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Caucasus Report: December 17, 1999

17 December 1999, Volume 2, Number 50

Calling The West's Bluff, Or Passing The Buck? Meeting in Makhachkala on 14 December with OSCE Chairman in Office Knut Vollebaek, Russia's Minister for Emergency Situations Sergei Shoigu proposed that the OSCE should take over the administration of the districts of Chechnya currently under the control of Russian federal forces. At present those districts are being administered by military commendants. The Russian government has made an effort to provide in these areas many of the services that President Aslan Maskhadov's government earlier was unable to deliver. That failure, togther with Maskhadov's inability to clamp down on the criminal activities of some of his fellow former field commanders, generated widespread disenchantment among many rural Chechens (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 2, No. 48, 3 December 1999).

Visiting the so-called liberated zone on 15 December, Vollebaek apparently made no reference to Shoigu's suggestion, which may well have been intended to call the OSCE's bluff. Even if OSCE member states endorsed such an undertaking, its implementation would be extremely difficult in terms of security and logistics. The OSCE administrators would have to work in coordination with, and possibly rely for their security on, the permanent Russian military presence that Moscow is intent on maintaining in Chechnya. They would also have to work with pro-Moscow Chechen politicians such as former Grozny mayor Beslan Gantemirov. And, as in Kosovo, the OSCE would inevitably be blamed for reprisals by Chechen militants against fellow Chechens who ceded villages to the advancing Russian troops without a fight. (Liz Fuller)

Minsk Group Set To Draft New Karabakh Peace Proposal. Over the past week the French, Russian and U.S. co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group travelled to Yerevan, Stepanakert and Baku in what French representative Jean-Jacques Gaillard termed a fact-finding mission intended to ascertain the precise status of the peace process. It was the first joint trip by the three co-chairmen to the region for thirteen months, since Azerbaijan's rejection last November of the OSCE's most recent peace proposal. That proposal was reportedly based on the conecpt of a "common state" comprising Azerbaijan and the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.

Over the past year, the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan have met half a dozen times to discuss the prospects for a lasting settlement. But their shared insistence that such a settlement must entail compromise by both parties met with outrage among nationalist-oriented groups in both Azerbaijan and, to a lesser extent, in Armenia.

All parties to the conflict professed their readiness to resume peace talks within the framework of the Minsk Group. While castigating that body for its failure to present a draft peace plan acceptable to all parties, Azerbaijan's President Heidar Aliyev nonetheless conceded that his talks with his Armenian counterpart Robert Kocharian cannot serve as a substitute for outside mediation.

Speaking in Baku on 14 December, U.S. co-chairman Carey Cavanaugh defined the twin objectives of the co-chairs' visit as preparing a new draft peace proposal and assessing the need for economic reconstruction in the region. What the new peace proposal would comprise is not clear, however. NKR Foreign Minister Naira Melkumian predicted that it would be very similar to the previous one, except that the contentious term "common state" would be replaced by a more neutral formulation.

Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, for his part, told journalists in Yerevan on 13 December that Armenia still adheres to three basic principles: self-determination for Karabakh, plus guarantees of the enclave's security and unimpeded land communication with Armenia. (This latter principle focuses on the so-called Lachin corridor which links Karabakh with Armenia.) Oskanian also disclosed that when the OSCE-mediated talks do resume, the Karabakh Armenian community and representatives of the former Azerbaijani community of Karabakh will be included. But, Oskanian said, the Karabakh Azerbaijani representation at the talks would have a lower status that the Karabakh Armenians. (Liz Fuller)

Karabakh Army Commander At Center Of New Political Crisis. Samvel Babayan, the 34-year-old commander of the Defense Army of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, has maintained a low profile since losing his post as Defense Minister six months ago. But the standoff last summer between Babayan's supporters and Karabakh's President Arkadii Ghukasian generated tensions that have resurfaced over the past two weeks, prompting senior Karabakh military officers to call on 15 December for both men to resign. And on 17 December, two days after Babayan assaulted the enclave's prime minister, Ghukasian fired him from his post.

In late June, Ghukasian dismissed Karabakh Prime Minister Zhirayr Poghosian, a close associate of Babayan, reportedly for economic failures. Poghosian was subsequently acccused of having arranged to have Ghukasian's office bugged. Commentators anticipated that Babayan would be named the new premier, but instead Ghukasian appointed to that post Anoushavan Danielian, a native of Karabakh who is a Ukrainian citizen and made his career in politics in the Crimea before moving to Yerevan early this year.

In early July, a group of a dozen senior military commanders who support Babayan handed back their military decorations to protest Ghukasian's alleged misrepresentation of a meeting with them. The president claimed that the generals at that meeting expressed support for his new cabinet. They denied doing so and said that they had criticized the composition of the new cabinet as reflecting an attempt by Ghukasian to minimize Babayan's influence on political developments. Shortly thereafter, Armenian President Robert Kocharian travelled to Stepanakert to make clear his support for Ghukasian in a move that apparently defused tensions temporarily.

Babayan retained his position as army commander, but was not reappointed Defense Minister in Danielian's cabinet. But he remains one of the most powerful (and resented) figures in Karabakh. Not only does he enjoy the loyalty of the army, but also the support of many Karabakh parliament deputies and of the recently created Armenian National Democratic Party. That party, based in Karabakh, is headed by Murad Petrosian, who like Babayan espouses a hardline over the optimum approach to resolving the Karabakh conflict. Finally, Babayan has an embryonic power base in Armenia in the form of the small nationalist Right and Accord parliament bloc. Speaking to journalists in Stepanakert in early December, Ghukasian referred disparagingly to Babayan, advising him to cooncentrate on military matters because, according to Ghukasian, he has neither the necessary intelligence nor the formal education to deal with political and economic issues. Babayan responded by accusing Ghukasian of behaviour inappropriate to a head of state. He further argued that his track record as army commander belies the president's estimate of his intellectual and leadership qualitites.

On 14 December, Babayan and a group of his supporters accosted Danielian outside the government building in Stepanakert. A fistfight ensued in which Danielian received minor injuries. The following day, a group of senior Karabakh army officers issued a statement blaming Ghukasian for exacerbating political tensions, and calling on both Ghukasian and Babayan to step down. That statement was published on 16 December in the Armenian daily "Haykakan zhamanak," which is close to the former ruling Armenian Pan-National Movement. The paper identified Armenian Defense Minister Vagharshak Harutiunian as having orchestrated the Karabakh officers' protest. But at a meeting with Ghukasian and other members of the Karabakh cabinet on 16 December, Harutiunian endorsed their condemnation of Babayan's actions as encroaching on the enclave's executive power and statehood.

Paradoxically, in the standoff between Kocharian and leading members of the Yerkrapah Union of veterans of the Karabakh war, Babayan appeared to back the Armenian president. He was quoted on 11 December by the daily "Aravot" as arguing that Kocharian should not step down, as his resignation would adversely affect political stability in Armenia. It is not clear whether Babayan was hoping that Kocharian would withdraw his support for Ghukasian in return for Babayan's backing against militant elements in Yerkrapah. If he was, then Harutiunian's statement of support for the embattled Karabakh president shows that Babayan miscalculated. (Liz Fuller)

Has Azerbaijan's Population Shrunk By 40 Percent? The economic downturn that followed the collapse of the USSR has impelled hundreds of thousands of people to leave the three South Caucasus states in search of employment. Those three countries have undoubtedly lost a proportionately greater part of their respective populations over the past eight years than have other former Soviet republics. But several factors make it difficult to assess precisely how great the outmigration from each of the three countries has been, and hence which of them has been most seriously affected. First, only Azerbaijan has held a census since the collapse of the USSR, and not all scholars consider the published results reliable. Second, the leaderships of the countries in question have a vested interest in downplaying the extent of the exodus rather than admit the true number of their citizens who consider the status quo intolerable. And third, external, primarily Russian commentators may also manipulate the available data for political ends.

One such exercise is an article published in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 1 December by the St. Petersburg scholar Aleksandr Arsen'ev, who may be playing to the anger many Russians apparently feel at the presence in Russia of people from the Caucasus, an anger that Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and other Russian officials have sought to exploit in recent years.

Arsen'ev seeks to demonstrate that the published results of the population census conducted in Azerbaijan in January-February of this year were fabricated, and that country has suffered the largest decline in its population of the three South Caucasus states. According to the census data, Azerbaijan's population currently numbers 7.953 million. The study takes as its starting point the population of Azerbaijan on 1 January 1988, which was 7 million. In the course of 1988-1990, the entire Armenian population of Azerbaijan, numbering about half a million, were driven out or fled. A similar number of Russians, Ukrainians, Jews and Tatars left in the late 1980s and early 1990s: of the 392,000 Russians living in the republic at the time of the 1989 Soviet census, less than 75,000 now remain, according to the chairman of Azerbaijan's Russian Community.

Arsen'ev concludes that as a result of the outmigration of a large proportion of the non-indigenous population, Azerbaijan lost no less than 1.2 million inhabitants during the decade 1989-1999. But in addition, since the demise of the USSR, up to 3 million Azerbaijanis have also left their native country: the number of Azerbaijanis resident in the Russian Federation is currently between 2-2.5 million. Specifically, the Azerbaijani population of the city of Moscow and Moscow Oblast is now 1.2 million, compared with 21,000 in 1989. Sizable numbers of Azerbaijanis have also moved to Ukraine and Turkey.

The Russian scholar estimates total outmigration of Azerbaijanis in recent years at no less than 3 million. He thus deduces that, allowing for modest natural population increase over the past decade, the country's current population cannot possibly exceed 4 million.

The two other countries in the region have also suffered population losses. The Armenian government estimates the number of people to have left the country since 1991 at between 560,000 and 600,000: unofficial estimates put it as high as 800,000. The country's total population on 1 January 1999 was 3.798 million, compared with 3.283 million one decade earlier.

Georgia's population fell from 5.73 million in 1989 to 5.425 million in 1994, primarily as a result of the outmigration of the non-Georgian population. Since then, it has increased only very slightly, to 5.437 million in 1998. (Those figures, if accurate, would substantiate President Eduard Shevardnadze's denial that between 1-1.5 million people have left Georgia in recent years in search of employment.) Georgia's Demographic Asociation stated in October that the country is experiencing negative population growth, with deaths outnumbering live births and continued outmigration. (Liz Fuller)

Quotations Of The Week. "Tell this Vollebaek to end the war." -- Fatima Khatieva, who fled from Grozny to Ingushetia and was then refused permission to return to Chechnya to rescue her 85 year old mother. Quoted by AP, 15 December.

"There absolutely must be a third party in any future negotiations [with Moscow] which could give guarantees that any accord will be implemented." -- Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov quoted by Reuters. [15 December]