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Caucasus Report: December 1, 1998

1 December 1998, Volume 1, Number 40

Wolf Cubs Fighting Under A Rug. In one of his most memorable similes, Winston Churchill compared the arcane power struggle in the Kremlin following Stalin's death to bulldog puppies fighting under a rug. Given that the Chechens believe their mythical maternal ancestor was a she-wolf, the present state of Chechen domestic politics could well be compared to a litter of wolf cubs scrapping in similar circumstances.

The main protagonists in this protracted struggle are embattled Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, radical field commander Salman Raduev, and former acting Premier Shamil Basaev. (A fourth, shadowy figure is former acting President Zelimkhan Yandarbiev, widely believed to be acting as eminence grise, and possibly also a restraining influence, on Raduev.)

Relations between the three men since the signing two years ago by Maskhadov and then Russian Security Council Secretary Aleksandr Lebed of the cease-fire agreement that effectively ended the combat stage of the war in Chechnya are probably most accurately described as an armed truce. Maskhadov has embarked on the thankless tasks of trying to convince the international community to recognize the Chechen Republic Ichkeria as an independent state, to extract from Moscow funds for rebuilding the region's war-shattered infrastructure, and to neutralize the bands of former freedom fighters now engaged in kidnapping and/or illegal oil extraction.

Raduev has publicly resolved to continue the fight against Russia and other perceived enemies of an independent Chechen state, periodically threatening acts of terrorism and claiming the credit for others (including the failed attempt to assassinate Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze in February). Basaev, who polled second to Maskhadov in the January 1997 presidential election with one-third of the vote, has twice served as acting prime minister under Maskhadov, quitting most recently in early July of this year. Two months earlier, Basaev had been elected chairman of the so-called Congress of the Peoples of Chechnya and Dagestan, the avowed objective of which is to unite those two republics in an independent North Caucasus state.

The latest tensions began in September when Basaev, Raduev, and a third former field commander, Khunkar-Pasha Israpilov, called on the parliament to impeach Maskhadov for having jeopardized Chechenya's sovereignty and independence by continuing talks with Russia on its status. When the parliament declined to do so, the field commanders referred their appeal to the Chechen Supreme Shariah court. Maskhadov retaliated by calling for Raduev's arrest, and on 4 November the Supreme Shariah court sentenced him in absentia to four-years' imprisonment. When Raduev failed to comply with the court's order to turn himself in, Maskhadov stripped him of the rank of general; but an attempt on 15 November by Chechen security forces to apprehend him failed. Since then, Raduev has ostentatiously remained in Grozny.

Russian commentators differ in their assessments of the degree to which Maskhadov's authority has been eroded. Some have adduced the likelihood that Moscow circumvented the Chechen leadership to negotiate through Raduev the release of abducted Russian presidential representative Valentin Vlasov as evidence that Maskhadov has become little more than a figurehead. Some believe that several field commanders who are still nominally loyal to the president covertly sympathize, and might join forces with, Basaev. Maskhadov, predictably, plays down the threat to his authority, affirming that the apparent alliance between Basaev and Raduev is purely tactical and unlikely to last, given their diverging interests.

Raduev, true to past form, has acted provocatively in recent weeks, fortifying his Grozny headquarters and posting armed guards on the roof as an additional security measure. He has also rejected an apparent olive branch offered by the Supreme Shariah court, which said it would rescind the prison sentence handed down on him if a medical examination established that he is in poor health. Maskhadov, however, has every reason to avoid precipitating an open confrontation with Raduev at this juncture, given that the new Russian government has assured him that it will finally deliver the long-promised funds for rebuilding the republic's destroyed infrastructure. Assuming that the seemingly endless exchange of threats and ultimatums is not a carefully staged performance aimed at convincing Moscow of the need to give continued political and financial support to Maskhadov, the covert tussle for influence could continue unabated for months. (Liz Fuller)

Is Sadval Still A Threat? Speaking on republican television on 29 November, two days after some 50 inhabitants of villages on the Dagestan side of the Russian-Azerbaijani frontier crossed that border and tried to attack and disarm the Azerbaijani border guard contingent, Dagestan State Council chairman Magomedali Magomedov denied that Dagestan's 200,000-strong Lezgin minority is still demanding the creation of its own independent state on its historic homeland straddling the present-day frontier. (In the early 1990s, the Lezgin communities on both sides of that border had raised the question of creating a separate state, thereby seriously exacerbating relations between Azerbaijan and the Russian Federation.) According to Magomedov, Dagestan's Lezgins "have established good relations" with the Azerbaijanis.

That optimistic assessment is, however, at odds with Russian press accounts of recent trends within the Lezgin community, first and foremost the split within Sadval, the movement created in July, 1990, to campaign for a separate Lezgin territory comprising parts of the then RSFSR and Azerbaijan SSR (see RFE/RL Research Report, Vol 1, No. 41, 16 October 1992). Sadval convened its seventh congress in Derbent in mid-November with the intention of seeking solutions to what its leader, Ruslan Ashuraliev, termed the "exceptional, explosive political and social-economic situation" in those regions of southern Dagestan whose population is predominantly Lezgin, and discriminations against ethnic Lezgins on the part of the Dagestan authorities. (It was apparently to protest that discrimination that Lezgin radicals had demanded the creation of a separate Lezgin autonomous territory in southern Dagestan six weeks earlier.)

The Sadval congress degenerated into chaos. The movement's radical wing, headed by retired general Mugutdin Kakhrimanov, called for a separate Lezgin autonomous formation that would have the status of a Russian Federation subject; some delegates even advocated forming an armed movement on the lines of the PLO or the IRA to fight for that goal. The moderates, headed by Ashuraliev, were booed out of the congress hall; AshurAliyev subsequently convened a separate congress of his supporters later in November at which he underscored his loyalty to Moscow.

It is impossible to estimate how numerically strong the radical wing of Sadval is. Nor is it clear whether the stated intention of the Dagestan authorities to speed up its plans to disarm all national armed formations is directed primarily at the Sadval militants, or at other such movements which, although ostensibly formed to defend the interests of ethnic minorities such as the Laks and Avars, are little more than private armies financed by powerful political and/or mafia figures. (Liz Fuller)

Quotations Of The Week. "We understand the importance of this route. Nevertheless, not a single company supporting it has suggested it would participate in financing the project." -- Outgoing AIOC President John Leggate, a propos financing the proposed Baku-Ceyhan oil export pipeline ("International Herald Tribune," 30 November 1998).

"We will win the next parliamentary elections and become a parliamentary party." -- United Communist Party of Georgia chairman Panteleimon Giorgadze (Caucasus Press, 26 November 1998).

"Be afraid of the verdict of the people! Do not inspire confrontation. You should not regard the opposition as the enemy of the nation. The opposition is the driving force of society." -- From an address by 44 members of the Azerbaijani Academy of Sciences to parliament deputies and the leaders of the country's law enforcement agencies (Turan, 25 November 1998).