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Caucasus Report: December 12, 2002


12 December 2002, Volume 5, Number 39

PRO-MOSCOW CHECHEN LEADER SEEKS TO SIDELINE MOSCOW-BASED RIVALS, BUT MAY RISK SAME FATE HIMSELF. In late November, Aslanbek Aslakhanov, who represents Chechnya in the Russian State Duma, announced that a so-called Congress of Peoples of Chechnya would be held in Moscow on 16 December. Chechen communities across the Russian Federation were invited to elect their delegates to that gathering, the primary task of which, Aslakhanov told journalists in Moscow on 26 November, is "to define ways out of the current situation in Chechnya," and to demonstrate that Chechens aspire to peace.

It was Aslakhanov's second attempt to convene such a gathering; a congress he planned for May 2001, was postponed indefinitely as a result of a fierce protests by the pro-Moscow Chechen leadership (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 14, 9 April 2001 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 April 2001).

This time, too, the pro-Moscow Chechen administration headed by Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov appears to have interpreted the planned Moscow congress as either a challenge, or a threat, or both. Aslakhanov told Interfax on 2 December that he had been informed the previous day that Kadyrov's team was mobilizing public opinion to denounce the planned Moscow congress and demand that it take place in Grozny instead. Aslakhanov said local administrators in Chechnya had been ordered to collect 5,000 signatures in support of that demand, while participants at a mass demonstration on 2 December in Gudermes, Chechnya's second-largest town, were similarly demanding that the congress take place in Chechnya. The demonstrators also denounced Moscow-based Chechen politicians Malik Saidullaev (who had announced in mid-November his intention to contest the next Chechen presidential elections), Ruslan Khasbulatov, and Aslakhanov for professing sympathy for the Chechen population but never actually visiting Chechnya. On 3 December, "Kommersant-Daily" reported, quoting Chechen administration officials, that over 20,000 people had signed a petition addressed to Russian President Vladimir Putin demanding that the congress be held in Grozny.

In an interview published in "Vremya novostei" on 4 December and summarized by ITAR-TASS, Kadyrov announced that a "rival" congress would be held in Grozny on 11 December, five days before that in Moscow. (In the event, the venue was moved at the last moment to Gudermes for security reasons.) Also on 4 December, Kadyrov told journalists that the Grozny congress would focus on the new Chechen draft constitution, which defines Chechnya as a presidential republic with an "earnest but tough" leader who, Kadyrov said, will be elected in a ballot to be held before the end of 2003. Russian Minister for Chechen Affairs Stanislav Ilyasov implied in an interview with ITAR-TASS on 6 December that the most important item on the agenda of the one-day congress would be drumming up public support for the planned constitutional referendum in March and the ensuing elections, in which Kadyrov hopes to be elected president.

Kadyrov said that Aslakhanov, Khasbulatov, and former pro-Moscow Chechen Prime Minister (in 1995) Salambek Khadzhiev would be invited to the Grozny congress, together with some 300 delegates from within Chechnya and a further 150 from Chechen communities elsewhere in Russia, but that Chechens currently engaged in fighting the Russian forces would not be invited to participate.

"Kommersant-Daily" on 3 December quoted Aslakhanov as accusing Kadyrov of a deliberate attempt to split Chechen society. "This is an attempt on his part not to allow thousands of Chechens who have been forced to leave Chechnya to participate in decision making that affects their republic," Aslakhanov said. "[Kadyrov's] statement that it would be inexpedient to hold this congress in Chechnya is just an excuse."

Aslakhanov did not offer any explanation for Kadyrov's countermove. But the 18 November issue of the journal "Ekspert" provided several relevant insights. It claims that Kadyrov's popularity within Chechnya is falling by the day. And the Russian leadership has made two moves in recent weeks that lessen his room for maneuver. First, Chechen Prime Minister Stanislav Ilyasov was transferred to Moscow to take control of overseeing both the process of reconstruction in Chechnya and the allocation of funds for that purpose, a move that "Ekspert" suggests was intended to prevent Kadyrov siphoning off part of those funds to finance his anticipated presidential election campaign next year. Second, Kadyrov was not consulted over the appointment of Ivanovo Oblast Deputy Governor Mikhail Babich to succeed Ilyasov -- and keep a wary eye on Kadyrov.

Meanwhile, more and more Russian political figures are arguing in favor of appointing a presidential "viceroy" to govern Chechnya. Former Russian Premier Yevgenii Primakov included that proposal in his "Six Points for Chechnya" (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 5, No. 38, 28 November 2002). Duma Defense Committee Deputy Chairman Aleksei Arbatov also advocated that approach, suggesting as the most suitable candidate the commander of the North Caucasus Military District, Colonel General Gennadii Troshev, who is a native of Chechnya. When the possibility of appointing a Chechen viceroy first surfaced two years ago, Troshev was rumored to be in the running for the post, even though he had gone on record as saying that he was not interested (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, No. 41, 20 October 2000). But possibly in a bid to prevent Troshev assuming a political role in Chechnya, the Russian Defense Ministry reportedly plans to transfer him to the Trans-Baikal Military District, according to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 10 December.

Former Interior Minister General Anatolii Kulikov, for his part, told "Ekspert" (No. 45) that the presidential representative should be a civilian, to whom all civilian and security structures in Chechnya would be subordinate. But whoever is chosen for the post of "super-governor" for Chechnya, he will eclipse Kadyrov's authority.

A further possible threat to Kadyrov's presidential ambitions is the emergence, according to "Ekspert," of opposition to him within the existing pro-Moscow Chechen authorities; the journal points to an alignment between Grozny Mayor Oleg Zhidkov and two raion administration heads who, "Ekspert" predicts, will propose their own presidential candidate. A second potential challenger, according to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 11 December, is deputy Chechen administration head with responsibility for industrial and economic affairs Usman Masaev, who is backed by the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs.

But the grimmest scenario is that suggested by Anna Politkovskaya, the doyenne of Russian journalists who focus on Chechnya. In a commentary published in the "Los Angeles Times" on 26 November, Politkovskaya suggests that as part of his plan to secure re-election in 2004 for a second presidential term, President Putin will condone a massive offensive against the Chechen resistance during the early part of 2003. That offensive, Politkovskaya predicts, will entail "even more large-scale and severe 'mopping-up' operations, bombing, shelling, looting, people abducted and disappearing without trace, jackbooted pressure on the civilian population." The offensive will be followed, according to Politkovskaya, by peace talks, as a result of which Putin will be able to present himself to voters as the man who finally secured peace in Chechnya.

But a major offensive in early 2003 could not only put paid to the planned constitutional referendum, but also either undercut Kadyrov's position still further and/or serve as the rationale for sidelining him and finally resorting to the naming of a presidential representative to govern Chechnya. (Liz Fuller)

KHASBULATOV PREDICTS CHECHNYA WILL BE PUTIN'S DOWNFALL. In a 6 December interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service, former Russian parliament speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov outlined his own apocalyptic vision of the repercussions of the Chechen war on Russian politics, and for President Putin in particular. Khasbulatov predicted that "Putin will not end this war with a victory. It was because of the war in Chechnya that he became president, but this same war will also finish him politically, he is being sucked into it like a quicksand, and he will perish in it."

As former Russian Security Council Secretary Ivan Rybkin did in an interview with RFE/RL in June, Khasbulatov pointed to the corrosive effects of the war on Russian society as a whole, as evidenced by rising crime and increasing tolerance of, and resort to, violence as a means to an end. He also noted the economic impact, referring to calculations by unnamed economists that the war consumes 30 percent of all budget funds, while towns across Russia face the winter without heat or money to pay pensions and wages to their inhabitants.

Khasbulatov conceded, nonetheless, that Putin might agree to Chechen peace talks, either if the economic situation deteriorates dramatically, or under pressure from the international community. He noted that on a recent visit to Washington, U.S. administration officials and congressmen showed a keen interest in developments in Chechnya and the North Caucasus in general.

Khasbulatov suggested that Putin personally does not want the war, "it irritates him, he feels uncomfortable when people ask questions about Chechnya," but that the Russian military, who are growing wealthy from their illicit economic activities in Chechnya, "have him by the throat." He said Putin should extract himself from the clutches of the generals, especially Chief of General Staff Anatolii Kvashnin. (Liz Fuller)

UN PONDERS ABKHAZ IMPASSE. The UN Security Council met in closed session on 9 December to discuss the Abkhaz conflict, but failed to reach a consensus on how best to revive the stalled peace process, RFE/RL's UN correspondent reported. For the past year, the international community has consistently argued that the optimum approach is for Georgia and Abkhazia to begin talks on the UN-drafted document "Basic Principles for the Distribution of Competencies between Tbilisi and Sukhumi." The Georgian leadership has endorsed that document, the text of which was made public only last month. But the Abkhaz leadership has consistently refused even to accept a copy of it, arguing that the population of Abkhazia voted in a referendum in 1999 to endorse the unrecognized republic's constitution, which defines Abkhazia as an independent sovereign state (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4, 5, and 13 October 1999 and 6 February 2002).

Moreover, two recent developments could create further obstacles to any formal discussion of the "Basic Principles." First, Russia reportedly withdrew its support for that document. Moscow had blocked discussion of it in the UN Security Council for most of 2001 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 November 2002). At the same time, Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Valerii Loshchinin, whom Russian President Putin named in March as his special envoy for the Abkhaz conflict, has endorsed a proposal by Adjar Supreme Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze (named by Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze late last year to perform analogous duties) to focus instead on economic restoration and other "confidence-building" measures in Abkhazia, including reopening railway communication from Russia via Abkhazia to Tbilisi and then on to Armenia.

Loshchinin discussed that approach on several occasions in October-November during talks with Abkhaz Prime Minister Anri Djergenia. Loshchinin also expressed support for Djergenia's proposal that an Abkhaz representative be permitted to address the scheduled UN Security Council discussion of the Abkhaz conflict (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 and 27 November 2002). But on 29 November, ailing Abkhaz President Vladislav Ardzinba abruptly fired Djergenia, naming Gennadii Gagulia, who had served as premier in 1995-98, to succeed him.

No convincing explanation has been offered for Djergenia's dismissal. Some observers suggested that Ardzinba feared Djergenia was on the verge of making major concessions to Georgia over Abkhazia's future status within the "asymmetrical federation" Georgia wants. But in that case, how could he have secured Russia's backing? Why, in fact, should Russia have any interest in resolving the conflict, in the light of the slow but steady intensification of Russian economic interests in the region (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 5, No. 21, 14 June 2002)? Tbilisi has made clear that if it regains control of the breakaway republic, it will annul all sales of Abkhaz enterprises to Russian businessmen.

Some Western diplomats from the states that belong to the "Friends of the UN Secretary General" informal grouping that is seeking to expedite a solution to the Abkhaz conflict have expressed concern that the "Basic Principles" could become outdated if the Abkhaz leadership continues to refuse to discuss them. But Ambassador Heidi Tagliavini, who is UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special envoy for the Abkhaz conflict, rejected those misgivings. She told RFE/RL in New York on 10 December that "we should not make this automatic assumption [that] not accepting the document means that at one stage we will abandon it and forget about it and Abkhazia will become independent."

Tagliavini and other Western diplomats endorsed Abashidze's proposal for "confidence-building measures," provided that they proceed in tandem with talks on Abkhazia's future status, rather than as a substitute for such talks, RFE/RL's UN correspondent reported. But one of Georgia's representatives to the UN stressed that such confidence-building measures and economic reconstruction are possible only after Abkhazia has agreed to talks on its status within Georgia. Gia Volskii, Georgia's deputy ambassador to the UN, said that "we're not against confidence building measures, rehabilitation of the Abkhaz economy...but first we have to have something tangible towards political negotiations."

Gagulia, however, made it clear in an interview published in "Izvestiya" on 4 December that he is committed both to obtaining international recognition of Abkhazia as an independent state and to promoting further economic cooperation with Russia -- objectives that would seem to rule out any such negotiations.

Meanwhile, Georgian political figures are increasingly questioning whether the "Basic Principles" safeguard Georgia's interests. Georgian parliamentary Defense and Security Committee Chairman Irakli Batiashvili argued in October that the document is "amorphous" and fails to define clearly the separation of powers between the central and the Abkhaz government. Tamaz Nadareishvili, chairman of the Tbilisi-based Abkhaz parliament-in-exile, warned on 14 November that insofar as the "Basic Principles" provide for establishing a federal state, they risk precipitating the split of Georgia into two separate entities as was the case with Czechoslovakia. Nadareishvili is one of the most hawkish proponents of invoking Article 7 of the UN Charter, which stipulates the circumstances in which the UN may launch a "peace-enforcement" operation. But Georgian Ambassador to the UN Revaz Adamia told ITAR-TASS on 10 December that he considers such calls for armed UN intervention in Abkhazia "premature." (Liz Fuller)

FORMER ARMENIAN FOREIGN MINISTER CONFIDENT OF PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION VICTORY. Raffi Hovannisian, Armenia's U.S.-born former foreign minister, said on 6 December that he can easily defeat President Robert Kocharian in the event of a one-on-one showdown at the upcoming presidential elections.

"If the incumbent president and I contest the 19 February elections alone and if those elections are free, fair, and transparent, I will score a convincing victory over Mr. Kocharian," he told a news conference.

Hovannisian, who is seen as one of Kocharian's main challengers, said many Armenians will embrace his agenda because he will offer them a "new, modern alternative" that can address many of the problems facing their country.

Hovannisian, who served as foreign minister in 1992, is one of 15 candidates nominated for the February vote. As the deadline for their registration by the Central Election Commission approaches, the media are likely to focus increasingly on his eligibility to run for president.

Armenia's Constitution stipulates that only those individuals who have been Armenian nationals and lived in the country for the previous 10 years can contest presidential elections. Hovannisian, who moved to Yerevan from California in 1990, was granted Armenian citizenship only last year, despite numerous applications filed to immigration authorities since 1991.

The ex-minister insisted on that he is eligible to stand in the election because his attempts to become naturalized in Armenia had been "illegally" thwarted by the current and former authorities for many years. He said he will therefore sue the Central Election Commission if it refuses to include his name on the ballot sheet.

Hovannisian added that in that case the court must also pass a judgment on the eligibility of "other candidates," apparently referring to Kocharian, who moved to Armenia from Nagorno-Karabakh only in early 1997. (Karine Kalantarian)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "If we fail to pursue the right policy, 10,000 bandits could take up arms in a day." -- Russian Minister for Chechen Affairs Stanislav Ilyasov, quoted by Interfax on 7 December.

"How can we be certain that there will not be more terrorist acts if the war continues? Every day I wake up and think 'Has something else happened, something terrible?'" -- Former Russian parliament speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov, interviewed by RFE/RL on 6 December.

"If Chechens get involved in nuclear terrorism, Chechnya will be wiped off the map." -- Former Russian Atomic Energy Minister Viktor Mikhailov, interviewed by "Izvestiya" on 4 December.

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