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Caucasus Report: April 22, 2004

22 April 2004, Volume 7, Number 16

GEORGIAN LEADERSHIP SENDS MIXED SIGNALS OVER ADJARIA. Georgian parliamentary speaker Nino Burdjanadze said in a recent interview with "Novye izvestiya" that while she and other members of the Georgian leadership frequently argue among themselves until they are hoarse, in the end they always reach a consensus. Conflicting statements by senior Georgian officials about the ongoing crisis in relations between the central Georgian government and the leadership of the Adjar Autonomous Republic and the optimum approach to resolving it call Burdjanadze's assertion into question, however. Those contradictory pronouncements also suggest that the Georgian leadership has no clear strategy for coping with Abashidze and is uncertain how best to counter the perceived threat to stability he poses.

Tbilisi's ultimate objective with regard to Adjaria is clear: President Mikheil Saakashvili has repeatedly said that he aims to replace the "feudalistic" and authoritarian regime headed by Adjar State Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze with a democratic leadership that would work together with, rather than at cross-purposes with, the central government in seeking to improve living conditions for the region's population. (Among the traits Abashidze shares with Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov is a penchant for building grandiose but useless public edifices rather than spending budget funds on improving basic infrastructure, healthcare, education and other services.)

But since Abashidze has cracked down on the domestic political opposition, the prospects of removing him by either a rerun of the "Rose Revolution" that brought Saakashvili to power in Tbilisi last year or by democratic elections are remote. (Abashidze's term of office expires only in 2006.) And a military incursion to overthrow him, even if successful, would tarnish the new Georgian leadership's democratic credentials.

As an interim compromise measure, the Georgian leadership demanded during talks with Abashidze last month that he cede control over the revenues from the port of Batumi, which he has allegedly been milking for the past decade. According to "The Moscow Times" on 31 March, some 12 million tons of oil is exported annually via Batumi. Abashidze agreed to Saakashvili's demand to yield control over the customs posts at Batumi and the Sarp border crossing with Turkey, but then almost immediately insisted that in return he be allowed to appoint representatives to monitor customs procedures elsewhere in Georgia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 and 23 March 2004).

It is not clear whether Abashidze's choice of tactics in his standoff with the central Georgian government was dictated by desperation, or whether he anticipates a protracted war of attrition in which his position will be gradually strengthened by virtue of demonstrating to the population of Adjaria and of Georgia as a whole, and also to the international community, the limitations to Saakashvili's power. Nor is it clear who precisely is supporting Abashidze. "Novye izvestiya" on 15 April quoted Georgian political commentator Giorgi Khutsishvili as saying that the business interests of several groups, some local and some international, intersect in Adjaria and that Abashidze is in effect their pawn. Many observers have concluded that although Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov has affirmed his support for Abashidze, the Russian leadership has decided to remain neutral -- possibly in the anticipation that Saakashvili will compromise himself by some rash and incautious step.

Faced with Abashidze's unpredictability and duplicity, Georgian officials have responded with a combination of blatant threats, accusations of corruption, attempts to take the moral high ground, and appeals to the international community for support for and approval of their actions. Georgian politicians' statements with regard to Adjaria have also, as noted above, been confusing and less than consistent. While President Saakashvili said last week in an address to the population of Adjaria that rumors he intends to abolish the republic's autonomous status within Georgia are "filthy lies" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 April 2004), Republican Party Chairman David Berdzenishvili, who is also a leading member of Saakashvili's National Movement, was quoted by "Kommersant-Daily" on 5 April as saying that the new Georgian parliament will adopt a constitutional law in May on Adjaria's status. The present Georgian Constitution adopted in 1995 fails to clarify the precise relations between the central Georgian government and the autonomous regions pending the restoration of Tbilisi's hegemony over the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. That did not deter the newly elected Georgian parliament from scheduling a vote at its first session on 22 April calling for Adjaria to comply with the requirements of the Georgian constitution. On 19 April, Berdzenishvili called for the abolition of the post of Adjar president, ITAR-TASS reported. On 10 April, Saakashvili threatened to dissolve the Adjar legislature unless Abashidze complied with his demand to disarm illegal armed formations. Both Saakashvili and Georgian Interior Minister Giorgi Baramidze have publicly accused Abashidze of presiding over and profiting from drug-trafficking.

Other Georgian officials, most notably parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze and Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania, have been more restrained in their public criticisms of Abashidze.

It is not clear whether the seeming inconsistency in official Georgian pronouncements reflects individual temperament or a deliberate and coordinated attempt to wrongfoot, and to maintain pressure on Abashidze. Abashidze's position has been seriously weakened by the outcome of the 28 March parliamentary ballot: his Union for Democratic Revival has only six deputies in the new Georgian legislature. Assuming that, as suggested above, he is indeed constrained by commitments to dubious financial partners, he would seem to have little option but to continue to brazen it out in the hope that the Georgian leadership compromises itself in the eyes of the international community by resorting to military force.

It is presumably in order to preclude any such debacle that Tbilisi is demanding so insistently the disarmament of Abashidze's cohorts. But here again diverging pronouncements have blurred the issue. Saakashvili alleges that Abashidze has spent millions of dollars acquiring heavy weaponry and armor (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 and 14 April 2004). Georgian media accuse him of seeking to acquire further arms from Belarus. Georgian ministers claim that Abashidze maintains a private army of over 1,000 men, some of them former criminals, armed with heavy weapons, grenade launchers, mortars, and assault rifles. Abashidze for his part admits only to having distributed arms to the population a decade ago to be used in self defense. He has conceded that those arms should be confiscated -- but only once mutual trust is reestablished between Tbilisi and Batumi. (Liz Fuller)

IS RUSSIA PLANNING A WAR IN INGUSHETIA? The website reproduced on 14 April what appears to be a confidential memorandum to Russian President Vladimir Putin from Viktor Kazantsev, who was removed last month from his post as presidential envoy to the South Russia federal district (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 March 2004). The memorandum, dated 7 November 2001, claimed that separatist sentiments are widespread among the Ingush, and that the republic harbors some 20,000 members of illegal armed formations, including some from Chechnya. In order to quash the danger of separatism and improve the economic situation (Ingushetia relies on funds from Moscow for 85 percent of its budget), Kazantsev proposed that the Russian leadership back FSB General Murat Zyazkikov in the April 2002 Ingushetian presidential election; create a commission to draft legislation on the restoration of the former Chechen-Ingush Republic (which was divided into two separate entities in the summer of 1992); and order the general staff of the Russian armed forces to prepare to expand military operations from Chechnya into Ingushetia. Kazantsev predicted that those measures would not only stabilize the situation in Ingushetia but would result in the successful conclusion of the "counterterrorist operation" in Chechnya in 2002-2003 -- presumably enabling Putin to take credit for that successful "normalization" in the runup to the Russian presidential election in March 2004.

Zyazikov was duly elected president of Ingushetia in a runoff ballot with 53 percent of the vote (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 3 May 2002). But despite the incursion into Ingushetia of Chechen fighters loyal to field commander Ruslan Gelaev in the autumn of 2002 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 and 27 September 2002), the Russian military has not yet extended military operations into that republic. True, the Russian media regularly quote military spokesman Colonel Ilia Shabalkin as announcing the neutralization of Chechen fighters operating on the territory of Ingushetia, but the veracity of such claims is open to question. The Chechen website on 8 March accused the Russian media of engaging in "cheap propaganda" by reporting developments in Ingushetia in such a way as to suggest the region is already a war zone.

That is not to say, however, that the situation in Ingushetia is either stable or secure. On the contrary: as journalist Anna Politkovskaya documented in an article published in "Novaya gazeta" on 15 April, fortuitous killings by police of civilians halted at roadblocks and the disappearances without trace of Ingush who have criticized Zyazikov's policies have become routine. Ingush police and security officials rebuff attempts by relatives to determine the whereabouts of those abducted, but in some cases independent investigations have suggested that those kidnapped were taken to the Russian military base at Khankala in Chechnya. As a result of that wave of reprisals, and of the corruption among his subordinates to which he reportedly turns a blind eye, Zyazikov is deeply unpopular. Of the total 458 respondents in an online poll conducted by between mid-January and mid-March, almost 87 percent gave a negative assessment of Zyazikov's presidency and said he said should resign.

As for Kazantsev's proposal to draft legislation on abolishing the split of the former Chechen-Ingush Republic into two separate republics, pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov began lobbying for such a merger immediately after last October's Chechen presidential election. But Zyazikov, who Kazantsev predicted in his memorandum to Putin would support a merger of the two republics, has repeatedly spoken out against it, beginning in 2002 -- even before Kadyrov publicly raised the issue (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 October 2002, 15 and 23 October, 3 November and 30 December 2003, and 22 January 2004). Such a merger would, of course, almost certainly cost Zyazikov his position as president insofar as Moscow would be unlikely to risk alienating Kadyrov by demoting him.

Assuming that both the ongoing reprisals in Ingushetia and the Russian military's claims of repeated Chechen incursions into the neighboring republic have been approved in Moscow, the question arises: is a faction within the Russian leadership still planning to extend the "counterterrorism" operation in Chechnya to Ingushetia, and if so, which faction, and why? Has Putin decided since his re-election last month that proclaiming the successful conclusion of the "counterterrorism" operation and withdrawing troops from Chechnya could prove counterproductive, in that it could alienate those senior military officials known to be engaged in the clandestine theft of Chechen oil, and necessitate finding an alternative occupation for the Interior Ministry force, headed by Kadyrov's son Ramzan, which routinely robs, abducts, and murders Chechen villagers?

But even if Putin and his inner circle consider the continuation of low-level hostilities in Chechnya expedient, would they condone -- and risk --an extension of the war into Ingushetia? Could they convince the international community that such an operation is necessary in order to contain international terrorism? Would it not be preferable to opt for a merger of Chechnya and Ingushetia, and a continuation of sporadic fighting across the entire territory of the newly created entity? "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 19 April quoted Putin's former commissioner for human rights in Chechnya, Abdul-Khakim Sultygov, as saying that a Civic Forum will be created in Chechnya, one of the primary tasks of which will be to solicit the opinion of experts concerning Chechens' attitudes to a re-merger of Chechnya and Ingushetia.

No less intriguing is the question: what role, if any, is earmarked for Chechen radical field commander Shamil Basaev in Moscow's plans? It was Basaev who -- whether deliberately or inadvertently, possibly as the result of a "false flag" recruitment -- created the pretext for the second Chechen war by launching an invasion of neighboring Daghestan in the summer of 1999 (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 12 August 1999 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 April 2004). Basaev last week claimed responsibility for the 6 April car-bomb attack that narrowly failed to kill Zyazikov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 and 13 April 2004). But according to an online poll conducted by, only 17.4 percent of the 230 respondents lend credence to Basaev's claim, while 27 percent (62 respondents) believe the attempt to kill Zyazikov was the work of relatives of the victims of the ongoing wave of murders and abductions in Ingushetia, and 24.3 percent (56 respondents) blame Ingushetians who are not happy with Zyazikov's policies.

It is of course possible that Zyazikov's enemies in Magas or Moscow, or both cities, may have coopted Basaev to assassinate him. But it is also possible that the Kremlin indeed wants to proceed with implementing the re-merger of Chechnya and Ingushetia, and hoped to remove Zyazikov as the most high-profile opponent of that idea. There was even an acceptable successor to Zyazikov at hand, one who could have been easily placated if his tenure as president was cut short as the result of the subsequent re-merger. That candidate is Russian State Duma deputy (Unified Russia) Mukharbek Aushev who placed second after incumbent President Ruslan Aushev in the 1998 presidential ballot with 13.36 percent of the vote (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 March 1998). In a poll conducted by between mid-February and mid-March, Mukharbek Aushev emerged as the most popular political figure, albeit with only 17 percent support. Almost 40 percent of the 783 respondents said Ingushetia needs a new figure, an Ingush counterpart to the Georgian opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili. But even if such a figure were to emerge, recent elections in Russian Federation subjects -- including those of Zyazikov and Kadyrov -- suggest that the victory of Moscow's favored candidate in a ballot to replace Zyazikov would have been a foregone conclusion. (Liz Fuller)

DUMA DEPUTY FORESEES POLITICAL CRISIS IN DAGHESTAN. Russian State Duma deputy Gadzhi Makhachev (Unified Russia) warned in a commentary published in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 5 April that the Russian leadership's apparent indifference to the ongoing wave of murders and terrorist acts in Daghestan could culminate in civil strife and bloodshed. Not a single one of the high-profile killings of senior officials in recent years has been solved, Makhachev noted. Makhachev was himself injured in a botched assassination attempt last year in Makhachkala, the capital of Daghestan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 March 2003).

Makhachev blamed the deterioration of the situation in Daghestan on "guerrillas and Wahhabis who recently fought in Chechnya," and who subsequently "shaved off their beards" and made their way across the border into Daghestan. "Today there are hundreds of people living in Daghestan who fought in Chechnya and do not know how to do anything except kill and use a gun," he said.

Makhachev expressed incomprehension at the reluctance of both the republic and the Russian leadership's to face up to what is going on in Daghestan and take swift and decisive measures to restore order. He recalled that he recently tried in vain for two weeks to obtain an appointment with Federal Security Service Director Nikolai Patrushev to brief him on the situation in Daghestan. Makhachev also disclosed that when he and Ramazan Abdulatipov (the former Russian Nationalities Minister and current Federation Council member who is an Avar from Daghestan) toured Daghestan recently to discuss the political situation with voters, Daghestani Nationalities Minister Zagir Arukhov denounced them on local television for allegedly attempting to destabilize the situation.

The leadership in Daghestan, Makhachev claimed, has distanced itself from the population at large. Government officials maintain private armies to defend them, although no one knows who pays the cost of such formations. The police force, too, has been coopted to protect officialdom, and to that end has abandoned the fight against crime. Meanwhile, the population lives in poverty. Unemployment is so high that there are 167 applications for every vacant job, Abdulatipov was quoted by ITAR-TASS as saying on 27 August.

The danger of major destabilization is compounded, according to Makhachev, by an incipient struggle for power in the runup to the presidential elections due in June 2006, which will be the first in which the head of state is elected by the population rather than the two-chamber legislature. Magomedali Magomedov, who is now 74 and has headed the republic since before the collapse of the USSR, may not seek a second term, but the Dargins -- the second largest of Daghestan's 14 titular nationalities, of which Magomedov is a member -- are determined to cling to power, while the largest ethnic group, the Avars (of whom Makhachev is one), seek power for themselves.

Makhachev affirmed that it is not too late to seek a compromise and determine the most worthy candidate to succeed Magomedov (Abdulatipov, perhaps?) but that Moscow should take steps immediately to stabilize the situation. In the longer term, he continued, the central authorities should do all in their power to ensure that the June 2006 ballot is fair and to prevent the "clans and mafias," who he claims currently control Daghestan's economy, from engaging in massive falsification in order to install their own chosen successor to Magomedov. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "Armenia resembles a powder keg today, and whether or when it explodes will depend solely on who decides to hold a lighted match to it first... Something is bound to happen one way or another. For now, everything is up in the air. Everyone is waiting and getting ready for the final showdown." -- Armenian journalist David Petrosyan, quoted by the "Los Angeles Times" on 22 April

"We mustn't dramatize the situation, there is no extremely tense situation in Armenia, the problems can be overcome." -- Armenian deputy parliament speaker Tigran Torosian, speaking to journalists in Yerevan on 15 April (quoted by Noyan Tapan on 16 April).

"This is not a problem that is going to be solved overnight." -- U.S. Ambassador and OSCE Minsk Group co-Chairman Steven Mann, referring to the Karabakh conflict following talks in Baku on 22 April with Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov (quoted by RFE/RL).