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Caucasus Report: September 4, 2002

4 September 2002, Volume 5, Number 29

TROUBLE BREWING IN SOUTH OSSETIA? As if the war of words with Russia over the alleged presence of Chechen militants in the Pankisi Gorge and the standoff in Abkhazia's Kodori Gorge last month were not enough, Georgia may also be facing a new crisis in South Ossetia. The leadership of that unrecognized republic, like that of Abkhazia, regards Russia as its most reliable source of support in its decade-long standoff with Tbilisi.

Since the beginning of August, one Georgian officer serving with the combined Russian-Ossetian-Georgian peacekeeping force in South Ossetia has been abducted and two more mugged and beaten. In addition, a Georgian customs official was shot dead in South Ossetia on 24 August by men in military uniforms who flagged down the car in which he was traveling.

The reason Georgians are being targeted at this time is unclear. True, the Georgian peacekeeping detachment made itself unpopular with the local Ossetian population when it complied in mid-July with orders from the Georgian Defense Ministry not to participate in a celebration to mark the 10th anniversary of the joint peacekeeping operation. The Russian commander of the joint force, Major General Vasilii Prizemlin, said at the time that the Georgian military leadership has no right to issue such an order. "If my subordinates, including the Georgian peacekeepers, do not fulfill my orders in peacetime, how can I trust them in wartime? Interfax quoted him as asking rhetorically. But on 15 August, the Georgian newspaper "Akhali taoba" quoted Prizemlin as saying that the Georgian Defense Ministry apologized and that the incident could be considered closed.

South Ossetian officials claim that Colonel Zurab Durglishvili, who was abducted in Tskhinvali on 15 August, was engaged in criminal activities, including clandestine arms sales; Georgian officials have denied this. South Ossetia is notorious as a channel for smuggling goods into and from Russia, including stolen cars. (Durglishvili was said to have dabbled in identifying such cars and returning them to their owners.)

On 21 August, the Russian peacekeeping contingent adduced Durglishvili's kidnapping as the rationale for leaving the deployment zone with 210 men and four military vehicles and embarking on the digging of trenches. Georgian troops were sent to intercept the Russians, and an armed clash was only narrowly prevented. Georgian Foreign Minister Irakli Menagharishvili branded Prizemlin a liar and said that at the next meeting of the Control Commission on the Georgian-Ossetian Conflict, Tbilisi will demand his dismissal.

On 29 August, the Georgian population of Tskhinvali staged a demonstration to demand the immediate release of Durglishvili, whose abductors have demanded a ransom for him. The same day, Ossetian officials barred Georgian journalists from entering Tskhinvali to cover a meeting of the commanders of the joint peacekeeping force to discuss Durglishvili's abduction and the beating of his colleague Mevlud Maisuradze on 21 August. (Liz Fuller)

WHO HAS CO-OPTED WHOM IN CHECHNYA? On 27 August,, the website controlled by former Chechen Information Minister Movladi Udugov, announced that Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov has named Udugov to head his department of external information. Russian media described that news as sensational in light of the protracted standoff between the two men in 1999. In the spring of that year, Udugov sided with field commander Shamil Basaev in an attempt to sideline Maskhadov, who finally dismissed Udugov from Chechnya's National Security Council for his role in the ill-fated Chechen incursion into Daghestan that furnished Moscow with the rationale for launching the second Chechen war (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, No. 6, 10 February 1999 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 August 1999).

Maskhadov has also reportedly named former acting President Zelimkhan Yandarbiev, like Udugov a member of the radical Islamist Chechen faction, his "official representative in the Middle East."

Invited to comment on those appointments, Chechen Vice Premier Akhmed Zakaev told "Kommersant" of 29 August, "Maskhadov intended to show that he is firmly in control." Zakaev pointed out that Maskhadov has not named either Udugov or Yandarbiev a member of the State Defense Committee, which is the supreme military council. Zakaev went on to claim that both former radicals have renounced their former opposition to the president.

Other observers, however, took a more skeptical view. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 29 August observed that "it is impossible to list all the nasty epithets" that Maskhadov has used in recent years in referring to Udugov and Yandarbiev. The paper suggested that their rehabilitation was orchestrated by Basaev, whom Maskhadov named two months ago to head the State Defense Committee (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 July 2002). Colonel Ilya Shabalkin, who is a spokesman for the joint Russian forces in Chechnya, similarly identified Basaev as the most probable figure behind the two appointments; he quoted a recently captured Chechen field commander as saying, "Basaev treats Maskhadov as a subordinate, with clear disrespect." "Trud" on 30 August quoted Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov as saying he doubts whether the apparent alliance between Maskhadov and his former opponents is more than "a formality."

It is indeed difficult to comprehend why -- if he seriously hopes the Russian leadership will respond positively to his repeated call for peace talks -- Maskhadov should have welcomed back into his team figures whom the Russian leadership has consistently demonized for their espousal of Islamic extremism. But on the other hand, the closing of ranks over the last six weeks or so among the former rival Chechen leaders has been paralleled by an upsurge in military activity, including the destruction of two Russian military helicopters. It is therefore not impossible that Maskhadov's new tactics combine co-opting his former rivals rather than risk them sabotaging his operations, while at the same time reiterating his willingness for peace talks. (Liz Fuller)

ARMENIAN OPPOSITION REACHES AGREEMENT ON PRE-ELECTION COOPERATION... Armenia's main opposition parties announced late on 29 August after three days of confidential talks that they have agreed to form a united front and nominate a joint candidate to oppose incumbent President Robert Kocharian in the presidential elections scheduled for February. The intensive consultations were launched on 27 August by the country's 12 biggest left-wing opposition forces, including the People's Party (HZhK), Hanrapetutiun, the National Accord Party, and the Communists. Representatives of several center-right parties, including the National Democratic Union (AZhM), joined in on 29 August at the HZhK's initiative.

Following the talks, opposition leaders said they agreed on the main points of a declaration that calls for joint efforts to bring about a "change of Armenia's leadership." But they remained vague about the form and extent of their cooperation and said they have not yet discussed, let alone selected, their joint presidential candidate. And in an indication of how difficult it will be to reach a consensus, opposition Hanrapetutiun Party leader Albert Bazeyan told journalists that the party is inclined to nominate former Premier Aram Sargsian as its candidate, although it will back a joint opposition candidate if one is agreed. Bazeyan also said the opposition will not choose as its candidate former President Levon Ter-Petrossian, as many opposition figures remain highly critical of him. Sargsian for his part said the joint candidate will probably be chosen either at the end of the year or in the immediate run-up to the polls.

The ambitious leader of the National Accord Party, Artashes Geghamian, is known to aspire to the joint nomination. He has stated previously that he will run for president regardless of whether or not his candidacy is endorsed by other major opposition forces. According to some reports, Geghamian himself initiated the latest multipartisan negotiations in the hope of securing opposition endorsement of his presidential bid. Aleksan Karapetian, who is a senior member of Geghamian's party, told RFE/RL on 31 August that there will be no delay in selecting a joint candidate.

But Geghamian is known to be distrusted by other prominent opposition figures, including the HZhK's popular chairman, Stepan Demirchian. A recent opinion poll, the results of which were published by "Haykakan zhamanak" on 23 August, ranked Demirchian and Geghamian as the first- and second-most popular political figures. More than 21 percent of respondents said they would vote for Demirchian in a presidential ballot, and 14 percent for Geghamian. Only 10 percent said they would vote for incumbent President Kocharian.

In a 2 September interview with Noyan Tapan, Demirchian said he considers public statements by some members of the opposition alignment endorsing Geghamian's candidacy untimely and inappropriate. He also divulged that other parties have objected to a point in the joint statement presumably, proposed by the Communists and other left-wing parties, on Armenia's possible accession to the proposed Russia-Belarus Union State. That proposal does not figure in the final version of the declaration, which was leaked to RFE/RL on 31 August.

Speaking to RFE/RL on 2 September, former Prime Minister and AZhM Chairman Vazgen Manukian predicted that the opposition will not succeed in reaching agreement on either a single candidate or a single electoral platform. "These parties advocate differing ideologies, and I don't think that they will reach a compromise on a specific program," Manukian said. (Ruzanna Khachatrian/Armen Zakarian/Hrach Melkumian/Liz Fuller)

...AS ITALIAN ENVOY SAYS FORMER PRESIDENT RELUCTANT TO RETURN TO POLITICS. Italian Ambassador Paolo Andrea Trabalza, who together with senior Yerevan-based diplomats from other European Union member countries recently met with former President Ter-Petrossian, told RFE/RL on 26 August that he thinks the former president is reluctant to stage a political comeback.

"My impression is that the former president is not so willing to come back to politics," Trabalza said. "Perhaps he is also disappointed with the reaction of Armenians at the time [of his forced resignation in February 1998]. Therefore, I think that those journalists who write that he might come back if he is backed by many may be right."

Ter-Petrossian's possible participation in next February's presidential elections has been a subject of speculation over the past several months. Members of his inner circle have told RFE/RL that he is unlikely to run for president without winning the support of a broad range of opposition forces (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 5, No. 23, 1 July 2002). (In the opinion poll referred to above, Ter-Petrossian ranked third behind Demirchian and Geghamian with 12 percent.) The ex-president himself has not yet commented on his plans, maintaining his four-year moratorium on public speeches and interviews.

Trabalza and his fellow EU ambassadors got a rare glimpse into Ter-Petrossian's thinking when they held an unpublicized meeting with him in July. According to some of the latter's associates, they inquired about Ter-Petrossian's election plans but were not given definite answers. Trabalza downplayed the significance of the "friendly conversation," saying that there was "nothing special" in it. "It's part of our duty to meet with various Armenian citizens. You can't get an idea of the country if you only listen to one side," he said.

"Yes, we talked [with Ter-Petrossian] about Nagorno-Karabakh, about everything," the Italian envoy added. "We asked what he thinks about the existing situation in Armenia and what he thinks Armenia should do vis-a-vis the European Union."

While in power, Ter-Petrossian won praise from Western leaders and political analysts for favoring more concessions to Azerbaijan for the resolution of the Karabakh conflict. Some Armenian pundits believe that the West would welcome Ter-Petrossian's return to power because that would increase the likelihood of a Karabakh settlement.

Noting that an Armenian-Azerbaijani peace deal is "not very close now," Trabalza endorsed Ter-Petrossian's belief that Armenia can not quickly recover from its post-Soviet economic slump without a solution to the conflict. He said: "If the two sides don't make concessions, the settlement would be postponed. The more it is postponed, the more time it will take for Armenia to recover the [economic] position it had before the Soviet collapse." (Armen Zakarian)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK: "As could have been expected, the regime has again produced figures that could make even a fried chicken laugh." -- Opposition Azerbaijani newspaper "Yeni Musavat," commenting on 26 August on the outcome of the nationwide referendum on constitutional amendments held two days earlier.

"We all understand very well what has been happening over the past decade.... First they killed us because we supported Dudaev. Since the start of the second war they have been killing us because we are allegedly 'wahhabis' and terrorists. In fact, we are being killed on ethnic grounds because we are Chechens. The Russians need a Chechnya without Chechens." -- Chechen Vice Premier Akhmed Zakaev, in an interview with (28 August)

"If [Russian President Vladimir] Putin says it is all calm in Chechnya, then let him be the first to go and live there." -- Former Grozny resident Emilia Kusaeva, whose husband was killed on 13 August when the bus in which he was traveling hit a landmine in Grozny (quoted by "The Guardian" on 31 August).

"Confidence in the president and the government must not be so closely connected with the solution of everyday economic problems.... [People] say they don't like the government.... No one likes his government in a country of transition period. The government is not there to be loved. In a transition period it is there to implement active and drastic reforms." -- Armenian President Robert Kocharian, speaking at a congress of local government officials in Yerevan on 27 August (quoted by Noyan Tapan on 29 August).