow considers it necessary to go to so much trouble, given that no more than 40 international observers (mostly from the OSCE and the Organization of the Islamic Conference) will be deployed to monitor the vote at 414 polling stations. The answer to that question hinges on what Moscow hopes to achieve by the referendum and whose opinion and support it most values. "Argumenty i fakty" has suggested that the Russian leadership's primary objective is to demolish Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov's legitimacy by electing a new Chechen leader. That ballot is to be held in December concurrently with the Russian State Duma elections.

The same publication also identifies three groups which, it suggests, are vying for control of Chechnya. They are the present pro-Moscow leadership headed by Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov; the various armed opposition groupings of which some, but not necessarily all, are subordinate to Maskhadov; and the "moderate opposition," which unites various influential figures and factions in the Chechen diaspora who, "Argumenty i fakty" suggests, are currently sitting on the fence and waiting to see how the armed conflict between the Russian armed forces and the Chechen resistance ends.

While Putin's 16 March address was clearly intended to win over the hearts and minds of the Chechen electorate, it is conceivable that other aspects of the public relations campaign undertaken in connection with the referendum are intended at least in part to send the message to that third group that no questions could be raised about their legitimacy, should they come out on the side of the Kremlin and field candidates in the elections for a new president and parliament. But assuming that the so-called moderates do seek, with or without the Kremlin's support, to replace the Kadyrov leadership, "Argumenty i fakty" notes that there is no guarantee that they will be able to put aside personal rivalries and form an election alliance or that, once in power, they do not split into warring factions -- just as Maskhadov's government disintegrated in 1998. (Liz Fuller)

NEW DETAILS OF ALLEGED 1995 AZERBAIJANI 'COUP' REVEALED. Last week marked the eighth anniversary of the standoff involving Azerbaijan's Interior Ministry special forces (OPON) that culminated in the death of many OPON officers and the sentencing of survivors on charges of seeking to overthrow the Azerbaijani leadership. Speaking at a Baku press conference, Famil Suleymanov, who heads an unofficial committee to defend the rights of the 57 OPON personnel still in prison, revealed details that shed new light on the personal rivalries behind the standoff and substantiate suspicions that the "coup" allegations were without any foundation, zerkalo.az reported on 15 March.

Suleymanov told journalists that two months before the standoff, the unit had been required to surrender all its heavy weaponry, and that in mid-March 1995 its personnel were therefore armed only with automatic pistols. The standoff began on 15 March, when Mahir Djavadov, brother of OPON commander Rovshan Djavadov, demanded the resignation of parliament speaker Rasul Guliev. But contrary to media reports at the time, Djavadov did not demand that President Heidar Aliyev also resign, Suleymanov said. Suleymanov further revealed that during the night of 16-17 March, all but 53 members of the unit's 500 members complied with an order relayed to Rovshan Djavadov by the presidential administration to surrender their weapons and returned to their homes.

In the early morning of 17 March, however, army troops surrounded the OPON base and subjected it to artillery fire, killing three OPON members. According to Suleymanov, Rovshan Djavadov telephoned Aliyev and asked him to order a cease-fire, but without success. At around 9 a.m. on 17 March, the Djavadov brothers left the base with several supporters, but Rovshan Djavadov was gunned down almost immediately. (In an interview with the Iranian newspaper "Resalat" on 1 March 1999, Mahir Djavadov said his brother was gunned down even though he was carrying a white flag to show his intention to surrender. Mahir Djavadov said that then Turkish ambassador to Baku Altin Karamanoglu -- who was recalled to Ankara immediately afterwards -- can testify to that fact.) The OPON members remaining at the base then surrendered, after which they were arrested and tried on charges of planning a coup.

Suleymanov pointed out that those charges were unconvincing insofar as "you cannot stage a coup with only 53 people." He blamed the reprisals against the OPON members on Guliev, suggesting that the entire episode, many aspects of which he said remain unclear, derived from the animosity between Guliev and Mahir Djavadov. He denied that any political parties played a role in the standoff.

Mahir Djavadov fled in 1995 to Austria, where he was granted political asylum, but in December 1998 he settled in Iran, where he claims many former OPON members have joined him. The Azerbaijani authorities have repeatedly demanded his extradition, without success. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "A generation has grown up in Chechnya...that believes that it is possible to speak to Russians only when holding a gun." -- Russian State Duma speaker Gennadii Seleznev (quoted by Interfax on 18 March).

"The people will make [Azerbaijani President Heidar] Aliyev resign this year as they can no longer tolerate his dictatorship." -- Azerbaijan National Independence Party Chairman Etibar Mamedov, addressing an opposition demonstration in Baku on 16 March (quoted by Reuters).

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