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Caucasus Report: March 23, 2001

23 March 2001, Volume 4, Number 12

IS KEY WEST A PRELUDE TO PEACE OR TO NEW FIGHTING... Since the OSCE Minsk Group's draft Karabakh peace proposals were leaked to the press a month ago, predictions about the upcoming summit in Key West have ranged from discussions about the possibility of war to predictions of a new step toward peace. In recent weeks, some senior officials in Azerbaijan have noted that Baku has the right to use force if all attempts to resolve the conflict peacefully fail and that the Azerbaijani armed forces are now strong enough to liberate the raions currently occupied by Armenian forces. Officials in Yerevan have responded by reaffirming their commitment to try to resolve the conflict peacefully. But both Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian and President Robert Kocharian have warned that any Azerbaijani aggression is likely to lead to a further defeat.

Noyan Tapan's veteran commentator David Petrosian said in a recent weekly analysis that he considers a war unlikely not least because neither side is strong enough to win a clear-cut military victory. He predicts that any fighting would grind to a halt after six-eight weeks because neither side has the resources to fight a protracted campaign. Moreover, during those six to eight weeks, he suggests, each side would incur losses of between 2,000-5,000 men and up to 35 percent of its armor, while depleting ammunition reserves by 50-70 percent. Such an inconclusive war makes a resumption of negotiations difficult if not impossible in the short term -- a development which, he notes, would be to the advantage of both Moscow and Tehran.

Moscow's "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 17 March offers an alternative scenario, one which, however, it labels unlikely. The paper suggests that the international community may have a vested interest in a resumption of hostilities that would break the insistence of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic that it not be subordinated to the central Azerbaijani government under the terms of an eventual peace agreement. It postulates an attack by Baku on the forces of the Karabakh Self-Defense Army and a "mini-war," the outcome of which -- the Karabakh leadership's capitulation -- would have to be agreed in advance between Baku, Yerevan, and the international community. (Liz Fuller)

...OR WILL IT LEAD TO A RAPPROCHEMENT BETWEEN ARMENIA AND TURKEY? Commenting on the U.S.'s recent offer to host talks between Armenian President Robert Kocharian and his Azerbaijani counterpart Heidar Aliyev in Key West early next month, the pro-Kocharian daily "Azg" suggested that Washington is hoping to arrange a meeting between the foreign ministers of Armenia and Turkey, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Such a meeting "promises to mark an interesting moment in Turkish-Armenian relations and regional affairs," the paper concluded. (Liz Fuller)

ADYGEYA'S SLAV MAJORITY PROTESTS DISCRIMINATION. The 4 March elections of a new State Assembly in the Republic of Adygeya have served to underscore once again the depths of the animosity between the republic's titular nationality, who account for just 22 percent of the total 449,000 population, and the Russians and other Slavs who account for some 70 percent.

The primary cause of those tensions is the perception of the Slav majority that they are discriminated against by the titular minority, and that for years this discrimination was effectively formalized by the republic's legislation and constitution. Articles and interviews published over the past two and a half years in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" tend to substantiate that perception of systematic political and economic discrimination by the Adygei minority. Historian Nina Konovalova, who is a leading member of the Union of Slavs of Adygeya, told that newspaper, for example, that Russians are discriminated against in higher education, where faculty personnel are predominantly Adygei, while the local school system sets out to indoctrinate Adygei children from an early age, inter alia by portraying the Caucasus Wars of the 19th century as wars against Russia and characterizing Russians as "the enemy."

Konovalova also protested the republic leadership's policy of encouraging the immigration of the Cherkess descendants of those forced into exile during the 19th-century conquest of their lands. She claimed that under the recently adopted law on repatriation, the government intends to settle Cherkess from Jordan, Syria, and Turkey in the Maikop Raion, which accounts for over half the republic's total land area and the 60,000 population of which is 98.6 percent Russian.

As examples of economic discrimination, Konovalova cites the fact that a far higher percentage of Adygei-populated villages have gas mains than do Russian villages or Cossack stanitsas, and that of the republic's 71 gas stations, all but three are owned by Adygeis.

Both Konovalova and the chairman of the Union of Slavs of Adygeya, Boris Karataev, have argued that the election law stipulating that candidates for the presidency must speak Adygei as well as Russian is intended specifically to prevent Slavs from contesting that post. They also condemned as discriminatory the article of the republic's constitution that says that Russians and Adygeis should be equally represented in the government and legislature. The Russians argue that Adygeis should occupy no more than 10 out of the 45 seats in the republic's parliament.

In the summer of 1998, the Union of Slavs of Adygeya issued an ultimatum to the republic's leadership, warning that unless the constitution and legislation were amended to bring them into conformity with the Russian Constitution and laws, the Slavs would demand the holding of a referendum on transferring the predominantly Russian-populated Maikop Raion to Stavropol Krai, of which it was a constituent part until 1962.

The constitution has since been amended, but the republic's leadership subsequently set about trying to preserve the Adygeis' numerical equality in the legislature by resorting to gerrymandering. Karataev told RFE/RL that the outgoing legislature drafted and passed an election law that provides for districts with widely diverging numbers of voters to elect the same number of deputies to the new parliament. Although the Russian Supreme Court ruled that specific provisions of the election law violate Russian legislation, Adygeya's President Aslan Djarimov issued a statement to the republic's population in which he affirmed that the Supreme Court's ruling did not apply to the March 2001 elections but only those to be held four years hence. Aleksandr Veshnyakov, the chairman of Russia's Central Electoral Commission, failed to challenge this interpretation.

Nor was the maneuvering over the election law the sole ugly incident to mar the election campaign. On 26 February, just one week before the ballot, leaflets were distributed in Maikop, the republic's capital, allegedly in the name of the Russian Patriotic Union, alleging that Konovalova is Jewish, that her real name is Azerman, and that she maintains close contacts with embattled Russian oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky. Karataev told RFE/RL that the leaflets appear to have been printed locally, and that although the registration numbers of the vehicles used to distribute them were reported to the republic's authorities, the persons involved have not been summoned for questioning. (Liz Fuller)

...AS GUERRILLA LEADER CONDEMNS ABKHAZ-GEORGIAN ACCORD... The Abkhaz-Georgian agreement on confidence-building measures and abjuring the use of violence has come in for scathing criticism from Zurab Samushia, leader of the "White Legion" Georgian guerrillas, the Tbilisi daily "Alia" reported on 22 March. That band has for years been operating in the security zone along the border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia. Samushia characterized as "men in diapers" those members of the Abkhaz government-in-exile who as members of the Georgian delegation in Yalta "kissed those Abkhaz whom [Mkhedrioni paramilitary leader] Djaba Ioseliani hunted down."

Samushia further expressed his indignation that the Georgian delegation agreed at the Yalta talks not to discuss Abkhazia's status. "After such a statement they should have left the conference hall," Samushia said. (Liz Fuller)

UN ENVOY HOPES FOR TALKS ON ABKHAZIA'S STATUS... UN officials on 21 March welcomed the recent agreement between Georgia and Abkhazia on confidence-building measures (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 March 2001). But UN Special Representative Dieter Boden said in New York the same day that the 15-16 March Yalta meeting of Abkhaz and Georgian government delegations did not appear to mark any major progress in ending their long-running conflict. He warned that the unresolved status of Abkhazia needs to be addressed soon lest that become a source of instability for the whole Caucasus region.

Boden acknowledged nonetheless that the Yalta talks, which he attended along with other UN and CIS representatives, gave an important boost to confidence-building measures between the two sides. Boden, who has been trying to advance the peace process since being named to his current position 18 months ago, said the Yalta talks had a new, more positive tone than previous meetings. Boden told RFE/RL's UN correspondent that both sides brought large delegations to Yalta, including on the Georgian side representatives of people displaced from Abkhazia. He said this led to a fascinating exchange on the first day of talks between internally displaced Georgians and Abkhaz representatives that marked a new level of dialogue. He characterized that dialogue as "very emotional, but still in a way which was free of antagonism and hatred that we had formerly. So I do not overestimate it, but I think this could be also a development that will enable us to tackle some of the more complicated issues that are still before us."

The Yalta talks produced yet another pledge from both sides to renounce violence and safeguard the return of internally displaced people and refugees to Abkhazia. The agreement also called for a list of bilateral exchanges, including cooperation in wine-making, promoting media exchanges, and organizing meetings of scholars from both sides. But the key point of contention between the two sides -- Abkhazia's future status vis-a-vis the central Georgian government -- was not on the agenda.

Abkhazia considers itself independent of Georgia and has held elections for president and local bodies -- most recently on 10 March -- which have been condemned by the United Nations. The United Nations continues to promote a formula that calls for a settlement of the political status of Abkhazia within Georgia. The UN Security Council issued a statement on 21 March stressing the importance of negotiations on the core political questions of the conflict. Boden similarly said confidence-building measures are important but it is crucial that both sides commit themselves to serious talks on Abkhazia's status to end eight years of impasse and preempt further regional destabilization.

"As long as you have a non-recognized entity or state in the area, I think that the stability of the whole Caucasus is at stake. We think that this problem has to be tackled as soon as possible otherwise the whole peace process may be in jeopardy," Boden said.

In a letter to the UN Security Council, released on 21 March, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze asked for the United Nations to draft a document setting forth the basic principles of what he called "constitutional competencies" Georgian and Abkhaz leaders. Shevardnadze said once such a document is endorsed by the Security Council, it should become the basis for further negotiations between the two sides. The council plans to hold a special session next month that will address progress in seeking a political settlement to the conflict.

Meanwhile, Boden said, he has been trying to gain agreement from Abkhaz officials to ease the return of displaced Georgians to the Gali region near the border. Although hundreds of thousands of Georgians remain displaced, he said, they have been steadily returning to Gali over the past 18 months. He said there are now 60,000 people living in Gali compared to its pre-civil war population of 90,000

Boden said those returning include whole families with small children, which creates new demands on local infrastructure and the administration of schools. He says Abkhaz officials have only supplied school materials in the Russian or Abkhaz languages and he has been pressing local authorities to provide Georgian-language materials.

A further concern is security. Boden says the situation around the cease-fire line between the two sides is volatile, noting that 60 people were killed in the area last year. In the most recent incident, five Abkhaz police officials were wounded on 18 March when their checkpoint came under fire from a grenade launcher. News reports said three of them later died.

Abkhaz Prime Minister Vyacheslav Tsugba at Yalta blamed Georgian guerrillas for a recent upsurge in attacks and expressed concern at what he said was the international community's failure to condemn the violence. But Boden said it is not clear to what extent any organized formations in the border area are directed from Georgia. Boden also said organized crime activity has complicated security controls in the border zone.

"What we have in that Gali area and also the Zugdidi area is criminality and you have smuggling of all sorts, so it's difficult to find out in detail what the background is of these armed attacks. I think it is a challenge for the law enforcement organs of both sides to work closer together," Boden said.

Boden also said the new commander of the CIS peacekeeping forces deployed on both sides of the border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia, Major General Nikolai Sidorichev, has begun cooperating on "very promising lines" with officials of the UN Mission in Georgia. Sidorichev, who assumed his post about one month ago, commands 1,700 mostly Russian peacekeeping troops in the region. (Robert McMahon)

KOCHARIAN WARNED AGAINST HARMING RUSSIA'S INTERESTS. President Robert Kocharian will risk destabilizing the situation in his country if he reaches a peace agreement on Nagorno-Karabakh in Key West that contradicts Russia's interests in the region, a leading pro-Moscow Armenian politician warned on 22 March. Ashot Manucharian, a former presidential adviser on national security who is rumored to have close connections with Russian security agencies, said the most recent international push to resolve the Karabakh conflict is part of a broader effort to ensure the West's hegemony in the Caucasus.

Speaking in the run-up to the 3 April talks between the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents, Manucharian said Moscow has all necessary levels to "destabilize" Armenia. "Key West is an island on the edge of the Bermuda Triangle where ships, people, and airplanes get lost," he told a news conference at the headquarters of his Socialist Armenia party.

It was Manucharian's first public appearance since the formation of the National Accord Front (AHCh), an umbrella group uniting over a dozen leftist pro-Russian parties opposed to Kocharian (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 and 21 March 2001). Manucharian is believed to play a central role in that alliance. He said the AHCh's most immediate task is to campaign against a Karabakh settlement which it believes is being imposed by the West. Kocharian's strategy at Key West must be to avoid agreeing to any peace accord and to blame Azerbaijan for the failure of the talks, he said. Kocharian was warned on 20 March against making sweeping concessions to Baku by the influential Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutiun), which has been largely sympathetic to the head of state ever since he took office three years ago.

Meanwhile, officials in Nagorno-Karabakh on 22 March quoted the self-proclaimed republic's president, Arkadii Ghukasian, as saying that peace options currently being discussed by Kocharian and Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev are "more acceptable" to Stepanakert. Ghukasian made the comment the previous day during closed-door hearings in the Karabakh parliament, according to the speaker of the assembly, Mushegh Ohanjanian. Ohanjanian told RFE/RL that Ghukasian attaches great importance to the Kocharian-Aliyev contacts, but continues to insist that Karabakh have a final say on any agreement.

Ohanjanian said at the same time that he thinks the Karabakh leader does not have "full information" about the regular Armenian-Azerbaijani summits. (Armen Zakarian, Hrant Aleksanian in Stepanakert)

...WHICH ABKHAZIA SAYS IS INEFFECTIVE. In the week that has elapsed since the signing in Yalta of the non-aggression pledge, three Abkhaz policemen were killed and two others wounded by mortar fire on 18 March, while one Georgian was killed and two seriously injured three days later when a bus hit a landmine in western Georgia. Meeting in Sukhum on 22 March with Major General Tim Ford, the UN secretary-general's advisor for military issues, Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba complained that "no stability has been reached in Gali Raion. We sign documents, but the terrorist acts don't stop," Caucasus Press reported. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK. "We have been, are and shall remain in brotherly relations with the Chechen people, but a return to the previous common dwelling [obshchezhitie] is impossible." -- Ingushetia's President Ruslan Aushev, in a further rejection of anticipated proposals to reunite Ingushetia and Chechnya in a single federation subject ("Kommersant-Daily," 20 March).