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Caucasus Report: October 14, 1999

14 October 1999, Volume 2, Number 41

Are Chechen Peace Talks Feasible? Forced into a war with Russia that he had sought at all costs to avoid, Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov has in the past two weeks proposed international mediation (first, by Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, and then by NATO) and, this week, a peace plan intended to prevent further carnage and provide the foundations for a negotiated settlement.

But the Russian government's reaction to all three proposals suggests that it is the "hawks" in the person of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Igor Sergeev who are dictating Moscow's policy, rather than more moderate figures. Both before and after declaring on 1 October, when Russian forces first crossed the Chechen border that Moscow no longer recognizes Maskhadov as Chechnya's legitimate president, Putin has repeatedly made any talks with him contingent on Maskhadov "apologizing" to the victims of the apartment house bombings in Moscow and other Russian cities and handing over those persons whom the Russian Interior Ministry has identified (on the basis of what evidence is not clear) as having perpetrated those attacks. (Maskhadov says the Russian media have ignored his repeated expressions of regret for those bombings.)

Federation Council Chairman Yegor Stroev on 4 October argued that Moscow should engage in dialogue all Chechen forces both within Chechnya and outside, including the 1996 Chechen government, which are "working in the interests of the Chechen people," in order to halt the fighting. He made it clear in subsequent comments that he does not include Maskhadov in that category.

But Russian Nationalities Minister Vyacheslav Mikhailov sounded a more conciliatory and pragmatic note, arguing that Moscow should not only "conduct talks with all those who seek to rid Chechnya of bandits," but also offer to assist Maskhadov in neutralizing "terrorists." Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, who had made clear that Russia sees no reason to call on the services of international mediators, similarly affirmed that Russia remains open to dialogue in the hope of reaching a political solution to the conflict. But, he added, "terrorists and bandit formations" are hindering such a dialogue.

President Maskhadov for his part has reaffirmed his readiness for negotiations, most recently in a 13 October interview with "Vremya-MN." But Maskhadov too must reckon with the preconditions dictated by fellow politicians and senior field commanders. A Chechen web site on 11 October posted a statement by former acting President Zelimkhan Yandarbiev saying that any peace talks prior to a complete withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechen territory would be "dangerous and criminal." Other field commanders were even more categorical, branding anyone who makes contact with Russian officials with the aim of conducting such talks a "traitor."

Assuming Maskhadov is prepared to ignore such threats, the question arises: whom among Russian officials would he consider an acceptable and trustworthy interlocutor? Krasnoyarsk Krai Governor Aleksandr Lebed, who with Maskhadov concluded the ceasefire agreement and Khasavyurt accord ending the 1994-1996 war, has hinted that he would not be averse to playing the role of mediator again. But Maskhadov in an interview with "Der Spiegel" said he is not certain that Lebed remains the ideal negotiating partner. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 7 October quoted former Russian Premier Sergei Stepashin as saying that Maskhadov has made contact with him, and that Stepashin expressed his readiness to assume that role. (Liz Fuller)

Do The Chechens Have Stingers? One of the key factors that turned the war in Afghanistan in favor of the resistance was the US decision to supply the mudjahedin with shoulder-held Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. Some 1,000 of those weapons were sent to the Afghan resistance between 1986-1988, enabling the mudjahedin to target high-flying Russian fighter aircraft. In late 1994, the Chechen opposition to then President Djokhar Dudaev claimed that Dudaev's forces had acquired Stingers from Turkey. The U.S. shipped thousands of such weapons to the Persian Gulf during the war against Iraq in 1990, many of which subsequently went missing. But the Chechens did not use Stingers against Russian aircraft during the 1994-1996 war.

This time, however, they may be in a position to do so. Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Aleksandr Zhdanovich told journalists in Moscow on 12 October that the Taliban in August made a gift of four Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to Chechen emissaries who had sought to purchase those weapons, but could not pay the asking price of $80,000 - $90,000 apiece, Interfax reported. The same day, Chechen chief of staff Mumadi Saidaev indirectly confirmed that claim, telling Interfax in Grozny that the Chechens had received four Stingers. He added that those missiles "are in the hands of top quality specialists who can hit their targets with every shot." Saidaev declined to say where and how those weapons were acquired. On 13 October, Colonel General Viktor Kazantsev, who commands the Russian Group of Forces in the North Caucasus, said in response to a journalist's question that the Chechens "may have Stingers, but not as many as [they] claim."

In early October, Chechen Vice President Vakha Arsanov had denied FSB claims that Stinger missiles were transported to Chechnya via Georgia in late August. He said Chechnya needed Stingers but did not have any. (Liz Fuller)

Armenian Nationalist Bloc Warns Against Karabakh Concessions. Hrant Khachatrian, a senior member of the hardline Right and Accord parliamentary faction, warned President Robert Kocharian on 14 October not to agree to any peace deal under which Nagorno-Karabakh would not become fully independent or unified with Armenia.

Khachatrian said the authorities should avoid making serious concessions to Azerbaijan on Karabakh's status or face popular resistance. Backed by Nagorno-Karabakh army commander Samvel Babayan, Right and Accord won eight seats in the 131-member parliament in the elections held last May.

Khachatrian's statement is the first public expression of domestic opposition to Yerevan's support for the idea of a "common state" between Karabakh and Azerbaijan. Khachatrian warned that Kocharian may repeat the fate of his predecessor Levon Ter-Petrossian, who was forced into resignation in February 1998 for favoring more concessions to Azerbaijan.

"There probably remains little time for us to be finally convinced that Robert Kocharian too has fallen in love with that diplomatic line," Khachatrian told reporters. "If somebody tries to present us with a fait accompli, I hope that the people will resist as they did in 1988, and in 1992," he said.

The common state formula has so far met much stronger opposition in Azerbaijan where both the authorities and opposition say it amounts to Karabakh's de-jure secession. (Ruzanna Khachatrian)

Bowing Out Gracefully. Vafa Guluzade, who has served as foreign policy advisor under successive Azerbajiani presidents since 1991, submitted his resignation to Heidar Aliyev on 8 October, just one month after the Azerbaijani newspaper "Zerkalo" quoted him as saying that he has no intention of leaving his post.

Although Guluzade cited as his reasons for resigning his age (at 59, he is 17 years younger that Aliev) and deteriorating health, that explanation has met with skepticism in both Azerbaijan and Armenia. The Azerbaijani daily "Ekspress" offered several alternative explanations for Guluzade's decision to step down: that he had been ordered to do so by Aliev; because he disagreed with Aliyev over how to resolve the Karabakh conflict; or, alternatively, to make way for Rza Ibadov, currently chairman of the parliamentary commission for foreign affairs, and a close associate of Heidar Aliev's son Ilham. (It was in response to a question about rumors that Ibadov was lined up to succeed him that Guluzade had said last month he did not intend to resign.)

Armenian commentators, by contrast, have attributed Guluzade's resignation not to domestic political infighting but to the Azerbaijani leadership's failure to induce the OSCE Minsk Group to propose a more favorable draft peace plan for resolving the Karabakh conflict. It is now almost one year since Azerbaijan rejected the most recent Minsk Group proposal which called for Azerbaijan and the unrecognized enclave to form a "common state" - a concept which Azerbaijani officials argued failed to guarantee the country's territorial integrity.

"Vremya-MN" for its part suggested that Moscow's condemnation of Guluzade's mid-August characterization of the fighting in Daghestan as "a national liberation struggle" may have prompted Aliyev to demand his resignation. Aliyev termed the Chechen incursions "an illegal bandit action." (Liz Fuller)

Azerbaijan, Iran Explore Potential For Rapprochement. Visiting Iran last week at the head of an Azerbaijani delegation, Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Yashar Aliyev discussed with Iranian Majlis speaker Ali-Aqbar Nateq-Nouri and with Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi how to improve the strained relations between the two countries, which Aliyev said should not be impeded by what he termed "minor problems."

That formulation presumably encompasses Iran's nuclear cooperation with Russia, the disagreement between Baku and Tehran over the legal status of the Caspian Sea, and the continued presence in Iran of Mahir Djavadov, one of the key figures in what Azerbaijani leaders insist was an attempt in March 1995 to overthrow President Heidar Aliev. The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry has sent three notes this year (two in January and one in July) to its Iranian counterpart protesting that Djavadov is engaging in political activities in Iran with the aim of ousting President Aliev. Tehran's failure to expel Djavadov led Baku to delay a visit by President Aliyev to Iran originally scheduled for September. That visit will now take place before the end of this year, according to Iranian Minister of Cooperatives Morteza Haji.

Whether or not those issues featured in Aliev's talks is not clear from the available news reports. But the two sides did explore in depth and detail the possibilities of expanding economic cooperation in the fields of agriculture, oil and gas, road-building and cargo transportation. During a meeting of the Tehran-Baku joint economic commission, agreement was reached on opening Iranian chain stores in Baku and other Azerbaijani cities. A separate agreement allows free cross-border passage through the Bileh-Sevar crossing for citizens of both countries.

The drive to stimulate bilateral trade and economic cooperation comes at a time when Iran has yielded its position as Armenia's second most important trade partner (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 2, No. 40, 7 October 1999). On 13 October, Interfax quoted an unidentified Azerbaijani government official as saying that Iran is interested in either purchasing or exporting natural gas from Azerbaijan's offshore Shakh Deniz gas field. An Iranian delegation will visit Baku later in October to discuss those possibilities. (Liz Fuller)

Armenian Foreign Minister Assesses Relations With Georgia, Turkey. Vartan Oskanian told journalists in Yerevan late last week that stability in the South Caucasus rests in the first instance on the cordial and close relations between Armenia and Georgia, Noyan Tapan reported. Oskanian said that if the strategic relationship between those two countries is upset, "this will have grave consequences for the two countries concerned and for the entire region."

As for relations with Turkey, Oskanian was more pessimistic, saying that no progress is currently being registered, nor is any anticipated in the near future. He explained that while both sides are interested in improving bilateral relations, Ankara links the formal establishment of diplomatic relations with Armenia to progress in resolving the Karabakh conflict, in particular to the withdrawal of Karabakh Armenian forces from occupied districts of Azerbaijan. Oskanian added that the international community, including the EU and the U.S., does not consider that linkage warranted, and would welcome Turkey's "positive involvement" in seeking a solution to the Karabakh conflict.

On 13 October, "Yerkir" quoted Oskanian as denying rumors of differences between Yerevan and Stepanakert on the optimum approach to resolving the conflict. "I don't see and anticipate a discord that could cause tension between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh," the newspaper quotes him as saying. (Liz Fuller)

Quotations Of The Week. "Today we will not simply let the Russians withdraw. Today we will fight to the end. Today, all Chechens know that the question before us is our existence: to be or not to be." -- Shamil Basaev, quoted by Reuters, 14 October 1999.

"If the Russians enter Grozny again they won't get out alive." -- Chechen fighter, quoted by "Le Monde," 13 October 1999.

"To fight tanks in open country is a silly thing to do." -- Chechen Army Chief of Staff Mumadi Saidaev, quoted by AP on 7 October 1999.

"I've almost forgotten what money looks like." Elderly Chechen in the village of Tolstoi-Yurt, quoted in "The Independent," 14 October 1999.