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Caucasus Report: August 10, 2000

10 August 2000, Volume 3, Number 32

Russian Press Discusses Azerbaijani Presidential Succession. In recent weeks the Russian central press has published several articles assessing the likelihood of a rapprochement between Baku and Moscow. and the relative prospects of the various candidates to succeed Heidar Aliyev as Azerbaijani President. The authors view those issues as interconnected, insofar as they believe public opinion in Azerbaijan is becoming increasingly anti-Western, to the point that the decisive factor in the next presidential poll (due in 2003) will be not the personality of the candidates but their foreign policy orientation. In other words, only a pro-Russian politician would stand any chance of winning.

Writing in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 22 July, Petr Romanov cited six factors that, he claimed, have induced the U.S. to reassess its commitment to Azerbaijan. They are the need to avoid offending Russia; Aliev's alleged increasing inconsistency; the disastrous state of Azerbaijan's economy and concomitant high level of corruption; the Azerbaijani leadership's lack of commitment to democratization and press freedom; and uncertainty who will succeed Aliev. By the same token, Romanov claims that both Aliyev and "many leading opposition parties in Azerbaijan" are likewise disillusioned with the West. Those parallel processes, Romanov believes, have created a situation in which Russia could strengthen its position in the South Caucasus, provided that it revises its current policy in the region. In that context, he advocated specifically that Moscow should abandon its military cooperation with Armenia.

In a second article published almost simultaneously in "NG-Sodruzhestvo," the monthly supplement to "Nezavisimaya gazeta," Romanov evaluates the chances of those political figures considered as possible successors to Aliev. He considers Ilham Aliev's chances of succeeding his father minimal because of the legacy the latter will bequeath him in the form of a ruined economy and the unresolved Karabakh conflict. Romanov also argues that Ilham's reputation as a gambler would deter voters. Romanov also writes off the pro-western opposition party leaders Abulfaz Elchibey (Azerbaijan Popular Front), Isa Gambar (Musavat Party), and Etibar Mamedov (Azerbaijan National Independence Party) claiming that none of them can count on the support of more than 10-15 percent of the electorate.

That leaves exiled former parliament chairman Rasul Guliev, whom Romanov claims the U.S. is grooming as its preferred presidential candidate. Romanov admits that Guliev has both enough money to fund an election campaign, and a "strong political organization" in the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan. But Romanov believes that those assets are offset by the electorate's imputed growing antipathy towards the West, an antipathy that former President Ayaz Mutalibov could capitalize on. Mutalibov's primary drawback, however, as Romanov admits, is that he has spent the past eight years in exile in Moscow and has no formal political support base in Azerbaijan. Romanov fails, however, to note that the lack of such a support base could be compensated by the votes of the estimated 3 million Azerbaijani Gastarbeiter in the Russian Federation, who are entitled to cast their ballots in future Azerbaijani elections, and who would be inclined to favor a pro-Russian, rather than a pro-Western politician. A second factor that would rally the expatriate Azerbaijani vote behind Mutalibov, Romanov pointed out, is his reputation as a competent economic manager.

In this second article, Romanov offers a slightly different perception of U.S.-Azerbaijani relations, charging that Aliyev has not yet abandoned his "pro-western, anti-Russian" policy, one component of which, according to Romanov, is providing medical treatment to wounded Chechen fighters. Failure to abandon this policy, Romanov argues, would leave Moscow with no choice but to impose a visa requirement on all Azerbaijanis wishing to enter the Russian Federation -- a move that would alienate those Azerbaijanis who rely to survive on money transmitted by relatives working in Russia.

The second author to review the current state of U.S.-Azerbaijani-Russian relations, Aleksei Chesnakov, proceeds from the premise that stability in Azerbaijan is in Russia's interests. But he perceives a major obstacle to a rapprochement between Moscow and Baku in the nature of the two countries' political elites. He notes that Azerbaijan underwent "two revolutions" in 1992 and 1993, the first of which brought to power the Azerbaijan Popular Front, and the second Heidar Aliyev and a new post-Soviet "counter-elite." The advent of the latter, Chesnakov writes, has led to "a new political and business culture that is half way between the European and the oriental type." Those Azerbaijanis have little in common with the former Soviet nomenklatura. In addition, Chesnakov points out, Russian politicians still tend to patronize their counterparts from other former Soviet republics as "younger brothers."

Chesnakov argues that Aliev's desire to ensure that his son succeeds him could impel the Azerbaijani president to seek Russia's help. But Russia should, he says, consider carefully before committing itself to backing Ilham, given his lack of popular support within Azerbaijan. One factor that could prove decisive would be to increase Russian investment in Azerbaijan; another would be to try to mobilize the Azerbaijani community in Russia to support Ilham.

The first step towards that infusion of Russian capital is likely to involve the investment of several hundred million dollars by the monopoly "Russian Aluminum" in three large but idling Azerbaijani enterprises producing that metal. The revival of those enterprises will create 8,000 new jobs in Gyanja and Sumagait. (Liz Fuller)

Will New Legislation Expedite The Meskhetians' Return To Georgia? One of the obligations that Georgia assumed on acceptance in April 1999 into full membership of the Council of Europe was to expedite the repatriation to Georgia of the Meskhetians deported by Stalin from southern Georgia to Central Asia and Kazakhstan in November 1944. A Georgian samizdat document of 1975, and eyewitness accounts by Latifshakh Baratashvili, who subsequently spearheaded the campaign for permission to return to Georgia, describe how between 90,000--100,000 Meskhetians, Kurds, and Khemshins (Armenians whose ancestors were converted to Islam) were rounded up and transported in cattle cars to Kazakhstan. Thousands of them died en route or of the harsh conditions in exile.

Following Nikita Khrushchev's legendary denunciation of Stalin's crimes at the XXth congress of the CPSU in 1956, most of the other ethnic groups deported during the Second World War, including the Crimean Tatars and the Chechens and Ingush, were exonerated and allowed to return home. The Meskhetians, for reasons that remain unclear, were not, and they began lobbying the Soviet authorities for permission to do so.

That process, inevitably, acquired political dimensions. Both scholars and the Meskhetians themselves dispute their origins: some consider them Georgians whose forebears converted to Islam when the Samtskhe-Djavakheti region of Georgia constituted part of the Ottoman Empire. Others believe they are ethnic Turks. Accordingly, the Meskhetians gravitated into two camps. One, named Khsna ("Salvation") and founded by Latifshakh Baratashvili, united those Meskhetians who consider themselves Georgians; the other, named Vatan ("Homeland") represents those who identified themselves as Turks.

In the mid-1980s, despite protests from some members of the Georgian intelligentsia, an initiative was launched to bring Meskhetians back to Georgia, but only a few hundred succeeded in taking advantage of that opportunity, and they were hounded out of the republic a few years later by supporters of ultranationalist President Zviad Gamsakhurdia.

The widespread clashes in the summer of 1989 in Uzbekistan's Ferghana valley between Meskhetians and local Uzbeks culminated in the evacuation of nearly all of the entire 90,000-strong Meskhetian population of that region. In an article published in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" in 1998, Professor Khadji-Murat Ibragimbeyli, one of the co-chairmen of the Russian Muslim organization "Nur," estimated that as of 1 January 1998, there were still 15,000 Meskhetians in Uzbekistan, some 30,000 in Kyrgyzstan, 90,000 in Kazakhstan, 70,000 in Azerbaijan and 90,000 in the Russian Federation. Of the latter group, some 13,500 are compactly settled in two districts of Krasnodar Krai. There they are regarded with enmity and suspicion by both the local Cossack population and the regional authorities, who refuse to grant them the right of permanent residency, but encourage those who wish to do so to emigrate to Turkey.

In March 1999, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze issued a decree setting up a government commission charged with preparing by 1 October 2000 a legal framework for the voluntary return over a period of 12 years of those Meskhetians who wish to settle permanently in Georgia. That commission has already drafted legislation that characterizes the Meskhetians as victims of political repression, rehabilitates them, and affirms their right to Georgian citizenship.

But the repatriation process, which is to be funded entirely by international organizations, is nonetheless likely to prove problematic, as Repatriation Service head Guram Mamulia told RFE/RL's Tbilisi bureau earlier this summer.

According to Mamulia, the Georgian authorities do not have up-to-date accurate estimates of the number of Meskhetians who want to return to Georgia. The only data available are from 1989. At that time, Mamulia said, 10,594 heads of households had filed applications to resettle in Georgia, but it is not clear how many of those still desire to do so. He predicted that only a very few Meskhetians will come to Georgia over the next two to three years because the economic situation there is so bad.

Asked where the returning Meskhetians will live, Mamulia said that like all other citizens of Georgia, they are free to choose their place of residence. That response suggests that the Georgian government will not make any special effort to help the Meskhetians return to the villages in southern Georgia from which they (or their parents or grandparents) were originally deported. Some in Georgia have protested that the region is now so densely populated that it could not accomodate an influx of resettlers, but Vatan chairman Yusuf Sarvarov rejects that argument: he told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" two years ago that the population of the region now is 20 percent less than in 1944. But the present inhabitants of Samtskhe-Djavakheti. who are predominantly Armenian, have warned that they will resort to force if necessary to prevent any attempt at the mass resettlement of the Meskhetians. Mamulia does not say either whether any Meskhetians have returned to Samtskhe-Djavakheti, or how many have settled elsewhere in Georgia, and where.

Mamulia downplays the division of the Meskhetians into those who consider themselves Turks and those who believe themselves Georgians, claiming that the overwhelming majority are members of neither Vatan nor Khsna, and are "not politicized." According to him, the Meskhetians consider themselves simply as natives of Meskheti: he argues that their sense of national identity is "weak" because in medieval Georgia, Georgian national consciousness centered on membership of the Georgian Orthodox church, and at that juncture the Meskhetians had already converted to Islam. "We shall have our work cut out," Mamulia says, "to strengthen their national identity."

One of the requirements set down by the Council of Europe is that the process of integrating the returning Meskhetians into Georgian society should proceed in tandem with that of repatriation. Mamulia interpreted as evidence of a burgeoning sense of national identity the fact that without exception, all those Meskhetians who have returned to Georgia have adopted Georgian surnames and send their children to Georgian-language schools. That willingness to conform could equally, however, reflect a fear of being stigmatized.

Mamulia said that he does not anticipate problems in integrating the returning Meskhetians into Georgian society, but that the success of that process will depend on the Georgian authorities. In that context, he admitted that the main danger is indifference, insensitivity or inefficiency on the part of bureaucrats who, for example, may fail to provide Georgian language instruction, or to assist those Meskhetians who wish to change their surnames,

Whether the new draft legislation will indeed pave the way for the Meskhetians' return is, however, questionable. Writing last year on the anniversary of the deportation, one Meskhetian suggested that while paying lip-service to the need for repatriation, the Georgian authorities are in fact doing little to encourage it. A second author has suggested that the Georgian leadership would be committing collective political suicide if it allowed the Meskhetians to return to Georgia en masse before it negotiated a solution to the Abkhaz conflict that would allow displaced Georgians to return to Abkhazia. Mamulia's admission that repatriation could prove "a destabilizing factor" could be interpreted as corroborating that hypothesis. (Liz Fuller)

Armenian Defense Minister Reports Improvements In Armed Forces. The combat-readiness of the Armenian armed forces has improved markedly over the past seven years, Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian claimed on 10 August. Sarkisian told reporters that the army, which fought a successful war against Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, is now "better armed, better funded and better organized" than in 1993-95, during his previous spell as minister of defense. "The difference is really big," he said.

Sarkisian also insisted that discipline in the armed forces is strong despite a recent incident in which two fugitive servicemen shot dead eight people before being caught by the police. Also, parents of dozens of soldiers killed in out-of-combat incidents held a series of demonstrated outside the presidential palace in Yerevan last month, protesting an alleged official cover-up of the crimes. "We do have a normal army," the minister said.

A former wartime commander of Karabakh Armenian forces who has held key posts in the government of the Republic of Armenia since 1993, Sarkisian resigned as minister of national security in the wake of last October's parliament shootings under pressure from political allies of the slain leaders of the governing Miasnutyun bloc. He was appointed as head of President Robert Kocharian's staff shortly afterwards, retaining much of his political influence. (Margarit Yesayan)

Armenian Banking Sector Expands. Armenia's commercial banks, still seen as too small to generate rapid economic growth, continued to expand their operations in the second quarter of the year, posting major gains in assets and capital. Figures released by the Armenian Central Bank show the country's 31 banks increasing their aggregate assets by 10.2 percent to 225.8 billion drams ($422 million). Their total capital stood at an equally modest 34 billion drams ($63 million) as of late June after a 2.9 percent rise over the period in question.

The banks continued to invest heavily in state treasury bills despite a steep decline in yields since the beginning of the year. T-bills accounted for about one-fifth of their $205 million credit portfolios. Yields on short-term government securities have fallen from over 45 to nearly 26 percent in the past seven months, but are still seen as disproportionately high for an economy with a single-digit inflation and a relatively stable currency.

The second quarter also saw a significant increase in commercial bank lending and borrowing, which suggests that the economy gained some momentum after a major slowdown during the first three months of the year. The amount of bank deposits from private and state-run business jumped by 17 percent to $80 million. The Armenian government has yet to release the main macroeconomic figures for the first half of 2000.

Analysts believe that resources accumulated by the domestic banking sector are highly insufficient for setting off economic recovery in Armenia. A large-scale shadow economy and continuing public mistrust mean that substantial sums of money remain outside banks.

Eighteen Armenian banks ended the period with profits, while the 13 others reported losses, according to the Central Bank. One of them is facing liquidation. (Emil Danielyan)

Quotations Of The Week. "I understand that the situation [in Chechnya] is far removed from, say, that in Moscow or Ivanovo. But what is the alternative? Today everyone agrees that one of the ways to resolve problems in the Chechen Republic is political steps that the Russian leadership must take. This is a concrete political step." -- Russian Central Electoral Commission chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov, asked by Ekho Moskvy on 9 August whether it is not premature to hold a by-election for the Russian State Duma in Chechnya.

"Russia should announce a ceasefire. I have no doubt that Aslan Maskhadov will immediately follow suit. And we should negotiate with him, instead of telling lies about him not being the legitimate president of Chechnya. If it goes on like that, we could call Aushev illegitimate next, then Shaimiev or someone else." -- Yelena Bonner, interviewed in "Moskovskii komsomolets" on 4 August.

"It is clear today that Armenia is at a breaking point and it is incumbent on the politicians to fundamentally change their ways or step aside." -- Former Armenian Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian, quoted in the "Boston Herald" on 6 August (courtesy of Groong).