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Caucasus Report: August 27, 2004

27 August 2004, Volume 7, Number 33

WILL MOSCOW'S MAN BE ELECTED CHECHNYA'S NEW LEADER? On 29 August, Chechen voters will go to the polls for the second time within 11 months to endorse or reject the candidate perceived by the Kremlin as most capable of imposing some semblance of normality in the war-torn region. Moscow's initial choice to head the republic, former mufti Akhmad-hadji Kadyrov, who was originally installed as pro-Moscow leader in June 2000, was killed on 9 May by a terrorist bomb which experts believe could only have been planted by a traitor within Kadyrov's entourage.

Of a field of 22 hopefuls, only seven succeeded in registering to contest the 29 August ballot (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 July 2004 and "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 30 July 2004). And until last week, the only one who seemed to stand any chance of success was the man perceived as the Kremlin's designated candidate, Chechen Interior Minister Major General Alu Alkhanov. A tall, burly figure with a permanently worried expression, Alkhanov is "a bureaucrat and policeman, not the mixture of politician, father figure, bandit and warlord that his late boss was, and which anyone hoping to pacify Chechnya by force would need to be," "The Economist" observed on 27 August.

As Kadyrov did during his election campaign last summer, Alkhanov too stressed the need to impose "order" and eradicate the last vestiges of Chechen resistance, pledging to wage "an uncompromising struggle against banditry, extremism of all kinds, and corruption," ITAR-TASS reported on 2 August. But Alkhanov has focussed primarily on his hopes for economic revival and transforming Chechnya into "a center of market reform" in the North Caucasus. To that end, he intends to lobby for the creation of a free economic zone. "If political conditions are complemented by proper material infrastructure and a favorable tax regime, our region may well become a major business center," ITAR-TASS quoted him as telling voters in Grozny on 2 August. Alkhanov further promised to create over 150,000 new jobs over the next five years to reduce unemployment. In November 2003, ITAR-TASS quoted Chechnya's Labor Ministry as estimating unemployment at over 70 percent, or 308,000 people of a total workforce of 416,000.

Moscow is apparently ready to help make Alkhanov's vision a reality. The Russian government has agreed to one key request he has made: to place oil extraction in Chechnya wholly under the control of the Chechen government, which would thus be able to use all the profits from the export of that oil to fund local development. Kadyrov had repeatedly lobbied for that privilege, but without success, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" noted on 23 August. Alkhanov predicted that within three-four years it will prove possible to increase oil extraction from the current level of 2 million tons per year to 5 million tons, which would bring budget revenues of 3 billion rubles ($100 million). He also argued that part of that oil should be refined in Chechnya, and new refineries built for that purpose.

The Chechen government has also drafted a new development plan for Chechnya, together with Russia's Economic Development and Trade Ministry, Chechen Prime Minister Sergei Abramov said in Moscow on 2 August following a discussion of the situation in Chechnya with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Alkhanov told members of the Chechen diaspora in Moscow on 18 August that no less than 6 billion rubles annually will be allocated from the federal budget to implement that program. But at the same time he solicited investment in the Chechen economy from wealthy Chechen businessmen living elsewhere in Russia, and announced that if elected, he will invite Chechens from outside the republic to apply for jobs in the government.

But for all of Alkhanov's campaign pledges, one of the few opinion polls conducted in the run-up to the ballot suggests that he is unlikely to win the 50 percent of the vote required for a first-round victory. "Rossiiskie vesti" on 19 August summarized the findings of a poll of 630 Grozny residents conducted in early August, of whom only 38.7 percent said they plan to vote for Alkhanov. No other candidate enjoyed over 7 percent support, and 21.8 percent of those polled declined to reveal for whom they will vote. A poll conducted by the pro-Moscow Chechen Ministry for National Policy, Information, and Foreign Relations that rated support for Alkhanov at 53.5 percent cannot be considered 100 percent objective. It is, however, in line with the prediction made by former Chechen Deputy Prime Minister and rival candidate Abdulla Bugaev, who was quoted on 10 August by "Nezavisimaya gazeta" as saying that civil servants have admitted to him that the voting returns at individual polling stations will be tailored to show that Alkhanov received between 56 and 78 percent of the vote.

Moreover, the apparent endorsement of election candidate Vakha Visaev, a former aide to Kadyrov, by the slain leader's son Ramzan has triggered speculation about a split in the pro-Moscow Chechen leadership. Visaev's campaign posters, which according to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 20 August are displayed across the republic, shows him side by side with Ramzan Kadyrov against the background of a larger-than-life portrait of Akhmad-hadji Kadyrov. Ramzan Kadyrov, considered one of the most powerful and feared men in Chechnya on account of the armed guard numbering several thousand men which he commands, told Interfax on 19 August that there is no truth to rumors that he no longer supports Alkhanov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 August 2004). Other senior Chechen officials too, have denied any rift between Alkhanov and the younger Kadyrov.

Russian commentators have suggested that, given widespread popular hatred of Ramzan Kadyrov, few Chechens would cast their ballots for a candidate whom he apparently supports. But conversely, how many might do just that because their fear reprisals on the part of Ramzan's militia if they vote for Alkhanov? The poll cited above estimated voter support for Visaev in early August at just 1.5 percent.

A third possibility is that by backing Visaev, Ramzan Kadyrov is simply reminding Alkhanov that he remains a force to be reckoned with. In his campaign speeches, Alkhanov implicitly criticized the younger Kadyrov's private army. He announced specifically that he plans to stop abductions, which he termed one of the biggest problems facing the Chechen police, and which the so-called "Kadyrovtsy" reportedly engage in with impunity, Interfax reported on 18 August. Alkhanov further warned that "I am categorically against security and law enforcement agencies working in masks. A man serving the law and protecting his people should not cover his face." And on 26 August, Ruslan Alkhanov, who is deputizing for Alu Alkhanov as Interior Minister for the duration of the election campaign, said he has issued a warning that anyone appearing on the street wearing a mask is to be shot (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 August 2004). Those orders are clearly a threat not only to the Chechen resistance, but to those Kadyrovtsy who resort to masks when engaging in illegal activities. (Liz Fuller)

EIGHT CANDIDATES NOMINATED FOR ABKHAZ PRESIDENTIAL BALLOT. Eight nominations to contest the 3 October ballot to elect a successor to Abkhaz President Vladislav Ardzinba were accepted by the 23 August deadline, ITAR-TASS reported on 23 August quoting Sergei Smyr, chairman of the Abkhaz Central Election Commission (CEC). Ardzinba, who is reportedly seriously ill, is barred by the constitution from seeking a third term, but has appealed to voters to cast their ballots for Prime Minister Raul Khadjimba, whom he described as a worthy candidate capable of solving the serious problems the republic faces (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 August 2004).

The eight candidates whose nominations were accepted are Khadjimba; Chernomorenergo head and former Abkhaz Komsomol First Secretary Sergei Bagapsh; former Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba; former Prime Minister Anri Djergenia; former Interior Minister Aleksandr Ankvab; Vice President Valerii Arshba; People's Party chairman Yakub Lakoba; and businessman Anatolii Otirba. The CEC rejected the nomination of Zurab Samushia, leader of the White Legion Georgian guerrilla formation that for the past decade has targeted first Russian peacekeepers and then Abkhaz police in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion. Caucasus Press on 24 August quoted the daily "Akhali taoba" as reporting that Smyr dismissed Samushia's nomination as "a political joke." Smyr reportedly claimed that Samushia does not meet the requirements for presidential candidates, which include residence in the unrecognized republic over a period of five years prior to the ballot, and a fluent knowledge of the Abkhaz language. The independent Georgian television station Rustavi-2 on 23 August quoted Samushia as claiming he speaks Abkhaz fluently. And on 25 August Samushia told Caucasus Press that he and his men will do their best to prevent the elections taking place.

Caucasus Press on 23 August reported that Khadjimba, Bagapsh, Shamba, Arshba, and Lakoba have all successfully demonstrated their fluency in Abkhaz. Otirba has not yet done so, and Ankvab has reportedly declined to be tested, arguing that that requirement is unconstitutional. Ankvab is backed by the opposition movement Aitaira, which earlier criticized the ballot as unconstitutional on the grounds that there is no accurate data available on the number of eligible voters. Ankvab and Arshba have also criticized as unwarranted pressure on voters Ardzinba's public endorsement of Khadjimba's candidacy, Caucasus Press reported on 24 August. (Liz Fuller)

CONFLICT RESOLUTION IN SOUTH OSSETIA ON HOLD. Although fighting in South Ossetia has been effectively halted, the three parties to the conflict-- Georgia, the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, and Russia -- remain at odds over the next move. No date has yet been set for the planned meeting, agreed to in principle last week, between South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity and Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania. Moreover, the three sides differ over the optimum forum for discussing a political solution to the conflict.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili last week wrote to international leaders soliciting their support for an international conference on South Ossetia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 August 2004 and "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 20 August 2004). But South Ossetian officials have consistently argued that such a conference is superfluous and that all disputed issues can and should be discussed within the framework of the Joint Control Commission (JCC) set up in 1992 to monitor the situation in the conflict zone. Caucasus Press on 24 August quoted South Ossetian Foreign Minister Murad Djioev as arguing that the JCC has proven effective and there is no need for another forum. South Ossetia's representative in Moscow, Dmitrii Medoev, told Interfax on 18 August he considers it "absolutely unjustified," as "Moscow is playing the role of mediator quite effectively."

Russia, too, has rejected Saakashvili's proposal. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told journalists in Moscow on 18 August that there is no need to convene an international conference, Russian media reported. Lavrov explained that such conferences are generally held when there is either no mechanism for resolving a conflict, or the existing mechanism proves ineffective which, he continued, is not the case with South Ossetia. He advocated instead implementing the agreements, including those on a ceasefire, that have already been reached. Russia's ambassador to the OSCE, Aleksandr Borodavkin, likewise rejected the Georgian proposal as "untimely and counterproductive," ITAR-TASS reported.

Caucasus Press on 24 August quoted an unnamed source in Moscow as saying that Russian President Vladimir Putin plans to raise the South Ossetian conflict at the CIS summit to take place in Astana next month, and persuade Saakashvili to sign a formal peace agreement. Caucasus Press claimed Putin has already secured the support of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and his Armenian counterpart Robert Kocharian for that approach. Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma is reportedly slated to act as mediator between Putin in Saakashvili in the run-up to the CIS summit. Ukrainian officials have repeatedly called for a peaceful solution to the past month's standoff. On 19 August, ITAR-TASS quoted Ukrainian Prime Minister and presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych as affirming Kyiv's readiness to serve as a mediator in the conflict. (Liz Fuller)

POLL CONFIRMS STRONG PRO-RUSSIAN SENTIMENT IN ARMENIA. An opinion poll made public by a private Yerevan-based think tank on 6 August showed Russia topping the list of countries that are considered friendly by the majority of Armenians. Researchers from the Armenian Center for National and International Studies (ACNIS) said 89.2 percent of 2,000 people randomly polled by them across the country described Russia as a friendly country. They said France comes second in the rankings with almost three-quarters of the respondents thinking well of it.

According to the survey results, only 46.8 percent described the United States as Armenia's friend, while neighboring Iran received almost 50 percent support. They show that Georgia is perceived to be more neutral than friendly by Armenians.

The ACNIS pollsters said 77 percent of respondents stand for a deepening of Armenia's already close relations with Russia. Just over one-half and one-third of them would like stronger ties with the European Union and the United States respectively.

This contrasts sharply with the findings of a parallel survey of political and economic experts conducted by the ACNIS. The vast majority of them want closer links with the West rather than Russia. Only about one-fifth of the experts interviewed by the think tank support the continued presence of the Russian military base in Armenia. Forty percent said they would be happy to see both Russian and NATO bases stationed in Armenian territory.

Predictably, Armenia's two other neighbors, Azerbaijan and Turkey, were overwhelmingly identified as "enemies," with 91 percent and 78 percent of the random respondents subscribing to that view respectively. About half of them considered the threat of a new war with Azerbaijan to be the main challenge to Armenia's national security.

The poll also suggests that less than half of ordinary Armenians explicitly support the reopening of their country's border with Turkey, according to the ACNIS survey. About as many of them believe that a full reconciliation between the two peoples is impossible without Turkish recognition of the 1915 genocide of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. Furthermore, 56.3 percent said the Turks are capable of committing another genocide and should not be trusted. (Armen Zakarian)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "If the so-called frozen conflicts of the Black Sea region are ever thawed out, somebody will need to be standing by with a very large bucket indeed." -- "The Economist," 20 August.

"A 'frozen' conflict is worse for us than a real conflict because it is like a Damocles' sword that is hanging over us and could fall at any time." -- Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava, quoted by Reuters on 24 August.