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Caucasus Report: September 7, 2000


7 September 2000, Volume 3, Number 36

GOING FOR THE JUGULAR. On 18 August, Mehti Huseynli, a member of the opposition Musavat party, staged an abortive attempt to hijack an Azerbaijani airlines flight from Nakhichevan to Baku. But before security guards managed to overpower him, Huseynli made a call on his mobile phone to the Rauf Arifoglu, editor of the party' s newspaper "Yeni Musavat," to dictate a list of his demands. Police searching for a tape of that conversation searched first the editorial premises of "Yeni Musavat," then Arifoglu's apartment, where they claimed to have found a pistol, which Arifoglu insists they planted there. Arifoglu was promptly arrested, and has been charged with terrorism, complicity in the hijack attempt, and illegal possession of a firearm.

The Azerbaijani authorities have parlayed those events into the rationale for a full-scale witch-hunt against the Musavat party. Its chairman, Isa Gambar, was summoned for questioning on 30 August. Since then, the government-controlled media have propagated numerous accounts of stage-managed meetings at schools, hospitals and industrial enterprises, at which, in a manner recalling Soviet agit-prop, participants denounce the Musavat Party as a "terrorist organization" and call for its registration to be annulled and for it to be barred from contesting the 5 November parliamentary election.

This is not the first time that the Azerbaijani authorities have sought to justify preventing Musavat from participating in a parliamentary poll. In 1995, the party was excluded from contesting those 25 parliamentary mandates allocated under the proportional system on the grounds -- questioned by UN and OSCE observers -- that many of the signatures submitted in support of its application for registration were forged.

It is, of course, entirely possible that Huseynli may have been acting (wittingly or unwittingly) as an agent provocateur. On 18 August, the day of the hijack attempt, the Musavat Party leadership issued a statement condemning his action as a violation of party statutes, adding that it could not rule out the possibility that the hijack attempt was a "provocation" directed against the party. If indeed Huseynli acted spontaneously, rather than at the prompting of others, he could hardly have inflicted a more damaging blow on the party of which he is a member. And that damage lies not only in the risk that the party could be banned, but in the impact of Arifloglu's arrest on existing differences within the party's ranks.

Rauf Arifoglu has a reputation for arrogance and outspokenness. During a discussion of the Azerbaijani media and political landscape two years ago, he told this writer that he considers the leadership of President Heidar Aliyev as the main obstacle to both democratization and media freedom in Azerbaijan, hence his unequivocal opposition to the present regime. Arifoglu said that between January and late September 1998 he was summoned 10 times to the prosecutor general's office and once to the Ministry of National Security in connection with articles published in "Yeni Musavat." He also said that the degree of solidarity among editors of various non-government funded media outlets in Azerbaijan is considerably greater than between the leaders of the various opposition parties. His fellow journalists' coordinated protests against his arrest bear out that observation.

Arifoglu is, moreover, said to harbor political ambitions. He made no secret of his dissatisfaction that his name figured only seventh on the Musavat Party's list of candidates drawn up in late July to contest the proportional seats in the parliamentary poll, rather than among the top five candidates. The opposition newspaper "Azadlyg" on 28 July quoted him as vowing to oust some members of the party's top leadership. Some observers have even suggested that his long-term aim is to replace Isa Gambar as the party's chairman.

The Azerbaijani authorities could choose to play on those tensions within Musavat, arranging for Arifoglu to be informed in the course of his interrogation that it was Gambar who put Huseynli up to the hijack attempt with the express aim of discrediting Arifoglu. If a decision were subsequently made not to jeopardize Azerbaijan's imminent acceptance into full membership of the Council of Europe by banning Musavat outright, but Arifoglu is tried, sentenced and then amnestied within a couple of years, unity within the Musavat party would be next to impossible to restore.

By creating a situation in which Arifoglu is widely perceived both as hero and martyr (Turan on 28 August quoted him as having told his lawyer "I am going to prove there are journalists ready to die for the freedom of expression and the press"), the Azerbaijani authorities have placed Gambar in an unenviable situation. He cannot distance himself from a man whose uncompromising stance could prove a liability without laying himself open to charges of betraying party solidarity. And expressing unconditional support for his party colleague could increase the likelihood of Musavat being banned.

The Central Electoral Commission failed to make good on its threat last month not to register the Azerbaijan Popular Front to contest the 5 November ballot unless the two rival wings of that party reached a reconciliation (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, No. 34, 31 July 2000). But a third prominent opposition party is at risk of being barred from contesting the election. The Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, which is headed by exiled former parliamentary speaker Rasul Guliev, was originally excluded from the poll under an article of the election law according to which only parties officially registered with the Ministry of Justice six months prior to the announcement of the date of the poll may participate. The Democratic Party was registered only in February of this year. The parliament recently amended the electoral legislation to remove that prohibition, thus enabling the Democratic Party to register a list of candidates to contest the proportional mandates. That list was headed by Guliev.

On 31 August, however, it was announced that an investigation into Guliev's alleged involvement in the theft between 1992--1994 of oil products worth some $76 million has been completed. If tried in absentia and found guilty before the 5 November election date, Guliev would be ineligible to contest that ballot. Moreover, according to the election law, if one of the first three persons on a party's list of proportional candidates withdraws, the entire list becomes invalid. (Liz Fuller)

CHECHNYA AFTER THE DUMA BY-ELECTION. Over the past few months, the intensity of military operations in Chechnya has reportedly subsided somewhat. Federal forces continue to subject suspected enemy positions to artillery and air bombardment and to conduct so-called "mopping-up" operations, sealing off individual villages and checking the identity of the population in an attempt to identify members of, and sympathizers with, the forces subordinate to the various field commanders.

The Chechen fighters, for their part, have resorted to classic guerrilla tactics, staging hit-and-run attacks on Russian positions, and planting landmines and remote-controlled bombs. Increasingly, not only the Russian military but also representatives of the pro-Russian Chechen administration and clergy are being targeted in those attacks, which increased in frequency in the runup to the 20 August election of a deputy to represent the republic in the Russian State Duma.

Many observers viewed that ballot as essentially a two-horse race in which only two of the thirteen candidates -- the former second secretary of the Checheno-Ingush Oblast Committee of the CPSU, Lecha Magomadov, who now heads the Chechen branch of the pro-Kremlin Unity Party, and Gudermes mayor Malika Gezimieva -- stood any chance of success (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, No. 33, 17 August 2000). In the event, a former Russian Interior Ministry major-general, Aslanbek Aslakhanov, won with 27.5 percent of the vote, 5 percent more than his closest rival Adam Deniev, who heads the Moscow-based Adamalla movement. Opinions vary as to the fairness and validity of the vote.

But observers agree that Aslakhanov could not have won without Moscow's backing, noting that most other candidates had written into their election platforms a demand that Moscow pay financial compensation to the Chechen victims of the war. As that a category includes virtually the entire Chechen population, the sums involved would have been phenomenal.

Aslakhanov, who has a doctorate in law, made his career within the USSR Interior Ministry, serving inter alia with the transport police on the legendary Baikal-Amur Railway. He was a member of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin's election campaign staff in 1991, and served as chairman of the Supreme Council Committee on Fighting Crime that was dissolved in 1993. Although he made clear his opposition to former Chechen President Djokhar Dudaev, Aslakhanov never joined the armed opposition to him.

Aslakhanov has listed as his top priority negotiating a political settlement of the conflict that would leave Chechnya a constituent part of the Russian Federation. He has further expressed his willingness to meet with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov for talks on ending the fighting, adding that Maskhadov had contacted him but that they had not managed to meet. (At a meeting on 29 August, however, Russian President Vladimir Putin told Aslakhanov that he does not consider talks with Maskhadov appropriate, arguing that the Chechen President is a mere figurehead.) Aslakhanov has further stressed the need to "restore the morale" of the Russian troops currently deployed there to bring an end to "marauding and the murder of innocent civilians."

Aslakhanov's victory was welcomed by Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, whom President Putin had named in June to head the Chechen interim administration. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 23 August that the two men had already met several times, and that Aslakhanov had expressed support for Kadyrov's efforts to restore peace to Chechnya. Interfax similarly quoted Aslakhanov as telling a press conference in Moscow on 30 August that he is ready to cooperate with Kadyrov and "with any person who will use his God-given qualities to stabilize the situation in Chechnya." But at the same time Aslakhanov highlighted a potential obstacle to cooperation with Kadyrov, warning that "if posts are distributed according to the clan principle, we shall be on different sides of the barricade."

For the moment, however, both Kadyrov and Moscow appear to view Aslakhanov's election as a stabilizing factor. Kadyrov said it will create conditions for holding elections for a new Chechen leader in one year's time. Prior to Kadyrov's appointment as interim administration head, it was widely held that his term of office under what was seen as presidential rule from Moscow would last from between 18 months and three years.

At their 29 August meeting, Putin asked Aslakhanov to draft proposals for "normalizing" the situation in Chechnya, which are to be submitted to the Russian presidential administration. It is unclear, however, what approach Aslakhanov could suggest that would stand a chance of success, and has not already been vetoed by the Kremlin. (Liz Fuller)

FACING UP TO INTOLERANCE IN GEORGIA. Georgians have traditionally prided themselves on their tolerance towards people of other races and other creeds. But they have not always lived up to that perception of themselves. In the late 1980s Zviad Gamsakhurdia promulgated a vision of "Georgia for Georgians" that was enthusiastically espoused by his supporters and impelled many non-Georgians to flee the republic in fear or reprisals or retribution. More recently, religious minorities, in particular Jehovah's Witnesses, have been the target of violence.

On 30 August, RFE/RL's Tbilisi bureau moderated a discussion between the Georgian National Library Director Levan Berdzenishvili and sociologist Emzar Djgerenaia, who sought to identify the origins of the myth of Georgian tolerance and to suggest how society can progress from that false conviction to a true understanding and practice of tolerance.

Berdzenishvili concurred with the opening suggestion by moderator David Paichadze that Georgians tend to be blinded by their self-image of themselves as tolerant. That image is traditionally substantiated, as Paichadze pointed out, by reference to the fact that within a very small area in Tbilisi you can find a synagogue, a mosque and a Georgian Orthodox church. Berdzenishvili bewailed his fellow countrymen's disinclination to question whether that stereotype of tolerance can still be applied to Georgians en masse. He linked that reluctance to the broader failure to embark on a fundamental reevaluation of Georgia's history, suggesting that both those failings reflect a low level of political culture.

Berdzenishvili pointed to a tendency among Georgians to see the world in black and white, in absolutes, as a result of which "anyone who disagrees with you is automatically considered an enemy." That tendency is reinforced, Berdzenishvili said, by the absence of any prominent individual in Georgian society who either serves as a model for religious tolerance or whose views on that subject are universally accepted. He voiced the fear that "we are witnessing the birth of fanaticism, and possibly even fascism."

Nor is intolerance confined to religious belief, Berdzenishvili continued, it also extends to inter-ethnic relations and to what could be termed local patriotism on the micro-level. He noted that Georgians consider themselves superior to other ethnic groups to the point that, "as any family will confirm," it is considered "a tragedy" if a daughter marries an Armenian, or a son marries a Jewish girl.

That sense of superiority, he said, is extended to an individual's immediate geographical milieu, giving rise to animosity between the population of various districts: for example, a resident of the Tbilisi district of Veri will tell you in all seriousness that it is impossible to find a single decent human being in the Tbilisi suburb of Vake.

Berdzenishvili suggested that the most disturbing thing is that there has been no attempt by either the present Georgian leadership or the Georgian Orthodox Church to counter this way of thinking or offer an alternative. "To affirm that Georgia today is a tolerant society," he said, "is to close one's eyes to the way people treat Zviadists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Methodists, Baptists and unmarried mothers [...] Georgia is an intolerant society and it is our so-called intelligentsia, which is a bastion of intolerance, that sets the tone in this respect."

Djgerenaia for his part rejected the idea that Georgians historically were more tolerant than they are today as a myth that has never been proven. He argued that tolerance is a luxury that only a strong state can afford, and historically Georgia has never been a strong state for an extended period of time. He suggested that Georgians adduce the "myth" of their tolerance in order to avoid facing up to tensions in inter-ethnic relations or between various creeds. He also implied that some prominent figures within the Georgian Orthodox Church may bear some measure of responsibility for growing religious tolerance as a result of the emphasis they place on the role of the Georgian church in Georgian history as contrasted with other faiths.

Developing the theme of the role and responsibility of the state in promoting tolerance, Berdzenishvili made the point that tolerance is not purely a national trait, and that it is impossible to affirm that simply by virtue of being Georgian, a Georgian is more tolerant than, say, an Armenian or a Chinese. How tolerant a Georgian, or an Armenian, or a Chinese is, Berdzenishvili continued, depends also on the nature of the state in which he lives and whether that state actively promotes the concept of tolerance, which the present Georgian leadership does only when it is politically expedient to do so -- for example, in the runup to an election in an attempt not to alienate non-Georgian voters. In that context he noted that the very fact that a politician may have an Armenian mother is enough to lose him votes. That road, Berdzenishvili warned, ultimately leads to Gserman-style fascism.

In an attempt to pinpoint the origins of growing intolerance, Djgerenaia pointed to the way Georgian history is taught in Georgian schools. That approach invariably portrays other nationalities as enemies or traitors, never as playing a positive role. Djgerenaia concluded gloomily that "we create and nourish these myths [of tolerance], and then they return to haunt us and poison our existence." He agrees with Berdzenishvili that the solution to the problem lies in the creation of a strong state that will minimize Georgians' collective insecurity complex, and in the emergence of a new, younger leadership that will actively promote the concept of tolerance. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "It is very difficult to resolve the Karabakh conflict as there are many forces hindering that [process]. We are improving the situation from one side, while they complicate it from the other." -- Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliev, quoted by Turan on 4 September.

"The Nagorno-Karabakh Republic remains committed to its principles of settling the [Karabakh] conflict peacefully." -- Armenian Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, speaking in Stepanakert on the ninth anniversary of Karabakh's declaration of independence (Noyan Tapan, 4 September).

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