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Caucasus Report: July 7, 2000

7 July 2000, Volume 3, Number 27

Chechens Vow To Take Gudermes. Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov warned Moscow on 7 July that his men are strong enough to attack and take control of Gudermes, the second-largest town in Chechnya, within days. Russian military spokesmen claimed last week that Chechen field commanders are preparing for new attacks against targets in lowland regions of Chechnya, including Grozny and Gudermes.

Major-General Vladimir Bokovikov, the deputy commander of the Russian federal forces in Chechnya, told journalists in Khankala on 28 June that he believes Maskhadov hopes to repeat the strategic victory he achieved in August 1996, when some 1.500 Chechen fighters launched a surprise attack on Grozny and took total control of the city within a week. That victory paved the way for the ceasefire agreement signed on 22 August between then Russian Security Council Secretary Aleksandr Lebed and then Chechen chief of staff Aslan Maskhadov which effectively ended the first Chechen war. Nine days later, Lebed and Maskhadov signed the Khasavyurt agreement outlining the principles for future negotiations on the status of Chechnya within the Russian Federation. But Russian President Vladimir Putin told North Caucasus leaders on 6 July that a rerun of the events of 1996 can be excluded, and that the federal forces will continue to eliminate "terrorism" in Chechnya.

A Russian press article published on the second anniversary of the 1996 storm of Grozny quoted Abu Movsaev, who at that time was Chechen intelligence chief, as saying that the Chechens had realized in March 1996 that they were numerically capable of retaking the capital. But the same article also quotes a Chechen OMON commander as saying that the successful storming of Grozny in August 1996 was the product not so much of the Chechen's superior military skills as of an agreement between the Chechen military command and unnamed senior Russian commanders. The Chechen OMON commander claimed to have seen secret Russian military documents in May 1996 outlining plans for a withdrawal from Chechnya on the lines of that from Afghanistan.

According to that Russian press analysis, in preparation for Moscow's tactical retreat from Grozny, the pro-Moscow Chechen police force was deliberately weakened by repeated changes of command, and several prominent Chechen commanders, including Ruslan Labazanov who had spearheaded the resistance to then Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudaev in the fall of 1994, and who could have rallied Chechens to defend the capital, were killed in mysterious circumstances. In a subsequent television address, Beslan Gantemirov, at that time first deputy premier of the pro-Moscow Chechen government, charged that the Chechen forces encountered practically no resistance as they advanced into Grozny. He attributed that success to collusion between the Chechen and Russian military commands.

The current situation in Chechnya is in some ways similar to that on the eve of the August 1996 storm of Grozny. Moscow has installed an interim Chechen administration head, Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, who has not yet succeeded in winning the hearts and minds of the population at large and whose jurisdiction does not extend much further than his home village of Tsentoroi and his office in Gudermes. Most members of the Russian leadership, together with the commander of the federal forces in Chechnya, Colonel General Gennadii Troshev, pay lip service to the prospect of a negotiated end to the war, while excluding Maskhadov's participation in those talks. The pro-Moscow Chechen militia headed by Gantemirov, which fought alongside the federal forces in the early months of this year, has been disbanded. Nine Russian regiments have been withdrawn from Chechnya in recent months, reducing the Defense Ministry contingent to 48,600. (The combined Russian troop strength in February was 93,000.)

Senior Russian commanders explain those troop reductions in terms of the successful completion of "large-scale military operations," characterizing the continuing fighting as "mopping-up operations." They also claim to have inflicted serious losses on the enemy, and construe as a tactical victory the Chechens' resort to guerrilla operations undertaken by numerically small and highly mobile units. (That reasoning overlooks the fact that one of the central tenets of the Chechen military doctrine drawn up in 1998 was precisely reliance on units of 100 men who would engage in such hit-and-run tactics, preferably on their home turf.)

The Chechens continue, nonetheless, to mount attacks on Russian military posts both in Grozny and other cities almost on a daily basis. Their current combined strength is estimated by the Russians at 2,300, or more than the force that took Grozny in August 1996.

The most significant difference between the situation in late July 1996 and today is that in 1996, enough of Grozny was still standing for it to function as the capital; now it is a wasteland. The functions of the capital have been transferred to Gudermes, which has a population of some 48,000 people, including thousands of displaced persons from elsewhere in Chechnya. It is therefore logical that, if the Chechens were to launch an all-out assault on a strategic town, they would choose Gudermes not Grozny. But it is unlikely that Maskhadov's estimate of how easily his men could take Gudermes is predicated on a secret deal with high-ranking Russian military officials desperate for a pretext to end the fighting for good.

On the contrary, the prevailing mood within the Russian Defense Ministry is that the war must not be ended until the Chechen resistance has been utterly smashed and field commanders Khattab and Shamil Basaev have either been captured or killed. Senior commanders accordingly envisage low-level hostilities continuing at least until the fall of this year. (Liz Fuller)

OSCE Mediators Wrap Up Karabakh Tour. Mediators from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe discussed the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Armenian leaders on 5 July, ending a five-day tour of the region characterized by greater emphasis on economic reconstruction as part of a future Armenian-Azerbaijani peace deal.

The Russian, US and French co-chairs of the OSCE's Minsk Group said the talks in Baku, Stepanakert and Yerevan left them with new hopes for a peace settlement, but stopped short announcing considerable progress. Carey Cavanaugh, the chief US representative in the Group, told reporters that during their meetings with leaders of the conflicting parties the mediators found a genuine willingness to end the decade-long dispute.

"We stood for the idea of the two parties taking confidence-building measures," said his Russian opposite number, Nikolai Gribkov. That would involve some form of economic cooperation between Armenia and Azerbaijan parallel to the peace process, he added. The co-chairs on 3 July visited adjacent border areas in Armenia and Azerbaijan to look into the possibility of the resumption of commercial contacts between the two bitter foes.

Gribkov did not deny reports that Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev reaffirmed Baku's opposition to any economic links with Armenia before the conflict's settlement. Armenia, on the other hand, has been quite supportive of the idea.

Interfax quoted Gribkov as saying that the co-chairs had not brought any new proposals to resolve the conflict, but that all earlier draft plans for doing so "are still on the table." He added that "[w]e do have new ideas that may help the sides find a mutually acceptable solution."

The mediators held separate meetings with President Robert Kocharian, Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian and Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian. According to an Armenian Defense Ministry spokesman, Sarkisian and the Minsk Group troika discussed "practical steps to strengthen the cease-fire regime" around Karabakh and on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border. (Hrach Melkumian)

Who Is The Second Most Powerful Official In Armenia? Pondering the implications of Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian's meetings in Moscow with Russian leaders on 26-27 June, several Armenian press commentators conclude that Sarkisian currently enjoys greater influence than does Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, and should thus be regarded as the second most important official in the country.

Sarkisian, who is a former head of President Robert Kocharian's staff and also chairman of the National Security Council, met in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, Defense Minister Igor Sergeev and Russian Security Council secretary Sergei Ivanov. It was, "Aravot" noted on 29 June, the first time since Armenia gained its independence that a Russian President had received an Armenian Defense Minister. The primary focus of his talks was reportedly defense and military cooperation, but Sarkisian also discussed cooperation in the economic and energy sector with Kasyanov, and preparations for Kocharian's upcoming visit to Moscow with Putin. The former question is logically the preserve of the prime minister, while the latter is that of the foreign minister or of Armenia's ambassador in Moscow.

"Azg" on 29 June raised the possibility that Sarkisian may within 2-3 months be named premier, replacing Andranik Markarian. "Zhamanak" the following days concurs with that prognosis, adding that 10 September has been suggested as the probable date for Markarian's replacement. To substantiate its hypothesis, "Zhamanak" notes that Sarkisian has appropriated an official privilege to which theoretically only the president, the premier and the parliament speaker are entitled, namely of driving with his motorcade into the parking area behind the government building.

"Haikakan Zhamanak" suggests that in the newly-configured power hierarchy Markarian ranks below Sarkisian, and parliament speaker Armen Khachatrian after Markarian. Given that Khachatrian is increasingly regarded as ineffective and interested only in the opportunities for foreign travel that his position provides (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, No. 14, 7 April 2000), replacing Khachatrian as speaker with Markarian, who was formerly head of the majority Miasnutiun parliament faction, would make sense.

Some papers, however, surmise that more is at stake than simply the fate of Markarian. They interpret Sarkisian's Moscow meetings as evidence of a plot to oust Kocharian (presumably for having retreated too far from Armenia's traditional "Russia first" foreign policy orientation) and replace him with Sarkisian. (Liz Fuller)

Quotations Of The Week. "I think we should not see a Turkish role in [the] Caucasus. The Turkish presence in the Caucasus brought only wars, its presence in the Caucasus is a dangerous and destabilizing factor." -- Vahan Hovhanessian, chairman of the Armenian parliament commission on defense and security issues, commenting to RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau on 30 June on the expulsion from Turkey of an Armenian delegation.

"Today my ministry has only 140 drams (25 cents) in its bank account." -- Armenian Minister of State Property David Vartanian, in an interview published in "Yerkir" (29 June).