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Caucasus Report: January 14, 2000

14 January 2000, Volume 3, Number 2

Generals' Dismissal Raises Questions about Moscow's Chechen Tactics. On 7 January, Lieutenant-General Gennadii Troshev, commander of the eastern front in the Chechen war, announced that federal forces would "suspend" but not "discontinue" their assault on Grozny for an unspecified time period because of the perilous ecological situation in the capital. The purpose of the "suspension," Troshev explained, was to expedite the evacuation from Grozny of the remaining civilian population. He added that Russian forces were appealing to the population through leaflets and pro-Moscow Chechen representatives to leave the city, and had opened "safe corridors" to enable them to do so.

Later that same day, however, both generals were relieved of their duties, which then devolved on their respective deputies. Acting Russian President Vladimir Putin assured journalists on 8 January that the move did not constitute a demotion, adding that "Russia does not discard such generals as Troshev and Shamanov," while Reuters quoted an unnamed Russian military spokesman as saying that both commanders had known since last month of the impending move. But Western commentators inevitably attributed the removal of the two generals as a reflection of the civilian leadership's dissatisfaction with the recent conduct of the Chechen campaign. That interpretation was based both on the admission by senior government figures such as First Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai Koshman that the operation to secure control of Grozny was proving more difficult, and proceeding more slowly than anticipated and on Western media reports that the Russians are incurring far heavier casualties in the battle for Grozny than has been officially stated.

The commander of the Caucasus Group of Russian Forces, Colonel-General Viktor Kazantsev, on 10 January attempted to explain the changes by claiming that both Troshev and Shamanov have been given additional duties. "Nezavisimaya gazeta," however, dismissed Kazantsev's remarks as lacking in credibility. It cited unnamed Defense Ministry sources as linking the demotion of the two generals to the upcoming dismissal of Sergeev, which the paper claimed is likely to occur either immediately before, or immediately after the Russian presidential election. It named Chief of General Staff Anatolii Kvashnin as one possible successor to Sergeev.

The change of command in Chechnya also raises other questions. For months, both Putin and President Boris Yeltsin repeatedly expressed their approval of the Russian military's chosen tactics in Chechnya. The most recent occasion on which Yeltsin did so was on 28 December, when he presented awards to six Russian commanders serving in Chechnya, including Troshev and Shamanov. During that ceremony, Yeltsin termed the current Chechen campaign "faultless." "There have been little mistakes in the past which led to big mistakes," Yeltsin said in a clear allusion to the 1994-1996 war, "but there is nothing of the sort now."

The replacing of the two decorated heroes suggests, however, that Putin may hold different views. The most obvious explanation is that Putin wants a change of military tactics to minimize Russian casualties as fighting in Grozny and the mountainous south of Chechnya heats up: as the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" observed in an editorial in its 8/9 January edition, "every dead Russian soldier reduces Putin's credibility" in the runup to the 26 March Russian presidential poll. Putin's recent letter to last year's EU President, Finnish Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen, stating that Moscow is prepared to embark on peace talks with any Chechen faction that recognizes the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation suggests that he may very much hope to engineer some kind of end to the fighting, once the Chechen government and defenders of Grozny have been isolated in the southern mountains or driven into exile.

But if Putin does want to end the fighting before the Chechen resistance has been totally crushed, he is likely to encounter resistance from Shamanov. In an interview published in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" in early November, Shamanov warned that to leave the Chechen campaign unfinished this time could provoke him and many of his fellow officers to resign their commissions, and might even spark a civil war in Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 and 8 November 1999).

Moreover, the change of command was immediately followed by a Chechen counter-offensive against the Russian-held towns of Shali, Argun and Gudermes that not only inflicted heavy casualties on the Russians, but brought to the surface tensions between the Russian Defense and Interior Ministries. The commander of the Russian Group of Forces in the Caucasus, Colonel General Viktor Kazantsev, said on 12 January that the Chechen counter-attack was partly the result of the failure of Interior Ministry forces to screen the Chechen male population of Shali and Argun in order to identify and detain Chechen guerrillas. Shamanov had called for a repeat "screening" of occupied villages shortly before his demotion. (Liz Fuller)

Shevardnadze to Run Again. In early January, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze confirmed earlier hints that he will run for a second presidential term in the 9 April poll. His decision to do so, Shevardnadze added, was partly prompted by an appeal from representatives of the Georgian intelligentsia, many of them members of the ruling Union of Citizens of Georgia (SMK). The signatories to that appeal are now in the process of founding an organization to promote Shevardnadze's candidacy. Moreover, Tbilisi mayor Ivane Zodelava proposed on 4 January to amend the Georgian Constitution to allow one individual to serve three consecutive presidential terms, rather than a maximum of two. Zodelava argued that not only is there currently no realistic alternative to Shevardnadze as president, but there will be none in 2005.

Senior Georgian officials responded equivocally to Zodelava's suggestion. Parliamentary speaker Zurab Zhvania told journalists on 11 January he is convinced that Shevardnadze would not permit such a constitutional amendment to be made. Shevardnadze himself commented that Zodelava, like any other citizen of Georgia, is entitled to express his opinion.

But at least one influential Georgian opposition figure has publicly concurred with Zodelava's argument that, at least at present, there is no presidential candidate who could pose a serious challenge to Shevardnadze. Gogi Topadze, leader of the "Industry Will Save Georgia" parliamentary faction, said his party will not propose a presidential candidate. He added that if Shevardnadze's SMK shows signs of responding to Georgian manufacturers' concerns, his party will support the present incumbent.

A second opposition leader, Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia, whom some observers had considered a potential presidential challenger, also announced this week that her National Democratic Party of Georgia will not propose a presidential candidate.

One opposition faction that does intend to do so is the so-called Batumi alliance that unites such disparate partners as Adjar Supreme Council chairman Aslan Abashidze's Union for Democratic Revival, Vakhtang Rcheulishvili's Socialist Party, the Union of Georgian Traditionalists, supporters of the late President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, and Shevardnadze's successor as Georgian Communist Party First Secretary, Djumber Patiashvili.

A spokesman for the Union for Revival said on 12 January that the Batumi alliance will formally nominate Abashidze as its presidential candidate on 15 January. On 11 January, Rcheulishvili had said that the alliance had not yet decided whether to nominate Abashidze or Patiashvili. Rcheulishvili's statement in itself was surprising insofar as many observers had long assumed that the poll would be a contest between Shevardnadze and Abashidze. In the runup to last October's parliamentary elections, the Georgian authorities had sought to blacken Abashidze's reputation, calling attention to his (undeniable) close ties with Moscow, his alleged withholding of taxes that should have been paid into the national budget, and his (as yet unproved) involvement in the sell-off of most of Georgia's merchant fleet (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 2, No. 31, 5 August 1999).

It is not clear whether the apparent indecision within the Batumi alliance over its choice of presidential candidate reflects a perception by some members that official attempts to denigrate Abashidze adversely affected his political standing. In the final analysis, however, Abashidze was evidently perceived by the majority as a stronger candidate than Patiashvili. In the November 1995 presidential poll, Patiashvili came a distant second to Shevardnadze, garnering 19 percent of the vote compared with the latter's 74.94 percent.

But support for Abashidze within the Batumi alliance is clearly not unanimous. Also on 12 January, Socialist Party parliament deputy Tengiz Jgushia announced that he personally supports Shevardnadze's candidacy for president. Arguing that it is imperative to avoid further tensions between the federal center and Georgia's regions, Jgushia called on other parliament deputies from his native Mingrelia to throw their support behind the incumbent president. Rcheulishivili said on 13 January, however, that his party will not leave the Batumi alliance and will back whichever candidate it proposes for president.

Further potential presidential candidates are Communist Party veteran Panteleimon Giorgadze, National Independence Party chairman Irakli Tsereteli, and Shalva Natelashvili, whose Labor Party failed to parlay its impressive showing in the 1998 local elections into equally solid parliamentary representation in last October's parliamentary elections. (Two other influential opposition party leaders, Rcheulishvili and Union of Traditionalists' chairman Akaki Asatiani, who told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" two years ago that he believed he was a credible candidate for the presidency, cannot run without further jeopardizing the cohesion of the Batumi Alliance.)

None of the politicians listed above is likely to pose a serious challenge to Eduard Shevardnadze. But Zurab Zhvania on 11 January highlighted the one factor that could throw the presidential race wide open: influential forces in Russia which will do everything they can to prevent Shevardnadze's reelection. (Liz Fuller)

Kocharian-Aliyev Meeting To Mark Turning Point On Karabakh? Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian told a press conference in Yerevan on 13 January that the upcoming meeting in Moscow between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan will bring more certainty into the future of the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process. "It will become clear in Moscow whether the situation will remain as it is now or it will be possible to revive the dialogue [between the conflicting parties]," Oskanian said.

Robert Kocharian and Heidar Aliyev are scheduled to meet in Moscow on 25 January on the sidelines of a Commonwealth of Independent States summit. A series of face-to-face talks between the two leaders last year fueled optimism about an imminent settlement of the Karabakh dispute.

"The past year saw major progress on the issue. For the first time, Azerbaijan accepted the necessity to settle the conflict by mutual compromise, and the international community realized the significance of resuming negotiations without preconditions," Oskanian said. He acknowledged that the 27 October Armenian parliament shootings "slowed" the peace process.

Oskanian said Yerevan continues to support the most recent peace plan on Karabakh put forward by the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Azerbaijan rejected that plan, which proposed it form a loose "common state" with the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.

Visiting the region last month, Russian, U.S. and French mediators co-chairing the Minsk Group indicated that may revise the peace proposals to make them acceptable to Azerbaijan. But Oskanian said no new proposals have yet been received from the co-chairs.

Oskanian further acknowledged that the idea of an exchange of territories between Armenia and Azerbaijan was floated by mediators last year as a way of establishing a lasting peace in the region. He gave no details, however. Armenian press reports spoke late last year of a proposed deal whereby Baku would give up de-jure sovereignty over Karabakh in exchange for a land corridor linking its Nakhichevan exclave with Azerbaijan proper. (Hrach Melkumian)

Quotations Of The Week. "The federal authorities should be prepared for a long drawn-out and painful terrorist war in Chechnya." Former Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin, quoted by Interfax, 10 January 2000.

"Nobody intends to sit in one place and wait for the aggressors to start military activities." -- Chechen spokesman Movladi Udugov, quoted by Turan, 11 January 2000.