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Caucasus Report: February 10, 1999

10 February 1999, Volume 2, Number 6

Dual Power In Chechnya? Caving in to opposition pressure, on 3 February Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov issued decrees imposing shariah law throughout Chechnya and stripping the parliament -- one of his last remaining bastions of support -- of its legislative functions. The following day, Maskhadov abolished the post of vice president, held by Vakha Arsanov, arguing the need to avoid duplication in leading positions and to ensure that the structure of the leadership conforms to islamic norms. Arsanov, a supporter of the radical Islamic opposition, has repeatedly criticized Maskhadov's domestic and foreign policy.

Maskhadov's move marks the culmination of a standoff between himself and three radical field commanders -- former acting Premier Shamil Basaev, radical Salman Raduev, and Khunkar-pasha Israpilov. In October last year, the three field commanders requested first the parliament and then the Supreme Shariah court to impeach Maskhadov for "treason," by which they meant his pragmatic approach to structuring relations between the Chechen Republic Ichkeria and Moscow. Both bodies rejected that demand, but the Supreme Shariah court demanded the creation of a shura, or Islamic council of field commanders, to which the parliament's powers would be transferred, and which would function as the supreme organ of power in Chechnya. Maskhadov on 7 February issued a further decree establishing a shura, but stipulating that its powers would be purely consultative. Vakha Arsanov immediately announced that he would not participate in the work of that body because some of its members "have absolutely no connection with shariat law, drink alcohol, and lead a debauched life." On 9 February, the field commanders convened in Grozny and announced the creation of their own State Council, intended to perform the functions of government. They invited Maskhadov to join that body, on condition that he first resigns from the presidency.

Maskhadov is thus effectively backed into a corner, having forfeited the support of the parliament, which on 6 February rejected as unconstitutional his requirement that it relinquish its legislative powers. In addition, as Russian commentators have noted, two field commanders who had until very recently remained aloof from the power struggle between Maskhadov and his rivals -- Ruslan Gilaev and Akhmed Zakaev -- have now openly aligned themselves with the opposition to the president. The latter's support base, according to "Izvestiya," has shrunk to a handful of close colleagues and relatives.

What still remains unclear, however, is what motivates the coalition of field commanders who oppose Maskhadov: is the imposition of Islamic law in Chechnya their ultimate objective? In which case they must surely be aware that they risk the loss of even the modest funding Moscow has made available for reconstruction in Chechnya over the past year or so. Or are they simply trying to discredit Maskhadov in the eyes of Moscow and the international community in order to minimize the negative reaction when they finally neutralize him -- either by ousting him, or abolishing the presidency? Or do the field commanders intend to sever Chechnya's remaining ties with Moscow, regardless of the economic repercussions and international isolation that would almost certainly follow?

Nor is it clear precisely how either Maskhadov or his rival interpret the concept of Islamic law. Maskhadov himself has argued that that concept is not incompatible with democracy, stressing that Chechens "reject all forms of fanaticism." It is conceivable that the two camps may arrive at a compromise that tempers Islamic law with specifically Chechen customs and traditions. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 9 February summarized a blueprint drafted by Khozh-Akhmed Nukhaev for an Islamic system of government based on a state council (Mekhk kkhel) on which representatives of all main Chechen teyps, or clans, are represented. Nukhaev proposes that a national referendum proclaim the state council the supreme representative power body. The state council would elect a president, who would head the executive branch, and legislative power would be invested in the Lor Is, comprising one elected representative from each of Chechnya's nine tukkhums, or ethnic subgroups. Whether such a system of government would be palatable to Moscow is, however, questionable. (Liz Fuller)

Azerbaijan Ponders Succession Problem. President Heidar Aliev's two-week hospitalization in Ankara last month inevitably sparked speculation as to how the country would cope with the 75-year old president's sudden demise, and who will ultimately succeed him. According to the country's constitution, the parliament chairman assumes the duties of the president in the event of the latter's death or incapacitation. But few observers view the present occupant of that office, former academic Murtuz Alesqerov, as more than a figurehead. Significantly, since Aliev's return from his two weeks' treatment in Turkey for bronchitis and influenza, rumors have begun circulating in Baku that the president plans to replace Alesqerov with his 37-year-old son Ilham, who is currently vice president of the Azerbaijani state oil company SOCAR. (Alesqerov, for his part, has rejected speculation that he would voluntarily resign.)

President Aliyev has consistently declined to offer any hint of whom he sees as the most qualified candidate to succeed him, since to do so would be to render the individual in question vulnerable to slander, political pressure and possibly even physical danger from rival economic interest groups. In the absence of any clearly stated preference from Aliyev himself, the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan party has unequivocally endorsed the candidacy of Ilham Aliyev on the basis of his "genetic code," his familiarity with politics, Russian education, and U.S. connections. The chairman of a second pro-regime political party, Fazail AgamAliyev of Ana Vatan, similarly told the independent newspaper "Ayna-Zerkalo" of 30 January that he would unhesitatingly support the candidacy of Ilham Aliev, whom he termed "a literate and pragmatic politician."

But some Western experts have expressed doubts that Ilham Aliyev would want to succeed his father as president. The consensus is that if Heidar Aliyev were to die in office, the country risks a period of infighting between rival claimants to power. Such a breakdown would constitute an open invitation to Moscow to intervene with the aim of reversing Azerbaijan's current overtly pro-Western orientation. (Liz Fuller)

Kitovani, Supporters On Hunger Strike. Former Defense Minister Tengiz Kitovani, sentenced to eight years' imprisonment in 1996 for allegedly attempting to launch an insurrection (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol.1, No. 25, 18 August 1998) declared a hunger strike on 3 February to demand a review of his case. Ten of his former subordinates have also begun fasting as a gesture of solidarity with Kitovani. Lali Aptsiauri, president of an organization representing Georgian prisoners, told "Alia" on 8 February that the entire country should support Kitovani. She repeated the concern expressed by several observers at the time of Kitovani's sentencing that his trial had been marred by violations of the constitution.

Some observers had suggested that Kitovani should appeal to Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze for clemency on the occasion of Georgia's conditional acceptance into full membership of the Council of Europe. Kitovani has refused to do so, however, reasoning that to appeal for clemency is tantamount to recognizing his guilt. (Liz Fuller)

Quotations Of The Week. "What's going on in this country? Is it a madhouse, an abattoir or a test ground for contract killers?" "Hayots ashkhar" on 10 February, a propos the third murder within six months of a senior Armenian official.

"Dissolving the parliament is a very serious step. We should do what we can to avoid such steps ... But in this particular case ... I cannot make concessions on this issue. I will never have criminal forces influencing power in Armenia, either the executive branch or the parliament ... Vano Siradeghian is not the only one who has serious problems with the criminal law." Armenian President Robert Kocharian, explaining why he will dissolve parliament if it refuses a second time to lift the immunity of former Interior Minister Vano Siradeghian (ITAR-TASS, 6 February 1999 and Noyan Tapan, 8 February 1999).

"Chechnya is facing a choice: to be an independent state or spill the blood of its own citizens." Former Chechen Vice President Vakha Arsanov, quoted by Interfax, 7 February 1999.