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Caucasus Report: December 23, 1999

23 December 1999, Volume 2, Number 51

Chechen Leadership Prepares For Guerrilla War. Speaking on Chechen Television on 21 December, President Aslan Maskhadov announced that he had issued orders for Chechen fighters to withdraw from the lowland regions of Chechnya, with the exception of Grozny, into the southern mountains, RFE/RL correspondent Khasin Raduev reported. A second RFE/RL correspondent, Andrei Babitsky, predicted the following day that the Chechens will defend Grozny until casualty figures rise so high that it no longer makes sense to do so. At that juncture, Babitsky said, the Chechens will withdraw into the mountains and then conduct surprise attacks on the Russian troops once the latter have dug in in the capital. He anticipated that the Chechen decision to abandon the capital would come quite soon, because, he explained, there are significant Russian forces concentrated all around Grozny to "smash any resistance in their way" once they decide to take the city.

Describing conditions in the besieged capital earlier this week, Babitsky said that both armed Chechen fighters and the small group of journalists with whom he is working have experienced no difficulties in entering or leaving Grozny, crossing the front lines unharmed and passing within 500 meters of Russian armored vehicles. Asked to compare the situation in Grozny today with that during the 1994-1996 war, Babitsky said that the civilian population is in a far worse predicament now thaan it was during the earlier war. He said he has seen people trapping pigeons for lack of anything else to eat. On the other hand, Babitsky continued, the Chechens are using the same tactics as in 1996, and if anything even more successfully, in that they are taking greater pains not to incur unnecessary casualties. "They sense when resistance in one spot is useless, leave it, and then turn up in a completely different place where the Russians weren't expecting them."

Babitsky commented that "it doesn't even matter, in the context of guerrilla war, whether the city is "taken" or not. The Chechens can always take it back when the Russians are least expecting it." (Liz Fuller)

Two Approaches To Consolidating Power In Azerbaijan. Two young politicians who may well prove rival contenders in the 2003 Azerbaijani presidential elections are currently engaged in creating their respective personal power bases. In their efforts to do so, they both have to contend with serious divisions within the ranks of political parties with which they are associated.

In early December, 37-year-old Ilham Aliev, who is deputy president of the state oil company SOCAR and the son of Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliev, accepted a request to head the newly created Young Reformers' Movement, which comprises a couple of dozen leading political figures, including the first deputy mayor of Baku, Eldaniz Lagidjev, and several prominent Azerbaijani businessmen.

The independent newspaper "Zerkalo" remarked that by joining forces with Ilham Aliev, those homegrown "oligarchs" are tacitly signalling their confidence in his ability to run the country's economy. "Zerkalo" also anticipated that Ilham will play a more prominent role in domestic politics beginning in 2000.

Until recently, observers had identified three possible ways for Ilham to bolster his chances of succeeding his father as president. They predicted that he would be named either prime minister, or speaker of parliament (Azerbaijan's Constitution provides for the parliament speaker to assume presidential powers should the president die or become temporarily incapacitated). In addition to either of those functions, it was argued, Ilham would in all probability be elected to a senior post in the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan party at the party's upcoming congress.

Originally scheduled for early summer, the Yeni Azerbaycan congress was postponed until September, either because of the president's precarious health, or because of infighting within its ranks (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 2, No. 34, 26 August 1999). President Aliyev finally acted to quash that infighting, dismissing Baku district administrator Abbas Mustafaev, who had repeatedly accused Labor Minister and Yeni Azerbaycan deputy chairman Ali Nagiev of corruption. When the long-awaited congress took place earlier this week, Ilham Aliyev and Nagiev were both elected deputy chairmen of the party, as were parliament chairman Murtuz Alesqerov, Baku Mayor Rafael Allakhverdiev and Information Minister Siruz Tebrizli. President Aliev, who was reelected Yeni Azerbaycan chairman, explained his son's appointment in terms of the need to bring more younger members into the party's leadership. But given that the chairmanship of the party is largely symbolic, Ilham's elevation to the post of deputy chairman effectively gives him a free hand to promote his own supporters within the party.

Ilham can thus be considered to have scored two inter-connected successes: he has acquired an embryonic support base in the form of the Young Reformers' Movement that is not compromised by allegations of corruption. Moreover, he can anticipate that if Yeni Azerbaycan does split into two or more rival factions at some point, at least one of those factions may choose to align with the Movement of Young Reformers.

Meanwhile, the second rising star on Azerbaijan's political horizon is seeking to avoid any split within his own party, at least in the runup to next year's parliamentary elections. Ali Kerimov, who is first deputy chairman of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, is widely regarded as the head of the "pragmatic reformist" wing within that party, and a potential challenger to the party's chairman Abulfaz Elchibey, leader of the "radical romantics" within the party's ranks. Elchibey's one-year tenure as Azerbaijan's president was abruptly ended in June 1993 by a bloodless insurrection that brought Heidar Aliyev back to power. Elchibey fled Baku for his native Nakhichevan, where he lived in exile until late 1997, when he was granted permission to return to Baku.

The reformers are the stronger of the two Popular Front factions. According to "Zerkalo," of the 100 members of the party's supreme council, 80 support the reformers, as do 60 of the party's 78 regional organizations. Consequently, the radical romantics are likely to have only one candidate among the top three positions on the party's list to contest the 2000 parliamentary elections. Not satisfied with that prospect, the radicals are said to be doing everything in their power to impel the reformers to quit and form their own rival party. The obvious venue for that showdown is the party's congress which is due early next year.

Kerimov, however, is clearly too savvy to rise to that bait. In a series of press interviews over the past few months, he has sought to downplay the divisions within the Popular Front, and denied the possibility that Elchibey might be replaced as chairman at its upcoming congress. But at the same time Kerimov made it clear that he considers himself a qualified candidate for that post at some future juncture. He told "Zerkalo" in September "I'm not saying that I could not head the party, I'm saying that I don't want to. I consider that the party chairman is in the right place. And as first deputy chairman I have very broad powers and possibilities to capitalize on my potential."

Ilham Aliyev has been placed in a position to forge his own leadership team from among the country's present top officials, but his success in doing so may ultimately depend on factors beyond his control, namely, the health of his father and the outcome of the ongoing search for a settlement of the Karabakh conflict. If Heidar Aliyev were to die suddenly within the next few months, or to precipitate a domestic crisis by signing a peace agreement regarded by the population (and the opposition) as a betrayal of national interests, some members of the present leadership might seek an accomodation with rival opposition figures, thus undercutting Ilham's power base. In the longer term, the present government's dismal economic performance could compound popular discontent, with a similar negative effect. Kerimov, by contrast, is in a position to wait for the most opportune moment to try to take control of the Azerbaijan Popular Front. (Liz Fuller)

Does Armenian Nuclear Power Have A Future? The Armenian nuclear power plant at Metsamor, like nuclear power stations elsewhere, has attracted particular attention in recent weeks because of fears about what a Y2K glitch there might do. But the plant's deputy director Slava Danielian says that "there is nothing to be worried about," a conclusion other observers generally back up.

More important, he and other local officials say, is the fact that the plant's technological processes are not computerized and thus will not be affected by the change of date. This was recognized by the director-general of the IAEA, Mohamed el-Baradei, in a speech earlier this month. But even as they argued that the main safety-related systems in Soviet-reactors are in order, IAEA experts have warned that other subsidiary systems are vulnerable to the Y2K computer glitch.

One IAEA spokesman told Reuters on 9 December that a lack of funds has prevented Armenia and Ukraine from fixing systems monitoring levels of radioactivity. And several days later, the International Y2K Cooperation Center said that the date change could "reduce the ability of operators to analyze and respond" to equipment problems.

All of this is focusing public attention on how Armenia should approach the nuclear power issue in the future and whether Yerevan should ultimately decide to close Metsamor.

Built in the late 1970s 30 kilometers southwest of the Armenian capital, the nuclear station was first closed under public pressure in 1989 following a catastrophic earthquake in the country's north. It was reactivated six years later, to the dismay of neighboring states but to the relief of most Armenians weary of crippling power shortages.

Metsamor's reopening in 1995 was reluctantly acquiesced by the United States and European Union, although both had reservations. And both have since assisted Armenia in boosting the plant's safety. In 1996, the EU launched an "action program" on Metsamor worth $13 million. It has involved the transfer of nuclear know-how and modern equipment as well as training of Armenian specialists.

"Without the assistance from the US and EU we would have been unable to carry out a series of measures increasing safety standards," Metsamor's director Suren Azatian tells RFE/RL.

In return for Western aid, Yerevan implicitly promised to close the plant by 2004. But lately, Armenian energy officials have hinted that the station will not be decommissioned until they find a way to compensate for loss of energy, something that is unlikely to happen by that date. At present, Metsamor�s power output accounts for up to 40 percent of Armenia's annual electricity generation.

Azatian argues that Metsamor can operate for another 15 years without any danger to environment, a claim backed by Russia's Atomic Energy Minister Yevgeny Adamov. During a visit to Armenia last month, Adamov dismissed Western concerns on nuclear safety in the former communist bloc as "political pressure."

Metsamor officials argue that the plant's operational record has been remarkably positive, with no technological failures registered since its reopening in 1995. They say Metsamor operates under the watchful eye of the IAEA, which has detected no serious safety problems to date. They also rule out the possibility of a terrorist attack. The reactor and other facilities are encircled by a high wall with barbed wire and guarded by a special police unit. Visitors are not allowed in without an escort provided by the management.

Metsamor's working reactor is a Soviet-made VVER-440. The one which exploded in Ukraine's Chernobyl was RBMK-1000. Director Azatian emphasizes this difference, saying that "our reactor's design is very satisfactory."

The Union of Greens, a local environmental group, is one of few voices in Armenia at the present time advocating Metsamor's closure. Its leader, Hakob Sanasarian, warns that a nuclear disaster would wipe out the country "within a matter of seconds."

But for Azatian, Metsamor provides resource-poor Armenia with cheap electricity and reduces its dependence on fuel imports. And consequently, Yerevan seems unlikely to meet the 2004 deadline. (Emil Danielyan)

Quotations Of The Week. "[Maskhadov] does not control anything in Chechnya, does not govern and probably is even hindering everything." -- Our Home is Russia chairman Viktor Chernomyrdin, quoted by ITAR-TASS, 17 December.

"Maskhadov is in better control of Chechnya than Yeltsin is of Russia." -- Former Chechen acting President Zelimkhan Yandarbviev, interviewed by "Vremya-MN," 16 December 1999.

"Victims among the civilian population [in Grozny] probably can be counted on the fingers of one hand." -- Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, quoted by Interfax, 18 December.