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Caucasus Report: September 13, 2002

13 September 2002, Volume 5, Number 30

RYBKIN RESURRECTS DRAFT DOCUMENT ON RUSSIAN-CHECHEN RELATIONS... Over the past three months, former Russian Security Council Secretary Ivan Rybkin has repeatedly argued that the Russian leadership should embark on peace talks with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov in order to prevent the creeping moral degradation of Russian society, the enormous waste of material and human resources, and the increasing risk that the second Chechen war will ignite a new conflict with Georgia.

On 7 September, Rybkin met in Tbilisi with Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze to brief him on a draft document that he discussed in Zurich last month with Chechen Deputy Prime Minister Akhmed Zakaev. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 8 September quoted Rybkin as saying the document dates from late 1997 to early 1998 (when Rybkin, as Russian Security Council secretary, was directly involved in talks with the Chechen leadership) and that it preserves Russia's territorial integrity.

Although Rybkin did not say so explicitly, the document is presumably based on, and intended to flesh out, the Treaty on Peace and the Principles of Russian-Chechen Relations that Maskhadov and then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed in Moscow five years ago (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 May 1997). Rybkin added that in 1997-1998, Chechen and Russian officials embarked on discussions focusing on five key aspects of bilateral relations -- international, defense, economic, social, and legal -- but that after his dismissal as Security Council secretary in March 1998, those talks ground to a halt. He said that Zakaev accepted the document as a basis for talks on a political settlement of the conflict. In an interview published in June by the Institute for War and Peace's Caucasus Reporting Service, Maskhadov had said he would be prepared to reconsider long-standing demands for Chechnya's independence if Russia would give international guarantees that it will never embark on a new war against Chechnya.

In the interview with "Nezavisimaya gazeta," Rybkin quoted Shevardnadze as saying he is ready to contribute to the Chechen peace process to the best of his ability. Rybkin added that given the "tremendous authority" that Shevardnadze and his Azerbaijani counterpart Heidar Aliyev enjoy throughout the Caucasus, they should be present at least at the initial stage of Chechen peace talks. Maskhadov had asked Shevardnadze to mediate with Russia in early October 1999 at the time of the second Russian incursion into Chechnya, and Shevardnadze had agreed to do so, but the Russian leadership ruled that no such outside involvement was necessary (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 and 5 October 1999).

Rybkin's proposal to draw Shevardnadze into the peace process is, however, unlikely to find favor with those members of the Russian leadership, including Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, who have apparently come to regard the Georgian president as Public Enemy No. 1. Even Ruslan Khasbulatov, who together with Chechnya's deputy to the State Duma, Aslanbek Aslakhanov, and a second Duma deputy, Yurii Shchekochikin, met with Zakaev in Liechtenstein last month to discuss various tentative peace proposals, including Khasbulatov's own, which envisages "special status" for Chechnya (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 14 February and 19 July 2002), expressed annoyance that Rybkin had traveled to Tbilisi to talk to Shevardnadze without first informing him.

Moreover, as "RFE/RL Caucasus Report" suggested last week, the recent rapprochement between President Maskhadov and his former bitter enemies Movladi Udugov and Zelimkhan Yandarbiev may have strengthened the position of those Russian and Chechen "hawks" who categorically reject peace talks with Maskhadov. (Liz Fuller)

...AS RUSSIAN, CHECHEN OFFICIALS SEND MIXED SIGNALS ON REFERENDUM, ELECTION TIMING. Over the past two weeks, Russian and Chechen officials have made conflicting statements over the timing of elections for a new Chechen president. Moreover, one possible candidate for that post has suggested that the next Chechen leader should not be elected at all, but should be appointed by the Russian president.

On 2 September, current Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, who makes no secret of his intention to contest and win those elections, said that he and Russian President Vladimir Putin both agree that at least two years must elapse between the end of the "antiterrorism" campaign in Chechnya and the holding of presidential elections. Just one month earlier, Kadyrov had suggested that presidential elections could be held in the spring or summer of next year following the adoption in a referendum in November or December of a new Chechen constitution (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 August and 3 September 2002). Then, on 9 September, Russian Central Election Commission Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov told Ekho Moskvy that he thinks the referendum could take place concurrently with the Russian State Duma elections in December 2003, but no later. Veshnyakov argued that the necessary political, economic, and social conditions for conducting the referendum do not yet exist. Russian human rights commissioner for Chechnya Abdul-Khakim Sultygov, however, told Interfax the same day that discussion of the draft constitution could begin this week and that the referendum will take place at the end of this year.

In a roundtable discussion broadcast by RFE/RL's Russian Service in early September, Russian human rights ombudsman Oleg Mironov and Moscow Helsinki Group head Lyudmila Alekseeva cited additional arguments against holding presidential elections in Chechnya in the immediate future. Mironov acknowledged that "even in those areas of Russia where there is no war going on, the word 'elections' is losing its primary meaning. Elections are being transformed into either the appointment [of a given candidate] at the directive of senior bureaucrats, or under pressure from the mafia, which is even worse, or the purchase of a deputy's mandate."

Mironov recalled how local election commissions assured him that Chechen displaced persons cast their ballots in the Russian presidential election two years ago. But when he questioned individual Chechens, most responded either that they could not vote because they had no internal passport or that there was no polling station in the camp, and they were listed as residents in distant villages that they were unable to reach. It is unrealistic, he implied, to hope that elections in Chechnya will prove to be democratic when elections elsewhere in Russia are not. But at the very least, Mironov argued, when elections are held in Chechnya, there should be firm safeguards in place to prevent the Russian troops stationed there from voting en masse for the candidate favored by the Kremlin.

Alekseeva, too, argued that, though the referendum and subsequent presidential election could help to stabilize the situation in Chechnya, voting should not take place as long as Russian troops remain there. Alekseeva also highlighted another relevant point, namely, that Kadyrov's chances of winning in a free and fair ballot are minimal: She observed that during a recent visit to Chechnya, not say single person she spoke to had a good word to say about him. But if the election is to be delayed until well after the end of hostilities, it is to be expected that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe will monitor it, as it did the January 1997 presidential ballot, and will register and publicize irregularities.

Sultygov on 9 September suggested a way around the problem of Kadyrov's lack of popularity: He proposed that the next Chechen leader should be appointed by the Russian president, rather than elected. But that would necessitate amending the draft Chechen constitution, which currently stipulates that Chechnya's president be elected by universal ballot for a period of five years (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 17 May 2002). Such a move would, moreover, give the Russian leadership the option of selecting as Chechnya's next president someone other than Kadyrov, possibly Sultygov himself. At present, Sultygov is not eligible to contest a Chechen presidential election as the draft constitution stipulates that candidates must have lived in Chechnya for the 10 years prior to the ballot. Rybkin, incidentally, singled out Sultygov's appointment to his present post as "a positive development." (Liz Fuller)

ASLAN AND AVTANDIL. For the past 10 years, with the tacit support of Moscow, Adjar State Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze has ruled his autonomous republic in southwestern Georgia as his personal fiefdom. The region's 350,000 population enjoys a standard of living far higher than elsewhere in Georgia but minimal political freedom: Abashidze's family and entourage occupy most influential government positions, and opposition parties operate under constant surveillance and pressure. Although in the October 1999 elections Abashidze's Revival Union won a total of 58 mandates in the 235-seat Georgian parliament, making it initially the second-largest faction, Abashidze himself never sets foot in Tbilisi. He claims that to do so would be to risk assassination by Georgian intelligence, which, he says, has already tried on several occasions to kill him.

In the short term, however, Abashidze faces a more tangible threat. Incumbent Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze's second term expires in April 2005, assuming that he is not pressured to step aside before that date. Georgia's next president is likely to be unequivocally pro-Western and may, therefore, seek to expedite the withdrawal from Batumi of the Russian military base that is part of the rationale for Abashidze's extremely close relationship with the Russian leadership.

In those circumstances, it would be logical for Abashidze to seek political allies in Tbilisi among those members of the present leadership loyal to Shevardnadze, and whose future careers likewise depend on the outcome of the next presidential ballot. One of those politicians is Minister of State Avtandil Djorbenadze, who was elected in June to chair the embattled Union of Citizens of Georgia (created in 1993 as Shevardnadze's personal power base), and whom Shevardnadze singled out as that party's most likely presidential candidate in 2005 (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 26 August 2002).

On 2 September Djorbenadze traveled to Batumi for talks with Abashidze, which, according to Georgian media coverage, focussed on two key issues. The first was Adjaria's chronic failure to transfer in full and on time its contributions to the Georgian state budget -- its arrears for this year amount to more than $20 million. Officials in Batumi are reportedly reluctant to transfer those funds to Tbilisi because of the central government's chronic delay in reciprocating and remitting to Adjaria the money the republic is allocated from the central Georgian budget. The second was the Abkhaz conflict. In both cases, it is Abashidze who holds the short-term aces: Adjaria's failure to transfer budget revenues for August could result in Georgia's failure to meet its budget target for that month, which in turn could jeopardize the release of the second ($20 million) tranche of a World Bank SAC-3 loan. And as Shevardnadze's special envoy for the Abkhaz conflict, Abashidze is uniquely placed to persuade Moscow to exert pressure on the Abkhaz leadership to accept a formal settlement of the conflict.

On his return to Tbilisi, Djorbenadze implied that some kind of agreement was reached with Abashidze on budget payments. Georgian Finance Minister Mirian Gogiashvili similarly told journalists that "I believe we shall manage to find solutions" to that problem. (As of 10 September, however, the payment had not been transferred.) As for Abkhazia, Djorbenadze said his position and that of Abashidze are very close. He noted that Abashidze advocates restoring economic cooperation between the central Georgian authorities and the Abkhaz government, possibly even before a formal settlement of the conflict is reached.

During talks in Moscow on 10 September, Abashidze and Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Valerii Loshchinin, who is Putin's point man for Abkhazia, similarly stressed the need to lift the economic blockade of Abkhazia and resume economic cooperation between the breakaway republic and the central Georgian authorities, and to ensure the safe return to their homes in Abkhazia of Georgian displaced persons.

Djorbenadze also referred to Abashidze's argument that the abolition of the Tbilisi-based Abkhaz government and parliament in exile would remove a source of tension between the conflicting sides. Those two bodies, in particular parliament-in-exile Chairman Tamaz Nadareishvili, are widely believed to maintain contacts with, if not to help coordinate the activities of, the Georgian guerrilla formations operating in southern Abkhazia. But abolishing those two exile bodies might impel Nadareishvili to seek support among the opposition to Shevardnadze, and for that reason, it is a step the Georgian leadership may be unwilling to risk at this juncture. (Liz Fuller)

LATEST SUICIDE HIGHLIGHTS EXTENT OF POVERTY, UNEMPLOYMENT IN NAKHICHEVAN. Isa Tagiev, a 29-year-old man from the town of Sadarak in Azerbaijan's exclave of Nakhichevan, burned himself to death on 18 August, Turan reported two days later. He was the 11th person in the exclave, which has a total population of some 300,000, to commit suicide this year. Tagiev, the father of two children, suffered from tuberculosis and had been unemployed for the past two years. Unemployment is in fact endemic in Sadarak: Of the town's able-bodied population of 7,500 (of a total of 12,500 residents) only 230 have jobs. The average monthly income is 150,000-160,000 manats ($30.60-$32.70).

The economic situation in Sadarak is likely to deteriorate even further as a result of the recent ban imposed by the Turkish government on the import of gasoline from Nakhichevan, which has triggered protests by tanker drivers who fear losing their livelihood (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 September 2002). And reports that the head of the Sadarak customs post has made a fortune from turning a blind eye to gasoline smuggling may fuel popular discontent. Residents staged demonstrations three years ago to protest a clash at the Sadarak customs post in which one man was killed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14, 16, and 28 July 1999). (Liz Fuller)

AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITION AGAIN PLEDGES TO COOPERATE -- BUT FOR HOW LONG? Faced with a new challenge from the authorities, Azerbaijan's fractious opposition parties have on several occasions closed ranks to present a united front, only to revert within months to sniping among themselves. For example, the opposition alignment that emerged following the disputed 1998 presidential ballot collapsed within six months, while the split in late summer 2000 of the Azerbaijani Popular Front Party into two rival factions triggered a similar split within the 12-party opposition Democratic Congress.

The announcement in July of a nationwide referendum on 24 August on sweeping constitutional amendments, some of which are clearly intended to favor the ruling authorities in future elections, impelled 24 opposition parties and organizations to align and issue an appeal to the population to boycott the vote. Four major parties -- Musavat, the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHChP) reformist wing, the Azerbaijan National Independence Party, and the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan -- joined forces and independently monitored the vote. On the basis of their shared observations, they challenged official data according to which some 88 percent of the electorate cast their ballot and overwhelmingly approved those changes. Claiming that those figures were falsified and that no more than 15-20 percent of voters went to the polls, the 26-plus opposition parties on 30 August appealed to the international community not to recognize the validity of the referendum (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 September 2002).

Addressing a session of the "reformist" Democratic Congress on 6 September, Ali Kerimli, who heads the AHChP reformist wing, stressed that the referendum marked a milestone in relations among the opposition parties in that it was the first time they had managed to set aside their mutual differences and cooperate to coordinate monitoring of the vote on such a broad scale. Two days earlier, the leaders of the four parties that coordinated the monitoring, together with six others, had reached an informal agreement to continue cooperation. But they stopped short of signing any formal written agreement on doing so, let alone creating an informal alignment.

The presidential elections due in October 2003 are, however, likely to pose a major challenge to the opposition's fragile cohesion, insofar as Kerimli and the chairman of Musavat and AMIP, Isa Gambar and Etibar Mamedov, will almost certainly run. Liberal Party Chairwoman Lala-Shovket Gadjieva has already signaled her intention to do so.

In an interview published in "Zerkalo" on 7 September, Gambar argued that "the most important thing is that the elections should be democratic. If that happens, the opposition will win regardless of how many candidates it fields." In a free and fair ballot, the participation of several opposition candidates would reduce incumbent President Aliev's chances of garnering the 50 percent plus one vote needed for a first-round victory. But very few Azerbaijani political figures believe that the 2003 ballot will be fair. For that reason, on 4 September, several opposition parties appealed to the international community to arrange for the election to be held under the aegis of the United Nations. They had addressed a similar appeal to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in April. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "As long as Shevardnadze is president, Georgia will not be brought to its knees." -- Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, quoted by Interfax on 6 September.

"Truth is on our side, we have been absolutely honest and acted in good faith. We are not misleading anyone, especially Russia." -- Shevardnadze in response to Russian President Vladimir Putin's threat of military action against Chechen militants still on Georgian territory, quoted by RFE/RL's Georgian Service on 11 September.

"If Russia goes ahead unilaterally with the operation in the [Pankisi] Gorge unilaterally, it will be a declaration of war." --Georgian Deputy Minister of State Security Irakli Alasania, quoted by "Vremya novostei" on 12 September.