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Caucasus Report: November 7, 2002

7 November 2002, Volume 5, Number 36

DOES ANY HOPE REMAIN FOR CHECHEN PEACE TALKS? The 1 November claim by radical Chechen field commander Shamil Basaev that he planned and organized last month's hostage taking by Chechen rebels at the Moscow Theater Center on Dobrovka has served to substantiate some analysts' suspicions that the attack may have been orchestrated by an unidentified faction within Moscow. At the same time, Russian officials have categorically rejected Basaev's statement that President Aslan Maskhadov was neither informed in advance of the operation nor approved it. Moscow appears determined to intensify military operations aimed at locating and destroying Chechen militants while categorically rejecting peace talks, a strategy that many observers both in Russia and abroad consider misguided.

Even before the hostage taking ended, experts raised the possibility that the hostage takers received assistance from unknown accomplices in Moscow. In an interview published in "Izvestiya" on 26 October, former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski suggested that: "this terrorist act might have been conducted in agreement with some people in the Russian government structures. Otherwise, it is hard to understand why such a large group of armed gunmen wearing something like uniforms managed to take hostage several hundreds of people nearly in the center of Moscow. I wonder who in Russia is trying to prevent a political regulation of the Chechen conflict combining preservation of the country's territorial integrity and satisfaction of national aspirations of Chechens." The same paper on 28 October quoted an unidentified member of the Alfa squad that stormed the theater as saying that: "I am sure that Movsar Baraev did not transport weapons and TNT from Chechnya. He had accomplices in Moscow."

If the hostage taking was indeed carried out with the help, and possibly even at the behest, of a group of players in Moscow, the next question that arises is: Whom did they hope to discredit? Were they out to compromise Maskhadov and abolish the possibility of a negotiated end to the war? Or was the objective to embarrass, and undermine popular support for, Russian President Vladimir Putin?

The hostage taking has indeed served to marginalize Maskhadov. U.S. diplomats have reportedly written him off as "damaged goods." The "Los Angeles Times" on 31 October quoted an unidentified U.S. official as saying Maskhadov has "forfeited any legitimacy he had...he's either unwilling to stand up to terrorists or incapable of it."

Russian officials have gone even further: Presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembskii affirmed on 28 October that "Maskhadov's role in the Moscow tragedy is absolutely clear. He was one of those who orchestrated the terrorists' activities." One week later, on 4 November, Federal Security Service Director Nikolai Patrushev told journalists in Moscow that the names of those who masterminded the attack are well-known and that the FSB will redirect the focus of its operations in Chechnya in order to neutralize them.

Killing Maskhadov would, however, remove the last person capable of coordinating and restraining the Chechen resistance. Writing in "The Moscow Times" on 31 October, Russian military commentator Pavel Felgenhauer stressed that Maskhadov has repeatedly expressly forbidden his subordinates to undertake terrorist activities beyond the borders of Chechnya. In contrast, Basaev, who led the ill-fated incursion into Daghestan in August 1999, has demonstrated he has no such qualms, nor, experts point out, does the younger generation of Chechen fighters whom Baraev epitomized. Maskhadov's personal envoy, Akhmed Zakaev, warned that radical Chechen fighters who do not acknowledge Maskhadov's authority may undertake new acts of terrorism in an attempt to force Russia to withdraw its troops from Chechnya. He said the possibility cannot be ruled out that they might try to seize a nuclear-power plant, with catastrophic results not only for Russia but for the whole of Europe (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 October 2002).

The Kremlin nonetheless appears prepared to run the risk of either new terrorist acts or what Felgenhauer has referred to as "another Afghanistan." In a 6 November commentary, he pointed out that the younger generation of Chechen militants has gained access to far more sophisticated technology than was earlier available to the resistance and has managed in the past two months alone to shoot down six Russian helicopters. Felgenhauer recalled that the acquisition of U.S. Stinger missiles by the Afghan mujahedin in the mid-1980s heralded a turning point in the Afghan war, as the Soviet military was increasingly restricted in its ability to transport men and supplies.

But while Russian government officials, many Duma deputies, and Grozny administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov affirm that negotiations on ending the war peacefully are no longer an option, as there is no one left to negotiate with, there are still dissenting voices, some of them Russian or foreign experts and other statesmen who participated in earlier talks. Those individuals differ, however, in their recommendations as to who should participate in such talks.

Former Security Council Deputy Secretary Boris Berezovskii told Reuters on 5 November that "there is no one to talk to but Maskhadov." Former Security Council Secretary Ivan Rybkin similarly reasoned in an interview in the "Frankfurter Rundschau" of 4 November that there is "no alternative" to talks with Maskhadov, as it will be impossible to talk with whoever succeeds him. Anatol Lieven and Russian analyst Andrei Fedorov, by contrast, argue that since Maskhadov's position is weakened, other factions should also be represented: Fedorov suggested the "Afghan model" of a conference of all Chechen factions that would elect delegates to negotiate with Moscow. Lord Frank Judd, who is co-chairman of the joint Council of Europe-Russian State Duma working group on Chechnya, advocated marginalizing the extremist Chechen elements and bringing those with "more rational objectives" back into the negotiating process. Former Foreign Minister Yevgenii Primakov argued in "Die Welt" on 1 November that the Russian military should be excluded from any peace talks.

Journalist Anna Politkovskaya, however, believes that Shamil Basaev is in the process of marginalizing Maskhadov and that ultimately Moscow will have to negotiate with Basaev. That line of argument assumes that the FSB will not follow up on Patrushev's threat to "neutralize" the known leaders of the hostage taking, of which Basaev on his own admission was one. And if Maskhadov is killed, while Basaev escapes death or capture, his continued survival will fuel speculation about his rumored collaboration with Russian intelligence. (Liz Fuller)

HAS RUSSIAN-GEORGIAN PROXY WAR SHIFTED FROM PANKISI TO ABKHAZIA? Another unanswered question in the wake of the Moscow hostage taking is: Why did the Russian leadership (in contrast to individual Russian media outlets) choose not to try to implicate Georgia by claiming that Movsar Baraev and his accomplices planned the attack from a base in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge? After all, with most of the hostage takers dead and the few survivors under lock and key, it would not be easy for the Georgian leadership to refute such claims.

It appears, however, that, at least for the moment, Russia has switched tactics and is again using Abkhazia as its preferred means of exerting pressure on the Georgian leadership. Georgian Foreign Ministry spokesman Kakha Sikharulidze told Caucasus Press on 1 November that Moscow has withdrawn its approval of the document drafted by former UN special envoy Dieter Boden titled "Basic Principles for the Distribution of Competencies between Tbilisi and Sukhumi." Consequently, Sikharulidze said, a 4 November meeting of the United Nations Security Council to discuss the Abkhaz conflict has been postponed. Russia blocked approval of the Boden document by the Security Council for months last year but finally withdrew its objections in December 2001 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 April and 5 November 2001).

Tbilisi, meanwhile, has resurrected its earlier demand that the Russian peacekeeping force deployed under the CIS aegis in the Abkhaz conflict zone be either augmented with contingents from other countries or that its mandate be broadened to enable it to protect more effectively the Georgian population of Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion. Georgian National Security Council Secretary Tedo Djaparidze explained that the Georgian leadership will push to have the conflict zone in which the peacekeepers are deployed expanded to include the whole of Gali Raion and will also insist on the creation in Gali of a joint Abkhaz-Georgian administration and a joint police force. (Liz Fuller)

GEORGIAN DEFENSE, FINANCE MINISTERS AT ODDS OVER FUNDING FOR MILITARY. A disagreement has reportedly emerged between Georgian Finance Minister Mirian Gogiashvili and Defense Minister Lieutenant General David Tevzadze over the allocation of budget funds. In September, Tevzadze demanded, and the parliament unanimously endorsed, an additional 11 million laris ($5.1 million) to fund the purchase of a new air-defense system. Gogiashvili, however, declined to release that sum, arguing that it is more important to pay off the wage and pension arrears, Caucasus Press reported on 7 November. Tevzadze countered that failure to increase defense spending "will put an end" to Georgia's aspirations to NATO membership. On 1 November, Georgian armed forces Chief of General Staff Lieutenant General Djoni Pirtskhalaishvili told Caucasus Press that Georgia must embark on upgrading its air-defense system this year if it wants to join the NATO air-defense system in 2003. (Liz Fuller)

FORMER CHECHEN PRESIDENT FAVORED TIES WITH ARMENIA. General Djokhar Dudaev, the late president of Russia's breakaway Chechen Republic, secretly visited Armenia on several occasions in the early 1990s to lay out his vision of a "peaceful and independent Caucasus," according to a former Armenian government official. Filaret Berikian, who was in charge of unofficial contacts with indigenous peoples of the North Caucasus, says Dudaev cited ancient ethnic bonds between Armenians and Chechens and once sent a fuel consignment to the blockade-stricken country.

"Dudaev was a quite broad-minded person and was well aware of the role played by Armenians in the Caucasus," Berikian said in an interview with RFE/RL on 31 October. "He would even say that Armenians and Chechens have common ancestors and that there are hundreds of similar words in our languages." Dudaev, according to Berikian, told officials in Yerevan that cultural affinity between the two peoples was particularly strong before the Chechens converted to Islam in the 16th century.

The charismatic Chechen leader, who declared independence from Russia in 1991, was killed in 1996 during the first Russian military campaign in the breakaway region and is still seen many as a symbol of Chechen resistance to Moscow. Rumors have long been circulating about his confidential trips to Armenia. But they have never been confirmed by the authorities in Yerevan anxious to avoid Russian accusations of supporting Chechen separatism.

Berikian claims to have repeatedly met with Dudaev in the Armenian capital in his capacity as deputy head of the now defunct government Department on Special Programs. In his words, those contacts never had an official character and stopped after the start of the first Chechen war in 1994.

"General Dudaev wanted to build a peaceful Caucasus," Berikian said. "He played an important role in keeping Chechen militants from meddling in the Nagorno-Karabakh war [from the Azerbaijani side]. Furthermore, during the worst days of our blockade, he helped us with fuel. It was on his initiative that quite a lot of Chechen fuel oil reached Armenia."

Berikian claimed that the vital fuel was transported by rail through neighboring Azerbaijan, whose government had sealed the border with Armenia at the start of the Karabakh war in 1991. He declined to specify how the consignment could pass through Azerbaijani territory.

Berikian said that Dudaev's death gave rise to Chechen warlords who favor a strict interpretation of Islam and are hostile toward Armenia and other Russian allies in the Caucasus. He said that was the reason why Chechen gunmen who seized a Moscow theater in late October refused to release Armenians along with other Caucasian hostages. (Armen Zakarian)

FORMER ARMENIAN FOREIGN MINISTER MULLS PRESIDENTIAL BID. U.S.-born former Armenian Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian said in Yerevan on 30 October that he is eligible to run in next February's presidential election and will soon decide whether or not to join the race after assessing his chances of victory. "I am as eligible to take part in all electoral processes as the president of the republic and his most radical opponent," he told RFE/RL in an interview.

A former California-based lawyer who served as foreign minister in 1992, Hovannisian is seen as a potentially strong challenger to President Robert Kocharian's re-election bid. However, his bid for the presidency could be hampered by a clause in Armenia's Constitution that stipulates that only an Armenian citizen who has "permanently" resided in the country for the 10 preceding years can be registered as an election candidate.

Hovannisian obtained Armenian citizenship only last year, several months after surrendering his U.S. passport. But he argues that he first applied for citizenship in 1992, but it was delayed for many years "in violation of the law." "Based on the date of my application, I have been a citizen of the independent Republic of Armenia from the day of its creation," he said.

Hovannisian said his electoral plans depend on the findings of his political aides, who are now gauging his popularity with the Armenian electorate. He said he will make a final decision by the end of next month.

Hovannisian supported Kocharian's rise to power in 1998 but has since grown very critical of the current regime in Yerevan. He signaled his entry into active politics in April when he announced the creation of a nongovernmental organization tasked with promoting civic activism in Armenia.

Hovannisian said he will ascertain the circle of his political allies "in the coming weeks" and believes that the February vote will be held in two rounds. Kocharian, by contrast, has recently indicated his intention to win an outright majority of votes in the first round. (Shakeh Avoyan)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK: "It is important to draw distinctions between [Chechen President Aslan] Maskhadov, the mainstream Chechen commanders and the Chechen civilian population, on the one hand, and the Muslim militants, on the other. The latter have played only a peripheral role in the conflict, while the former are fighting a legitimate war against an outside invader.... The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, could begin negotiating with Maskhadov tomorrow and could end the war just as easily, if he could muster the political willpower." -- Editorial in the "International Herald Tribune," 26 October.

"A new and more radical kind of Chechen fighter wants to do to Moscow all that it has done to Chechnya.... The chances of a political settlement are practically zero.... The brutal ending of the crisis shows what stupidity the Chechens have to contend with. [The Russians] are unable to learn from history. This blindness will eventually lead to the destruction of the Russian empire." -- Maskhadov's former spokesman, Mairbek Vachagaev, quoted by dpa on 26 October.

"We emphasize that we are with the people of Russia in the face of brutal terrorist attacks. At the same time, we insist on a political solution to the conflicts in Chechnya and in the Caucasus. This is also a central demand of European foreign policy and security policy." -- German Federal Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, quoted by "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 31 October.