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Caucasus Report: July 9, 1999

9 July 1999, Volume 2, Number 27

Karabakh Military Accuse President Of Lying. The government crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh took a dramatic turn on 9 July when eleven senior officers of the unrecognized republic's army announced they have handed back their military decorations to protest claims by the presidential press office that at a meeting on 6 July they expressed support for President Arkadii Ghukasian in his power struggle with Defense Minister Samvel Babayan. "On July 8, the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic's Defense Minister Samvel Babayan and group of senior commanders of the NKR Defense Army returned all their military awards to NKR President Arkadii Ghukasian as a token of protest and outrage at the latter's offending of their military and human dignity," said a statement by the Karabakh defense ministry.

The statement followed an 8 July report by Ghukasian's press office saying that the commanders "unequivocally supported the course taken by the president." The defense ministry challenged that claim, saying: "In reality, the commanders participating in the meeting not only refused to endorse the president's line...but also expressed deep concern at the resulting internal political crisis and tension." Ghukasian "falsified the meeting's content," the officers were quoted as saying.

Political tension in Karabakh rose in late June when Ghukasian sacked Prime Minister Zhirayr Poghosian, citing his cabinet's failure to bring about an economic upswing. Poghosian is believed to have maintained close links with Babayan, one of the unrecognized republic's most powerful men. The defense minister and his allies reportedly disapprove of Ghukasian's appointments in the new government. One of the participants of the meeting in question told RFE/RL earlier that they informed Ghukasian about his "wrong staffing policy, aimed at weakening the influence of Samvel Babayan and the military."

Meanwhile, Ghukasian has confirmed growing reports that President Kocharian plans to visit his native region on a mediating mission. "The Armenian president's visit to Karabakh is expected shortly. Probably on July 10," Ghukasian said in an RFE/RL interview late on 8 July. "I know that Armenia's leadership unequivocally supports my stance, my views and ideas...Armenia cannot remain indifferent to the events in Karabakh," he added.

Kocharian has already made it clear through a spokesman that Yerevan will not tolerate any "illegal attempts" against the "legitimate authorities" in Stepanakert, in an apparent warning to Babayan. Kocharian met on 9 July with Karabakh's new prime minister, Anushavan Danielian, pledging "active assistance" for economic reforms in Karabakh, according to his press office. Kocharian said he is confident that Danielian is able to "rectify economic policy mistakes made in the past."

Most of the ministerial vacancies in Danielian's cabinet have already been filled. According to Ghukasian, Babayan has accepted an offer by the new Karabakh premier to remain in his current post. "The last word is the president's," he said. "I think there is no [inner-government] discord. What happens is very simple. They [Babayan and his supporters] are trying to prevent me from forming a government, force heads of some local administrations and police chiefs to resign," the Karabakh leader said. "But these attempts are useless because the formation of the government is proceeding in a normal way."

Asked about the standoff's consequences for the Karabakh peace process, Ghukasian put an optimistic spin on the events: "This process is boosting Karabakh's prestige because the outside world is ready to accept an open society and democracy, but not a military dictatorship." (Emil Danielyan, Armen Koloyan, Hrach Melkumian)

Method To Moscow's Apparent Madness In Chechnya. On 5 July, Russian Interior Ministry forces backed by mortars and helicopter gunships attacked a group of 150-200 Chechen fighters whom Russian media subsequently identified as guerrillas, killing several of them. It was the second such attack within the past three weeks. Addressing the Federation Council two days earlier, Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo had warned that such a strike was both imminent and necessary in order to counter "bandits," "criminals," and members of the Chechen drug mafia. (In this latter category Rushailo specifically mentioned former Chechen acting Prime Minister Shamil Basaev.) But at the same time Rushailo stressed that the planned strike did not signal the beginning of a new largescale war against Chechnya.

Official Russian reaction to the strikes was, however, more nuanced. Characterizing the current situation in Chechnya as a struggle for power and zones of influence, Nationalities Minister Vyacheslav Mikhailov told journalists on 6 July that the Russian aggression was justified in order to enable Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, whom Moscow regards as Chechnya's legitimately elected leader, to assert control over his entire fiefdom. Security Council Secretary and Federal Security Service Director Vladimir Putin similarly stressed Moscow's support for Maskhadov. But Putin also told Ekho Moskvy that Rushailo had misrepresented the nature of the Russian attack, which Putin termed not a "preemptive strike" but a justifiable reaction to ongoing lowlevel attacks by Chechens against Russian interior ministry posts in Dagestan.

The Chechen leadership for its part reacted with scepticism to Rushailo's warnings of the Russian preemptive strike. Former Chechen Foreign Minister Movladi Udugov said he believes Rushailo is planning "a new tragedy that will entangle the entire Caucasus." President Maskhadov similarly termed Rushailo's statements part of "a propaganda campaign designed to lay the groundwork for a new great tragedy." And Maskhadov's spokesman Mairbek Vachagaev warned that Chechnya would counter every bomb that exploded on Chechen territory with dozens of comparable explosions in Russia.

Moscow's stated desire to strengthen Maskhadov's position vis-a-vis more radical opposition field commanders, including Shamil Basaev, is entirely plausible, the more so as Basaev has stated his aim of detaching part or the whole of Dagestan from the Russian Federation and incorporating it into an independent federation of Chechnya and Dagestan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 May 1998). By the same token, Maskhadov cannot acknowledge Russia's desire to support him in the hope of preventing a new civil war in Chechnya without undermining his own position and substantiating the opposition's accusations that he is Moscow's puppet. In that context, statements by Nationalities Minister Mikhailov and by Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin that preparations are on track for the planned meeting between Maskhadov and Russian President Boris Yeltsin do not necessarily indicate a dichotomy in Moscow's Chechen policy. And Maskhadov did not react to the 5 July Russian strike by hinting that he no longer considers such a meeting appropriate. (Liz Fuller)

Movement To Divide Karachaevo-Cherkessia Gaining Momentum? The dispute over the outcome of the 16 May presidential runoff in the Republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia has triggered a campaign by the republic's Cherkess and Abazin minorities for the division of the republic along ethnic lines and the incorporation of Cherkess territories into neighboring Stavropol Krai. According to official data, former Russian Army Ground Forces commander Vladimir Semenov, who is a Karachai, polled some 75 percent of the vote, and his rival, Cherkessk mayor Stanislav Derev, who is a Cherkess, 20 percent. Derev rejected those figures, claiming the vote was rigged, and his supporters staged a protest demonstration for days on the central square in Cherkessk.

When the republic's Supreme Court termed the poll result legal and valid, Derev appealed that decision last month to the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation. At the same time, Derev also advocated asking Moscow to name an interim president for a period of four years (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 June 1999). Derev suggested that the interim president should be an ethnic Russian who is familiar with the situation in Karachaevo-Cherkessia. Russians constitute the largest ethnic group in the republic (42.5 percent of the total population), followed by the Karachais (31 percent). The Cherkess acount for only 9.6 percent of the total population, and the related Abazins 6.5 percent. During the four year tenure of the interim president, Derev reasoned, the Cherkess could consider whether to proceed with their demand that the republic be split into Karachai and Cherkess territories.

Not all of Derev's sympathizers appear to support that proposal, however. On 3 July, Cherkess, Abazin and Russian supporters of Derev congregated in Cherkessk to debate a draft resolution demanding the creation of a separate Cherkess Republic. That demand is likely to exacerbate both tensions between the various ethnic groups inhabiting Karachaevo-Cherkessia, and relations between the Cherkess minority and the Russian government. Stavropol Krai Governor Aleksandr Chernogorov has already rejected the proposal that the Cherkess territory of the present Republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia be incorporated into his krai as a separate autonomous republic. And Russian Premier Sergei Stepashin, addressing a government session on 2 July, warned that Moscow will take tough measures against any politicians who violate the Russian Constitution by launching a new separatist movement in Karachaevo-Cherkessia.

Precisely whom Stepashin's warning was aimed at is unclear. Curiously, Derev was not mentioned as having been present at the 3 July meeting. But an article published last week in "Nezavisimaya gazeta-Regiony" named Boris Akbashev, a deputy to the Karachaevo-Cherkess parliament and a supporter of Derev, as one of the "hotheads" who unnamed local residents fear are pushing the republic to the brink of an ethnic conflict. Meanwhile, writing in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 3 July, a leading member of Russia's Union of Constitutionalists advocated resolving the tensions between the Karachais and Cherkess by giving the latter the status of an autonomous republic within the Republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia. (Liz Fuller)

Quotations Of The Week. "We do not aim at punishing someone. The main thing for us is the peaceful settlement of the conflict." -- Georgian Foreign Minister Irakli Menagharishvili, commenting on Tbilisi's efforts to persuade the UN Security Council to condemn the deaths of ethnic Georgians in Abkhazia in 1992-1993 as "ethnic cleansing." (Caucasus Press, 1 July 1999)

"It's a nice combination and seems to have a long way to go." Armenian Prime Minister Vazgen Sargsian, commenting on the triumvirate composed of President Robert Kocharian, parliamentary speaker Karen Demirchian and himself. ("Aravot," 1 July 1999)