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Caucasus Report: April 20, 2001

20 April 2001, Volume 4, Number 15

GEORGIAN PARLIAMENT MAJORITY TARGETS A MINISTER. Having successfully precipitated the resignation of Prosecutor-General Djamlet Babilashvili in February (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 6, 9 February 2001), reformist members of the majority Union of Citizens of Georgia (SMK) parliament faction recently set about trying to force the ouster of a second senior official, Interior Minister Kakha Targamadze.

Respected opposition deputy and National Democratic Party of Georgia Chairwoman Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia has repeatedly accused Targamadze of involvement in economic crime, in particular cigarette smuggling. And last fall the SMK parliament faction claimed that Targamadze had overstepped his authority by ordering the electronic surveillance of some parliament deputies (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, no. 43, 3 November 2000), but failed to muster sufficient support to launch impeachment proceedings against him.

Targamadze has since come in for criticism for having acquired, together with a group of fellow Interior Ministry officials, financial control of Tbilisi's Dynamo soccer club. SMK deputy Koba Davitashvili, who launched the probe that led to Babilashvili's resignation, succeeded in persuading the parliament's Committee for Juridical Issues to conduct an investigation into Targamadze's acquisition of Dynamo. That move incurred harsh criticism from Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze. Shevardnadze has publicly defended Targamadze's efforts to save the club, which he described as an indivisible part of Georgia's national culture. Targamadze himself refused to cooperate with the investigation, which reportedly also turned up evidence of his complicity in less innocuous activities, in particular irregularities connected with trade in second-hand cars.

The investigation inevitably triggered speculation as to who might replace Targamadze as interior minister: possible candidates mentioned include Giorgi Baramidze, who is chairman of the parliament's Defense and Security Committee, and Audit Chamber chairman Sulkhan Molashvili. But that speculation has subsided following Shevardnadze's expression of support for the embattled minister. (Liz Fuller)

FORMER GEORGIAN PRESIDENT'S SUICIDE AGAIN CALLED INTO QUESTION. Georgian Labor Party leader Shalva Natelashvili has called on Georgia's Prosecutor-General to reopen the investigation into the circumstances of the death on 30 December 1993 in the west Georgian village of Djikhaskari of former President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Caucasus Press reported on 16 April. Natelashvili said it is necessary to do so in light of claims by fugitive former Georgian intelligence chief Igor Giorgadze that Gamsakhurdia was murdered by representatives of the Georgian special services at the behest of the country's leadership. On 18 April, however, the Prosecutor-General's Office told Caucasus Press that it sees no reason to reopen the investigation into the former president's death.

Both Russian and Western sources reported in January 1994, when Gamsakhurdia's death became known, that his widow Manana Archvadze-Gamsakhurdia had said he had shot himself as pro-government forces closed in on his hideout. Those sources cited an alleged suicide missive in which the former president affirmed that "I commit this act in protest against the ruling regime in Georgia and because I am deprived of the possibility, acting as the president, to normalize the situation and to restore law and order." But almost immediately rumors began to circulate that Gamsakhurdia was murdered -- either by the Georgian government, or at the orders of Moscow or even Washington.

Manana Archvadze-Gamsakhurdia refused to allow an autopsy of her husband's body. But western journalists who witnessed the disinterment of his remains from a temporary grave in Djikhaskari in mid-February confirmed that the corpse had a bullet wound in the side of the head. At that time, "The Guardian" quoted then Georgian Deputy Security Minister Avtandil Ioseliani as saying that he was convinced Gamsakhurdia had died of cancer and that the bullet wound to the head was inflicted after his death. "Manana refused to let us perform an autopsy so that in two years time she can say he was murdered and hold it against the Georgian state," Ioseliani added.

As predicted, Archvadze-Gamsakhurdia did subsequently claim that, rather than commit suicide, her husband had been murdered. In August 1994 Interfax quoted her as saying that he was killed on orders from his former premier, Bessarion Gugushvili. (After Gamsakhurdia's ouster in early January 1992 by warlords Tengiz Kitovani and Djaba Ioseliani, Gugushvili fled to Finland where he has subsequently gained political asylum.) Then, in March 1995, she told "Trud" that Gamsakhurdia's bodyguards shot him following a failed attempt to poison him. Four years later, in March 1999, Archvadze-Gamsakhurdia accused Guram Absandze, who had served as finance minister under Gamsakhurdia, of masterminding her husband's murder.

Last week Nemo Burchuladze, who served as deputy parliament speaker under Gamsakhurdia, told the Georgian newspaper "Akhali taoba" that he too believes Gamsakhurdia was murdered, with the aim of preventing him from disclosing information that could have embarrassed his enemies. (Liz Fuller)

NEW APPROACHES TO ENDING CHECHEN CONFLICT DISCUSSED. A recent Russian press commentary suggests that a "third force" may soon emerge in Chechnya that opposes both the federal troops and those supporters of Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov who are believed to be motivated primarily by religious zeal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 April 2001). Writing in "Obshchaya gazeta," No. 15, April 2001, Bakhtiar Akhmedkhanov predicts that the West may try to persuade Moscow, which he claims is "intensively" seeking to identify and enlist a negotiating partner with sufficient authority to end the conflict, to begin negotiations with that force. He also cites the Chechen website as suggesting that if the Russian leadership succeeds in bringing the war to an end, the only way it could then strengthen its position in the North Caucasus is by creating a single pro-Moscow federation subject comprising the existing North Caucasus republics.

According to Akhmedkhanov, the embryonic "third force" has engaged in military operations against both the federal troops in Chechnya and the forces of Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov. He claims it is steadfastly opposed to the radical Islam ("wahhabism") in the name of which field commanders such as Shamil Basaev first sought to confront and marginalize then President Aslan Maskhadov, and then launched the ill-fated invasion of Daghestan in August 1999 that precipitated the current war.

Akhmedkhanov identifies as a possible key figure in the "third force" field commander Ruslan Gelaev, who is widely believed to have left Chechnya last autumn for Georgia's Pankisi gorge (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, no. 41, 20 October 2000). Gelaev is reputed to oppose wahhabism and to have refrained from the hostage-taking and executions undertaken by several of his peers, including his arch-enemy Arbi Baraev. Since last summer, Gelaev's name has been mentioned several times as someone who might either align with Moscow against the radical Islamist field commanders or serve as a mediator in negotiations between Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov and Maskhadov.

Kadyrov is reported to have embarked on his first tentative (and inconclusive) contacts with Gelaev in August 2000 in the hope of persuading him "to lay down his arms and return to peaceful life." Kadyrov admitted in November to being in contact with some of Gelaev's subordinates, although he said that Gelaev himself was "clearly too busy" to meet with his envoys. And last month Kadyrov said he is in touch with Gelaev and other unnamed field commanders whose "hands are not stained with blood" (meaning that they are not known to have engaged in terrorist activities either in Chechnya or elsewhere in Russia). State Duma deputy for Chechnya Aslanbek Aslakhanov last November named Gelaev as a possible interlocutor with whom he said the Kremlin should begin talks while it still could.

Assuming that Akhmedkhanov's interpretation of the motives of the various parties concerned is accurate, there is still no guarantee that an attempt by Moscow to coopt the putative "third force" and deploy it for its own ends would prove successful. Russian attempts to mobilize a Chechen opposition force to oust then President Dzhokhar Dudaev in the autumn of 1994 were not only totally ineffective, but served to precipitate the first war.

Moreover, at least some influential individuals within the present Chechen administration would almost certainly perceive the emergence of an armed, disciplined and effective "third force" as a threat. If Gelaev were to play a role in concluding a cessation of hostilities similar to that undertaken in the late summer of 1996 by then Chechen chief of staff Maskhadov, he would stand a reasonable chance of emulating Maskhadov's subsequent victory in the January 1997 presidential elections. But Kadyrov as well as other influential Chechens, including possibly former Russian Supreme Soviet speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov, also aspire to the post of elected Chechen leader. In addition, Grozny Mayor Beslan Gantemirov could probably call upon up to 1,000 armed supporters if he chose to attack Gelaev's men.

As for the argument that redrawing the map of the North Caucasus could help strengthen Russia's hold on the region, it may seem attractive to those politicians in Moscow who are lobbying for an overall reduction in the number of federation subjects. It would almost certainly, however, be construed as a slap in the face by the older generation of those North Caucasus ethnic groups whose autonomous republics were abolished in the wake of their 1944 deportation by Stalin to Central Asia.

Moreover, by substituting a single extended government and administrative structure for the present existing nine (assuming that Stavropol and Krasnodar krais would be subsumed into the new federation subject), such a move might well compound, rather than reduce, the current breakdown in law and order, economic stagnation, and competition for scarce resources that has already exacerbated tensions between ethnic groups in the North Caucasus. Those processes, in turn, would inevitably expedite the outmigration from the region of the Russian population, thereby increasing what Khasbulatov recently termed the "very real" danger that "the entire geopolitical space between the Black and Caspian Seas [will] turn into a zone of constant military-partisan activity interspersed with periods of 'neither war nor peace.'"

Perhaps realizing the risks inherent in any such redrawing of the map, the Russian leadership gave a cool reception to Union of Rightist Forces leader Boris Nemtsov's successive suggestions that Chechnya either be designated the eighth federal district or that the republic be divided into a lowland zone subordinate to Moscow and a mountain region controlled by guerrilla forces. Similarly, federal envoy to the South Russia federal district Viktor Kazantsev in February rejected a bill drafted by the Duma's Committee for Federation Affairs that would have temporarily subordinated the three northernmost districts of lowland Chechnya to neighboring Stavropol Krai. Kazantsev said that doing so would hinder the return to their homes of displaced persons forced to flee during the fighting in Chechnya, while Duma deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov argued that the draft bill "runs counter to the letter and spirit of the Russian Constitution and the policy pursued by the Russian president." (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "I believe that we have a real opportunity of resolving the [Karabakh] conflict and am optimistic. There are now favorable conditions for a settlement, and the big powers' interest in peace and stability in the region is more than obvious. There is also convergence of interests of the conflicting parties and a [shared] belief that the problem cannot be resolved in a military way." -- Arkadii Ghukasian, president of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, meeting in Stepanakert on 17 April with U.S. Congressional staffers (quoted by RFE/RL's Armenian Service).

"Nothing threatens Armenia's borders." -- Orinats Yerkir faction leader Artur Baghdasarian, speaking in Yerevan on 19 April after being briefed by President Robert Kocharian on the Key West talks (quoted by Noyan Tapan).

"If we are not able to return Karabakh by peace negotiations, we will free our occupied territories by military force. Azerbaijan will not move from this position to lose Karabakh de jure." -- Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Vilayat Quliev, interviewed by RFE/RL's Baku bureau on 17 April.