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Caucasus Report: April 22, 2005

22 April 2005, Volume 8, Number 13

ADYGEYA LEADERSHIP REAFFIRMS OPPOSITION TO REPUBLIC'S LIQUIDATION. The success of the 17 April referendum on subsuming the Taimyr and Evenk autonomous okrugs into Krasnoyarsk Krai (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 April 2005) is likely to encourage those Russian officials who favor holding a similar referendum on abolishing the current status of the Republic of Adygeya (RA) by subsuming it into Krasnodar Krai, within which it constitutes an enclave. Adygeya's Russian majority, which accounts for some 70 percent of the republic's total population of 450,000-500,000, and which has for years protested alleged discrimination at the hands of the Cherkess minority (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 23 March 2001), may support the proposed merger with Krasnodar Krai. But the Cherkess, including Adygeya's top leaders, vehemently oppose it (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 7 January 2005 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 January 2005). So, too, do 52 percent of the population of Krasnodar, according to an opinion poll cited by a member of the RA government quoted by AdygeyaNatPress on 5 April. Evenk Autonomous Oblast leader Boris Zolotarev opposed the planned merger with Krasnoyarsk when it was first mooted in 2002, as did his counterpart in Taimyr, Oleg Budargin (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 10 April 2002 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 January 2003), but both men subsequently shelved their objections.

Meeting in early March with members of the International Cherkess Association, which represents the estimated 3-4 million-strong diaspora, Adygeya President Khazret Sovmen criticized the proposed merger with Krasnodar as "regressive" and a threat to interethnic relations in what he termed an "explosive" region (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 March 2005). At a further meeting later that month with representatives of the Cherkess diaspora, Sovmen again argued that his republic and Krasnodar Krai should continue to exist as separate regions, but he added that he favors closer economic and cultural ties between them, according to the paper "Shapsugiya" as quoted by on 25 March. (The authorities in Krsanodar Krai have since withdrawn funding for that paper, which was published twice monthly in a print run of some 3,000 for Krasnodar's 12,000-strong Shapsug minority, according to AdygeyaNatPres on 31 March.) Sovmen rejected the arguments adduced by the leaders of Krasnodar Krai that the merger is economically expedient given that Adygeya is less developed than Krasnodar; he said that Adygeya has one of the highest economic growth rates in the entire Southern Federal District.

Within days, however, Krasnodar Krai Deputy Governor Murat Akhedzhak announced that the merger of the two regions was "not far off," and that it would expedite investment in Adygeya, an argument rejected by activist Ali Avgan, who pointed out to AdygeyaNatPress on 5 April that the Shapsug population of Krasnodar needs investment even more urgently than do the Adygs and Cherkess of Adygeya. A representative of the AR government similarly took issue with Akhedzhak's argument that Krasnodar is economically stronger than Adygeya. He told AdygeyaNatPres, on condition of anonymity, that "numerous" rural residents of Krasnodar regularly travel to Adygeya in search of seasonal or casual work.

On 15 April, the Cherkess national movement Adyghe Khase met in Maikop and formed a Committee to Protect the RA Constitution. Participants further decided to organize mass protests across the republic against the planned merger, including demonstrations and even acts of civil disobedience. Also on 15 April, "Izvestiya-yug" published an interview with the chief federal inspector for Krasnodar and Adygeya, Anatolii Odeychuk, that inflamed passions even further. In that interview, Odeychuk reportedly claimed that it is he, rather than Sovmen, who controls Adygeya, and he made a number of what were termed tactless and insulting comments about Sovmen personally.

Three days later, on 18 April, Adyghe Khase and the second major national movement, the Cherkess Congress, addressed an open letter to Odeychuk's superior, Dmitrii Kozak, presidential envoy to the Southern Federal district, protesting the tone and substance of the interview. Meeting the same day, RA government ministers likewise composed an open letter to Kozak similarly protesting what they termed Odeychuk's recourse to "crude falsification of the facts, lies, and slander," and demanding his dismissal on the grounds that they consider it impossible to work with him. (Odeychuk was invited to that meeting and said he would attend, but failed to show up, according to AdygeyaNatPres on 19 April.) The ministers admitted that "there are problems in Adygeya," but argued that Odeychuk's interview was counterproductive, served as an alarm that highlighted "the dangers we face...and who wants to rock the boat in which we all sit," and "discredits the federal organs of government."

Why Odeychuk should have risked fueling tensions at this juncture is unclear, given as "The Moscow Times" commented on 19 April, a propos, the outcome of the Krasnoyarsk/Evenk/Taimyr referendum: "some of the regions slated for eventual merger, especially in the North Caucasus where non-Russians make up the majority, will demand far more political finesse than Evenkia and Taimyr." President Vladimir Putin seemed, in his comments on the 17 April referendum, to be advocating a differentiated approach to mergers, arguing that enlargement "is not an end in itself" but should be resorted to "only if territories...cannot resolve the problems of their residents independently." (Liz Fuller)

WHO WILL STRIKE FIRST FOLLOWING MASKHADOV'S DEATH? The reprisals that some anticipated would follow the killing on 8 March of Chechen leader and resistance forces commander Aslan Maskhadov have not taken place -- yet. A 20 April commentary posted by the website attributed the comparative lull in hostilities in recent weeks to the statutory 40-day mourning period prescribed by Islam, which ended on 17 April.

However, a Stratfor analysis dated 5 April claims that in February, Russian President Vladimir Putin finally gave the green light for the systematic elimination of all major Chechen field commanders still at large, and that in the wake of Maskhadov's death the Federal Security Service (FSB) is continuing to tighten the net around them. That analysis poses the crucial question: will the Chechen resistance succeed in launching major reprisals before the FSB manages to locate and kill them?

It is possible that the six militants encircled and killed in a Grozny apartment on 14 April, who were reportedly in possession of Strela portable shoulder-launched missiles, were preparing a major operation to mark the end of the 40-day mourning period.

On 15 April, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" quoted Chechen Prosecutor-General Vladimir Kravchenko as warning the previous day that the Chechen militants are preparing a major assault, and on 19 April the same paper quoted Major General Sergei Suvorikhin, commander of the 42nd Motorized Division, as saying that radical field commander Shamil Basaev -- probably the most experienced and ruthless of the surviving field commanders -- is regrouping.

Pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Alu Alkhanov, however, downplayed Kravchenko's warning. "Izvestiya" on 15 April quoted Alkhanov as telling journalists that "naturally illegal armed formations are not abandoning their attempts to complicate the situation in Chechnya, but they are not capable of doing anything substantial."

The 14 April operation in Grozny, however, suggests that Alkhanov may be underestimating the strength and capacity of the resistance. Initial reports of that operation identified the militants in question as subordinate to veteran field commander Doku Umarov, and some unnamed police officials even thought -- erroneously -- that Umarov himself was among those killed, according to Interfax on 16 April.

Stratfor's list of key field commanders whom it claims Russian forces are currently hunting includes Umarov, a Saudi-born commander it identifies as Abu Hafs, who allegedly has links with Al-Qaeda, and Daghestani militant leader Rappani Khalilov. But Basaev appears to be the top priority, presumably because of his strategic skills in coordinating terrorist acts outside Chechnya, such as the multiple attacks last June on Interior Ministry targets in Ingushetia.

Lieutenant General Yevgenii Vnukov, commander of the Interior Ministry forces in the North Caucasus, was quoted by "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 4 April as predicting that "Basaev is next!" while Chechen First Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov assured "Komsomolskaya pravda" in an interview published on 6 April that Basaev will be killed by 9 May -- the first anniversary of the terrorist bombing, for which Basaev claimed responsibility, that killed Kadyrov's father, Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov.

In recent weeks, Russian media have reported the killing or capture of numerous separate small groups of fighters subordinate to Basaev, but "Nezavisimaya gazeta" noted on 18 April that the police and security units that Kadyrov commands have not participated in those operations, which were conducted by FSB troops. (Liz Fuller)

GEORGIAN OPPOSITION UNVEILS PROPOSED ELECTION LAW AMENDMENTS. The three opposition factions in the Georgian parliament -- the New Conservatives (aka the New Rightists), the Republicans, and the Conservatives -- have presented to the parliamentary Committee for Legal Affairs alternative draft amendments to the existing election law, RFE/RL's Georgian Service reported on 20 April. Those proposals focus primarily on the composition of the Central Election Commission (CEC).

The opposition objects to the model envisaged in amendments to the election law proposed by the majority National Movement, which parliament has already passed in the first reading. Under that model, the CEC would have seven members, all "professionals," all of whom would be selected by the parliament from a list proposed by the president. The opposition, by contrast, proposes that the CEC should comprise 16 members: two nominated by the president, two by each party that polled at least 4 percent in the last parliamentary ballot, two from each party that polled at least 4 percent in the elections held last summer to the Republic of Adjara Parliament, and two from each party that polled at least 4 percent in the last elections to the Tbilisi municipal council. (Liz Fuller)

VETERAN ARMENIAN OPPOSITION LEADER DISMISSES TALK OF REVOLUTION. Former Prime Minister Vazgen Manukian -- who ran unsuccessfully for president in 1996, 1998, and 2003 -- shrugged off on 18 April the most recent opposition pledge to stage a "revolution" in the country, saying that they can still not count on sufficient popular support. He also claimed that Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian stands no chance of becoming Armenia's next president.

"To say that one is going to carry out a revolution and actually carry out that revolution is impossible," Manukian told RFE/RL in an interview. "Popular discontent is great and it might seem that it bodes well for such a thing," he said. "But popular discontent alone is not enough. There must also be faith in some serious force, a belief that that force will not only change regime but also the situation in the country. The people still lack that faith and it is difficult to arouse it."

Manukian was apparently referring to Armenia's most radical opposition party, Hanrapetutiun (Republic), whose leader, Aram Sargsian, claimed on 15 April that regime change through a popular revolt is only a matter of time and urged Armenians to topple President Robert Kocharian (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 April 2005). Leaders of other parties belonging to the opposition Artarutiun bloc have launched similar appeals, saying the opposition is now waiting for the "right moment" to make a new push for power.

"To say all of a sudden that 'we are going to topple somebody and do a revolution tomorrow' is not serious," Manukian said. But he added that he seriously doubts Kocharian will remain in office until the end of his second five-year term in 2008.

The Armenian opposition's first attempt at revolution ended in failure last summer, primarily due to poor attendance at its anti-Kocharian rallies.

Manukian came close to ousting the incumbent leadership with street protests in September 1996 when thousands of his supporters stormed the parliament building in Yerevan in the wake of a presidential election that a senior official subsequently admitted was rigged (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 30 December 1998). His popularity and that of his National Democratic Union (AZhM) has since steadily declined. Although the AZhM is formally affiliated with Artarutiun, its influence on the bloc's activities has been marginal.

Manukian also pointed out that Sarkisian, who is seen as Kocharian's most likely successor, is too unpopular to win a fair presidential ballot. "Making Serzh Sarkisian a president requires huge administrative resources, bribes, intimidation, and vote falsifications [the consequences of which] can't be digested by the authorities afterward," he said. "All of that may have been digested in 1996 and 2003 because we were ahead of most CIS countries [in terms of political reform]. But the opposite is the case now. We just can't afford to be especially bad among them." (Ruzanna Stepanian)

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK. "If today we do not write truthfully about the tragedy that has plagued our people over the past 15 years, I assure you that [warlord] Shamil Basaev will be portrayed as a national hero in 50 years." -- Pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Alu Alkhanov, speaking at a conference in Moscow on 19 April on the need for an objective assessment of contemporary Chechen history (quoted by Interfax).