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Caucasus Report: March 30, 2001

30 March 2001, Volume 4, Number 13

NOTE TO READERS: The next issue of "RFE/RL Caucasus Report" will be published on 9 April 2001.

NEW ARMENIAN OPPOSITION ALIGNMENT SETS OBJECTIVES. On 20 March, one day after publication of their "founding declaration," the leaders of several Armenian left-wing parties convened a press conference in Yerevan to outline the aims and objectives of the new National Accord Front (AHCh) in which they are aligned. But no prominent members of either of the country's two most influential left-wing parties, the Communist Party of Armenia and the People's Party of Armenia, were present, leading observers in Yerevan to conclude that the leadership of those two parties prefer to avoid open confrontation with President Robert Kocharian, at least at present. Membership of the AHCh is on an individual basis, giving the parties involved greater room to maneuver.

Not only was the initial showing of support for the AHCh weaker than many in Yerevan had expected, but its representatives stopped short of declaring as their primary objective forcing Kocharian to resign. Instead, they said they would focus their efforts on drafting a comprehensive program to combat corruption and mobilizing popular opposition against the imminent privatization of four electricity distribution networks.

At a second press conference nine days later, however, the AHCh's putative leader, Ashot Manucharian, a former national security adviser to President Levon Ter-Petrossian who now heads the small Union of Socialist Forces, said that the AHCh will campaign for Kocharian's resignation and for "the restoration of the supremacy of allied, strategic relations with Russia." One of Kocharian's most outspoken critics, Manucharian has repeatedly criticized Kocharian for pursuing what he sees as an overtly pro-Western foreign policy.

AHCh leaders said on 29 March that the campaign to force Kocharian's resignation will proceed peacefully, by means of rallies and public meetings. But they added that no such protests will be held before next week's talks in Key West between Kocharian and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Heidar Aliev, on approaches to resolving the Karabakh conflict.

Manucharian, who many believe has close ties with Russian security officials, did not rule out the possibility of launching impeachment proceedings against Kocharian in parliament. But it is unclear whether the AHCh is capable of doing so: such a move would require the support of two-thirds of the 131 parliament deputies, and the parties aligned in the AHCh at present have only a handful of parliament deputies between them. (Armen Zakarian, Ruzanna Khachatrian)

AKHMADOV NOTES INCREASED BRUTALITY AGAINST CIVILIANS IN CHECHNYA. Speaking at a briefing at RFE/RL's Washington office on 27 March, Chechen Foreign Minister Ilyas Akhmadov noted that since the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) took over from the Defense Ministry responsibility for conducting the war in Chechnya, brutality against Chechen civilians has increased significantly. He said that over the past two months, hundreds of Chechens have simply disappeared, many of whom have been killed and buried in mass graves. Previously, Akhmadov noted, the average number of bodies discovered in mass graves was 10-15; that figure has now risen to 100-200.

Akhmadov said Moscow's decision to target the civilian population may reflect frustration on the part of both the Russian government and people at the Russian forces' failure to inflict a total military defeat on the Chechen forces, whose numbers Akhmadov put at 15,000.

Akhmadov also denied Russian media reports that he or other Chechens are considering setting up a government-in-exile either in the U.S. or elsewhere. (RFE/RL)

CAN MOSCOW PREVENT THE EMBEZZLEMENT OF FUNDS FOR CHECHEN RECONSTRUCTION? Addressing the State Duma on 21 March, Russian Deputy Premier Viktor Khristenko announced that in 2001 the Russian government plans to spend 8 billion rubles on economic reconstruction in Chechnya. Five weeks earlier, Vladimir Yelagin, who is minister with responsibility for socio-economic development in Chechnya, told journalists in Moscow that the program of measures for Chechnya drafted by the Russian government envisions total spending this year of 14.4 billion rubles ($520 million), of which, Yelagin continued, 1.3 billion is earmarked to fund the return of displaced persons, 2.4 billion for the reconstruction of "small-scale infrastructure," 4 billion for the rebuilding of the oil sector, and 2 billion to pay back salaries and pensions. He added, however, that only 4.5 billion rubles of that total would be allocated from the budget. The remainder is to be provided in the form of investments by Unified Energy Systems, Gazprom, the Railways Ministry, and in profits from Chechnya's new Russian-controlled oil company, Grozneft.

It is not clear whether the apparent discrepancy between the two totals cited by Khristenko and Yelagin reflects a decision by the Russian government to revise downwards the amount to be spent this year. But whatever the sum in question, the conviction remains widespread that the lion's share of the Russian government funds will disappear into a "black hole." That conviction is based primarily on the experience of 1996-1999, when funds for rebuilding after the 1994-1996 war were largely misappropriated.

Some commentators claim that money disappeared last year too. Union of Rightist Forces chairman Boris Nemtsov, for example, told "Komsomolskaya pravda" two weeks ago that "it's an open secret that most of this money is embezzled." Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov was quoted by "Vremya novostei" in early December as admitting money was misspent, but denying any personal responsibility; as he pointed out to the paper "the federal power structures in Chechnya do not answer to me, and I do not know which money is spent on what."

But an audit carried out last fall by Viktor Krakhmal, a member of the administration of the presidential representative to the South Russia Federal District, Viktor Kazantsev, revealed no large-scale embezzlement, although it did uncover, for example, cases when money earmarked for school textbooks was instead spent on fuel. That audit also established that at that time Chechnya had only one bank account (that of the temporary administration), and that it was unclear how funds were transferred directly to other organizations and departments. The Audit Commission came to a similar conclusion in January, noting that last year some funds believed to have been embezzled were simply transferred to the wrong bank account in Moscow.

Yelagin is confident that a system has been worked out that will ensure that budget funds are not diverted in the future. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 1 March quoted him as explaining that "control groups" will be established comprising operatives from the Interior Ministry, the Finance Ministry, and the Federal Security Service, which will monitor the transfer of money from one bank account to another. Those officials, Yelagin said, will preserve a "broad overview" and will be able to pinpoint any potential "weak links" in the chain.

Speaking at a Russian Security Council session on 29 March, Khristenko similarly said that funding for Chechnya is being "strictly monitored" by a government commission. (Liz Fuller)

WILL MOSCOW TRY TO USE THE MESKHETIANS AGAINST GEORGIA? Addressing the Georgian parliament on 27 March, deputy speaker Eldar Shengelaia said that legislation -- drafted by the Association of Young Lawyers to create a legal framework for the repatriation of the Meskhetians to Georgia and approved by the Council of Europe -- will be presented to the Georgian legislature in August. When Georgia was accepted into membership of the Council of Europe two years ago, it was on condition that measures be taken to expedite the repatriation over a 10-year period of those Meskhetians who wished to make Georgia their permanent home. The Georgian leadership argued at that time that it did not have the financial means to allow thousands of Meskhetians to return immediately to their native villages (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, No. 32, 11 August 2000).

The Meskhetians, whose ethnic origins are disputed, were deported to Central Asia by Joseph Stalin in November 1944 from their homes in the southern Georgian region of Meskhet-Djavakheti. Despite decades of intensive lobbying, only a few hundred have been permitted to return to Georgia; some who consider themselves ethnic Turks have either settled in Azerbaijan or emigrated to Turkey. But those who now wish to return to Georgia include both some who are convinced of their Georgian ethnicity and others who consider themselves Turks. Indeed, a small number of repatriated Meskhetians who consider themselves Turks "dream of joining Akhaltsikhe to Turkey," according to Anzor Tamarashvili, Georgian parliament deputy for that district.

That possibility of an influx of pro-Turkish Meskhetians into southern Georgia has generated concern not only among the present predominantly Armenian population of Djavakheti, but also in Yerevan. Visiting the Armenian capital on 28 March, Georgian Foreign Minister Irakli Menagharishvili personally reassured Armenian Premier Andranik Markarian that the repatriation of the Meskhetians will not adversely affect Djavakheti's ethnic-Armenian population.

If the repatriation proceeds gradually, and if, as the Georgian government has proposed, the Meskhetians can be persuaded to settle in other regions of Georgia rather than converge on their native villages, the grounds for friction should remain small. But there are indications that some in Russia may have seized upon the Meskhetians as a means of exerting pressure on Tbilisi. Glasnost-North Caucasus on 22 March quoted Aleksandr Blokhin, Russia's Minister for Nationalities and Migration Policy, as saying that the estimated 13,000 Meskhetians currently resident in Krasnodar Krai will be given residence permits valid for one year, during which they must decide where they wish to live permanently. The krai's legislature has passed a bill which restricts the right to buy property in the Krai to persons who are registered as permanent residents.

Regardless of its intentions vis-a-vis Georgia, Moscow has at least two compelling reasons to try to reduce the Meskhetian presence in the North Caucasus. First, according to a recent article in "Patriot," Meskhetians together with emigrants from Armenia have acquired a virtual monopoly of market- and street-trading in many towns in the region. That monopoly has exacerbated local enmity towards them. And second, the Meskhetians have one of the highest birthrates in South Russia: in the Abinsk and Krym raions of Krasnodar Krai, 50 percent of children born are Meskhetian. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "It is important for Georgia that the contradictions that exist in the South Caucasus do not grow deeper." -- Georgian Foreign Minister Irakli Menagharishvili, speaking in Tbilisi on 26 March (quoted by ITAR-TASS).

"Karabakh is a de facto sovereign state. We have our own position and we will defend it. This is not a matter that can become the prerogative of a single political party." -- Arkadii Ghukasian, president of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, addressing the enclave's parliament on 21 March (quoted by Noyan Tapan).