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Caucasus Report: February 28, 2002

28 February 2002, Volume 5, Number 8

WAR OF WORDS OVER PANKISI HIGHLIGHTS LIMITS TO U.S.-RUSSIAN RAPPROCHEMENT. The warming in U.S.-Russian relations in the wake of the 11 September terrorist attacks on the U.S. is looking increasingly ephemeral. Since the beginning of this year, Russian officials and commentators have repeatedly warned of the perceived threat to Russia posed by Washington's imputed ambition to conclude with one or more of the Central Asian states an agreement giving it the right to maintain a long-term military presence in the region. U.S. officials have, however, consistently denied that Washington is hoping to establish a permanent military base in Central Asia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 and 28 January and 14 February 2002).

More recently, the 11 February statement by Philip Remler, U.S. charge d'affaires in Tbilisi, that a handful of Afghan mercenaries with links to Osama bin Laden have taken refuge in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 5, No. 6, 14 February 2002) has sparked what appears to be a proxy war of words between Washington and Moscow over whose sphere of influence Georgia belongs to.

Since the very beginning of the current war in Chechnya, Russian officials have at intervals claimed that Arab and Afghan mercenaries are fighting alongside the Chechen resistance forces headed by President Aslan Maskhadov, and that those mercenaries entered Chechnya via Georgia. In November 1999, then-Russian Premier Vladimir Putin adduced the alleged inability of both the Georgian and the Azerbaijani authorities to intercept such mercenaries as one of the reasons for demanding that as of 1 January 2000, persons entering Russia from Georgia or Azerbaijan have valid visas (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 November 1999). At that time, Georgia also rejected a request by Russian Federal Border Guards commander Konstantin Totskii that Russia and Georgia should jointly patrol the 80-kilometer Georgian-Chechen border. Several months later, the OSCE deployed along that stretch of the border an observer force whose members have not to date made public any evidence that would substantiate the Russian allegations.

Russian officials have nonetheless systematically claimed that there are Chechen militants among the estimated 7,000 Chechen refugees encamped in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, and that the Georgian authorities are powerless to prevent those fighters from using the area as a base. Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and National Security Minister Vakhtang Kutateladze conceded as early as June 2001 the possibility that a few hundred Chechen fighters may be encamped in Pankisi (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 June 2001).

Since June last year, senior Russian and Georgian officials have on several occasions discussed concrete proposals for repatriating the Chechen refugees who settled in Pankisi. The most recent such talks took place during a visit to Tbilisi in late January 2002 by Russian Security Council Secretary Vladimir Rushailo, during which agreement was reportedly reached, first that a group from Russia's Ministry for Emergency Situations would shortly travel to Georgia to begin planning the logistics of the voluntary Chechen repatriation, and second, that the two countries would coordinate operations by their respective security bodies to restore order in Pankisi (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 January 2002).

Less than two weeks later, however, Remler went on record as saying, first, that Afghan "mujahedin" with links to Al-Qaeda have recently moved to Pankisi, and second, that the U.S. is willing 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.

Remler's tacit admission of the presence on Georgian territory of "international terrorists" served to corroborate criticism expressed in London in December by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov of the Georgian authorities' passivity in failing to take decisive action to neutralize "terrorists" in Pankisi (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 December 2001). And on 15 February, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov poured fuel on the flames by refusing to discount the possibility that Osama bin Laden may have taken refuge in Pankisi.

The nationality and numerical strength of the mercenaries and other armed contingents in Pankisi is, however, of marginal significance compared with the essence of the ongoing controversy, which centers on whether or not Georgia has the right to choose whose assistance to request to deal with that unwanted presence (which in this specific context implies who Georgia regards as the most effective guarantor of its sovereignty). "RFE/RL Caucasus Report" has already posed the question (see Vol. 5, No. 6, 14 February 2002) whether Remler's statement was made at the request of the Georgian authorities to provide an excuse for Tbilisi to go back on its pledge to work with Russian security to locate and apprehend the fighters in Pankisi. But it is equally possible that Washington considered such cooperation undesirable and set about ensuring that it would not materialize.

Last week, U.S. officials echoed Remler's statement that Washington is ready to assist Georgia in coming to grips with the Pankisi problem. Reuters on 20 February quoted an unnamed U.S. administration official as saying that the U.S. is considering how to help Georgia apprehend and neutralize Afghan militants who have taken refuge in the Pankisi Gorge, but rules out Russian participation in any such operation. The unnamed official categorically denied Russian media reports that following a meeting in Washington on 8 February of the U.S.-Russia joint working group on terrorism, the U.S. drafted a plan for a joint operation with Russia against Afghans in Pankisi. Reuters also quoted U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher as saying that the U.S. has made clear to Moscow that it believes the situation in Pankisi "is best dealt with through...cooperation [between] the U.S. and Georgia."

Simultaneously, however, in what has all the hallmarks of a damage containment exercise to appease Moscow, Georgian officials have issued a series of statements over the past week stressing that no joint operation with either the U.S. or Russia or both against militants in Pankisi is being either considered or discussed, nor is any such operation necessary at the present time (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20, 25, and 27 February 2002). (Liz Fuller)

WHO CAN UNTIE THE ABKHAZ GORDIAN KNOT? So far this year, the UN has taken two major steps intended to expedite a solution to the Abkhaz conflict. First, it unveiled the final draft of the long-awaited "Basic Principles for the Distribution of Competencies between Tbilisi and Sukhumi," intended to serve as a starting point for talks between the central Georgian government and that of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia. And second, on 31 January the UN Security Council adopted a new resolution calling for precisely such talks, and demanding inter alia the unconditional return to Abkhazia of all displaced persons, and the withdrawal from the Kodori Gorge of the Georgian troops deployed there last fall. Georgian State Minister Malkhaz Kakabadze had agreed at UN-sponsored talks on 17 January that those troops would be pulled out.

At the same time, to the considerable displeasure of many Georgians, the UN resolution noted that Georgian President Shevardnadze had agreed to the continued presence in the Abkhaz conflict zone of the Russian peacekeepers deployed there under the CIS aegis since 1994. The Georgian parliament had demanded last October that their mandate should not be renewed after it expired on 31 December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 October 2001).

Nor was Shevardnadze's concession over the extension of the CIS peacekeepers' mandate the only reason for many Georgians' lukewarm reaction to the UN resolution. The two participants in a roundtable discussion in Tbilisi on 6 February moderated by RFE/RL's Georgian Service both expressed doubt that the resolution would lead to progress in restoring Georgia's territorial integrity. And both cited Russia as the major obstacle to a settlement of the conflict.

Malkhaz Pataraia, who heads Dabruneba (Return), an organization that represents the interests of the estimated 200,000 Georgian displaced persons who fled Abkhazia in1992-93 (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 2, No. 17, 27 April 1999) pointed out that Russia was "the initiator and instigator and an active participant" in the hostilities that ended with the loss of Georgian control over Abkhazia. And Archil Gegeshidze of the Georgian Strategic and International Studies Foundation argued that Georgia "cannot neutralize the Russian factor on its own," and that the international community appears reluctant to pressure Russia to change its policy towards Georgia. Specifically, Gegeshidze said he did not think Russian President Vladimir Putin was sincere when he declared in October 2001 that if Georgia demands the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeepers from Abkhazia, Moscow will pull them out. "At this stage Russia does not want to give up the influence which it currently has in the South Caucasus in general and in Georgia in particular by virtue of its role and functions in the Abkhaz conflict, and it will not leave of its own free will. Someone will have to force Russia to do so and only the international community can do that, Georgia does not have the means to do so," Gegeshidze concluded.

President Shevardnadze, however, has apparently not given up hope that Moscow can be induced to adopt a more constructive attitude -- or has decided that it is imprudent to place all his eggs in the UN basket. Aslan Abashidze, Shevardnadze's special envoy for Abkhazia, visited Moscow earlier this month for high-level talks, the content and outcome of which have not yet been made public.

Those talks engendered optimism among at least some displaced persons: the 12,000 participants at a congress in Tbilisi on 15 February reportedly expressed their shared confidence in Abashidze's ability to negotiate a settlement of the conflict. Not all displaced persons are so sanguine, however: a poll of 750 displaced persons conducted in Tbilisi found that 50.9 percent have no faith in Abashidze. And of those 750 respondents, 44.7 percent do not believe that the CIS is capable of resolving the conflict, and 32.5 percent believe that the only way to restore Georgian control over Abkhazia is by force. Meanwhile the Abkhaz government in exile (whose ministers are Georgian displaced persons) has made clear its preference for the traditional approach of slicing straight through the Gordian knot rather than trying to unravel it: it has again invoked Chapter VII of the UN Charter that provides for the threat or use of force to restore peace and security in conflict regions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 February 2002). The recent opinion poll found that 25.6 percent of those questioned support that demand, while only 14.2 percent favor peaceful negotiations with the Abkhaz leadership.

Another recently announced Abkhaz initiative remains veiled in mystery: CIS Executive Secretary Yurii Yarov was due in Tbilisi in late January to present an alternative settlement plan to President Shevardnadze and Georgian Minister of State Avtandil Djorbenadze. That plan, Yarov said, would entail augmenting the current Russian peacekeeping force with contingents from other CIS states, which is one of the conditions some Georgian politicians have advanced for the renewal of the CIS peacekeepers' mandate. (Liz Fuller)

ABKHAZIA PREPARES FOR PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS. On 2 March, Abkhazia's electorate is called on to vote for a new parliament in a ballot not recognized as valid by the international community. The unrecognized republic's election commission is nonetheless anxious that the vote should be perceived as democratic, although commission Chairman Sergei Smir has conceded that the election law is "not perfect," and that the electorate has only a hazy understanding of its electoral rights. A total of 89 candidates from 100 proposed by local initiative groups will contest the 35 mandates. Observers have predicted a strong showing by the political movement Aitara (Revival), whose members, according to IWPR's Caucasus Reporting Service, while backing the existing leadership's insistence that Abkhazia must remain independent, advocate greater flexibility in negotiations with Tbilisi.

Aitara's leaders include Abkhaz Information Minister Natela Akaba, whom Neil Ascherson in his deservedly acclaimed "Black Sea" (London, 1995) quoted as saying: "In the Brezhnev days, I was one of those who listened to Radio Liberty and thought that democracy would be such a natural, simple thing. Now I realize that in real life matters are much more difficult." (Liz Fuller)

ARE THE NARDARAN PROTESTS THE WRITING ON THE WALL FOR THE AZERBAIJANI LEADERSHIP? Protests in Azerbaijan against appalling living conditions are nothing new (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 2, No. 19, 13 May 1999). But the most recent, highly publicized standoff between residents of the village of Nardaran on the outskirts of Baku and the Azerbaijani authorities threatens to spark wider protests that could destabilize the political situation nationwide.

On 22 January, the estimated 7,000-8,000 residents of Nardaran staged their first protest to demand employment opportunities and the provision of at least elementary living facilities in the form of electricity and gas supplies and affordable transportation from the village to the nearest metro station. They threatened to embark on "mass protests" if their demands were not met by 1 February. Journalists who visited Nardaran estimated that 85 percent of the once-wealthy village's residents are unemployed. The journalists also commented on the general atmosphere of gloom and resentment, "if not downright hatred," of the authorities. But at the same time, the journalists noted the villagers' insistence that their demands are not politically motivated, or intended to destabilize the political situation.

On 29 January, a delegation from the Baku municipal authorities headed by Mayor Hadjibala Abutalibov traveled to Nardaran for talks with the villagers, and promised to take immediate action to restore gas and electricity supplies, reduce the fares for transportation to the nearest metro, and endeavor to find work for qualified young university graduates from Nardaran. Abutalibov also pledged that streets in Nardaran would be paved. The villagers accordingly called off their planned 1 February protest. But when Abutalibov paid a second visit last week, he encountered rising resentment that no action had been taken with regard to either gas supplies or employment opportunities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 February 2002).

Abutalibov's second visit also served to highlight what is potentially the most dangerous aspect of the "Nardaran phenomenon," which is the villagers' collective religiosity. Turan reported that on his second visit, villagers greeted Abutalibov with shouts of "Allahu Akbar," to which he responded, "I'll wait until you come to your senses." "Zerkalo" reported on 25 January that Azerbaijan's Tax Ministry has launched an investigation of the finances of an Islamic pilgrimage site in Nardaran that is, in the paper's words, independent of Azerbaijan's Muslim Religious Board. The same paper noted that houses in the village are decorated by numerous banners reproducing extracts from the Koran or the pronouncements of Ayatollah Khomeini. The villages of the Apsheron peninsula have long been regarded as one of the strongholds of Islam in Azerbaijan. "Zerkalo" therefore raised the question whether the residents of Nardaran might prove vulnerable to an attempt by Iran to capitalize on their resentment.

Another political actor who might benefit from the villagers' alienation from the present Azerbaijani leadership and mistrust of the opposition is exiled former President Ayaz Mutalibov, of whom they have fond memories: during his three-year tenure as Communist Party of Azerbaijan first secretary and then president, according to "Zerkalo," the village did not experience any problems with shortages of basic amenities.

A further danger, according to the independent daily "Ekho," is that by giving in to the Nardaran demands, the Azerbaijani authorities will open up a Pandora's box of similar grievances which they will not have sufficient financial resources to solve. "Zerkalo" pointed out on 30 January that a protest similar to that in Nardaran was underway in the settlement of Mashtagi, but that both the authorities and the media had chosen to ignore it. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "Why? What for? Who did it?" -- The widow of Georgian National Security Council Secretary Nugzar Sadzhaya, questioning claims that her husband's death on 25 February was suicide (quoted by "Rezonansi" on 27 February).

"We are ready for [compromises], but not at the cost of Karabakh's independence. If Karabakh is not part of Armenia or independent, its security would be seriously jeopardized, and it would be very desirable to reach a peace deal on this basis, but peace also has its price, and for that we are ready to return some [occupied] territories. When we say that we can cede some territories, we imply that in this way we are moving towards peace and in future there will be no need to defend these new positions in a new war. In other words, peace should have its guarantees and its guarantors." -- Armenian Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, in an interview published in "Azg" on 21 February.