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Caucasus Report: June 13, 2003

13 June 2003, Volume 6, Number 22

ALL SYSTEMS GO. Since the beginning of this month, Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov has sacked the government and all local administration heads, paving the way for establishing the new executive power structures and the State Council that is intended to function as an interim legislature pending elections to a new two-chamber parliament. On 5 June, the Russian government approved amendments to the federal budget allocating some 14.3 billion rubles ($467.3 million) to be paid in compensation to citizens of Chechnya whose homes have been destroyed in fighting over the past nine years. And on 6 June, the Russian State Duma passed in the third and final reading the amnesty bill which the Russian leadership apparently believes will break the back of popular support for the Chechen resistance.

At the same time, Kadyrov himself and Russian presidential commissioner for human rights in Chechnya Abdul-Khakim Sultygov have both come out in favor of holding presidential elections in Chechnya in October 2003 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 May 2003). The earliest permissible date for such elections is six months after the adoption of the new constitution, which was approved in a referendum on 23 March, the validity of which the Chechen resistance and some independent observers have questioned. Both prior to and immediately after the March referendum, Kadyrov had advocated holding presidential elections in Chechnya either simultaneously with the December elections to the Russian State Duma or in March 2004. But "Kommersant-Daily" on 3 June quoted Akhmar Zavgaev, Chechnya's representative to the Federation Council, as saying that the Chechen presidential poll will not be held simultaneously with the State Duma elections, and that the anticipated new power-sharing treaty between Chechnya and the federal center will be signed by 10 December. The new Chechen president will sign that treaty for the Chechen side.

Some Russian commentators have construed Kadyrov's move to restructure the cabinet and establish the State Council as a reflection of the Kremlin's endorsement of him as the most suitable presidential candidate. Certainly the cabinet reshuffle has strengthened Kadyrov's hand: "Nezavisimaya gazeta" noted on 10 June that Media Minister Beslan Gantemirov, who last December boasted that his control of the Chechen media would enable him to determine the outcome if the presidential election campaign (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 13 March 2003), has been reappointed to his post but stripped of that of deputy prime minister.

The payment at this juncture of compensation to those Chechens whose homes have been destroyed may also, some observers suggest, be intended to predispose voters in Kadyrov's favor. But "Vedomosti" on 5 June quoted Aslanbek Aslakhanov, Chechnya's deputy to the State Duma, as pointing out that lower-level officials regularly demand a cut of between 25 percent and 50 percent for processing claims for compensation. (Perhaps Kadyrov's rationale for appointing new raion administration heads was to select people whom he could count on not to do so.)

Assuming that, at least for the moment, the Kremlin regards Kadyrov as the most appropriate presidential candidate, it is not clear what the basis for that endorsement is. Has Kadyrov indeed become the tail that wags the Kremlin dog? (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 10 February 2003). Or is Russian President Vladimir Putin, who reportedly supports Kadyrov (as does presidential envoy to the South Russia Federal District Viktor Kazantsev) not aware of the more alarming rumors surrounding the activities of Kadyrov and his entourage, including the reports of concentration camps (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 September 2002)? Or is the Kremlin hedging its bets, as Sanobar Shermatova suggested in a commentary run by on 1 April? Shermatova quotes unnamed observers as believing that the Kremlin has a "reserve" presidential candidate who will be produced in the event that Kadyrov fails to meet expectations. (One possible such candidate is Chechen Security Council Secretary Rudnik Dudaev, who is a former KGB colonel who served most recently as head of the CIS Council on Relations with Muslims Abroad.)

If that is indeed the case, then much may depend on the success of the amnesty declared on 6 June. Kadyrov told Interfax on 9 June his government is drafting a rehabilitation program for those Chechen fighters who take advantage of the amnesty and lay down their arms. He said that despite the shortage of jobs, employment will be found for such young men, or, if they prefer, they will be offered the opportunity to complete their education. But at the same time, Kadyrov's newly appointed Interior Minister Ali Alkhanov told ITAR-TASS on 10 June that the police force "will keep a close watch" on former fighters, just as they did in the case of those who surrendered voluntarily in 1999. (According to Aslakhanov, most of those earlier amnesty beneficiaries either subsequently disappeared in Russian mop-up operations or were killed by fellow Chechens.)

To date, only a few dozen fighters have accepted the offer of amnesty, which does not extend to Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov and several other prominent field commanders. Maskhadov recently warned that the Chechen resistance will intensify its strikes against Russian forces during the summer months (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 June 2003). In an interview carried by Daymohk on 9 June, field commander Shamil Basaev similarly affirmed that "we are planning to liberate our homeland from occupying forces," adding that every year since 2000, the Chechen resistance has made plans for a large-scale offensive to retake Grozny as it did in 1996, but that every time the operation was thwarted by a leak of information. (Liz Fuller)

THE UNOMIG ABDUCTIONS RIDDLE. To judge by published reports, the abduction on 5 June of three members of the UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) and their Georgian interpreter was a carbon copy of three previous such incidents, in October 1999 and June and December 2000 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 and 18 October 1999, 2, 5, and 6 June 2000, and 13 and 14 December 2000). In all four cases, the unknown kidnappers seized UN personnel (and on one occasion also two employees of the British HALO Trust engaged in mine clearing) in the upper, Georgian-controlled section of the Kodori Gorge, held them captive for several days during which they demanded a ransom, but then released their hostages in exchange only for free passage. No one has ever been apprehended -- let alone brought to trial -- for any such abduction.

Given that the modus operandi is invariably the same, it is logical to infer that all four abductions were planned, if not executed, by the same group of persons. The question thus arises: by whom, and for what purpose?

Georgian Intelligence Service head Lieutenant General Avtandil Ioseliani, who chaired the Abkhaz KGB prior to the 1992-93 war and is personally acquainted with his counterparts within the government of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia, told Caucasus Press on 11 June that the most recent abduction was the work of "local criminals" acting at the behest of unnamed Georgians. If Ioseliani's identification is correct, then it seems logical to identify the Georgians in question as among those who seek to discredit the Abkhaz, and/or to prevent the planned repatriation to Abkhazia of those Georgian families forced to flee during the 1992-93 war because their presence would render impossible the punitive military operations some Georgian exiles hope to launch to extirpate the present Abkhaz leadership and bring the breakaway region back under Georgian control. An initial protocol on the return of fugitives to seven villages in southern Abkhazia was to have been signed on 5 June -- the day the observers were abducted.

A further possible Georgian motive might be to discredit the Russian peacekeeping force deployed in the Abkhaz conflict zone. The four Russian peacekeepers who were accompanying the UN observers on 5 June surrendered their weapons when asked to do so by the kidnappers, whose number has variously been given as eight or 30. On 6 June, Georgian Defense Minister Lieutenant General David Tevzadze and Minister for Special Assignments Malkhaz Kakabadze (who is the Georgian government's point man for Abkhazia) both accused the Russian peacekeepers of failing to fulfill their duty to protect the observers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 June 2003).

By contrast, the Abkhaz have no interest in creating a pretext for Georgia to increase its military presence in Kodori, as was done immediately after last week's abduction was announced. On the contrary: the Abkhaz have for the past 18 months been demanding that Georgian troops sent to Kodori at the time of the incursion by Chechen field commander Ruslan Gelaev in October 2001 be withdrawn. Kodori Governor Emzar Kvitsiani told Caucasus Press on 11 June that the additional Georgian troops sent to the gorge have already been withdrawn. But the Georgian leadership has reportedly requested permission to station a "small group" of troops in the gorge permanently.

There exists a third hypothetical possibility, cited on 11 June by Georgian National Security Council Secretary Tedo Djaparidze, who said the "criminals" responsible for the most recent abduction may have been acting on orders from a third party, by which he clearly meant Russia. The route the observers planned to follow on their joint patrol with members of the Russian peacekeeping force deployed in the Abkhaz conflict zone was known only to UNOMIG, the Georgian authorities, and the commanders of the Russian peacekeeping force, according to Caucasus Press on 6 June. But if Moscow was behind the most recent abduction, and the same individuals planned all four abductions, the Russian players in question would have to be a group that has retained its connections and leverages since before Sergei Ivanov became defense minister in March 2001. Vladimir Putin was named Russian premier in August 1999. (Liz Fuller)

ARMENIAN-TURKISH COMMISSION CONTINUES TO PUSH FOR RAPPROCHEMENT. The controversial Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC) held what some of its members say was a "very positive" meeting in Istanbul late last week amid some indications that the Turkish government is considering lifting its decade-long economic blockade of Armenia.

According to Armenian members of the U.S.-sponsored panel of retired government officials, political experts, and scholars, the TARC reaffirmed its support for the reopening of the Turkish-Armenian border.

"The TARC wants the border to be open," one of them, Van Krikorian, told RFE/RL last weekend (7-8 June). "And we want to continue to increase various-level contacts between the two countries."

The low-key meeting came just two days after talks in Spain between the Armenian and Turkish foreign ministers -- the first high-level contact between official Yerevan and the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. A statement by the Armenian Foreign Ministry said Vartan Oskanian and Turkey's Abdullah Gul agreed that improved bilateral ties "will reflect positively on the establishment of stability and security in the region." But it did not specify whether Ankara remains adamant in linking their normalization to the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh.

One well-placed Armenian source told RFE/RL that Ankara is facing growing domestic calls and U.S. pressure to open the border and might eventually agree to do that without establishing diplomatic relations with Yerevan. "They now treat the two as separate issues," the source claimed.

A senior Turkish member of the private Turkish-Armenian Business Council, Noyan Soyak, was quoted in the Armenian media as saying that the border, sealed at the height of the Karabakh war in 1993, could soon be reopened for travel and commerce.

Krikorian, for his part, said that prospects for a Turkish-Armenian rapprochement have brightened in recent months. "We really see opportunities to normalize the relations," he said. "Mutual understanding between the two countries is developing."

Another Armenian member of the TARC, retired diplomat David Hovannisian, agreed, saying that the existing situation bodes well for the resumption of cross-border commerce. "The TARC was very happy that the foreign ministers met," he said. Neither man would reveal if the 10-member commission had any role in the holding of the Gul-Oskanian meeting. The TARC was apparently involved in arranging such contacts in the past.

Improving the historically strained Turkish-Armenian relations is a major goal of U.S. policy on the region. A recent report by the U.S. State Department said Washington "continues to press the government of Turkey at every appropriate opportunity" to lift the blockade. It said Secretary of State Colin Powell raised the issue during a visit to Ankara in April.

The TARC's creation two years ago was seen as part of the broader U.S. effort to promote Turkish-Armenian dialogue. The panel chaired by David Phillips, a U.S. scholar and State Department adviser, is treated with suspicion in Armenia and its diaspora where some political groups claim that the initiative is used by the Turks to scuttle international recognition of the 1915 Armenian genocide.

The genocide issue has been discussed by the commission, prompting serious disagreements between its four Armenian and six Turkish members. Those led to a one-year suspension of its activities in late 2001. The two sides overcame the deadlock after jointly requesting an independent analysis of the massacres (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 13 December 2001 and 17 January and 12 April 2002). The study, conducted by the New York-based International Center for Transitional Justice this January, concluded that the mass killings and deportations of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire constitute a genocide.

It was the second TARC meeting held this year. Krikorian revealed that it followed the resignation of three of its Turkish members: former top diplomats Gunduz Aktan and Ozdem Sanberk as well as Sadi Ergudenc, a retired army general. They were replaced by two senior scholars, Sule Kut of Bilgi University and Ahmet Evin of Sabanci University in Istanbul. The Turkish side did not officially announce any motive for the reshuffle.

Krikorian also said that the TARC's activities will now be coordinated by two U.S. facilitators, Phillips and Joseph Montville. A former diplomat, Montville runs a program on preventive diplomacy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a leading Washington-based think tank. He is also known as the author of the concept of "track-two diplomacy," which attaches great importance to direct contacts between civil society representatives in the resolution of interstate disputes.

As part of its work, the TARC has indirectly promoted meetings and joint projects between Turkish and Armenian politicians, public figures, journalists, and nongovernmental organizations. The contacts appear to have been financed, at least partly, by the U.S. government.

In Krikorian's words, the TARC members agreed in Istanbul to "intensify track-two efforts at normalizing the Turkish-Armenian relations." (Emil Danielyan)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "In recent years, Russia has betrayed all of its allies: Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Now it is Iran's turn and it is possible that the same will happen to us." -- Armenian private television station owner Tigran Karapetian, quoted by "Haykakan Zhamanak" on 11 June.

"Parliament sessions will be so exciting that you will give up watching soap operas. And pretty soon we will have preterm presidential and parliamentary elections." -- Former Armenian Prime Minister and opposition Hanrapetutiun party leader Aram Sargsian, quoted by RFE/RL's Armenian Service on 6 June.