5 November 2004, Volume 7, Number 42
ABKHAZ PRESIDENTIAL CHALLENGER PINS HOPES ON POPULAR TRADITION. Former Abkhaz Prime Minister Raul Khadjimba and Chernomorenergo head Sergei Bagapsh flew back to Sukhum from Moscow on separate flights on 3 November after talks the previous day with senior Russian officials aimed at finding a solution to the legal impasse over the outcome of the 3 October presidential ballot, Georgian and Russian media reported.
On 11 October, the Central Election Commission (CEC) declared Bagapsh the winner of the ballot with 50.08 percent of the vote and, on 28 October, the Supreme Court upheld that decision. But less than 24 hours later, under pressure from Khadjimba and his supporters, the Supreme Court reversed that decision and declared the poll invalid.
Bagapsh told his supporters in Sukhum on 3 November that he and Khadjimba met in Moscow with Russian Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov and with Federal Security Service head Nikolai Patrushev, Caucasus Press reported. Bagapsh said the Russian side proposed holding a repeat presidential ballot, as called for by outgoing President Vladislav Ardzinba, but that he considers that option unacceptable in light of the 11 October CEC statement that he won the ballot. Interfax quoted Bagapsh as saying that "someone" threatened a blockade of the Russian-Abkhaz border if the proposal to hold a new ballot was rejected, but that he was not intimidated by that threat. (After all, having granted Russian citizenship to all those inhabitants of Abkhazia who requested it, it would not look good if Moscow imposed a blockade on the unrecognized republic and doomed those Russian citizens to serious economic hardship.) Bagash said that he is in excellent spirits, and hopes to reach a consensus with Khadjimba by means of dialogue.
Speaking to journalists in Sukhum on 4 November, Bagapsh again affirmed that he intends to assume the powers of president on 7 December, Caucasus Press reported. He suggested two possible ways to resolve the standoff between himself and Khadjimba, both of which reflect the traditional Abkhaz approach to "people's power." The first alternative is to have parliament rule on the election outcome. Insofar as most of the 35 legislators support Bagapsh, they would almost certainly uphold the CEC ruling that he is the legal president-elect. That course of action would also be in line with the parliament's unofficial role as a mediator between the population and the executive. As parliament speaker Nugzar Ashuba explained in an interview published in the Russian "Parlamentskaya gazeta" on 18 August, even though Abkhazia is a presidential republic, "when disapproval with the executive branch arises, the people come to us for support. We constitute a sort of buffer between the population and the president."
The second alternative Bagapsh proposed is to convene a national assembly of the Abkhaz people -- which he attempted to do in Sukhum on 14 October. On that occasion, however, only a few thousand people rallied in his support (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 October 2004). Historically such assemblies took place at times of great crisis at the sacred grove at Lykhny; it was there that tens of thousands of Abkhaz gathered in 1978 to protest what they termed oppression and discrimination at the hands of the Georgian authorities. The Soviet leadership responded with a major economic development program for the then Abkhaz ASSR. Eleven years later, in March 1989, some 30,000 Abkhaz again assembled in Lykhny to adopt a declaration calling for the Abkhaz ASSR to secede from the Georgian SSR and be granted again the status of a union republic, which it had enjoyed until 1931. Whether Bagapsh can mobilize comparable support remains to be seen. (Liz Fuller)
CHECHEN WARLORD WARNS OF NEW TERRORIST ATTACKS. Since masterminding the hostage-taking in the south Russian town of Budennovsk in the summer of 1995, radical Chechen field commander Shamil Basaev has claimed responsibility for a series of terrorist acts that have claimed hundreds of Russian lives. His ill-fated incursion into Daghestan in August 1999 in the wake of an unsuccessful attempt to sideline Chechen President Aslan Maskahdov served as the rationale for the Russian leadership to launch its second war against Chechnya in October of that year under the pretext of combating terrorism.
Yet although Basaev is routinely reviled by leading Russian politicians and has been designated an international terrorist by the U.S., the Russian military have for five years failed to apprehend him, despite offering a reward of 300 million (over $10 million) for information leading to his capture (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 September 2004). Basaev's seeming immunity has fuelled speculation in the Russian press that he may be acting at the behest of, and/or enjoy the protection of, the Federal Security Service.
On 31 October, chechenpress.info posted extensive replies by Basaev to questions submitted in mid-September by a Canadian journalist employed by the "Toronto Globe and Mail." When the paper subsequently requested proof of the authenticity of Basaev's responses, Basaev's website (http://www.kavkaz-center.com) said that if the paper failed to publish the interview within three days, it would forfeit the exclusive rights to it. The website then posted the entire text of the interview, which runs to some 7,500 words (The English version is available at http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/ArticleNews/TPStory/LAC/20041102/CHECHEN02/TPInternational/?query=basayev).
Basaev fielded questions on a range of issues, from the Beslan school hostage taking in early September and what he considers the international community's unpardonable complicity in war crimes committed by Russian forces in Chechnya, to episodes from his military activities over the past decade, including an ill-fated visit to Pakistan in the hope of learning from the experience of former Afghan mujahedin in shooting down Russian helicopters and ambushing Russian troops.
Basaev professed to have been "shaken" by Moscow's response to the seizure by Basaev's men of the roughly thousand hostages in Beslan in September, as he did not anticipate that Russian President Vladimir Putin would sacrifice the lives of children -- especially Ossetian children, given that Ossetia has always been a Russian ally in the North Caucasus. Basaev implied that he anticipated that Moscow would comply with the hostage-takers' demand for the withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya. "I thought I was doing the Russians a favor by showing them the way out of a blind alley," Basaev explained.
Basaev said that he regrets that "so many children died at the hands of the Russians" in Beslan, but that he does not regret the seizure of the school. Basaev then warned that as long as Russia continues to violate the Geneva Conventions, his fighters will do likewise. "It is the enemy who sets the limits to our actions, and we are free to resort to the methods and actions that the enemy first employed against us," including the use of chemical and biological weapons, Basaev argued. "We are ready, and want to wage war according to international law, it is even to our advantage to do so in terms of protecting the civilian population. But unlike President Maskhadov, we do not want to be the only side to espouse those tactics." Basaev further warned that his men may resort to terrorism against the citizens of states whose leaders support Putin's Chechen policy. (In footage screened by Al-Jazeera television in early July, however, Basaev said his men were not planning any attacks outside Russia.) Basaev said that if Putin had responded to his January appeal to abide by the Geneva Conventions, or if the international community had pressured Putin to make such a statement, then he would not have resorted either to the Beslan hostage taking or the Moscow metro bombing and the destruction of two Russian passenger aircraft in August.
Basaev said that he met in late July with Maskhadov, who has repeatedly insisted that the fighters under his command strictly observe the Geneva Conventions and refrain from targeting civilians, and tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to persuade Maskhadov to switch tactics. He added that he hopes that Maskhadov may now do so after Russian intelligence rounded up 50 of his relatives in retaliation for Maskhadov's imputed complicity in the Beslan hostage taking.
Basaev responded in some detail to his interviewer's observation that in video footage of the 21-22 June raid on Interior Ministry facilities in Ingushetia Basaev appeared healthy and had no apparent problems in moving freely despite having had one leg amputated in the aftermath of the Chechen retreat from Grozny in February 2000. Basaev boasted that in contrast to the months following that retreat, when he admitted having wept at his own weakness, he has fully recovered from his wounds, and is now capable of walking up to 50 kilometers a night. He said he treats his wounds with pure honey, which he said is also efficacious in cases of poisoning together with a caraway concoction (he claimed that he has survived eight attempts to poison him over the past five years), while he doses himself with tetracycline hydrochloride together with the medication "Doctor Mom" for chills and flu. He said he never resorts to painkillers as "thanks be to Allah, I have a very high pain threshold."
Basaev denied that he personally receives much financial support from abroad, explaining that after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S. "people are afraid" to give him donations and he is reluctant to ask for money. But he said other field commanders have their own sources of foreign funding, and that his men regularly seize funds destined for the pro-Moscow Chechen government. He repeated his earlier denials of any links with Osama bin Laden and also denied that his men include numerous foreign mercenaries. He claimed that "in my database I have extensive lists of people from all over the world who want to participate in the jihad in Chechnya, tens and hundreds of thousands of them, and not all Muslims." But, Basaev continued, he automatically rejects all such offers as "we have quite enough volunteers in Chechnya." He did not, however, shed any light on the claim by one young participant in the June raids in Ingushetia that hundreds of young Ingush, alienated by corruption and the routine kidnapping of young men by the FSB in Ingushetia, are flocking to fight under his banner.
Basaev praised the professionalism of his fighters, saying that they "are self-sufficient, fight independently [one detachment of another], every man in his place, you do not need to teach them anything." He said that he issues orders in writing, and does not need to confer personally with lower-level commanders more than once or twice a year. (In March 2003, Russian media quoted what were said to be excerpts from intercepted letters from Basaev to field commanders subordinate to him. Basaev personally convened a council of war on the eve of the raids on Ingushetia, according to kavkaz-center.com on 18 June.) He even claimed that he spent only two weeks in Chechnya during the whole of last year, but did not say where he spent the rest of the time.
Basaev categorically denied that his men have used Georgia's Pankisi Gorge as a base, explaining that "there are better conditions to relax in Chechnya than in impoverished Georgia, and if you need medical treatment it's better and cheaper in Russia."
Asked how he has managed to evade capture by the Russians for so long, Basaev explained that he has 20 secret hideaways in Chechnya, each furnished with enough provisions and supplies to last 20 men for two weeks. But the most important factor, he claimed, is the strong support he enjoys from the population of Chechnya and other North Caucasus republics. He claimed that last year when he was badly wounded a police colonel in Kabardino-Balkaria, "who was not even a practicing Muslim," sheltered him for one week. All Russian Muslims, Basaev added, have an obligation to acknowledge his leadership or that of Maskhadov and contribute materially to the jihad. But pro-Moscow Chechen State Council Chairman Taus Dzhabrailov rejected outright Basaev's claim to enjoy the support of the Chechen population. "I cannot speak on behalf of the population of other North Caucasus republics, but I can say on behalf of the Chechens: nobody will help Basaev because he is a bandit, criminal, and murderer and endangers the lives of innocent people," "Kommersant-Daily" quoted Dzhabrailov as saying on 1 November. Dzhabrailov declined, however, to comment on Basaev's other claims, saying only "today anything is possible. I can neither acknowledge or refute the information contained in this interview." (Liz Fuller)
TENSIONS PERSIST IN ADJARA SIX MONTHS AFTER LEADER'S OUSTER. Six months after authoritarian Adjaran Supreme Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze yielded to mass popular protests and fled Batumi for Moscow (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 11 May 2004), the situation in the Adjar Autonomous Republic remains uneasy.
While several prominent Abashidze supporters have been arrested on charges of corruption and some have had property valued at millions of dollars confiscated (as has Abashidze himself), other "holdovers" reportedly still occupy key positions, especially in law enforcement and security, the Georgian weekly "Kviris palitra" reported on 6 September. Many lower level police officers have been fired, however, and some 100 of them staged protests in Batumi in late July to demand that they either be reinstated or offered employment with the Interior Ministry elsewhere in Georgia. The dismissed officers alleged that men "picked up off the street," but who are known to be loyal to the new leadership, were recruited to replace them. Whether there is any truth to those allegations is debatable: but on 26 July Caucasus Press quoted then Georgian Interior Minister Irakli Okruashvili as telling journalists that the crime situation in Adjara was deteriorating.
Okruashvili threatened to fire Adjaran Interior Minister David Glonti if that trend was not reversed. Okruashvili further disclosed that residents of Adjara had accused the police of planting drugs or weapons on suspects during their arrest.
Moreover, the Adjar population has shown itself less than impressed by some of the top officials appointed by the central Georgian leadership in the wake of Abashidze's ouster. On 29 October, the Georgian youth movement Kmara (Enough!) called on Prime Minister Levan Varshalomidze to fire Health and Social Security Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Koba Khabazi, rustavi2.com reported. Kmara accused Khabazi, a former leader of the Tbilisi-based opposition to Abashidze, of having accomplished nothing since his appointment as deputy prime minister in July.
Varshalomidze too has been subjected to criticism: a Batumi-based member of Georgia's Labor Party compiled a list last month of 12 relatives of Varshalomidze, including a brother and two cousins, who he claimed have been named to senior government posts, Caucasus Press reported on 20 October. At a press conference the following day, Khabazi rejected the Labor Party's inference that the Varshalomidze clan has supplanted the Abashidze clan. Khabazi claimed that Varshalomidze is simply a common surname in Adjara, and not all the appointees listed by Labor are, in fact, related to the prime minister. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, too, jumped to Varshalomidze's defense, affirming that he is completely satisfied with Varshalomidze's performance to date, Caucasus Press reported on 21 October.
Even if allegations of the emergence of a "Varshalomidze clan" are exaggerated, it cannot be denied that most senior positions in Adjara are now occupied by supporters of President Saakashvili's National Movement. By contrast, the opposition movement Our Adjara -- formed late last year in Tbilisi and which spearheaded the campaign for Abashidze's ouster -- has been effectively sidelined. One of its leaders, Tamaz Diasamidze, was one of four members who in late May quit the Interim Council (established by Saakashvili to administer the region pending new parliamentary elections on 20 June) to protest proposed amendments to the republic's constitution. Our Adjara announced in mid-May that it was suspending its activities, having achieved its main objective of forcing Abashidze out of office (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 May 2004). But in late September, the group reemerged under a new name, Our Adjara Headed for the Future, Caucasus Press reported on 27 September. Diasamidze told journalists that his organization will monitor personnel appointments and financial processes in the republic.
The media, too, are chafing under the new post-Abashidze leadership. Seventy staff, including 10 journalists, have been fired from Adjar State television, Caucasus Press reported on 1 November. Participants in a protest rally in Batumi complained that the restrictions on free speech that were a hallmark of the Abashidze era are still in place.
On 15 October, a powerful explosion was reported near a hotel in central Batumi, but no one was injured. Georgian media attributed the blast to Abashidze supporters seeking to destabilize the situation. (Liz Fuller)