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Caucasus Report: September 2, 1999

2 September 1999, Volume 2, Number 35

Daghestan: Round Two. Following the claim late last week that "first phase" of the Russian military campaign against the Chechen-led Islamic guerrillas in Daghestan had been successfully completed, on 29 August elite Russian Interior ministry troops proceeded to phase two, targeting four villages in central Daghestan's Buinaksk Raion. The residents of those villages have consistently been portrayed in the Russian press as "Wahhabis," a term which is indiscriminately applied both in the North Caucasus and Central Asia not only to Islamic fundamentalists but also to any devout Muslims whose behaviour is regarded with suspicion by, or perceived to pose a threat to, the local authorities.

The inhabitants of the villages of Chabanmakhi and Karamakhi were said to have sympathized with the Chechen-led incursion. But in a departure from the tactics Russian commanders employed in Chechnya, the Russian military attempted, albeit without success, to persuade the villagers to lay down their arms, and only launched artillery strikes against the Chechen militants who had retreated to those villages after the civilian population had departed, according to "Nezavisimaya gazeta."

After three days heavy fighting, on 2 September Russian Interior Ministry spokesmen claimed to have taken control of Chabanmakhi and Karamakhi. But it is unclear whether the militants' retreat is more than purely tactical and "their morale is broken," as a Russian Interior Ministry spokesman claimed. And up to 2,000 Chechen guerrillas are said to be massed on the border between Chechnya and Daghestan.

That deployment may well be in anticipation of a third round of fighting, in which "Nezavisimaya gazeta" predicts the federal forces will attempt to cross the border from Daghestan into Chechnya to annihiliate once for all the network of training camps organized by Jordanian-born field commander Khattab.

Meanwhile the attacks on Chabanmakhi and Karamakhi, and reprisals by some local authorities in Daghestan against "Wahhabis," risk engendering a policy disagreement within the Daghestani leadership. While Daghestan State Council chairman Magomedali Magomedov has called for a crackdown on "wahhabism" -- thus virtually giving carte blanche to local officials to target whomever they please -- Deputy Premier Gadzhi Makhachev expressed his opposition to the punitive action against Karamakhi villagers, whom he described as "brothers." (Liz Fuller)

Cherkess Radicals Parlay Presidential Election Dispute Into Campaign For Autonomy. The 27 August decision by the Supreme Court of the Republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia to recognize as valid the victory in the 16 May presidential runoff election of former Russian Army ground forces commander Vladimir Semenov has triggered a new wave of protests on behalf of the defeated candidate, Cherkessk Mayor Stanislav Derev. But the ultimate objective of those protests seems to have evolved beyond reversing the Supreme Court's decision. According to Russian media reports, radical Cherkess nationalists have succeeded in parlaying that discontent into support for their demands for the resurrection of the separate Cherkess Autonomous Oblast that existed until 1957.

Immediately after the May runoff, Derev had appealed the official results according to which his rival candidate Semenov, an ethnic Karachai, polled some 75 percent of the vote compared with 20 percent for Derev (who is a Cherkess). In June, the Karachaevo-Cherkessia Supreme Court ruled the poll outcome valid, after which Derev appealed to the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation. At the same time, however, in an attempt to alleviate tensions that already threatened to split the republic along ethnic lines, Derev suggested that Moscow should appoint as interim president for a period of four years an ethnic Russian familiar with developments in the North Caucasus. (In early August, Derev and Semenov addresssed a joint appeal to Russian President Boris Yeltsin to name Boris Berezovskii to that post.) On 23 July, the Russian Supreme Court overturned the republican court ruling, annulled Semenov's presidential mandate, and returned the case to the Karachaevo-Cherkessia Supreme Court, sparking protests by Semenov's supporters (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol.2, No. 30, 30 July 1999).

Following talks in Moscow earlier this week with senior Russian officials, including Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Semenov returned to Cherkessk on 2 September. In a clear attempt to defuse the situation, he said he will not insist on being inaugurated immediately as president. He also proposed unspecified amendments to the republic's constitution and in the structure of the republic's parliament which, he said, could help alleviate tensions.

It may, however, already be too late for such measures. Russian press reports suggest that members of the so-called International Cherkess Association headed by Boris Akbashev and Murat Khatukaev decided as early as June to channel the indignation of the Cherkess minority, who account for less then 10 percent of the republic's estimated 440,000 population, into a demand for the restoration of a Cherkess Autonomous Oblast that would be territorially a part not of the present Karachaevo-Cherkess Republic but of neighboring Stavropol Krai. Stavropol governor Aleksandr Chernogorov immediately vetoed that possibility, but on 31 August Derev's supporters formally repeated that request in an appeal addressed to President Yeltsin. The Kremlin, however, cannot risk acceding to that demand. Dividing the Karachaevo-Cherkess Republic leave its present capital, where some 25 percent of the population live, in the new Cherkess entity. In addition, such a ruling would also inevitably rekindle the Balkars' demand to split the Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria along ethnic lines.

What is not yet clear is whether Moscow is counting on the Cherkess protests running out of steam, or whether measures will be taken to neutralize the leadership of the International Cherkess Association. As for Derev, he is apparently playing no role in the new wave of protests in Cherkessk sparked by the 27 August republican court ruling in Semenov's favor. According to unconfirmed reports, he is vacationing in Israel, and may be considering withdrawing from politics. Derev has considerable commercial interests: the Merkurii company which he heads producers mineral water and several sorts of vodka which are sold throughout Russia. (Liz Fuller)

Can Georgia Afford To Pay Its Pensions And Wages Backlog? With parliamentary elections scheduled for 31 October, the Georgian leadership is under pressure to pay off its huge wage and pension arrears, plus a backlog of allowances for displaced persons, lest those groups of voters otherwise register their displeasure by voting for opposition parties in that poll. As of 1 July, the total backlog of unpaid wages and salaries for 1998-1999 stood at 120 million lari (approximately $66 million). Of that sum, unpaid pensions for 1999 accounted for 31.5 million lari; only in Tbilisi, Rustavi, Adjaria and a handful of other districts had all pension payments been made since the beginning of the year.

In mid-July, Zaza Sioridze, chairman of the parliament committee for financial and budget affairs, told Caucasus Press that the Georgian government would be able to pay off last year's arrears only if it received new credits from international financial organizations. One week later, Minister of State Vazha Lortkipanidze said that the anticipated new loan tranches "will help us to cover the debts in wages and pensions, as well as allowances for refugees for June and July in August, and later we will step-by-step cover the debts for the other months."

In early August, Georgia received from the World Bank a total of $32.5 million in new loans specifically earmarked for paying off pensions and wage arrears. But at the end of the month, the total pensions and wage arrears (excluding unpaid allowances for displaced persons) still amounted to 120 million lari, Caucasus Press reported on 25 August quoting a statement made by Finance Minister David Onoprishvili to the independent TV station Rustavi-2. Onoprishvili expressed support for a plan by the local authorities in Imereti (western Georgia) to pay pensions in food rather than cash.

The reasons for the delay in paying off arrears have not been publicly explained, but Imereti governor Temur Shashiashvili was quoted by the newspaper "Rezonansi" on 30 August as advising the Ministry of Finance to set about making those payments gradually. To do otherwise, Shashiashvili said, would result in the lari falling to a rate of three to the U.S. dollar -- a loss in value of some 50 percent. (Liz Fuller)

Who Wants Mutalibov Back In Baku, And Why? Over the past two weeks, two separate groups of members of the Azerbaijani intelligentsia have addressed requests to President Heidar Aliyev to permit former President Ayaz Mutalibov to return to Azerbaijan from his Moscow exile. The first such appeal argued that to blame Mutalibov for all the mistakes committed while he was president is misguided. There has been no official reaction to those appeals, but neither have those who signed them been subjected to any harassment.

A 61-year-old former oil engineer who served as chairman of the Azerbaijan SSR Council of Ministers before his election in January 1990 as First Secretary of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan, Mutalibov was forced to resign as president in early March 1992 following an attack by Armenian and Russian forces on Khojali, at that time the last Azeri-populated village in Nagorno-Karabakh, in which over 300 civilians were killed. Two months later, his supporters persuaded the Azerbaijani parliament to reverse its acceptance of his resignation. But that decision was met with outrage by members of the opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front, who ousted Mutalibov in a bloodless coup the following day. Mutalibov fled to Moscow, where he has lived since then despite intermittent demands by the Azerbaijani authorities for his extradition. (Moscow police detained Mutalibov briefly in March 1996, but subsequently released him.) Among the charges leveled against the former president were theft of arms and ammunition, instigating and participating in mass public disturbances, and complicity in the alleged coup attempts against President Aliyev in October 1994 and March 1995.

Despite his physical absence from Azerbaijan, Mutalibov continues to consider himself a potential player on the political scene. In an interview with "Zerkalo" in May, Mutalibov noted that Azerbaijan has only a small number of politicians of international standing, and that he considers himself their equal. He implied he would be prepared to form an alliance with other such experienced politicians, but declined to mention specific names. He added, however, that as a convinced social democrat, he could envisage heading only a left-wing alliance.

In Azerbaijan, too, Mutalibov is still regarded as a figure to be reckoned with. The possibility of his return to Baku has been raised at intervals in recent months, and independent media regularly solicit his comments on political developments in Azerbaijan. His supporters have formed the Liberal-Socialist Party of Azerbaijan, whose chairman is Hadji Abdul. A second political party, Vahdat, has also tried to enlist his support. (In his May interview, Mutalibov disclaimed any formal connection with either of those parties. ) And in July, journalists began in Baku set about forming a committee to defend Mutalibov's rights.

Asked by Turan News Agency earlier this week to comment on the appeals on his behalf, Mutalibov said he would not consider returning to Baku until the Azerbaijani parliament passes a law on the status and rights of former presidents. But if such legislation is enacted, he continued, he will return to Baku and again engage in Azerbaijani politics. Mutalibov attributed the two appeals on his behalf to the signatories' unfavorable comparison of the present political situation with that during his own presidency, and to their conviction that the accusations levelled against him by the present leadership are groundless. He added that he does not believe that the Azerbaijani leadership itself orchestrated those appeals in order to lure him back to Baku and then arrest him.

Some observers have suggested, however, that the present leadership may indeed be behind the campaign to allow Mutalibov to return to Azerbaijan, but for an entirely different reason: because he could play a key role as mentor and advisor to Heidar Aliev's son Ilham, whom many believe is being groomed for the presidency. Those observers point out that Mutalibov unequivocally opposed last year's presidential election boycott by several leading opposition parties, arguing that their attempt to convince international public opinion that Azerbaijan is politically unstable was "unpatriotic." And in a May interview with RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, Mutalibov studiously avoided any criticism of President Aliev. (Liz Fuller)

Quotations Of The Week. "Let us know if you are going to recognize the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh." -- Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliev, meeting with U.S. Minsk Group co-chairman Carey Cavanaugh in Baku, quoted by Turan on 1 September.

"We all understand that the Karabakh side should participate in peace talks at some point." -- Azerbaijani State Foreign Policy Advisor Vafa Guluzade, quoted by "Yerkir" on 1 September.

"I will continue the holy war even if the world is engulfed in blue flame." -- Chechen warlord Shamil Basaev, speaking to journalists in Grozny (Interfax, 31 August).

"We have to admit that although our ultimate goal is democracy, we are not yet ready for it on the communal level." -- Armenian Premier Vazgen Sargsian, addressing parliament on 28 August (Noyan Tapan).