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Caucasus Report: February 14, 2002

14 February 2002, Volume 5, Number 6

GANTEMIROV, KADYROV AGAIN JOIN FORCES. On 7 February, Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov named as Chechen deputy premier and media minister former Grozny Mayor Beslan Gantemirov. Gantemirov formally assumed his new duties on 11 February. Gantemirov had resigned as deputy premier in May, saying he could no longer work under Prime Minister Stanislav Ilyasov, whom he described as "strong-willed." Gantemirov was subsequently appointed a federal inspector on the staff of presidential envoy to the South Russian federal district Viktor Kazantsev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 June 2001).

Gantemirov's return to Grozny has apparently been in the works for some time. When Kadyrov announced on 10 January that he plans to run for the post of Chechen president, he added that Gantemirov will be his campaign manager. "Vedomosti" on 8 February suggested that Kadyrov and Gantemirov have reached an agreement whereby Gantemirov, by virtue of his control over the Chechen media, will do his utmost to secure a Kadyrov victory, in return for which Gantemirov will become premier. No date has yet been set for new presidential elections, which cannot take place until Chechens adopt a new constitution, in all likelihood the one which Gantemirov has drafted (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 41, 13 December 2001).

How Gantemirov will fare working as part of Ilyasov's team remains unclear. This is not, however, the first occasion on which he has agreed to resume work under a superior with whom he had parted company acrimoniously: Gantemirov had major disagreements with Kadyrov in July and September 2000 (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, No. 29, 21 July 2000 and No. 37, 15 September 2000), but by mid-October of that year, the two men had reconciled (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 October 2000). And in January 2001, Gantemirov pledged his "full support" for Kadyrov, adding that he anticipated that their professional relationship would blossom into "friendship." In addition, last October Kadyrov moved to circumscribe Ilyasov's responsibilities, making the government an entirely separate entity from his own administration (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 36, 29 October 2001).

"Vedomosti" also highlights a further aspect of Gantemirov's appointment, namely that Kadyrov apparently ignored the requirement that he first secure the approval of the Kremlin before issuing a formal decree. Kadyrov had done exactly the same last fall when he named Yan Sergunin to head his new team. (Liz Fuller)

KHASBULATOV WANTS INTERNATIONALLY GUARANTEED 'SPECIAL STATUS' FOR CHECHNYA. In three articles published in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" over the past two years, former Russian parliamentary Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov outlined the possible consequences for long-term relations between Moscow and the Chechen people in the event that the former failed to seek a swift negotiated settlement to the current war (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, No. 21, 26 May 2000; Vol. 4, No. 1, 5 January 2001; and No 25, 9 July 2001). Specifically, Khasbulatov warned that continued brutal and indiscriminate repression on the part of the Russian military risks compounding the Chechens' collective alienation toward everything Russian. And he proposed that once an end to hostilities has been negotiated, Moscow grant Chechnya "unique status" within the Russian Federation.

Khasbulatov returned to those themes in an interview he gave last month to "Novaya gazeta." But at the outset, he made it clear that he no longer considers realistic any approach to resolving the conflict that would preserve Chechnya as a "typical" subject of the Russian Federation. "Arbitrary reprisals and looting have engendered among the population a hatred for the federal forces that is already irreversible," Khasbulatov said, adding, "[I]t is necessary to accept that alienation as a given.... Chechnya...will never be like other federation subjects. Between Russia and Chechnya are the deaths of 200,000 innocent civilians, destroyed towns, and hundreds of thousands of orphans."

The sole workable solution, according to Khasbulatov, would be to grant Chechnya some unique status guaranteed by the Council of Europe or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe as an "international autonomy" or "a state with limited sovereignty." Such status, Khasbulatov said, would avoid the need to designate Chechnya a federation subject, while at the same time formally preserving Russia's territorial integrity. He stressed that the international guarantees he has in mind do not entail the deployment of a foreign military contingent in Chechnya, arguing that such troops would be more likely to aggravate the situation further than to serve as a stabilizing factor. (Liz Fuller)

KTO VINOVAT? Anyone who has followed political developments in Georgia since the late 1980s will be more than familiar with (and may well have lost patience with) the argument that virtually all the problems that country currently faces are the consequence of a deliberate policy of subversion and oppression pursued first by the Soviet leadership and then, since 1992, by the Russian one. That widely held conviction, together with the less frequently expressed corollary that because Georgia has been a victim of Russian meddling it deserves the unconditional and unlimited support of the West, may in the long term prove more damaging to Georgia than any nefarious schemes conceived in Moscow.

That is not in any way to imply that Russia is blameless. On the contrary, various factions or politicians in Moscow have undoubtedly sought at intervals over the past decade to exert pressure on the Georgian leadership in defense of what were perceived as Russia's national interests. (One such example was Moscow's decision in November 1999 to impose a visa regime with Georgia in retaliation for Georgia's alleged support for Chechen militants.) But to blame all Georgia's manifold problems on such meddling while ignoring Georgian politicians' errors and weaknesses is not only unrealistic and intellectually dishonest, it could pose a serious long-term threat to the country's survival as a sovereign state.

As early as the mid-1970s, the perception that Georgia had for two centuries been the victim first of Tsarist Russia, then of the Soviet leadership, colored samizdat documentation compiled by Zviad Gamsakhurdia and his fellow dissidents. But it gained virtually universal credence among Georgians after 9 April 1989, when Soviet troops attacked peaceful demonstrators in Tbilisi, killing 21 people, most of them women or teenage girls. The ensuing upsurge of animosity toward the Soviet leadership was one of the primary factors that contributed to the victory of Gamsakhurdia's Round Table/Free Georgia coalition in the October 1990 parliamentary elections, and Gamsakhurdia's election as president in May the following year.

True, there are grounds for suspicion that Gamsakhurdia's ouster in December 1991 by the Georgian National Guard commanded by Tengiz Kitovani and the Mkhedrioni paramilitary force of Djaba Ioseliani was undertaken with the tacit support of, if not at the behest of, high-ranking military personnel in Moscow.

Gamsakhurdia's ouster did not, however, result in an immediate rapprochement between Tbilisi and Moscow. On the contrary, Eduard Shevardnadze, who returned to Tbilisi in early March 1992 at the request of Kitovani and Ioseliani to lend legitimacy to the new leadership, set about cultivating the friendly relations he had forged as Soviet foreign minister with U.S. and European leaders, and demonstratively declined to commit Georgia to membership of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which all other former Soviet republics (except for Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) had joined in late 1991.

It is likewise true that groups within the Russian military channeled financial and logistical support to the Abkhaz during the 1992-93 war. And then Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who had little affection for Shevardnadze, took advantage of Gamsakhurdia's bid to regain power the fall of 1993 to bludgeon Tbilisi into joining the CIS. But the war in Abkhazia, like the earlier conflict in South Ossetia, was not started by Moscow: It was the direct consequence of many Georgians' condescending and proprietorial attitude to the minority ethnic groups that in 1989 accounted for one-third of Georgia's population.

Shevardnadze has in fact played the key role in the evolution, and in the acceptance by the international community, of the perception of Georgia as Russia's helpless and innocent victim. Shevardnadze's stature as an international statesman, together with the undoubted fact that for years he was perceived as the sole guarantee of political stability in Georgia, has ensured that pronouncements that may have been dismissed as exaggerated or bathos had they been made by a lesser figure have gained universal credence. And the fact that the West has unquestioningly accepted Shevardnadze's version of events has undoubtedly compounded the animosity which some Russian political figures have long harbored toward him.

To date, few in Tbilisi have challenged the perception of Moscow as the source of all Georgia's woes. One notable exception, however, is former Security Minister Shota Kviraia, who in an article published in "Svobodnaya Gruziya" late last year argued that "it is time to face up to the truth" and acknowledge that Russia is not responsible for every misfortune, from the Abkhaz conflict to drought, failure to meet budget targets, and endemic corruption.

Kviraia gives Shevardnadze credit for his statesmanship and pragmatism, noting that the Georgian president has repeatedly and tirelessly signaled his willingness to reach a modus vivendi that would accommodate Moscow's concerns. But the ex-minister also expresses his concern that some younger Georgian politicians appear willing to risk alienating Moscow in a bid to secure greater Western support and in doing so are unconsciously "pushing the country towards the abyss." Those younger politicians include Zurab Zhvania and Mikhail Saakashvili, both potential candidates to succeed Shevardnadze as head of state. Zhvania in particular has in recent years been far more outspoken in accusing Russia of meddling in Georgia's internal affairs than has Shevardnadze. (The fact that Kviraia himself is reported to have influential contacts in Moscow does not detract from the logic of his argument.)

It is too early to say whether and to what extent the post-11 September rapprochement between the U.S. and Russia will impact Western perceptions of Russian-Georgian relations. (Zhvania and Saakashvili are due to travel to the U.S. later this month.) Will the West take a more skeptical look at Georgia's repeated charges of victimization? Or will Moscow assume that it can now continue to pressure Tbilisi with impunity? (The successful implementation of the agreement reached last week whereby Tbilisi and Moscow will cooperate to expedite the return to Chechnya of refugees currently encamped in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge would certainly reduce the need -- and the temptation -- to exert such pressure.)

Or have those members of the Russian leadership who still hope to retain Georgia as part of Russia's sphere of influence finally concluded that there is in fact no longer any pressing need to meddle in Georgia's internal affairs, and that the combined effects of economic collapse, corruption, and infighting between political factions have weakened the country to such an extent that its collapse is purely a matter of time? (Liz Fuller)

U.S. OFFERS TO HELP GEORGIA NEUTRALIZE AFGHAN THREAT. Acting U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Philip Remler said in an interview published in the independent newspaper "Akhali versia" on 11 February that several dozen "mudjahedin" who escaped from Afghanistan have recently settled in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge. Remler reportedly said that those Afghans maintain contacts with Jordanian-born Chechen field commander Khattab, who, in turn, Remler said, is in contact with Osama bin Laden. Remler said the U.S. is ready to assist Georgia by helping to establish a special antiterror structure under the Georgian Ministry of Defense that would conduct an effective struggle with terrorism, including international terrorism, on Georgian territory. AP on 11 February quoted a U.S. Embassy spokesman as confirming the accuracy of Remler's statements.

Also on 11 February, Georgian parliament Defense and Security Committee Chairman Giorgi Baramidze similarly said there are indications that Afghan and other terrorists may have taken refuge in Pankisi, Caucasus Press reported. But Georgian Intelligence Service chief Avtandil Ioseliani said the same day he has no information concerning the presence of Afghans in Pankisi. "If Mr. Remler has such information, let him share it with us," Caucasus Press quoted Ioseliani as saying. National Security Minister Valeri Khaburzania, for his part, said on 12 February that some Afghan volunteers who had fought in Chechnya "may" now be in Pankisi.

Remler's statement raises a number of questions. If the Georgian-Chechen border is as water-tight as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe observers who have monitored it for the past two years claim, how did the "mudjahedin" manage to cross into Georgia? Will Ioseliani be required to resign for having failed to register their presence? And more important, why is the Georgian leadership's inability to prevent "terrorist" elements from infiltrating its territory not considered a failing on Tbilisi's part? Could the answer be that Georgia solicited from Washington a statement that would serve as the rationale for belatedly reneging on the agreement reached during Russian Security Council Secretary Vladimir Rushailo's visit to Tbilisi that Russian and Georgian special services will "coordinate" actions against the Chechen fighters encamped in the Pankisi Gorge? (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK: "For war crimes and crimes against humanity, there must be a universal standard.... To adhere to a single standard for war crimes,... the Bush administration should insist that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin accept international observers in Chechnya who are able to investigate charges of Russian war crimes." Editorial in "The Boston Globe," 9 February 2002.

"A nation living in such conditions has the right to start an insurgency. The opposition must take to the streets. Why doesn't it?" -- Former President Ayaz Mutalibov, commenting on the political situation in Azerbaijan in an interview published in "Yeni Musavat," 12 February 2002.