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Caucasus Report: April 9, 2001

9 April 2001, Volume 4, Number 14

KEY WEST LEAVES KEY QUESTIONS UNANSWERED. From 3-6 April, the U.S., French, and Russian co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group conducted several rounds of shuttle talks in Key West with the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Robert Kocharian and Heidar Aliev, on resolving the Karabakh conflict. Topics discussed included the withdrawal of Armenian forces from occupied Azerbaijani territory, the lifting of the blockade of Armenia, the return to their homes of displaced persons and refugees, and the status of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic under a final peace settlement.

Speaking to journalists on 7 April, U.S. Minsk Group co-chairman Carey Cavanaugh described the talks as "a bold and significant step forward," while his French counterpart Jean-Jacques Gaillard affirmed that "we are now much closer to peace" than before. In a written statement released the same day, the co-chairmen noted that "the Presidents demonstrated goodwill and a strong commitment to resolve this conflict on the basis of mutual compromise." They also said that "the co-chairmen are preparing a new comprehensive proposal that addresses the problems and needs identified by the presidents that require solution to achieve peace." They did not, however, divulge any details of that proposal, which is to be presented to Aliyev and Kocharian at a further round of talks to be held in Geneva in June.

The opening session of the talks on 3 April was less than auspicious: in what proved to be the only face-to-face exchange between the two presidents in four days, Aliyev publicly accused the Armenian side of "aggression" and "ethnic cleansing" and of invariably adopting a "tough and unconstructive position" in earlier talks. Visibly irritated, Kocharian responded by saying that "I have not traveled these many miles to Florida to embark on a propaganda campaign.... I have come here to work constructively to achieve a settlement."

Aliyev also criticized the OSCE Minsk Group for its failure to draft a peace proposal that would bring the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic back under Azerbaijani jurisdiction and preserve Azerbaijan's territorial integrity.

Notwithstanding the initial disagreement, on the evening of 5 April (the third day of the meetings) Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that the talks between the co-chairs and the Armenian side were proceeding successfully and "in a positive direction." (Those talks addressed, among other things, the withdrawal of Armenian forces from Azerbaijani raions adjacent to the unrecognized enclave: journalists were shown a photograph of Kocharian pointing to those districts on a map, and Oskanian confirmed that "we and the co-chairs worked very intensively with maps today." He added that the co-chairs have set up a group of "border experts" who are "equipped with everything.")

Oskanian implied that if similar progress was made in the talks between the co-chairs and the Azerbaijani representatives, a breakthrough might be achieved the following day. At that juncture, according to the RFE/RL correspondent, some unnamed diplomats were making plans to extend their stay on Key West in the anticipation that the talks would continue longer than the four days originally planned.

In the event, the talks ended on 6 April without any publicized tangible results. Nor did U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who opened the talks on 3 April, return to Key West, although U.S. officials had said he would be prepared to do so if a breakthrough was forthcoming. Speaking in Washington on 9 April after meeting briefly with U.S. President George Bush, Aliyev commented that "I have not had the chance to measure how close we [Armenia and Azerbaijan] are now."

Turan on 9 April quoted Azerbaijan's Foreign Minister Vilayat Quliev as telling VOA's Azerbaijani Service that the new Minsk Group peace proposal should incorporate the demands made by President Aliyev on 3 April and that the "mutual concessions" which U.S. Secretary of State Powell urged the two presidents to make should focus on those demands. Quliev said the co-chairs will need to do "a lot of work" in that direction. In addition, Quliev said that Baku is against the participation in future talks of representatives of the leadership of the unrecognized NKR, although it would condone the presence of representatives of the enclave's Armenian population and of its former Azerbaijani community. Cavanaugh had said on 5 April that he thinks that representatives of the Karabakh government should join the peace talks "at the appropriate stage."

But despite the lack of visible progress during the four days of talks, two developments give grounds for optimism. First, Cavanaugh told journalists on 7 April that both Kocharian and Aliyev had rejected a military solution to the conflict. Over the past three months, some Azerbaijanis have come to regard the use of force as possibly the only means to resolve the conflict. And second, Turan quoted Cavanaugh as saying that the Minsk Group co-chairmen will discuss the Key West talks not only with the other members of the Minsk Group but also with Iran, which does not belong to that organization but which he described as "an important player in the region."

That disclosure, if true, represents a major policy shift, insofar as the original rationale for creating the OSCE Minsk Group in 1992 was to exclude Iran (which had brokered two ceasefires between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces) from the peace process. Cavanaugh added that bilateral talks have already taken place with Iran on resolving the Karabakh conflict. One such discussion apparently took place in Athens last month between Oskanian and his Iranian counterpart Kamal Kharrazi (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 March 2001). (Liz Fuller)

CHECHEN ADMINISTRATION HEAD, DUMA DEPUTY AT ODDS. Plans by retired Interior Ministry General Aslanbek Aslakhanov, Chechnya's deputy to the Russian State Duma, to convene a congress of up to 3,000 representatives of the Chechen people next month to elect an interim legislature have already heightened existing tensions and rivalries between the various pro-Moscow Chechen factions, and could continue to do so.

Announcing the planned forum early last month, Aslakhanov said it would be "quiet, without any hysterics," with "no major reports," and that delegates would focus on "what to do next, how to get out of the crisis, how to restore the republic" and return displaced persons to their homes. Among those who would attend, Aslakhanov mentioned Vladimir Yelagin, who is Russian minister with responsibility for economic reconstruction in Chechnya, former Russian Supreme Soviet speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov, and Chechen Premier Stanislav Ilyasov, but not Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov.

Speaking after a conference in Moscow later in March devoted to ways of resolving the Chechen crisis, Aslakhanov said that the congress would be representative, with between 1,200-3,000 delegates elected by the present Chechen population and representing all ethnic groups resident in the republic. He did not exclude the participation of representatives of elected Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov, provided that Russian force bodies would guarantee their safety. The congress, Aslakhanov explained, would elect a body that would function as the region's legislature until the situation stabilizes enough to hold elections to a new parliament. In recent statements, Russian officials and members of the present pro-Moscow Chechen administration have predicted that it will only be possible to do so in eighteen months or two years at the earliest.

Yelagin endorsed Aslakhanov's initiative, but declined to comment on the possibility that Maskhadov's representatives might attend the congress. And Khasbulatov and Malik Saidullaev, chairman of the Moscow-based Chechen State Council, both of whom have repeatedly criticized Moscow's conduct of military operations in Chechnya, have since been identified as co-organizers of the forum.

The present pro-Moscow Chechen leadership, however, has rejected Aslakhanov's proposal out of hand. In what appears to be a coordinated campaign to rally public opinion against the planned congress, Kadyrov, Grozny Mayor Beslan Gantemirov and Lecha Magomadov, who heads the Chechen branch of the pro-Kremlin Unity party, have all appeared on Chechen television to denounce Aslakhanov's plans as inappropriate and untimely. They warned that the forum may "exacerbate the situation and lead to an even larger split" within Chechen society, ITAR-TASS reported on 3 April. They also argued that the most pressing priorities at present are to end the fighting, provide employment to enable the population to earn enough to buy food, and enable displaced persons to return.

That rhetoric suggests that Kadyrov and Gantemirov both perceive Aslakhanov's plans as posing a threat to them personally. If Khasbulatov's own estimate of the support he believes he can count on among the Chechen population is accurate (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, No. 21, 26 May 2000), he would face little competition should he wish to assume the role of chairman of the proposed informal legislature -- a position that, in turn, would strengthen his hand should he plan to contest the post of republican head at some future date. It is not clear, however, whether the Russian leadership would support such a bid by Khasbulatov. Moreover, there is potential for disagreement between Aslakhanov, who has consistently argued that Moscow should begin negotiations with Aslan Maskhadov on ending the fighting, and Khasbulatov, who has made no secret of his contempt for Maskhadov. (Liz Fuller)

SOUTH OSSETIAN PRESIDENT STRENGTHENS HIS POSITION. In an 8 April referendum, Ossetian voters in the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia approved a new constitution that narrows eligibility for the post of the republic's president, Caucasus Press reported. It also designates Russian a state language together with Ossetian, and provides for the official use of Georgian in districts where Georgians form the majority of the population. The Georgian community boycotted the referendum, in which 23,540 of an estimated 45,000 eligible voters participated. (The current Ossetian population of the disputed region is estimated at approximately 36,000). Sixty percent of those who voted approved the new basic law.

In an article published on the eve of the referendum, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" claimed that the new constitution was drafted with the explicit aim of securing incumbent President Lyudvig Chibirov's election for a second term in the ballot due in November 2001. By imposing the requirement that presidential candidates must have lived on the territory of the unrecognized republic for 10 years prior to the election, the constitution effectively bars several potential challengers, including Feliks Sanakoev, who served as first secretary of the South Ossetian Oblast Party Committee of the CPSU for 15 years beginning in 1979, and former premiers Gerasim Khugaev, who left the region for North Ossetia in 1997, and Oleg Teziev.

"Nezavisimaya gazeta" further accused both the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania and the Georgian authorities in Tbilisi of colluding with Chibirov in his bid to ensure his reelection. Both leaderships have cogent reasons for doing so: North Ossetian President Aleksandr Dzasokhov needs stability on the other side of the Russian-Georgian border to ensure the success and profitability of the Transcam transport project of which he is one of the main supporters. That project includes a free-trade zone that will straddle the border between North and South Ossetia (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, No. 10, 10 March 2000 and Vol. 4, No. 4, 25 January 2001). Tbilisi, which also stands to benefit from Transcam, prefers Chibirov to a more radical candidate who might take a far tougher stance in talks with Tbilisi on resolving the conflict.

Two developments indirectly substantiate the allegation that Tbilisi is backing Chibirov. First, although the Georgian parliament issued a statement condemning the 8 April referendum as an attempt to sabotage the ongoing search for a settlement of the conflict between South Ossetia and the central Georgian authorities, the Georgian Foreign Ministry has not done likewise. (The Georgian Foreign Ministry did, however, issue a formal condemnation of the presidential and parliamentary elections in Abkhazia in 1999 and earlier this year.) And second, on 10 April Irakli Machavariani, the Georgian head of the commission to resolve the conflict, announced that preliminary agreement was reached during talks in Tbilisi last week on a program of measures for reconstruction of the conflict zone in South Ossetia. (Liz Fuller)