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Caucasus Report: September 23, 2002

23 September 2002, Volume 5, Number 31

WHAT IS MOSCOW'S OBJECTIVE IN GEORGIA? Russian President Vladimir Putin's 11 September warning that Moscow may take unilateral military action against "international terrorists" in the Pankisi Gorge if Georgia fails to make good on its international commitment to combat terrorism was initially widely taken at face value as a direct threat of military intervention. Similarly belligerent statements by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov and the apparently leaked publication in some Russian newspapers of what were touted as the General Staff's contingency plans for such an invasion served to substantiate that interpretation.

The timing of Putin's statement, 24 hours before U.S. President George W. Bush's speech to the United Nations Security Council on Iraq, led some analysts to suggest that Putin was equating the situation in Pankisi with that in Iraq, and signaling that Moscow would not object to U.S. military action against Iraq if Washington in turn gave Moscow a free hand to deal with the Chechen threat in Pankisi. That line of argument was, however, implausible in that it would have marked an abrupt departure from Moscow's previous criticisms of the U.S. administration's threats of military intervention in Iraq. And in fact, both U.S. and Russian politicians were swift to deny any trade-off.

Moreover, Russian military analysts, including Pavel Felgenhauer, pointed out that, bogged down in a stalemate in Chechnya, the Russian armed forces are in no shape to embark on a ground operation in Georgia, especially with winter fast approaching. Russia could, Felgenhauer said, try high-altitude bombing, but small groups of highly mobile fighters are not an easy target, especially in winter weather conditions and poor visibility.

A second possible interpretation is that Putin was signaling to Washington that he expects the U.S. administration to exert greater pressure on the Georgian leadership to deliver on its repeated promises to rid Pankisi of fugitive Chechen fighters. "Izvestiya" on 13 September quoted unidentified Kremlin officials as saying this was precisely the message that Putin intended to convey. Responses from leading politicians on both sides of the Atlantic to the effect that Georgia indeed has a moral obligation to restore order in the Pankisi Gorge suggest that this was how Putin's message was construed. Moreover, leading U.S. politicians, including President Bush and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, have since substantiated Moscow's accusation that Tbilisi either condoned, or was powerless to prevent, Al-Qaeda members' taking refuge in Pankisi.

But whatever discreet behind-the-scenes pressure Washington may exert on Georgia, the Georgian military is manifestly incapable of apprehending the Chechen militants in Pankisi, even if given the orders to do so. (It is that inability that impelled Washington to launch its $64 million Train and Equip program for the Georgian armed forces earlier this year.) Some analysts are convinced that enough highly placed Georgian officials are aware of each other's role in co-opting Chechen militants to fight in Abkhazia last year that they dare not risk botching an operation to apprehend the Chechens lest the survivors escape to Russian territory and publicize their version of last autumn's events. That may be one reason why the Georgian leadership publicly announced the most recent crackdown in Pankisi several days in advance, thereby giving the Chechens the opportunity to leave the gorge for more rugged and inaccessible terrain higher in the mountains.

A third possibility is that Putin's apparent saber rattling was intended less as a statement of intention than as part of an all-out attempt both to discredit Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze in the eyes of the international community, and to demonstrate just two months prior to the November NATO summit in Prague that Georgia cannot by any stretch of the imagination be considered a possible candidate for a third round of NATO enlargement. That some factions in Moscow are seriously gunning for Shevardnadze is clear from involvement of the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office in determining whether Shevardnadze exceeded his authority in 1990 when as Soviet foreign minister he signed, together with then-U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, a decree redividing the Bering Sea that bars Russian ships from fishing within 320 kilometers of the U.S. coast. Experts have claimed that Russian financial losses resulting from that agreement amount to $200,000 to $1.5 million per year.

Assuming that, as "Novye izvestiya" posited on 13 September, the Russian leadership would like to see Shevardnadze quit as Georgian president, the question arises: Does Moscow have a handpicked candidate lined up to succeed him, whose election could be engineered without engaging in too flagrant procedural violations? Or would Moscow prefer to see a period of domestic political chaos in Georgia as rival factions battle (perhaps literally as well as figuratively) for control? Georgian politicians whom Moscow may consider as an acceptable successor to Shevardnadze include Adjar State Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze, Ertoba co-Chairman and former Georgian CP First Secretary Djumber Patiashvili, and possibly also fugitive former Georgian intelligence chief Igor Giorgadze, who claims to have a clandestine support network already in place in Georgia (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 11 February 2000).

The more radical Georgian opposition leaders such as former Justice Minister Mikhail Saakashvili were swift to seize on Putin's statement as a new weapon in their campaign against Shevardnadze. "Alia" on 12 September quoted Saakashvili as telling the Georgian parliament that having failed to build up an army capable of defending Georgia, the present leadership should step down and "give an opportunity to those who are capable" of fulfilling that task. Saakashvili left Tbilisi on 19 September on a "working visit" to the U.S., the purpose of which may, or may not, be to enlist Washington's support for him as a possible successor to Shevardnadze.

But more-moderate figures, including former parliament speaker Zurab Zhvania, have warned that to intensify efforts to unseat the present Georgian leadership at this juncture could play into Moscow's hands, according to a 20 September "Eurasia View" commentary. Zhvania warned that "Pankisi is just a formal reason for Russia to cultivate internal destabilization and civil confrontation in Georgia," and that the opposition should not "fall into the trap" of using Shevardnadze's current vulnerability to compound domestic political instability.

Chaos in Georgia following Shevardnadze's resignation could, however, prove counterproductive in that it could result in a total breakdown of law and order in parts of the country. In such circumstances, Chechen militants could again take over Pankisi and other mountainous areas as a "safe haven." That, presumably, is not what Putin is aiming for: In his 11 September statement, he argued that the "terrorist" presence on the Georgian-Chechen border constitutes the "main obstacle" on the road to a political regulation of the Chechen conflict. With that presence removed, Putin could withdraw some Russian troops from Chechnya and hand over to the Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov administration and its local police force responsibility for either co-opting or neutralizing the remaining Chechen fighters.

On the other hand, it is conceivable that Putin's objective is not to resolve the conflict in Chechnya at all but to preserve the status quo, which conveniently allows him to offload onto Shevardnadze the blame for failing to end the "antiterrorism" operation in Chechnya while at the same time appeasing his generals who are quietly amassing fortunes from the illicit sale of Chechen oil.

Moreover, a period of protracted instability in Georgia would be welcome to the Russian oil lobby in that it could delay construction of the planned Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline. Commenting on the groundbreaking ceremony in Baku last week, Russia's Caspian envoy Viktor Kalyuzhnyi commented that construction will not prove easy and that "there is a long way between the groundbreaking ceremony and completion of the project," Turan reported. (Liz Fuller)

KODORI, PANKISI TENSIONS STALL UN MEDIATION IN ABKHAZIA. In early July, Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini arrived in Georgia to take over as UN special envoy for Georgia from Germany's Dieter Boden. But Tagliavini's efforts to persuade the Abkhaz and Georgian leaderships to embark on talks on the document Boden drafted on the proposed division of powers between them have been stalled by rising tensions between Georgia and Russia over the alleged presence of Chechen terrorists in the Pankisi Gorge and by mutual allegations between Tbilisi and Sukhum, each of which suspects the other of preparing for new hostilities in the Kodori Gorge.

In an interview with RFE/RL last week, Tagliavini said her main concern is that ongoing tensions in the Kodori Gorge have blocked efforts by the UN Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) to mounting a new process for a political settlement. She explained that: "This valley has so much occupied our time in UNOMIG that we were very often dealing much more with crisis management than with the peace process. The situation is such that as soon as the situation deteriorates in the area, you can't put the sides together to speak about politics."

The small UN military observer mission carries out regular ground patrols in an area near the demarcation line that separates Abkhazia from the rest of Georgia. Kodori, on the Abkhaz side of the demarcation line, was the scene last autumn of deadly clashes between Abkhaz troops and alleged Georgian guerrillas and Chechen fighters.

Tbilisi subsequently dispatched army troops to the upper part of the Kodori Gorge, officially to protect ethnic Georgians living there from Abkhaz attacks. Tensions further worsened in April when Russian military helicopters landed dozens of soldiers in a disputed area close to the demarcation line. Russia said it was part of a peacekeeping mission but withdrew the soldiers after Georgian and UN protests (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12, 15, and 16 April 2002).

Tagliavini said her mission is exploring ways of strengthening its presence in Kodori. She declined to discuss in detail what new measures are under consideration but said patrols could be increased and the number of monitors increased from the current 109 to 136, which is allowed under the mission's mandate.

She said there is clear need for a more vigorous peacekeeping presence in Kodori, but at the same time made clear that unilateral action is unacceptable. "The growing concern of the Abkhaz population that something might happen in the Kodori [Gorge] makes it absolutely necessary that more things should be done, but it's quite clear that it should never be done in a unilateral action. UNOMIG would be always against such operations," Tagliavini said.

Calm must prevail in the Kodori Gorge before the Abkhaz side will consider further political talks, Tagliavini said, and even then the resumption of negotiations will be difficult. Abkhaz leaders reject the Boden document approved by a body known as the Group of Friends of the Secretary-General because it calls for Abkhazia to remain part of Georgia. Abkhaz leaders say the province has already asserted its right to independence.

Tagliavini said she will need the steady support of the group -- Russia, France, Britain, the United States, and Germany -- to move the process toward a comprehensive settlement. "I need their help. I need their support and I need their support also here in New York because in the field on my own sometimes it's very difficult to bring through and to convince both sides that it's necessary to do this or that thing," Tagliavini said.

The new envoy said she will return regularly to UN headquarters in New York to consult with the Group of Friends of the Secretary-General. She said one consistent challenge will be focusing the interest of world powers on the importance of a Georgia-Abkhaz settlement at a time of other crises, ranging from nearby Pankisi to Iraq.

"We have, unfortunately, so many conflicts in the world that very often Georgia is not at the forefront of the papers. I personally regret it, not because it is a particularly beautiful part of the world and a forgotten part of the world but I think also it is a very important strategic place.... strategically, economically, politically. It is a place which we should not forget so I am striving for making it more public," Tagliavini said.

Tagliavini has had previous experience in the Caucasus, working in Chechnya with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. She said she has been struck by the contrast between the region's natural beauty and riches and the desperate humanitarian situation of many of its people. Hundreds of thousands of people fled Abkhazia in the war and have lived nearly a decade in temporary housing in Tbilisi and the west Georgian town of Zugdidi.

"Everywhere in the world we have refugees and [internally displaced persons] in inhuman conditions. But it is unbelievable in such a fertile, such a rich country to see this situation of [a total lack] of rights of some people," she said.

One such fertile area is Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion, where tens of thousands of people, mainly Mingrelian farmers, have returned to scratch out a living harvesting hazelnuts. Tagliavini said this population is constantly under threat by the lawlessness in the region.

She said her mission next month will carry out a sweeping assessment of the law-enforcement situation in Gali. She said it will make recommendations to the UN Secretariat for new security measures, including training, new equipment and advisers, and possibly the introduction of some international police units. (Robert McMahon)

WAS DARWIN WRONG? Two weeks ago, the centrist People's Agro-Industrial Union (AAZhM) faction in the Armenian parliament parted company acrimoniously with its leader, Hmayak Hovhannisian, whom the remaining 10 members formally accused of being unable to organize the functioning of the faction and lacking a clear political position. The collapse of an 11-person faction would normally be of little note, especially as it does not change the balance of power within the legislature. But in this instance, Hovhannisian's comments are worth considering in that they reflect widely held perceptions of the professional level of some deputies and the influence wielded over them by the presidential apparatus.

The AAZhM was formed in July 2001 by the remaining members of the Kayunutiun (Stability) faction, once the second-largest in parliament with 21 members, of whom nine quit in December 2000 (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 29 December 2000). Another member demonstratively quit in July 2001 following disagreements with faction head Vardan Aivazian, whom he accused of having run for parliament with the sole intention of acquiring a senior government post. (Within days, Aivazian was named minister of environmental protection.) Hovhannisian, who formerly represented the opposition People's Party of Armenia, switched his allegiance to the pro-government AAZhM as soon as that faction was formed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 July 2001). Its stated aims, as reflected in its name, were to promote the development of both agriculture and the industrial sector in order to promote economic recovery and thereby strengthen Armenian statehood.

Hovhannisian's explanation of his rejection by his fellow faction members was that they were acting on orders from another, unidentified pro-government party that rejected his independent stance. That statement echoes others by members of opposition parties who are convinced that President Robert Kocharian has set in motion a single-minded effort to sabotage any opposition alignment. But as one Yerevan observer has pointed out, Hovhannisian's "independence" in this instance consisted in criticizing Kocharian, whom he had implicitly agreed to support when he accepted the position of faction head.

Equally pertinent is Hovhannisian's unflattering characterization of his fellow faction members. Noyan Tapan quoted him as describing them as "owning brothels or tram and trolley-bus routes or engaging in cattle breeding." (Hovhannisian, by contrast, is a former academic.) He said that the political activities of those deputies had shaken his faith in Darwin's theory of evolution, in that businessmen who had won a deputy's mandate had manifestly failed to develop into serious politicians.

But the AAZhM was by no means the only parliamentary faction that includes some wealthy businessmen whose primary purpose in seeking a parliamentary mandate was to cultivate contacts with the government bureaucracy. Observers believe that some of the independent candidates who ran on the Miasnutiun ticket in 1999 nursed similar hopes. And businessmen were also well represented in the parliament elected in 1995. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "This is not the way to solve problems." -- Armenian parliament speaker Karen Demirchian, seconds before he was shot dead in the Armenian parliament in October 1999. From the testimony at the trial of the five gunmen by then-head of government staff Shahen Karamanukian (quoted by Noyan Tapan on 9 September).

"It's like trying to predict the future by reading coffee grounds." -- OSCE Minsk Group Russian co-Chairman Nikolai Gribkov, asked by the Baku newspaper "Ekho" to name a tentative date for the next trip by the co-chairmen to Armenia and Azerbaijan (quoted by Arminfo on 5 September).

"Why, if Russia ships oil to Turkey, that is good, but if Azerbaijan ships oil to Turkey, that is bad?" -- Azerbaijani government spokesman Fuad Akhundov (quoted by AP on 18 September on the occasion of the groundbreaking ceremony for the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline).

"I don't know how long it will take -- one year, two, three, 10, 12, even 25 years -- [but] I am absolutely convinced that this verdict will be annulled." -- Chechen field commander Salman Raduev, interviewed by RFE/RL's Russian Service in Solikamsk, where he is serving a life sentence for the January 1996 hostage taking in Kizlyar (14 September).