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Caucasus Report: January 7, 2000

7 January 2000, Volume 3, Number 1

Moscow's Continuing Search For An Acceptable Chechen Leader. When Russian forces entered Chechnya on 30 September, the Russian leadership stated that it no longer recognized Aslan Maskhadov as Chechnya's legitimate president. Since then, some leading Russian politicians have backtracked, hinting that they would nonetheless be prepared to consider talks with Maskhadov on ending the fighting, provided that Maskhadov fulfills certain preconditions.

At the same time, Moscow has sought to identify other Chechen political figures who could conceivably be said to represent at least some segments of the Chechen population, and with whom peace talks could be conducted -- presumably once the Russian military can credibly claim to have taken control of Grozny.

Three potential candidates have emerged to date. The first was Chechen businessman Malik Saidullaev, who was named head of a pro-Moscow Chechen government on 7 October. Five weeks later, however, Saidullaev ceded that post, arguing that former Grozny mayor Beslan Gantemirov, who had been pardoned and released from a Russian jail in early November (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 2, No. 46, 18 November 1999), was a more suitable candidate. But Gantemirov chose instead to recruit a detachment of some 500-800 volunteers who are currently fighting alongside the Russian forces in the battle for Grozny. That detachment, which, by virtue of its detailed knowledge of Grozny's topography, conducts reconnaissance for the advancing Russian forces. But it has encountered far fiercer resistance than it anticipated, and Gantemirov's 24 December prognosis that federal forces would take total control of the Chechen capital within one week proved over-optimistic.

At least prior to the attack on Grozny, Gantemirov appeared confident that he had Moscow's backing as a potential future Chechen leader. In an interview published in "Kommersant" on 11 December, he affirmed that "if the people of Chechnya want me to head the republic, I shall meet them half-way." Five days later, Gantemirov told a North Caucasus newspaper that he was ready to embark on peace talks with individual field commanders, but not with Shamil Basaev, Khattab, Movladi Udugov, Chechen vice president Vakha Arsanov, or Maskhadov, whose legitimacy he refused to acknowledge.

By that time, however, then Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had already established contact with Maskhadov in an albeit fruitless effort to begin peace talks. Putin subsequently hinted that he considers Chechen mufti Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov "as good a negotiating partner as any other," and one "who speaks for the interests of the Chechen people," although he conceded that Kadyrov "is by no means pro-Russian." Kadyrov left Chechnya in October after President Maskhadov branded him a traitor and blamed him for triggering the war. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 24 December observed that Kadyrov's primary virtue in the eyes of the Chechen population is his implacable rejection of the radical Islam ("wahhabism") espoused by Basaev and Khattab, and which was a key factor in the latter's August incursions into Daghestan. Those attacks, in turn, served as part of the rationale for the Russian punitive mission against Chechnya.

But while Putin may not regard Gantemirov as a suitable negotiating partner, the former Grozny mayor has a powerful backer in Major-General Vladimir Shamanov, the commander of the western group of forces in Chechnya. Shamanov told journalists in Vladikavkaz on 10 December that he had asked the Russian authorities to allow Gantemirov and his men to join the Russian military contingent as soon as possible. He further described Gantemirov as "a courageous man who has great authority in Chechnya." And according to Saidullaev, even before the assault on Grozny Gantemirov had held talks with Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai Koshman, the Russian government representative in Chechnya, on whether it would prove feasible to rebuild the ravaged capital.

As for Saidullaev, he has criticized Russia's tactics in Chechnya, specifically the early December ultimatum to residents of Grozny to leave the city. He has also incurred the wrath of the Russian military by implicating Shamanov, who has emerged as one of the heroes of the Chechen campaign, in the massacre of some 40 Chechen civilians in the town of Alkhan-Yurt (Saidullaev's birthplace) in early December. (Those accusations notwithstanding, Shamanov has been personally decorated by President Boris Yeltsin, and figured at No. 46-47, on a par with former Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin, in "Nezavisimaya gazeta's" list of the 100 most influential political figures in Russia in December.)

In what seems an attempt to reassert his influence, Saidullaev announced earlier this week that he is preparing for talks with some 27 individual field commanders that could result in up to 4,000 Chechen fighters surrendering their arms. (The Chechens' total strength is estimated at 7,000-10,000.) He added that he is prepared to act as mediator in talks between Moscow and the Chechens. Saidullaev also suggested that it would be "sensible and expedient" for Moscow to appoint an interim administrator in Chechnya pending new elections, and made it clear that he would be prepared to accept that post. Saidullaev claimed that Gantemirov and Kadyrov are engaged in a personal power struggle, and that both men are motivated solely by the desire to come to power. He also said that supporters of both Kadyrov and former pro-Moscow Chechen leader Doku Zavgaev are forming armed units. (Liz Fuller)

Quest For Justice Or 'Creeping Coup?' The indictment of former presidential aide Aleksan Harutiunian on charges of instigating the 27 October Armenian parliament shootings, despite a reported lack of evidence to back that charge, has fueled fears among some observers that the investigation conducted by military prosecutor Gagik Jahangirian into the killings is aimed less at establishing who was ultimately responsible than at weakening, or even ousting, President Robert Kocharian. Kocharian himself, in an interview with Armenian media two weeks ago, implied that Harutiunian's arrest marked the beginning of the second phase of an attempted coup. Jahangirian for his part has rejected calls by opposition parties to create an ad hoc parliamentary committee to monitor the ongoing investigation.

To date, 15 people have been charged in connection with the shootings, including the five gunmen, independent parliament deputy Mushegh Movsisian, and the deputy director of Armenian national television, Harutiun Harutiunian [no relation to Aleksan]. Jahangirian told journalists three weeks ago that the investigators are still assessing the plausibility of a dozen hypotheses concerning the identity and motivation of those who organized the murders. Several of those alternative explanations were evaluated in an article published in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 29 December. One version of the killings is that it was masterminded by Mushegh Movsisian with the express intention of killing Prime Minister Vazgen Sargsian. Movsisian's brother Arakel, who had fought with Sargsian during the Karabakh war, was arrested last summer on suspicion of plotting to kill the new premier. This hypothesis fails, however, to explain why the gunmen deliberately killed seven other people in addition to Vazgen Sargsian.

A second hypothesis centers on the fact that the leader of the five gunmen, former journalist Nairi Hunanian, had briefly been a member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation - Dashnaktsutiun. Members of an alleged terrorist organization linked with that party were arrested in late 1994 on charges of planning a series of political assassinations, including that of Sargsian. But this hypothesis, too, fails to account for the other seven killings.

The third hypothesis cited by "Nezavisimaya gazeta" implicates the former commander of the Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Army, General Samvel Babayan, whose economic interests, the paper claims, were threatened by Vazgen Sargsian. (Some Armenian papers have posited a connection between Babayan and Arakel Movsisian.) And a fourth explanation, termed political dynamite by the Russian daily, is that Sargsian was killed because he had expressed regret at having played a key role in the forced resignation in February 1998 of President Levon Ter-Petrossian, and had criticized the policies of the new leadership. But this latter theory fails to take into account Sargsian's role and influence within that new leadership, and his espousal of the western-oriented economic policies of his predecessor Armen Darpinian. (Liz Fuller)

Is Abkhazia Headed For New Instability? Under the terms of the ceasefire agreement signed in Sukhumi on 25 May 1998, the Georgian government undertook to curtail the activities of Georgian guerrillas operating in Abkhazia. But such bands have over the past 18 months systematically targeted both Abkhaz police and civilians, killing several dozen people.

Most of those murders took place in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion. But on three occasions during the first six months of 1999, explosions were reported in Sukhumi, the Abkhaz capital. Then on 13 December, several people were injured when a bomb exploded at the entrance to a nine-story apartment building in Sukhumi that housed members of the unrecognized republic's top leadership. President Vladislav Ardzinba responded by firing Security Minister Astamur Tania, and appointed in his place a veteran of the 1992-1993 war, former Customs Department director Raul Khazhinba.

Even before the investigation into the bombing was completed, Deputy Security Minister Sergei Tsargush laid the blame on Georgian guerrillas, and warned that any further such attacks would entail the firing of more interior ministry officials. But while Tsargush's identification of the perpetrators is the most obvious, it is not the only one. Abkhaz Prosecutor-General Anri Djergenia recently expressed concern at what he termed an upsurge of criminal activity in Abkhazia, which he attributed to the relaxation of previous stringent control procedures at the border crossing with Russia. The new border regime, Djergenia complained, enables anyone to enter Abkhazia freely and get away with any crime.

A third possibility, favored by Georgians albeit discounted by some observers of the Abkhaz political scene, focuses on the supposed friction between Abkhaz political factions, specifically the so-called Ochamchira and Gudauta clans. Abkhaz parliament in exile chairman Tamaz Nadareishvili interpreted Ardzinba's decision in early December to appoint Vyacheslav Tsugba as Prime Minister in place of Sergei Bagapsh as a victory for the Gudauta clan which, Nadareishvili told Caucasus Press, now holds all the most influential posts in Abkhazia. Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, however, suggested a different explanation for Bagapsh's dismissal, namely that he had demonstrated excessive zeal in seeking a political settlement between Sukhumi and Tbilisi.

The arrival in Tbilisi in November of Dieter Boden, the UN Secretary-General's special envoy for Abkhazia, raised hopes that the deadlocked negotiation process would soon be resumed. But Georgian officials now perceive a new threat both to the peace process and to stability in Georgia as a whole. Georgian Presidential Advisor Levan Aleksidze told Interfax on 30 December that the Georgian leadership fears that Russian intelligence may try to destabilize the situation in Abkhazia in order to create a pretext for not closing the Russian military base at Gudauta. Russia and Georgia agreed on the sidelines of the November OSCE summit in Istanbul that Moscow would close that facility by July 2001 (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 2, No. 47, 25 November 1999). Aleksidze anticipates that in the wake of further Russian accusations that Georgia is abetting Chechnya, Russia will openly side with the Abkhaz. If that happens, Aleksidze said, Tbilisi will oppose further mediation by Russia in the Abkhaz conflict.

But a second senior Georgian official apparently sees no such danger: Georgia's Ambassador to Moscow, Malkhaz Kakabadze, gave a positive assessment both to Russia's role as a mediator between Tbilisi and Sukhumi and to the stabilizing function of the Russian peacekeeping force that has been deployed since mid-1994 along the internal border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia. (Liz Fuller)

Quotations Of The Week. "Russia...has nothing to gain by staying in Chechnya. It should cut its losses and save what face it can by negotiating a new peace agreement now. This time, however, an international commission should be created to make sure that Russia honors that agreement. For both Europe and the U.S. have a vital strategic interest in restoring peace to the Caucasus as soon as possible -- before the war in Chechnya spills over to Georgia, Azerbaijan and the vast Caspian oil fields." -- Caucasus Common Market President Khozh-Akhmed Noukhaev, writing in the "Wall Street Journal," 27 December 1999.

"The period of the Russian army's triumphant march through Chechnya is over, a turning point in the second war in Chechnya is about to occur." -- Chechen presidential administration chief Apti Batalov, quoted by Interfax on 5 January 2000.