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Caucasus Report: December 23, 1998

23 December 1998, Volume 1, Number 43

Georgia, Abkhazia Step Back From Brink Last week's UN-sponsored talks in Geneva between the premiers of Georgia and Abkhazia coincided with mutual accusations by the Abkhaz and Georgian interior ministries, each of which accused the other of preparing for new hostilities in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali raion. The Georgian security forces in western Georgia were reportedly placed on full alert --a move that elicited a statement of concern from the Russian Foreign Ministry. The prospect of further destabilization in western Georgia was all the more disturbing as it coincided with the pumping of the first oil into the export pipeline from Baku to the Georgian Black Sea port of Supsa.

The heightened tensions, however, did not presage new fighting. Moreover, both Tbilisi and Sukhumi professed to be pleased with the Geneva talks, even though little progress was made towards resolving outstanding fundamental differences. The two sides did resume work on drafting a protocol on the repatriation of ethnic Georgians to Abkhazia, but they did not set a date for the meeting at which Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and his Abkhaz counterpart Vladislav Ardzinba are slated to sign that document. And in a more practical attempt to prevent further hostilities, Abkhaz Prime Minister Sergei Bagapsh met in Gali on 21 December with Georgian Minister of State Vazha Lortkipanidze and the Georgian security and interior ministers to hammer out a program of measures to underpin the ceasefire protocol signed in late May. Those measures include the planned withdrawal of Georgian interior ministry troops from the exclave of Khurcha on the Abkhaz side of the border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia.

That withdrawal, however, was condemned by Tamaz Nadareishvili, the militant head of the so-called Abkhaz parliament in exile (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 1, No. 15, 9 June 1998 and No. 37, 10 November 1998). Nadareishvili argued that the withdrawal would encourage the Abkhaz to pressure the Georgians to yield even more territory.

Another Georgian lobby that is watching the situation on the border with Abkhazia with acute interest is members of various informal Georgian paramilitary units that played a key role in the wars in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Meeting in Tbilisi last week, those veterans, together with the leader of one of the guerrilla formations that for the past several months has been murdering Abkhaz police officers in Gali, affirmed their readiness to participate in a new military campaign to restore those two territories to Tbilisi's jurisdiction if it proves impossible to resolve the conflicts by political means. (Liz Fuller)

Is Berezovskii Planning The Rehabilitation Of Chechnya's Prodigal Son? Over the past year, several Russian newspapers have published interviews with former Grozny mayor Beslan Gantemirov, currently in pretrial detention in Moscow on charges of having embezzled 57 million rubles sent by the Russian government as badly needed economic aid to Chechnya. Gantemirov insists that those charges were fabricated by the Russian Prosecutor-General's office to protect the highly-placed Russian officials who diverted those funds for their own aims. Having risen from the ranks of the Chechen police force to head deceased president Djokhar Dudaev's bodyguard, Gantemirov fell out with him in the summer of1993 and joined the anti--Dudaev Chechen opposition in 1994.

The most recent publication to offer positive and sympathetic coverage to Gantemirov was "Nezavisimaya gazeta," which receives funding from Boris Berezovskii's LogoVAZ group. Possibly reflecting Berezovskii's longterm interests in the Caucasus, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" has a track record for reliable reporting and analysis of developments in the North Caucasus, Georgia and Abkhazia.

In a 3,400 word interview published in that paper on 17 December, Gantemirov affirms, as he had done in earlier interviews, that he fully believes he will at some future stage again be in a position to serve Chechnya. In an indication that he does not share the pro-independence aspirations of the present Chechen opposition to President Aslan Maskhadov (aspirations that Maskhadov professes to share while simultaneously conducting talks with Moscow on economic aid) Gantemirov underscores that "I am for an independent Chechnya, but against Chechen separatism." His vision of the ideal future relations between Moscow and Grozny, Gantemirov continues, "expands somewhat the generally accepted principles of a federal state: the main idea of this union lies in the integrity of the Russian Federation and in Chechnya's national sovereignty and the development of that sovereignty."

While expressing respect for Maskhadov's role in the 1994-1996 war, Gantemirov characterizes the Chechen president as one of several power centers currently existing in Chechnya, and one that is likely to collapse in the near future. Maskhadov, like the other field commanders opposed to him, "represents the Chechen people, but not in its entirety," Gantemirov claims, and for that reason, he continues, "it is time to quit flirting with the idea of reanimating the Maskhadov regime." (Since the execution of the four abducted foreign engineers in Chechnya in early December, Berezovskii has implied several times that Maskhadov's position has become untenable, implicitly blaming Russia for not doing more to support him.)

Gantemirov declines to name any of the present political actors in Chechnya as a likely successor to Maskhadov. But the picture that emerges of Gantemirov is one of a man who could well aspire to that role himself, and is intellectually and politicaly better qualified for it than some other former field commanders. Gantemirov claims to be profiting from his enforced incarceration in order to fill the gaps in his political education by reading Nietzsche, Avicenna, Machiavelli, Omar Khayyam, and works by both Russian and foreign specialists in the field of federalism, statehood and law.

What degree of support Gantemirov could count on from the Chechen population should he return to Chechnya is not clear: but the positive image of him conveyed by the "Nezavisimaya gazeta" interview suggests that Berezovskii has some role in mind for him there, even though it is unclear what that role may be. (Liz Fuller)

Karabakh Strong Man Takes Center Stage The powerful defence minister of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, Lt.-Gen. Samvel Babayan, made his public relations debut in Yerevan on 21 December, announcing what he said were positive trends in international efforts to end the long conflict with Azerbaijan, while retaining some misgivings. Addressing students and faculty members of Yerevan State University, Babayan said the bitter war over the disputed enclave, stopped over four years ago, will not resume soon because Azerbaijan is incapable of defeating the Karabakh Armenian forces.

"For the first time the principles of peoples' self-determination and territorial integrity have received equal consideration," Babayan said, referring to the most recent peace plan by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. "That's why Azerbaijan has rejected it," he told the audience at an overcrowded university hall. The plan, largely approved by the Armenian and Karabakh authorities, calls for the formation of a "common state" between Azerbaijan and the Armenian-populated region.

Babayan said he is personally against the idea of a common state but indicated he is not opposed to the latest OSCE plan as it offers Baku a face-saving solution. "That's a pure political term, used [by the OSCE] to uphold the principle of territorial integrity to save Azerbaijan's face," he explained. However, the general who led the Karabakh Armenian forces during their successful war against Azerbaijan cautioned that the plan still has many unanswered questions. "We know we have to make concessions. But how many?" he asked.

In a sign that differences still exist between Armenia and Karabakh, Babayan chided Yerevan for lacking a "clear" stance on a compromise deal. "We don't get a clear answer from the Armenian authorities. Let them say once and for all which of the [occupied Azerbaijani] lands we should cede and which [we should] not," he said. Babayan said he is opposed to the return of Kelbajar and Lachin, the two Azerbaijani districts that lie between Karabakh and Armenia. "We will not give up Kelbajar and Lachin because it is our rear and security," he said. The fate of the districts, captured in 1992 and 1993, is a major sticking point in peace talks, with the Karabakh Armenians insisting on having a land corridor with Armenia proper.

"Azerbaijan will not resume fighting because it knows it will lose. They are unable to fight with us," Babayan said. The 33 year old general is believed to have huge power in Karabakh, often intervening in civilian matters. Babayan's position on the resolving the conflict tends to be harder than that of official Stepanakert. He denied any differences within the Karabakh Armenian leadership at the moment. Babayan admitted, however, "some disagreements" over economic policy with Armenian President Robert Kocharian, himself a native of Karabakh. But he added that he has no ambitions to higher posts in the Karabakh or Armenian governments. "I have no goal to become president. And I don't have power claims in Armenia either. So don't worry about it," he told a reporter. (Anna Saghabalian)

Quotes Of The Week "The decisions of the Azerbaijani courts to levy fines high enough to disrupt the functioning of opposition newspapers is inconsistent with international human rights covenants to which Azerbaijan is a party. We call on the Government of Azerbaijan to uphold the freedom of the media." -- U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin, quoted by Turan, 16 December 1998.

"Shevardnadze came to power the same way as Pinochet and should end his life behind bars like the General." -- Mangul Hubua, one of the leaders of the Co-ordinating Council of Political Parties and Organisations from Abkhazia and Samachablo, speaking at a press conference in Tbilisi on 15 December (Caucasus Press).