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Caucasus Report: February 11, 2005

11 February 2005, Volume 8, Number 6

IS IT TOO LATE FOR PEACE TALKS IN CHECHNYA? On 3 February, the Chechen resistance website posted a statement by President Aslan Maskhadov's envoy Umar Khambiev announcing that Maskhadov issued instructions to his forces on 14 January to observe a unilateral cease-fire until the end of February. According to Khambiev, that command was intended as a goodwill gesture that could pave the way for unconditional talks aimed at ending more than five years of fighting.

Four days later, on 7 February, "Kommersant-Daily" published an interview with Maskhadov in which he repeated his call for negotiations. Also on 7 February, posted a statement by Maskhadov in which he called on the United Nations, the European Union, and the Council of Europe to play a more active role in mediating a settlement of the Chechen conflict.

But Russian officials have not responded to that initiative, while senior members of the pro-Moscow Chechen leadership have argued that Maskhadov does not qualify as a negotiating partner as he no longer has any authority among the resistance. Moreover, they allege, Maskhadov bears responsibility, together with radical field commander Shamil Basaev, for a string of terrorist acts against Russian civilians, including the Beslan hostage taking in September 2004.

Moscow, too, earlier discounted the possibility of talks with Maskhadov on the pretext of his alleged involvement in terrorist acts against Russian civilians. In mid-September, in the wake of the Beslan hostage crisis, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov compared calls for Moscow to embark on negotiations with Maskhadov with the suggestion that Europe should conduct such talks with Osama bin Laden. (This despite Maskhadov's repeated insistence both before and after Beslan that his men strictly observe the Geneva Conventions and desist both from attacks on Russian civilians and on Russian military targets outside Chechnya.)

This is by no means Maskhadov's first attempt to offer the Russian leadership a face-saving way out of a conflict that has since 1999 claimed the lives of thousands of Russian servicemen and sapped the national budget. In an earlier interview with "Kommersant-Daily" in April 2000, weeks after the fall of Grozny, Maskhadov similarly declared a unilateral cease-fire and called for peace talks and the dispatch to Chechnya of a fact-finding mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Russian military officials wrote off that offer as an indirect admission of defeat, claiming that Maskhadov's men did not have the weaponry to continue resistance, according to Interfax on 21 April 2000, while then acting Russian President Vladimir Putin's aide Sergei Yastrzhembskii said Maskhadov had not responded to unspecified counterproposals (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 April 2000).

Maskhadov issued three further calls in 2000 for unconditional peace talks: in an interview in July with an Azerbaijani news agency, in a second interview with "Kommersant-Daily" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 September 2000), and in an interview with "Moscow News" in November. Yastrzhembskii rejected the latter offer, saying it contained "nothing new" and that it was due to Maskhadov's "inactivity" that Chechnya had degenerated into "an enclave of terrorism and Wahhabism" and a permanent threat to Russia's security (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 November 2000).

Maskhadov broadcast calls for unconditional peace talks on a clandestine radio station in January 2001, and on the official Chechen television channel three months later. Then in June 2002, on the eve of the Group of Eight (G-8) summit in Canada, he sent an open letter to the participants, calling for a cease-fire in Chechnya and asking for their assistance in resuming contacts between his envoy, Akhmed Zakaev, and then presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Viktor Kazantsev. That initiative coincided with an appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin by former Russian Security Council Secretary Ivan Rybkin (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 13 September 2002). Both Rybkin and former Russian Supreme Soviet speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov met with Zakaev during the summer of 2002 to discuss various blueprints for resolving the Chechen conflict (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 29 September 2002).

But Maskhadov subsequently announced that he was again coordinating resistance activities with radical field commander Shamil Basaev, who publicly claimed responsibility for the hostage taking in a Moscow theater in October 2002. That incident furnished the Russian authorities with a cast-iron excuse to brand Maskhadov a terrorist, and demolished his credibility with the United States. The "Los Angeles Times" on 31 October 2002 quoted an unnamed U.S. official as saying Maskhadov has "forfeited any legitimacy he had.... He's either unwilling to stand up to terrorists or incapable of it."

In the wake of the Moscow hostage taking, Maskhadov switched tactics and began calling not for direct talks with Moscow but for the international community to pressure the Russian authorities to agree to such talks. He told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service in May 2003 that "it has become obvious today that it is impossible to seek peace directly with the Russian leadership," because those leaders rose to power thanks to the war in Chechnya. He said: "The Russian authorities that have brought so much violence to the Chechen people could not end this war peacefully, even if they wanted to." He said the only way to bring the fighting to an end is through the United Nations, the OSCE, the Council of Europe, and other organizations that protect human rights. Maskhadov reiterated in that interview that "I have never given orders to blow up buildings or to kill innocent people. I have even given orders to my be careful not to kill Chechens, not to carry out terrorist attacks that could hurt innocent people" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 May 2003).

One year later, in early June 2004, Maskhadov appeared to have abandoned any hope of peace talks, telling RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service: "We tried to approach the Russian government with our [peace] proposal several times. We told them, 'Let's stop this war ourselves without involving anyone into this process.'" Maskhadov vowed that "we will not stop our struggle, and we will not back off as long as the enemy tramples our soil. We'll keep fighting until he leaves our country. We won't accept anything short of this." But at the same time, Maskhadov made clear that he does not seek independence for Chechnya, but would accept a peace settlement that would preserve Russia's territorial integrity. He said: "We are prepared to do whatever [the Russian leadership] want us to do, whatever they find advantageous. We can jointly manage our economy, defenses. We can jointly guard our borders. We can create a common currency and conduct our diplomatic affairs together. We can think of common investment programs. We are prepared to sign agreements on collective security and join the fight against terrorism. That is what we are telling the Russians. But they don't want that.... In this situation, we are compelled to seek friends elsewhere simply because Russians don't want friendship with us."

But by mid-2004, two military operations masterminded by Basaev had transformed the political landscape in the North Caucasus. The first was the bomb that killed Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov in May. Instead of reappraising its strategy of offloading to the pro-Moscow Chechen leadership the responsibility for neutralizing the resistance and "normalizing" the political situation in Chechnya, the Kremlin sought to placate, co-opt and promote Kadyrov's son Ramzan, whom many observers believe will replace Kadyrov's interim successor Alu Alkhanov as soon as he reaches the age of 30. The second operation, staged just days after Maskhadov's interview with RFE/RL, was the raid launched on Interior Ministry targets in Ingushetia in which some 80 people were killed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 and 23 June 2004). quoted a young Ingush participant in that raid as explaining that he "and hundreds like me" left home and joined Basaev's militants after federal security or police personnel randomly detained their relatives, who subsequently disappeared without a trace.

Since June, bands of militants reporting to Basaev have surfaced elsewhere in the North Caucasus -- in Kabardino-Balkaria, where they raided the local headquarters of the Federal Antinarcotics Service in December, and in Daghestan, where Interior Ministry troops and special forces have launched at least two operations to apprehend them in recent weeks. The fact that the war in Chechnya has spilled over the borders of that republic could be adduced to substantiate the Russian authorities' repeated argument that Maskhadov has become irrelevant, and that there is no point in negotiating with him -- especially in light of the differences in the military tactics favored by Maskhadov, who says he abhors targeting innocent civilians, and Basaev, who seemingly considers all Russian citizens legitimate targets. In other words, a "point of no return" may already have been reached, beyond which, Russian officials may argue, the only effective strategy is to continue current efforts to eradicate all militant bands perceived as posing potential threats to security and stability in the North Caucasus.

On the other hand, as Maskhadov himself has frequently pointed out, all wars have to end, and most end at the negotiating table. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" suggested on 9 February that as a man of "considerable political experience," Maskhadov can hardly have anticipated that, this time around, he would receive a positive response from the Russian authorities to his cease-fire declaration and call for unconditional peace talks. If that is the case, then it is reasonable to assume that Maskhadov's intention may have been to induce the international community, and above all U.S. President George W. Bush, to take a tougher line with Moscow over the need for a swift and negotiated solution to the Chechen stalemate before the situation in neighboring North Caucasus republics deteriorates even further. (Liz Fuller)

ABKHAZ POLITICAL PARTIES ALIGN IN NEW UMBRELLA MOVEMENT. The Forum for National Unity held its constituent congress in Sukhum on 8 February, Apsnipress reported. The forum unites 12 political parties and movements, including the Apsny party of outgoing President Vladislav Ardzinba, Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba's Social Democratic Party of Abkhazia together with its youth wing, the Abkhaz chapter of Vladimir Zhirinovskii's Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, and several formations that supported then Prime Minister Raul Khadjimba in last October's presidential election. The forum elected a collective leadership in the form of a 12-person coordinating council, of which Social Democratic Party co-Chairman Gennadii Alamia was elected chairman for a six-month period.

Speaking at the congress, Vasilii Avidzba, who is director of the Abkhaz Institute of Humanitarian Research, explained the rationale for the forum's creation. He reasoned that "the time of small political organizations has passed, small political circles have no future" in the process of building an Abkhaz state. Avidzba stressed that the forum was not created as "opposition to anyone, including the new leadership," and that it will support the incoming regime of President-elect Sergei Bagapsh to the extent that it serves the interests of the Abkhaz people. Avidzba denied that members of the forum intended to sabotage Bagapsh's inauguration, which is planned for 12 February. He stressed that "we respect the people's choice."

At the same time, Avidzba said the forum will demand total compliance with the constitutional law passed in January defining the division of responsibilities between the president (Bagapsh) and the vice president (Khadjimba). That law was passed in the wake of the Agreement on Measures to Attain National Accord that the two men signed on 6 December following pressure from Russia to resolve their rival claims to the presidency. Bagapsh and Khadjimba subsequently participated as a team in a repeat presidential ballot on 12 January, winning 92 percent of the vote (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 10 December 2004 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 and 14 January 2005).

Avidzba recalled that before that constitutional law was passed, he and other politicians had objected that it clearly contradicts the Abkhaz Constitution, but their objections were ignored. Therefore, Avizdba said, the forum will insist on strict compliance with the law, and will regard any attempt to circumvent it as a deliberate violation. That formulation is a veiled warning to Bagapsh not to try to undercut Khadjimba, who under the division of powers has responsibility for the "power" ministries. The political parties and movements that support Bagapsh -- including the Amtsakhara Union of Veterans, United Abkhazia, the Federation of Independent Trade Unions, and the Aitaira Movement -- have not joined the Forum of National Unity. (Liz Fuller)

ARMENIAN WAR VETERANS CREATE NEW UNION. The Yerkrapah Union of veterans of the Nagorno-Karabakh war, a once powerful group linked to the Armenian military, faced a serious split on 10 February, when hundreds of disgruntled members left it to create a separate organization. More than 300 veterans, led by a vocal opponent of President Robert Kocharian, gathered in Yerevan's Malatia-Sebastia district to unveil the splinter organization, which is called the Test of Spirit. The name was borrowed from the title of a book authored by Vazgen Sargsian, Yerkrapah's founder and Armenia's former prime minister, who was assassinated in 1999.

The new organization is led by several close associates of Sargsian who are unhappy with the current Yerkrapah leadership's unwavering support for the Kocharian administration. Among them is Albert Bazeyan, the chairman of Hanrapetutiun, Armenia's most radical opposition party, and Hakob Hakobian, hitherto head of Yerkrapah's Yerevan chapter. Bazeyan, Hakobian and their allies say Yerkrapah has become a tool in the hands of the Armenian authorities and neglects the needs of thousands of war veterans mired in poverty.

"We must at least stand for ourselves and our comrades. We must create an organization that serves our interests," said Hovsep Hovsepian, a French-born retired army colonel and a prominent field commander during the Karabakh war.

"I want this new organization to stay away from political games and interests," Bazeyan declared for his part. However, Bazeyan went on to indicate that the Test of Spirit will not shy away from siding with the Armenian opposition. "We have civil rights enshrined in our constitution, and we must do everything to protect not only our rights but also those of our fellow citizens," he said. "Most of all, their right to form a government through free elections." The leaders of the new group plan to recruit hundreds of new members across Armenia in the coming weeks. They said virtually all members of Yerkrapah's Malatia-Sebastia chapter have already joined them.

Bazeyan and other dissenters were conspicuously absent from the 13 December Yerkrapah congress which reelected Deputy Defense Minister Lieutenant General Manvel Grigorian as the organization's chairman and formed a new board almost exclusively dominated by Kocharian loyalists (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 December 2004).

Yerkrapah numbers about 11,000 members and acted as Sargsian's support base until his death in the October 1999 terrorist attack on the Armenian parliament. In the ensuing power struggle within Armenia's leadership, it supported government factions hostile to Kocharian until the beginning of 2000, when Grigorian and other top army generals pledged their loyalty to the head of state. The union's political influence has since declined dramatically. (Armen Zakarian)

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK. "It's the 21st century, and there's no longer any such thing as post-Soviet policy! How long do you intend to keep thinking of all these different countries as a single entity, just because they used to be part of the U.S.S.R.? For the next 20 years? Fifty years?" -- Unnamed senior European Commission official, quoted by Fedor Lukyanov in "Profil," No. 3, 31 January 2005.