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Caucasus Report: November 11, 1999

11 November 1999, Volume 2, Number 45

Whose Power Extends How Far In Chechnya? Aslan Maskhadov, who as a graduate of one of the Soviet Union's top military academies should know what he is talking about, has said that the 21 October Russian missile attack on the Grozny central market was meant to target his presidential palace. Since that attack, he has moved his office daily, according to "Liberation" on 6 November. But Maskhadov's moves both before and since the missile strike suggest that Russian artillery is not the only, and possibly not the gravest, threat that he faces.

Although Russian reporting on the Chechen situation needs to be evaluated with extreme caution to avoid falling victim to deliberate disinformation, it appears Maskhadov must also contend with the possibility of disaffection among the military commanders charged with the defense of Grozny and counter-strikes against the advancing Russian forces. In mid-October, Maskhadov told journalists that unnamed field commanders opposed his repeated calls for talks with Russian leaders on ending the fighting. But "Vremya-MN" reported on 9 November that individual field commanders who did not participate in Shamil Basaev's incursions into Daghestan in August are themselves sounding out representatives of the Russian military in an attempt to negotiate "non-aggression pacts." Under such agreements, Russian forces would refrain from artillery and bombing attacks on those commanders' fiefdoms in return for an undertaking to remain neutral in the continuing fighting between Maskhadov's loyalists and federal forces. (Russian forces concluded similar "non-aggression pacts" with several Chechen village elders in the spring and early summer of 1996, but did not always honor them.)

There have also been indications of dissent between Chechen factions on religious grounds. In early October, Maskhadov dismissed Chechen mufti Akhmed-hadji Kadirov and branded him an enemy of the Chechen people after Kadirov denounced Basaev in a television broadcast for the latter's alleged support for wahhabism and for precipitating a new war with Russia. In that broadcast, Kadirov is said to have declared Gudermes and the districts of Nozhai-Yurt and Kurchaloi a "wahhabi-free zone," and appealed to the local population to expel Islamic radicals.

Last week, Kadirov's supporters and Chechen Islamists reportedly clashed in Gudermes, which at that time was already almost completely besieged by Russian forces. Granted, giving way to factional in-fighting under such conditions rather than presenting a common front to the enemy seems unusual and counter-productive. But those reported clashes were not the first on religious grounds in Gudermes, which was the scene of fierce fighting between Chechen Islamic radicals and Maskhadov's presidential guard in July 1998.

Similarly, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 20 October reported that field commander Suleiman Yamadaev, who has his base in the vicinity of Gudermes, had banned radical Islamists from his territory even before the August attacks on Daghestan, and had more recently signalled his readiness to collaborate with the Russian administration of the "liberated" districts of Chechnya north of the Terek River.

In a move that presidential spokesman Selim Abdumuslimov said was prompted by Russian attempts to bypass Maskhadov and make contact with individual field commanders, on 7 November Maskhadov issued a decree calling for the power structures under his control "to identify and hold criminally responsible citizens who have agreed to collaborate with the occupation authorities." The decree further forbids any Chechen officials from entering into contact with Russian officials without written permisssion from Maskhadov to do so. In a televised address to the Chechen people the following day, Maskhadov warned of the danger of an internal Chechen conflict.

As long as the fighting in Chechnya continues, field commanders are unlikely to move to try to oust Maskhadov, although they may well continue to pressure him. But if Russia's civilian leaders should opt for peace talks -- despite having assured disgruntled generals last weekend that such talks are not on the cards -- then Maskhadov's position could become increasingly shaky.

Having affirmed in early October that Moscow no longer recognizes Maskhadov as Chechnya's legitimately elected leader, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov have more recently stipulated the preconditions that Maskhadov must fulfill before such talks can begin. If Moscow now seeks to draw Maskhadov into the dialogue that he has repeatedly called for, other field commanders may withdraw their support for him. But if, on the other hand, Moscow selects some other Chechen representative as its preferred interlocutor, Maskhadov risks being sidelined completely, especially if some field commanders decide Maskhadov is a liability on the grounds of his close alignment with Basaev and Islamic radicals fighting under Khattab, and opt instead to support Moscow's candidate. Inconsistencies in Maskhadov's recent statements directed at Moscow may reflect his awareness that his room for manoeuvre is limited.

One possible candidate to represent Chechnya in peace talks with Moscow is former Grozny mayor Beslan Gantemirov, whom President Yeltsin formally pardoned last week. Gantemirov had been arrested in Moscow in the spring of 1996 and sentenced two years later on charges of having embezled 57 million undenominated rubles allocated by the Russian government for reconstruction in Chechnya. Gantemirov consistently denied those charges. he told "Nezavsimaya gazeta" in December 1998 that he had been framed, and that he believed the time would come when he would again be in a psoition to serve Chechnya (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 1, No. 43, 22 December 1998).

Commenting on Gantemirov's release, Malik Saidullaev, chairman of the pro-Moscow Chechen State Council, termed the former commander of Djokhar Dudaev's bodyguard "a most acceptable figure" to occupy the post of prime minister of the northern region of Chechnya under Russian control. "An energetic and courageous person must hold the post of the prime minister and restore order in the republic," he said.

At present, the "liberated" Nauri, Shelkovskii and Nadterechnyi districts of Chechnya are administrated by Russian military commandants. The Russian Defense Ministry has repeatedly stressed that it takes seriously its responsibility for creating "normal living conditions" for the population of those districts, including providing gas and electricity supplies, medical services, schooling, and the timely payment of wages and pensions. A member of the pro-Moscow Chechen administration told ITAR-TASS on 5 November that those three districts "are back to peace time," and that villagers are repairing agricultural machinery in preparation for sowing spring crops.

Order is maintained in the "liberated" zone by a 225-man police detachment from neighboring Krasnodar Krai. Four armed Cossack units are to be sent to Nauri and Shelkovskii, and efforts will be made to increase the non-Chechen share of the population of those two districts to the pre-1957 level, when they were detached from Stavropol Krai and incorporated into the then Checheno-Ingush ASSR. That additional law enforcement personnel are needed is clear from Russian press reports of incidents such as an arson attack on a school in the village of Nauri, or the fact that Russian Interior Ministry troops are constrained to "comb" liberated villages repeatedly to ensure that small groups of Chechen fighters do not return there.

Some 8,000 Chechens who fled to Ingushetia have since returned to the northern plains; Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu made clear last week that others will be encouraged to follow their example. (Liz Fuller)

Is Moscow Planning To Use Chemical Weapons In Chechnya? In a commentary published in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" on 10 November, former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski writes that the intelligence services of unspecified Central European countries have obtained details of the Russian military's planned strategy in Chechnya. Those plans entail the following steps: 1) Massive bombing raids to force all non-combatants to flee the region; 2) Pinning down the Chechen resistance fighters in urban or suburban areas; 3) The deployment of new weapons, including explosives, chemical weapons and possibly also poison gas, to destroy tens of thousands of Chechen fighters from a safe distance without incurring Russian losses. The new explosives slated for use include so called fuel-air-explosives that spread a combustible mist that explodes, creating "a deadly vacuum."

Brzezinski also expresses his concern (which he says is shared in Tbilisi) that Moscow might yield to the temptation to follow up a military victory in Chechnya with an attempt to bring Georgia back into its sphere of influence, either by exerting pressure on, or eliminating, President Eduard Shevardnadze. Restoring Russian control over Georgia would isolate Azerbaijan (and Central Asia) from the West and give Moscow control over both pipelines for exporting Azerbaijan's Caspian oil, Brzezinski notes. (Liz Fuller)

Tactical Leaks. The four rounds of direct talks talks since mid-July between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, and active U.S. support of that endeavor to resolve the Karabakh conflict, have engendered some optimistic speculation that either a formal peace agreement, or at least a framework document, could be signed at the OSCE summit in Istanbul later this month. But even before the murder two weeks ago of Armenian Prime Minister Vazgen Sargsian and parliamentary speaker Karen Demirchian, such hopes appeared misplaced.

Speaking on Yerevan television in mid-October, Armenian President Robert Kocharian expressed guarded optimism that he and his Azerbaijani counterpart Heidar Aliyev will eventually but made clear that he does not consider Istanbul (which was the site of the first killings of Armenians in April 1915) a suitable venue for signing a formal document resolving the conflict. At the same time, however, Kocharian stressed that he has no objections to signing such a document either before or after the OSCE summit. But in Azerbaijan, opposition to any accord that might require unacceptable concessions by Baku appears to have spread from the opposition to the country's central leadership, possibly explaining the unexpected resignations over the past month of Foreign Policy Advisor Vafa Guluzade, Foreign Minister Tofik Zulfugarov, and presidential administration official Eldar Namazov.

Azerbaijani misgivings center on fears that the OSCE proposal that Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh should constitute what in effect would be a loose confederation does not guarantee Azerbaijan's territorial integrity. That territorial arrangement is likewise unacceptable to hardline nationalists in Armenia: On 14 October, for example, Hrant Khachatrian, one of the leaders of the Right and Accord parliamentary bloc, warned Kocharian not to agree to any peace deal under which Nagorno-Karabakh would not either become fully independent or united with Armenia.

Both Kocharian and Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian categorically denied any connection between the parliament shootings and the ongoing attempt to resolve the Karabakh conflict. But while the killings may not affect Armenia's commitment to finding a settlement, by creating the impression that Armenia is unstable they potentially do create an additional argument that some in Azerbaijan might use to delay the signing of any accord. Both Kocharian and Oskanian last week acknowledged that the murders would inevitably "slow down" the peace process.

Two recent leaks of what are purported to be details of the draft peace agreement currently under discussion may have been intended either to test the waters or to fuel opposition within both countries to a settlement based on mutual compromise.

In Baku, Azerbaijan National Independence Party chairman Etibar Mamedov announced on 30 October, without disclosing the source of his information, that the draft peace plan comprises two sections, one dealing with formally ending the conflict, and the second with Nagorno-Karabakh's future status within Azerbaijan. (That differentiation in fact formed the basis for successive OSCE peace proposals, which designate the former problem as "the Karabakh conflict," and the latter as "the Karabakh problem," as Gerard Liparitian explains in his recent book "The Challenge of Statehood.")

According to Mamedov, the proposed draft settlement makes no mention of Azerbaijan's territorial integrity, nor does it make provision for the "liberation" of the formerly predominantly Azerbaijani-populated Karabakh town of Shusha and of the Lachin region that lies between Karabakh and Azerbaijan's western frontier with Armenia. In addition, Mamedov claimed that Aliyev had assured Kocharian that Karabakh's status under the peace agreement, which will not be subject to change after that agreement is signed, will be "equal to independence," although Azerbaijanis will be told that status is no more than autonomy. Finally, Mamedov said that the draft peace agreement provides for the creation of a special security zone in the Megri region of southern Armenia across which, he said, the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline will be routed.

President Aliyev dismissed Mamedov's alleged summary of the content of the draft peace agreement as "nonsense." How much of Mamedov's report is true is difficult to determine, but one of his claims seems implausible: his suggestion that the Karabakh settlement is linked with the choice of route for the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline seems dubious in light of Yerevan's insistence that no linkage be made between the two.

The second leak appeared in the 29 October issue of Moscow's "Nezavisimaya gazeta." It focussed less on the supposed content of the draft peace agreement than on the methodology for its implementation. The paper claims that the draft agreement is nominally based on the "package" rather than the "step-by-step" approach, i.e. that it envisages parallel efforts to resolve both the "Karabakh conflict" and the "Karabakh problem." (According to Liparitian, all three draft peace proposals made by the OSCE in 1997 were based on the "package" approach, but the most recent of those three did not address the issue of Karabakh's ultimate status.) "Nezavisimaya gazeta" claimed that although the two sets of issues will be the subject of simultaneous and parallel talks, agreement on the withdrawal of Armenian forces from the occupied territories and the implementation of that agreement must precede a formal agreement on Karabakh's status. But Naira Melkumian, foreign minister of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, flatly denied the "Nezavisimaya gazeta" report, saying that "this option is not even being discussed," Snark News Agency reported on 3 November.

Less important than the accuracy of those disclosures, however, are the possible motives of those who made them. Etibar Mamedov was an unsuccessful candidate in the October 1998 presidential elections, and refuses to accept as valid the official results, according to which he received only 11.6 percent of the vote compared with 76.11 percent for President Aliev. And "Nezavisimaya gazeta" is financed by the LogoVAZ group owned by Boris Berezovskii, who opposes construction of the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline. (Prior to Russia's most recent incursion into Chechnya, Berezovskii was advocating a pipeline from Baku via Grozny and Abkhazia to the Black Sea as an inducement to the Abkhaz leadership to sign a peace agreement with Tbilisi.) (Liz Fuller)

Quotations Of The Week. "I agreed to take the post of the prime minister, as I am convinced that the continuation of the policy pursued by Vazgen Sargsian and his government is of vital importance to the country's future. The task that Vazgen Sargssian, his cabinet, and the "Unity" block set themselves was within the shortest period to create all prerequisites for building up a prosperous and law-abiding state where all the citizens will have equal possibilities. And it will become our main policy. Both mine and my cabinet's." -- Armenian Premier Prime Minister Aram Sargsian, quoted by Noyan Tapan, 11 November.

"The real battles have not yet begun." -- Shamil Basaev, quoted by Reuters, 8 November.