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Caucasus Report: May 11, 2000

11 May 2000, Volume 3, Number 19

Is Daghestan At Risk Of A New Chechen Attack? In recent weeks, Russian media have repeatedly reported that Chechen fighters are concentrating in regions of southeastern Chechnya and could at any time launch a new incursion into Daghestan. Such scaremongering fits into the overall pattern of predicting ever more "terrorist acts" by the Chechen fighters; but at the same time, the deployment of OSCE observers along the Chechen-Georgian border means, as inhabitants of Daghestan's Novolaksk Raion point out, that as the federal forces advance further into southern Chechnya, the Chechen guerrillas simply have no other escape route. And according to Russian Interior Ministry officials, during last summer's invasion Shamil Basaev's fighters concealed large arms caches in the border districts of Daghestan.

Anticipating a new Chechen attack on Daghestan, the Russian military command has increased the number of troops stationed along the border; those troops are reinforced by local Daghestani Interior Ministry troops as well as by many of the self-defense units recruited during last summer's fighting. But Russian generals, at least in statements intended for public consumption, downplay the risk of a new Chechen attack. Speaking at the Khankala base in Grozny last week, Colonel-General Gennadii Troshev, who commands the joint federal forces in Chechnya, said any such attempt by the Chechens "is doomed." If the "rebels" try to enter Daghestan, Troshev continued, none of them will leave alive.

The inhabitants of Novolaksk raion are less confident, however. Rather than use the financial compensation they received from the federal government to rebuild homes destroyed in last year's fighting, most of them have chosen to leave the district for good. Even those whose homes were not damaged are leaving, because they no longer have any means of earning a living: the destruction of agricultural machinery and the danger of land mines preclude any agricultural work.

The Daghestani leadership, too, fears a new Chechen offensive. People's Assembly chairman Mukhu Aliyev told Interfax in late April that he considers any peace talks with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov dangerous, as a settlement would only give the Chechens a breathing space to rearm. Any political negotiations, Aliyev said, should be preceded by "the complete annihilation of bandit formations."

But the Chechen fighters are not the only possible threat currently facing Daghestan. Last year's fighting, according to "Nezavisimaya gazeta," has emboldened Daghestan's moderate Muslim leaders to demand a greater share of responsibility in domestic politics, heightened tensions between the republic's ethnic groups and highlighted the impotence and vulnerability of the local leadership, which faces the prospect of new elections two years hence.

Daghestan's Muslim clergy laid the blame for last year's Chechen invasion on the republic's leadership, who, they argued, had failed to take action against the local wahhabi sympathizers whose villages the invading Chechen bands used as their base. The clerics have therefore assumed unofficial control of the republic's education system in an attempt to prevent the spread of wahhabism, introducing "Islamic lectures" into teaching curricula and opening special prayer rooms in schools in order to propagate "traditional" Islamic teaching.

Last year's fighting has also compounded the potential for violence between Daghestan's various ethnic groups. At the time of the invasion, weapons were distributed to Avar volunteers, but not to members of smaller ethnic groups including the Laks (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 2, No. 38, 24 September 1999). The Avars are the largest ethnic group in Daghestan, accounting for 28 percent of the population, followed by the Dargins (16 percent), Kumyks (13 percent), Lezgins (12 percent) and Laks (5 percent). The existence of a large Avar private militia could, in turn, play a key role in determining the outcome of the elections two years hence to a new People's Assembly and State Council. The 14-member State Council, on which Daghestan's 14 largest ethnic groups are represented, functions as a collective presidency. Its current chairman, Magomedali Magomedov, is a Dargin, and Dargins have in recent years dominated the republic's leadership. (Liz Fuller)

Georgian President Proposes New State Minister. On 5 May, after consultations with the governors of Georgia's regions, President Eduard Shevardnadze nominated 58-year-old Gia Arsenishvili as Minister of State. A former mathematics professor, Arsenishvili has served for the past five years as governor of Kakheti. Parliament deputies approved his candidacy on 11 May by a vote of 156-9.

Initially, Arsenishvili's nomination met with mixed reactions. Mikhail Saakashvili, who heads the majority Union of Citizens of Georgia parliament faction, praised him as "uncorrupted," adding that Arsenishvili "has all the precondition to conduct an independent economic policy." Saakashvili predicted that his faction would unanimously endorse Arsenishvili's candidacy. But Imereti governor Temur Shashiashvili, whose name had also been mentioned as a prospective candidate for the post, described Arsenishvili's nomination as "a serious mistake." He told journalists on 6 May that he believes unnamed parliament factions persuaded the president to propose Arsenishvili's candidacy.

Commentators have identified several factors that, singly or collectively, may have influenced Shevardnadze's choice. As recently as late April, incumbent State Minister Vazha Lortkipanidze and parliamentary speaker Zurab Zhvania were considered frontrunners for the position of minister of state in the new government (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, No. 17, 28 April 2000). Alarmed at the prospect of rising popular discontent at the deteriorating economic situation, however, some parliamentary deputies last week proposed initiating criminal proceedings against the outgoing cabinet for its failure to fulfill the state budget for 1999 -- a failing that inevitably reflected badly on Lortkipanidze. Rather than risk alienating Lortkipanidze by naming his archrival Zhvania to succeed him, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" suggested on 6 May, Shevardnadze settled on the "neutral" figure of Arsenishvili as a compromise candidate.

Some Russian journalists, however, have offered a different interpretation of Shevardnadze's decision to replace Lortkipanidze. They suggest that in 1998, Shevardnadze appointed Lortkipanidze, a former Georgian ambassador to Russia, in the hope that his connections in Moscow would facilitate the negotiation of a settlement of the Abkhaz conflict on terms favorable to Georgia. Lortkipanidze failed to do so, however, despite his personal rapport with his Abkhaz negotiating partners. Astamur Tania, an aide to Abkhaz President Vladislav Ardzinba, characterized Lortkipanidze as "a wise and experienced politician, well-informed about Abkhaz affairs." Shevardnadze, for his part, after announcing that Lortkipanidze would not be reappointed, reportedly praised him as a "faithful supporter" who had "done much for the prosperity of the country."

Characterizing Lortkipanidze as "Georgia's most pro-Russian politician," "Kommersant-Daily" on 6 May interpreted Shevardnadze's failure to reappoint him as evidence that the Georgian president is "no longer reckoning on reaching an amicable agreement with Moscow over...Abkhazia." That argument is consistent with earlier indications that Georgia considers the UN--possibly working in conjunction with the OSCE--as the most effective potential mediator (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 2, No. 48, 3 December 1999 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 May 2000).

Caucasus Press on 10 May cited an unidentified source in the State Chancellery as saying that the parliament will also consider creating the new post of minister-commisioner, who will be tasked by the president with special assignments, in the first instance with seeking a solution to the Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflicts. That source said that Georgia's current ambassador to the UN, Petre Chkheidze, who is also a former Georgian ambassador to Russia, may be appointed to that post. Other observers believe that Lortkipanidze may then replace Chkheidze at the UN. But Georgian parliament human rights commission chairwoman Elene Tevdoradze told Caucasus Press that she believes that new post is being created specifically for Lortkipanidze. Interfax, however, quoted Lortkipanidze as telling journalists that he intends to return to academic work.

As for Zhvania, Shevardnadze charged him on 9 May with mollifying the nine parliament committee chairs whom he had alienated the previous day by criticizing their demand for legal action against those members of the outgoing government responsible for the budget fiasco. Zhvania had construed that demand as directed against Shevardnadze personally. (Liz Fuller)

Mkhedrioni Leader To Return To Active Politics. One of the 279 beneficiaries of the amnesty announced on 20 April by Georgian President-elect Eduard Shevardnadze for persons imprisoned for their opposition to his regime was 72-year-old Djaba Ioseliani, playwright and leader of the Mkhedrioni paramilitary formation. Together with National Guard commander Tengiz Kitovani, Ioseliani overthrew Georgian President Zviad Gamsakhurdia in January 1992 and then invited Shevardnadze to return to Georgia from Moscow to lead the newly-independent country. Ioseliani was arrested in November 1995 and sentenced three years later to 11 years' imprisonment on charges that included organizing the August 1995 car bomb attack on Shevardnadze.

One of Ioseliani's first statements on his release was that he intends to return to active politics. In an interview with RFE/RL's Tbilisi bureau two weeks ago, he explained that even during the past four years, he has not remained aloof from political developments, nor did he have the right to do so. Ioseliani stressed that "in a country where there is a dictatorship," opposition political activity does not -- and must not --stop at the prison gates. For that reason, he said, being in prison is for a political activist "the culmination of his political biography."

Ioseliani characterized dictatorship as "autocratic authoritarian rule," in which the country is governed by a president who single-handedly rules on all personnel, political and economic decisions, He added that dictatorship no longer precludes the free flow of information, as it had done in the past. He said that in today's conditions with the emergence of the Internet no dictator -- even Stalin if he returned to life -- could curtail the uninterrupted free flow of information.

Asked if he sees any positive results of the present Georgian leadership's policies, Ioseliani said that some progress is evident in foreign policy. But he said there is a discrepancy between progress in that sphere and the lack of improvement in the domestic political situation, which has an adverse affect on the population, its psychology and standard of living.

Queried on his reaction to the news that he had been amnestied, Ioseliani said "The release of a person from prison is always to be greeted, especially for me, given that I have spent half my life in prison and know what both imprisonment and liberty mean." But he added that those who were amnestied -- many of them Gamsakhurdia supporters -- feel uncomfortable, rather than grateful. He said the amnesty was neither a manifestation of justice nor a manifestation of legality, but an exercise in political expediency, just as his arrest had been. "I was arrested for political reasons, [and] it was for political reasons that I was released," he said. He added that no explanation was given why certain prisoners were released while others were not.

As for Gamsakhurdia's ouster following a week of fierce fighting in Tbilisi in December 1991-January 1992, Ioseliani said that standoff could have been averted if Gamsakhurdia had either agreed to talks with himself and Kitovani or resigned voluntarily, but the president had chosen neither of those options.

Among the policies that he and Mkhedrioni intend to espouse, Ioseliani said the most important is to campaign for Georgia's declaring its neutrality and receiving guarantees of non-intervention from Russia and the U.S. That, he said, would enable Georgia to evolve from being the focus of confrontation in the Caucasus between the two super-powers to being a mediator between them. (Liz Fuller)

Quotations Of The Week. "We now have freedom, but some people don't understand it. It's a pity." -- Armenian World War II veteran, speaking to RFE/RL on 9 May.

"This man was so obsessed with power that he couldn't imagine himself without a senior post." -- Nagorno-Karabakh Prosecutor-General Mavrik Ghukasian, describing former army commander Samvel Babayan in an interview with RFE/RL on 10 May.