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Caucasus Report: September 29, 2002

29 September 2002, Volume 5, Number 32

IS RUSSIA HELL-BENT ON WAR 'TO THE LAST CHECHEN'? Two years after Russia sent troops into Chechnya in December 1994 in a bid to thwart President Djokhar Dudaev's determination to create an independent Chechen state, Dudaev was dead and the last of those Russian troops were preparing to leave the republic, having been routed by Chechen forces who triumphantly reconquered Grozny in August 1996. Within one month after that, Russian Security Council Secretary Aleksandr Lebed and Chechen chief of staff Aslan Maskhadov had signed a cease-fire and a further agreement that gave both parties a period of five years (until 31 December 2001) in which to reach consensus on the status of Chechnya within, and vis-a-vis, the Russian Federation.

In January 1997, Maskhadov was chosen Chechen president in elections acknowledged as legitimate by both Moscow and the international community. And in May 1997, Maskhadov and then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed a Treaty on Peace and the Principles of Mutual Relations Between the Russian Federation and the Chechen Republic Ichkeria under which they abjured the use of force against each other and agreed to structure bilateral relations "in accordance with the generally accepted principles and norms of international law" -- a formulation that Maskhadov subsequently claimed was tantamount to Russian recognition of Chechnya's independent status.

By contrast, three years after Russian troops entered Chechnya on 1 October 1999, the two conflicting sides are bogged down in what Russian President Vladimir Putin describes as an operation to neutralize scattered and ineffective bands of "terrorists," but in which the primary victims are the civilian population. (Salambek Maigov, who chairs the Chechen Antiwar Congress, told journalists in Moscow on 17 September that between 60,000 and 80,000 civilians have died in Chechnya over the past three years.) Maskhadov and other Chechen field commanders are, according to Russian officials, on Interpol's "wanted" list. The Russian military high command, and some Russian civilian politicians, are adamant that there can be no repeat of the Lebed-Maskhadov Khasavyurt accord, which they consider both a humiliation and a major strategic blunder in that it precluded hunting down and destroying the remaining Chechen forces.

True, President Putin has advocated cutting the number of federal troops in Chechnya from its present level (estimated at around 80,000, of whom about half are believed to be Defense Ministry forces) in order to upgrade the role of the Chechen Interior Ministry in neutralizing the remaining Chechen fighters. But Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov indicated on 22 September that he considers it unlikely that the present troop level in Chechnya will be substantially reduced in the next two years. Such pronouncements substantiate the impression that Russia is in Chechnya for the long haul -- until, as one observer grimly put it, it has succeeded in slaughtering the last Chechen.

Although support among the Russian public for the "antiterrorism" campaign in Chechnya has fallen dramatically, neither the civilian nor the military leadership shows any sign of feeling pressure, whether domestic or from the international community, to end the war. One respected British military observer estimates Russian military losses at around 30 per month. And many senior Russian military officers only stand to benefit from a continuation of hostilities, either in terms of promotions or through their involvement in the clandestine theft and export of Chechen oil (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 5 January 2001). At a lower level, the Russian rank and file continues to plunder Chechen homes and seize civilians for ransom, in defiance of orders by successive Russian troop commanders to avoid any such human rights violations during "sweep" operations to locate and apprehend Chechen fighters.

Putin, for his part, rejects any criticism of the military's tactics, according to testimony presented at a recent U.S. Helsinki Commission hearing on the war in Chechnya. But at the same time, the Russian leadership appears anxious at least to create the impression of caring about the restoration of law and order and the repatriation of the estimated 170,000-200,000 displaced persons who have fled to Ingushetia over the last three years of hostilities.

But even if Moscow wanted to negotiate an end to the fighting in Chechnya, it has, some observers say, maneuvered itself into a situation where it is difficult to do so. Even prior to the terrorist attacks on the United States of 11 September 2001, the Russian leadership consistently ruled out (at least in its public statements) negotiations with Maskhadov except on the terms for his surrender, claiming that he neither controls all field commanders nor enjoys the unqualified support of the Chechen population. The single officially sanctioned publicized attempt at starting peace talks, last November's meeting between Chechen Vice Premier Akhmed Zakaev and presidential envoy to the South Russia Federal District Viktor Kazantsev, reportedly failed to find common ground. And as "RFE/RL Caucasus Report" argued three weeks ago, the recent closing of ranks between Maskhadov on the one hand and his radical Islamist former opponents Movladi Udugov and Zelimkhan Yandarbiev on the other hand only plays into the hands of those Russia factions that consider talks with him anathema. Moreover, Russia's insistence on the need to wipe out the "terrorist threat" on its southern border is too convenient a weapon to use against Georgia as that country prepares its case for NATO membership for Moscow to discard it lightly.

Lebed's successor as Security Council secretary, Ivan Rybkin, who has emerged as the possible leader of an "antiwar" party in Russia, has publicly reminded President Putin that all wars in history have ended at the negotiating table. And following the downing since late August of two Russian helicopters with a loss of more than 120 lives, Maskhadov last week announced that the current tactics of low-level partisan warfare will soon give way to large-scale military activities. Whether the Chechens are capable of making good on that threat is, however, debatable. And even if they do, it is difficult to predict precisely what losses they would need to inflict to coerce the Russian leadership to embark on new peace talks.

Ironically, from the point of view of preserving Russia's territorial integrity (which was the rationale for the first Chechen war), Maskhadov could prove a more accommodating negotiating partner than some of his would-be rivals. He has recently made clear that he no longer insists on independent status for Chechnya: In an interview in "Novye izvestiya" on 24 September, Rybkin claimed that at a conference last month in Liechtenstein, Zakaev read out a 15-point settlement plan, the first point of which is that the Chechen resistance would agree to direct presidential rule for an unspecified "transition period" following the cessation of hostilities. According to on 25 September, the reasoning behind that apparent major concession is that presidential rule is the only way to guarantee an end to reprisals against the civilian population by federal troops and the military formation loyal to current Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov.

By contrast, former Russian Supreme Soviet Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov's proposal to grant Chechnya internationally guaranteed special status would be far harder for the Russian leadership to swallow -- or so one would think. But according to Rybkin, while the settlement proposal he drafted together with Zakaev on the basis of agreements formulated in 1997 has encountered fierce opposition from the Kremlin, Khasbulatov's is viewed rather favorably. (Liz Fuller)

IRANIAN ENVOY QUESTIONS ARMENIA'S 'COMPLEMENTARY' FOREIGN POLICY. In a thinly veiled criticism of Armenia's "complementary" foreign policy that apparently reflects Tehran's unease over deepening Armenian-U.S. relations, Iranian Ambassador to Yerevan Mohammad Farhad Koleini on 28 September publicly questioned Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian's vision of Armenia's national security.

Although Koleini stressed that he was expressing his personal opinion, the very fact of a foreign diplomat's taking issue with Oskanian in public is quite extraordinary and could have important implications. He spoke after Oskanian outlined Armenia's foreign-policy priorities to more than a hundred activists of Ramkavar Azatakan, a small pro-government party with close diaspora links. The gathering was also attended by foreign diplomats and journalists.

Using a figurative and at times ambiguous wording, Koleini indicated that Armenia lacks the resources and international clout to continue to pursue its "complementary" policy of maintaining simultaneously good relations with the West, Russia, Iran, and other major powers. "Complementarism requires both software and hardware instruments," he said. "Armenia's software capacity is good, but in terms of the hardware, there are problems."

"Don't you think that it would be more correct to describe [your policy] as a multilateral dialogue instead of complementarism?" he asked Oskanian. Koleini went on to argue that "even great powers must not have illusory approaches to their capabilities," rebuking the Armenian leadership for pursuing what he termed "globalist security." Oskanian responded by assuring Koleini that Armenia will never take any steps that could harm Iran. "We will not do anything in the region infringing on the interests of neighboring countries that are strategically important to us," he said.

Oskanian specifically emphasized that Armenia remains strongly opposed to the idea of ceding the Meghri district, which gives it a common border with Iran, to Azerbaijan as part of a possible settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. He also said that Yerevan will "take into account" Iranian interests when it comes to selecting countries that will contribute troops for a future Karabakh peacekeeping force.

Koleini's critical remarks came after Oskanian reaffirmed his government's intention to boost security ties with the United States and other Western powers in view of the changed geopolitical situation in the world. Mentioning Armenia's participation in the U.S.-led antiterrorism campaign, Oskanian revealed that U.S. military planes bound for Central Asia have carried out more than 600 flights over Armenian territory during the past year.

Like neighboring Georgia and Azerbaijan, Armenia opened its airspace to the U.S. military shortly after the 11 September terrorist attacks. The United States allocated $4.3 million in military assistance to Armenia shortly afterward. A similar amount of military aid is expected to be earmarked by Congress for the next financial year. The U.S. ambassador to Armenia, John Ordway, said late last month that the two sides will soon "accelerate" the implementation of their joint defense projects.

In May, Ordway publicly voiced reservations about Armenia's generally cordial rapport with Iran, which President George W. Bush had accused of forming an "axis of evil" together with Iraq and North Korea. In an interview with RFE/RL, Ordway said Washington expects Yerevan's support in countering Tehran's perceived efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction and to undermine the Middle East peace process (see "RFE/RL Armenia Report," 3 May 2002).

In a bombshell statement several days later, the U.S. State Department announced the imposition of sanctions against an Armenian biochemical company accused of selling sensitive equipment to Iran. Armenian government officials were quick to try to address U.S. concerns and claim to have tightened export controls on all border crossings since then. They are now thought to be exercising more caution in their dealings with the Iranians, something which might explain Koleini's unusually frank comments. In an apparent reference to Bush's 12 September speech at the United Nations General Assembly, the Iranian ambassador noted that great powers often retract their accusations directed at smaller countries and that their military presence in various parts of the world is not perpetual. Armenia, he said, should have "reliable friends" and "viable alternatives." In his speech, Bush made no mention of his administration's earlier charges leveled against the Islamic Republic. (Emil Denielyan)

REMEMBERING RAMAZAN KHAPPOULLAEV. The venerated Lak historian, ethnographer, and man of letters Ramazan Khappoullaev died of a sudden heart attack in Makhachkala on 21 September at the age of 60. For decades, he functioned as a force for culture and moderation in his native Daghestan, adding to the cultural riches of his own people and of many other countries, including Britain, by deftly circumventing possible confrontation with the Soviet authorities.

Mountainous Daghestan has always been famous for producing great religious scholars, such as the Lak Jemalladin of Kazi-Kumukh, who was the charismatic independence leader Shamil's Sufi teacher in the early 1800s. Through necessity, Ramazan transmuted his precious heritage into a contemporary idiom. He was the Caucasian equivalent of an English gentleman, imbued with a mixture of natural charm and authority. His slight stature, twinkling eyes, and crackled smile underlined his powers as a mediator.

I met Ramazan some 17 years ago on my first visit to Daghestan and we remained close friends ever since. I was his "konak" (honorary brother) when I was in Makhachkala and when he traveled to London and Oxford. In his words, he was a "lucky Lak," one of a minority numbering about 100,000; he used to say that "every time a Lak is born, it is a miracle." His hospitality knew no bounds, and he once counted the 31 toasts that I drank with him and Vice President Baghauddhin Akhmedov and helped me home afterward. He said that he liked my face and he extricated me from endless local difficulties.

On one occasion, when both he and the archaeologist, Professor Kudryavtsev, were at the airport to see me off, we were unpleasantly arrested because my visa was stamped both by his Ministry of Culture and the Academy of Sciences. He swiftly located and signed a bizarre form to say that I had always been a prominent member of the Daghestani branch of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and I was soon freed to catch the plane with an elliptical warning that I would be expelled if it happened again.

The literary and intellectual achievements of his father, the beloved Lak national poet, were an inspiration to Ramazan, who was both an administrator and a delightedly bookish man. In a period of Soviet xenophobia, he wanted his country to be understood abroad. When I first met him, he immediately helped me with all my research and gathered and passed on to me the willing help and expertise of his wide circle of friends. He even took me to sit beside his family's graves the first time the Daghestani authorities permitted the celebration of the holy festival of Uraza Bayram. Ramazan was a moderate Sunni Muslim who proudly showed me the partially restored, ancient, early great mosque in Kazi-Kumukh, the Lak mountain capital, where Jemalladin had prayed. He was equally proud of the educational achievements of his daughters.

During the Soviet period, against a background of prejudice against Caucasians, he subtly worked for recognition of Daghestani identity through his long-running and popular series of radio programs about the large number of Daghestani heroes of World War II.

In 1989, he was the key contributor to the unique exhibition Daghestan Today at the Aga Khan's Zamana Gallery in London. Later, mindful of the destruction of neighboring Chechnya, he worked constructively and persistently to ensure that there was created a repository of the culture of Daghestan in Britain. He often found duplicates of ethnographic objects, books, and maps unavailable in Britain. He smoothed local doubts and unselfishly helped with the work on Kaitag embroideries, which, through several exhibitions -- one is planned for Washington this year -- continues to give the art of Daghestan international recognition. In the face of extreme political difficulties, he allied his museum to several international associations, bringing Daghestan out of the enforced isolation of the Soviet period.

Daghestan is almost alone in the Caucasus in having avoided interethnic conflict since 1989, though several national movements sprang up during the heady days of independence. Realizing that ideas of independence for minority peoples in the Caucasus were unrealistic and dangerous, Ramazan served as a moderating influence within high government circles and within the Lak movement, whose slogan was "Daghestan undivided." His wisdom contributed to fending off a potential conflict in 1992 between Laks, Chechens, and Kumyks in Novo-Lak Raion. Nor did his sense of moderation fail him when he was defrauded of victory during the 1990 Makhachkala parliamentary elections.

After his term as director of libraries, Ramazan was promoted to director of the State Museum of Local Lore and History in Makhachkala and of the several regional museums of Daghestan. He was one of a tiny minority in the post-Soviet Union who was a decent boss and a modest man who never sought personal material gain. He showed a sure touch in organizing an authoritative exhibition about Shamil and the Caucasian Wars that was permitted about 1994 after many years on ice and that replaced the "permanent" Soviet-era exhibition of Lenin and socialism. But Ramazan opposed the destruction of the latter exhibits, arguing that in spite of the sufferings it brought, the Soviet period was indeed part of Daghestan's history. His untimely death leaves many projects unfinished.

Ramazan favored long nighttime conversations on the dark verandah of his Makhachkala apartment, when he would illuminate many of the contradictions of post-Soviet life. For example, he played a key role in the suppression of Stalin-era archives in Daghestan. Asked why they should not be made public, he replied, parodying Jorge Luis Borges, that however awful the past had been -- and it was awful -- it was more important not to store up future bitterness and recrimination. That difficult decision on his part has been proved right and has likely saved much violence and consequent misery.

It is a measure of the immense respect in which Ramazan was held that Daghestani Supreme Council Chairman Magomedali Magomedov was among the thousands who paid tribute at his graveside, as was Daghestan's most eminent living novelist, Rasul Gamzatov.

(This report was written by Robert Chenciner, who has been a senior associate member of St. Anthony's College, Oxford, since 1987 and an honorary member of the Daghestani branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences since 1991.)

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK. "Nagorno Karabagh [sic] has never been a part of independent Azerbaijan. Whether we consider history or geography, whether we adopt a long-term political perspective, or whether we face the reality of the facts on the ground, the men, women and children of Nagorno Karabagh have earned the right to live peacefully on their historic lands." -- Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, addressing the UN General Assembly on 16 September.

CORRECTION: "RFE/RL Caucasus Report" of 23 September 2002 quoted OSCE Minsk Group Russian co-Chairman Nikolai Gribkov as saying that predicting the date of the next trip to Armenia and Azerbaijan was like trying to predict the future by reading coffee grounds. In fact, Gribkov was referring to attempts to predict when the Karabakh conflict will finally be resolved.