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Caucasus Report: August 8, 2002

8 August 2002, Volume 5, Number 27

READING RUSSIAN-GEORGIAN TEA LEAVES. In the 10 years that this writer has systematically struggled to make sense of Russia's policy toward Georgia, the volume of source material available has increased dramatically. But there are still times when the materials available give rise to more questions than answers, necessitating a return to the classic Kremlinological discipline of intuitive tea-leaf reading. The past week's war of words between Georgia and Russia over the Chechen militant presence in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge is a case in point.

This is not the first time that Moscow has made an issue of Tbilisi's inability or reluctance to take decisive action to neutralize "terrorists" in Pankisi (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 December 2001).

But the U.S. offer in February to assist Georgia in apprehending Islamic militants who, U.S. officials affirmed, have joined forces with the Chechen fighters in Pankisi presented Moscow with an opportunity -- which it lost no time in exploiting -- to argue that it has as much right, if not more, as Washington to assist in the process of neutralizing the purported terrorist threat in Pankisi.

From that point of view, last week's statement by Russian President Vladimir Putin castigating Georgia yet again for failing to prevent Chechen militants' crossing from Georgia into the Russian Federation was nothing new. What was new in the latest exchange of rhetoric were the proposals by Russian Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov and Federation Council International Affairs Committee Chairman Mikhail Margelov that Russia formally raise with the UN Security Council the possibility of launching an international "antiterrorism" operation in Pankisi analogous to that in Afghanistan. The rationale the two men cited for such an operation, repeated by Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov on 5 August, was that Georgia is allegedly failing to comply with its international obligations to crack down on terrorism.

Moscow's new diplomatic offensive raises any number of questions related to the nature of Russia's policy toward Georgia. First, is it possible to speak of a single Russian policy toward Georgia, or are different groups in Moscow pursuing different, and possibly contradictory, interests in that country as was the case in 1992-93? If there is a single policy, is it clearly formulated in terms of short-, medium-, and long-term aims, or does it focus primarily on extracting the maximum advantage from events as they unfold? And if a consensus with regard to Russia's strategic objectives in the South Caucasus does exist, what was the purpose in provoking a new crisis in Russian-Georgian relations at this juncture?

If one assumes that Moscow's primary objective is to counter, if not reverse, U.S. inroads into its traditional sphere of influence in the Caucasus, then Russian statements and actions since February could be construed as a systematic attempt to exploit the opportunity that Washington provided by announcing the presence of Islamic "terrorists" in Pankisi. By repeatedly offering to assist Georgia in neutralizing that terrorist threat, Moscow is both demonstrating its own commitment to cracking down on "terrorism" and seeking to persuade the international community to censure Georgia for failing to do so despite its systematic insistence that it is perfectly capable of dealing with the Pankisi problem without outside help.

Again, there are any number of possible explanations for Tbilisi's failure to take action in Pankisi. Is it a deliberate tactic to enrage Russia? A reflection of either the weakness of Georgia's armed forces? Or of major disagreements within the Georgian leadership? Or an attempt to extract even larger sums from the United States to bolster the paltry 36 million laris ($16.5 million) allocated for defense purposes in this year's budget? Or is it based on the assumption that, in Washington's eyes, Georgia can do no wrong?

The new crisis in Russian-Georgian relations comes in the wake of a meeting in Moscow late last month at which Russian and Georgian delegations reportedly made progress toward finalizing the text of the new framework treaty on bilateral relations that Georgian officials predict may be signed before the end of this year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 and 26 July 2002). And on 6 August, a new round of talks was scheduled to begin in Tbilisi on the time frame for Russia's withdrawal from its two remaining military bases in Georgia. Those latter talks have now been postponed at Russia's request.

As for the Russian proposal to raise the Pankisi issue at the UN, one could argue that Georgia itself set a sort of precedent for doing so by encouraging (or at least not dissuading) the Georgian displaced persons who fled Abkhazia in 1992-93 from lobbying the UN Security Council this summer to mount a peace-enforcement operation in Abkhazia. That initiative, not surprisingly, failed. But that failure, which Moscow must have anticipated, has created the danger of a new war in Abkhazia: The Georgian guerrilla formations that have for years operated unimpeded in western Georgia announced in May their intention to launch a new military campaign to restore Georgia's authority over the breakaway republic in the event that neither the Georgian leadership nor the international community made tangible progress in reaching a political solution to the conflict by 31 July.

Could Moscow have been acting on the assumption that, rather than risk a simultaneous outbreak of hostilities on two fronts (a Russian strike on Pankisi and yet another bungled Georgian guerrilla offensive in southern Abkhazia), the Georgian leadership would caution the guerrilla formations to hold their fire, both literally and figuratively? (In what may have been intended as the start of the new terrorist offensive called for by Abkhaz parliament-in-exile Chairman Tamaz Nadareishvili [see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 July 2002], two explosions were reported in the Abkhaz Raion center of Tkvarcheli on 1 August and two more in a nearby village the following day.)

But Russia's policy in the Abkhaz conflict is no more transparent than its policy toward Georgia as a whole. True, there are indications that Russia has recently retreated from its earlier backing for the Abkhaz leadership -- a retreat that the UN Security Council hailed in its 29 July resolution (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 July 2002). That shift is evident, first in Russia's endorsement of the UN-drafted "Basic Principles for the Division of Competencies between Tbilisi and Sukhumi," and second by the statement last month by State Duma Committee for CIS Affairs Chairman Boris Pastukhov (who in his former capacity as Russian deputy foreign minister was directly involved in earlier Russian attempts to mediate a solution to the Abkhaz conflict) that he considers the draft "Basic Principles" a "reasonable basis" for resolving the conflict, and that the Abkhaz authorities are wrong to reject them.

But there are also grounds for arguing that Russia is demonstrating the same lack of consistency in its approach to the Abkhaz conflict as Foreign Minister Ivanov has accused Tbilisi of demonstrating with regard to the Chechens in Pankisi. In violation of an agreement reached with Tbilisi, a Russian government delegation traveled to Sukhumi earlier this week for talks with the Abkhaz leadership on bringing Abkhazia's legislation into line with that of the Russian Federation in order to facilitate expanded bilateral economic cooperation, especially the export to Russia of timber (which is currently one of Abkhazia's main exports to Turkey). The possibility of lifting the trade sanctions the CIS imposed on Abkhazia in January 1996 was also raised during those talks.

Finally, to what extent, if any, is the relentless Russian campaign to highlight the Georgian leadership's impotence faced with the Pankisi problem a product of the residual resentment still harbored by many Russian politicians against Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze? Could that campaign to discredit him be aimed at expediting his departure from the political scene before his second presidential term expires in 2005? And if so, has the Russian leadership identified, and possibly even cut a deal with, whomever it considers the most desirable candidate to succeed him? (Liz Fuller)

WHOSE SIDE IS SULTYGOV ON? On 12 July, at the recommendation of Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, Russian President Vladimir Putin named Abdul-Khakim Sultygov to succeed Vladimir Kalamanov as his envoy for human rights in Chechnya. Sultygov is 41, a native of Grozny, and a trained economist. For the past two years, he has served as an adviser to the State Duma's commission on Chechnya.

In statements and interviews over the past month, Sultygov has repeatedly made clear that his first priority is to ensure compliance by the Russian federal forces in Chechnya with the guidelines issued in March by Lieutenant General Vladimir Moltenskoi for preventing gratuitous violence, illegal detentions, thefts, and other human rights violations during "sweep" operations to locate and apprehend suspected supporters of Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov. "The lofty mission Russian soldiers carry out to restore constitutional order is incompatible with marauding acts by individual persons in military uniform who trample on the spirit and meaning of [their] military oath," he said.

Preventing such violations, Sultygov said, will necessitate establishing clear procedures for cooperation between the Russian military and the Chechen police, with the army cordoning off villages during "sweep" operations but the actual search operation conducted by Chechens. Sultygov also vowed that "not a single incident" involving the disappearance of a Chechen civilian during such searches should be left uninvestigated. "Justice is the same for all, irrespective of social status, profession, and nationality," "Izvestiya" on 13 July quoted him as saying. (In an article published in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" in January 2001, Sultygov listed first among six preconditions for resolving the Chechen crisis the creation of ethnically mixed security patrols whose members had not previously participated in the hostilities.)

On 1 August, Sultygov met with the newly appointed commander of the Russian federal forces in Chechnya, Lieutenant General Sergei Markov, to discuss new draft guidelines for sweep operations based on those recommendations. Interfax quoted Sultygov as saying after that meeting that he, Markov, and Kadyrov would sign the final version of the new guidelines in two weeks. "Kommersant-Daily" commented on 2 August that Sultygov has achieved within weeks what Kadyrov has been pushing for for one year. But the new guidelines have not yet been signed; and once signed, there is no guarantee that they will be implemented more systematically than earlier directives by Markov's predecessor, Moltenskoi.

Sultygov's condemnation of Russian sweep operations echoes President Putin's statement in late June that the practice should be ended as soon as conditions on the ground permit, and that Chechen police forces should then take over responsibility for maintaining law and order (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 June 2002). But that is not the only respect in which Sultygov's views coincide with those of the Russian leadership. He has also echoed repeated statements by Russian presidential spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembskii and Russian security officials to the effect that Chechen President Maskhadov should admit his responsibility for precipitating the current war in Chechnya and appear before either a criminal or a "political" court to answer for his actions. And on 5 August, he reaffirmed the argument voiced by several leading Russian politicians that Georgia is incapable of neutralizing the Chechen militant presence in Pankisi without Russian help.

Sultygov has further endorsed the plans for holding elections to a Chechen parliament in December 2003, simultaneously with the Russian State Duma elections. To that end, it is planned to submit the new Chechen constitution drafted by Kadyrov to a referendum before the end of this year. Elections for a new Chechen president will then be scheduled six months after the referendum, and elections to a Chechen legislature six months after the presidential ballot, ITAR-TASS reported on 19 July, quoting an unnamed member of the Consultative Council subordinate to Kadyrov (see also "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 August 2002).

But Sultygov's professed determination to stamp out human rights violations in Chechnya is difficult to reconcile with a statement attributed to him by ITAR-TASS on 25 July echoing earlier denials by Chechen Prime Minister Stanislav Ilyasov that Chechen displaced persons in Ingushetia are being pressured to return to Chechnya. Human rights organizations, however, have reported that the Ingush authorities are curtailing supplies of water, electricity, and bread to camps in Ingushetia in a bid to force displaced persons to return to Chechnya.

Sultygov's apparent reluctance to challenge pro-Moscow Chechen officials over the forced repatriation process may be a tactical move, given that he cannot function without their cooperation. Alternatively, it could reflect an ambition to play a more prominent role in Chechen politics at some future juncture -- although "Kommersant-Vlast" on 23 July quoted him as saying, "I do not have any political positions in Chechnya and do not want any." And it remains to be seen whether he will lobby for another of the proposals listed in his preconditions for resolving the Chechen conflict, namely the passage by the next Chechen parliament of a declaration on outlawing for 25 years the practice of blood feuds. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK: "[Extending] the legislation of the Russian Federation to the territory of Chechnya is genetically unacceptable to the population of Chechnya." -- on 22 July.

"I think [Azerbaijani President Heidar] Aliyev is no longer able to solve this [Karabakh] problem -- he had his chance and lost it. Today he is a fading politician, and each day the political potential of Aliyev decreases." -- Arkadii Ghukasian, president of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, quoted in "Armenian International Magazine," June 2002.

"[Former Armenian President Levon] Ter-Petrossian has forever passed into the pages of history." -- "Or" on 30 July.