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Caucasus Report: March 17, 1999

17 March 1999, Volume 2, Number 11

Moscow, Grozny Seek To Contain Latest Crisis. The 5 March abduction from a plane at Grozny airport of senior Russian Interior Ministry official Major-General Gennadii Shpigun has highlighted yet again the inability of the Chechen authorities to control the situation in their unruly republic and of the Russian leadership to offer anything more tangible than affirmations of moral support for Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov.

Moscow's initial reaction to Shpigun's abduction was couched in terms so harsh as to prompt speculation that a new Russian military intervention in Chechnya was imminent. Speaking two days after the abduction, Russian Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin warned that Moscow would resort to "extremely rigorous measures to ensure law, order and security in the North Caucasus region" if Shpigun was not released "shortly." Stepashin said that despite assurances from the Chechen leadership that it was cracking down on crime and terrorist activities, the situation in that region continues to deteriorate, and the Russian leadership's tolerance was exhausted. "In effect, several thousand armed scoundrels dictate their will to Chechen society, driving it into medievalism and obscurantism," Stepashin said. He warned in the event of future "terrorist acts" Russia would intervene "in conformity with international practice" to destroy "criminal formations' bases." Stepashin added that securing Shpigun's release was "the last chance for the Chechen leadership to prove to Russia and the entire world that it is in control."

It is possible, however, that Stepashin's threats (which he later acknowledged had been endorsed by President Boris Yeltsin) may have been partly prompted by his own personal friendship with Shpigun and partly by a feeling of having been let down badly by the Chechens. Just one week before Shpigun's abduction, Stepashin had been upbeat following a 26 February meeting in Dagestan with Chechen Deputy Prime Minister Turpal Atgeriev, who is responsible for the Chechen law enforcement and security bodies. On that occasion, Stepashin said that both sides had affirmed their readiness to step up cooperation to prevent kidnappings in the North Caucasus and that the Chechens had "promised to adhere to their commitments irrespective of the situation." On parting, Stepashin even presented Atgeriev with a rifle.

On 9 March, Stepashin made it clear that Moscow continues to support Maskhadov. And Prime Minister Yevgenii Primakov, speaking after a combined session of the Russian government and speakers of both chambers of the Duma the following day, ruled out a new war in the North Caucasus.

Meanwhile, reports concerning Shpigun's whereabouts and the identify of his abductors are contradictory. Spokesmen for Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov initially blamed Shpigun's kidnapping on maverick field commander Salman Raduev, who had threatened reprisals against Russia in retaliation for the sentencing last month of two Chechen women for a 1997 bomb attack in the North Caucasus town of Pyatigorsk. But after Raduev's spokesman disclaimed any responsibility, Maskhadov referred only to unnamed elements who, he said, were trying to plunge Chechnya into a new confrontation with Moscow. Stepashin for his part identified Maskhadov's arch rival, Shamil Basaev, who heads the opposition state shura created in early February, as being behind Shpigun's kidnapping. Basaev promptly denied any role in the abduction and called on those who are holding Shpigun captive to hand him over to the shura as a war criminal.

To date, no individual or group has claimed responsibility for Shpigun's abduction or issued a public ransom demand. (This does not, of course, preclude the possibility that such a demand has been made but not publicized.) If the kidnapping for ransom and reprisal scenarios are both ruled out, then the most obvious motive for the kidnapping is the one advanced by Ingush President Ruslan Aushev, namely that it was deliberately intended to further weaken Maskhadov. (Maskhadov himself told RFE/RL that those behind the recents kidnappings in Chechnya are trying "to discredit [our government], to [show] our government as weak and finally to discredit our people.") Having affronted the parliament in early February by limiting its functions in accordance with his own proclamation of Sharia law, Maskhadov's support base is now confined to the security ministries and the cabinet.

The Chechen opposition, which castigates Maskhadov for his alleged conciliatory attitude towards Moscow, responded to his declaration of Sharia law by announcing its intention to establish the shura, which is apparently intended to perform the functions of government. Opposition leaders further declared their intention to hold elections for the post of head of state, which will be a purely ceremonial position. The shura's 34 members include, in addition to Basaev, former Deputy President Vakha Arsanov, former acting President Zelimkhan Yandarbiev, former Foreign Minister Movladi Udugov and Salman Raduev.

Maskhadov is either too weak or too pragmatic, or both, to risk an open confrontation with Basaev and the shura. But he is apparently contemplating an attempt to neutralize one individual whom both he and Moscow perceive as posing a serious threat to Chechnya's long-term stability, namely the Jordanian-born, radical Islamist field commander known as Khottab. Khottab is said to run a network of terrorist training camps in Chechnya. Maskhadov ordered Khottab to leave Chechnya in the wake of the clashes between government troops and Islamic detachments in Gudermes last July, and presidential spokesman Mairbek Vachagaev told Interfax on 10 March that the Jordanian may again be asked to leave Chechnya. ITAR-TASS last week quoted Russian Security Council experts as suggesting that the most effective means of neutralizing Chechen field commanders would be to block the funding they currently receive from unnamed Middle Eastern states. (Liz Fuller)

New Diplomatic Moves On Karabakh. Armenian officials have acclaimed recent initiatives aimed at overcoming the current deadlock in the search for a political settlement of the Karabakh conflict as testifying to international support for their insistence on an unconventional approach to resolving that conflict that would require compromises by both Armenia and Azerbaijan.

On 11 March the European Parliament passed a resolution on endorsing the most recent Karabakh peace plan put forward by the OSCE Minsk Group, which it characterized as constituting a basis for discussion likely to end the negotiating deadlock. Armenia and the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic have both accepted the Minsk Group proposal, which entails the creation by Azerbaijan and the NKR of "a common state," but Baku has categorically rejected it.

Armenian President Robert Kocharian characterized the European Parliament resolution as "a very interesting document," and "the best answer to the ill-wishers who have been, for a year now, skeptical about the possibility of finding a peaceful and at the same time fair solution to the Karabakh conflict." Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, for his part, described the resolution as "a positive step of great importance to the peace process," predicting that, given the political will, the Minsk Group proposal could end the conflict within a year.

Speaking at a news conference in New York last week at the end of a tour of the U.S., NKR President Arkadii Ghukasian was more cautious in his predictions. Noting that his leadership is prepared to accept the risks inherent in the OSCE plan for the sake of a lasting peace, Ghukasian accused Azerbaijan of wanting to prolong the status quo and to address the consequences of the conflict while ignoring its causes. But NKR Foreign Minister Naira Melkumian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on 10 March that Ghukasian's visit had demonstrated a "substantial difference" in the U.S. position with regard to the Karabakh conflict. She said this difference in approach reflects understanding for the Karabakh Armenians' "constructive" position.

Melkumian also said that at a meeting with Donald Keyser, the U.S. co-chairman of the OSCE Minsk Group, Keyser confirmed that the most recent OSCE peace plan remains in force, and that no amendments to it should be expected.

Meanwhile Iran, which is formally excluded from the peace process because it is not a member of the OSCE, has again offered its services as a mediator. Both Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi and President Mohammad Khatami assured visiting Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Tofik Zulfugarov earlier this week that Tehran is prepared to try to bring about a rapprochement between Azerbaijan and Armenia and a solution to the Karabakh conflict, which they said could be adduced as justification for the deployment of foreign troops in the region.

How Zulfugarov responded to that offer is not known. In Yerevan, presidential spokesman Vahe Gabrielian told journalists on 16 March that "help, a good word, support are always welcome." But in a clear allusion to the OSCE process he added that "there are certain limits of conflict settlement and the issue is now being discussed within these limits."

The Armenian leadership is, however, clearly aware of the need to involve Iran in discussions of regional issues. Speaking on 15 March at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, Foreign Minister Oskanian advocated the creation of "an all encompassing regional organization that will include all of the countries of the region ... where we can talk out problems and have some sort of consensus-building." Suggesting that the Transcaucasus has until now been "held hostage to the Western policy of isolating Iran," Oskanian said that the creation of such a regional organization "would certainly help the stability of the region." (Liz Fuller)

Quotation Of The Week. "I would be terribly surprised if you ever see NATO protecting pipelines. That's not NATO's job. NATO's job is to prevent wars and to try to restore peace. Pipelines are a law-enforcement problem within countries. The only way that pipelines are going to be enforced is by the countries through which these pipelines pass by having effective government, effective police, and law enforcement. To invite NATO to come in and do this is an open admission on the part of the countries that would encourage it that they can't rule their own countries." -- Retired general and former National Security Agency Director William Odom, asked by Turan's Washington correspondent on 11 March to comment on the possibility of a NATO force guarding the planned Baku-Ceyhan main export pipeline for Azerbaijan's Caspian oil.