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Caucasus Report: May 23, 2002

23 May 2002, Volume 5, Number 18

SHAMIL BASAEV REFUTES REPORTS OF HIS DEMISE. on 24 May features a lengthy interview that field commander Shamil Basaev gave on 15 May to the PRIMA information agency, thereby refuting the 30 April statement by Russian Army Chief of General Staff General Anatolii Kvashnin that he has been killed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 May 2002). Basaev said he saw Kvashnin making that statement on television and thinks the chief of staff did so because he felt upstaged by the earlier announcement by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov of the death of Saudi-born field commander Khattab.

"We are fighting to defend our freedom, our way of life, our right to live as we want without disturbing anyone," Basaev said, and he expressed confidence that struggle will prove successful.

Basaev described the current phase of fighting as incomparably easier than the early stages of the war. "Today the war, one could say, has its own momentum. Neither I nor any other leader has to do practically anything, because the mujahedin know what to do. They all know how to fight, how to fashion mines out of any substance you care to name, how to lay them. In short, they have learned how to fight; and the tactics we have chosen are the tactics of bees, the tactics of our ancestors, when we render the enemy hors de combat [out of action] by means of an endless, unceasing number of small stings." Those tactics, Basaev continued, are advantageous insofar as they incur few casualties and do not require great financial outlay, but on the other hand, they cause considerable suffering to the Chechen civilian population against whom the Russian troops unleash reprisals. Basaev added that those tactics are intended for the long term, and that it may take decades before the Chechens' final victory.

Asked whether the Chechens plan at some stage to abandon their tactics of guerrilla warfare and move to take control over the republic, Basaev said, "We are preparing to do so," adding that they have sufficient manpower and arms for that undertaking, with the exception of heavy-caliber weaponry. But he gave no hint of any time frame.

Basaev ended his interview with a warning to the population of Russia that the Chechen fighters do not consider them civilians but "unarmed military." He explained that, "The Russian military machine is raising a generation in Chechnya today for whom there is no other life but war, jihad. It is a generation which at the first opportunity is ready to annihilate itself and the whole of Russia. Its main objective is to inflict as many blows as possible on Russia. Believe me, today any number of new groups are appearing that neither I, nor [Chechen President Aslan] Maskhadov, nor anyone else controls... Sooner or later we shall achieve victory, for no other reason [than] so that our children will not have to wage a war tomorrow." (Liz Fuller)

ALLIES OF FORMER ARMENIAN PRESIDENT TO JOIN FORCES FOR 2003 ELECTIONS. Political allies of former President Levon Ter-Petrossian will join forces to field common candidates for next year's parliamentary and possibly presidential elections, according to Babken Ararktsian, who served as parliament speaker in 1991-98. Ararktsian said the former ruling Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh) and other pro-Ter-Petrosian groups will "definitely" form an alliance ahead of the legislative polls due in May 2003. That alliance has been tentatively named a "bloc of right-wing forces," he said.

The political groups supporting the ex-president began talks on their possible reunification at the urging of Ter-Petrossian earlier this year (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 5, No. 9, 7 March 2002), but no agreements have been officially announced so far. The HHSh was pushing for the creation of a single opposition party with a rigid hierarchical structure. But its smaller ideological allies, including Ararktsian's Armat organization, opposed that idea, insisting instead on the formation of a loose electoral bloc.

Armat itself is a dissident faction inside the HHSh which is led by Vano Siradeghian, Armenia's fugitive former interior minister, and Alexander Arzumanian, the former foreign minister.

Ararktsian said the center-right opposition, which is highly critical of President Robert Kocharian and his policies, may also put forward its candidate for the next presidential elections expected in March 2003. He said it could alternatively endorse another single candidate representing other, more influential opposition forces.

Ararktsian refused to comment on whether Ter-Petrossian will return to active politics and run for president next year. "Ask him," he told reporters. The former president has avoided contacts with the media since his resignation in February 1998.

Ararktsian also blasted the foreign and defense policies of the current authorities, saying their reliance on Russia could lead Armenia to regional isolation. He said Yerevan should follow the example of neighboring Azerbaijan and Georgia and seek closer ties with NATO rather than Russia, which he branded a "racist state carrying out a genocide in Chechnya." (Armen Zakarian)

POPULATION OF KARABAKH DISSATISFIED WITH PRESIDENT, ECONOMIC CONDITIONS. According to a recent public opinion poll conducted in the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic by the Stepanakert Press Club with the sponsorship of the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation, 49 percent of respondents think that there is no democracy in the republic. Only 30 percent of respondents evaluated positively the performance of current Nagorno-Karabakh President Arkadii Ghukasian, while 42.4 percent of those surveyed gave him a negative rating. More than 50 percent of participants expressed their dissatisfaction with the government. More than half of the participants of the survey harshly criticized the work of the republic's law-enforcement agencies.

The survey of 1000 participants from Stepanakert and the adjacent areas shows a negative assessment of social and economic conditions. More than 80 percent of respondents think the government is not doing enough to improve the economy, and 43 percent say that during the last two years their social and economic conditions didn't improve at all.

Karabakh Armenians also had a negative view of the media situation. More than 60 percent of respondents say the local media lacks objectivity in covering political life in Nagorno-Karabakh and that the authorities ignore public opinion in formulating their policies.

The survey findings indicate that the Karabakh branch of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation--Dashnaktsutiun has the highest rating. More than 21 percent of respondents gave the Dashnak party a favorable rating. The second-most-popular party is the Communist Party of Artsakh with 16.6 percent support. Only 11.4 percent of those surveyed say they favor the pro-presidential "Union of Democratic Artsakh," which could be considered as the ruling party.

On the question on how to solve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, 49 percent favored unification of Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia, while 43 percent say they would prefer independence. More than 70 percent of respondents think the conflict should be solved only by peaceful means. Only 20 percent of respondents say they would favor a military solution if the peace process fails. A solution based on the principle of "territory in exchange for status" is not acceptable to more than 60 percent of respondents. More than half of those surveyed think that Karabakh should participate in the peace negotiations. (Hrant Alexanian)

GEORGIAN PARLIAMENT SHELVES DEBATE ON LANGUAGE LAW. At the request of parliament Deputy Guram Sharadze, who is notorious for his nationalist sentiments, the Georgian parliament on 17 May postponed indefinitely further debate on the draft language bill. Sharadze protested that amendments made to that bill after its initial discussion in parliamentary committees are unconstitutional and contrary to Georgia's national interests. He added that President Eduard Shevardnadze personally was responsible for two of those amendments, which he described as "a time bomb." He did not elaborate.

In April 2001, and again in June, Shevardnadze urged the government to speed up work on the language law, which first got under way in 1997. He said the day of its adoption by parliament will be "a historic one" for Georgia. Shevardnadze approved the draft bill in July, after which the parliament began discussing it.

But the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) apparently objected to some provisions of the bill, specifically the requirement that all clerical work and record-keeping at government offices at all levels be conducted exclusively in Georgian. That requirement is currently impossible to implement in at least two regions of the country: the districts southeast of Tbilisi where the population is predominantly Azerbaijani, and Djavakheti on the border with Armenia, the predominantly Armenian population of which mainly speaks Armenian and Russian but not Georgian.

Members of the minorities in question also made clear their objections to the draft bill at a meeting in late December with parliament Speaker Nino Burdjanadze. (The participants at that meeting communicated in Russian as their only common language.) Burdjanadze assured them that the bill is part of Georgian authorities' measures to create "a normal civil society" and that their objections to it will be taken into account.

At the OSCE's recommendation, the bill was amended to provide for the use of languages of minorities resident in Georgia in local councils in districts where such minorities constitute the majority of the population. A representative for OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities Rolf Ekeus told the Georgian parliament in April that amendment was intended to prevent the aggravation of relations between Georgia's various ethnic groups.

The OSCE further undertook to fund Georgian language programs for residents of those districts. Gela Kvaratskhelia, chairman of the Committee on Civic Integration, told journalists in Tbilisi in April that the OSCE has provided funds to provide 250 Armenian officials from Djavakheti with language training at 17 specially established teaching centers. A similar program is envisaged for Georgia's Azerbaijanis. (Liz Fuller)

AZERBAIJANI GOVERNMENT, MUSLIM WOMEN AT ODDS OVER HEADSCARVES. When Azerbaijan began in 1998 to issue passports to replace the old Soviet ones, a dispute arose between a group of devout Muslim women and the government. The government demanded the women take off their headscarves for their passport photos and refused to accept a court ruling that the women were not required by law to do so.

That dispute has now been revived with the introduction of compulsory ID cards for all citizens of Azerbaijan. The women believers do not want to take off their headscarves, but the government says Azerbaijani is not an Islamic state and women may not wear headscarves in such photos. Consequently, the women are going to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.

The Center for Protection of Religious Faiths and Freedoms of Conscience is helping some 3,000 women with their case and has helped two women to obtain ID cards with photos in which they are wearing headscarves. Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, who works for the center, told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service that some 300 women are going to renounce their Azerbaijani citizenship but that the women are prepared to suspend their suit provided that the government softens its position on the issue. He noted that since the beginning of this year the government's attitude toward headscarves has hardened.

Ibrahimoglu added that university students have also appealed to the center over the right to wear headscarves, as some university professors demand that students either take off their headscarves or leave the auditorium. (Zhale Mutallimova)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK: "If power was an end in itself for us, we would have been in power long ago, believe me.... Today people think that politics and money are incompatible, but I do not agree with that. Morality should be an important element of politics.... Principles and consistency are the main things in politics..... Armenia today is suffering a crisis of conscience." -- People's Party of Armenia Chairman Stepan Demirchian, quoted by "Golos Armenii" on 16 May (courtesy of Groong).

"If we want to have large investments, and it is important for economic progress, then we must take into account the fact that any irresponsible statement about early parliamentary or presidential elections damages the financial state of every citizen of Armenia." -- Armenian President Robert Kocharian, quoted by Noyan Tapan on 20 May.

"Turkey is not acting as a Karabakh mediator; it is acting as an equal party that assumes responsibility for making its meaningful contribution to regional stability. We don't need a new mediator. But we do need the active participation of our neighbors and practical steps by them to create a more favorable atmosphere in the region." -- Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, quoted by RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau on 18 May.

"Both the opposition and the authorities are using the Minsk Group factors for their own interests, just as the various superpowers are using our [Karabakh] conflict. But it cannot be resolved today either peacefully or militarily. The Armenians have fought four times for Karabakh -- in 1918, in 1946, in the 1960-1970s, and at the end of the 1980s -- and each time they were successful. We have to set about strengthening our state, our national unity, rebuilding the economy, beefing up our army, and only after that can we propose to Armenia to retreat peacefully. But we shall not achieve anything without a protracted effort." -- Former Azerbaijani presidential adviser Eldar Namazov, quoted by "Ekho" on 24 April.