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Caucasus Report: July 15, 1999

15 July 1999, Volume 2, Number 28

Reprisals Against Opposition Exacerbate Political Tensions In Azerbaijan... Over the past five weeks, since Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev returned to Baku on 9 June after undergoing cardiac surgery in the U.S., the Azerbaijani authorities have intensified their harassment of selected opposition politicians, groups and newspapers. The National Security Ministry has levelled new accusations against former parliamentary speaker Rasul Guliev of planning to overthrow Aliev. And persons close to the president continue to extol the merits of his son Ilham, whom many observers believe is being groomed to succeed his father as head of state.

The reprisals have so far targeted not established opposition parties, but individuals or movements that have sought to capitalize on widespread popular discontent. One victim is Ashraf Mehtiev, chairman of the Geyrat (Dignity) party, whose unsuccessful bid in the October 1998 presidential elections was based largely on promises to abolish social injustice. (Two-thirds of Azerbaijan's 7.28 million population live in poverty; the average monthly salary is $46.) Mehtiev was detained briefly by police in Baku in late June and then released. Criminal proceedings against him are due to open at a Baku District Court on 22 July on charges of slander and insulting the honor and dignity of the president. During the presidential election campaign last year, Mehtiev had alleged that Aliyev is of Kurdish origin.

On 8 July, Baku police intervened to prevent a group of approximately 100 people embarking on a protest march across the country to Nagorno-Karabakh. The protest was organized by the Coordinating Council on Karabakh, which unites some 20 opposition political parties, and was intended to focus attention on the Azerbaijani leadership's failure to come up with any effective plan for the liberation of several districts surrounding the enclave which have been under the control of Karabakh Armenian forces since late 1993. (Police had thwarted a similar planned protest march in early May.)

Potentially more serious, however, are recent measures directed against the media. In mid-June, the Milli Mejlis (parliament) began debating, and has since passed in the first reading, a bill on the media which opposition journalists, and reportedly also the U.S. ambassador, have criticized as undemocratic. And within the past three weeks, journalists from two opposition newspapers have been arbitrarily detained and/or beaten by persons who identified themselves as police or national security ministry employees.

The Baku city authorities refused journalists permission to picket the parliament building on 6 July to protest reprisals against journalists, and police forcibly prevented a second protest demonstration by some 300 journalists on 9 July.

The Azerbaijani authorities have also resumed their efforts to discredit former parliamentary speaker Rasul Guliev, who has lived in the U.S. since his forced resignation in September 1996. On 29 June, National Security Minister Namig Abbasov accused Guliev of planning to travel to Iran in order to organize a coup against Aliyev with the assistance of the Iranian government. Guliev, the Democratic Party which he heads, and the Iranian Embassy in Baku have all denied those allegations. (Liz Fuller)

...As President's Aide Stresses His Services To Russian People. Meanwhile, two politicians close to Aliyev have launched initiatives that appear to be aimed at gauging the degree of support that Ilham Aliyev could count on both among Azerbaijani opposition parties and in Moscow. In late June, Fazail Agamaly, chairman of the pro-government Ana Vatan (Fatherland) party, suggested that Ilham, whom he described as "the most popular of the young politicians among the present leadership...society knows him quite well, as he gives preference to democratic values," could work together with the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party and the Party of National Independence of Azerbaijan (AMIP), but not with the Musavat (Equality) Party or the Democratic Party. The latter two parties, Agamaly said, have "burned all bridges that could lead to a compromise, in contrast to the Azerbaijani Popular Front Party (AHCP), and the AMIP, which, according to Agamaly, "demonstrate a constructive position, incline towards democratic values, and espouse democratic methods of political struggle."

Spokesmen for both those parties were, however, equivocal in their response to Agamaly's trial balloon. Nazim Imanov of AMIP said the proposal was purely hypothetical, and that AMIP has no plans to cooperate with any representatives of pro-government forces. Alimamed Nuriev of the AHCP, for his part, was quoted by "Zerkalo" on 26 June as saying that Ilham Aliyev neither has a personal political support base nor has he shown himself to be "a serious politician." (It should be noted that Agamaly's differentiation between what he sought to portray as the constructive and the radical wing of the opposition has apparently not led to tensions between the two camps. Representatives of all four parties congregated at Musavat's headquarters on 5 July to discuss aligning in one political bloc.)

A similar distinction between two perceived political camps, this time in Moscow, was drawn by Aliev's charge d'affaires, Akif Muradverdiev, in a lengthy panegyric to Aliev's personality and achievements published in the 9 July issue of "Nezavisimaya gazeta." Muradverdiev underscores what he seeks to portray as Heidar Aliev's positive role in seeking to oppose the "destructive policy of the Gorbachev team, which subjected the country to the danger of imminent collapse." (One of the members of that team and architects of that policy was then Soviet foreign minister, now Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze.) Muradverdiev differentiates between two Russian political camps, without mentioning which specific Russian politicians he attributes to either.

On the one hand, Muradverdiev castigates "certain forces which continue to confuse the self-sufficient statehood of Russia with the imperial regime. It is with the blessing of those forces that Armenia is being provided with Russian-produced contemporary military technology, in violation of international norms." On the other hand, Muradverdiev continues, there is "the true Russia," which still remembers and appreciates Aliev's years of service in his capacity as first deputy chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers and his efforts "to preserve and develop the centuries-old tradition of friendship" between the Russian and Azerbaijani peoples. This second group, Muradverdiev suggests, also understands and sympathizes with Aliev's argument that relations between CIS member states should be based on "the principles of true friendship, mutual understanding, and cooperation." For that reason, he continues, they do not perceive the GUUAM (Georgia-Ukraine-Uzbekistan-Azerbaijan-Moldova) alignment as a threat, but as a "healthy nucleus" around which "all the states in the post-Soviet space could consolidate with Russia at their head."

That line of argument could be construed as reflecting the readiness of some members of the Azerbaijani leadership to consider a rapprochement with Moscow--in return for support for the succession to the presidency of Ilham Aliev, who, Muraverdiev stresses, invariably provided moral support for his father at the most difficult moments of the latter's career. (Liz Fuller)

Kodori Gorge Abduction Reveals Tensions Between Georgian Leadership And Abkhaz Leadership-In-Exile. On 9 July, 17 members of the Abkhaz government-in-exile that represents the estimated 200,000 displaced ethnic Georgians who fled Abkhazia during the 1992-1993 war were abducted by eight masked men when their helicopter landed in the Kodori gorge--the only region of the breakawway Republic of Abkhazia that remains under the control of the central Georgian government in Tbilisi. The gorge is part of the mountain region of Svaneti, which straddles the border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia. The Svans, who constitute an ethnic sub-group related to the Georgians and speak their own distinctive language, have for centuries been a law unto themselves.

Following talks with the local governor, Iveri Chelidze, early on 10 July the abductors released their captives, four of whom had been severely beaten, and escaped. The hostages and other Georgian officials have since offered contradictory explanations of the kidnappers' identity and objectives.

David Tsanava, deputy chairman of the government-in-exile, told Caucasus Press on 10 July that the abductors addressed each other by numbers, not by names, from which he deduced that they belonged to a commando detachment. "I exclude the possibility of inter-clan struggle in the valley. It was a political act, and I assume that the terrorists are governed from Tbilisi," he said. But Tsanava also quoted the "terrorists" as saying that they opposed the presence of any representatives of the Georgian authorities in the Kodori gorge, which they wanted to declare "a free Svaneti." He failed to explain why the central Georgian authorities, who are struggling to reverse the outcome of independence bids by Abkhazia and South Ossetia, would promote such a scenario. Tsanava added that armed residents of the gorge objected to the kidnapping and threatened to "square accounts" with the kidnappers if they failed to release their hostages.

Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze suggested an alternative explanation for the abduction, namely that the local Svans do not want the gorge to be controlled by the Abkhazian government-in-exile, preferring that Kodori Governor Chelidze take responsibility for solving local problems. But Shevardnadze also noted that the budget for doing so is controlled by the Abkhaz government-in-exile, whereas Chelidze is responsible only for additional monies allocated from the Presidential Fund. (Shevardnadze also disclosed that the Abkhaz ministers had with them in the helicpoter the sum of $30,000, the intended recipient of which he did not divulge, and that the kidnappers failed to pocket that money.) Caucasus Press commented that "people suspect the Abkhaz parliament-in-exile has in the past misappropriated funds allocated for improving conditions in the region." Shevardnadze also categorically ruled out any Russian involvement in the kidnapping.

Speaking in Tbilisi on 12 July, Tsanava said the kidnappers were members of the Georgian law and order bodies. That accusation was echoed by the chairman of the Abkhaz parliament-in-exile, Tamaz Nadareishvili, who claimed that the kidnappers had highly-placed patrons in Tbilisi. Both Nadareishvili and other unnamed abducted ministers also implicated Chelidze in the kidnapping and demanded that he be punished. They further accused the Georgian government of trying to "hush up" the entire affair. (Liz Fuller)

Quotations Of The Week. "We have to work with Chechnya constantly and seriously, not only when an act of terrorism is committed. ...We have to realize that terrorism in Chechnya is a pan-Russian problem." Russian State Duma Committee for Nationalities chairman Vladimir Zorin, quoted by ITAR-TASS, 12 July 1999.

"We are not at war with Chechnya or the Chechen people." -- Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo, speaking in Stavropol Krai on 12 July (quoted by ITAR-TASS).

"The Republic [of North Ossetia -- Alaniya] does not by any means aspire to state sovereignty as a subject of international law, considering that to be an undertaking beyond its capacities and not relevant in the present circumstances. But the people of North Ossetia should have the possibility to try to realize their vital interests, and not simply be a means of implementing someone's imperialist designs or geopolitical considerations. [...] We have our own specific interests, connected with the historical division of the Ossetian people, part of which is located on the territory of present-day independent Georgia. These interests of North Ossetia should be taken into consideration when formulating and implementing federal policy in the Transcaucasus, specifically in South Ossetia." North Ossetian parliament deputy chairman Stanislav Kesoev, writing in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" 7 July 1999.