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Caucasus Report: November 10, 1998

10 November 1998, Volume 1, Number 37

Shevarnadze-Ardzinba Meeting In Doubt. Following talks in Tbilisi in late October with Georgian Minister of State Vazha Lortkipanidze, Abkhaz presidential envoy Anri Djergenia said that Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and Abkhaz leader Vladislav Ardzinba would very probably meet in the Abkhaz capital, Sukhumi, during the first half of November to sign two documents on resolving the aftermath of the Abkhaz conflict. But Shevardnadze warned on 2 November that not all details of those two agreements have been finalized, while Ardzinba hinted a week later that the meeting would not take place until the second half of the month. Moreover, Georgian parliament Defense and Security Committee chairman Revaz Adamia expressed concern that Shevardnadze's planned visit to Sukhumi is "not without risk." Adamia said that the Abkhaz authorities do not fully control the territory of Abkhazia, and that it would be more appropriate for Ardzinba to come to Tbilisi instead, given the existence of forces whom Adamia did not name and who he claimed are interested in killing the Georgian president. Whether those concerns are genuine, or merely a face-saving formulation to enable the Georgian side to postpone the planned meeting, is not clear.

The two documents to be signed are 1) guarantees of the non-resumption of hostilities and 2) a protocol on the return of Georgian displaced persons to Gali raion and Georgian economic aid for the rebuilding of Abkhazia's war-shattered economy. U.N., OSCE, Russian and CIS officials are to act as guarantors for their implementation. Shevardnadze and Ardzinba have already signed what was hailed at the time as a landmark agreement abjuring the use of force (in Tbilisi in August 1997). But that pact did not prevent the outbreak of hostilities in Gali in May of this year, in which up to 36,000 Georgians who had returned to the homes they had first abandoned during the 1992-1993 war were forced to flee a second time. The 25 May protocol that ended the May fighting similarly contained a clause pledging the non-resumption of hostilities.

By contrast, the second document, which was reportedly drafted jointly by Djergenia and Lortkipanidze, resolves the contentious issue of a timetable for the return to Gali of ethnic Georgian displaced persons. The Abkhaz leadership had previously made that process contingent on the receipt from Tbilisi of funds for rebuilding the region's devastated economy, while the Georgians had insisted that they could not provide such funds until the repatriation process was underway. (In an incentive to Tbilisi to sign such a repatriation agreement, the U.S. has promised $15 million towards the cost of rendering burned-out Georgian dwellings habitable.)

But the signing of the repatriation agreement may still be torpedoed by minor details. On 2 November, in his weekly radio address, Shevardnadze conceded that not all the fugitives can return simultaneously, and that the process must proceed in stages. In that context, Shevardnadze gave the number of potential repatriants at 300,000 -- a figure that exceeds considerably UNHCR estimates of the entire pre-war population of Gali raion. If the Abkhaz are seeking a pretext to delay the signing of an agreement, that discrepancy could serve their purpose. (Liz Fuller)

Settling Scores? One reason why the Georgian leadership is anxious to conclude a water-tight agreement on the repatriation of the Georgian displaced persons to Abkhazia is the increasing militancy evinced by those unfortunates, many of whom have been living for years in cramped, rundown hotels in Tbilisi. (No provisions have been made for those displaced persons to vote in the 15 November local elections, presumably because they might well register their frustration and displeasure by endorsing opposition candidates.)

Two men currently claim to represent the fugitives' interests in their campaign to be allowed to return. One of those two is Tamaz Nadareishvili, chairman of the so-called Abkhaz parliament in exile, which comprises the 26 ethnic Georgian deputies to the Abkhaz parliament elected in the fall of 1991. Tacitly acknowledged as a member of Tbilisi's ruling elite, Nadareishvili, who is a former KGB general, is believed to act as the link between the Georgian guerrillas operating in Gali raion and the upper echelons of the Georgian leadership. Initially, Nadareishvili professed his commitment to a peaceful solution of the conflict (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 1, No. 15, 9 June 1998). But since the May fighting, he has argued repeatedly that further peace talks with the Abkhaz leadership serve no useful purpose, and that only a Bosnia-style exercise in "peace enforcement" can create conditions for the safe repatriation of the Georgians.

Nadareishvili's increasingly hardline stance may have been occasioned by fear of being upstaged by a rival claimant for the role of leader and spokesman of the displaced persons. Georgian parliament deputy Boris Kakubava, who heads the so-called Coordinating Council of Political Organizations from Abkhazia and Samachablo (South Ossetia), has for years tried to exert pressure on the Georgian leadership by threatening to mobilize the fugitives to overthrow the Georgian government. In late October, Kakubava told journalists he would cooperate with any political force capable of ousting Shevardnadze, whom he termed "a dictator."

Following the 1 November attempt by a group of fugitives led by Kakubava to occupy a Tbilisi hospital, the Georgian prosecutor general instigated criminal proceedings against him on charges of premeditated destruction of state property, exceeding his authority, and organizing and participating in mass actions violating public order. The Coordinating Council has demanded a meeting with Prosecutor-General Djamlet Babilashvili to protest those charges, and has said it will demand the opening of criminal proceedings against Nadareishvili for his alleged role in coordinating the attacks by Georgian guerrillas on Abkhaz police that gave rise to the fighting in Gali in May. Nadareishvili, in turn, has denounced Kakubava as being in league with Colonel Akaki Eliava, who led the abortive military insurrection in western Georgia last month. (Liz Fuller)

Can The Laks Survive? Dagestan's Laks, one of the oldest indigenous ethnic groups of the Russian North Caucasus, have for decades been subjected to a process of assimilation and are now "on the verge of extinction," according to an article in "Nezavisimaya gazeta/Regiony" on 10 November. At the time of the 1989 Soviet census, there were 118,386 Laks in the USSR. Laks currently constitute approximately 3 percent of the total population of Dagestan.

The author of the article, himself an ethnic Lak, traces his nation's plight, first, to out-migration in the late 19th century caused by a shortage of arable land, and second, to the aftermath of Stalin's deportation of the Chechens. Following the deportation in 1944 of the Akkin Chechens from their home in two districts of Dagestan bordering on Chechnya, Laks were resettled en masse in the Chechens' abandoned homes. Forty years later, in 1989, those Laks voluntarily offered to vacate those villages to enable the rehabilitated Chechens to return. The Russian government drafted a program to resettle the Laks north of the capital, Makhachkala, but the lands in question proved uninhabitable, and no other alternative was offered.

As a result of the chronic land shortage resulting from the cohabitation of Laks and Chechens, Lak couples who marry cannot count on receiving land on which to build a home of their own. Unemployment among Laks is estimated at 80 percent (the average for Dagestan). And the accelerating out-migration from rural districts to cities is reflected in the incidence of linguistic assimilation: between 75-80 percent of Laks living outside their local communities have either no knowledge at all or only a rudimentary knowledge of the Lak language.

One way of reversing the assimilation process, the author suggests, is to expedite the adoption of a clear Russian government policy on nationalities. (President Boris Yeltsin called on the cabinet last week to finalize its draft North Caucasus policy, the chief architect of which was former Deputy Prime Minister Ramazan Abdulatipov, a staunch defender of the cultures of Dagestan's minorities.) He also advocates amending the constitution of Dagestan in order to give all its ethnic minorities the status of a subject of the Russian Federation, noting that numerically smaller ethnic groups in Russia, such as the Evenkis and Chukchis, have already been granted that status.

There is, however, one major obstacle that may impinge on the Russian leadership's attitude to the entire Lak nation, and thus render the granting of any special privileges to the Laks highly unlikely: Magomed Khachilaev, who claims leadership of Dagestan's ethnic Laks, is under arrest for an alleged attempt to overthrow the Dagestani government, and his brother Nadirshakh is wanted on the same charges. (Liz Fuller)

Quotes Of The Week. "I am prepared to sit in prison for four years only if it is in the same cell as [Chechen President Aslan] Maskhadov." -- Radical Chechen field commander Salman Raduev, speaking to journalists in Grozny after the Chechen Constitutional Court sentenced him in absentia to four years in jail for an attempted coup (Reuters, 5 November 1998).

"A beggar state is doomed to split, and is unable to protect the political and economic interests of its citizens." -- Socialist Party of Georgia leader Vakhtang Rcheulishvili (Caucasus Press, 9 November 1998).