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Caucasus Report: February 2, 2001

2 February 2001, Volume 4, Number 5

GEORGIA APPEARS TO BACKTRACK ON ABKHAZ ACCORDS. On 31 January, in the course of its routine six-monthly assessment of the situation in Abkhazia, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution that included a paragraph calling on Tbilisi and Sukhum to sign two draft documents that have been the subject of discussion between the two sides since June 1998. Those documents are the "Agreement on Peace and Guarantees for Preempting Armed Clashes" and a "Protocol on the Return of Refugees to the Gali Raion and Measures to Restore the Economy."

Georgia's ambassador to the UN, Petre Chkheidze, however, registered his formal objection to that reference, terming both draft documents "unacceptable for the government of Georgia" and the draft Agreement on Peace and Guarantees for Preempting Armed Clashes "dubious in several respects." Chkheidze's criticism is surprising as the versions of both drafts currently under discussion were proposed by the Georgian side, according to a report on the situation in Abkhazia submitted to the Security Council late last fall by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Chkheidze further raised the stakes by saying that insistence that Tbilisi sign those accords could jeopardize Georgian-Abkhaz talks on confidence building measures that are to be held in Yalta next month.

Why has Georgia apparently shifted its position? The most likely explanation for Chkheidze's objections is that the Georgian leadership is again under pressure from politicians who claim to represent the interests of the Georgian displaced persons who fled their homes in Abkhazia during the 1992-1993 war. Those displaced persons staged protests in Tbilisi last summer after Georgian Minister of State Gia Arsenishvili and Abkhaz Prime Minister Vyacheslav Tsugba signed a protocol on measures to stabilize the situation on both sides of the border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, no. 28, 14 July 2000). At that meeting, the two men also vowed to finalize "within one month" the two draft documents referred to above.

More recently, spokesmen for the displaced persons argued last month that President Eduard Shevardnadze should be expelled from Georgia for his continued failure to negotiate a settlement of the conflict that would enable the displaced persons to return home.

Another factor that may be relevant to Tbilisi's apparent inconsistency is the possibility of an imminent domestic political crisis in Abkhazia. In recent weeks, Georgian newspapers have claimed that Abkhaz President Vladislav Ardzinba is seriously ill with Parkinson's disease, and that a power struggle is underway to replace him. Whether or not those reports are true is unclear; but the Georgian leadership may prefer not to continue discussing draft accords that could necessitate concessions on its part if there is a chance that power in Sukhum could soon devolve on a faction that would demonstrate greater readiness for compromise than Ardzinba has done. (Liz Fuller)

DOES CHECHNYA HAVE A PRESIDENT -- AND DOES IT MATTER? On 27 January 1997, then-Chechen Prime Minister Aslan Maskhadov was elected president by a two-thirds majority in a ballot whose legitimacy Moscow formally recognized. But neither Russian media reports nor recent statements by or attributed to Maskhadov make it clear whether his presidential term lasts four years or five.

According to the constitution of the Russian Federation, which treats Chechnya as one of the 89 federation subjects, presidents and oblast leaders are elected for a four-year term. Some Russian media have reported that Chechen parliament deputies met in January 2001 to prolong that term, but those reports have not been confirmed, and a journalist from "The Los Angeles Times" who met recently with Maskhadov reported that it is expected that he will drop the presidential title after the end of January but continue to discharge the duties of commander of the Chechen military forces.

In an interview published in "Kommersant-Daily" on 27 January, however, Maskhadov claimed that under the Chechen Constitution his presidential term lasts for five years. He added that even if his original term had only been four years, the State Defense Committee created at the beginning of the current war was invested with all state powers, and prohibited further elections for the duration of hostilities.

It is nonetheless highly probable that having stated in October 1999 that it no longer recognizes Maskhadov as Chechnya's legitimate president, Moscow can be expected to invoke the expiry of Maskhadov's first four years in office as an argument against any further contacts with him.

Moreover, Russian media reports have sought to convey the impression that the Chechen forces are divided, specifically that Maskhadov is at odds with field commanders Shamil Basaev and Khattab, who allegedly no longer acknowledge his authority. ITAR-TASS on 23 January, for example, reported without identifying its sources that the Chechen Defense Committee had adopted the previous night new plans for those fighters under Maskhadov's command. According to those plans, Maskhadov will allegedly send those of his men who are wanted by the federal authorities to neighboring Georgia and Azerbaijan, order the remainder either to move to Ingushetia or to return to their homes, and store 90 percent of their arms until the spring. Those waiting tactics, according to ITAR-TASS, are prompted by the anticipation that the combined federal forces, now under the command of the Federal Security Service (FSB), will move to wipe out Basaev and Khattab.

Similarly, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 23 January quoted a senior FSB official in Stavropol Krai as claiming that during the visit to Chechnya on 15-16 January by a delegation of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Chechen ideologue Movladi Udugov met with delegation head Lord Frank Judd in an effort to persuade him to abjure any further contacts with Maskhadov and acknowledge Basaev as the sole representative of the Chechen fighters.

Both Maskhadov and Udugov have denied any splits within the Chechen camp, however. "The Los Angeles Times" quoted Maskhadov as saying that his fighters remain unified, and will continue to wage a guerrilla war, operating in small mobile groups of 10-15 men to "wear out the enemy morally and physically." Udugov, for his part, in an interview posted on the "Kavkaz center" website on 24 January, rejected as "absolute lies from beginning to end" the FSB claim that he had approached the PACE delegation.

Udugov also made one further point in that interview that is relevant to discussions of whether Maskhadov remains Chechnya's legitimate president. He said that "the possible loss of any one of the present leaders in Chechnya not only will not solve Moscow's problems in the Caucasus but, on the contrary, will show that these problems have only become more complex and less easy to solve, as there are dozens of more radical Islamic leaders who are less inclined to compromise, who for the moment are waiting in the shadows, but who are ready to take up the banner of Islam and continue the war against the enemies of Allah." (Liz Fuller)

HOW MANY TROOPS WILL RUSSIA WITHDRAW FROM CHECHNYA? Russian President Vladimir Putin's 22 January announcement that the number of Russian troops in Chechnya will be reduced has sparked debate about the optimum size of the Russian military presence there and also about how swiftly the excess forces could and should be withdrawn.

Most officials, whether Chechen or Russian, have based their evaluations on the assumption that there are currently some 80,000 Russian troops in Chechnya. Movladi Udugov, however -- in the interview referred to above -- claimed that Moscow now has between 200,000- 250,000 troops in Chechnya.

Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, who first suggested last November that some Russian soldiers should be brought home from Chechnya, has advocated cutting the Russian troop presence by half, while Aslanbek Aslakhanov, who represents Chechnya in the Russian State Duma, called for a 75 percent reduction. He estimated that some 20,000-22,000 Russian troops would be enough to continue operations against the Chechen fighters, whose numbers he gave as no more than 2,000. At the same time, however, Aslakhanov proposed that the Russian Interior Ministry contingent in Chechnya should be increased to a minimum of 6,000.

Although Putin mentioned no time frame, Duma Defense Committee chairman Andrei Nikolaev said the pullout could be completed within six months.

Russian officials have since made it clear, however, that what Putin was referring to was less a substantial reduction in the number of troops than the withdrawal of excess forces, especially from the northern, lowland regions. Speaking in Moscow on 29 January, Putin's aide Sergei Yastrzhembskii explained that the phased reduction will encompass only "superfluous personnel and materiel," primarily heavy armor, from units that are not a part of the North Caucasus Military District. At the same time, Yastrzhembskii said, the Interior Ministry presence in Chechnya will be reinforced.

Colonel General Valerii Manilov, the first deputy chief of the Russian Army General Staff, told journalists in Moscow on 30 January that the troop reduction "has been planned by the General Staff and will be carried out depending on the actual situation, its development, and the fulfillment of the task of the complete elimination of rebel formations and their leaders." As for the number of troops that would be withdrawn, Manilov said a 50 percent, or even a 25 percent reduction "is simply not in the cards." (Liz Fuller)

ROSNEFT, CHECHEN LEADERSHIP TO SHARE CONTROL OF CHECHEN OIL SECTOR. Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov agreed in late January to chair the board of Grozneftegaz, the company created to extract and export Chechnya's oil and gas deposits. Formed in late November, Grozneftegaz is 51 percent owned by Rosneft, which will have five representatives on the Grozneftegaz board. The Chechen administration owns the remaining 49 percent stake and will have four representatives on the board. That arrangement represents a defeat for Kadyrov, who had argued since his nomination last June that Grozneftegaz's predecessor, Grozneft, should remain under the control of the Moscow-appointed Chechen leadership. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Khristenko, however, insisted that Rosneft should be granted a stake in Grozneft (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, no. 30, 27 July 2000).

Grozneftegaz currently employs 1,500 people and produces 1,000 tons of oil per day. It is planned to increase production to 1,700 -- 2,000 tons per day. Theoretically, the entire proceeds from the sale of that oil will be reinvested in reconstruction of Chechnya's devastated infrastructure. (Liz Fuller)

GOING IT ALONE. Vagif Samedoglu was expelled in November from the opposition Musavat Party for insisting on taking up the deputy's mandate he won in the 5 November Azerbaijani parliamentary election rather than boycott proceedings of what that party considers an illegitimate legislature. He said in Strasbourg on 24 January that he plans to found a new political party based on Musavat's ideology, Turan reported on 24 January. Samedoglu is a 61-year-old poet, two of whose uncles were prominent members of Musavat during Azerbaijan's brief period of independence in 1918-1920.

In an interview published in "Zerkalo" on 2 December, Samedoglu explained his decision to flout the Musavat boycott of the legislature by the need to try to reconcile the right-wing opposition and the present Azerbaijani authorities. He noted that Azerbaijanis are taking to the streets to protest atrocious social hardship, and that a force in Russia that he declined to name is interested in using that wave of protest to topple President Heidar Aliev. But that force, Samedoglu continued, also wants to prevent the Musavat Party headed by Isa Gambar from succeeding to power. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "I believe that democracy cannot develop in a society infected with the ideology of aggressive nationalism, national superiority, and territorial claims on neighboring states." -- Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliev, speaking in Strasbourg on 25 January on the occasion of Azerbaijan's formal acceptance into full membership of the Council of Europe.

"Azerbaijan has never been as stable as it is now, and the administration has never been so firm and rational." -- Presidential administration head Ramiz Mekhtiev, in an exclusive interview with Turan on 31 January.