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Caucasus Report: June 30, 2006

June 30, 2006, Volume 9, Number 23

IS THE KARABAKH PEACE PROCESS BACK WHERE IT WAS IN LATE 1997? Lifting the veil of confidentiality that has marked the Karabakh peace process since it began in 1992, the French, Russian, and U.S. co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group tasked with mediating a solution to the conflict have over the past eight days gone public with a summary of the basic principles currently under discussion. While the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry has confirmed that those principles are largely acceptable, its Armenian counterpart has highlighted several points that were either not clarified or omitted from the interview U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza gave on June 23 to RFE/RL's Armenian and Azerbaijani services.

Meanwhile the Karabakh Armenian leadership has rejected one point on which Armenia and Azerbaijan have reportedly reached agreement, namely holding a referendum on the future political status of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR). The Karabakh Armenians have further signaled their reluctance to cede all the Azerbaijani districts they currently occupy before a firm agreement is reached on the future status of the NKR.

Over the 14 years that the Minsk Group has been trying to mediate a political solution to the Karabakh conflict, those involved have generally abided by a "gentlemen's agreement" that the negotiating process should remain confidential. The rationale for doing so is primarily to avoid derailing the peace process by alerting the public in one or other country to unpalatable concessions required that opposition parties might seize upon to discredit national leaders prepared to accept those concessions.

But the co-chairs, who have on several previous occasions deplored the failure of the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents to prepare public opinion for inevitable concessions, seem to have concluded that going public may encourage the two presidents to demonstrate what they term "the necessary political courage" and agree at least to the basic principles of a settlement before the perceived window of opportunity for doing so closes with the approach of parliamentary elections in Armenia in May 2007.

The basic principles, as outlined in a statement by the co-chairs on June 22 to the OSCE's Permanent Council in Vienna and posted on June 28 on the website of the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan, point to a "phased-package" approach to resolving the conflict, meaning that the various elements of a settlement are agreed on simultaneously, even though they are implemented successively, with one key aspect -- the final status of the NKR -- to be decided by "a referendum or vote" at some unspecified future date.

"These principles include the phased redeployment of Armenian troops from Azerbaijani territories around Nagorno-Karabakh, with special modalities for Kelbacar and Lachin districts [separating Karabakh from Armenia proper]," the co-chairs said. "Demilitarization of those territories would follow. A referendum or popular vote would be agreed, at an unspecified future date, to determine the final legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh."

"An international peacekeeping force would be deployed," added the statement. "A joint commission would be agreed to implement the agreement. International financial assistance would be made available for de-mining, reconstruction, resettlement of internally displaced persons in the formerly occupied territories and the war-affected regions of Nagorno-Karabakh. The sides would renounce the use or threat of use of force, and international and bilateral security guarantees and assurances would be put in place."

Those provisions correspond very largely to the ones contained in the draft peace settlement proposed by the Minsk Group in May-July 1997, the key difference being that the 1997 document contained no specific mention of Kelbacar.

The mediators said the conflicting parties would also have to work out practical modalities of the Karabakh referendum. "Suitable preconditions for such a vote would have to be achieved so that the vote would take place in a non-coercive environment in which well-informed citizens have had ample opportunity to consider their positions after a vigorous debate in the public arena."

In a statement released on June 26, the Armenian Foreign Ministry highlighted further key details and omissions. It noted that the co-chairs' statement did not note the need to grant the NKR "intermediate status," presumably meaning that it would be under international control, until the holding of the referendum on its final status. A further "gray area" not touched upon in the Armenian Foreign Ministry statement is the future status of several districts that prior to 1988 were part of the then Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, but which Azerbaijan took control of in May-June 1991, expelling the Armenian population.

The Armenian statement stressed that the co-chairs, for the first time, have affirmed their support for the idea, first floated in December 2004 by NATO Parliamentary Assembly President Pierre Lellouche and former Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio, of a referendum on Karabakh's status, and that the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents have agreed on doing so.

It further said that at the meeting in Bucharest on June 4-5 between Armenian President Robert Kocharian and his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev, the Azerbaijani side rejected an unspecified suggestion by the co-chairs as to how that remaining area of disagreement could be resolved. By contrast, the co-chairs' statement avoided allocating blame for the failure to reach an agreement, saying only that "the two presidents failed to agree."

Speaking to journalists in Yerevan on June 29, Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian described the "principles" under discussion as "all-encompassing," in that they cover both "the core issue of Karabakh's future status, territories, refugees, security issues, peacekeeping and every conceivable issue that it necessary to arrive at a lasting solution to the conflict."

Asked to clarify the co-chairs' reference to "special modalities" for Lachin and Kelbacar, Oskanian explained that the negotiating text specifies that "there will be a [Lachin] corridor linking Nagorno Karabakh to Armenia." He added that Armenia will insist that that corridor "has the same status" as Karabakh. Oskanian also explained that due to security considerations, "Kelbacar can be returned only after the referendum is conducted and the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh is determined." He said this is the point of disagreement between the two sides to which the co-chairs referred in their statement to the OSCE Permanent Council last week. Oskanian said that the "principles" stipulate that the vote on Karabakh's status will take place among the population of Nagorno-Karabakh. Some Armenian opposition politicians have expressed concern that the entire population of Azerbaijan would participate in the referendum and vote against Karabakh's independence.

Asked the Armenian leadership's overall assessment of the "principles," Oskanian said: "this is not a perfect document. For anyone. However, there are enough solid and balanced provisions, with the right tradeoffs on the main issues -- status, territories, and security -- that we are prepared to continue to negotiate on the basis of these principles," Noyan Tapan reported.

But the Karabakh Armenians, who to their frustration are excluded from the Armenian-Azerbaijani talks under the Minsk Group aegis, are unhappy with at least two of the provisions of the "basic principles." Even before this week's disclosures, the NKR posted a statement on its website on June 12 citing the arguments against determining the republic's future status in a referendum. The article reasoned that holding a further referendum would call into question the legality of the referendum of December 10, 1991, in which the overwhelming majority of the region's Armenian voters opted for independence from Azerbaijan. It noted that most Azerbaijani voters declined to participate in that plebiscite.

And on June 26, Vahram Atanesian, who is chairman of the NKR parliament's on Foreign Relations Committee, was quoted as rejecting the "principles" as outlined by the Minsk Group co-chairs on the grounds that they entail the "unequivocal return" of the occupied territories -- the NKR's sole bargaining chip -- in return for a decision at some unspecified future date on the republic's status. Atanesian said his perception is that the Minsk Group is pressuring Armenia to accept proposals that "are fully consistent with Azerbaijan's interests."

Insofar as Azerbaijan has not definitively rejected the current "principles," the present situation is reminiscent of that in the summer of 1997, when Armenia accepted, albeit with reservations, the modified Minsk Group package proposal, while Azerbaijan wavered, and Stepanakert rejected it outright. The biweekly independent Armenian newspaper "Iravunk" on June 27 drew the comparison between the current principles and the 1997 plan, but went on to make the point that unlike his predecessor Levon Ter-Petrossian, President Kocharian would never risk publicly making a case for mutual compromise with Azerbaijan. Instead, the paper suggested, Kocharian left it to the Minsk Group co-chairs to do so. (Liz Fuller)

RADICAL FIELD COMMANDER NAMED CHECHEN VICE PRESIDENT. Chechen Republic Ichkeria President and resistance commander Doku Umarov named Shamil Basayev on June 27 as his vice president and as government chairman, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 26, 2005). Umarov simultaneously released Basayev from the post of first deputy prime minister to which he was named last year by Umarov's predecessor, Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev.

Sadulayev was killed in a special operation by Russian forces in Argun, east of Grozny, on June 17. In light of his involvement in three hostage takings and several attacks on government facilities, the Russian authorities have branded Basayev a terrorist and foresworn any negotiations with him.

Basayev, who is 41, began his one-man campaign against Russian rule over Chechnya in 1991 when he participated in the hijacking of a Russian passenger aircraft flying from the southern town of Mineralnye Vody to Turkey and thence to Grozny. Also in 1991, according to Czech journalist Petra Prochazkova, he signed up with the unofficial Confederation of Peoples of the Caucasus, and in 1992 led a battalion of volunteers from the North Caucasus who fought on the side of the Abkhaz in the 1992-93 war against Georgia.

When the Russian army marched into Chechnya in December 1994, it was Basayev who organized the defense of Grozny, according to a profile published on September 15, 2004, in "The New York Times." Six months later, in May 1995, some 11 members of his family, including a wife and two children, were killed in a Russian bombing raid. It was apparently in retaliation for their deaths that Basayev and a group of some 130 fighters set out to drive north into the Russian heartland to stage a major reprisal. Halted by traffic police in Budennovsk, Stavropol Krai, he seized a local hospital, taking some 1,000 people hostage. After two attempts by Russian forces to release the hostages failed, Basayev negotiated their release and his own safe conduct back to Chechnya live on Russian television with then-Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, a feat that made him a hero in the eyes of many Chechens.

In August 1996, Basayev played a key role in the successful attack on Grozny that led to the signing of a cease-fire and the Khasavyurt accord that ended the war. Then, in January 1997, he ran unsuccessfully against former Chechen commander in chief Aslan Maskhadov in a presidential election hailed by both Russia and the international community as free and fair. At that time, Basayev told journalists that he envisaged Chechnya as a moderate Islamic state within the CIS that could serve as an intermediary between Russia and the Muslim world. Maskhadov, who won the election with some 66 percent of the vote to Basayev's 23 percent, offered Basayev a government post that Basayev initially refused. Over the next 12-18 months, Basayev was in and out of the cabinet, occupying the post of prime minister or acting prime minister. But Prochazkova describes him as having been aimless and bored with civilian life.

In late 1998, Basayev, together with two fellow field commanders, sought unsuccessfully to impeach Maskhadov for taking too soft an approach toward relations between Chechnya and Moscow. Then, in early 1999, he aligned with the radical Islamists who sought to establish an independent Islamic state in the North Caucasus, and who set about undermining Maskhadov's position to that end (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," February 10, 1999). And in early August 1999, Basayev, together with fellow field commander Khattab, launched the ill-fated incursions into neighboring Daghestan that impelled Russian leadership to embark on a new war (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," August 12 and September 17, 1999).

Basayev has played a key role in the resistance since the onset of the second war, despite incurring serious injuries in February 2000 during the retreat from Grozny that necessitated the amputation of one leg. Responding in the fall of 2004 to questions posed to him by the "Toronto Globe and Mail," he made light of his disability, claiming that he can still walk 50 kilometers a night.

In those responses, Basayev professed to have been "shaken" by Moscow's response to the seizure by Basayev's men of some 1,000 hostages in Beslan in September 2004. He claimed he did not anticipate that President Vladimir Putin would sacrifice the lives of children -- especially Ossetian children, given that Ossetia has always been a Russian ally in the North Caucasus. Basayev implied that he anticipated that Moscow would comply with the hostage takers' demand for the withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya. "I thought I was doing the Russians a favor by showing them the way out of a blind alley," Basayev said.

Basayev then warned that as long as Russia continues to violate the Geneva Conventions in Chechnya, his fighters will do likewise. "It is the enemy who sets the limits to our actions, and we are free to resort to the methods and actions that the enemy first employed against us," Basayev argued. "We are ready, and want to wage war according to international law, it is even to our advantage to do so in terms of protecting the civilian population. But unlike President Maskhadov, we do not want to be the only side to espouse those tactics." Basayev has, nonetheless, not perpetrated any further attacks since Beslan, perhaps having come to the conclusion that such actions are counterproductive. And the fact that Basayev's appointment followed Umarov's statement rejecting terrorism against civilians as a tactic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 23, 2006) suggests that Umarov is confident that Basayev has indeed moderated his approach.

But his previous track record, coupled with his role as purported mastermind of the Moscow theater hostage taking in October 2002, led both the UN and the U.S. government to designate his Riyadus-Salikhin battalion a terrorist organization in 2003 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 11 and 18, 2003). And he subsequently claimed to have contributed to the organization of a car-bomb attack on the pro-Moscow government headquarters in Grozny in December 2003, the bombing that killed pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Akhmad-hadji Kadyrov and seven other people in May 2004, and the multiple attacks in June 2004 on police and security facilities in neighboring Ingushetia.

It could be argued that given both his military experience and his intermittent inclusion in the separatist government since 1997, Basayev is the logical candidate for the second most senior leadership post. (The only other candidate with comparable experience and influence is U.K.-based Foreign Minister Akhmed Zakayev.) Basayev's appointment as vice president creates an interesting quandary for the Russian leadership, insofar as under the Constitution of the Chechen Republic Ichkeria, it is the vice president who succeeds to the presidency in the event of the president's death. If, as Zakayev suggested in an interview in late May with RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, the Russian leadership is indeed discussing ways to negotiate an end to the war, then the prospect of "Terrorist No. 1" Basayev acceding to the presidency could lend added weight to the arguments of those who favor a peace deal. (Liz Fuller)

WILL ARMENIAN DEFENSE MINISTER, PREMIER CEMENT LONG-TERM ALLIANCE? Armenian Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian pointedly declined on June 29 to refute reports that he is about to join Prime Minister Andranik Markarian's Republican Party (HHK) as part of his imputed plans to become Armenia's next president. Reports in the Armenian press this week said the far-reaching move will be announced at an HHK congress scheduled for July 22. Unnamed Republican sources were cited as claiming that Sarkisian will co-chair the party and top its list of candidates for next year's parliamentary elections.

"I am not familiar with such statements," Sarkisian told reporters. "There may be such opinions. I think everything will be clear in the next seven or 10 days." "I neither confirm nor rule out [membership in the HHK]. You see how the process is unfolding and, again, you will receive a definite answer in seven or 10 days," he added.

Sarkisian, who had already participated in the last parliamentary elections on the HHK ticket, promised earlier to name the party with which he will contest the 2007 polls at the beginning of this year (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," January 20, 2006). However, he has repeatedly delayed announcement of that decision, prompting speculation that he is having second thoughts about forming a long-term political alliance with Armenia's largest and most influential governing faction.

A number of senior central and local government officials as well as wealthy businessmen have joined the HHK in recent days, suggesting that the powerful defense chief has already made up his mind. The Yerevan newspaper "168 Zham" reported on June 29 that the Association for Armenia, a recently formed party reputedly sponsored by Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian, will soon merge with the HHK in a further boost to its electoral chances.

Sarkisian has stated before that his participation in the next Armenian presidential election, due in 2008, depends on the outcome of the 2007 vote, indicating that he needs a serious staging post to make a widely expected bid to succeed President Robert Kocharian. Some analysts believe that he intends to become prime minister a year before the presidential ballot. Sarkisian stopped short of denying this too.

The HHK's strengthening should be cause for concern for at least one other pro-establishment group set up by one of Armenia's richest men, Gagik Tsarukian, earlier this year. The extremely ambitious party called Prosperous Armenia reportedly intends to win a majority in the next Armenian parliament and has been busy setting up branches and recruiting members across the country in the last few months. An Armenian lawmaker privy to government affairs said last month that Prosperous Armenia's main mission is to serve as a support base for Kocharian after his second term expires. (Ruzanna Stepanian)