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Caucasus Report: May 6, 2001

6 May 2001, Volume 4, Number 17

ABKHAZ STANDOFF COULD PRESAGE NEW FIGHTING. Events over the past month have further diminished the chances of a political settlement of the Abkhaz conflict. The chain of arrests and retaliatory hostage-takings and detentions last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 and 17 April 2001) has fuelled tensions in the border region between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia. Then last week, Moscow again moved to thwart UN efforts to draft a peace agreement that would be acceptable to both parties in the conflict.

The latest tensions on the ground arose from the arrest by Abkhaz security forces on 8 April in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion of three Georgian guerrillas whom Sukhum claimed were in possession of Georgian Interior Ministry documentation. In retaliation for those arrests, Georgian guerrillas from the "Forest Brothers" group, which is headed by Dato Shengelaia, abducted five Abkhaz army conscripts on 12 April. Two days later, the Abkhaz authorities intercepted a Georgian fishing vessel which they said was illegally in Abkhaz territorial waters and took five crew members into custody.

On 16 April, the UN special envoy for Abkhazia, Dieter Boden, chaired a meeting with senior Abkhaz and Georgian government officials and representatives of the UN Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) and the CIS peacekeeping force deployed along the border between Abkhaz and the rest of Georgia. A protocol was signed at that meeting whereby all 13 detainees were to be handed over to law enforcement officials. But Shengelaia refused to comply, insisting that he would only release the five conscripts in exchange for the three guerrillas, a proposal which Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba rejected. Boden met with Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and Minister for Special Assignments Malkhaz Kakabadze on 17 April, and with senior Abkhaz government officials in Sukhum on 23 April, but neither those talks nor three further meetings (on 26 and 28 April and 4 May) between Abkhaz and Georgian officials and representatives of UNOMIG and the CIS peacekeepers secured the release of any of the detainees. (The local Georgian representatives at the 4 May meeting refused even to discuss the hostage issue, saying it was not within their competence to do so.)

Negotiations are complicated by Georgian claims that Tbilisi has no influence or leverage over the Forest Brothers, a claim that Abkhaz Deputy Defense Minister Harri Kupalba has dismissed as "absurd and groundless." (It should be noted that following the outbreak of hostilities in May 1998, Georgian authorities did sign a formal protocol whereby they undertook to preempt any further activities by guerrilla forces in Gali, thereby implicitly acknowledging they were at that time in a position to regulate the guerrillas' activities. See "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 1, No. 13, 26 May 1998.) Describing the detentions and hostage-takings as "most distressing," UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in his most recent report to the Security Council on the situation in Abkhazia, wrote "I remind the Georgian side in particular of its commitment to take effective measures to put a stop to the activities of illegal armed groups crossing into the Gali district from the Georgian-controlled side of the ceasefire line."

Elsewhere in that report, which was issued on 24 April, Annan quotes the Abkhaz as having informed UNOMIG that "several groups of armed persons are crossing the ceasefire line into Abkhaz-controlled territory." At the 4 May meeting, Russian officers with the CIS peacekeeping force similarly reported that while the Abkhaz have not exceeded the number of armed personnel they are allowed to deploy in the security zone under a July 2000 protocol (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, No. 28, 13 July 2000), a buildup of armed men has been observed on the Georgian side of the River Inguri that marks the border between Abkhaz and Georgian-controlled territory.

Such reports are fuelling fears of a new outbreak of hostilities comparable to that precipitated by the guerrillas in May 1998. But that is apparently not the only danger: Caucasus Press on 4 May quoted the UNOMIG commander, Major General Anis Ahmed Bajwa, as saying that he believes Georgian displaced persons from Abkhazia now living in the west Georgian town of Zugdidi may try on 10 May to seize the UNOMIG headquarters in the town in a bid to force the Georgian authorities to pay them their overdue allowances. There are an estimated 80,000 displaced persons in Zugdidi, some of whom staged a protest in early April to protest the non-payment for three months of the 14 lari ($6.8) to which they are entitled. On 30 April, they detained two UN observers for two hours, releasing them only after receiving assurances from the Georgian authorities that their overdue allowances would be paid within 10 days.

Meanwhile, the prospects for a political solution to the conflict are receding. After 18 months of consultations, Boden has reportedly put the final touches to a draft document specifying the division of responsibilities and powers between the central Georgian authorities in Tbilisi and the Abkhaz government in Sukhum within the framework of a federal Georgian state. But Abkhaz President Vladislav Ardzinba informed Annan in March that he does not consider such a document an acceptable basis for further negotiations. And the Russian leadership, to which Boden submitted the document for comment, has objected to the formulation that defines Abkhazia as an integral part of Georgia, RFE/RL's UN correspondent reported on 1 May, quoting the spokesman for Russia's UN mission.

Moscow has reportedly proposed an alternative formulation whereby Georgia and Abkhazia form a "common state," a formulation that recalls the most recent OSCE Minsk Group draft peace proposal for Nagorno-Karabakh. But Georgian Foreign Ministry official Kakha Sikharulidze told journalists in Tbilisi on 4 May that that formulation is unacceptable both to Georgia and to the other members of the "Friends of the UN Secretary-General" group of states (the U.S., Great Britain, France, and Germany), to which Russia also belongs. (Liz Fuller)

ARMENIAN PARLIAMENT GUNMEN AGAIN SAYS HE ACTED ALONE. Nairi Hunanian, the man who led the October 1999 bloody raid on the parliament, said in court on 4 May that the plot to overthrow Armenia's "criminal government" was developed two months before the assault and that he was its sole author. Again denying suggestions that the murder of Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian and seven other officials was masterminded by other, more influential figures, Hunanian claimed he opted for terror after losing hope that the situation could be improved "in a civilized way."

"The true organizers, instigators, and backers of that revolt were the authorities themselves," the 35-year-old former journalist declared in further testimony to the court. He said his original plan envisaged the bloodless seizure of the parliament along with deputies and ministers, to be followed by the Sarkisian government's forced resignation and the formation of a new cabinet enjoying greater popular support. Killings were seen only "as a last resort," he went on.

Hunanian and four other members of his group, including his brother Karen, have been standing trial since February on charges of murder, terrorism, and an attempted coup d'etat. The five jailed gunmen had little difficulty smuggling Kalashnikov rifles into the parliament building to spray it with bullets on 27 October 1999. The gunmen surrendered to police after holding dozens of ministers and deputies hostage for 18 hours.

Hunanian told the court that the gang had initially planned to attack the government building on the main Yerevan square but then realized that the parliament is far easier a target in terms of poor security and opportunities for a live radio address to the nation. Hunanian, who was a frequent visitor to the National Assembly in 1999, said he thoroughly inspected the building in the weeks leading to the attack, discovering, in particular, that Sarkisian's bodyguards often waited for the premier outside.

He said a "revolt against the existing criminal regime" became the only option after he exhausted all possibilities of improving the political and economic situation in Armenia. Hunanian said his efforts to get a government job or form his own political party since his return from Ukraine in 1997 reinforced his belief that it was impossible to bring about change through peaceful means. (Karine Kalantarian)

ARMENIAN POLITICAL PARTIES LIST THEIR PRECONDITIONS FOR KARABAKH PEACE. In a rare display of agreement on a major issue facing the country, the political parties and groups represented in the Armenian parliament said on 27 April that the Armenian leadership should reject any peaceful settlement that would restore Azerbaijani control of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh republic. A joint statement by all 11 factions and non-partisan groups of the National Assembly described as unacceptable any peace accord that would not lead to "Nagorno-Karabakh's reunification with Armenia or international affirmation of its independent status." It listed the Karabakh authorities' participation in the peace process and an "absolute guarantee of the NKR's security" among other conditions for peace.

"In the course of the negotiations no territory of Armenia must be at issue, and possible routes of communication must not be at the expense of Armenia's territorial integrity and sovereignty," the statement added.

"Any solution going beyond this is not acceptable to us," the chairman of the Yerkrapah Union's Hayastan parliamentary group, Miasnik Malkhasian, declared at a news conference with other party leaders.

"The National Assembly has a common opinion on the issue. In the political sense, this is extremely important," said Tigran Torosian, the deputy speaker of the parliament representing the governing Republican Party.

The party leaders have been briefed regularly by President Robert Kocharian on the latest international push to end the 13-year conflict. Most of them appeared satisfied with the results of the most recent such meeting held in the wake of peace talks earlier this month in the Florida resort of Key West.

Kocharian on 27 April welcomed the joint statement, saying that it sends a clear message to the international community about the position of the Armenian side. Speaking to reporters during a visit to a tobacco factory in Yerevan, he said: "Everybody must understand that the political forces are not indifferent, and that the absence of hysteria in Armenia is a sign of self-confidence rather than indifference. In this sense, this is a correct and timely statement."

The parliamentary parties warned international mediators against taking "hasty steps" or exerting "pressure" to speed up the peace process. They also spoke out against Turkey's involvement in the international mediation, citing its "overtly biased stance" in Azerbaijan's favor. (Ruzanna Khachatrian, Atom Markarian)

IS THERE AN ISLAMIC THREAT TO AZERBAIJAN? Azerbaijan's deputy national security minister, Tofik Babaev, made headlines on 2 May with his claim at a Baku conference the previous day that Iran and unnamed Arab states are separately financing radical Islamist groups in Azerbaijan in a bid to overthrow the present Azerbaijani leadership. Specifically, Babaev affirmed that Tehran abducts young Azerbaijans and takes them to Iran for guerrilla training, and funds mosques and religious schools in Azerbaijan. He also claimed that Arab states are promoting wahhabism in Azerbaijan, and that up to 7,000 people, most of them representatives of ethnic minorities living in the north of the country, have joined wahhabi groups.

Azerbaijani commentators tended to give credence to the alleged "wahhabi danger," even though Babaev's use of that term may well reflect the practice adopted by the Russian leadership and that of several Central Asian states of branding as wahhabis or radical islamists any group which is beyond the control of the national government and therefore perceived as a threat to political stability. On the other hand, it is possible that some members of ethnic minorities, in particular those living in areas of northern Azerbaijan bordering on Daghestan, feel sufficiently alienated to join clandestine organizations seeking to overthrow the present Azerbaijani leadership. The recent abolition of the Ministry for National Minorities as part of the long-awaited Azerbaijani government restructuring is likely to compound such sentiments among non-Azerbaijanis.

As for Iran, several opposition politicians and commentators have expressed puzzlement that the Azerbaijani leadership should have waited so long before sounding the alarm over what those commentators perceive as a protracted campaign directed by Tehran against Azerbaijan over the last few years. Most of those observers, including one writing in pro-government publications, nevertheless conclude that present-day conditions in Azerbaijan are not conducive to the establishment of an Islamic state.

But at the same time, several writers suggest that what Babaev and other members of the Azerbaijani leadership are really afraid of is an alliance between the Iranian and Russian governments to encourage the overthrow of the present Azerbaijani leadership by Mahir Djavadov, whose brother Rovshan, the commander of Azerbaijan's OMON troops (Interior Forces Special Detachment) was shot dead during a standoff with Azerbaijani army troops in March 1995. Djavadov fled to Austria after that debacle, but since late 1998 he has lived in Iran. Mahir Djavadov has repeatedly expressed his intention of mounting a coup against the present Azerbaijani leadership (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 2, No. 12, 23 March 1999).

Jahandar Bayoglu of the Union for a United Azerbaijan, has suggested an alternative, equally plausible scenario, namely that Moscow and Tehran are sponsoring an alliance between Djavadov and former Azerbaijani President Ayaz Mutalibov, who has lived in Moscow since fleeing Baku in May 1992. A bid by either Mutalibov or Djavadov, or the two of them together, to seize power in Azerbaijan would undoubtedly meet with greater popular support than an attempt to establish an Islamic state. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "We are going to establish a state where the principles of Islam intertwine with the customs, traditions, and mentality of the people of Chechnya. There is no place for wahhabism, fundamentalism, and extremism in the new state." -- Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov, in an exclusive interview with Turan on 2 May.

"Our main trouble is that we do not know what freedom of speech is. Today's journalists in Armenia, with a few exceptions, do not need freedom of speech. Armenian journalists now have to criticize those people whom their editor's patrons want criticized." -- Mark Grigorian, chairman of the NGO "Cooperation And Democracy," interviewed by Noyan Tapan on 3 May.