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Caucasus Report: April 26, 2002

26 April 2002, Volume 5, Number 14

FORMER INGUSHETIAN PRESIDENT RESIGNS FROM FEDERATION COUNCIL. On 23 April, Ruslan Aushev announced that he had quit the Federation Council, to which he was elected in January following his decision to step down as president of his native Ingushetia (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 3 January 2002). Speaking to RFE/RL's Russian Service the same day, Aushev explained that his decision was intended as a protest both against the Federation Council's lack of interest in trying to resolve the most serious problems facing the North Caucasus, especially the plight of Ingush displaced persons from North Ossetia's disputed Prigorodnyi Raion and Chechen displaced persons now living in camps in Ingushetia, and against what he termed the Kremlin's blatant attempts to influence the outcome of the election for his successor as president of Ingushetia.

Former Ingush Interior Minister Khamzat Gutseriev, one of several alternative candidates whom Aushev endorsed, and a clear favorite to win, was barred from the ballot on the eve of the first round of voting on 7 April on the grounds that he declined to take leave of absence from his government post for the duration of the election campaign within three days of registering as a candidate. Aushev and Gutseriev then publicly expressed their support for Russian State Duma Deputy Alikhan Amirkhanov, who placed first with 31.5 percent of the vote. A runoff will therefore take place on 28 April between Amirkhanov and Federal Security Service (FSB) General Murat Zyazikov, a deputy to Viktor Kazantsev, the presidential representative to the South Russia Federal District, who placed second with 19.4 percent.

On 9 April, FSB and OMON troops forced their way into Amirkhanov's campaign headquarters in the Ingush capital, Nazran, and confiscated documents. Aushev expressed his fear on 23 April that Kazantsev, acting at Moscow's behest, may seek to have Amirkhanov disqualified from the runoff.

Aushev went on to explain to RFE/RL that he believes Moscow is seeking to abolish Ingushetia's sovereignty by merging Chechnya and Ingushetia into a single federation subject. (From 1936-1944, and again from 1957 until the summer of1992, the two territories formed a single territorial-administrative unit, the Chechen-Ingush ASSR.) The mergers currently under discussion of several subjects of the Russian Federation, including those of Irkutsk Oblast with the neighboring Ust-Orda Buryat Autonomous Okrug, Yaroslavl with Kostroma, and Perm Oblast with the Komi-Permyak Autonomous Okrug (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 24 April 2002) would set a precedent for subsuming Chechnya into an enlarged Vainakh republic. Chechens and Ingush belong to the same Vainakh ethnic group.

Writing in "Novaya gazeta" on 2 April, Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya reported that Moscow first raised the idea of a Vainakh republic comprising Chechnya and Ingushetia at the beginning of the current war in Chechnya, and proposed to Aushev that he should head that republic, which he categorically refused to do. The idea was subsequently shelved, only to be resurrected in late 2001 by Kazantsev, Politkovskaya wrote. And the Kremlin then selected Zyazikov as the most appropriate candidate to head the new entity, though, according to Aushev, he has never worked in Ingushetia.

But on 23 April -- the day of Aushev's demonstrative resignation -- Kazantsev told journalists in Rostov-na-Donu that reports of the creation of a merged Vainakh republic are "nothing but rumors and empty gossip" spread with the explicit intention of fueling tensions in both Chechnya and Ingushetia, according to Interfax. (Liz Fuller)

CEC CONCEDES AZERBAIJANI BY-ELECTIONS MARRED BY FRAUD. Following allegations of irregularities during 12 April parliamentary by-elections in Azerbaijan, the Central Election Commission (CEC) has recommended that results from several precincts be annulled. The commission announced on 17 April that there had been "serious problems" at seven polling stations, two in Salyan's Ali Bayramli district and five in Baku's Narimanov constituency. Voiding the returns from those seven precincts will not change the overall results, landslide victories for candidates from the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party. The three winners claimed victory with support ranging from 62 percent to 85 percent of the vote.

But international monitors say that the problems identified by the CEC only scratch the surface. British Ambassador Andrew Tucker said that "these elections suffered from the same problems as before," and that Azerbaijan still needs to do more to bring its elections up to international standards. (One OSCE official characterized the November 2000 Azerbaijani parliamentary election as "a crash course in manipulation.")

Foreign observers reported seeing a range of abuses from ballot stuffing to police intimidation of local monitors. One observer estimated that voter turnout was significantly lower than official results claimed. That observer said that turnout was "at best 10 to 15 percent," which is below the 25 percent margin required for elections to be valid. The same observer said election officials refused to review voter-registration lists before beginning to count ballots, which is required by law. Another observer said there were police officers present in polling stations, despite a law requiring them to stay at least 100 meters away.

Several international monitors said that police harassed and intimidated local observers. Opposition politician Ali Kerimli, head of the reformist wing of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, began alleging vote fraud in Baku's Narimanov district even before the polls had closed. The Yeni Azerbaycan Party quickly denied that allegation, and there were reports that the CEC declared the results valid on the day of the election, although by law candidates have seven days to file protests. On 17 April, however, one day after the British Embassy, which fielded four teams of election monitors, submitted its report on the election to the commission, the CEC admitted there had been irregularities.

One international observer who asked not to be named suggested that the CEC's decision to void results at a few polling stations may have been intended as a face-saving gesture. The British Embassy's public stand on the election was deeply critical, and its private report to the commission is likely to have been even more so. (Richard Allen Greene)

MAVERICK OUSTED FROM AZERBAIJAN POPULAR FRONT PARTY. Gudrat Gasankuliev was expelled on 19 April from the reformist wing of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP) at what was described as a "tense" meeting of the faction's Supreme Council, Turan reported the following day. Gasankuliev had been one of the instigators of recent attempts to reunite the party's two rival wings in a single organization (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 21 March and 4 April 2002). The rationale for the Supreme Council's decision is unclear, but it is unlikely to have been connected with Gasankuliev's efforts to reconcile the two factions. Ali Kerimli, who heads the AHCP reformist wing, was quoted by "Zerkalo" on 3 April as saying that "not a single member" opposes the idea of reunification. More probable is that Kerimli may have perceived Gasankuliev as a rival and possible challenger for the post of chairman of a reunited party.

The independent newspaper "Ekho" commented on 20 April that Gasankuliev may now set about trying to form a third AHCP faction, but political commentators cited by the paper expressed doubt he would succeed in doing so. Several other members of the AHCP leadership have, however, resigned following Gasankuliev's ouster, including Magomed Imanli, Shakir Gurbanov, and Arif Pashaev. Together with Gasankuliev, they convened a press conference on 25 April at which they told journalists that they doubt Kerimli's sincerity in affirming his support for a merger of the two AHCP factions, and plan to form their own commission to negotiate with the conservative faction on reunification. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "We have always made it clear that Armenia is ready to engage in a constructive dialogue and have normal relations with Turkey." Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, quoted by RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau on 24 April.

"I believe in my victory [in the presidential elections due in March 2003] and think that even [incumbent Armenian President Robert] Kocharian doesn't doubt it." -- Opposition National Unity Party Chairman Artashes Geghamian, in an interview published in "Haykakan zhamanak" on 20 April.

"Ordering the [Russian] military to behave [in Chechnya] will never be enough to change things on the ground. The only effective way to end 'disappearances' is to investigate and prosecute those responsible for carrying them out." -- Human Rights Watch report of 16 April.