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Caucasus Report: May 26, 2000

26 May 2000, Volume 3, Number 21

Khasbulatov Argues Only He Can Save Chechnya. In early April, responding to an appeal by pro-Moscow Chechens, then acting Russian President Vladimir Putin named former Russian State Duma speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov to head a newly-created Public Council for the North Caucasus (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 and 18 April 2000). Khasbulatov now claims in a lengthy article published in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 23 May that he has since then mobilized the support of over half the adult population of Chechnya. By 12 May, he writes, over 108,000 Chechens had appended their signatures to a second appeal drafted by the Public Council and addressed to President Putin, asking the Russian President to create a federal body charged with resolving the Chechen conflict and to appoint Khasbulatov as its head.

In his article, Khasbulatov lambasts the past and present Chechen leaderships for their imputed indifference to the fate of the Chechen people, unnamed factions in Moscow for allegedly seeking to prolong the conflict in order to weaken President Putin, and the Russian government representative in Chechnya, Nikolai Koshman, for what Khasbulatov terms his total inability to comprehend how to set about the task of reconstruction in Chechnya. He also argues that neither the first (1994-1996), nor, by implication, the current war in Chechnya would have occurred if the Russian leadership had not intervened in the fall of 1994 to thwart what he portrays as a campaign by the united Chechen opposition, which he claims he then headed, to oust then Chechen President Djokhar Dudaev.

That statement is not strictly true: Khasbulatov went to Chechnya in the late summer of 1994 intending to mediate between Dudaev and the opposition Provisional Council headed by Umar Avturkhanov, but then joined forces with the latter. A stalemate ensued for much of September-November between the opposition armed forces, led by Beslan Gantemirov, and Dudaev's troops. Opposition forces attempted to storm Grozny in late October, but then withdrew, in what Khasbulatov at the time termed "a criminal error." Khasbulatov says now that Moscow's rationale for preventing him from ousting Dudaev in 1994 was to prevent him from succeeding to the Chechen presidency.

Khasbulatov argues that the Russian military is currently capable of launching a major offensive in Chechnya and wiping out the remaining Chechen fighters, whose strength is currently estimated at 2,000-3,500, within two months. But instead of doing so, he continues, Moscow appears to have opted for a protracted "manageable" low-intensity conflict. That tactic, according to Khasbulatov, is a fatal mistake, for the following reasons.

First, he argues, Russia is already losing control of the North Caucasus, and will do so completely if the war continues for another two to three years. If the war continues beyond that, he writes, a new generation of Chechen fighters, who were born in the early 1990s, will come to maturity and join the ranks of the resistance. Those young men, Khasbulatov says, will be "cruel and merciless," devoid of any education, speak no Russian, and acknowledge no authority, not even that of their parents and elders.

Second, the longer the war goes on, the more serious the breakdown of discipline within the Russian armed forces fighting there. One manifestation of that breakdown is increasing gratuitous violence against the Chechen civilian population, which risks alienating them even further.

Third, Khasbulatov suggests that a faction or factions whom he declines to identify want to prolong the war in order to incur further military reverses that would reflect badly on, and ultimately weaken, President Putin. He gives no indication whether that faction is predominantly civilian or military, or whether that plan originated with a civilian group that then co-opted leading officers within the armed forces. (Colonel General Gennadii Troshev, who commands the Russian forces in Chechnya, told Interfax on 15 May that "I am authorized to state that the military are interested in the earliest possible restoration of peace.")

In order to resolve the conflict, Khasbulatov advocates that Putin create an appropriate federal body, with himself as the head, to engage in conflict resolution. He proceeds to enumerate the problems that this body must address, castigating the members of the existing temporary Chechen administration, in particular Russian government representative Nikolai Koshman and his deputy, former Grozny Mayor Beslan Gantemirov, for their alleged inability to do so.

Those problems include several that are unique to Chechen society, such as the aftermath of what Khasbulatov describes as a deliberate attempt by Dudaev to sow enmity among Chechens by designating the various teyps (clans) as either noble or base; the tradition of the blood feud, and the related demand for vengeance by persons whose relatives were abducted and held for ransom; the tensions between adherents of traditional Islam and wahhabism; and the need to expedite the repatriation of Chechnya's ethnic Russian population. In this context, Khasbulatov, who failed to win election to the State Duma in last December's elections, argues that it is premature to elect a deputy to represent Chechnya in the State Duma in August as currently planned. Instead, he proposes waiting one year until much of the Russian population has returned to Chechnya, and then electing two Duma deputies, one of them an ethnic Chechen and the other either a Russian or a representative of the North Caucasus Cossacks.

But the fundamental problem, according to Khasbulatov, is restoring the Chechen economy, and in such a way as to provide employment for the male population. He suggests both reviving the agricultural sector and creating a free trade zone to be located at Grozny airport (the planned CIS free-trade zone, perhaps?). That initiative, he says, would benefit the entire North Caucasus and contribute to greater integration among the various federation subjects. He acknowledges that the federal budget is inadequate to finance such measures, implying that the Russian leader has a moral responsibility to solicit the requisite funds from the international community. But time, Khasbulatov stresses, is of the essence: there is no point in channeling funds into rebuilding in Chechnya until a lasting peace has been forged.

But there is one major gap in Khasbulatov's concept: he is hazy about whom any peace talks should be conducted with. But his stated contempt for Maskhadov suggests that he hopes that the Chechen president and his team will be killed in the course of the two-month blitzkrieg that he advocates, leaving him a free hand to engage in talks on future power-sharing with other pro-Moscow Chechen groups. How Khasbulatov and his peace-making body will interact with the other federal agencies in Chechnya is likewise unclear. (Liz Fuller)

Is Armenia Closer Than Azerbaijan To Council of Europe Membership? Meeting on Cyprus on 22-23 May, members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe gave the green light for Armenia's acceptance as a full member of the Council, but laid down preconditions for Azerbaijan, the Nicosia-based Cyprus News Agency reported quoting the chairman of the Assembly's Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights. Those preconditions reportedly relate to the conduct of the parliamentary elections due in November, and to political prisoners. Both countries' prospective membership will be discussed at a session of the Assembly on 26-30 June.

That ruling has engendered bitterness in Baku. Novruz Mamedov, who heads the presidential administration foreign relations department, told journalists on 26 May that the ruling reflects major differences in attitude between the PACE Committee for Legal Affairs and Human Rights and its Political Issues Commission. He implied that the former's ruling was based on "non-objective information," according to Turan.

Visiting Baku last month, the Council of Europe's rapporteur for Azerbaijan, Jacques Baumel, reportedly assured parliamentary speaker Murtuz Alesqerov that "Azerbaijan is ready to become a full member of the Council of Europe," according to Turan. Similarly, a session of the PACE Political Issues Commission in Dublin in mid-May endorsed both Armenia's and Azerbaijan's acceptance into full membership. Noyan Tapan reported that during the course of that discussion, Armenian parliamentarian Hovhanes Hovhannissian argued against a proposal that Azerbaijan's membership should be postponed.

Meeting on 26 May with members of the Armenian parliamentary delegation at the Council of Europe, Armenian President Robert Kocharian said he believes Armenia's bid for full membership, which he considers one of the country's top foreign policy priorities, will be successful. He said there is a broad consensus in Armenian society about the need to be part of the Council of Europe, a membership which he said would testify to "the existence of minimum standards of democracy in the country." "European values are the basis upon which we seek to build our country," Kocharian said.

But Armenian parliamentarian Hmayak Hovannisian, who attended the Cyprus meeting of the PACE Committee for Legal Affairs and Human Rights, told RFE/RL that he fears the uncertainty over Azerbaijan's membership may create last-minute obstacles for Armenia. The dominant mood among PACE officials is that the two conflicting parties to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict must be admitted simultaneously, he said.

"They [the Azerbaijanis] hope that as we move forward we'll act like a locomotive and haul them along," he added. (Liz Fuller/Ruzanna Khachatrian)

Quotations Of The Week. "The war in Chechnya is far from over, it will go on for years.... A law on direct rule will only cast a blanket of legal legitimacy over the perpetual counter-insurgency." -- Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer, quoted by the "Christian Science Monitor" on 24 May.

"We expect that by the end of 2000 there will be a breakthrough in the talks on Nagorno-Karabakh." -- Fued Akhundov, chairman of the state-owned International Bank of Azerbaijan, speaking at the EBRD annual meeting in Riga on 22 May, quoted by Reuters.