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Caucasus Report: May 16, 2003

16 May 2003, Volume 6, Number 18

WILL AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENT APPOINT A NEW A PRIME MINISTER? Predictably, the lack of reliable information concerning the health of Azerbaijan's octogenarian President Heidar Aliyev since his return to Baku from a Turkish military hospital has fuelled speculation over whether, and for how long, he can continue to discharge the functions of head of state. Nor is it clear whom Aliyev will select to take over if his failing health compels him to leave office prematurely.

Assuming that Aliyev can be persuaded first to abandon his plans to run for a third presidential term in the ballot due in mid-October and to then step down as president before that date, his duties will devolve on the prime minister. Most observers predict that in the very near future Aliyev will therefore persuade incumbent Premier Artur Rasizade to step down "voluntarily," "on health grounds," and appoint a reliable successor who will control the country until the elections. Aliyev has, moreover, carte blanche to choose whomever he wants for that post: the constitution precludes parliament calling for a no-confidence vote in the prime minister less than six months before elections.

One perceived obstacle to this scenario, however, is that Rasizade is reluctant to resign, according to the opposition newspaper "Hurriyet" on 15 May. Rasizade told journalists the previous day that rumors of his imminent dismissal are unfounded. "Hurriyet" points out that unlike may other senior leadership figures, the 67-year-old Rasizade has never been suspected of corruption, and could theoretically discharge the duties of president and prime minister. But he is perceived as an anodyne figure, and other members of Aliev's entourage may well doubt whether Rasizade is ruthless enough to order a crackdown if the opposition decides to take advantage of the unstable domestic political situation to launch country-wide popular protests.

On 16 May, "Hurriyet" reported that Aliev's brother Djalal is intent on having Health Minister Ali Insanov appointed prime minister and on replacing Interior Minister Ramil Usubov with Beylar Eyyubov, the head of the presidential security service. Usubov, however, has secured the support of presidential administration head Ramiz Mekhtiev, a former Azerbaijan Communist Party Central Committee secretary whom some observers believe is a also possible candidate for interim prime minister/president. It should be pointed out that although Djalal Aliyev reportedly seeks to promote Insanov, Heidar Aliyev reportedly favors Justice Minister Fikret Mamedov as premier. Another faction within the present leadership, according to "Hurriyet," is grouped around parliament speaker Murtuz Alesqerov, while several further influential oligarchs, including State Customs Committee Chairman Kemaleddin Heydarov, have not as yet aligned with any faction.

Mamedov is one of three figures identified by on 16 May as having the best chance of succeeding Rasizade as interim prime minister pending a presidential ballot which Aliev's chosen candidate would contest on behalf of the present leadership. The paper points out that Mamedov has the reputation of an educated, liberal, and pragmatic politician, and that he carries far more "weight" than his position would appear to warrant. But as in the case of Rasizade, it is by no means clear if Mamedov is ruthless enough to suppress widespread unrest. Therefore, the paper concludes, if he were appointed to the post, it would be with a mandate to reach some kind of agreement with the opposition to preclude such unrest.

The second hypothetical candidate is Vasif Talybov, parliament chairman of the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic (Aliev's birthplace), who in contrast to Mamedov is said to be a hard-liner who would suffer no compunction in ordering the suppression of popular unrest. But, the paper points out, such reprisals would negatively affect support for Aliev's chosen presidential candidate.

The third hypothetical candidate in Heidar Aliev's son Ilham, whom some observers still think is being groomed to succeed his father as head of state. But exposing Ilham at this juncture to a situation in which he might well be required to take unpalatable decisions, such as ordering troops to quell unrest, could well sabotage his election chances and compromise him in the eyes of the international community. (Liz Fuller)

HAS PUTIN'S CHECHEN WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY CLOSED? Over the past week, two suicide bombings in Chechnya have killed over 70 people; a third such attack was reportedly thwarted by the arrest of a woman suicide-bomber in Grozny on 8 May. Salambek Maigov, who is Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov's envoy to the Russian Federation, told on 14 May that the bombings are the response to the Russian leadership's failure to deliver on any of the promises it made in the run-up to and in the wake of the 23 March referendum on a new Chechen constitution and election laws (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 25 April 2003). But that argument fails to account for a similar truck bombing that destroyed the Chechen government building in Grozny in late December, and for which radical field commander Shamil Basaev later claimed responsibility (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 and 30 December 2002 and 26 February 2003). It is equally possible that the suicide bombings mark a new phase of the Chechen war in which terrorist attacks against representatives of the pro-Russian Chechen administration will supercede classical guerrilla operations against the Russian military.

The October 2002 Moscow theater hostage taking by young Chechen militants prompted warnings by a second Maskhadov envoy, Akhmed Zakaev, and other observers that radical Chechen fighters might increasingly resort to terrorist attacks on targets in Russia; Zakaev did not exclude the possibility of such an attack on a Russian nuclear-power plant. But instead, the three bombings to date have been directed at the members of the pro-Moscow Chechen administration -- although in the case of the Znamenskoe bombing on 12 May many of the casualties were innocent inhabitants of neighboring apartment blocks. And the apparent target on 14 May was none other than Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov himself, who escaped unscathed on this occasion as in half-dozen previous attempts on his life. Kadyrov blamed both the recent attacks in Chechnya on Maskhadov -- despite the fact that Maskhadov has categorically forbidden the fighters under his command to commit terrorist acts that would endanger the lives of Chechen civilians.

The car bombs in Grozny and Znamenskoe raise the same question as did the hostage taking in Moscow: how did the perpetrators manage to penetrate what should have been tight security? Some Russian and Western analysts affirmed last year that the Moscow hostage takers could not have reached the theater Na Dubrovke without the knowledge, and possibly the connivance, of individual members of Russian security or intelligence services. And Kadyrov similarly stated on 14 May that "we have the right to know why the rebels succeed in gaining access to key facilities and blowing them up despite the presence of federal forces.... It is also necessary to establish who is responsible for the fact that militants have managed to transport tons of explosives ... and drive without hindrance to police buildings and FSB [Federal Security Service] and administrative offices." The ease with which the bombers in Grozny and Znamenskoe managed to reach their targets, in conjunction with Basaev's claim of responsibility for the Grozny bombing and the similarity between that assault and the one in Znamenskoe, again raises the question whether Basaev was acting in complicity with Russian intelligence.

Whatever the identity and motivation of the perpetrators of the recent Chechen bombings, they may have jeopardized one of the initiatives by which Russian President Vladimir Putin hoped to demonstrate Moscow's readiness for leniency, namely the proposed amnesty for Chechen fighters who voluntarily lay down their arms. Putin submitted the draft amnesty legislation to the Russian State Duma just hours before the Znamenskoe bombing on 12 May, and "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 14 May quoted Duma Speaker Gennadii Seleznev as hinting that in the wake of the Znamenskoe attack, deputies are less likely to approve the bill.

Russian commentators differ in their assessments of the likely impact of this week's bombings. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 13 May quoted Igor Bunin of the Center for Political Technologies as predicting that they will undercut popular support for "terrorist groups" among the Chechen population, and that the Russian leadership should take advantage of that circumstance. That interpretation ignores, however, the bitterness and enmity engendered among the Chechen civilian population by the continuing practice of abducting, torturing, and murdering anyone suspected of sympathizing with the Chechen opposition forces. (In his pre-referendum address to the Chechen people, Putin acknowledged that "we must create a situation in which the residents of Chechnya will be able to stop living in fear, stop fearing a knock on the door at night, and stop hiding from so-called mop-up operations.")

Union of Rightist Forces leader Boris Nemtsov argued that "everything that is happening in Chechnya is working against the president, against the authorities." As he has done repeatedly in the past, Nemtsov insisted that the only way to resolve the Chechen crisis is to embark on talks with Maskhadov and other field commanders who would then be allowed to participate in elections for a new Chechen leadership.

An anonymous commentary posted on 13 May on similarly argued that negotiations with Maskhadov are essential. It further opined that Putin's policy towards Chechnya suggests he is living in a "virtual world."

The gloomiest prognosis, however, was that of former Interior Ministry General Aslanbek Aslakhanov, Chechnya's deputy to the State Duma. Aslakhanov said he had hoped that the situation in Chechnya would improve following the referendum, but that "nothing has changed," and that "hopes that the situation will normalize...are diminishing with every passing day." (Liz Fuller)

IRANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER RESURRECTS SOUTH CAUCASUS SECURITY-PACT PROPOSAL. During his tour of the three South Caucasus states in late April, Kamal Kharrazi proposed to his counterparts in Tbilisi, Baku, and Yerevan creating a South Caucasus security pact that would unite Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Iran, and Russia. Hassan Rowhani, chairman of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran, had first proposed such a "3+3" alignment during a similar tour of the South Caucasus in July 2001.

Iran's proposed "3+3" configuration was clearly intended as an alternative to similar proposals floated by the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe summit in Istanbul in November 1999, by Turkish President Suleyman Demirel in early 2000, by Armenian President Robert Kocharian in March 2000, and by the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies (CEPS) in May 2000. The proposed prospective pact members were not, however, always the same. Azerbaijani President Aliyev and his Turkish counterpart Demirel excluded Iran while including the U.S. (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 November 1999 and 17 January 2000), while Kocharian in an address to the Georgian parliament suggested the format "3+3+2," meaning Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia plus Russia, Iran, and Turkey, with the U.S. and the EU as "guarantors" of the system (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 March 2000). That same format lay at the basis of the CEPS proposal unveiled in May 2000 (see "RFE/RL Armenia Report," 9 June and 20 September 2000).

While Georgia and Armenia expressed interest in Kharrazi's proposal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 May 2003), Azerbaijan rejected it. Foreign Minister Vilayet Guliev explained that although all regional states, including Iran, should be closely involved in security in the South Caucasus, Azerbaijan and Georgia are seeking closer integration with NATO, and any "serious security system in the region is impossible without the participation of Euro-Atlantic structures" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 May 2003). Turkey's ambassador to Azerbaijan, Unal Cevikgoz, reportedly went even further, telling Interfax on 12 May that "any regional security system is absolutely out of the question until the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is resolved." (Liz Fuller)