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Caucasus Report: December 3, 1999


3 December 1999, Volume 2, Number 48

Georgia, U.N. To Draft New Abkhaz Peace Plan? The arrival in Georgia last week of German diplomat Dieter Boden, who succeeds Liviu Bota as special representative of the UN Secretary-General, has given rise to optimism in Tbilisi that a resumption of the deadlocked talks on a solution to the Abkhaz conflict may be imminent. Those hopes derive primarily from Boden's earlier tour of duty in Georgia in 1995-1996 as head of the OSCE mission, during which he mediated between the central government in Tbilisi and the leadership of the breakaway unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia. Characterizing Boden "an experienced diplomat with a versatile mind," Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze said he is certain that Boden will be able to expedite a political solution to the Abkhaz conflict. But Georgia's Foreign Minister Irakli Menagharishvili, who, like Shevardnadze, met with Boden earlier this week, cautioned against expecting miracles from the new UN Special Representative, stressing the need for "constant single-minded efforts" on Georgia's part to achieve a settlement.

All efforts over the past five years to come up with a political agreement on relations between Abkhazia and the central Georgian authorities have failed. Abkhazia, whose unilaterally proclaimed independence has not been recognized by any state, wants Georgia to be designated a confederation in which Abkhazia would be an equal partner, with the right to opt out of that confederation and attain formal recognition as an independent state. Tbilisi, for its part, insists it can offer Abkhazia no more than autonomy -- the status which the region had prior to the collapse of the USSR.

The most recent statement on Abkhazia adopted by the President of the UN Security Council, dated 12 November, welcomes Boden's appointment. It also notes "the intention of the Special Representative to submit as soon as possible further proposals to both sides on the distribution of constitutional competence between Tbilisi and Sukhumi, as part of a comprehensive settlement, with full respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia within its internationally recognized borders."

Caucasus Press quoted Boden as having told Georgian parliament speaker Zurab Zhvania that he will not unveil any new proposals before his return from Abkhazia, where he met on 30 November with Abkhaz President Vladislav Ardzinba. But two recent Georgian statements cast doubt on whether Boden will indeed be the one to author the new blue print for resolving the conflict, and if not, how large the Georgian input in that draft will prove to be. President Shevardnadze told journalists in Tbilisi on 22 November that "Georgia and the UN have started work on determining the political status of Abkhazia." And Shevardnadze's advisor on international law, Levan Aleksidze told Caucasus Press one week later that "if Abkhazia does not agree to Georgia's proposals on its status," which Caucasus Press quoted him as saying provide for "the broadest rights which a state could bestow on its regions," then Tbilisi will demand the imposition of economic sanctions in Abkhazia, albeit only as a last report.

Such threats are unlikely to cut much ice in Sukhumi. Nor is the Abkhaz leadership likely to prove any more willing now to make concessions on the key issue of its future status vis-a-vis Tbilisi than it has been in the past. In an interview published in "Respublika Abkhaziya" 10 days ago, President Ardzinba, who was reelected unopposed in October for a second five-year term, defined as one of his main priorities establishing contacts with states that might be amenable to recognizing Abkhazia's independence. The Caucasus Press summary of that interview did not indicate which, if any, countries Ardzinba named in that context.

Acknowledging the economic deprivation that the Abkhaz population has suffered as a result of the restrictions imposed on cross-border trade with the Russian Federation, Ardzinba added that he hopes "the worst is behind us." As part of its ongoing campaign to pressure the Georgian leadership, the Russian government unilaterally lifted those restrictions in September. (Liz Fuller)

Russian Ministers Issue Inconsistent Statements On Azerbaijan. In September, immediately prior to the Russian invasion of Chechnya, senior Russian Defense Ministry official Colonel-General Leonid Ivashev claimed that arms and mercenaries were being transported to Chechnya via the territory of Georgia (which has a border with Chechnya) and Azerbaijan (which does not). Then, two months later, in early November, Russian Premier Vladimir Putin advocated demanding visas from citizens of both countries wishing to enter the Russian Federation. He later also proposed suspending financial transfers to Azerbaijan and Georgia by citizens of those two countries currently living and working in Russia.

Since then, Russian officials have intensified their accusations that Georgia is engaged in funneling support to the Chechens. But the Russian Defense Ministry, at least, appears to take at face value Baku's denials that mercenaries and weapons are being sent to Chechnya via Azerbaijani territory. Meeting in Moscow last week with his Azerbaijani counterpart Safar Abiev, Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev even described those accusations of Azerbaijani collaboration with Grozny as "slander."

But Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov adopted a more aggressive approach, charging on 30 November that the framework agreements for the Baku-Ceyhan oil export pipeline and the declaration of intent to build the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline signed during the OSCE Istanbul summit are part of a broader attempt to circumvent Russia's capabilities in the Caucasus. Both those pipelines would traverse Azerbaijan and Georgia.

True, divergences between the foreign policy priorities of various ministries and departments in Moscow are not a new phenomenon. And Sergeev's conciliatory remarks may well have been prompted, as Turan quoted observers in Baku as noting, by the awareness that Russia will want to have continued access to and use of Azerbaijan's Gabala radar installation if the U.S. should opt out of the ABM treaty.

On the other hand, the contrast between the increasing tension in Russia's relations with Georgia, and Moscow's more conciliatory approach to Azerbaijan could be construed as a further indication that Baku is seeking a rapprochement (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 2, No. 28, 15 July 1999). In that context, it is worth noting that Azerbaijan's President Heidar Aliyev told journalists in Baku on 2 December that his talks in Kyiv two days earlier with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin were "very important and useful," and "introduced clarity" into a wide range of subjects. Aliyev also said that Russia will not, after all, introduce a visa requirement for citizens of Azerbaijan. (Liz Fuller)

Chechens Said Alienated From Field Commanders. Western journalists who talked with displaced civilians from Chechnya in camps in neighboring Ingushetia last month report that the fugitives are increasingly blaming the new war not just on Moscow, but also on field commanders Shamil Basaev and Khattab. Those two warlords were the leading force behind the Chechen incursions into Daghestan in August-September, which provided Russia with a pretext for its retaliation against Chechnya.

"The Guardian" on 25 November quoted a former government school inspector from Grozny as saying "Basaev has brought us nothing but trouble and misery. No one I know sees him as a hero any more." An unnamed villager from Gekhi similarly told the "Financial Times" that "last time 90 percent of the people in my village supported the fighters but only a few support them today." The shooting in Gekhi on 28 November by Chechen fighters of Chechen civilians who were trying to negotiate a ceasefire with a Russian commander is likely to intensify the antagonism of the civilian population.

At the same time, the Chechen displaced persons are also critical of Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, whom they perceive as "very weak" and having proven unable to rein in maverick field commanders. But most Chechens still regard Maskhadov as their lawfully elected president, and therefore as the logical person with whom Moscow should conduct negotiations on halting the fighting. British analyst Anatol Lieven, writing in the "International Herald Tribune" (1 December) makes the point that "the tragedy of the Russians' ham-fisted brutality is that they might have attracted the support of most Chechens had they tried to work peacefully with Mr. Maskhadov to expel the extremist groups."

It is presumably in an effort to capitalize on many Chechens' alienation from the radical field commanders that the Russian authorities are seemingly sparing no effort to provide electricity, gas, schools, medical facilities and cash allowances to the population of villages in those areas of Chechnya controlled by Russian troops. (Liz Fuller)

Arrested Gunmen Show No Remorse Over Parliament Killings. The gunmen who seized the Armenian parliament on 27 October, killing its speaker, the country's prime minister and six other officials are said to be unrepentant about their actions. Nairi Hunanian -- a former journalist who led four armed men into the killing spree -- regrets only one thing: that he did not finish the job and overthrow the regime of "bloodsuckers" that has governed Armenia since independence.

One month after the tragedy, Hunanian and his associates say that they acted in good faith, according to a psychologist who has interviewed them in jail. Elda Grin, a leading Armenian specialist on human psyche, helps state investigators establish what and perhaps who prompted them to burst into the parliament chamber and spray it with bullets. Interviewed by RFE/RL, Grin says none of them left the impression of a deranged person.

"It happens sometimes that during the interrogations a murderer shows repentance for what he did. It's so evident that you can see that without his saying a word. But these men don't repent at all," she says.

Most Armenian politicians and parties feel that Hunanian and his gang were just instruments for somebody's far-reaching plan to destabilize the country. The slain speaker Karen Demirchian and Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian were the linchpins of the ruling Miasnutyun (Unity) bloc which won parliamentary elections last May. The death of the two charismatic figures caused a major power vacuum in Yerevan. And although the ruling elite has managed to prevent the country from sliding into chaos, political uncertainty will persist in the months to come.

Yet none of the conspiracy theories in circulation so far has been substantiated by prosecutors. Six other individuals, including an obscure parliament deputy, have also been arrested since 27 October. But according to press reports citing unnamed "reliable sources," there is no evidence yet to prove that a certain force was behind the attack on the parliament.

With official information about the inquiry extremely sketchy, psychologist Grin's remarks provide insights into the gunmen's motives. Based on her conversations with the five members of the gang, Grin contends that the stated ultimate goal of the attack was to install a new government headed by Hunanian and guided solely by "the people's interests."

She says two of the gunmen were due to leave the chamber and gather a crowd of supporters. Hunanian's planned televised address to the nation was to be the catalyst for a popular revolt. He told a dozen journalists to announce a "coup d'etat" as he allowed them to leave the chamber minutes after the killings. Eighteen hours later the attackers were escorted into custody after negotiating the terms of their surrender with President Robert Kocharian and releasing dozens of hostages.

Grin says the gunmen still insist that they acted on their own. One thing which is beyond doubt for her is that the four men with different backgrounds were bound together by their close ties with Hunanian. The group included his younger brother, uncle and two friends. They still have a high regard for the 34-year-old ex-journalist, who was expelled from the nationalist Dashnaktsutyun party for misconduct in the early 1990s.

"He can create the impression, convince and inspire," Grin says of Hunanian. He gave no hints of regret at what he did. Eduard Grigorian, a doctor and Hunanian's former classmate, is "more cunning and was speaking with a smile and humor," the psychologist recounts. Hunanian's brother Karen, who fired nine bullets at Prime Minister Sarkisian, seemed aggressive and "militant" to Grin. In her words, the two other attackers -- the brothers' uncle Vram Galstian and a former refugee from Azerbaijan, Derenik Bejanian -- looked "very frightened." Bejanian told her that he was forced to take part in the bloody attack by the rest of the group.

The investigators led by Armenia's chief military prosecutor reportedly do not believe in the gang's denial of any links with an organized force inside or outside Armenia. But as some local newspapers have reported, the prosecutors have so far found no clues to what they think was a broader conspiracy.

Some Armenians are digging deeper for the roots of the tragedy. Grin shares their view that the shock killings were a sign of serious ills in a society which has gone through many upheavals over the past decade, including the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and economic decline accompanied by enormous social polarization. (Karine Kalantarian)

Quotations Of The Week. "Earlier this morning when I woke up and saw a cloudless sky, I decided to leave immediately. My little daughter Amina broke into hysterics and begged me to take her away from there, because the shining sun means that Russian aviation will be bombing us again." -- Patimat Serdieva, who was trying to flee from Kater-Yurt southwest of Grozny on 1 December, quoted by AP.

"I wanted to believe that the war made sense. I now realize that what is happening in Chechnya is sheer butchery." -- Vladimir Tarasov, whose son Vassilii was killed fighting in Chechnya, quoted in the "Frankfurter Rundschau," 1 December 1999.

"The Chechen government must be confronted with a forceful ultimatum: it must do everything possible to put an end to the disgusting business of hostage-taking. You might ask, what's the wisdom of talking with a weak government that poorly controls the situation in the country? My response: the West is already negotiating with Mr. Yeltsin." -- Russian human rights campaigner Sergei Kovalyov, writing in "The Wall Street Journal," 29 November 1999.

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