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Caucasus Report: March 17, 2000


17 March 2000, Volume 3, Number 11

Armenian Press Acclaims President's 'Tactical Victory.' On 14 March, Armenian President Robert Kocharian issued a decree promoting to leading positions within the country's armed forces five senior military officers, including two leading members of the Yerkrapah Union of veterans of the Karabakh war. That move was unexpected, if not sensational, given that Yerkrapah is closely aligned with the Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), the senior partner in the ruling Miasnutiun parliament coalition. Both Miasnutiun and Prime Minister Aram Sargsian are perceived as engaged in a standoff with Kocharian that dates from the 27 October parliament shootings, of which Sargsian's brother and predecessor Vazgen, the founder and first chairman of Yerkrapah, was one of the victims. That confrontation has become more serious since early March, when Miasnutiun demanded that Kocharian fire two of his closest associates whom it accused of distorting National Television's coverage of the investigation into the killings (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, No. 10, 10 March 2000).

Armenian press commentators on 15 March were unanimous in assessing the army promotions as a brilliant tactical maneuver on the part of the president, one that has simultaneously sidelined his cabinet opponents Sargsian and Minister for Industrial Infrastructure Vahan Shirkhanian, deprived Miasnutiun of its power base, and restored some degree of political stability and equilibrium.

But while Kocharian's apparent co-opting of Yerkrapah chairman General Manvel Grigorian and Colonel (now Major-General) Seyran Saroyan may have strengthened his position vis-a-vis his opponents, it has apparently exacerbated tensions between him and Aram Sargsian, who was reportedly incensed that Kocharian had failed to inform him of the planned promotions beforehand. But Sargsian made clear at the same time that he does not oppose the new appointments. And his options for hitting back at the president are limited.

Senior Miasnutiun members have made it clear that they hope that the tensions and ultimatums of the past two weeks (which appear to have been spontaneous rather than part of a carefully drafted strategy) are at an end. Parliament deputy speaker Gagik Aslanian, who is a member of the People's Party of Armenia (HzhK), the junior partner in Miasnutiun, cautioned on 14 March that "we should sober up, stop for a while and assess the situation correctly." Even before Kocharian's fait accompli of 14 March, there were indications that the HZhK was less enthusiastic than its coalition partner at the prospect of forcing a confrontation with the president. That reluctance led "Azg" to speculate on 16 March that, rather than dissolve the parliament at the first opportunity, Kocharian may seek to win HZhK deputies over to his side.

As for the possible motivation of the newly-promoted generals, "Hayots ashkharh," which is sympathetic to Kocharian, suggested that the failure of the ongoing investigation into the 27 October parliament killings to unearth any evidence implicating Kocharian in those deaths means that the military no longer have any reason to be mistrustful of the president. "Nezavisimaya gazeta," for its part, focused on the strong ties between the Armenian military and the Russian leadership. Moscow, the paper deduced, has no interest at present in compounding instability in Armenia. (Liz Fuller)

Opposition Participation In Georgian Presidential Poll Unclear Despite Amendments To Election Law. On 10 March, the Georgian parliament finally approved amendments to the Election Law in the second and third readings. But those changes do not meet all the demands of the parliamentary opposition. Consequently, it is still not clear whether one of the two main opposition candidates to incumbent President Eduard Shevardnadze will withdraw from the race before the 9 April poll.

The opposition's original objections to the current legislation focused on the composition of the Central Electoral Commission (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, No. 5, 4 February 2000), and were resolved during a series of meetings last month between the opposition minority and parliament speaker Zurab Zhvania. But during the first reading of the amended law in late February, the opposition again raised the need to preclude multiple voting. In order to prevent that phenomenon, the law on the presidential election was amended to require that all voters present at their local polling station any identity document that contains a recent photograph.

The opposition, however, argued that this safeguard is inadequate, and demanded that voters also be "marked" with indelible ink after casting their ballot to preclude their voting for a second time. But that demand was rejected during the 10 March vote on the proposed amendments.

Adjar Supreme Council chairman Aslan Abashidze, one of the two potential presidential candidates from the so-called Batumi alliance of five opposition parties that comprises the second-largest parliament faction, had repeatedly said his election participation was contingent on the adoption of the requirement that voters be indelibly marked. But Abashidze has not yet definitively withdrawn his candidacy. The second Batumi alliance candidate, former Georgian Communist Party First Secretary Djumber Patiashvili, issued a statement on 9 March saying he would participate in the election regardless of whether or not the parliament agreed to all the election law amendments demanded by the opposition. (Liz Fuller)

Misrepresenting Islam In Chechnya. The senior Islamic official in the Caucasus argues that the Russian media have promoted an image of the role of Islam in the Chechen conflict not only at variance with reality but one fraught with tragic consequences for the entire region.

In an interview with the Azerbaijani newspaper "Bakinskii rabochii" earlier this month, Shaykh ul-Islam Haji Allahshukur Pashazade, who is chairman of the Spiritual Board of Muslims of the Caucasus, argued that the Russian government and mass media have promoted a dangerous syllogism about Islam and the Chechens. He said the Russian media seek to promote the idea that "Chechens are Wahhabis, Wahhabis are fundamentalists, [and] thus, they must be annihilated."

Pashazade noted that unlike in 1994-96 when Moscow called the Chechens "extremists," Russian sources now label them "terrorists." And it turns out, he continues "that the whole nation is engaged in terrorism."

Such a view, Pashazade said, is wrong in three ways. First, he pointed out, "an entire nation cannot be terrorists and fundamentalists." By definition, only those who engage in particular actions can be so labeled, and no people consists only of those.

Overwhelmingly, Pashazade said, the people of Chechnya are "a proud, talented, and hard-working people. Few of the women, children, or elderly fall into the category of terrorist, and Pashadze implies not that many of the men either.

Second, Pashazade said, Moscow's misrepresentation of Islam reflects its failure to acknowledge the state the Muslims of the post-Soviet states now find themselves in as a result of Soviet policy. In Soviet times, he noted, "Islam was under the vigilant control of ideological dogmatists. Few Muslim mosques were functioning, the Koran was available only in Russian translation, and even that was not available to everyone." As a result, few of those living in historically Islamic communities had the opportunity to learn much about their faith or to base their actions on the genuine principles of Islam. Indeed, he said, most "lost connection with the religion of their forefathers during decades of 'state atheism.'"

Even those who called themselves Muslims, Pashazade pointed out, typically followed a faith combining memories of the true faith with local customs that often had little or nothing to do with Islam itself.

Pashazade's words should be taken seriously on this point: he was one of the pillars of the Soviet Islamic establishment and he is now trying to overcome the consequences of Soviet efforts to wipe out Islamic belief and Islamic practice.

And third, Pashazade concluded, Moscow's portrayal of the situation dramatically and falsely overstates the role of Wahhabism in Chechnya.

The Muslims of Chechnya, Pashazade said, are overwhelmingly Sunni or, in a few cases, Shiia. In the past, few if any Chechens have accepted Wahhabism, which Pashazade describes as "a radical strain of Islam" which is practiced in Saudi Arabia.

How did it happen, Pashazade asked rhetorically, that Moscow chose to blame Wahhabism for what happened?

On the one hand, he said, some in Chechnya and elsewhere have accepted the blandishments of Wahhabi "emissaries" precisely because of their lack of understanding of the true faith. But he made it clear that in his view, the number of such converts was small. And on the other, the Shaykh ul-Islam implied, Moscow could not afford to blame Islam as a whole for Chechnya lest it offend the many Muslims who live inside the Russian Federation and in neighboring countries.

At the close of his interview, Pashazade reiterated a point that he has made frequently: He and other Muslims reject terrorism as an appropriate means of political struggle.

But he added an appeal to "all my friends in Russia and in the first place to the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church to use all your strength to help stop the bloodshed, to show mercy to children, the elderly and women, and to protect them from unjust retribution!"

Both Pashazade's analysis of the Russian portrayal of the Chechens as Wahhabis and his appeal for peace suggest that Moscow's carefully calibrated ideological campaign on this issue may be beginning to backfire among other Muslims in the post-Soviet space. If so, the Russian government may come to see that in itself as another reason to back away from its current campaign of violence and to move toward some kind of negotiated settlement in Chechnya. (Paul Goble)

Trial Highlights Role Of Regionalism In Azerbaijani Politics. On 14 March, after a trial lasting six months, Azerbaijan's Supreme Court handed down a sentence of 10 years' imprisonment on the former head of the Interior Ministry Investigation Department, Colonel Nizami Godjaev. Godjaev was found guilty of planning the attempted murder of Enver Mustafaev, the former chairman of the state fishery concern Azerbalyg, abusing his official position, illegal possession of arms, and accepting bribes. Thirteen other people, six of them former police officials, were simultaneously tried on various charges, most of which bear no connection to Godjaev. Three men found guilty of plotting Mustafaev's murder received sentences of six, seven, and nine years.

While many Baku commentators do not doubt that Godjaev is guilty of some of the charges against him, and also of excessive professional zeal, at the same they have suggested that the reasons for Godjaev's arrest and trial were primarily political. (Godjaev himself, however, in a written response to questions from the newspaper "Zerkalo," denied this.)

Those political motives derive from the antagonism between two rival factions within the Azerbaijani political elite. The first of those factions comprises those officials who, like President Heidar Aliev, originate from the exclave of Nakhichevan, while the second unites those whose families were constrained to emigrate from the then Armenian SSR to Azerbaijan in the late 1940s. Godjaev belongs to the latter group, known as the "Yeraz," whose members enjoy a reputation for political sophistication and superior managerial skills. Its most prominent representatives include presidential administration officials Ramiz Mekhtiev and Ali Hasanov, Interior Minister Ramil Usubov, Health Minister Ali Insanov, and parliamentary speaker Murtuz Alesqerov, who is related to Godjaev. (Godjaev's wife is the daughter of Alesqerov's brother.)

In 1992, the Yeraz community in Baku founded the charitable society Agrydag, which supported Aliev's return to power in Azerbaijan in mid-1993. More recently, however, disillusioned and alienated by endless political infighting within the current leadership, some members of Agrydag backed the (ultimately unsuccessful) bid by fellow Yeraz and Azerbaijan National Independence Party chairman Etibar Mamedov in the October 1998 presidential election.

Political observers trace Godjaev's downfall to a meeting of influential Yeraz in Baku in late January 1999, after President Aliyev was suddenly flown to Ankara for medical treatment. At that meeting, unspecified contingency plans were reportedly discussed in the event of the president's demise. Godjaev was arrested on 11 March and immediately charged with having recruited a certain Ali Mamedov, known as "Alik," to assassinate Enver Mustafaev. Mamedov, however, had voluntarily surrendered to police 10 months earlier, and given testimony that had served as the basis for the arrest of several of Godjaev's associates.

One explanation circulating in Baku last spring for the delay in actually arresting Godjaev in connection with the planned murder of Mustafaev focuses on Godjaev's relationship with parliamentary speaker Murtuz Alesqerov. At that time, it was believed that Heidar Aliyev was seeking to discredit and dismiss Alesqerov in order to engineer the appointment as parliament speaker of his own son Ilham. A second relevant factor is that from December 1998 until the time of his arrest, Godjaev had been investigating reports that Shahin Hasanov, brother of Prosecutor-General Eldar Hasanov, had embezzled some 31 billion manats ($7.5 million) from the state coffers. According to Godjaev, Eldar Hasanov had warned him in early March that "Alik" had implicated him, but promised that Godjaev would not be arrested.

It is, moreover, possible that Godjaev may soon find himself back in court facing new charges that he was behind the assassination in February 1997 of prominent academician and historian Zia Buniatov. Godjaev has rejected any connection with that murder, in which he sought to implicate opposition Musavat Party leader Isa Gambar. (Liz Fuller)

Quotations Of The Week. "The one who declares 'I've liberated you from the dragon' himself becomes the dragon." -- National Democratic Union chairman Vazgen Manukian, addressing a congress of his party in Yerevan on 9 March (quoted by Noyan Tapan).

"We have no right to take steps that would weaken the combat readiness of our army. We won't have a future in this region unless we have the strongest and best-organized army." -- Armenian President Robert Kocharian, speaking on Armenian National Television on 15 March.

"It is beyond comprehension that at the beginning of the 21st century, a European city like Grozny could be systematically destroyed by the forces of its own government." -- Press Release issued by a Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe delegation that visited Daghestan, Chechnya, and Ingushetia from 11-13 March.

"He picked the wrong time and the wrong company to go to the opera." -- Chechen Foreign Minister Ilyas Akhmadov, referring to British Prime Minister Tony Blair's attendance with acting Russian President Vladimir Putin of a performance of Prokofiev's "War and Peace" in St. Petersburg on 11 March (quoted by Reuters on 16 March).

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