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Caucasus Report: January 8, 2001

8 January 2001, Volume 4, Number 1

Support For Georgia's Leadership Waning, Poll Suggests. A recent poll of 1,000 citizens of Georgia conducted by the delightfully named GORBI Association for the Study of Public Opinion and Marketing showed support for the ruling Union of Citizens of Georgia (SMK) at only 14.6 percent. The SMK occupied second place among Georgian political forces, after the opposition Union for Revival (the second-largest parliament faction) with 19.5 percent. In third place was the third-largest parliament faction, Industry Will Save Georgia, which is headed by businessman Gogi Topadze, with 13.9 percent. Shalva Natelashvili's Labor Party was in fourth place with 10.8 percent, followed by the United Communist Party of Georgia (SGKP) with 10.5 percent, and the right-wing National Democratic Alliance (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 2, No. 7, 16 February 1999) with 8.5 percent.

Both the SMK and opposition parties, however, have questioned the accuracy of those ratings. SMK parliament deputy Koba Davitashvili pointed out that prior to the November 1999 parliamentary elections opinion polls had similarly shown the Revival Union leading the SMK, but the election returns resulted in a convincing victory for the latter, with 130 seats compared to the Revival Union's 58. SGKP chairman Panteleimon Giorgadze claimed that his party is the most popular in Georgia, while Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia of the National Democratic Alliance expressed surprise that expressed support for the SMK was as high as 14.6 percent: she said she did not expect that party to figure at all among the "top ten."

Topadze for his part noted that the aim of the poll was to register the degree to which support for the SMK had fallen as a result of the confrontation between its members and the party's founder, Eduard Shevardnadze.

Equally interesting are the findings of a poll of 300 respondents conducted in November by the weekly "Shansi." Asked who they anticipated will succeed Shevardnadze as president, 29 percent named Justice Minister Mikhail Saakashvili, 18 percent former Georgian Communist Party First Secretary Djumber Patiashvili, 13 percent Tbilisi Mayor Ivane Zodelava, 11 percent Labor Party chairman Natelashvili, 8 percent Adzhar Supreme Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze (who heads the Revival Union), 8 percent parliamentary speaker Zurab Zhvania (whom Shevardnadze appears to have been grooming as his successor), 7 percent Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia, and 4 percent deputy parliament speaker Vakhtang Rcheulishvili (Union of Revival).

The most striking finding is Saakashvili's popularity, compared with Zhvania's lackluster rating. And one individual is conspicuous by his absence from the list: Panteleimon Giorgadze's fugitive son Igor, who has repeatedly boasted to Russian journalists about the support he believes he could muster in Georgia (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, No. 6, 11 February 2000). (Liz Fuller)

Retired Azerbaijani Officers Call For Military Solution To Karabakh Conflict. In recent weeks, two former Azerbaijani defense ministers and one former deputy defense minister have publicly rejected their government's insistence that the Karabakh conflict must be resolved by means of peaceful negotiations, and demanded a new military campaign to bring the unrecognized enclave back under Baku's control. Former Deputy Defense Minister Colonel Isa Sadykhov even argued that a successful military action to liberate the Azerbaijani territories currently occupied by Armenian troops is a necessary precondition for signing any peace agreement.

The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry's response to those statements suggests that it considers such war mongering inappropriate and dangerous.

The first to call for a new offensive was retired Major-General Tacaddin Mehdiev, who served briefly as Azerbaijan's defense minister from mid-December 1991 to mid-February 1992. One of the founders of National Liberation Movement founded in the spring of 2000 to liberate the occupied territories by force, Mehdiev argued that a peaceful solution to Karabakh conflict is impossible. He estimated the current strength of the country's armed forces at five corps plus other military units, with a total of 220 tanks and the same number of armored vehicles and armored personnel carriers. (Those latter figures correspond to the maximum Azerbaijan is permitted under the revised CFE Treaty.) Mehdiev characterized Azerbaijan's army as "far from professional," arguing that it would be more effective to maintain a force of 40,000 professionals than 100,000 inadequately trained servicemen.

Responding to Mehdiev's disclosures on independent ANS-TV on 23 December, Defense Ministry press service head Ramiz Malikov accused him of divulging classified information and of "treason" and threatened to bring a court case against him.

The second call for military action came from retired General Dadash Rzaev, who served as Azerbaijan's defense minister from late February until early June 1993. The independent Azerbaijani News Service quoted Rzaev on 28 December as calling for a military solution to the Karabakh conflict that would entail liberating the occupied territories. But unlike his predecessor, Rzaev argued that the current state of the Azerbaijani armed forces is satisfactory. He rejected as exaggerated media reports claiming that typhoid and tuberculosis are endemic in the army.

The third former senior officer to advocate a new Karabakh offensive was former Deputy Defense Minister Colonel Isa Sadykhov, who together with a dozen comrades quit the Karabakh Liberation Organization in November to protest what he termed that organization's "involvement in politics" and subsequently founded the Union of Reserve Officers. Some 600 delegates attended the Union's founding congress in Baku in mid-December, according to "Zerkalo" on 19 December. Speaking at that gathering, Sadykhov and others argued that Azerbaijan's estimated 50,000 reserve officers should play a more effective role in training the current military intake. Some delegates to the congress also aired pent-up grievances, for example at having been ordered to retreat in 1992-1993 from strategic positions. Other speakers criticized the low salaries and pensions paid to current and retired servicemen.

Speaking at a press conference in Baku on 29 December, Sadykhov again expressed his "distrust" in the Azerbaijani leadership's commitment to a negotiated solution to the Karabakh conflict, arguing that the armed forces and the people together are capable of securing a military victory in Karabakh. He said that neither his union nor the Azerbaijani people would accept a "defeatist" solution to the conflict. The Union also issued a statement calling for government measures to improve the financing and general strength of the Azerbaijani armed forces which, the statement said, should aim to meet the standards of the Turkish and other NATO armies.

A group of Russian journalists from "Obshchaya gazeta" who toured the frontline in Fizuli last fall quoted several serving Azerbaijani officers as professing their readiness to fight in a new war to liberate Azerbaijan's occupied territories. But they also quoted Defense Minister Colonel General Safar Abiev as expressing concern lest any of the periodic exchanges of fire between Armenian and Azerbaijani troops mushroom into a new full-scale conflict. (Liz Fuller)

Khasbulatov: 'J'Accuse!' Following an unpublicized visit to Chechnya in late November, former Russian Supreme Soviet speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov has published in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" (on 29 December) a damning indictment of the Russian military's tactics in the second Chechen campaign.

Specifically, Khasbulatov charges that the Russian army could have either already put an end to the Chechen fighters' resistance or alternatively have turned that task over to the Chechen militia and Interior Ministry forces. But instead, according to Khasbulatov, the General Staff has managed to persuade Russia's civilian leadership to give it free hand to prolong indefinitely low-level military activities that allow the officer corps to enrich itself by engaging in large-scale thefts of oil and metal scrap, and to use Chechnya as a testing ground for unspecified new types of weaponry. The primary victims of that conflict, however, are not the Chechen fighters, but the unarmed and traumatized civilian population.

The total destruction of the Chechen infrastructure (Khasbulatov compares present-day Grozny with Warsaw after the 1944 uprising) and the pitifully inadequate measures undertaken by the Russian government to restore the economy and provide education and medical services have deterred the return to Chechnya of the intelligentsia and potential entrepreneurs. Moreover, that policy of destruction and neglect has, Khasbulatov continues, facilitated the appointment to administrative positions at both the republican and local level of what he terms "representatives of marginal strata who administered the republic throughout the 1990s." He does not, however, name any of those persons.

Khasbulatov nonetheless expresses doubt that the Russian military's brutal and counterproductive victimization of the Chechen civilian population is the result of a conscious policy choice on the part of Russia's civilian leadership. He suggests that it is more likely to have been the possibly unanticipated consequence of the army's having secured carte blanche from the latter to "restore order," without realizing that it is impossible to do so by means of violence, terror and repression. In this context, Khasbulatov argues that the military should not engage in the business of reconstruction in post-conflict conditions -- something it is not in a position to do in any case because even the lowland regions of Chechnya cannot be termed "post-conflict" as long as the militants are free to continue their guerrilla war of attrition against the Russian forces.

Continuing reliance on brute force may in fact prove counter-productive, Khasbulatov warns. He points to growing popular resentment towards Moscow, not only in Chechnya but in neighboring North Caucasus republics where, he claims, unemployed young men are increasingly inclined to embrace the radical Islam that has filled the ideological vacuum left by the collapse of Soviet-style communism. In an earlier analysis of the situation in Chechnya last summer, Khasbulatov had similarly warned of the emergence of a class of illiterate young thugs who acknowledge no authority other than that of their immediate commander (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, No. 21, 26 May 2000). That religious ideology is, moreover, paralleled and complemented by dreams of creating a "united North Caucasus Republic" outside the Russian Federation, Khasbulatov claims. (Liz Fuller)

Local Administrator In Chechnya Quits In Disgust. Khasbulatov is not alone in his rejection of Moscow's policy in Chechnya. The local administration chief in Chechnya's northwestern Nauri Raion, Sergei Ponamarenko, on 29 December announced his intention to resign and return to his hometown of Georgievsk, Glasnost-North Caucasus reported. Ponomarenko argued that the June 2000 appointment of former Chechen mufti Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov as interim Chechen administration head shows that Moscow "is not serious" about trying to solve the problems facing the Chechen Republic.

Echoing Khasbulatov's charges, Ponomarenko said that all Chechens know that Chechen field commanders pass freely at check points, and the military try to justify their inaction by the lack of specific orders to kill them. He claimed that the Chechen population is convinced that the Kremlin needs this hotbed of tension. When he was federal administration representative, Ponomarenko said, ordinary people came to him asking him to help solve their problems; but now they refuse to cooperate with the pro-Moscow local authorities and turn instead to supporters of President Aslan Maskhadov. (Liz Fuller)

Quotation Of The Week. "On New Year's Eve I appeal to all citizens of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, wishing them peace and happiness, which they have missed so much in the past year. In the coming century, we must prove to the world that the Chechen Independent State will occupy a worthy place in the world community of states, and it will be guided by democratic principles and the rule of the law. I wish everyone happiness and success in the coming year, patience and steadfastness, courage and resolve." -- New Year's address by Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, dated 30 December 2000 (quoted by Glasnost-North Caucasus on 3 January).