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Caucasus Report: September 24, 2001

24 September 2001, Volume 4, Number 32

WOULD TBILISI CONDONE A RUSSIAN STRIKE AGAINST CHECHENS IN GEORGIA? An 18 September statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry suggests that some in Moscow may invoke the international consensus on the need to combat terrorism to justify an attack on Chechens in Georgia. That statement, which "Vremya novostei" described as couched in unprecedentedly harsh language, deplored Tbilisi's failure to extradite to Russia 13 gunmen detained in June after illegally crossing the Russian-Georgian border (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 June 2001) and wanted on terrorist charges in Russia. The note also demanded that Georgia take measures to stop the activity of Chechen "bandits" in Georgia's Pankisi gorge and close down the unofficial Chechen representation and information center in Tbilisi.

The Russian note was merely the latest in a series of Russian demands over the past two years that Tbilisi cease abetting the Chechen fighters. When Russian troops first launched the present campaign against Chechnya in October 1999, Russian media began accusing Georgia of allowing mercenaries and arms to transit Georgian territory en route to Chechnya, allegations that Tbilisi has consistently denied (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 November 1999). More recently, Russian officials have repeatedly claimed that several hundred Chechen fighters are hiding out in Georgia's Pankisi gorge. And they have also repeatedly demanded that Georgia permit Russian troops to enter its territory in order to launch military activities against those Chechen fighters.

To date, Georgia has rejected all such demands. And in a bid to demonstrate that the Russian claims are unfounded, Tbilisi secured the agreement of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to deploy unarmed monitors along its border with Chechnya. Since their deployment in February 2000, those observers have not found any evidence to substantiate the Russian claims. But there are only 39 of them, clearly not enough to monitor an 81-kilometer stretch of border 24 hours a day.

Responding to the 18 September Russian ultimatum, Georgian Border Guard commander Lieutenant General Valerii Chkheidze the following day in Tbilisi proposed inviting a Russian military contingent to conduct a tour of inspection of the Pankisi gorge together with the OSCE monitors to determine whether in fact any Chechen fighters are encamped there. Chkheidze said if such an inspection reveals the presence of Chechen militants, then Tbilisi would be ready to participate in a joint action with Russia against those fighters.

Doing so, however, could result in new dangers to Georgia. Two years ago, on 30 September 1999 -- the day before Russian forces invaded Chechnya for the second time -- Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze's adviser on international legal issues, Levan Aleksidze, warned that the imminent Russian offensive against Chechnya constituted a deliberate attempt to draw Georgia into a broader conflict. He pointed out that Chechens would inevitably seek refuge in Georgia, and that Russia would then "try to destroy them on Georgian territory."

There may be a further reason for treating Chkheidze's statement with caution: Repeated but unconfirmed reports suggest that the Georgian leadership has succeeded in co-opting at least one Chechen field commander (Ruslan Gelaev) and persuading him to prepare an attack on Abkhazia to bring that republic back under Tbilisi's control. Allowing the Russians to strike at Chechen bases in Pankisi would deprive the Georgian leadership of that option -- unless channels exist that would enable the Georgian leadership to forewarn the Chechens in Pankisi of any planned punitive action against them in order to enable them to leave the area before that strike occurred. (Liz Fuller)

HOW UNIFIED IS THE NEW ARMENIAN OPPOSITION ALIGNMENT? Three Armenian opposition groups -- the People's Party of Armenia (HZhK), "Hanrapetutiun" and the National Unity Party -- issued a joint statement on 7 September calling for the impeachment of President Robert Kocharian, whom they accused of violating the Armenian constitution, condoning terrorism, and precipitating a deep political, moral, psychological, and socio-economic crisis, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. The statement also repeated earlier allegations that Kocharian sought to sabotage the investigation into the October 1999 parliament shootings in order to prevent the identity of the organizers from becoming known. The joint statement was read by National Unity Chairman Artashes Geghamian at Hanrapetutiun's first congress in Yerevan, at which one of that party's leaders, former Yerevan Mayor Albert Bazeyan, declared that "the removal of the Kocharian regime and the formation of a legitimate government is the main precondition for the development of our country." Bazeyan stressed, however, that Kocharian's ouster must be accomplished "by constitutional means."

Two days earlier, on 5 September, the HZhK had issued a statement formally confirming the long-anticipated collapse of the Miasnutiun parliament bloc within which it had been the junior partner to Prime Minister Andranik Markarian's Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 22, 15 June 2001). In that statement, the HZhK accused the HHK of "effectively placing itself outside the Miasnutiun bloc" by "declaring itself the support base of [President] Robert Kocharian." It further accused its former partner of having assumed the role of [the president's] stooge, and of "enacting anti-popular laws through all kinds of pressure and falsification."

Since mid-August, observers in Yerevan have been assessing the chances that the three opposition parties would create some kind of formal alignment with the objective of securing Kocharian's impeachment. Of the three leaders, the populist Geghamian, who in July was the first to raise that issue (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 July 2001), is said to be keenest on such a formal pact. A recent poll listed Geghamian as the fifth most influential politician in Armenia, after Kocharian, Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, Prime Minister Markarian, and Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, and ahead of the sixth-ranked Demirchian.

In July, it was anticipated that the new anti-Kocharian bloc would initially comprise no less than five political groups, the remaining two being the "Officers' Honor" public organization and the Union of Socialist Forces headed by Ashot Manucharian, according to an article in "Haykakan zhamanak." That article also claimed that three more parties -- the Union of Constitutional Law, the Democratic Party of Armenia, and the Communists -- had held consultations on joining the planned broad alignment but then decided against doing so.

It is therefore highly unlikely that the three groups can muster the support needed to achieve their objective of forcing impeachment proceedings "by constitutional means." Following a wave of defections from the HZhK earlier this summer (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 29, 13 August 2001), the three parties between them have less than 20 seats in the 131-member parliament. They could not therefore muster the two-thirds majority required to launch impeachment proceedings, but are reported to be collecting signatures in support of impeachment from among deputies from other factions.

In an interview published in "Haykakan zhamanak" on 20 September, Stepan Demirchian explained that the call for Kocharian's impeachment was intended merely as the beginning of a possibly protracted campaign that would achieve its aim at some point prior to the presidential elections due in the spring of 2003. He said that the population at large is demanding "businesslike steps" be taken against the country's leadership. "We are proposing an option for ruling the country that also foresees the active participation of the people. And this option is a constitutional one, which is important," Demirchian said. He did not explain how and when popular dissatisfaction with the present leadership might induce the parliamentary majority to withdraw its support for the president.

It is, however, conceivable that the three leaders are aware that their chances of impeaching Kocharian are minimal but have nonetheless raised the possibility of doing so as an act of what one Yerevan commentator terms "psychological warfare." And if they were to propose Geghamian as their joint candidate in 2003, he would pose no less a threat to Kocharian's reelection than Vazgen Manukian did to then-incumbent Levon Ter-Petrossian five years ago. (Liz Fuller)

HOW VULNERABLE IS THE ARMENIAN PRESIDENT? President Kocharian reacted to the 7 September calls for his impeachment by formally announcing the following day his intention to run for a second presidential term in 2003. But that announcement was met with less than whole-hearted enthusiasm, even from those parties that had backed his candidacy in 1998.

At a press conference convened by the leading parliamentary parties on 13 September, most faction leaders were equivocal, saying that they have not yet given any thought to, let alone formally discussed, which candidate to endorse in the 2003 presidential ballot. "Orinats Yerkir" (Law-Based State) faction Secretary Gegham Gasparian said it is "too early" to discuss the issue, while Miasnutiun faction leader Galust Sahakian said the HHK will do so once Kocharian unveils his new presidential program.

Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD) faction leader Aghvan Vartanian, who served as manager of Kocharian's 1998 presidential election campaign, said that "the elections are still a long way off and we have a lot of time to think about our position." He pointed out that the political situation could change over the next 18 months. (In an interview with the independent "Golos Armenii" one week later, HHD leader Vahan Hovannisian pinpointed one possible reason for his party's reservations, charging that Kocharian is not taking a tough enough stance against corruption and continues to tolerate the presence within his administration of compromised representatives of the former leadership.) And Hmayak Hovannisian of the Agro-Industrialists' Union, who according to "Aravot" said he regards Kocharian as "the greatest politician in contemporary politics," stopped short of committing his group to backing him.

One veteran political observer in Yerevan who has little fondness for Kocharian attributed the latter's formal announcement that he will seek reelection as reflecting a defensive mood among the Armenian leadership. That commentator further pointed to the authorities' extreme sensitivity to public protest, as exemplified by the heavy-handed police action on 7 September against participants in an unsanctioned rally in Yerevan to protest the introduction by the Greek-owned telecommunications monopoly ArmenTel of per-minute billing. One of the organizers of that protest, Democratic Homeland leader Petros Makeyan, was arrested at his home in the small hours of the following morning and immediately sentenced to 10 days' administrative detention.

Opinions differ as to whether Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent visit to Yerevan, during which he reiterated that Armenia is Russia's strategic ally, should be interpreted as a personal endorsement of, and demonstration of support for, the Armenian president. On the one hand, the Russian government continues to drive the hardest bargain it can in its economic dealings with Armenia, as evidenced by the protracted negotiations on the timetable for settling Armenia's debt for deliveries of nuclear fuel (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 June and 4 September 2001). That would suggest that Moscow believes that Armenia's economic dependence on Russia is such that it can dictate its own terms. On the other hand, neither Kocharian nor any other member of his team has ever given any indication that Armenia's complementary foreign policy poses any threat to a long-term Russian military presence there -- which is presumably Moscow's overriding concern. Indeed, Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian recently affirmed that the Russian military base in Armenia would remain there as long as Turkey is perceived as a military threat to Armenia.

Some observers argue that Kocharian has recently tilted more toward Moscow, possibly in a bid to secure support. But the Bazeyan/Geghamian/Demirchian alliance is no less, and possibly more, pro-Russian than the present Armenian leadership. There would thus seem to be no compelling reason for Moscow to intervene in Armenian domestic politics to shore up Kocharian -- unless either there appeared to be a danger that Azerbaijan might seek to take advantage of domestic upheaval in Armenia to launch a military strike to recover Nagorno-Karabakh that would risk destabilizing the entire South Caucasus, or the pivotal figure in Russian-Armenian relations is not in fact Robert Kocharian but Defense Minister Sarkisian, and a move to oust Kocharian risked jeopardizing Sarkisian's future role. (Liz Fuller)

AND IS THE ARMENIAN PRIME MINISTER ALSO AT RISK? That the scope of Serzh Sarkisian's influence and activities far exceeds those commensurate with his official position first became apparent during his visit to Moscow in June 2000, during which he was received by President Putin, Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and then Russian Security Council secretary Sergei Ivanov. That high-profile visit and the VIP treatment Sarkisian was accorded led observers to speculate that he was already at that time the second most powerful official in Armenia after Kocharian, and that he was in line to succeed Andranik Markarian as premier (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3. No. 27, 7 July 2000).

That latter hypothesis was further substantiated during Putin's visit to Yerevan earlier this month, during which Markarian was, according to Noyan Tapan's commentator David Petrosyan, conspicuously absent from all official meetings. In advance of that visit, Sarkisian traveled to Moscow in August to discuss economic issues with Russian Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 September 2001); and it was Sarkisian, not Markarian, who on 15 September co-signed with Klebanov an agreement on the mutual protection of investments.

Markarian is, however, still chairman of the HHK, which is now the largest single faction within the parliament, and thus Kocharian's most effective protection against impeachment. According to "Iravunk" on 3 August, relations between Markarian and Sarkisian are said to be good, which would suggest that the former is prepared to accept playing second fiddle to the latter. Meanwhile the possibility that shared pro-Russian sympathies could be parlayed into an alliance between Sarkisian and the three opposition leaders seems minimal, at least at this juncture. Asked whether the HZhK/Hanrapetutiun/AHCh alignment would consider cooperating with other political parties, Bazeyan on 7 September stated explicitly that Hanrapetutiun as a right-center party could not cooperate with Orinats Yerkir which, Bazeyan claimed, "was founded, and is protected and led by Serzh Sarkisian." (Liz Fuller)

INGUSHETIAN AUTHORITIES SABOTAGE UNOFFICIAL CHECHEN CONGRESS. On 15 September, some 600 representatives elected from villages across Chechnya and a further 150 Chechen displaced persons currently living in Ingushetia were to have gathered in the Ingushetian town of Nazran at a national congress intended to seek ways of ending the ongoing war. But the planned congress was thwarted at the last minute by the Ingushetian authorities: On 14 September Nazran Mayor Magomed Tamurziev withdrew permission for the Chechens to use premises in the town, and early the following day the organizers of the congress were detained by police, who beat up congress chairman Salambek Maigov, a Moscow-based Chechen, according to Glasnost-North Caucasus. Other delegates were forced into buses and sent back to Chechnya.

As the "Neue Zuercher Zeitung" noted on 17 September, this was not the first attempt to convene a congress of Chechen representatives. Efforts by Chechnya's deputy to the Russian State Duma, Aslan Aslakhanov, to do so in the spring of this year were effectively prevented by the pro-Moscow Chechen leadership (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 14, 10 April 2001).

There are at least two reasons why the present Chechen authorities should oppose such a congress. First, both Aslakhanov and Maigov have argued that the only way to end the war is through negotiations with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, whom Maigov said he still considers the legitimate president of Chechnya and a "key figure" in the process of negotiating an end to hostilities. (A representative of Maskhadov was to have attended the congress in Nazran.) In an interview published in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 12 September, Maigov explained that "pacifism will be the ideology of the congress," and its primary objective was to bring about an end to the fighting. To that end, Maigov said, the congress planned to adopt an appeal to Maskhadov and to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Second, the congress, insofar as most delegates were elected from communities across Chechnya, would have a greater claim to represent the Chechen people than would the pro-Moscow leadership. In that respect, as Maigov points out, his initiative differs from Aslakhanov's. And what is more, Maigov said, his planned congress was endorsed by "representatives of the most varied political, religious and social groupings." It also had the backing of other prominent Chechens including Aslakhanov, Malik Saidullaev, the chairman of the Moscow-based Chechen State Council, and former Russian Supreme Soviet Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov.

Maigov admitted in his interview with "Nezavisimaya gazeta" that the congress organizers were being subjected to pressure and bureaucratic hassles by the Ingushetian power bodies, and he acknowledged the possibility that the congress might not in fact take place -- although there were, he said, no legal reasons for banning it. He identified unnamed "reactionary forces with an interest in continuing the war" as being behind the efforts to thwart it. On 15 September, "Kommersant-Daily" quoted Maigov as saying that he believes the Ingushetian authorities were acting on orders from Viktor Kazantsev, the Russian presidential envoy to the South Russia federal district. The paper added it had been informed by Kazantsev's staff that the congress organizers should have coordinated their activities with the Russian military.

If Maigov's hypothesis that Kazantsev was responsible for preventing the congress is correct, then the question arises: Why should the presidential envoy sabotage an initiative to end the war at a time when he is reportedly drafting an ambitious five-year plan for the economic development of the North Caucasus that entails huge investments? (See "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 September 2001.) A second question is why Ingushetian President Ruslan Aushev, who has himself urged Moscow to begin peace talks with Maskhadov, should have apparently been either unable or unwilling to ensure that the congress took place as planned.

The true reason for the Ingushetian intervention may in fact be that in the wake of the 11 September terrorist attacks in the U.S., the Russian leadership has decided to bury once and for all time the option of a negotiated end to the Chechen war on the assumption that, as Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said on 13 September, the international community will now demonstrate greater understanding of the threat posed to Russia by Chechen "terrorism" and the need to forcibly eliminate that threat (see "RFE/RL Russian Political Report," Vol. 1, No. 22, 20 September 2001). (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK. "The ruling party without Eduard Shevardnadze is like a pie without a filling." -- Mkhedrioni Chairman Djaba Ioseliani, quoted by Caucasus Press (17 September).