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Caucasus Report: June 28, 2001

28 June 2001, Volume 4, Number 24

UNFINISHED BUSINESS IN THE GEORGIAN PARLIAMENT. The Georgian parliament ended its spring session on 22 June without having passed three crucial items of legislation that could transform the political landscape in Georgia over the next few years. They are the proposed constitutional amendments restoring the post of prime minister; the amendments to the law on elections; and the new law on local self-government. The various opposition parties represented in parliament are united in their opposition to all three measures.

The need to restore the post of prime minister and for the institution of a cabinet of ministers was argued by President Eduard Shevardnadze during his annual address to the Georgian parliament and people last month. But both the opposition and some members of Shevardnadze's own Union of Citizens of Georgia (SMK) objected to various aspects of his proposed new division of powers (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 21, 19 May 2001). The parliament's committee for legal issues has since discussed the proposed amendments, but not an alternative draft tabled by the opposition Industrialists faction, and neither has been the subject of debate. Constitutional amendments must be approved by two-thirds of all parliament deputies (100 of 150). Ever the optimist, Shevardnadze told journalists on 25 June he still believes there is "a good chance" that the amendments will be approved.

Of the proposed amendments to the election law, it is the provisions for selecting members of the Central Electoral Commission that have generated the greatest controversy. The majority SMK parliament faction proposed that three members of the CEC be named by the majority, three by the parliamentary opposition, six by NGOs, and one each by Abkhazia, djaria, and the president. The Abkhaz representative would presumably be nominated by the Abkhazeti parliament faction comprised of ethnic Georgian deputies to the Abkhaz parliament elected in 1991.

The opposition for its part initially demanded that six members be selected by the parliament majority, six by the largest minority faction, and six more from parties that polled more than 3 percent of the vote in the last parliamentary ballot, and three by NGOs, but after consulting with NGOs agreed that they should have three representatives.

In a seeming reversal, parliament speaker Zurab Zhvania, who on 18 June objected to the first opposition proposal on the grounds that it would result in a commission in which the majority parliament faction was outnumbered by representatives of other political parties, argued on 21 June that electoral commission members should be selected on the basis of their professional knowledge rather then their party affiliation. Opposition faction leaders indicated on 23 June that "our position on key issues is not subject to change."

As for the law on local elections, three separate drafts have been prepared, one by the state chancellery, one by the opposition Union of Traditionalists, and the third by a group of independent experts in conjunction with a U.S. NGO. The opposition insists that the new law should provide for the election of city mayors, who are currently appointed by the president. But Shevardnadze has made it clear, despite pressure from the Council of Europe, that he will not relinquish that right, which is enshrined in the draft law prepared by the state chancellery. A Tbilisi city official quoted the president as saying that electing city mayors, especially in Tbilisi, could have unspecified "unexpected consequences."

Shevardnadze held talks last weekend with the various opposition factions but failed to persuade them to retract their objections to the chancellery's draft. NGOs and the unofficial union of local administration officials likewise reject that version of the law. The parliament's failure to pass the bill before the summer recess may delay the local polls, which Shevardnadze wants held this autumn. (Liz Fuller)

WILL SECONDARY ISSUES DERAIL THE KARABAKH PEACE PROCESS? Recent press commentary on the Karabakh peace process has focused mainly on the plausibility of the various explanations adduced for the postponement of the talks originally scheduled to be held in Geneva this month between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan and the three co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group. But Azerbaijani and Karabakh representatives have recently expressed conditions that may have a negative impact on the peace process equal or greater to the public reluctance to accept necessary compromises that has been identified as the primary obstacle to progress at the present time.

The Azerbaijani statements relate to the role and status in the peace talks to be granted to Iran and suggest confusion in Baku as to what precisely is at issue. Following the OSCE-mediated talks in Key West in April, U.S. Minsk Group co-Chairman Carey Cavanaugh said that it had been decided that the co-chairmen will discuss the mediation process not only with the other members of the Minsk Group but also with Iran, which does not belong to that organization, but which Cavanaugh described as "an important player in the region." That decision was taken at Armenian President Robert Kocharian's request, according to Interfax on 14 June quoting Armenian Ambassador to Iran Gegham Garibdjanian.

On 13 June, Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian said that Iran's Ambassador to Armenia Mohammad Farhad Koleini has been named Iran's contact person for the conflict "because he is familiar with the problem." Oskanian's Azerbaijani counterpart Vilayat Quliev, however, objected that the selection of Koleini to liaise with the Minsk Group is inexpedient, given that he is ambassador to one of the two parties to the conflict. Quliev was also quoted as asserting that the U.S. "reacted sharply" to the proposal that Iran be drawn more closely into the peace process, whereas in fact it was Cavanaugh who first went public with that proposal.

Quliev similarly responded coolly to statements by two senior Iranian Foreign Ministry officials that if the cooperation between Tehran and the Minsk Group fails to yield the desired results, Iran may launch its own independent attempt to mediate a solution to the conflict. He told the Azerbaijani news agency Trend that while Iran should be informed of developments in the mediating process (which is presumably what the U.S. has in mind), Azerbaijan wants the Minsk Group and no other body to come up with a solution to the conflict. The Minsk Group, for its part, is relying on Kocharian and Aliyev to come up with a draft solution to the conflict.

But that approach may prove unworkable insofar as it excludes representatives of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic from the peace process. Karabakh President Arkadii Ghukasian and parliament speaker Oleg Yesayan both stated in Yerevan in early June that it will prove impossible to resolve the conflict without direct participation by Stepanakert. Yesayan added that that insistence does not reflect lack of trust in Armenia. "The people of Karabakh trust the Armenian president and are confident that he supports the principles adopted by Karabakh," Yesayan said, "but the Karabakh people must shape their own destiny themselves."

In an interview with the independent Armenian daily "Aravot," Ghukasian's political advisor Manvel Sarkisian likewise made the point that excluding Stepanakert "is not the best situation, and not because the negotiations are less effective due to the absence of the Nagorno-Karabakh leadership. Past experience shows that any decision adopted during the negotiations with NKR participation is final."

Sarkisian also touched on a further aspect that many observers may be central to the draft solution that is believed to be under discussion, namely the question of providing a security corridor linking Azerbaijan with its exclave of Nakhichevan. The NKR categorically opposes including the provision of such a security corridor in a draft peace settlement, according to Sarkisian. He argued that it is "unacceptable" that such problems of regional significance should be settled at the expense of Nagorno-Karabakh's own unresolved dispute with Azerbaijan. The only issue that is of interest to the NKR is the problem of resolving its international and legal status, Sarkisian told the paper.

But in the light of the current insistence that a solution to the conflict requires substantial concessions by both Armenia and Azerbaijan, some observers believe the proposed corridor linking Azerbaijan and Nakhichevan, which Turkey has adopted as a further condition for establishing diplomatic relations with Armenia, may have been proposed as an appropriate concession on the part of Armenia to compensate for Baku's acceptance of the de facto loss of sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh. Indeed it is difficult to envisage what alternative major concessions Armenia could be called upon to make.

Sarkisian also implied that it is inappropriate for Yerevan to engage in discussions with Baku on the conditions under which Armenian troops (both from the armed forces of the Republic of Armenia and from the Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Army) should withdraw from occupied Azerbaijani territories. (Liz Fuller)

RUSSIA FINALLY ELIMINATES A TOP CHECHEN FIELD COMMANDER. Five months ago, when Russian President Vladimir Putin transferred overall responsibility for the conduct of the war in Chechnya from the Defense Ministry to the Federal Security Service (FSB), that agency's spokesman Aleksandr Zdanovich said the FSB's top priority would be to hunt down detachments of Chechen fighters and neutralize their leaders (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 4, 26 January 2001).

Putin gave the FSB four months -- until mid-May -- to achieve a breakthrough. In mid-April, Zdanovich reported that over 20 field commanders had been detained or killed over the previous three months. But those were comparatively small fry -- as Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov told journalists in May, "they all call themselves field commanders. According to their reckoning every second fighter is either a 'field commander' or a 'brigadier general.'" By contrast, the most prominent Chechen military leaders -- Aslan Maskhadov, Shamil Basaev, Khattab, Arbi Baraev, and Ruslan Gelaev -- remained at large, until last week, when FSB troops, together with an OMON detachment closed in on four villages (Alkhan-Kala, Alkhan-Yurt, Kulary, and Yermolovka) and after a five-day battle finally succeeded in killing Arbi Baraev, together with 17 of his supporters. A further 18 Chechen fighters were taken prisoner. (Those figures effectively make mincemeat of Russian officials' repeated claims that there are no longer any bands of Chechen fighters numbering more than10-15 men.)

Commenting on Baraev's death, both Zdanovich and Defense Minister Ivanov said such operations will continue "until the rebel chiefs have been neutralized in full," according to Interfax. Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov similarly told Interfax that more operations aimed at locating and killing specific Chechen field commanders are planned. (On 19 June, Chief of General Staff General Anatolii Kvashnin had said that an operation had begun to find and detain Maskhadov, Basaev, and Khattab, and on 25 June Russian troops launched a new offensive in the Sharo-Argun gorge in southern Chechnya against a group of some 100 Chechen fighters subordinate to an as yet unidentified field commander.) Sergei Ivanov also said that the operation to neutralize Baraev had been planned and prepared thoroughly and in great secrecy over a long time period in order to prevent security leaks and minimize Russian casualties.

In a two-hour discussion with Russian journalists last month that was published verbatim in "Nezavisimaya gazeta," FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev outlined the FSB's modus operandi with regard to the Chechen field commanders. Asked why his agency had not made any move against any of the most notorious field commanders even though their whereabouts were an open secret, Patrushev said that the first stage of the operation was directed against the second echelon commanders, explaining that while the FSB was capable of moving against Basaev and Khattab immediately, doing so at that juncture would incur heavy Russian casualties, which he preferred to avoid.

But while Russian officials have sought to portray Baraev's death as a significant victory, its tactical significance may be minimal and the political repercussions greater than anticipated. "Vremya novostei" on 26 June reported that both Russian and Chechen military sources admit that Baraev's band had not been militarily active for several months. And despite Baraev's notoriety as the perpetrator of countless hostage-takings and executions, his death cannot compare with the publicity value that the capture of Basaev or Khattab would generate.

Moreover, the Alkhan-Kala operation may trigger a political backlash in Chechnya. The Russian troops showed their customary total disregard for either the local infrastructure or the civilian population: 23 homes were destroyed by artillery fire and an unspecified number of Chechen civilians killed. On 25 June, a group of women from Alkhan-Kala traveled to Grozny to seek immediate assistance from Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov. They complained that the village has been left without water, food, or medical supplies, and that as long as the fighting continued it was impossible to retrieve the bodies of civilians killed and bury them.

An advisor to Ingushetia's President Ruslan Aushev warned on 26 June that further large-scale Russian offensives against Chechen fighters could result in a new exodus of displaced persons either to Georgia or Ingushetia. Other observers, including the late Yusup Soslambekov, have argued that Russian reprisals against Chechen civilians could impel thousands of uneducated and unemployable Chechen youths to take up arms and thus replenish the ranks of the Chechen armed opposition. (Liz Fuller)