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Caucasus Report: June 25, 2004

25 June 2004, Volume 7, Number 25

RUSSIAN REPRISALS IN INGUSHETIA TRIGGER COUNTERATTACK. Local commentators are virtually unanimous in their conclusion that this week's guerrilla raids on strategic targets in Ingushetia in which up to 90 people were killed were the deliberate response to the Kremlin's policy. In the two years since Moscow engineered the election of former Federal Security Service (FSB) General Murat Zyazikov to succeed Ruslan Aushev as Ingushetia's president, the republic has suffered a steep economic decline attributable, some analysts claim, at least partly to Zyazikov's failure to combat corruption and mismanagement. Even more crucial, over the last year, Russian and Chechen Interior Ministry and special-forces troops have engaged in the indiscriminate killing or abduction of Ingush civilians. Rashid Ozdoev, a senior official from the Ingushetian prosecutor's office who sought to investigate and put a stop to such crimes, has himself disappeared without trace and may have been executed (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 28 May 2004).

What is not clear is whether, as some analysts have hypothesized, a faction within the Russian leadership deliberately sought, for whatever strategic or venal reasons, to extend the ongoing "antiterrorism" operation from Chechnya into neighboring Ingushetia (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 22 April 2004), or whether the most recent Caucasus crisis is simply the product of Russian inefficiency and lack of insight into conditions in the latter republic. Those inclined to lend credence to the former interpretation have suggested that the Kremlin's ultimate objective may be to create a case for either reincorporating Chechnya and Ingushetia into a single republic or creating a much larger territorial unit in the North Caucasus within the framework of a broader streamlining of the Russian Federation that would reduce the number of federation subjects by up to two-thirds. Former Russian Nationalities Minister Ramazan Abdulatipov took the latter view, deploring what he termed the Russian leadership's collective lack of interest in drafting and implementing the complex program for addressing problems throughout the North Caucasus that he has been advocating for the past decade.

Eyewitness reports of the raids cited by the independent website suggest that the fighters were overwhelmingly young Ingush men, members of a battalion commanded by Magomet Evloev, aka Asadullah, which is subordinate to radical Chechen field commander Shamil Basaev. Asadullah reportedly warned last September that unless the ongoing killings and abductions in Ingushetia were stopped, Ingushetia could become a second Chechnya. His men reportedly told fellow Ingush on the night of 21-22 June that they were deliberately targeting Russian servicemen and Ingushetian Interior Ministry staff whom they considered collaborators. Basaev for his part warned in a statement last week ( that his men were preparing for a major operation that would inflict considerable military and political damage on federal forces (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 June 2004). Writing in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 23 June, one Russian journalist pointed out that the tactics used in the 21-22 June raids replicated those Basaev used in his attack on Grozny in 1996.

Most Russian and pro-Moscow Chechen officials, however, have identified the raiders as ethnic Chechens plus the usual imputed Afghan and Turkish mercenaries, allegedly operating at the behest of Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov. Maskhadov's official representative abroad, Chechen Deputy Prime Minister Akhmed Zakaev, released a statement on 22 June in which he described the attack as a "popular insurrection" triggered by Russia's "blind [and] suicidal" policy in Ingushetia, in particular the wave of killings and kidnappings of innocent civilians. Zakaev did not, however, specifically absolve Maskhadov from any role in the incursion. (Liz Fuller)

GEORGIA MAINTAINS PRESSURE ON SOUTH OSSETIAN LEADERSHIP. In the wake of Moscow's failure to accede to a request by Eduard Kokoity, president of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, to grant the region formal recognition and incorporate it into the Russian Federation (see "RFE/RL Newsline,"11 June 2004), Tbilisi has maintained its pressure on South Ossetia while simultaneously waging a war of words with the Russian Foreign Ministry over the actions of the Russian contingent to the quadripartite peacekeeping force (Russia, Georgia, South Ossetia, and North Ossetia) deployed in the conflict zone.

Georgia's first broadside was triggered by the refusal of the Russian peacekeepers' commander, Major General Svyatoslav Nabdzorov, to react to a Georgian request last week to investigate reports that armed South Ossetians had infiltrated the Georgian-populated village of Eredvi. On 15 and 16 June, Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava said that Tbilisi will formally demand that the mandate of the Russian peacekeeping contingent be changed to limit its deployment to villages where the population is mixed Ossetian and Georgian. Khaindrava further expressed disappointment that the Russian Defense Ministry had not made good on its pledge of early June to replace Nabdzorov as commander of the Russian contingent.

Both Russia and South Ossetia condemned Khaindrava's statement. Speaking in Tskhinvali on 16 June, Boris Chochiev, who minister for special assignments, countered that Tbilisi's insistence that Nabdzorov be replaced is "groundless," as "he has not done anything to harm either Georgians or Ossetians," Caucasus Press reported. Chochiev warned that Georgian threats to limit the operations of the Russian peacekeeping force could set the peace process back by three or four years.

The Russian response was even more categorical. The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement accusing Georgia of "intentionally vilifying" the Russian peacekeeping force, which it described as the guarantor of security in the region. (The Russian contingent is at its full allowed strength of 500 men, while the Georgian contingent numbered only 100 at the beginning of this month.)

Then on 23 June, Georgian Interior Minister Irakli Okruashvili gave the South Ossetian leadership 48 hours to apprehend and hand over the person or persons who, he alleged, were responsible for an elderly Georgian woman incurring life-threatening injuries from a shell fragment during artillery practice in the vicinity of the village of Prisi earlier that day. Okruashvili warned that if the perpetrator(s) were not handed over he could give orders for Interior Ministry forces to enter South Ossetia to find them. The South Ossetian government denied that any artillery practice had taken place near Prisi.

Tbilisi has simultaneously moved to undermine the South Ossetian economy, blocking access from the Georgian side to the Ergneti border market that serves as a huge clearing house for smuggled goods, according to Caucasus Press and on 11 and 14 June, respectively. On 17 June, Caucasus Press quoted a South Ossetian government official as saying that the amount of freight transported across the republic' s territory has fallen sharply, and that as a result of the decline in customs revenues, payment of state-sector wages and pensions is endangered.

The South Ossetian leadership has responded to the Georgian pressure by withdrawing its participation in two successive scheduled sessions -- one in Tbilisi on 15-16 June and a second in Moscow on 21-22 June -- of the Joint Control Commission that monitors the situation in the conflict zone. Speaking in Tbilisi on 23 June, Ambassador Roy Reeve, who heads the Tbilisi Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE) Office, urged both Georgia and South Ossetia to meet as soon as possible for talks under the aegis of the commission. He said OSCE Chairman in Office and Bulgarian Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi has offered to host such talks in Sofia if no other venue is acceptable to the South Ossetian side, Russian media reported. (Liz Fuller)

RADICAL LEADER LISTS ARMENIAN OPPOSITION'S FAILINGS. The Armenian opposition's failure to align behind a single leader was a key reason for its inability to unseat President Robert Kocharian with the recent campaign of demonstrations, one of its most prominent members said on 22 June. Former Prime Minister Aram Sargsian said the Artarutiun alliance and the National Unity Party (AMK) would have attracted a larger following had they come up with a "clear charismatic leader." Sargsian, whose Hanrapetutiun party is an important component of Artarutiun, made it clear that the opposition does have such a leader, but did not name him. He was careful not to openly stake a claim to that role or criticize his opposition allies, Artarutiun's Stepan Demirchian and the AMK's Artashes Geghamian.

The three men were the most important figures during the three-month opposition campaign of anti-Kocharian protests in Yerevan. Demirchian and Geghamian were also Kocharian's main challengers in last year's presidential election and enjoyed greater popularity than Sargsian at least until recently. The ex-prime minister and his party are seen as the most radical and uncompromising opposition force. Hanrapetutiun was reportedly pushing last month for a repeat of the opposition's ill-fated 12 April march towards the presidential palace. The promised "decisive action" was finally called off last week.

Speaking at a roundtable discussion of the Armenian political situation, Sargsian said the opposition failed to achieve its goal also because it faced a united front of pro-presidential parties, the security apparatus, and other government agencies. But he claimed that the presidential camp is beginning to show cracks and will eventually collapse. "I am deeply convinced that regime change is not a long way off," he said. "I am only worried that the opposition may be late [in taking over from Kocharian]." (Karine Kalantarian)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "I have never seen anyone die and I was simply interested to see [what happens], after all, my contract expires in a couple of days, I shall return home and people will ask, 'How many bandits did you kill?' What am I supposed to tell them at home?" -- An unnamed Russian contract servicemen who opened fire on Chechen civilians in the town of Itum-Kale, killing two young men. Quoted by on 19 June

"I never used to be a militant. But when they abducted my brother and after a year I still could not either find his body or determine where he is, I headed for the mountains to [join] Shamil Basaev. There are hundreds like me. " - One of the militants who staged the 21-22 June raids on targets in Ingushetia. Quoted by the website on 22 June.

"We are for establishing peace and ending the war in the Caucasus. Who is against [that]?" -- Akhyad Idigov, chairman of the parliament of the Chechen Republic Ichkeria elected in July 1998, in a statement carried by on 22 June.