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Caucasus Report: March 21, 2002

21 March 2002, Volume 5, Number 11

The next issue of "RFE/RL Caucasus Report" will appear on 4 April.

CAPTURE OF GUERRILLAS TRIGGERS NEW CRISIS IN GEORGIAN-RUSSIAN RELATIONS. Although much still remains unclear concerning the circumstances of the most recent standoff in the Abkhaz conflict zone, it has served to heighten the new tensions in Russian-Georgian relations engendered by Tbilisi's soliciting of U.S. assistance to combat alleged Islamist militants in the Pankisi Gorge.

The crisis was precipitated when members of the Russian peacekeeping force deployed under the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) aegis in the Abkhaz conflict zone apprehended two of a group of Georgian guerrillas who attacked a Russian patrol on 14 March. The Russian commander then turned the two captives over to the Abkhaz authorities (whether on his own initiative or after consulting with the Russian Defense Ministry is not clear). Under the Abkhaz Constitution, the two men could have been sentenced to death for "terrorism."

Then on 19 March, unidentified men seized four Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion and made off with them toward the border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia. Abkhaz security officials identified the abductors as Georgian guerrillas, but spokesmen for the Georgian guerrilla organizations denied this. (They had earlier admitted to the 14 March attack.) The abductors were later identified as relatives of the two men turned over to Sukhum. The Russian Defense Ministry promptly condemned the abduction and ordered all roads leading from Abkhazia to the internal border with the rest of Georgia to be blocked.

Following intensive consultations (between whom is not clear, although both the commander of the Russian peacekeeping force and the UN Observer Mission were kept informed of developments), on 19 March the commander of the Russian peacekeeping force formally asked the Abkhaz authorities to release the two captured guerrillas. That request was referred to Abkhaz Prime Minister Anri Djergenia, who agreed to it. The two men were transported that evening to the west Georgian town of Zugdidi, after which the four Russian peacekeepers were released.

Whether or not it was orchestrated with the express intention of doing so, the hostage-taking galvanized a Georgian parliamentary debate that got underway on 14 March with reports on the situation by the foreign and defense ministers and the minister for special assignments. But deputies failed on both 14 and 15 March to propose any approaches to resolving the conflict, according to former Minister of State Vazha Lortkipanidze. Opposition "Revival" faction leader Djemal Gogotidze described the 14 March session as "a comedy show" at which Georgian ministers sought to persuade deputies that "everything is just fine," while the militant chairman of the Abkhaz Council of Ministers in exile, Tamaz Nadareishvili, walked out in disgust. (On 21 March, "Vremya novostei" quoted Nadareishvili as saying that the Council of Ministers in exile could mobilize up to 20,000 reservists to fight in a new war to restore Georgian hegemony over Abkhazia.)

When the debate resumed on 20 March, however, the 148 deputies present voted unanimously for a toughly worded resolution criticizing both the Russian peacekeepers and the Abkhaz authorities, and soliciting support from the international community. The preamble accused the Russian peacekeeping force deployed in the Abkhaz conflict zone under the CIS aegis of failing to fulfill its mandate and of functioning instead as "frontier guards" between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia; claimed Abkhazia has become "a haven for international terrorists" and a base for drugs and arms trafficking; and accused the Abkhaz leadership of refusing to cooperate with the UN and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

The resolution repeats the parliament's demand of 11 October that the Russian peacekeepers be withdrawn; that those persons guilty of the "genocide" of the Georgian population of Abkhazia be brought to justice; and that the international community inspect the Russian military base at Gudauta to determine whether Russia has complied with its commitments to withdraw weaponry from there and condemn Russia's waiving for residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia of the visa requirement that applies to all other Georgian citizens.

At the same time, it calls on the parliament's Provisional Committee to draft a resolution by 30 June on how to resolve the Abkhaz conflict; calls on the Georgian president and government to assess compliance with previously signed decrees and agreements on Abkhazia; and affirms that, "Georgia will not resort to military force as long as the possibility of a peaceful solution of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict exists." It is not clear whether that latter point was included in order to reassure the international community, or in response to an Abkhaz Foreign Ministry statement of 12 March expressing concern that the Georgian leadership may adduce unconfirmed reports that Al-Qaeda guerrillas have taken refuge in Kodori as the pretext for launching a new attack on Abkhazia with the aid of U.S. antiterrorist forces (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 March 2002).

On 21 March, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement accusing Georgia of "duplicity" in affirming its support for the war against international terrorism while at the same time abetting the Chechen militants led by Ruslan Gelaev who shot down a UN helicopter over Abkhazia's Kodori Gorge in October and arming and financing over a period of several years the Georgian guerrilla formations behind the 18 March abduction of Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia. The statement noted that the UN has repeatedly called for the disarming and disbanding of those guerrilla formations. Echoing the Abkhaz statement issued one week earlier, the Russian Foreign Ministry charged that, "Georgia has clearly adopted the policy of preparing the domestic and international public for new attempts to solve the Abkhaz problem by force...under the guise of unfounded official claims about the presence of international and Arab terrorists in Abkhazia."

Dieter Boden, who is UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special envoy for the Abkhaz conflict, expressed concern on 21 March at the increasingly belligerent rhetoric emanating from both Moscow and Tbilisi. He called for efforts to create an atmosphere conducive to a discussion of the UN draft document on the division of powers within a unified Georgian state between Tbilisi and Sukhum. Abkhazia, however, has rejected that draft out of hand and made a resumption of talks on confidence-building measures contingent on the withdrawal from the Kodori Gorge of the Georgian troops sent their last year. (Liz Fuller)

COULD THE AZERBAIJAN POPULAR FRONT REUNITE? Over the past six weeks, the two rival wings of the divided Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP) have both issued statements proposing that they reunite. The oldest, and one of the most influential, opposition parties in Azerbaijan, the AHCP split acrimoniously in the late summer of 2000, shortly after the death of its chairman, Abulfaz Elchibey, and during the runup to the November parliamentary elections (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, No. 34, 24 August 2000). The Azerbaijani authorities subsequently recognized the "reformist wing" led by Ali Kerimli, which decided to participate in the new parliament, while withholding registration as a separate political party from the "conservative" wing headed by Mirmahmoud Fattaev, who declared his intention to boycott the new legislature because of the gross procedural violations and falsifications that accompanied the voting (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, No. 44, 10 November 2000).

The split in the AHCP in turn caused a split in the opposition Democratic Congress, an umbrella organization of 10 political parties. And the two AHCP wings now belong to rival opposition alignments: the "reformists" with the Azerbaijan National Independence Party (AMIP) and the smaller Taraggi party (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 40, 6 December 2001), and the "conservatives" with the Musavat Party, the Azerbaijan Democratic Party and others in the United Opposition Movement (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 January 2002).

But despite the mutual desire to realign, the prospects for a merger appear remote. Kerimli was quoted by the independent daily "Ayna/Zerkalo" on 2 March as explaining that the statement approving reunification "was of a general nature" and that the issue must be discussed at the party's grassroots organizations. The grassroots do not, however, seem to object to that prospect. A poll of AHCP members, the results of which were released at a press conference in Baku in early February, revealed that 84 percent of those questioned consider such a reunification possible, and 78 percent regard it as "imperative."

But at the same time, there are indications that a majority may not consider Ali Kerimli the ideal AHCP chairman. He was identified by 41 percent of those questioned as the individual responsible for the split in the AHCP, while only 24 percent laid the blame on Fattaev. The most popular figure, and the man perceived as most suited to lead a reunified party, was Gudrat Gasankuliev, who is one of the opposition's representatives on the Central Electoral Commission. Gasankuliev is said, however, to have used that post to promote his own political career rather than to defend the interests of opposition parties in the face of harassment from the authorities.

Moreover, both wings of the AHCP are plagued by internal dissent. At a five-hour closed session of the "reformist" wing on 10 February, Kerimli faced, but deflected, a challenge to his leadership from Gasankuliev, some of whose supporters have accused Kerimli of authoritarian, even Stalinist methods in his handling of party affairs.

In addition, some observers in Baku suspect both Kerimli and AMIP Chairman Etibar Mamedov of having forged a secret alliance with the existing authorities. Newspaper reports that Kerimli is in line for the post of parliament speaker have fueled such speculation.

Fattaev, too, has faced dissent within his faction's ranks, most notably from Ulvi Hakimov, who resigned several months ago as one of the "conservative" faction's deputy chairmen. "Zerkalo" on 7 March quoted Hakimov as saying, "the Azerbaijan Popular Front has only one problem, and that is Mirmahmoud [Fattaev]." (It is a measure of Fattaev's political acumen that he was still denying that Elchibey suffered from cancer the day before the latter's death of that disease.) In early March, Fattaev dismissed all his remaining deputies bar one because of their undisguised support for the reunification of the two factions. Fattaev had earlier yielded to pressure to agree to Musavat Chairman Isa Gambar retaining the chairmanship of their wing of the Democratic Congress for a further year, even though Gambar was supposed to hand over to Fattaev in January 2002.

In addition, the Azerbaijani authorities appear to be trying to capitalize on the rivalry between the two AHCP wings by sponsoring a third organization which claims to be the revitalized AHCP youth organization Yurd. That organization, which functioned from 1987-95, concentrated its activities primarily on the conservation of historic monuments. But in a statement released in early February, an anonymous committee to resurrect Yurd appealed to its former members to realign in order to form an effective opposition to the present Azerbaijani leadership, which, it claimed, cannot resolve the country's problems. Some observers have suggested that Gasankuliev was behind the initiative to revive Yurd, but he has denied those accusations, affirming that, on the contrary, he supports the reunification of the two AHCP wings.

On 8 February, "Zerkalo" quoted Kerimli as dismissing the initiative to resurrect Yurd. He pointed out that most of its former members are now among the leaders of the AHCP, and he predicted that if a new Yurd did emerge, it would prove to be as lacking in political influence as the rival AHCP wing. But just one month later, in early March, Kerimli described the resurgent Yurd as a Trojan horse created by the Azerbaijani authorities and warned that "all those who sincerely want the unification of the AHCP should refrain from activities which would help the authorities to bury us." (Liz Fuller)

TWO WAYS TO PROFIT FINANCIALLY FROM THE WAR IN CHECHNYA. Scarcely a week goes by without the Russian media reporting a government meeting in either Moscow or Grozny to assess the progress of reconstruction in Chechnya. Almost invariably, speakers at such meetings acknowledge, first, that the pace of reconstruction is slower than intended, and second, that a sizable proportion of the funds earmarked from the Russian central budget for financing such projects has been misappropriated.

Two German journalists who recently visited Grozny spoke with Isa Dudaev, Chechen deputy minister of health responsible for hospital buildings, who cited numerous instances of scams in which, he said, members of the pro-Russian Chechen administration are skimming off hundreds of thousands of rubles with the tacit connivance of the Russian Ministry of Health by approving funds for the fictitious renovation of hospitals and clinics. Dudaev said the scale of such misappropriations has increased over the past couple of years: Both the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" and the "Frankfurter Rundschau" on 14 March quote him as saying that in 30 years as a civil servant he has never witnessed such a level of corruption as today.

Dudaev told the German journalists that both his superior, Minister of Health Uvais Magomadov, and Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov have rejected as "lies" his documentation proving malpractice. His attempts to bypass local officialdom and alert Moscow directly have not yet yielded any response.

Meanwhile in Moscow, Chechen businessman and Moscow-based State Council Chairman Malik Saidullaev announced at a recent roundtable discussion on the prospects for a political settlement of the war in Chechnya that he will award a prize of 100,000 euros ($88,800) for the best proposal for ensuring the disarmament of the Chechen resistance and the return of its fighters to civilian life, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 18 March. The jury will be headed by Dmitrii Rogozin, chairman of the Russian State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee, who recently argued in "The Moscow Times" that, "Today [Chechen President Aslan] Maskhadov has a clear choice. He can either become a second Gerry Adams by directly confronting the Al-Qaeda terrorists and fundamentalist radicals in Chechnya, or he can become a Mullah Mohammed Omar by continuing to coddle them."

Saidullaev also argued at the roundtable that he sees no obstacles to holding elections in Chechnya at all levels no later than December 2003. Nor, Saidullaev reasoned, is it imperative to adopt a Chechen constitution (as most pro-Moscow Chechen officials advocate) before holding elections, at least to a temporary legislature. The adoption of the constitution should be "the culmination of the political process, and not a precondition for it," Saidullaev said. Saidullaev's roundtable is to campaign on a permanent basis for the holding of new elections in Chechnya. (Liz Fuller)

NEW CHECHEN FORUM MEETS FOR FIRST TIME. But there is already at least one alternative forum for promoting a political solution to the conflict in the Public Consultative Council (OKS) established under the auspices of the State Duma-Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) working group on Chechnya, which was established on the basis of a decision taken six months ago (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 33, 8 October 2001). That group met for the first time in Moscow on 15 March.

The OKS comprises some 30 representatives representing Chechen factions with widely diverging political views, including "pro-Maskhadov forces," according to its coordinator, Abdul-Khakim Sultygov, who is also executive secretary of the Duma-PACE group. It can therefore function as a conduit whereby the Russian leadership can communicate with the Chechen president. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK: "In other countries, the No. 1 goal of antiterrorist operations is to preserve the lives of peaceful civilians, then to defend their property, and then to seize and destroy terrorists. In our country, it's the other way round." -- Chechnya's deputy to the Russian State Duma, Aslanbek Aslakhanov, speaking at a news conference in Moscow on 14 March (quoted by AP).

"Karabakh is considered the dignity and honor of the Azerbaijanis in both North and South and is currently under occupation. When the Northern Azerbaijanis want this, the Southern Azerbaijanis will be ready to sacrifice everything for the liberation of Karabakh in a very short time. " -- Mahmudali Chekhragani, leader of Iran's Azerbaijani movement, interviewed by Azerbaijan's Space TV on 16 March (courtesy of Groong).

"I do not see any tendencies which could disturb the political stability in Armenia." -- Armenian President Robert Kocharian, speaking to journalists in Yerevan on 15 March (quoted by Arminfo, courtesy of Groong).