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Caucasus Report: October 16, 2006

October 16, 2006, Volume 9, Number 35

CHECHNYA: POLITKOVSKAYA MOURNED AS 'LAST HOPE.' Of all the people devastated by the death of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, it may be Chechen civilians who feel the loss most keenly. Politkovskaya was the most vocal defender of the Chechen population, keeping the issue of human rights atrocities alive in the West as interest in the protracted Chechen conflict waned.

Over a thousand mourners gathered on October 10 at Moscow's Troyekurovskoye Cemetery to bid an emotional farewell to Politkovskaya, who was gunned down on October 7 in her Moscow apartment building.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was the subject of scathing criticism in many of Politkovskaya's articles, was not in attendance. He did condemn her killing the same day at a news conference in Dresden with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, calling it a "disgustingly cruel crime." However, he played down Politkovskaya's influence as "extremely insignificant."

"Yes, this journalist was indeed a sharp critic of the present Russian authorities," Putin said. "But I think journalists should know -- in any case, experts understand it perfectly well -- that the degree of her influence over political life in Russia was extremely insignificant. She was well-known in journalistic circles, among human rights activists, in the West. I repeat, her influence over political life in Russian was minimal."

Putin's comment contrasts sharply with the praise of Politkovskaya's work that has poured in from all over the world.

At her funeral, Russia's veteran human rights campaigner Lyudmila Alekseyeva said Politkovskaya was revered in Chechnya as a tireless denouncer of the abuse committed against civilians by Russian forces and by Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov's feared militia.

"She spoke about Chechnya, first and foremost, everywhere," Alekseyeva said. "It was her constant theme and her constant pain. And you know, there isn't a person in Chechnya who does not revere Anna Politkovskaya. Everybody knows her there, and people photograph her with point-and-shoot cameras and then those pictures are placed on the walls of every house."

But how are Chechen themselves reacting to her assassination? RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service spoke to several Chechens about Politkovskaya and her investigative work in the war-ravaged republic.

"All the villagers I speak to -- even those who I thought were not at all interested in journalism and current affairs -- are extremely upset," said Amina, a woman from the town of Serzhen-yurt. "She was the only one to tell the truth about the horrors taking place in Chechnya. People are terribly upset. Obviously the authorities of this country don't like people who speak the truth and are capable of compassion for the humiliated. They kill the people's finest representatives. I can't tell you how upset I am. I have all her 'Novaya gazeta' articles. I kept her address and her telephone number, in case I needed to get in touch in a hopeless situation. She was my last hope. We are mourning."

Chechens abroad are no less devastated by the assassination of Politkovskaya, who they say was the country's bravest journalist and Chechnya's biggest hope for justice.

Apti, a Chechen man living in France, has staged a memorial ceremony in her honor. He said he is deeply shaken by Politkovskaya's murder.

"Like many Chechens, grief has stricken me many times lately," he said. "But when I heard that she'd been killed, my eyes filled with tears for the first time in my life. I know it's not decent for a man to cry. But I wasn't ashamed today. I would have been willing to give up the time the Almighty has given me in order for her to live on. Over the past five or six years, only a handful of people in this huge country have covered the events in Chechnya. Anna was one of them. In my opinion, she died for us."

The Chechen community in Holland is also mourning Politkovskaya's death. One woman, Dagmar, said that Chechens have lost the "only one" who worried about their fate.

"I'm terribly upset, terribly. I've always been afraid of that. I don't know why they killed her now, at this point in time. I'm heartbroken," she said. "She was always writing about us, traveling to Chechnya, people visited her to tell her about their problems. She was the only one -- there was no one else in this huge country who worried about us like that."

Layla, another Chechen woman living in Turkey, described Politkovskaya's slaying as an irreplaceable loss for the Chechen people. Layla didn't know her personally, but like many Chechens, she is mourning Politkovskaya as one of her own.

"She was always welcome in Chechnya," she said. "Our people, abandoned by all, needed her. Will someone come forward to replace her? I don't think so. People, journalists, have been so scared. There won't be anyone else like her now, ready to sacrifice her life. I'm so upset that it reminds me of what I felt when my two sons were killed. Was it more painful? I can't say." (Material provided by RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service)

THE DANGER OF A MILITARY BUILDUP IN THE SOUTH CAUCASUS. Against the backdrop of the recent crisis between Georgia and Russia, a deeper trend has emerged in the South Caucasus, which is contributing to an even deeper degree of insecurity. A significant military buildup and an increasingly worrisome level of militant rhetoric poses the most serious threat to stability in the region and may even spark a sudden resumption of hostilities.

Although the motives and modalities of this military buildup differ among Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia, there are two main underlying elements common to each of these three states. First, the share of defense-related expenditures has steadily increased in recent years, with each country devoting an ever-larger share of their limited revenues and resources to defense spending. Such a consistent rise in defense spending is particularly challenging to the development of these countries as their reforms remain incomplete and inconclusive. But this trend is most significant over the longer term, as it constrains spending in other areas of the state budget and limits investment in these countries' critical health, education, and social services sectors.

The increase in defense spending has been most profound in Georgia, where it has increased by some 143 percent in 2005, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). This represents the single largest increase in the world. The $146 million defense budget for 2005 increased further this year, with more than $218 million allocated in Georgia's 2006 military budget.

Although Georgia has seen the largest proportional surge in defense spending, neighboring Azerbaijan and Armenia have also been locked on a similar trajectory. Based largely on the expected windfall from its energy sector, Azerbaijan increased its defense budget to some $700 million in 2006, with the stated objective of exceeding $1 billion next year.

For Azerbaijan, this drastic increase in defense spending may, however, have unintended consequences. Specifically, there is a lack of certainty that this substantial budgetary increase will be soundly invested in developing a modern and more capable of armed forces, or used for the required acquisition of hardware and funding of training programs. Given the decade of corruption and inherently opaque nature of the Azerbaijani defense sector, the prospects for such a prudent use of these increased funds may be low, while the temptation to divert them into the traditional networks of corruption and patronage within the Defense Ministry may be too great to resist. Thus, in the Azerbaijani case, the funding rise may actually spark resentment and fuel a backlash by the officer corps, triggered by the misuse of the new-found wealth.

A similar, but albeit less substantial, increase in defense spending has also been under way in Armenia and is set to increase by about 22 percent in 2007, to some $212 million. Although the increase in the Armenian military budget is officially justified by the country's record of economic growth, it actually stems from the perceived need to match the Azerbaijani increase and to prepare for the almost certain erosion of Armenia's current military dominance in the region. For Armenia, the smallest of the three states in the region, it is evident that its military superiority is demonstrably temporary. Although Armenia's armed forces are widely held to be among the most professional and combat-ready within the former Soviet Union, it is naturally constrained by the inherent limitations of the country's small size and limited resources.

The second shared trait in this trend is the escalation of militant rhetoric and the increasingly common language of threats and bellicose posturing. In Georgia, for example, the increased defense spending has traditionally been linked to the country's strategic priority of closer integration into Western security institutions, reflected by the recent deepening of ties with the NATO alliance in a new "intensified dialogue." But recent developments in Georgia have only compounded concerns over a newly assertive and increasingly confrontational Georgian policy toward the unresolved conflicts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Similarly, there is a worry that Tbilisi may become dangerously overconfident because of its recent reestablishment of central control over a key part of the Kodori Gorge and due to its newly enhanced position closer to NATO. And in light of the crisis with Russia over the past several weeks, there is concern that Georgia may be tempted to use U.S. military training and equipment to "solve" the Abkhaz and South Ossetian questions by force.

In Azerbaijan, this tendency toward threats and militant rhetoric has tended to complicate the ongoing OSCE mediation effort seeking to negotiate a resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. But more disturbingly, it has also led to an atmosphere of domestic militancy that has hardened the political parameters to such a degree that Azerbaijani society is prepared for nothing less than either complete diplomatic success or a conclusive military victory over Armenia. This also makes any chance for garnering a compromise on Nagorno-Karabakh both unlikely and politically untenable.

Such a reliance on militant posturing and nationalist rhetoric in Azerbaijan has also led to a similar reaction in Armenia, where militancy has tended to replace moderation as the common currency of the future of Armenian-Azerbaijan relations. And as the military reality of the region seems likely to shift within the coming decade, the real danger is that the military buildup in the region may spark a return to the conflict of the 1990s. (Richard Giragosian)

EU/GEORGIA: 'NO TIME TO SEND AMBIGUOUS MESSAGES' IN RUSSIA ROW. Georgia's ambassador to the EU, Salome Samadashvili, told RFE/RL correspondent Ahto Lobjakas in an interview on October 10 that Tbilisi wants a clear message of support from the EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg on October 17. Samadashvili told a group of European Parliament deputies earlier the same day that this is "no time to send ambiguous messages" -- a reference to the EU's reluctance so far to criticize Russia for its role in the mounting tensions between the two countries.

RFE/RL: The EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg on October 17 could be an important landmark for Georgia. What is the absolute minimum you expect from the meeting in terms of EU support to Georgia?

Salome Samadashvili: The absolute minimum that I would expect is, [first], that there is a proper and objective assessment of the behavior of the Russian Federation toward Georgia in recent days, and toward Georgian citizens, and the message is sent that this is not what the European Union feels comfortable with and expects of its strategic partner.

And, [secondly], I expect a recognition that the existing situation will destabilize the whole region, and will destabilize the European borders, and we need to move forward with finding a constructive way which will involve all major players, including the Russian Federation, in moving forward to find solutions to the 'frozen conflicts' on our territories.

RFE/RL: What do you make of the positions taken so far by officials like EU foreign-policy coordinator Javier Solana and Peter Semneby, the EU special representative for the South Caucasus? Both men last week addressed the European Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee on the dispute, and both offered support to Georgia but refrained from criticizing Russia. Solana also raised some worries in Georgia when he said the resolution of Kosovo's status might set a precedent for South Ossetia and Georgia.

Samadashvili: Well, I think that those statements made it clear that the European Union recognizes the problems that exist and it has a more-or-less objective assessment of the situation in the country, and the role played by the different players.

I would say that the statements of Ambassador Semneby, emphasizing that Kosovo is a very different case of South Ossetia or Abkhazia -- and therefore any discussion of any precedents set by Kosovo for those situations is completely unfounded -- was a very important message which was delivered to people who would like to see it otherwise. But what we expect now is concrete decisions regarding concrete, constructive engagement that we can see from the European Union in the region to move the process forward.

RFE/RL: Do you also accept Solana's and Semneby's criticism that Georgia has tended to behave in a provoking manner toward Russia, and that Georgia does not seem to have a long-term plan for the future of Abkhazia and South Ossetia?

Samadashvili: I would totally disagree with those statements because, first of all, Georgia in the last year and a half has been putting forward very detailed proposals on how we see the peace process moving forward. Some of those were endorsed by the international community, for example the peace plan for South Ossetia by the [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] OSCE ministerial in Ljubljana last year, and Georgia has moved forward with unilateral actions which were listed in this peace plan, and we have covered all the ground that could be covered unilaterally, all the ground that can be covered to move the situation forward.

Now, we haven't met the reciprocity from the other side and we have on a number of cases extended our hand of friendship and cooperation to all players in the region. We pledged to give as much money as the donors have pledged at the donors conference in Brussels [for South Ossetia early in the summer].

Now it's a question of moving on with the implementation of the projects. So, the lack of will from the other side and lack of political will from outside players to pressure them to move the process forward should not be disguised by criticism of Georgian government, which is unfounded.

RFE/RL: You made an intriguing reference in your address to the European Parliament deputies to Georgia's readiness to give Abkhazia and South Ossetia "the most extensive form of autonomy that exists in Europe." Scotland, for example, although part of the United Kingdom, could secede at any time.

Samadashvili: I would refrain from making any concrete statements on this, because this is obviously something that is subject to negotiation and that we have to talk about with our partners rather than making any rash statements on this. But, yes, we have made it clear that we're ready to the regions the widest form of autonomy recognized by the European standards and by the European practice.

RFE/RL: In concrete terms, what precisely does Georgia need from the EU? You told the EU deputies here earlier it wasn't necessarily peacekeepers.

Samadashvili: The peace plan put forward by the Georgian government envisions the presence of [a] police mission rather than peacekeeping operations in those regions, because as we have said many times, the immediate goal for us is to strengthen the security situation in the regions, to make sure that there is a control over illegal activities, that they are curbed and limited, to make sure that demilitarization moves forward and that's the solution, that's the key to the solution of the problem.

That's why we have [on numerous occasions] asked for the introduction of some assistance on the border, [at the] Roki Tunnel connecting South Ossetia['s] Tskhinvali region with Russia and for more transparency and international presence in both regions. This is what we're asking for, rather than [a] full-blown peacekeeping operation.

RFE/RL: And who would replace the Russian peacekeepers should they leave, as Georgia would like them to do?

Samadashvili: As we said before, let's sit down and talk about the format which will make everyone comfortable. We're not talking about [the] exclusion of the Russians completely from the region, because we understand this is the southern fringe of the Russian Federation and they have vested interests in seeing the security situation there stable and improved. This is why we are surprised that the Russians continue to be nonconstructive, because the results will be [a] spillover into their own country.

So we understand Russia has a great interest in participation in the developments in the region, and we are ready to consider that. What we're not ready to tolerate is the exclusive involvement of the Russian Federation in the situation, not because we have anything against the Russian Federation per se, but because in [the] last 14 years we have seen that the existing format does not work.

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK. "I believe that this maybe could have been prevented if previous cases of killings of journalists had been pursued with vigor and with seriousness, but impunity of those crimes would lead to more killings of journalists, and that is inadmissible, not only tragic." -- Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) representative on freedom of the media, Miklos Haraszti, commenting to RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service on the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, a leading Russian investigative journalist and a harsh critic of Russian actions in Chechnya.