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Caucasus Report: January 25, 2001

25 January 2001, Volume 4, Number 4

A TURNING POINT IN THE CHECHEN WAR? Over the past week, Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken three key decisions that appear to be aimed at expediting an end to the fighting in Chechnya and strengthening the civilian administration there.

On 18 January, Putin signed a complex plan drafted by then-still-interim administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov for stabilizing the economic, social and political situation in Chechnya. One key component of that plan was an unspecified reduction in the number of Russian troops to be stationed in Chechnya.

The following day, Putin signed a decree expanding the powers of Kadyrov's administration and formally removing from its designation the epithet "interim" contained in his June decree forming that administrative structure. The 19 January decree empowered Kadyrov to appoint a Chechen premier, who will simultaneously serve as one of his first deputies, and a fully-fledged Chechen government. The same day, Kadyrov named as premier former Stavropol Krai government head Stanislav Ilyasov, who was born and raised not far from the border between Chechnya and Daghestan.

Finally, on 22 January, Putin issued a further decree "On Measures To Combat Terrorism on the Territory of the North Caucasus Region of the Russian Federation," which formally transferred responsibility for conducting military operations in Chechnya from the Russian Defense Ministry to the Federal Security Service (FSB), whose spokesman Aleksandr Zhdanovich said later that day that his agency's top priority will be to hunt down detachments of Chechen fighters and neutralize their leaders. (That transfer of responsibility has also put paid to the Russian Defense Ministry's plans, announced by Chief of General Staff Colonel General Anatolii Kvashnin in mid-December, to deploy small groups of Russian troops in 200 of Chechnya's 357 villages to maintain order and protect the local population against attack by Chechen militants. Several Russian commentators had criticized that proposal as militarily ineffective and counter-productive.)

Both Western journalists and Chechen observers have suggested in recent months that the Russian military's failure to take further action to wipe out the remaining Chechen fighters even though their whereabouts are well-known is at least partly due to senior officers' desire to continue enriching themselves through the illicit export of oil and scrap metal from Chechnya (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 1, 5 January 2001). On 21 January, the Russian Interior Ministry launched a coordinated operation to intercept all such consignments of crude oil and scrap metal destined for export from Chechnya, suggesting that Putin may finally have lost patience with the military's combined inactivity and rapacity.

Assuming that the FSB succeeds in destroying or neutralizing the remaining Chechen fighters without indulging in the systematic and gratuitous brutality that has alienated the civilian population, that success could create favorable conditions for the functioning of Chechnya's new government. Kadyrov said in Moscow on 19 January that the Chechen population are pleased at Putin's decision to withdraw some federal troops.

The problems facing Chechnya's leadership fall into two broad categories: economic and political. Ilyasov told journalists in Moscow on the day of his appointment that his primary focus will be on economic and social issues, creating conditions for the return of displaced persons currently housed in refugee camps in Ingushetia, and on regaining the trust of the Chechen population. Russian Deputy Prime Minister for Chechen Reconstruction Vladimir Yelagin said the same day that Kadyrov's plan provides for restoration of the transport, fuel, energy and agricultural sectors, construction of housing, which he said will create "many" new jobs, and providing adequate medical care and education.

It is not entirely clear, however, how that program is to be financed: Yelagin said that as of February 2001, Chechnya will not be subsidised from the federal budget but will be treated the same way as the remaining 88 federation subjects, paying taxes to the center and receiving money in return. Specifically, all the profits from the Chechen oil sector are to be paid to the federal budget. The Chechen government, not the federal government, will be responsible for how money received from the center is used.

In the political sphere, Kadyrov's plan provides for the creation of a consultative body composed of respected representatives of Chechen society, and which will be subordinate to Kadyrov. That council is to draft new legislation (replacing the Islamic law introduced by President Aslan Maskhadov) that will harmonize with the laws of the Russian Federation. It will also draft a new Chechen constitution to be submitted for approval in a general referendum at an unspecified date, and draft election legislation that will make possible the election of a new leadership. (Kadyrov told Interfax on 19 January that it will be for the people of Chechnya to decide between a presidential and a parliamentary republic. He is also quoted as having told Putin several days earlier that elections should be held no earlier than two years after the end of the fighting.)

The adoption of the "Kadyrov plan," and the appointment of Ilyasov, whom Yelagin described as energetic and capable, give grounds for hope that the developments of the past week indeed signify a turning point for the better in Chechnya. But any number of things could go wrong. It is not clear, for example, how well Kadyrov and Ilyasov will work as a team, especially as the latter was reportedly not Kadyrov's first choice for the post of premier.

Colonel Aslanbek Aslakhanov, Chechnya's deputy in the Russian State Duma, has likewise made no secret of his disapproval both of the choice of Ilyasov as premier and the way that selection was made. Aslakhanov suggested to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" that the Kremlin is using Chechnya as a "dumping ground" for failed candidates for governor (Yelagin lost the gubernatorial election in Orenburg in 1999, and Ilyasov that in Stavropol last November -- see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," Vol. 2, No. 44, 6 December 2000). Aslakhanov also argued that the former Chechen leaders Salambek Khadzhiev and Doku Zavgaev, Umar Avturkhanov (who led the opposition to Preident Dzhokhar Dudaev in 1994) and Ruslan Khasbulatov should have been consulted on the optimum candidate for prime minister.

Ilyasov's choice of cabinet ministers may likewise prove controversial, especially as he has stated his intention of employing local personnel wherever possible.

Nor is it clear what levers the Russian military has at its disposal to sabotage the FSB's operations in Chechnya in order to safeguard its own illicit financial interests. Insofar as some Defense Ministry forces are to remain in Chechnya, fighting alongside FSB and Interior Ministry troops, the Defense Ministry may be in a position to give Chechen fighters advance warning of any operation against them. Alternatively, Maskhadov and other field commanders may withdraw their men to Azerbaijan or Georgia for the rest of the winter.

Delay in implementing that part of Kadyrov's reconstruction plan that entails creating new jobs combined with failure to wipe out the remaining Chechen field commanders could prove, literally, fatal. Sharip Alikhadzhiev, who heads the local administration in Shali, southeast of Grozny, warned last week that up to 60,000 young Chechen men could join the armed opposition unless they are provided soon with alternative gainful employment. (Liz Fuller)

IS ATATURK'S LEGACY THE MAIN OBSTACLE TO TURKISH-ARMENIAN RAPPROCHEMENT? On 15 January, five days after reports first surfaced of low-level diplomatic contacts between Armenia and Turkey, a Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman officially denied any softening of Ankara's stance on the preconditions for establishing diplomatic relations with Yerevan. That official denial suggests that the faction within the Turkish leadership which considers itself the guardian of Ataturk's legacy intends to subvert any move to improve relations with Armenia, which are currently strained by the success of Yerevan's three-year campaign for international recognition as genocide of the killings of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey in 1915, just as it has consistently sabotaged efforts to comply with the preconditions for EU membership, for which which Ankara first formally applied more than 20 years ago.

On 10 January, Reuters' Ankara correspondent quoted an unnamed senior Turkish diplomat as saying that, in a bid to preclude the adoption by further European parliaments of statements condemning the Armenian genocide, the Turkish leadership had decided on a two-part plan to counter the Armenian government campaign to pressure Ankara to acknowledge as genocide the massacre of an estimated 1.5 million Armenian subjects of the Ottoman Empire during the early twentieth century. The diplomat said that plan involved, on the one hand, unspecified measures to improve relations with Armenia, and on the other, creating the appropriate infrastructure for a discussion of the genocide, which, he said, should be conducted not by politicians but by historians. A second Turkish official told Reuters that the Turkish government had already embarked on "low-level diplomatic contacts" with Yerevan to that end.

The Reuters report received extensive coverage in the Turkish press, but already the following day Turkish Foreign Ministry Under-Secretary Faruk Lologlu (a former Turkish ambasador to Azerbaijan) denied that Turkey was considering establishing diplomatic relations with Armenia.

Meanwhile, in Yerevan several leading Armenian politicians interpreted the reported Turkish overture as vindicating the Armenian policy of campaigning for official recognition of the genocide. Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian was quoted as telling Armenian National Television on 12 January that Yerevan would welcome the establishing of diplomatic ties with Turkey, and as confirming that Ankara had begun talks on that issue with the Armenian leadership.

Three days later, however, the "Turkish Daily News" quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Huseyin Dirioz as denying that Ankara has in any way modified its position regarding Armenia in recent months. Dirioz was quoted as saying that Ankara abides by its earlier policy that no diplomatic relations with Yerevan are possible until Armenia ends its campaign for formal recognition of what he termed the "so-called genocide" and withdraws its forces from occupied Azerbaijani territories.

A subsequent publication in "Cumhuriyet" on 22 January clarified that the Turkish Foreign Ministry plans to proceed with "diplomatic contacts" with Yerevan, including a discussion of how the genocide issue should be handled, but stressed that such contacts do not constitute "diplomatic relations."

This swift retreat from, or disavowal of, an apparent tentative Turkish overture aimed at progress in a particularly thorny area of foreign policy is not unique: it also applies to Turkey's approach to EU membership, as Wolfgang Koydl, who was the Turkey correspondent of the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" from 1994-2000, points out in an essay published in the paper's weekend feuilleton on 13/14 January. Koydl quotes an unidentified senior Turkish diplomat as having told him that "whenever Turkey's relations with the EU threaten to improve," that prospect is swiftly sabotaged by a politicial arrest or trial.

Koydl identifies as the most influential Turkish opponents of EU membership those individuals whom he dubs "the Lord High Keepers of the Privy Seal in the form of the Pure Doctrine," meaning Ataturk's legacy. That group is composed, according to Koydl, of top military and government officials who are generally not corrupt, indifferent to material benefits, and interested solely in power. That group is ambivalent towards Europe: they acknowledge that integration into Europe is in line with Ataturk's vision, but they have no affection for Europe, and they oppose EU membership primarily because they realize that it would entail ceding part of their power to Brussels.

Many members of that group also oppose any concessions to Armenia; it is symptomatic that the Turkish Army General Staff devotes a section of its website ( to what it terms "the Armenian problem." One veteran Turkey-watcher has suggested that the Turkish military are confident that they can get away with that obdurate stance because of Turkey's geopolitical position and military strength. That observer also suggested that the apparent recent Turkish overture to Armenia may have been prompted by the desire to avoid giving the impression that Turkey is contributing to tensions in the South Caucasus at a time when the incoming U.S. administration is reviewing its regional priorities, in particular the planned Baku-Ceyhan oil export pipeline (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 3, 19 January 2001). (Liz Fuller)

DOES NORTH OSSETIAN INITIATIVE THREATEN GEORGIA'S TERRITORIAL INTEGRITY? Recent developments have highlighted the degree to which Georgia's would-be breakaway Republic of South Ossetia has gravitated into the Russian orbit over the past decade. That shift, in turn, calls into question the effectiveness of the policy pursued by Tbilisi over that time period of economic stranglehold and inflexibility in talks on possible models for future relations between the central government in Tbilisi and the unrecognized breakaway republic.

South Ossetia unilaterally declared its independence from Georgia in September 1990, three months before Georgia's first post-communist leadership abrogated the region's autonomy within the Georgian SSR in direct violation of a pre-election pledge. That Georgian move triggered two years of sporadic violence in which some 1,000 people lost their lives, and some 40,000 of the region's 60,000 Ossetian population fled north to the North Ossetian Republic, which is part of the Russian Federation.

Since 1991, South Ossetia has survived first thanks to cash injections from the Russian federal budget and in recent years increasingly from the smuggling of gasoline and other commodities from Russia to Georgia. A Reuters reporter who visited South Ossetia in the spring of last year reported that gasoline prices there were 50 percent lower than in Tbilisi.

In 1993, the Russian and Georgian governments signed a four-year program under which the two sides pledged to provide a total of 34 billion rubles ($28.6 million) for reconstruction, but Tbilisi provided only 0.9 percent of the amount it had pledged under that agreement, compared with Russia's 2.3 percent. And although the present South Ossetian leadership has retreated from the original dream of independent status as a first step towards the creation of a unified Ossetian state, there has been minimal progress towards reaching an acceptable compromise on South Ossetia's future political status within Georgia. As a result of that ongoing stalemate, most of the region's ethnic Ossetian population have by now acquired Russian passports.

True, since his election as president of the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania in January 1998, Aleksandr Dzasokhov has tried to facilitate a rapprochement between Tbilisi and the South Ossetian leadership in Tskhinval. It was Dzasokhov, a former senior Soviet Foreign Ministry official, who succeeded in bringing his former boss, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, and South Ossetian President Lyudvig Chibirov together at the negotiating table for the first time in June 1998.

But the stated willingness of both parties to continue the search for a mutually acceptable compromise appears to have been undermined by Georgia's insistence (encouraged by Western diplomats) that South Ossetia should not receive any funding from Georgia until it accepts Tbilisi's offer of "broad autonomy" within a unitary Georgian state. The South Ossetian leadership continues to hold out for a federal or confederal model. Despite the lack of progress on a political settlement, however, the number of Ossetian refugees who returned from North to South Ossetia in 1998 was six times higher than in 1997.

The situation deteriorated in the fall of 1999. In September, Tbilisi reduced electricity supplies to South Ossetia, prompting South Ossetian Premier Merab Chigoev to accuse the Georgian leadership of trying to sabotage the search for a settlement. Shortly thereafter, Russia too cut off power to the unrecognized republic, which at that juncture owed Moscow a total of $15 million for earlier electricity supplies. That move triggered the first demonstration, in mid-November, to call for Chibirov's ouster. In late December, however, Moscow and Tskhinval reached an agreement under which Russia undertook to supply the republic with three megawatts of power per day, to be paid for by shipments of lead and zinc ore. (In May 2000, that was the equivalent of five hours' electric power per day.) And in late March, the energy provider ITERA agreed to provide South Ossetia with one billion cubic meters of gas per month.

Visiting Tbilisi in late February 2000, Dzasokhov apparently succeeded in persuading Shevardnadze that talks on economic reconstruction in South Ossetia should proceed in tandem with the ongoing search for a political agreement. There are, however, grounds for suspecting that Dzasokhov was not acting out of altruism, but was interested primarily in creating conditions in South Ossetia that would encourage an estimated 15,000 refugees still in North Ossetia to return there, freeing up vacation and tourism facilities where they had been quartered. Dzasokhov is also one of the most enthusiastic supporters of routing a major north-south highway ("TRANSCAM") across the Caucasus, via both Ossetian republics, as part of a broader east-west transportation network clearly intended as a rival to the EU's TRACECA project (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, No. 10, 10 March 2000).

There are also grounds for suspecting that some members of the Russian government may have decided to use the South Ossetian conflict as an additional means of exerting pressure on Georgia in retaliation for its alleged support for the Chechen militants. The signing of a Georgian-Russian inter-governmental agreement on economic reconstruction in South Ossetia, originally scheduled for mid-March, was postponed first until late April, then until late May, because the Russian Foreign Ministry had reportedly not approved the draft agreement in question. That agreement was finally signed in Tbilisi in late December. (The EU agreed in July to provide 1.5 million euros towards implementation of an agreement signed by the two governments' representatives on restoring electricty and gas supplies and rail transport between South Ossetia and the rest of Georgia.)

Meanwhile, Georgian and South Ossetian representatives met twice, near Vienna in July 2000 and in Spain in November 2000, under the aegis of the OSCE and with North Ossetian representation, to discuss economic reconstruction and the thorny issue of South Ossetia's future status within Georgia. The two sides agreed that they would make no public statements on the progress or lack of progress in discussing that latter issue.

Russia's introduction last December of a visa requirement for citizens of Georgia who wish to travel to the Russian Federation (from which citizens of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are exempt) prompted Tbilisi to reciprocate by doing likewise for Russian passport holders. That move will make it difficult if not impossible for those residents of South Ossetia who have acquired Russian citizenship to travel to Georgia, assuming that they should need or want to do so.

The most recent threat to a solution of the conflict came not from Moscow, however, but from the North Ossetian capital, Vladikavkaz. The Georgian daily "Dilis gazeti" on 12 January reported that the North Ossetian parliament has begun debating a draft law on the creation of a free-trade zone on the republic's southern border that would also comprise the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia. (Such a free-trade zone is part of the "TRANSCAM" project.) The paper further quoted the chairman of the North Ossetian parliament's Judicial Committee as saying that the free-trade zone would create "the first legal precedent" for unification of the two Ossetian territorial entities. It could also promote regional separatism within Georgia: according to "Obshchaya gazeta" No. 51 for last year. Georgia's Gori Raion, which borders on South Ossetia, may formally ask to become a part of the new Ossetian territorial entity. That would entitle Gori residents to visa-free travel to the Russian Federation in order to sell the agricultural produce which is the raion's primary source of income. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK. "Some opposition radicals are even worse than the Armenians. Like the Armenians, they too are trying to prevent Azerbaijan from being admitted to the Council of Europe." -- Azerbaijan's President Heidar Aliev, quoted by Turan, 23 January 2001.