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Caucasus Report: March 2, 2001

2 March 2001, Volume 4, Number 9

WHAT OPTIONS REMAIN FOR RESOLVING THE KARABAKH CONFLICT? The publication last week of the three most recent OSCE Minsk Group draft proposals for resolving the Karabakh conflict (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 7/8) has prompted senior officials in both Armenia and Azerbaijan to distance themselves from all three drafts. As for Arkadii Ghukasian, president of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, he told OSCE Chairman-in-Office Mircea Dan Geoana in Yerevan on 27 February that any attempt to resolve the Karabakh conflict should proceed from "current realities" rather than "far-fetched models."

Armenian President Robert Kocharian told journalists on 22 February that none of the three OSCE draft proposals drafts has been discussed during his one-on-one meetings with his Azerbaijani counterpart Heidar Aliyev over the past 18 months. (That statement does not necessarily conflict with Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian's statement last summer that the final peace plan may be a composite comprising elements of two or more of those proposals -- see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, No. 28, 14 July 2000.)

In Azerbaijan, President Aliyev told a two-day parliament session on 23-24 February that all three drafts are "unacceptable" to Azerbaijan. At the same time, he defended his own efforts to reach a settlement, noting that he has met a total of 98 times with the Minsk Group co-chairs, and discussed the Karabakh conflict 18 times with the U.S. president or secretary of state, 16 times with the French president, 28 times with the Russian president and 78 times with various Turkish leaders.

Referring to the groundswell of support in Azerbaijan for a military campaign to bring Nagorno-Karabakh under Baku's control, Aliyev said that Azerbaijan's armed forces are strong enough to do so. But he pointed out that starting a new war would incur condemnation from the international community and serve to corroborate the perception in the West that "Azerbaijanis again want to slaughter Armenians as they did in the past."

As for the option of "freezing" the status quo until Armenia's economy collapses and its leadership agrees to concessions, Aliyev said that doing so would be unfair on the hundreds of thousands of displaced persons who have been living in tent camps since 1992-1993, and who want desperately to return to their homes.

Another approach raised and then rejected at the parliament session was that of an exchange of territories whereby Armenia would receive Karabakh in return for ceding its southern Meghri region. Aliyev told deputies on 23 February that the Armenian leadership had rejected that proposal last year (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, No. 23, 8 June 2000).

On the issue of Karabakh's future status, Armenia and Azerbaijan appear still to be as far apart as ever. Armenia rejects any "vertical" subordination of Karabakh to Baku, whereas Azerbaijan has hitherto insisted that its territorial integrity must be preserved and Karabakh should remain an autonomous formation within Azerbaijan. But whereas Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Vilayat Quliev had said late last year that Baku is prepared to offer Karabakh "a high degree of autonomy," Aliyev told parliament deputies on 24 February that he no longer considers it possible to revert to the "regional autonomy" which Nagorno-Karabakh had prior to 1988, and that "cultural autonomy" is all that Baku could offer. "Let us think reasonably," Aliyev said. "They [i.e. the Karabakh Armenians] did not tolerate this regional autonomy created in1923 and started war and aggression in 1988, so much blood was shed, they occupied our lands. Can we now return to them that regional autonomy? This is not possible."

Two possible approaches may, however, offer a chance for progress, if not a fully-fledged peace agreement. The first of those, which has the advantage of obviating the "status" issue, is Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian's so-called "Don't ask -- don't tell" approach. As explained to RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau last September by then Armenian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ara Papyan, it would entail Armenia and Azerbaijan reaching agreement on all points of a settlement, including the future status of Karabakh. But that status would deliberately be couched in terms vague enough to allow the two presidents to present it to public opinion in a way that would not leave them vulnerable to accusations of "selling out." That approach would entail covering all aspects of the settlement in one peace agreement.

The second approach was advocated last year by former Azerbaijani presidential advisor Eldar Namazov, and is comparable to the 1996 "Khasavyurt" accord that was intended to pave the way for a peaceful political settlement of the Chechen conflict. Under that accord, Moscow and Grozny were to reach agreement on other issues, such as the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya and reconstruction of the republic's shattered infrastructure, while agreeing to postpone for a maximum of five years a formal agreement of Chechnya's status vis-a-vis the Russian Federation.

Namazov was quoted in "Zaman" on 30 January as suggesting that "we can put off the granting of status to Nagorno-Karabakh for 10-15 years. During this period, we can solve other problems (return the refugees to districts around Karabakh and open communications with Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia) and achieve mutual trust with the Armenian separatists," by which he presumably meant the leadership in Stepanakert. But Namazov added that "we should notify the Armenians right at the start as to what would be the highest degree of self-government we would give them within Azerbaijan in 10 or 15 years. At present, [Karabakh] Armenians are not willing to accept this status, but they will agree to it 10 or 15 years down the line, after obtaining rich social protection within Azerbaijan and not within Armenia."

"Zaman" further quoted presidential administration official Novruz Mammadov as saying that Namazov's ideas have figured "in the general context of the settlement process." It is not clear whether they have been discussed by Aliyev and Kocharian. (Liz Fuller)

HAVE GEORGIAN GUERRILLAS SWITCHED TACTICS? Two Russian members of the CIS peacekeeping force deployed along the border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia were seriously injured when the KamAZ truck in which they were travelling hit an anti-personnel mine in the village of Chuburkhindji in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali raion, Caucasus Press reported on 26 February citing that day's issue of "Akhali taoba."

Between July 1994 and late 1998, some 67 Russian peacekeepers died in similar incidents as a result of mines laid by members of the "White Legion" or "Forest Brothers" guerrilla groups that operated in Gali and on the Georgian side of the 12-kilometer-wide security zone on each side of the border. The Georgian government claims to have no control over those guerrillas, but one of their leaders had admitted that he receives some funding from the chairman of the Abkhaz parliament in exile, Tamaz Nadareishvili. As of mid-to-late 1998, however, the guerrillas switched tactics, targeting primarily Abkhaz police patrols rather than Russian peacekeepers.

It is not clear whether the most recent incident constitutes a further shift in the guerrillas' tactics, or whether it was pure chance that the peacekeepers' truck, rather than an Abkhaz police car, hit the mine in question. Nor is it clear whether any significance should be attached to the timing of the incident: Lieutenant General Sergei Korobko, who had commanded the CIS peacekeeping force since early 1998, was replaced two weeks ago by the former commander of the Russian peacekeeping forces in Tajikistan, Major General Nikolai Sidorichev.

In one of his last interviews as commander of the peacekeeping forces, Korobko said that the situation in the security zone has deteriorated since the release from detention in western Georgia of Dato Shengelaia, one of the leaders of the Forest Brothers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 January 2001). Korobko recalled that he has repeatedly called for joint action by the Georgian and Abkhaz police and the CIS peacekeepers to crack down on violent crime in the security zone, but to no avail. It remains to be seen whether Sidorichev, who will meet on a monthly basis with Georgia's Defense Minister Davit Tevzadze to discuss the military situation in Gali, will be any more successful. (Liz Fuller)

CHECHEN FOREIGN MINISTER RULES OUT SURRENDER. Eighteen months into Chechnya's second war with Russia in a decade, the breakaway republic's pro-independence government is determined to continue its resistance to the Russian military. Speaking in Brussels on the eve of the 23 February anniversary of the brutal deportation of Chechens to Kazakhstan, Central Asia, and Siberia during World War Two, Chechen Foreign Minister Ilyas Akhmadov said the current war is only the most recent stage of a struggle that has gone on for centuries.

Akhmatov said his government believes Russia's ultimate aim is the extermination of the Chechen people, something he says independent observers would find ample evidence for if only Russia would let them into Chechnya. Akhmatov said surrender would mean "national suicide." "Unfortunately, our government does not have the luxury of choice. We are looking for only one outcome and we know that only that outcome will guarantee the life and security of our nation, that outcome is victory."

Akhmatov acknowledged that the current war, which began in the fall of 1999 and continues today, is not a satisfactory alternative. He estimated that 70,000 Chechens have died and that more than 200,000 people have been forced to leave the country to live in pitiful conditions in refugee camps. The official Russian casualty count is much lower.

The Chechen foreign minister said his government has been willing to negotiate with Russia since the beginning of the war. He listed the Chechen demands as: a stop to fighting, the removal of troops from both sides to specially designated zones, and the start of talks under the aegis of the OSCE or another international mediator. He says Chechnya would also demand setting up an independent international commission to find out who was behind the 1999 bombings of apartments in Russia which triggered the war.

Akhmatov said Chechnya is no longer looking for immediate international recognition. He said all of his contacts now serve one overriding objective: to bring an end to the war.

Akhmatov said his discussions in Western capitals over the last year have been "very serious" and "very productive" and that Chechen views are heard and even acted upon, but he does not mention who he is speaking with. He said that "As a rule, these [diplomatic] contacts are semi-legal. This has to do with the protests of the Russia side. Russia is after all a great power. It has an enormous array of means to influence the course of events, including our foreign-policy goals. Sometimes when I have confirmed contacts, [Russia's influence] has had undesired effects, and we have lost potential friends who were ready to help us."

He described the Western position as generally "principled," mentioning declarations made by France's President Jacques Chirac and former U.S. President Bill Clinton. But, he added, these have in practice been limited to little more than expressions of concern.

Akhmatov said he remains sceptical of the international community's willingness or ability to bring an end to the conflict. He is particularly critical of the OSCE. "The OSCE, the only organization with the mandate to have real influence on the situation [in Chechnya], has criminally distanced itself from the conflict. I remember the foreign minister of Austria, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, whose visit [as then president of the OSCE last year] raised high hopes in Chechnya. As I remember, all that she could retain from the visit was surprise at Putin's accent-free German."

Akhmatov said disillusionment with the West means that his government and its forces will have to carry on fighting. He says that although the rebels permanently control only about 20 percent of Chechnya's more mountainous terrain, after nightfall practically the entire country becomes Chechen territory. In recent months, Akhmatov said, Chechens have also begun taking the fight into larger towns in full daylight. (Ahto Lobjakas)

RUSSIA LAUNCHES MEDIA OFFENSIVE IN CHECHNYA. Television and TV transmitters in Grozny began relaying RTR and Radio Rossii broadcasts on 27 February, Russian media reported. The transmitters have a radius of 20-40 kilometers from the capital. Relay stations have also been repaired in ten other Chechen towns, according to ITAR-TASS, which means that the broadcasts can be received on 70 percent of Chechnya's territory. Russia's First Deputy Media Minister Mikhail Seslavinskii told that agency that last year Moscow spent 60.8 million rubles ($2.1 million) to restore those transmitting faciltiies. The second Russian TV channel, ORT, will be broadcast in Chechnya beginning in May.

The Russian broadcasts are, however, only one aspect of Moscow's campaign to provide the Chechen population with information. Glasnost-North Caucasus on 20 February quoted Chechnya's new minister of information and the press, Vassilii Vasilenko, as saying that the Russian government has allocated a total of 125 million rubles for the Chechen media. Vasilenko, who previously headed state radio and television in the Republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia, said a new "informational doctrine" has been drafted for Chechnya."We will organize a television company with the most modern equipment, and train journalists and technical staff," the new minister is quoted as saying. Work on the installation of 17 broadcasting mechanisms will soon begin. A new printing house is also to be opened in the republic, and will start publishing a state newspaper, Vasilenko said.

On 22 February, Chechen journalist Hodja Gerikhanov told a press conference in Moscow that he has been elected head of the newly created Union of Journalists of Chechnya, which has already been formally registered with the Russian Justice Ministry. Gerikhanov said that most of the 125 journalists who were members of the Chechen journalists' union that existed prior to 1995 have been constrained to leave Chechnya, and that the media there are "practically paralyzed." He listed as the new union's primary tasks "uniting our colleagues," and then launching publication of a Chechen newspaper and electronic media. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "The political situation in Armenia is very dangerous. The constant changes that are taking place there have subjective rather than objective reasons. Being more pragmatic than their leaders, Armenians are so stuck in their day-to-day problems that they are unable to form public opinion." -- Former Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrossian, in an interview with the French journal "L'Express" on 15 February reprinted in "Azg" and "Aravot" on 1 March.

"I know well our army and its commanders. They are reasonable persons, in fact more peace-loving than the authorities. The real danger, in my view, stems from the political maximalism of the current authorities." Ter-Petrossian, ibid.)

"I am against all tendencies, including wahhabism, that divide Muslims, my people, into two camps [and] give our enemies the chance to provoke a fratricidal civil war. [...] I am against the spreading of any ideology that is unacceptable to my people." -- Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov, in an interview published in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 28 February.

"Our best friend and brotherly country is Turkey." -- Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliev, addressing parliament on 24 February, quoted by Azerbaijani TV Channel 1 (courtesy of Groong).