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Caucasus Report: July 21, 1998

21 July 1998, Volume 1, Number 21

Russian President, Foreign Ministry At Odds Over Abkhazia? Statements last week suggest that Russian President Boris Yeltsin and the Russian Foreign Ministry disagree over the continued presence of a Russian peacekeeping force along the border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia. Five members of that force were killed on 12 July and five more injured when their armoured personnel carrier was blown up by a landmine in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali raion, raising to over sixty the number of Russian servicemen killed since the force was first deployed in July, 1994. On 14 July, in an unusually harshly-worded statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry accused members of the Georgian guerrilla "White Legion" of laying the mine, and warned that the peacekeeping force will be withdrawn if such attacks continue.

On 16 July, however, Russian President Boris Yeltsin sent a letter to Federation Council chairman Egor Stroev requesting that the Council endorse the extension of the peacekeepers' mandate until 31 July. The Russian president argued that the peacekeepers are "the only real force that ensures a stable ceasefire and conditions for a political settlement," and that their withdrawal could "cause an explosion not only in the region but possibly in the whole of the Caucasus." (That latter formulation implies that Yeltsin's primary concern is not the situation on the Abkhaz-Georgian border, but the prospect of new fighting in Chechnya that could spill over into Dagestan.) The Federation Council duly voted overwhelmingly to comply with Yeltsin's request.

The most obvious explanation for this apparent divergence of views is that the Russian Foreign Ministry is continuing its traditional policy of carrot and stick with regard to both Sukhumi and Tbilisi, blithely confident that neither side would risk the resumption of hostilities that would almost inevitably follow the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeeping force. (The U.S. has recently made it clear that it considers there are no grounds for the deployment of an alternative force under NATO auspices, despite calls last month by Turkish Deputy Chief of General Staff Cevik Bir for the creation of a peacekeeping force to be deployed in the Caucasus under the auspices of NATO's Partnership for Peace Programme.) This time, however, the Abkhaz may call Moscow's bluff: Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba told Interfax on 16 July that Abkhazia is perfectly capable of guaranteeing its own security by advancing its units southwards to the Inguri river. The failure of the Russian peacekeepers to intervene during the May fighting in Gali to protect Georgian civilians has corroborated the conviction of many Georgians that the peacekeepers' continued presence serves no useful purpose. *** Zurab Erkvania resigned on 8 July as chairman of the Abkhaz government in exile, whose members fled Abkhazia during the 1992-1993 war. His successor in that post is Londer Tsaava, who is said to support a peaceful solution to the Abkhaz conflict, and for that reason was named as one of the members of the Georgian delegation to the talks on Abkhazia's future status. A former career Communist Party apparatchik who headed the Sukhumi City Party Committee in the late 1980s, Erkvania has been appointed a deputy head of the Georgian intelligence service, according to Caucasus Press. (Liz Fuller)

Radical Islamists Blamed For Chechen Clashes In a televized address to the Chechen people on 15 July, President Aslan Maskhadov laid the blame for the fighting that erupted the previous day in Gudermes on wahhabist forces intent on plunging Chechnya into civil war, and accused unnamed government ministers of conniving with, and receiving financial support from, Arab countries in an attempt to overthrow his government. The following day, Maskhadov issued a decree formally outlawing wahhabism and ordering the expulsion from Chechnya of five foreign nationals, all with Arabic names.

Several Russian observers argue, however, that Maskhadov's denunciation of wahhabism constitutes a deliberate attempt to distract attention from the true nature of last week's fighting, in which detachments of two of Chechnya's numerous power structures -- the Special Purpose Islamic regiment and the Shariah guard -- attacked units of the National Guard which is loyal to Maskhadov. Those observers construe the clashes as an attempt by Maskhadov's rivals to seize power. Noting that Chechnya is divided into fiefdoms controlled by individual field commanders, one Russian commentator has suggested that the struggle is less for political power than for access either to oil wells or to the export pipeline transitting Chechnya, from which field commanders systematically syphon off quantities of crude. This hypothesis would explain why Russian Deputy Premier Ivan Rybkin endorsed Maskhadov's identification of Islamic radicals as being responsible for last week's fighting: the Russian leadership cannot afford to admit that the northern export pipeline is vulnerable when a decision is imminent on the route for the Main Export Pipeline. (Liz Fuller)

Azeri Opposition Leader Encouraged By New Election Laws Speaking at a press conference at RFE/RL's Washington office on 14 July, Party of National Independence of Azerbaijan (AMIP) chairman Etibar Mamedov said he is encouraged by the Azerbaijani parliament's recent passage of amendments to the new election law, which he believes will help ensure a free and fair environment for the 11 October presidential election. Mamedov, who for the past five years has served as the "loyal" opposition to President Heidar Aliev, called upon international observers to monitor the vote in order to ensure its integrity and openness.

Mamedov appealed to all Azerbaijani opposition groups to take part in the elections, stressing the importance of achieving political change through the framework of the law and democratic elections. He said that the AMIP is "determined" to nominate a presidential candidate. He went on to reason that "In order to achieve our goals and to formulate people's political views, we have to go through several free and fair elections. In this context, the [11 October] elections ... are of a tremendous importance for Azerbaijan's future direction."

Mamedov said that all of the major political parties need to stop "mutually ignoring each other" and "accusing one another of being an enemy of the Azerbaijani people." He says this is a dangerous and impractical approach to politics and will undermine the public's faith in the democratic process.

Mamedov said his party's major objective before the election will be to educate voters and encourage them to participate in the electoral process. He added that it is critical to restore the confidence of the Azerbaijani people in the laws of the country, and make them believe that political, economic and social changes can be brought about through peaceful and democratic elections.

Mamedov said his party's strongest support comes from business leaders and youth. He added that businesses in Azerbaijan are "suffering" because of the "unlawful actions" of the country's government. He said if he is elected, his party intends to ease the many restrictions placed on businesses and cultivate a more investment-friendly climate.

Mamedov said his party has faced many pressures from the authorities, including having party district offices closed and meetings with voters blocked by police. But he said the AMIP is trying to downplay these incidents and will continue to work within the framework of the law to participate fully in the October elections. (Julie Moffett)

Quote of the Week: "It is true I support TBC financial group, "Aldagi" insurance company and New Georgian Bank, but that does not mean I'm corrupt. However, blackmail of senior officials is very popular in Georgia. " (Georgian Minister of State Niko Lekishvili, interviewed by Caucasus Press on 18 July, on his chances of being appointed Prime Minister)