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Caucasus Report: March 31, 2003

31 March 2003, Volume 6, Number 13

AFTER THE CHECHEN REFERENDUM -- WHAT NEXT? Even Russian President Vladimir Putin admitted on 24 March that the reported high turnout in the previous day's Chechen referendum "surpassed our most optimistic expectations." Chechnya's deputy to the Russian State Duma, retired policeman General Aslanbek Aslakhanov, said on 25 March that the turnout "was amazing." Yet although the immediate reaction in Moscow may have been a collective huge sigh of relief, the Russian leadership is already planning additional measures to stabilize the political situation in Chechnya and improve living conditions before Chechens' hopes for peace and a better life evaporate.

Addressing a cabinet session on 24 March, Putin instructed ministers to speed up work connected with reconstruction in Chechnya. Then at a meeting in Moscow on 27 March with Chechen administration head and acting President Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, Putin listed what he considers the three most important priorities for Chechnya in the wake of the referendum: embarking on drafting a power-sharing treaty between the federal authorities and Chechnya; drafting a law on an amnesty for Chechen fighters who wish to return to civilian life; and preparing to hold presidential elections.

Work on drafting a special power-sharing treaty between the federal center and Chechnya will begin immediately, but that accord will be signed only by the next elected Chechen president, according to "Izvestiya" on 25 March. Kadyrov has said on several occasions that he envisages that accord as providing not so much political as broad economic autonomy. Kadyrov told ITAR-TASS on 24 March that the Chechen administration and government has already created a special commission that is drafting proposals on tax breaks, customs regulations, and the distribution of revenues from Chechen oil. (Kadyrov's hopes of gaining control over Chechnya's oil revenues were dashed two years ago when the controlling stake in the state oil company Grozneftegaz was given to Rosneft, rather than the Chechen administration -- see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 2 February 2001).

Popov, too, suggested that the power-sharing agreement may give Chechnya its own customs service, as "the customs service represents a substantial source of revenue." He also said there "will probably be some privileges" introduced for persons willing to invest in Chechnya's economy.

Meanwhile, the Justice Ministry is already considering the implications and logistics of the proposal by Chechen clergymen, cautiously welcomed by Russian presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembskii, to declare an amnesty for which all Chechen fighters would be eligible, except for some 100 who have committed terrorist acts and other major crimes. Power to declare such an amnesty lies with the State Duma.

Deputy Justice Minister Yevgenii Sidorenko told Interfax on 25 March he sees "no insurmountable political or legal obstacles" to an amnesty for Chechen fighters and Russian servicemen who have committed only "minor crimes." Deputy Prosecutor-General Sergei Fridinskii similarly told Interfax on 26 March that "there can be no 'wholesale' amnesty." He too argued that only those Chechen fighters who have committed minor crimes should qualify. Yastrzhembskii, however, suggested that the amnesty to should extend to all but some 100 or so Chechen fighters incriminated in abductions or terrorist acts.

State Duma Legal Affairs Committee Chairman and former Russian Justice Minister Pavel Krasheninnikov told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" that his committee is ready to draft a resolution on the amnesty and the criteria for eligibility, which could be done by next month. But at the same time, Krasheninnikov recalled that an earlier amnesty announced by the State Duma in November 1999 induced only 500 Chechen fighters to surrender and give up their arms, even though the deadline for doing so was extended by three months (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 May 2000).

The timing of elections for a new Chechen parliament and president remains unclear, however. The parliament cannot be elected until a minimum of three months has elapsed after the adoption of the constitution; in the case of the president, a minimum of six months must elapse. Even before the referendum, Kadyrov had suggested that the presidential ballot should be held concurrently with the Russian State Duma elections scheduled for 11 December, an option which Russian Central Election Commission Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov also advocated on 24 March. But on 28 March, Kadyrov said in Grozny that a decision on the presidential election date will be taken only in April or May.

The new Chechen parliament is to be bicameral. The upper house -- the Council of the Republic -- will comprise 21 deputies elected from the republic's 21 raions and largest towns; the lower house, the People's Assembly, will number 40 deputies elected in single-mandate constituencies. Speaking in Moscow on 24 March, Russian presidential aide Yastrzhembskii expressed the hope that at least some of those 32 deputies (of a total of 61 elected to the Chechen parliament in 1997) who last week wrote to President Putin affirming their support for the referendum (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 March 2003) will be reelected to the new legislature. The Russian presidential commissioner for human rights in Chechnya, Abdul-Khakim Sultygov, similarly told Interfax on 25 March he believes those Chechen deputies, who he claims were persecuted under Maskhadov for their opposition to the imposition of sharia law in Chechnya, should run for the new parliament. The date for the parliamentary elections will be stipulated by the Russian president.

But Yevgenii Popov, who heads the Chechen government's legal department, told ITAR-TASS on 25 March that the election of a new Chechen parliament might not take place until after the presidential election. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 25 March similarly quoted Veshnyakov as saying that the Chechen parliamentary elections could be held concurrently with the Russian presidential poll in March 2004. Popov explained in an interview published in "Izvestiya" on 26 March that within days a State Council will be formed that will function as a temporary legislature. The council, Popov said, will have 34 members: the mayors of Grozny, Argun, and Gudermes and the administration heads of each of Chechnya's 14 raions plus one popularly elected deputy from each of those localities.

Popov said the process of establishing new executive bodies with greatly expanded powers will also begin within the next few days. He explained that at present, Chechnya's budget is decided by the Russian federal government, but that once a government and parliament are in place, the Chechen leadership will be in a position to decide itself on expenditures which, he added, will mean that "money will be spent more effectively." (Liz Fuller)

IRAQ WAR PRESENTS SOUTH CAUCASUS STATES WITH NEW CONCERNS, ROLES, OPPORTUNITIES. The leaderships of the three South Caucasus states have adopted widely varying positions with regard to the war in Iraq. And those positions have been articulated on different levels: whereas in Armenia and Azerbaijan the Foreign Ministry has been the primary source of official statements, in Georgia President Eduard Shevardnadze has set the agenda by affirming unconditional support for the U.S.

Of the three states, only Armenia does not figure in President George W. Bush's 49-member "coalition of the willing." The Armenian Foreign Ministry has consistently opposed any military action against Iraq without the endorsement of the UN Security Council, calling instead for Iraq to disarm peacefully and voluntarily in compliance with UN Security Council resolutions. As for the possible impact on Armenia of the Iraq war, President Robert Kocharian, in one of his very few public comments on the issue, predicted that the economic impact on Armenia would be negligible.

The Armenian Foreign Ministry has identified two interrelated concerns. The first is the Armenian minority in Iraq, which is estimated to number between 15,000-20,000 people. The Foreign Ministry has been preparing to grant visas to those Armenians to travel to Armenia. The second is the possibility of a Turkish incursion into northern Iraq which, Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian said on Armenian Public Television on 24 March, could endanger an Armenian-populated village in the region. Any Armenian casualties at the hands of the Turkish military would inevitably revive memories of the 1915 genocide and thus constitute a major obstacle to the normalization of relations to which both countries aspire.

The Armenian Foreign Ministry and the U.S. embassy in Yerevan have both formally denied media reports that the U.S. has requested the use of one or more military airfields in Armenia for the duration of the war in Iraq.

Azerbaijan figures among the coalition of the willing even though, as Iraq's ambassador to Baku recently noted, no member of the Azerbaijani leadership has expressed unequivocal support for U.S. military action against Iraq. Asked in late February on the eve of his departure for the U.S. to outline Baku's position, President Heidar Aliyev said it had already been formulated in a Foreign Ministry statement. That statement called on Iraq to disarm voluntarily in compliance with UN resolutions and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's 5 February report to the UN Security Council. Aliyev also said on 25 February that the U.S. had not invited Azerbaijan to join the coalition against Iraq, according to Interfax.

In a second statement on 21 March, the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry expressed its "deep concern" over developments in Iraq and called on Baghdad "to fully meet the requirements" of UN Security Council resolutions 678, 687, and 1441, Interfax and ITAR-TASS reported. The statement further expressed support for international efforts to resolve the crisis, and urged "strict observance of international law" during military operations. Interfax on 21 March also quoted Azerbaijani Defense Minister Colonel General Safar Abiev as saying on 21 March that the U.S. has asked Azerbaijan for unspecified assistance in connection with the war in Iraq. Abiev said Azerbaijan may make its air space available, but will not send troops. He said it is too early to say whether Azerbaijani forces might participate in peacekeeping operations in Iraq.

"Turan" on 25 March quoted Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Vilayat Guliev as saying that Baku is still considering how to respond to the U.S. request to all countries in which Iraq has diplomatic representation to ask its diplomats to leave. And, in what may be a bid to win the respect of Iran and of moderate Arab states, Guliev highlighted Azerbaijan's concern at the possibility that Muslim shrines in Iraq could be damaged during ongoing hostilities. He suggested that Azerbaijan could send "representatives" to Iraq to protect such holy sites, and oil industry, medical and other specialists to participate in post-conflict reconstruction.

The Azerbaijani leadership's failure to affirm its unconditional support for the U.S. military action against Iraq may stem partly from a fear of alienating opposition formations, including the Karabakh Liberation Organization, that have adopted a clearly pro-Iraq position and even offered to send volunteers to fight against the U.S. military in Iraq. (The Iraqi ambassador in Baku has politely declined that offer.) Another contributing factor may be reluctance to risk alienating individual Arab states and Islamic financial organizations that are considering, but have not yet made a firm commitment to, providing some funding for oil-sector projects, according to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 24 March. The U.S., for its part, may be turning a blind eye to Azerbaijan's equivocation because of its commitment to construction of the planned Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil export pipeline for Caspian oil.

Georgia, in contrast to Armenia and Azerbaijan, has expressed wholehearted support for the U.S. military action against Iraq, and offered to place its military airfields at the disposal of the U.S., whose specialists have reportedly inspected at least one airfield and talks were said to be underway late last week at U.S. Joint Command Headquarters in Florida on the technical and logistical problems involved.

But there are indications that Tbilisi's willingness to provide whatever help it can to the U.S. is not entirely altruistic: Shevardnadze has said that he anticipates that the U.S. will take a more prominent role in seeking a solution to the Abkhaz conflict once the Iraq war is over. And Georgia would presumably be in a position to claim financial compensation on the lines of that Washington offered Ankara for the use of its territory to launch military operations against Iraq. The Georgian leadership may also be hoping that demonstrating the country's crucial geostrategic position may expedite its bid for NATO membership, which might otherwise be delayed for years by the inherent weakness of Georgia's chronically underfunded armed forces. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "If the PACE [Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe] wants to help Russia solve the problem of Chechnya, it should not attempt to corner Russia and put it in the position of having to explain itself, like an adolescent." -- Federation Council International Affairs Committee Chairman Mikhail Margelov, quoted by "Itogi" on 18 March.

"There are some here who know why they are voting and others who just wait for peace. If they have a constitution they can start to have rights under it.... These [conditions] are less than perfect and less than those [offered under] the constitution, but if this starts the political process then that is a success. We have seen people who have read the constitution and already started to ask for their rights under it." -- OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights expert Hrair Balian, commenting on the Chechen referendum (quoted by "The Guardian" on 24 March).