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Caucasus Report: June 17, 2004

17 June 2004, Volume 7, Number 24

RFE/RL INTERVIEW WITH CHECHEN PRESIDENT. The following responses from President Aslan Maskhadov to questions submitted by RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service were received on 13 June. As a matter of policy, RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service also continues to solicit comment on the situation in Chechnya from the Russian Interior Ministry and the pro-Moscow Chechen administration in Grozny.

Describing the current military situation in Chechnya, Maskhadov said: "Today the federal troops play a waiting game. You don't see their big military columns in the forests anymore. And they are not engaged in large-scale mop-up operations, sealing off towns in the process. They are biding their time. There is only one reason for that: They apparently hope to incite a war between those who support [slain pro-Moscow Chechen leader Akhmed-hadji] Kadyrov, the local police force and all Chechens loyal to them, on the one hand, and the mujahedin, on the other. They [the Russians] are supporting them now. When necessary, they give them assistance. Occasionally they cordon off whole forest tracts. When [our] fighters launch attacks against them, they call for artillery and air support. When special operations are carried out in towns and villages, they seal off the area. That's the new tactics of the Russian Army.

"So far as the GRU [Russian military intelligence], the FSB [Federal Security Service], and other punitive bodies are concerned, they keep doing the same job they did before. They still terrorize people. They still carry out their night raids into villages and homes. They still seize people who vanish without trace afterward. Local police and Kadyrov's security force started to attack the relatives, sisters, and wives of the mujahedin. They take them away and torture them. Sometimes they burn down their houses. The resistance does not feel threatened by these attacks. These are not the kind of people we could be afraid of. After all, what can they do that the huge Russian Army could not do?

"The Chechen fighters display great discipline in their struggle. I am with them in the forests at the moment. In those places where there were only 10 of them, these days we see 40, 60, 100 fighters. Every day we see their numbers increase. I've been thinking a lot about the reasons for that. The more that people like Kadyrov oppress innocent people and make their lives unbearable, the more they turn these people against themselves. Those who join our ranks do so out of anger.

"Every day -- the Russians of course try to hide that -- we launch big operations against their forces. In eight to 10 places, we carry out acts of sabotage daily. Every day we kill 10 to 20 of their soldiers. Their Chechen proxies suffer the same casualties in the Nozhai-Yurt and Vedeno raions of Chechnya. We are planning to make changes in our tactics. If so far most of our effort was focused on acts of sabotage, from now on we'll be launching big attacks."

Maskhadov suggested three possible scenarios for the 9 May assassination of Kadyrov, which he condemned in an official statement as an inexcusable act of terrorism (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 May 2004).

Maskhadov said: "In my view, he might have been killed by those who had installed him there in the first place, namely the Russian government and the FSB. There can be only one reason for that: They had great hopes that he might start a civil war in Chechnya that might sow discord among Chechens, that he might set Chechens against Chechens and divide them. That was the great hope. And they lent enormous support to the man who undertook to do all that. Why did he have to be removed then? He had probably become a liability. The Russians are running out of time and it's getting increasingly difficult to carry on with the war. They've probably realized that Kadyrov and people like him will not be able to unleash a civil conflict in Chechnya.

"There might be another explanation for his death. When the second Chechen war started and Chechen Mufti Kadyrov went to Moscow [in November1999] to stand next to [then Russian Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin, turning against his people and becoming its executioner, our court sentenced him to death. Our military commanders were entrusted with the implementation of the court's decision. If the mujahedin executed the sentence, no one should be surprised. That could have happened.

"The third reason that comes to mind is that it might a retribution in a blood feud. Those who know Chechen traditional law and customs will not be surprised to hear that. There are three or four private prisons in Kadyrov's ancestral village and in his home. There they keep even the fathers, mothers, and sisters of the fighters, humiliating and maltreating them. If they take a fighter captive, they murder him. Chechens never forget certain things and always seek retribution."

Asked whether the Chechen resistance might field a candidate in the 29 August elections for a successor to Kadyrov, Maskhadov said: "That is simply not possible. Whoever runs in this election -- a fighter or otherwise -- becomes a traitor to his people. He becomes the enemy of the people. He will have to stand next to the Russians and destroy his own people. How can those who vowed to rid their people of the Russian oppression participate in an election organized by the Russians in accordance with the Russian Constitution, turning against their own people?"

Asked whether he would contest that ballot, Maskhadov responded: "I was elected president by the people in a fair election recognized by the international community and the Russian state [in January 1997]. The election was conducted in accordance with the law and in presence of independent observers. If I tried to run in this coming election, I would become a traitor and turn against my people. I would be destroying my own country."

"I know only one thing: 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."

As for possible approaches to resolving the ongoing conflict, Maskhadov said: "We tried to approach the Russian government with our proposal several times. We told them, 'Let's stop this war ourselves without involving anyone into this process.' We are fighting to eliminate the danger to the very existence of the Chechen people. And where does this danger emanate from? From the Russian state. They start wars with us whenever they want. They deport us whenever they want. They brand us traitors. They call us terrorists. They blow up their houses in Moscow and Volgodonsk and blame us for that. As long as we remain under the jurisdiction of their constitutional law, the danger will always be there. Our fight is about this danger. This danger will be eliminated only if we get an international status, only international law can protect us.

"So far as other things are concerned, we are prepared to do whatever they 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. I see only one reason for that; it's because of their old imperial ambitions. In this situation, we are compelled to seek friends elsewhere simply because Russians don't want friendship with us.

"The second way to stop this war is based on 'the principle of conditional independence' that we have put forward [see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 July 2003]. International institutions in full agreement with the international law should call for the cessation of hostilities and the start of peace negotiations. That should be their responsibility. When the war stops, Russians should pull out their troops and the international community [should] send in a peacekeeping force. An international administration will supervise the process of governance and mediate in our talks with the Russians. This might be another solution that we would welcome. We see no other way out.

"If the Russians think they are going to win this war, they are wrong. If necessary, we'll fight as long as it takes. We are not going to pass on this struggle and the suffering that it involves to our posterity. We took this responsibility on ourselves."

ANALYST EXAMINES AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENT'S REFORM OPTIONS. Observers in Baku are unanimous in their conviction that rivalries within the Azerbaijani leadership are becoming more acrimonious and more visible. What remains unclear is whether and how President Ilham Aliyev is planning to take advantage of that infighting to strengthen his own position. One of the warring camps is, moreover, already seeking to portray itself as the pro-democracy faction and thus as Aliyev's natural partner in his professed campaign to secure for Azerbaijan membership of NATO and the EU.

Both the government and the parliament that President Aliyev "inherited" from his father and predecessor Heidar Aliyev include individuals known to be either incompetent, corrupt, or both. Aliyev's problem is that some of those compromised individuals might be personally more loyal to him than others whose reputation is less checkered. The Azerbaijani Constitution (Article 109) empowers the president to appoint and dismiss the government, and despite Aliyev's assurances in January that he considers most ministers "good and qualified professionals" and does not plan any sweeping personnel changes, rumors are now circulating in Baku that he will do so very shortly.

In two articles published last week in the online daily, political analyst Rauf Mirkadyrov claimed that Aliyev does indeed plan a fundamental renewal of the government and the legislature. On 10 June, Mirkadyrov predicted that Aliyev will begin by sacking the entire government, a move that would rid him of "the most odious and influential figures who are an irritant not only to the greater part of the population but also to international organizations." (Mirkadyrov does not identify the individuals in question.) Then, Mirkadyrov wrote, again in a gesture to the international community, Aliyev will complete the process of structural reform of the government launched by his predecessor, streamlining the number of ministries, and then set about redistributing power among the president, government, and parliament.

Sacking the entire cabinet and then reappointing its most competent and energetic members to oversee mega-ministries would not only preclude claims of victimization from those deprived of their posts. Getting rid of "dead wood" and targeting corruption within the government bureaucracy could improve efficiency and expedite the promised improvement in living standards that was one of the main pillars of Aliyev's election campaign.

By contrast, even though Aliyev is constitutionally empowered to call preterm parliamentary elections, there are reportedly cogent arguments against doing so immediately. According to Mirkadyrov, Aliyev regards the constitutional amendment approved in 2002 under which all 125 parliament mandates are in future allocated in single-mandate constituencies a major mistake. Aliyev reportedly wants to increase the number of mandates to 200, of which 150 would be allocated under the party-list system and the remaining 50 in single-mandate constituencies. This innovation would not only meet with the approval of international human rights organizations such as the OSCE and the Council of Europe; it would be a gift to the hard-pressed Azerbaijani opposition, which is represented in the present parliament by only a handful of deputies. In addition, the reduction in the number of single-mandate constituencies and the concomitant increase in their geographical size would minimize the possibility of what Mirkadyrov referred to as "local mafiosi" literally buying their way into parliament.

Changing the composition of parliament by reintroducing the party-list vote would, however, require a referendum on changing the relevant articles of the constitution. The next parliamentary elections are due in the late fall of 2005, and, according to Mirkadyrov, Aliyev would like to schedule a referendum on the required constitutional amendments concurrently with the municipal elections due in the fall of 2004.

Sensing that it is at this juncture less vulnerable than the government, the Milli Mejlis has begun criticizing the executive branch for its imputed inability to deliver on the president's promises of accelerated economic development and more jobs, Mirkadyrov noted on 10 June. In a long interview published on on 12 June, Govhar Bakhshalieva, who is a parliament deputy chairwoman and a member of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP), remarked that "it would not be true to say that I am 100 percent satisfied with the cabinet." She added that the parliament receives "masses of letters" from citizens who express their "extreme dissatisfaction" with unnamed ministers, and she stressed that such "odious characters" should be replaced.

Bakhshalieva was clearly less than enthusiastic at the prospect of reintroducing the allocation of parliament mandates under the party-list system. But at the same time, she wholeheartedly endorsed the argument, made at considerable length by presidential administration head Ramiz Mekhtiev in an article published in "Bakinskii rabochii" last month (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 28 May 2004), that a generational change in both the government and the legislature is long overdue in order to bring into both bodies people with a new approach to social, political, and legal issues -- people "with a European-type education and who are capable of radical reform directed at the swift modernization of the country."

Asked if she intends to run in the 2005 parliament elections, Bakhshalieva equivocated, saying she will decide closer to the election date. Mirkadyrov's analysis suggests an embryonic alliance between the president and the reformist camp, of which Mekhtiev seems to have cast himself as the ideologist. In the event that the putative Aliyev/Mekhtiev alliance eventually prevails over its opponents under the banner of reform, Bakhshalieva would be well placed to succeed current parliamentary chairman Murtuz Alesqerov, a promotion predicted by the opposition daily "Azadlig" on 8 January. But Mekhtiev himself has come under attack from YAP. An article published in the party's eponymous newspaper "Yeni Azerbaycan" on 15 June not only questions his competence in philosophy but also accuses him of seeking to minimize the role of the late president in building Azerbaijani statehood. (Liz Fuller)

ARMENIAN OPPOSITION HALTS PROTEST CAMPAIGN. The Armenian opposition officially ended its unsuccessful spring campaign for regime change late on 16 June, again rallying several thousands supporters in Yerevan but setting no dates for the next protest. "The first stage of the opposition movement is over," Albert Bazeyan, one of the leaders of the Artarutiun alliance, said in a concluding speech. He said Artarutiun and its principal ally, the National Accord Party (AMK), have to consider new methods of political struggle and need time to do so.

Other opposition leaders cited external factors such as the ongoing peace talks on Nagorno-Karabakh and the upcoming discussion of the situation in Armenia at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe to justify their decision.

Some opposition leaders admitted privately that their two-month drive to force Kocharian into resignation has lost momentum since the 12 April march toward the presidential palace in the capital that was violently broken up by the police early on 13 April. They said further antigovernment rallies are therefore unlikely to be held in the summer months. The AMK and Artarutiun bloc had earlier repeatedly postponed a promised repeat of similar "decisive" actions.

Kocharian and his allies have maintained throughout the confrontation that the opposition actions are unconstitutional, while responding to them with an unprecedented crackdown denounced by local and international human rights groups. They say the opposition's failure to pull huge crowds testifies to a lack of popular support for its leaders.

Opposition leaders, however, counter that it is the ruling regime that lacks legitimacy. They remained uncompromising in their demands for Kocharian's resignation, seeking to convince their supporters that this is just a matter of time. "We will bring this process to a logical end," Artarutyun�s Stepan Demirchian told a crowd that has visibly thinned since the start of the campaign in early April. (Ruzanna Khachatrian)

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK. "In my opinion, the current mood in society is linked to our mentality. Take our fairy tales, where anyone who is taken prisoner wants for the hero to ride up on a white horse and solve the problem. The wait for a savior has a negative effect on society. Everyone should be thinking for himself, 'What have I done to obtain liberty?' People have been saying for 15 years that someone has to assume the role of savior, but they do not specify who, or what [he is to save us from], or how. We have to break free from this 'waiting-for-the-savior' syndrome." -- Opposition Azerbaijan National Independence Party Chairman Etibar Mamedov, quoted by on 12 June.