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Caucasus Report: April 21, 2006

21 April 2006, Volume 9, Number 14

HOW STRONG (AND UNITED) IS THE CHECHEN RESISTANCE? In May 2005, Chechen field commander Doku Umarov, who is the most senior Chechen field commander after Shamil Basayev, told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service that following the death of President Aslan Maskhadov in March, the resistance planned to expand military operations beyond the borders of Chechnya -- a move that Maskhadov had always vetoed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 10, 2005). And in preparation for that expansion of military operations, Chechen State Defense Committee head Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev issued a series of decrees designating the North Caucasus regions of Ingushetia, North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachayevo-Cherkessia, Adygeya, Stavropol, and Krasnodar sectors of the so-called Caucasus Front (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 17, 2005). Sadulayev also named commanders of the Ingush, North Ossetian, and Kabardino-Balkar sectors of that front.

Since then, resistance forces have launched two major operations, in Nalchik last October and in Stavropol Krai in early February (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," October 17, 2005, and "RFE/RL Newsline," February 10 and 13, 2006). In a video address made available to the news agency Dahmohk and summarized by on April 3, Sadulayev characterized both those operations as successful (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 6, 2006). But at the same time, he admitted that the resistance has also suffered casualties in recent months both among field commanders and the rank and file, but did not cite figures. Among the field commanders he named an Arab, Abu Umar, who was killed in Daghestan last November, according to the daily "Kommersant" on December 12. Russian media have also reported the deaths of Lechi Eskiyev, commander of the Northern Front in January 2006 and the amir of Avtury in February. (Since that interview, Russian media have reported the deaths of two more field commanders in Daghestan.)

In an April 12 Interview with RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, Umarov indirectly substantiated repeated Russian allegations that the resistance is under pressure. He admitted that they are short of funds, and cannot therefore provide militant groups elsewhere in the North Caucasus with all the help that they need. Umarov also said that the lack of funds means that the resistance cannot absorb into its ranks all the young men who want to join them, and so selects only those with the greatest powers of endurance, given that "the most terrible thing about fighting in the mountains is the cold."

Estimating even the approximate strength on the Chechen resistance forces is problematic, let alone their proportional distribution across the North Caucasus, and Umarov, understandably, did not shed any light on that problem. Last summer, then-Chechen State Council Chairman Taus Djabrailov estimated the number of militants in Chechnya at around 1,000, of whom he said between 100-150 were Arab mercenaries (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 16, 2005). In February, 2005, Djabrailov cited a higher figure, 1,500, of whom he said 1,000 were based "permanently" in Chechnya; he did not specify the location of the other 500. Nor are all the militants Chechens: two fighters reported killed in Nazran, Ingushetia earlier this month had Georgian names (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 11, 2006).

Other remarks by Umarov suggest that the network of militant groups in the North Caucasus is currently not as extensive as Sadulayev envisaged last year. Umarov said "we have three fronts: Nalchik, Ingushetia and Daghestan," but did not mention Karachayevo-Cherkessia, Adygeya, or North Ossetia. True, that failure may have been a deliberate attempt to deflect attention from precisely those militant groups that are preparing the next major assault on Russian targets. But Umarov's failure to mention the Stavropol jamaat nonetheless calls into question Sadulayev's claim that it lost only two men in the fighting in Tukuy-Mekteb in February. (Russian media reports implied that the entire detachment was wiped out.) Similarly, Umarov's omission of any mention of Ossetia raises the question of whom the "Ossetian jamaat" (which has an Arabic-sounding name) is subordinate to and takes its orders from. In a statement posted on March 27 on, that jamaat announced its plans to target Russian military facilities in North Ossetia, and on April 13 it claimed responsibility for robbing a Russian bank armored vehicle of the ruble equivalent of $135,000 the previous day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 13, 2006). (Liz Fuller)

FORMER MINISTER SAYS ARMENIA HAS REVERTED TO TER-PETROSSIAN'S POLICY ON KARABAKH. Armenia's current leaders are embracing the approach to resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that was strongly advocated by former President Levon Ter-Petrossian, but which they rejected nine years ago as "defeatist," one of the ex-president's close associates claimed on April 20.

Aleksandr Arzumanian, who served as foreign minister under Ter-Petrossian from 1996-98, pointed to international mediators' existing peace proposals that call for a gradual solution to the territorial dispute. "For three years Armenia has been negotiating over mechanisms for its withdrawal from five of the seven [occupied Azerbaijani] districts," he said. "That is part of the so-called framework agreement which was discussed in Rambouillet and Prague." "Thus, the phased variant which was rejected in 1997 as defeatist now forms the basis of the negotiating process," added Arzumanian.

The September 1997 peace plan put forward by the OSCE Minsk Group would have indefinitely delayed agreement on Karabakh's status until after the liberation of Armenian-controlled territories around the enclave and the lifting of the Azerbaijani and Turkish blockades of Armenia. Ter-Petrossian and his allies said the Armenian side would effectively retain its control over Karabakh in return for giving up its main bargaining chip. However, key members of his cabinet, notably then-Prime Minister Robert Kocharian, found the plan too risky, forcing Ter-Petrossian to step down in February, 1998. They insisted on a "package" peace accord that would resolve all contentious issues, including Karabakh's status, simultaneously.

Kocharian's foreign minister, Vartan Oskanian, admitted on April 18 that this policy has undergone important changes. "If until recently we were insisting that unless the issue of the status of Nagorno-Karabakh has been finally resolved, the Armenian side is not prepared to discuss, let alone begin the implementation of the elimination of the consequences of this military conflict," he told visiting members of the European Parliament. "That position, as a compromise from the Armenian side, has been modified." "Today we are simply saying that if the Azerbaijani side simply accepts the fact that the people of Karabakh have the right for self-determination that can be exercised in the future, the Armenian side is prepared to begin discussing the consequential issues such as territories, refugees and other security matters," said Oskanian.

But Tigran Torosian, the pro-Kocharian deputy speaker of the Armenian parliament, dismissed Arzumanian's claims that this amounts to reverting to the peace strategy favored by Ter-Petrossian. "The documents made public [in 1997] had absolutely nothing to do with Nagorno-Karabakh's independence," he said. "We couldn't find any provisions there which we could associate with Nagorno-Karabakh's independence." (Astghik Bedevian)

ARMENIA'S OLIGARCH PARTY UNVEILS MANIFESTO. The Prosperous Armenia party established early this year by Gagik Tsarukian, who is reputed to be one of Armenia's wealthiest and most powerful men, unveiled its political manifesto on April 14 in advance of the first conference of its leaders and activists. The "basic principles" of BH's program were simultaneously published in four daily newspapers. Meanwhile BH continues to recruit rank-and-file members among public sector employees in the government-connected tycoon's de facto fiefdom, thereby strengthening the assumption that Tsarukian plans to win or at least make a strong showing in next year's parliamentary election.

The 33-page BH manifesto calls for the establishment of rule of law in Armenia and argues that the country should be governed by "persons enjoying the people's trust, espousing sublime values and pursuing honest goals." The party also pledges to broaden political pluralism in the country by giving the opposition a greater role in parliament and even representation on the president's National Security Council.

Tsarukian, who has made a huge fortune thanks to his close ties with President Robert Kocharian, also promises through his party to fight for fair business competition by enacting anti-trust legislation and combating monopolistic practices.

The foreign policy section of the Prosperous Armenia manifesto stresses the need for Armenia to "deepen cooperation" with NATO and the United States. At the same time, it calls for the continuation of the traditionally close Russian-Armenian relationship. BH sources told RFE/RL that the main author of the document is Victor Dallakian, a prominent opposition lawmaker and bitter critic of Kocharian's regime who is expected to act as the nominal head of the party. They said BH will hold a public conference at the end of this month and its founding congress is planned for this fall.

Prosperous Armenia, whose creation was announced in December, is regarded by Armenian analysts as a new support base for Kocharian and his most likely successor, Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian. Dallakian's unpublicized inclusion into its leadership thus came as a huge surprise. Dallakian, who has repeatedly denounced the "Karabakh clan" ruling Armenia, has privately assured journalists that Prosperous Armenia will not operate under the tutelage of the Kocharian-Sarkisian duo.

Some of Tsarukian's close associates have said that his party will differ markedly from other typical Armenian pro-establishment groups in that its leadership will mainly comprise prominent public figures, rather than government officials and wealthy businessmen. The party has already set up 41 territorial branches across Armenia, one in each electoral district.

The composition of BH's central governing body has still not been officially announced, though. Sources say it will include several rectors and deans of state-run universities, five members of the National Academy of Sciences, at least seven pro-government parliamentarians, and even a pro-opposition journalist. Three of the four dailies that published the full text of the BH manifesto are highly critical of the Kocharian administration. One of them, "Haykakan Zhamanak," incriminated Tsarukian in a November 2004 arson attack on its editor's car; Tsarukian denied those allegations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 23 and 24, 2004). All four papers printed twice as many as copies on April 14 as they do usually; Tsarukian subsidized the additional copies.

BH is almost certain to make a strong showing in the 2007 election in the town of Abovian 15 kilometers north of Yerevan, and the surrounding villages. Tsarukian was born and lives in one of those villages, and the entire area is considered to be his exclusive zone of influence. The leader of BH's local chapter, Gegham Hayrapetian, told RFE/RL on April 14 that local residents, impressed with jobs created by Tsarukian and his charitable activities, have been applying for party membership en masse. But he added that only those who want to join the party "very much" are actually admitted into its ranks.

Abovian's Public School No. 1 is a case in point. All of its 40 or so teachers are already affiliated with Prosperous Armenia. "Look at our repaired roof. [Tsarukian] did it for our school," pedagogue Marietta Sardarian said when asked to explain why. Both Sardarian and the school principal, Sevil Hovannisian, insisted that none of the teaching staff was forced to join the party. Their collective decision was an "expression of gratitude" to the tycoon, said Hovannisian.

The situation is similar in Abovian's sole public polyclinic. According to its director, Ruben Harutiunian, at least 40 of his 250 employees enlisted in Prosperous Armenia in a matter of days. The recruitment process there is handled by the policlinic's chief therapist, Margarita Karapetian. "People can't be indifferent to Gagik Tsarukian because during all these years they have felt his support on their skin," she said. "Perhaps it's time for a payback."

Support for the man who epitomizes Armenia's tiny class of millionaires riding in long motorcades and surrounded by notorious bodyguards also seems strong among unemployed residents of Abovian. "I'm going to join [Prosperous Armenia] because [Tsarukian] is a great benefactor, a good Armenian," said one man playing backgammon in a local public park. "I'll do whatever he asks me to."

Another jobless man loitering nearby said he too plans to join BH because Tsarukian once gave him firewood to heat his home in the winter. "It's worth supporting that person," he said. "It's even worth making him our king. I just can't think of a better president for Armenia." (Astghik Bedevian and Ruzanna Stepanian)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "Our coalition is a marriage in which there is more arguments than love." -- Armenian parliament speaker and Orinats Yerkir party Chairman Artur Baghdasarian, in an interview with the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" on April 19.

"I am in favor of reforms... But in the 21st century a revolution is not the right way [to achieve them]." Baghdasarian, ibid.

"[Presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitry] Kozak is an effective negotiator, but not someone who [is empowered to] take decisions. The president reserves for himself the right to take all key decisions. Kozak's activities in the Southern Federal District are effective, but only in the sphere of negotiations and mediation." -- Council for National Strategy co-chairman Iosif Diskin, quoted by on April 18.

"The fight against religious extremism must not develop into a fight against Islam, as this would furnish the leaders of illegal armed formations with an argument for recruiting new supporters into their ranks." -- Kabardino-Balkaria Republic President Arsen Kanokov, addressing Interior Ministry personnel in Nalchik on April 19 (quoted by