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Caucasus Report: September 8, 1998

8 September 1998, Volume 1, Number 28

Abkhazia Says Yes To Oil Pipeline. The Abkhaz representation at the 2 September meeting of the Coordinating Council created last November to address security and economic aspects of the frozen Abkhaz conflict finally expressed approval of the proposal to build an oil pipeline across Abkhazia connecting Georgia's Black Sea oil terminal at Supsa with the Russian port of Novorossiisk. That idea was discussed inconclusively in late February at a meeting in Sukhumi between Abkhaz President Vladislav Ardzinba, then Georgian Minister of State Niko Lekishvili, and Giorgi Chanturia, the head of the Georgian company responsible for operation of the Baku-Supsa oil pipeline (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 1, No.1., 3 March, 1998).

The author of that proposal was apparently Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, and its rationale is that construction of the Supsa-Novorossiisk pipeline would benefit all parties involved. One of the arguments against exporting crude from Kazakhstan's huge Tengiz field via a pipeline to Novorossiisk is that bad weather frequently prevents tankers loading at Novorossiisk during the winter months. A north-south pipeline from Novorossiisk to Supsa would preclude such delays and possibly even render the planned alternative underwater Trans-Caspian export pipeline to Baku less viable. Russia has objected to that project on ecological grounds, but a Trans-Caspian pipeline would also mean Russia losing substantial sums in transit tariffs, which would not be the case if the oil flowed westwards across southern Russia to Novorossiisk. Abkhazia, too, would receive badly needed transit fees to rebuild its war-shattered infrastructure.

But above all, Georgia would benefit in that one of the preconditions for such a pipeline is a formal peace settlement with Abkhazia that would determine the region's status vis-a-vis the central Georgian government and create secure conditions for the return to Abkhazia of an estimated 200,000 displaced persons, on whose needs the Georgian government currently spends $100 million per year (which is equal to one-eighth of Georgia's entire annual budget.)

One obstacle remains, however, in the form of those in Moscow that have a vested interest in blocking a solution to the Abkhaz conflict in order to retain leverage over the Georgian leadership. Whether and to what extent those persons' position has been weakened by the ongoing Rusian financial meltdown is unclear. (Liz Fuller)

Both Sides Dig In For Possible New Hostilities. Also on the agenda at last week's talks was the continuing construction of ditches, barbed-wire fences and other fortifications on both sides of the Inguri River that forms the internal border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia. Major-General Sergei Korobko, commander of the Russian peacekeeping force deployed in the 12-km security zone on both sides of the Inguri, said that he has warned both the Abkhaz and the Georgian leaderships six times that such measures are unacceptable. He has also asked Tbilisi four times to withdraw armored vehicles from the security zone. (Liz Fuller)

DPs Seek New Ways To Pressure Georgian Leadership. Representatives of the Georgian displaced persons who fled Abkhazia's southernmost Gali raion during the fighting in1992-93 and May of this year plan to convene a congress on 23-24 September in the hope "of finding solutions to our most urgent problems," according to spokesman Boris Kakubava. Hardest hit are those Georgians who returned over the past few years to their abandoned homes in Gali, only to be driven out a second time in this summer's fighting. They are currently quartered in school buildings in the west Georgian town of Zugdidi, and survive on dwindling supplies of international aid. (Agriculture Minister Bakur Gulua said last week that emergency supplies of sugar and vegetable oil are exhausted, but new shipments of flour and other commodities are expected shortly.) In an indication that the Georgian leadership takes seriously the possibility of acts of civil disobedience by despairing fugitives, Minister of State Vazha Lortkipanidze and Tbilisi Mayor Ivane Zodelava attended a joint session of the Abkhaz parliament and government in exile on 5 September to outline additional measures for improving the fugitives' plight.

Meanwhile the Abkhaz parliament and government in exile have begun drafting a new constitution and laws for Abkhazia, which will take effect once the central government's jurisdiction over the region is restored. That legislative initiative may be intended to bolster the waning authority of parliament in exile chairman Tamaz Nadareishvili, whom the most recent wave of displaced persons apparently blames for masterminding the attacks by Georgian guerrillas on Abkhaz police patrols in Gali that triggered the May hostilities. (Liz Fuller)

A Turning Point In Dagestan? Over the past week Dagestan's leaders have successfully defused one challenge, by arriving at a "live and let live" accomodation with the two villages in central Dagestan that last month declared an independent Islamic territory, only to be faced with a second, in the form of the car bomb that devastated a residential area of Makhachkala on the evening of 4 September, killing 17 people and injuring over 70. Official reaction in Makhachkala to the bombing suggests that the republic's leadership is no longer seeking to pin responsibility for the ongoing wave of terrorist actions on one single group.

In recent months, both Dagestan State Council chairman Magomedali Magomedov and opposition figures such as former Security Council secretary Magomed Tolboev have repeatedly argued that the primary danger to what passes for political stability in Dagestan is posed by "wahhabis." It is clear that they use this term indiscriminately, tarring with the same brush both the relatively few militant Islamic radicals and the tens of thousands of other Muslims who simply prefer a truly righteous, godly and sober life to the occasional pro forma observance of Muslim rites. Creating the image of an omnipresent Islamic threat ensured that Moscow was unlikely to question any punitive measures Magomedov undertook in order to strengthen his hold on power. It also served to deflect attention from the squalid and merciless power struggle underway between rival economic mafias and their political patrons (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 1, No. 14, 2 June 1998).

Last month's gesture of defiance and despair by the inhabitants of the villages of Kara-makhi and Chaban-makhi was, the villagers told "Nezavisimaya gazeta," the reaction to years of systematic harassment by the republic's authorities. Meeting last week with representatives of the Dagestan leadership, the villagers agreed to rescind their "declaration of independence" in return for immunity from prosecution. The following day, acting Russian Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin assured the villagers that Moscow would not resort to violence against them.

Whether the Dagestani leadership approved of that pledge is not clear. But the mere fact that Stepashin met with the villagers in person suggests that Moscow has finally realized that the so-called wahhabis in Dagestan do not pose a major threat to Russian security at this juncture, but that mishandling the situation could create such a threat. Former acting Chechen Premier Shamil Basaev has repeatedly warned that he will come to the assistance of the Dagestani Islamists if the latter are attacked. Intervention by Basaev would deepen the rift between himself and Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, and thus risk precipitating a new civil war in Chechnya. Protracted hostilities in central Dagestan could cut the north of the republic off from the south. And victimization of a devout Muslim minority could result in the further erosion of Magomedov's authority and a rise in religious consciousness. Stepashin reportedly said after his meeting with the villagers that "we have been side-tracked," and that cracking down on Dagestan's criminal mafia was likely to prove more effective in restoring some semblance of stability and order than the hunt for "extremists."

How relevant these considerations are to Makhachkala's reaction to last Friday's bombing -- and whether, indeed, rational thinking is applicable in the Dagestan context -- is debatable. But Dagestani government spokesmen have named as the prime suspect in the bombing not the "wahhabis," but the former chairman of the Makhachkala municipal council. (Liz Fuller)

Quotations of the Week. "Magomedov keeps amending the constitution to suit himself ... He is prepared to do anything to remain in power ... You can tolerate this for one year, or two, but things cannot go on like this indefinitely ... If he doesn't step down voluntarily, the people will sweep away the present authorities." --Former Dagestan Security Council secretary Magomed Tolboev, interviewed in "Kommersant-Daily," 3 September 1998

"Dagestan, and the entire North Caucasus, is currently living in a state of delayed conflict." "The ideology of wahhabism destroys Islam from the inside." -- Former Russian Deputy Premier Ramazan Abdulatipov, "Trud," 2 September 1998