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Caucasus Report: March 3, 2006

3 March 2006, Volume 9, Number 8

CHECHEN STRONGMAN POISED TO BECOME PRIME MINISTER. Chechnya's new parliament is scheduled to vote on March 4 on the nomination of First Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov as prime minister. Pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Alu Alkhanov proposed Kadyrov's candidacy on March 2 to succeed Sergei Abramov, who submitted his resignation on February 28, reportedly citing health reasons. Abramov was injured in a car crash in Moscow Oblast four months ago, and Kadyrov has been discharging his duties since then (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, 2006).

Ever since Abramov's November car crash, Russian commentators have speculated that he would not return to Grozny and that Kadyrov would eventually take his place. Abramov was quoted by "Rodnaya gazeta" in early February, however, as saying he was recovering from his injuries, and declining to comment on the "rumors" that he planned to resign. On February 28, quoted Abramov as telling ITAR-TASS that his decision to resign was not motivated by health problems (as Alkhanov had implied), but by his conviction that it was expedient that Kadyrov should take over the premiership.

Alkhanov, who broke the news of Abramov's resignation at a February 28 press conference in Moscow, initially declined to name any possible successors to Abramov, saying "the question remains open," reported. He added that the new prime minister must be capable of overseeing the work of "complex economic agencies," and that his nationality and religious affiliation are not primary considerations. (Abramov and his predecessors were all Russians.) But on March 1, Alkhanov told Interfax that he would submit his recommendation to the Chechen parliament on March 2, and that the list would contain only one name, which he is confident lawmakers will approve. Parliament speaker Dukvakha Abdurakhmanov similarly told Interfax on March 1 that if Alkhanov proposed Kadyrov's candidacy, deputies would approve it "unanimously." The March 4 vote will thus be little more than a formality.

Most Russian commentators agree that Kadyrov's promotion will merely legalize his status as the most powerful man in Chechnya. Kadyrov was named first deputy prime minister on May 10, 2004, the day after his father and Alkhanov's predecessor, Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, was killed by a terrorist bomb in Grozny (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 10 and 11, 2004). Just hours after the bombing, Russian television screened footage of a meeting between Ramzan Kadyrov and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has consistently praised the younger Kadyrov and in December 2004 bestowed on him one of Russia's most prestigious awards, the Order of Hero of Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 30, 2004).

Kadyrov's personal qualities cast doubt, however, on his suitability for the post of prime minister. As former Russian Security Council Secretary Ivan Rybkin pointed out in an interview with RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service last year (see RFE/RL: Russia: Ivan Rybkin Discusses Prospects For Peace In Chechnya, August 30, 2005), Kadyrov has only a rudimentary education. He was nonetheless reported in 2004 to have acquired a degree by correspondence from a university in Daghestan, and the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences made him an honorary member earlier this year, reported on January 30. Kadyrov speaks Russian with a pronounced Chechen accent, according to Reuters on December 20,2005.

Kadyrov was given overall responsibility last year for overseeing the process of reviewing applications for financial compensation from Chechens whose homes have been destroyed during the fighting of the past 11 years, and Abubakir Baibatyrov, the official who formerly held that post has been arrested and charged with large-scale embezzlement. But observers in Grozny have suggested to the Institute for War and Peace Reporting that Baibatyrov has been made a scapegoat, and that members of the Chechen government continue to embezzle funds earmarked for reconstruction. Some believe that Kadyrov routinely demands a percentage of the stolen cash.

Kadyrov's ability to control and even blackmail colleagues and subordinates derives in the first instance from the so-called presidential security service loyal to him, and known as the "kadyrovtsy." That force numbers several thousand men, including some former resistance fighters. Russian human rights activists allege that the "kadyrovtsy" engage with impunity in the random abductions and killings of innocent civilians that are an everyday occurrence in Chechnya. In late 2003 Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya claimed that Kadyrov ran a private prison located at a former dairy farm in his native village of Tsentoroi in Kurchaloi district.

The brutality of his henchmen has made Kadyrov the most hated and feared man in Chechnya; according to RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, he trades on that reputation to blackmail other senior officials, possibly even Alkhanov. His economic interests reportedly encompass the oil sector (Chechnya's annual oil production is currently estimated at around 2 million tons) and a string of gasoline stations in both Chechnya and neighboring Daghestan. In a bid to offset popular perceptions of him as vicious, ruthless and all-powerful, he has financed the construction of a boxing club for adolescent boys in his home village and a $7.8 million water theme park for children in Gudermes, east of Grozny.

In his capacity as acting premier, Kadyrov has issued pronouncements on a range of subjects, from the need to ban gambling in Chechnya to the benefits of polygamy to redress the imbalance between the sexes (an imbalance to which the depredations of his own thugs has contributed), to demands for a redrawing of borders to restore to Chechnya territory that is currently part of Daghestan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 7, 2005). But Moscow has overruled him on several occasions, most recently over his demand that the Danish Refugee Council be barred from engaging in further humanitarian work in Chechnya in light of the publication in Danish newspapers of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

Some have speculated that Kadyrov already wields so much power that failure to appoint him to a position commensurate with the influence he actually wields might drive him to oppose Moscow. Mikhail Babich, one of Abramov's predecessors as Chechen prime minister, explained to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on March 1 that "the moment has arrived for Ramzan Kadyrov where he needs to legalize de jure the power he already wields de facto." In that case, Abramov may have been pressured to step down in order to enable Moscow to appease Kadyrov, and thereby avoid the complications that would inevitably result should the armed "kadyrovtsy" turn against the Alkhanov regime.

Even before Abramov's automobile accident, many Russian commentators predicted that Kadyrov would succeed Alkhanov as republican head as soon as he reached the minimum age of 30 (he was born on October 5, 1976). But not all experts subscribe to that hypothesis. Aleksei Malashenko of Moscow's Carnegie Center conceded in an interview published in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on February 14 that Kadyrov "will almost certainly become president," but added that in order to do so "he must first change radically." Chechen society, Malashenko explained, does not want as its future leader "a man who drives around Grozny in a Hummer and feels himself master of all he surveys."

Dmitry Kozak, President Putin's envoy to the Southern Federal District and arguably the senior Russian official best informed about the true situation on the ground in Chechnya, has likewise implicitly ruled out the possibility of Kadyrov's elevation to the republic's most senior post in the near future. Kozak was quoted on March 1 by RIA Novosti as pointing out that Kadyrov is still too young, and he added that the question will arise only when Alkhanov's term in office expires. That will be only in early October 2008. But as Malashenko pointed out, leaders in Chechnya tend to die prematurely: there is no guarantee that Alkhanov will live to see the end of his term. (Liz Fuller)

FORMER GEORGIAN LEADER SHEDS LIGHT ON 1992 DAGOMYS AGREEMENT. On February 15 the Georgian parliament called upon the government to review the 1992 agreement that put an end to the war with South Ossetia and to secure the withdrawal of all Russian peacekeepers stationed in that unrecognized breakaway republic. Officials in Tbilisi have long accused the Russian soldiers of supporting the South Ossetian leadership and claim they pose a threat to Georgia's national security. Russia has protested the Georgian vote, arguing that Tbilisi has no right to amend the 1992 peace agreement unilaterally. Georgia, in turn, says it has the right to do so. RFE/RL's Georgian Service correspondent Nona Mchedlishvili asked former President Eduard Shevardnadze, who signed the agreement with then Russian President Boris Yeltsin, to comment on the dispute:

RFE/RL: Mr. President, could you please tell us about the circumstances that surrounded the signing of the Sochi (Dagomys) agreement on June 22, 1992. Critics say Georgia was forced to sign this agreement because its position at the time was very weak. Is that correct?

Shevardnadze: There was, indeed, no other way out. At the time, relations between Georgia and South Ossetia had become very complicated. By the time I returned to Georgia [from Moscow in early 1992], the South Ossetians had already declared their independence. [Georgia's] Supreme Council had, of course, overturned the decision and abolished the autonomy of the South Ossetian district [in November 1990]. This caused complications and [then Georgian] President Zviad Gamsakhurdia decided to invade the region [in early 1991]. He decreed a general mobilization and people started entering [South Ossetia], some with weapons, others unarmed. To put it briefly, the Georgians were not ready for war and they were defeated. Fighting went on for a while. As you know, there is a tunnel that links South Ossetia to [Russia's southern republic of] North Ossetia (eds: the Roki tunnel). Guerillas were using this tunnel to reach South Ossetia, which was thus able to gather a large number of troops.

The situation was made even more complicated by the fact that there was a rather large Russian battalion -- a helicopter battalion -- stationed in [South Ossetia's main city of] Tskhinvali. Russia had also one or two other, smaller units, in the region. There was a danger that Russian troops would interfere in the conflict. So when [President Gamsakhurdia] escaped from Georgia [after the December 1991 military coup that ousted him] and I returned to the country, our main purpose was to stop military operations.

I then met with [Russian] President [Boris] Yeltsin in Dagomys, near Sochi, and we agreed to put a halt to hostilities. A [Joint Control] Commission made up of Georgian, Russian, and Ossetian representatives was set up to monitor the implementation of the agreement, and that was it."

RFE/RL: Shortly after [ on July 14, 1992] peacekeepers were sent into South Ossetia. Were you then aware of the imbalance that would exist between Georgian peacekeepers and troops from Russia, North Ossetia, and South Ossetia ? [the Sochi agreement allows for each side to maintain a maximum force of 500 peacekeepers at a time]

Shevardnadze: There was no other way out for us. This was the result of negotiations that had taken place between the presidents of Russia and Georgia. The main purpose [of these negotiations] was to stop the war. We stopped the war and we set up this Joint Control Commission.

RFE/RL: Fourteen years into the peace agreement, how would you assess the 3+1 format of the joint peacekeeping mission?

Shevardnadze: At any rate, peace was better than war at the time. We couldn't afford to be at war any longer. We had lost the war. My predecessor, President Gamsakhurdia, had lost the war. We did not argue about whether the peace meant a loss or a gain because we had been defeated.

RFE/RL: What do you think should be done with the existing format of the joint peacekeeping mission? Don't you think the situation has changed now?

Shevardnadze: Well, this is something that should be agreed upon with Russia. I believe the agreement with Russia is not enough now and that [the Georgian government] should now negotiate with the Ossetian side on the basis of the [Dagomys] agreement. How can this be done? Where should we place our hopes? I don't know, I'm not familiar with these issues. A few months ago [in August 2004] -- I think it was in [the Georgian-populated South Ossetian village of] Tamarasheni [on the outskirts of Tskhinvali] -- a Georgian unit fought South Ossetian forces and our soldiers were literally brought to their knees. This shows that we need to be seriously prepared, whether for peace or war. Frankly speaking, it is our fault. We shouldn't have entered South Ossetia in the first place.

RFE/RL: Going back to the Sochi agreement, how is it that no one thought about a withdrawal mechanism before the treaty was signed? Was it just an oversight, or [something else]?

Shevardnadze: No one was thinking about that at the time. The most important thing was to stop the war and we managed to achieve this. We also managed to set up a Joint Control Commission to regulate all this and monitor the implementation of the agreement. We couldn't have done better at the time.

RADICAL ARMENIAN OPPOSITION LEADER VOWS RENEWED PUSH FOR POWER. Aram Sargsian, the chairman of Hanrapetutiun (Republic), Armenia's most radical opposition party, said on February 23 that he still hopes to force preterm parliamentary and presidential elections and will soon launch a new political movement for that purpose.

Sargsian said he is undaunted by the failure of the Armenian opposition's most recent attempt to topple President Robert Kocharian. He also reiterated his belief that the ruling regime will never hold free and fair elections. "To hope that these authorities will make sure that next year's [parliamentary] elections are free and fair is ludicrous," Sargsian told RFE/RL in an interview. "I insist on the holding of preterm presidential and parliamentary elections in our country." "It is no longer possible to establish democracy in this country through elections," he added.

Kocharian and the leaders of his three-party governing coalition have routinely dismissed such statements. Western powers and the United States in particular also want Armenia's current president and parliament to complete their constitutional terms, saying that regime change is not a necessary condition for democratization. Washington unveiled late last year a $6 million program of mostly logistical and educational measures designed to facilitate the proper conduct of the next Armenian polls. But local skeptics say they will not address the root cause of the country's post-Soviet culture of electoral fraud.

Armenia's leading opposition groups have tried twice in the last two years to force Kocharian into resignation through a campaign of street protests in Yerevan. Both attempts failed due poor attendance at opposition rallies, mostly recently in the wake of last November's disputed constitutional referendum. The last fiasco prompted some oppositionists, notably the top leader of the Artarutiun alliance, Stepan Demirchian, to declare that Armenians are not prepared for the kind of revolutions that took place in Georgia and Ukraine (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," January 13, 2006).

Sargsian, however, appears to think otherwise, saying that he plans to rally Hanrapetutyun and other "hard-line" opposition elements around the idea of a "democratic revolution" in Armenia. The new movement may launch a fresh campaign for regime change as early as this spring, he said without elaborating.

Sargsian claimed that the radical opposition can pull large crowds if it "works hard" and sticks to its increasingly pro-Western agenda. "The independence and sovereignty of our country is in jeopardy. The president of a foreign country declares in another foreign country that he will summon the president of my country for consultations," he said, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin's plans to invite Kocharian to Moscow for urgent "consultations" on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. "This is an offense to me and my country. This alone is a good reason to take to the streets and get rid of these authorities," added Sargsian. "Very soon our people will really understand the danger facing our country and we will have serious crowds in the streets."

Sargsian ruled out further cooperation with Demirchian and singled out another prominent oppositionist, Vazgen Manukian, when asked about his potential allies. He is also known to be sympathetic to Raffi Hovannisian, Armenia's popular former foreign minister.

Manukian warned last month that he and his National Democratic Union party will boycott the 2007 parliamentary elections unless the country's political system, dominated by Kocharian and his loyalists, undergoes important changes this year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 1, 2006). (Ruzanna Khachatrian)

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK. "Right-wing parties in Azerbaijan engage in populism, while left-wing parties have no social base." -- Political scientist Rasim Musabekov, quoted by on March 1.