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Caucasus Report: December 21, 2000

21 December 2000, Volume 3, Number 49

How Will Georgians React To Russian Pressure? Moscow's imposition of a visa requirement for citizens of Georgia wishing to enter the Russian Federation, and its suspension of natural gas supplies to Georgia in retaliation for unpaid bills, have presented the Georgian leadership with the option of making tactical -- or even strategic -- concessions to Moscow in return for guaranteed supplies of electricity and gas. On 6 December, the day after the visa requirement took effect, RFE/RL's Tbilisi bureau convened a discussion that focussed on whether Georgians would approve or protest major concessions to Russia that could entail a loss of sovereignty.

Historian Davit Losaberidze argued that over the past decade Georgians have become accustomed to independence to the point that they take it for granted. As a result, he said, it no longer occupies pride of place on a scale of values to be defended. But at the same time he recalled that in the fall of 1993, when Georgia was under similar pressure from Russia to join the CIS, some leading Georgian officials argued that to do so would be "shameful" and tantamount to ceding part of the country's sovereignty. He suggested that if the present leadership did make major concessions, for example withdrawing its insistence on the closure of Russia's military bases in Georgia, then that decision might negatively impact on relations with the West, but would not spark a "violent protest" at home. He added, however, that such protests might come later, if the material benefits that Tbilisi had anticipated receiving in exchange failed to materialize.

Psychologist Gaga Nizharadze disagreed, predicting that there would be no large-scale protest if Georgia were coerced into joining a union comparable to that between Russia and Belarus. There would, he said, be a sophisticated propaganda campaign aimed at overcoming domestic opposition to such an alliance, and which would try to convince the population that membership in such a union would guarantee uninterrupted gas and power supplies and the restoration of Georgia's hegemony over Abkhazia.

Nizharadze went on to warn that such a rapprochement with Russia is inadmissible, "not because the Russians are bad people, but because Russia's political culture is primitive. It has not changed since the time of Ivan the Terrible and centers on extending control over the largest possible expanse of territory, regardless of whether or not Moscow can govern it."

Nizharadze predicted that if Georgia did agree to such an alliance, Russia would become even more overbearing than during the Soviet period in terms of treating Georgia as a "younger brother" and that Georgia would have fewer privileges than it had as a Soviet Socialist Republic. Above all, he said, "I am convinced that we still wouldn't get Abkhazia back, although the energy situation might improve." "I'm beginning to think that Georgians are unable of preserving Georgia as an independent country," he concluded gloomily.

Asked the reasons for his pessimism, Nizharadze said that while there was an initial improvement in the domestic situation in Georgia after the collapse of the USSR, there has been no further progress since then. That failure has convinced him that "this leadership is totally incapable of solving the country's internal problems."

Nizharadze agreed with the hypothesis floated by RFE/RL moderator Davit Paichadze that the concepts of "sovereignty" and "democracy" have come to be associated with the hardships of the past decade. It is only natural, Nizharadze continued, that the population remembers everything that was positive about the Soviet period and has forgotten the negative aspects.

Losaberidze for his part questioned whether the hypothetical choice of "Georgian sovereignty in exchange for Russian gas" is realistic, pointing out that many cities in the Russian Federation also experience power shortages and that the Russian leadership might prove unable to deliver its part of such a hypothetical bargain. He added that he is convinced that if a referendum on independence were held now, the overwhelming majority of the Georgian population would vote in favor, even though, paradoxically, Georgians have no clearer understanding now of what independence entails than they did a decade ago.

Nizharadze suggested that this winter may prove the turning point, and that if the leadership can postpone making concessions to Russia for the next few months, things may improve in the spring.

Losaberidze envisaged an intensified polemic, with the pro-Moscow faction blaming Georgia's plight on its pro-western orientation, while the pro-Western reformers seek to offload responsibility on Russia even though they themselves have proved unable to find solutions to Georgia's problems.

He concluded by warning that Russian pressure on Georgia could have the opposite effect to that intended: "Russia is not taking into consideration the possibility that it could provoke the strengthening, under the guidance of the West, of the most radically anti-Russian forces in Georgia. That would make the process of Georgia's distancing itself from Russia's political orbit irreversible." (Liz Fuller)

How Reliable Is The Chechen Police Force? Among the components of Moscow's long-term plan for administering Chechnya is the creation of a police force staffed by local personnel but subordinate to the Russian Interior Ministry. (The police would be supplemented a separate force of elite Chechen OMON Interior Ministry troops.) In an interview published in "Krasnaya zvezda" on 14 December, Russian Chief of Army General Staff Colonel-General Anatolii Kvashnin said that the Chechen police and Russian Interior Ministry troops will be deployed in small detachments stationed in 200 of Chechnya's 357 villages to maintain order and protect the local population against attack by Chechen militants. But the 10 December arrest of a Chechen said to have an official police identity card on suspicion of planting a car bomb in Alkhan-Yurt suggests that at least some members of the Chechen police may constitute a fifth column.

The creation of a Chechen police force has been problematic from the start. The original nucleus of that force was a group of some 2,500 Chechen volunteers led by former Grozny mayor Beslan Gantemirov which fought alongside Russian troops in the battle to take control of Grozny in December-January. That force was, however, summarily disbanded in May, very possibly to undercut Gantemirov's political influence, and its members required to surrender their weapons.

The head of the Russian Interior Ministry's department in Chechnya, Sergei Arenin, said on 22 May that 648 former members of Gantemirov's militia had been offered employment in the new Chechen police force but that only 353 of that number had actually reported for duty. Two weeks later, Russian Deputy Interior Minister Igor Zubov said that the new force already numbered 1,200 of an intended total strength of 5,000. Zubov added that "the process of recruitment has been slow" because applicants' backgrounds must be thoroughly vetted. He admitted that some Chechen fighters were trying to inflitrate the new force, while other volunteers were signing up "not for the purpose of maintaining order but for the sake of their own selfish interests." (Two German journalists who visited Chechnya reported that both the Russian military and Interior Ministry forces connive at the theft and lucrative illegal export of oil and scrap metal. It is possible that Chechen police are also involved in such machinations.)

By late July, the number of Chechen police had risen to 1,900, but Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, whom Russian President Vladimir Putin appointed as interim Chechen administration head in June, made it clear he considered that number insufficient. Interfax on 20 July quoted Kadyrov as saying that police strength would be quadrupled, to 8,000; in early October, by which time the ranks numbered 2,450, Kadyrov said that Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo had agreed that instead of a force of 7,000, double that number were needed "in order to combat the scattered rebels." Rushailo assured Kadyrov he would secure an additional 30 million rubles ($1.1 million) from the federal budget to finance that force. Kadyrov told ITAR-TASS that recruitment criteria for the police were "strict" and that the local administration head and the imam of the local mosque are required to give their assessment of the suitability of each applicant. Russian presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembskii said that applicants are required to undergo three months of tests.

By early November, the 100-man strong traffic police presence in Grozny was already exclusively Chechen, and it was envisaged that by the end of the year responsibility for maintaining law and order in the three lowland raions in the north of Chechnya (Nauri, Shelkovskii and Nadterechnyi) would be handed over to Chechen police. But allegations that some Chechen fighters have managed to inflitrate the police still recur regularly.

Some of the most sweeping such claims originated with Gantemirov, now Grozny mayor. In late September, "Kommersant" quoted him as saying that "there are now so many separatists on the force that I can no longer picture it as it once was."

Two months later, in late November, Gantemirov charged that the entire police force in three of the city's districts (Leninskii, Zavodskii and Staropromyslovskii) sympathize with the Chechen fighters, assist them both in infiltrating the city and in evacuating their wounded after hit-and-run attacks on Russian forces, lay mines, and "sabotage all attempts to restore normal life" in Grozny. Yastrzhembskii rejected those accusations, but admitted that "individual policemen and units" may not be entirely reliable.

In addition to the ethnic Chechen regular police, who are subordinate to the Russian Interior Ministry, Chechnya also has a unified special police (OMOM) contingent. That force was created by Gantemirov in his capacity as Kadyrov's deputy with responsibility for maintaining order, on the basis of three separate OMON detachments, two of which were formerly deployed in Argun and Grozny. Gantemirov told "Kommersant-Daily" in July that the new force is composed exclusively of "professionals" who "have combat experience" and "will never betray us." To date, however, there is little hard evidence on whether Gantemirov's OMON force is indeed more reliable than other Chechen police units. (Liz Fuller)

Quotations Of The Week. "We have had serious progress this year. The main rebel forces have been defeated." -- Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking at a 21 December Kremlin ceremony to present awards for courage to Russian servicemen who served in the North Caucasus (quoted by Interfax).

"Moscow has absolutely no idea what is going on here." -- Interim Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, quoted by AFP on 18 December.

"Aliyev and Kocharian are dancing the tango according to the American score, and I am glad that Nagorno-Karabakh is not participating in this tango. The priority of all the peoples populating this region must be composing and performing their own symphony." -- Former Armenian National Security Advisor Ashot Manucharian, commenting on the search for a settlement of the Karabakh conflict, and alluding to the quip by the Russian co-chairman of the OSCE Minsk Group, Nikolai Gribkov, that "it takes two to tango." (Quoted by Noyan Tapan on 14 December).

"How can culture develop in Azerbaijan if the greater part of its territory is blocked? I want to tell you that our main cultural values are in Nagorno-Karabakh. Besides, I myself come from Nagorno-Karabakh." --Azerbaijani Minister of Culture Polad Bul-bul ogly, commenting on a meeting between the ministers of culture of the three South Caucasus states (quoted by Noyan Tapan on 19 December).