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Caucasus Report: September 30, 1999

30 September 1999, Volume 2, Number 39

Armenia, Georgia Declare 'New Stage' In Bilateral Ties. Armenia and Georgia have agreed to step up political and economic cooperation in order to promote stability throughout the conflict-riven South Caucasus. Following talks in Yerevan on 29 September, Presidents Robert Kocharian and Eduard Shevardnadze announced the beginning of a "new stage" in the Armenian-Georgian relationship. The two leaders spoke to reporters after the signing of a joint declaration which they said lists its main principles. Kocharian said the document "elevates our relations to a higher level." According to Shevardnadze, agreement was also reached on beginning the work on a new Georgian-Armenian comprehensive treaty to "perfect" the existing one signed six years ago.

Officials said economic cooperation also figured prominently in the talks. A large delegation accompanying Shevardnadze included a group of Georgian businessmen who met with their Armenian colleagues at the ministry of industry and trade.

Managers of two Armenian chemical enterprises told RFE/RL they reached agreement on supplies of raw materials from Georgia. Several trade companies took an interest in imports of Georgian sugar and tea.

Most of landlocked Armenia's foreign trade is carried out through Georgia's Black Sea ports of Batumi and Poti. Armenia exports part of its electricity surplus to Georgia. However, bilateral trade makes up a small share of the two countries' economic turnover. Only 4.5 percent of Armenian exports went to Georgia last year. Similarly, Georgian goods had a 3.5 percent share in net imports to Armenia.

Shevardnadze and Kocharian said they also discussed regional issues and in particular the unrest in Russia's North Caucasus. Shevardnadze again rejected Moscow's claims that Georgia has been used as a transit route for supplies of weapons to radical Chechen warlords fighting Russian troops in Daghestan. He countered that the Chechen guerrillas are using weapons purchased from the Russians themselves.

The situation in Javakhetia, an Armenian-populated region in the south of Georgia, also figured in the two presidents' talks. Severe economic conditions have often strained Tbilisi's relations with local ethnic Armenians, leading to periodic calls by the latter for the greater autonomy (see "End Note," "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 September 1999). But Kocharian insisted that problems in Javakhetia are of social and economic character only. He indicated that Yerevan treats Javakhetia Armenians as any other Armenian community abroad and hopes it will serve as a "bridge" linking the two "brotherly" countries. Shevardnadze said the issue will die down with Georgia's overall economic development.

The Armenian press speculated that Shevardnadze's visit is aimed at wooing Georgia's estimated 400,000 ethnic Armenian citizens ahead of next month's parliamentary elections. Analysts say Shevardnadze's Union of Citizens of Georgia will be struggling to keep its majority in parliament. But officials in Yerevan have dismissed that hypothesis. (Emil Danielyan, Hrach Melkumian, Atom Markarian)

Russian Human Rights Activists Warn Of Inter-Ethnic Tensions In Daghestan. Russian human rights activist Sergei Kovalev and members of the human rights group Memorial who recently returned from Daghestan told journalists in Moscow on 28 September that some Daghestanis have launched reprisals against members of Daghestan's estimated 70,000 Akkin Chechens. They said they had witnessed dozens of cases of violence or looting against the Akkin Chechens, who live compactly in the Novolaksk (formerly the Aukh) Raion of Daghestan that was part of the Chechen-Ingush ASSR before being incorporated in Daghestan. Memorial head Oleg Orlov told RFE/RL that in some villages he visited smoke was still rising from half-burned Akkin Chechen homes.

The Akkin Chechens whom Memorial activists spoke to identified the Laks as responsible for the reprisals against them. After the Akkin Chechens were deported in February 1944, their villages were occupied by Laks. In the 1960s, when the Chechens were finally permitted to return from their Central Asian exile, many of them found Laks occupying their homes.

When Chechen militants launched their attack on Novolaksk Raion earlier this month, the Laks (and some Russian observers) anticipated that the Akkin Chechens would support them. But this did not happen. Orlov suggested that the Laks were using the Akkin Chechens as a scapegoat, having been unable to attack the Chechen militants.

Kovalev, for his part, expressed concern that the Daghestani authorities had failed to intervene to prevent the subsequent violence against the Akkin Chechens. He observed that "the authorities in Daghestan are attempting to prevent the instigation of inter-ethnic conflict. But, to put it very mildly, these same authorities demonstrate a suspicion based on ethnic criteria that really doesn't coincide with the law. Their alertness borders on discrimination." Daghestan's State Council chairman Magomedali Magomedov has warned that the Akkin Chechens should not be discriminated against. He said it would be extremely dangerous to divide the country into "ours and theirs." (Sophie Lambroschini)

Lebed Posits Secret Agreement Between Basaev And Russian Leadership. In an interview published in "Le Figaro" on 29 September, former Russian Security Council Secretary Aleksandr Lebed said he is "almost convinced" that the Russian leadership planned the apartment bombings in Moscow and other Russian cities in order to create a pretext for postponing the 19 December elections to the State Duma. Lebed argued that "any Chechen field commander, if he wanted revenge, would have set about blowing up generals. or he would have struck at Interior Ministry or FSB facilities, or arms depots, or even nuclear power plants. He would not have chosen innocent common people as targets." Lebed also said he is "absolutely sure" that an agreement exists between the Russian authorities and field commander Shamil Basaev, whom Lebed characterized as a former KGB informer and a "magnificent instrument of destabilization: he is a natural warrior."

Lebed described Aslan Maskhadov, with whom he negotiated both the August 1996 ceasefire agreement that ended the Chechen war and the Khasavyurt accord providing for a delay in formally determining Chechnya's status vis-a-vis the federal center, as "an officer of the highest caliber" whom the Russian leadership had hoped to see become a true leader. (Liz Fuller)

Raduev's Back -- And Uncharacteristically Conciliatory. Salman Raduev, who is viewed by many as the most unpredictable of the leading Chechen field commanders, has returned to Grozny after a lengthy period of medical treatment abroad, Interfax reported. (Unconfirmed reports suggest he spent some time in Pakistan.) Addressing a meeting of his supporters in Grozny on 29 September, Raduev said the perpetrators of the recent terrorist bombings in Moscow "are deliberately trying to provoke hatred between the peoples of Chechnya and Russia." He proposed that Chechnya should immediately sign a treaty with the federal center under which it would undertake not to engage in hostilities against Russia for a period of 50 years, and that Chechnya should also agree to enter into a union with Russia comparable to the Russia-Belarus Union. (Confederation of Peoples of the Caucasus Chairman Yusup Soslambekov had raised that possibility last year -- see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 1, No. 5, 1 March 1999).

Raduev called on Russian and Chechen leaders to "show reason" and not launch a new full-scale war. But he added that if the Russian bombings of Chechnya continue, he will increase the strength of the "General Dudaev Army" which he commands to 12,000 men and set about defense operations "with President Maskhadov's consent."

It is not clear from that comment whether Raduev has aligned himself with Maskhadov against his fellow field commanders, or whether at a meeting with those field commanders, including Shamil Basaev, on 28 September the field commanders agreed to bury their differences with the president in order to present a united and coordinated front in the face of the anticipated Russian ground offensive. (Liz Fuller)

How Many Displaced Persons Constitute A Humanitarian Catastrophe? Visiting Nazran on 28 September, Russia's Minister for Emergency Situations Sergei Shoigu described the crisis precipitated by the flight into Ingushetia of tens of thousands of Chechens from Russian bombing raids as "serious." But Shoigu denied that the influx constituted the humanitarian catastrophe that Ingushetia's President Ruslan Aushev had described it as. Granted, Aushev may have exaggerated when he gave the number of displaced persons to reach Ingushetia as 60,000, although an UNHCR official in Moscow corroborated that figure. By contrast, an official with the Russian Migration Service estimated the number of Chechen displaced persons who had reached Ingushetia at 35,000, with a further 3,000 in both North Ossetia and Stavropol Krai, and 1,000 in Daghestan.

But both estimates of the number of new fugitives should be viewed against the republic's total population of only 300,000, at least 17,000 of whom are themselves displaced persons who fled North Ossetia's Prigorodnyi Raion seven years ago. The new influx of Chechens into Ingushetia thus risks exacerbating already tenuous stability and compounding the region's serious economic problems. And insofar as the presence of the fugitives is perceived as an inconvenience by the local population, it may create problems for Aushev, who to date has been the North Caucasus President most supportive of his embattled Chechen counterpart Aslan Maskhadov. (Liz Fuller)

Rumors Persist Of Typhus Epidemic In Azerbaijani Army. Over the past six weeks, the Azerbaijani press has reported a growing number of cases of typhus and other intestinal diseases within the country's armed forces. In mid-August, the Defense Ministry admitted that two servicemen had died of typhus. "Hurriyet" reported two weeks later that the number of deaths had risen to four, and last week "525 gazeti" reported that over 1,000 soldiers were suffering from gastro-intestinal diseases caused by drinking water that had been contaminated with sewage. Some 500 servicemen are hospitalized in the Baku military hospital alone, that newspaper added. Turan News Agency on 10 September had quoted Defense Minister Safar Abiev as denying reports of an epidemic.

Meanwhile "Zerkalo" reported on 7 and 9 September that the pollution level of the river Kura, which provides 45 percent of Baku's drinking water, had risen so far above permitted limits that its waters were no longer being used for that purpose. (Liz Fuller)