18 March 2005, Volume 8, Number 10
FORMER KARABAKH STRONGMAN PLANS POLITICAL COMEBACK. General Samvel Babayan, the once powerful ex-commander of Nagorno-Karabakh's army, confirmed on 16 March that he will resume his political activities, four years after his imprisonment on charges of plotting a coup against Arkadii Ghukasian, president of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 February 2001). In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL in Yerevan, where he now lives, Babayan pointedly refused to lend his support to President Robert Kocharian or his political opponents. He also emphatically denied speculation that he cut a secret deal with the Karabakh government to regain his freedom in September (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 September 2004).
Babayan was released from prison more than four years after being sentenced to 14 years' imprisonment on charges of masterminding a botched March 2000 attempt on Ghukasian's life, charges he said were politically motivated. Babayan suggested that he was set free due to his worsening "health problems" and insisted that he did not ask Ghukasian for an amnesty. "I would not allow anyone to talk to me with ultimatums or to dictate conditions," he said. "If I were willing to accept conditions, I would not have spent four-and-a-half years in prison. I would not have been imprisoned at all."
A former car mechanic, Babayan became commander of the Karabakh Armenian army at the height of its victorious 1991-94 war with Azerbaijan. He later emerged as the disputed region's most powerful man, concentrating sweeping political and economic powers in his hands at a time when Karabakh was led Kocharian. Babayan began losing power in late 1999 following his defeat in a bitter power struggle with Ghukasian. The 39-year-old former strongman laughed off suggestions that he promised not to return to Karabakh in exchange for his liberation. He said he now lives in Yerevan simply because "things are solved here."
Babayan, who recently set up a private think tank called Khachmeruk (Crossroads), admitted that he is returning to active politics in Armenia but claimed that he will not form his own political party or seek high-level positions in government. He said he will instead sponsor political forces that "really think about this country's future," but did not elaborate.
Babayan was equally vague about his current attitude toward Kocharian. While dismissing the Armenian opposition's existing "scenarios for regime change" as unrealistic, he made it clear that he will join calls for Kocharian's resignation "if the public demands it." Nor did Babayan rule out his or his allies' participation in parliamentary elections, which are due to take place in Karabakh in July. "Let's just wait a bit," he said. "Developments will tell. But do not rule out anything."
Babayan, known for his hard line on Azerbaijan, was also pessimistic about the prospects for resolving the Karabakh conflict in the near future. "The Karabakh problem is still very far from being resolved. There can be no solution at this stage," he said. Babayan's take on chances of renewed fighting in Karabakh was equally gloomy: "If the parties fail to resolve the conflict peacefully, then a war between them will take place sooner or later." (Ruzanna Stepanian)
CHECHEN RESISTANCE CLOSES RANKS. The death on 8 March of Chechen President and resistance commander Aslan Maskhadov has not resulted in the split within the ranks of the resistance that some Russian and pro-Moscow Chechen officials predicted. On the contrary, within 36 hours Akhmed Zakaev, Maskhadov's envoy in London, announced in a statement posted on chechenpress.co.uk, that Abdul-Khalim Saidulaev (or Sadulaev), chairman of the Shari'a Supreme Court, will serve as president and military commander until such time as free elections can be held in Chechnya. Senior field commander Shamil Basaev pledged his support for Saidulaev on 10 March.
In announcing that the presidential powers now devolve on to Saidulaev, both Zakaev and Basaev referred to an extended session of the State Defense Council that allegedly took place between late July and late August 2002. That session, according to Zakaev, was attended by representatives of the Chechen Republic Ichkeria (ChRI) government and parliament and by all field commanders of senior rank. They adopted a resolution according to which in the event of Maskhadov's death or capture, Saidulaev as chairman of the Supreme Shari'a Court should succeed him.
No details of such an extended State Defense Council session were made public at the time, however. Chechenpress.com reported one Defense Council meeting that summer on 5 May, at which an alim named Abdul-Khalim read the appropriate verses from the Koran to mark the death of field commanders Khattab and Aidamir Abalaev; and a second between 27 June and 3 July, at which Basaev was readmitted to membership of the Defense Council (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 4 September 2002).
Maskhadov's son, Anzor, was quoted by the Azerbaijani online daily echo-az.com on 11 March as saying his father informed him one year ago that Saidulaev, in his capacity as "vice president," would succeed him in the event of his death. But neither Zakaev nor Basaev referred to Saidulaev in that capacity. In addition, the twin announcements on 10 March identifying Saidulaev as the new acting president contradict statements made the previous day by the State Defense Committee and the government of the ChRI. The former statement said that, in accordance with the constitution of the Chechen Republic Ichkeria, the State Defense Council assumes supreme executive powers following Maskhadov's death and then elects a new president. The 9 March statement by the government of the Chechen Republic Ichkeria, posted on chechenpress.co.uk, similarly said that in accordance with the constitution of the ChRI, executive power now lies with the State Defense Committee, "which should elect a new president in the very near future." And "Kommersant-Daily" on 9 March quoted Zakaev as saying that the State Defense Committee would elect a chairman to replace Maskhadov in his capcity as chairman of that body; but Zakaev did not mention electing a replacement for Maskhadov in his capacity as president.
The most probable explanation for those seeming contradictions is that the Chechen resistance forces considered it imperative to present Saidulaev as a legitimate leader, and as enjoying both the approval of his slain predecessor and the support of those bodies, both military and civilian, that are subordinate to him. Doing so would counter arguments, such as that advanced by Timur Aliev in "Izvestiya" on 11 March, that "whoever succeeds Maskhadov as leader of the moderate wing of the guerrillas is bound to have less status, simply because this person will be an appointee rather than a popularly elected president like Maskhadov." In addition, it may well have been deemed prudent at the time of the State Defense Council meeting in the summer of 2002 not to reveal publicly that Saidulaev had been chosen as Maskhadov's successor, given that doing so would have exposed him to unnecessary risk.
On 13 March, chechenpress.co.uk posted a biography of Saidulaev intended to refute Russian media portrayals of him as either a native of Saudi Arabia or a militant wahhabi, or both. ("Kommersant-Daily" for example, alleged on 10 March that "Abdul-Khalim is from Saudi Arabia. According to media reports, he trained suicide bombers and led the Wahhabi network in Chechnya.") According to the biography posted on chechenpress.co.uk, Saidulaev was born in 1967, took part in hostilities during the 1994-96 war, and "studied with well-known Chechen theologians." He continued his religious activities between 1997-99, when Maskhadov named him a member of the State Committee tasked with bringing the Chechen constitution into line with Islamic law at the insistence of Basaev and his supporters, who in early 1999 began their concerted effort to undermine Maskhadov's authority (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 10 February 1999). During the current war, Saidulaev has headed a detachment of fighters from Argun. The biography further notes Saidulaev's appointment as Shari'a Court chairman at the State Defense Council session in 2002, as a result of which he became " the legitimate head of the Chechen state from the moment of Maskhadov's death."
On 14 March, six days after Maskhadov's death and five days after the official announcement that he is Maskhadov's legitimate successor, chechenpress.co.uk posted Saidulaev's first appeal to the Chechen people. In it, he praised Maskhadov's role as president and military commander and condemned his murder. Subsequent paragraphs of that appeal combine threats against Russia with qualified rejections of the use of terrorism and warnings that the international community should not expect the Chechens to adhere to those universal democratic values that contradict Chechen spiritual values. He warned, for example, that "not a single crime by Russia against the Chechen people will remain without the appropriate punishment" and that "the Chechen people are capable of demolishing the pride of its foe in the person of Russian imperialism." He said the Chechens do not condone "every conceivable form of violence against innocent people," but went on to qualify that statement by adding, "We have the right to act against the enemy using the methods that are acceptable to God."
That ambivalence is likely to play into the hands of those Russian commentators who remain convinced that it is Basaev, whether alone or, as claimed on 13 March by the "Sunday Times," in tandem with Jordanian-born Abu Havs, who from now on will determine and coordinate military operations both within Chechnya and, it is feared, elsewhere in Russia. It might also fuel speculation that some key field commanders, including Doku Umarov, might refuse to acknowledge Saidulaev's authority. But Zakaev, in an interview published in "Kommersant-Vlast," No. 10, denied that there is any place for Basaev in the new Chechen leadership, adding that Basaev currently sees himself as leading a pan-North Caucasus war against Russia. In that context, Zakaev also denied the existence of the slightest discord among the upper echelons of the Chechen resistance.
Zakaev too differentiated between Basaev's espousal of terrorism and Saidulaev's more moderate and considerate approach; he affirmed that "violence and terror against noncombatants are unacceptable to Saidulaev." But elsewhere in the same interview, Zakaev contrasted Maskhadov, whom he was quoted as describing as "an idealist" and as "more of a human rights activist than a military man," with Saidulaev, whom Zakaev said is "more of a pragmatist...this man will be guided by his perceptions of politics as it is. Since there are rules of the game that we did not invent but which exist, this man will follow these rules." Zakaev further described Saidulaev as commanding "colossal and unconditional respect" among both the Chechen population and the resistance. (Liz Fuller)
CAN GEORGIA AGAIN FORM AN EFFECTIVE OPPOSITION MOVEMENT? It took Mikheil Saakashvili a little over two years from the time he resigned as justice minister in the late summer of 2001 to emerge as the leader of an opposition alignment that succeeded in tapping popular disaffection with the corrupt and inept Georgian leadership and forcing the resignation of President Eduard Shevardnadze. Numerous prominent members of the former leadership are now disgraced or in pretrial custody. But a handful of them have recently joined forces with other opposition bodies with the aim of duplicating Saakashvili's success by precipitating the ouster of what they term a government of "dilettantes" and holding pre-term parliamentary and presidential elections.
In December 2004, former parliamentarian Irakli Batiashvili (who served in the early 1990s as head of Georgian intelligence, and later chaired the parliament Defense and Security Committee) and former Imereti Governor Temur Shashiashvili (who ran unsuccessfully against Saakashvili in the January 2004 presidential ballot), announced the establishment of a new opposition party named Forward, Georgia! that Batiashvili said will fight what he termed "attempts to impose authoritarian rule" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 December 2004). In the less than three months since its foundation, Forward, Georgia! has attracted several other prominent former officials, including former National Bank Chairman Nodar Djavakhishvili and economist Gia Maisashvili. A former close asssociate of Saakashvili, Maisashvili split with him in early 2004 and subsequently founded an NGO named Government of the Future (MM). Maisashvili spent the second half of 2004 lecturing in the United States. He returned to Tbilisi in late December and announced his intention to try to unite "healthy political forces" to get rid of a government he branded as ambitious, stupid, and incompetent. In mid-February, Maisashvili expressed sympathy with Forward, Georga! and its objectives, but he added that it was too early to consider aligning with it.
In late February, the leaders of Forward, Georgia! and opposition Labor Party Chairman Shalva Natelashvili held initial consultations with Maisashvili, former National Bank Chairman Nodar Djavakhishvili, and former Socialist Party leader Zakari Kutsnashvili on the prospects for uniting to create a single opposition movement, Caucasus Press reported on 1 March. A second round of discussions followed on 2 March. Natelashvili told journalists after those talks that the opposition will unite behind the idea of forcing the present government to resign by using exclusively peaceful and constitutional means, according to rustavi2.com. But he said that the various opposition parties and movements would not establish a formal alliance to that end.
On 16 March, Natelashvili, Maisashvili and Batiashvili met at the editorial office of the "Georgian Times" and subsequently announced the creation of a "coordinating center" that will work to bring about regime change. "We shall unite every healthy opposition [force] and launch intensive activities against the government. From now on, there are two poles in Georgia, the government and the opposition," rustavi2.com quoted "Georgian Times" Director Malkhaz Gulashvili as saying. Natelashvili told journalists that a formal announcement of the coordinating center's creation and objectives will be issued within days. Whether it will prove as effective in galvanizing popular discontent as Saakashvili's National Movement remains to be seen. Saakashvili remains by far the most popular political figure in Georgia, with an approval rating of just over 60 percent, according to the newspaper "Kviris palitra" on 17 January. Natelashvili ranked second with 6 percent, and Maisashvili in fourth place (after parliamentary speaker Nino Burdjanadze) with 3.3 percent. Moreover, the new alignment does not have any representation in parliament -- a handicap that Saakashvili did not have to contend with when he embarked on his opposition activities in late 2001.
Meanwhile, a second former close associate of Saakashvili, Conservative Party co-leader Koba Davitashvili (whose efforts to create his own opposition parliamentary faction have so far proven unsuccessful) has expressed his readiness for dialogue with the anticipated Labor Party/Forward, Georgia! alliance, the daily "Akhali taoba" reported on 4 March. But Davitashvili ruled out the possibility of his party joining that alliance. (Liz Fuller)
QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "It's impossible to reach an agreement with your enemy. But it is possible to reach agreement with an opponent." -- Arkadii Ghukasian, president of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, in an interview published in echo-az.com on 12 March.
"Whoever planned the operation [to kill or apprehend Chechen resistance leader Aslan Maskhadov], and I believe it was planned at the very highest level, was thinking like a second-rate chess player. But Chechnya is a game that requires a grand master." -- Moscow Carnegie Center analyst Aleksei Malashenko, in an interview published in "Gazeta" on 10 March.
"I don't look at corpses on principle." -- Chechen First Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, quoted by "Izvestiya" on 11 March.