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Caucasus Report: March 31, 1998

31 March 1998, Volume 1, Number 5

Fortress Mentality Emerging in Armenia? Stung by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's assessment of the first round of voting in the Armenian presidential elections as "deeply flawed," Armenian Prime Minister and acting President Robert Kocharian pointed out on 26 March that "it is time we learned to hold elections for ourselves, and not for others." This implicit rejection of what was perceived as unfair criticism was echoed on the eve of the runoff poll by Iran's ambassador to Armenia. Writing in "Respublika Armeniya" on 29 March, Hamidreza Nikkar Esfahani asserted that "the presence of dispassionate observers will contribute to the fair outcome of the poll. But the people themselves are the best monitor of the election campaign."

Tehran's coolness towards the OSCE is understandable, given that Iran as a non-member of that organization is excluded from the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process. The Armenian leadership's reaction to the OSCE evaluation is similarly not unfounded: the contrast between the explicit criticism of the 16 March vote in Armenia and the deafening silence with which the international community responded to widespread egregious violations during the 1995 parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan suggests to many observers that the West's primary criterion for assessing the relative fairness of elections in the Transcaucasus is oil. (Liz Fuller)

Moscow's Caucasian Ally. Over the past year, Russian press commentators have registered with alarm, distress, outrage and impotence the erosion of Moscow's hegemony in the North Caucasus, Georgia and Azerbaijan, and the resolute orientation of the two latter states towards the West. This ongoing process is widely perceived as the consequence of efforts by the U.S. and Turkey, on the one hand, to anchor those two Transcaucasus states to the West and simultaneously to ensure the export of Caspian oil and gas through pipelines that obviate Russian territory, and by Iran and Saudi Arabia, on the other, to promote militant Islam as a destabilizing factor in order to undercut Moscow's influence in the North Caucasus.

In an attempt to halt perceived centrifugal tendencies in the North Caucasus, the Russian government has drafted a new policy intended to alleviate the social and economic problems that contribute to the alienation and radicalization of the region's population. That policy document was unveiled by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Ramazan Abdulatipov at a meeting of North Caucasus leaders in Rostov last week. Most of those present were skeptical, however, that the measures envisaged would prove effective, given the chronic and notorious reluctance of federal ministries to release the required funds.

The policy did, however, elicit a novel counter-proposal from former Chechen parliament speaker Yusup Soslambekov, now chairman of the Confederation of the Peoples of the Caucasus (KNK). Writing in "Nezavisimaya gazeta," Soslambekov advocated that the Russian Federation should recognize the independence of both Chechnya and Georgia's would-be secessionist Black Sea province of Abkhazia as the prelude to concluding a strategic alliance with those two territories, which would have the "legal possibility" of signing a new Union Treaty along with Russia and Belarus. Adequate financing of the restoration of Chechnya's infrastructure, Soslambekov argued, could constitute "a new page" in Russia's Caucasus policy. Soslambekov went on to propose that the role of the Confederation be enhanced as a supra-national organization capable of acting as intermediary between the federal authorities and traditional Caucasian structures.

Abkhaz president Vladislav Ardzinba, with whom Soslambekov said he had discussed the above proposals last year, would doubtless relish the opportunity of achieving de jure independence from Georgia and aligning with Russia. Abkhazia was one of the North Caucasus republics that participated in the first congress of the Assembly of Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus -- the predecessor of the KNK -- in August, 1989. The original long-term aim of the Assembly was to create an independent Caucasian Federal Republic with Sukhumi as its capital. But by the mid-1990s the leadership of the Confederation had modified its objectives to work for a genuine federation with Russia in which the peoples of the North Caucasus would enjoy equal rights with other ethnic minorities in the Russian Federation.

It is questionable, however, whether the present Chechen leadership would agree to Soslambekov's proposal for a four-way alignment with Abkhazia, Russia and Belarus. Instead, some Chechen leaders, advocate the creation of a Caucasus Common Market, separate from Russia, and of which Georgia would also be a member. Such a structure would sideline the KNK -- hence Soslambekov's logical, but unrealistic, counter-proposal. (Liz Fuller)

Tbilisi Tightens The Screws On Adjaria. Since early 1991, Aslan Abashidze, chairman of the Supreme Council of the Republic of Adjaria on Georgia's Black Sea coast bordering on Turkey, has pursued his own authoritarian and pro-Russian policies. Those policies spared the region from the chaos and economic collapse that engulfed the rest of Georgia in the early 1990s, but also gave rise to tensions between Abashidze and the central Georgian leadership in Tbilisi. The Georgian parliament, for example, has repeatedly rejected a draft law on creation of a free economic zone in Adjaria, fearing that the economic benefits would further strengthen Abashidze's perceived separatist aspirations.

The most recent clash of interests between Tbilisi and the Adjar leadership occurred last week, when Georgian parliament deputies protested recent legislation enacted by the Adjar parliament on reforming the region's judiciary and police and creating a Security Council, and providing for the direct election of the Adjar parliament chairman. Some Georgian parliament deputies from the majority Union of Citizens of Georgia faction, including faction leader Giorgi Baramidze, apparently adduced that legislation as evidence that Abashidze's defiance of Tbilisi had gone too far, and proposed that Adjaria be stripped of its autonomous status within Georgia. But at a meeting on 26 March attended by Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, the Union of Citizens of Georgia issued a statement denying any such intention, while acknowledging that Adjaria's present status is ambiguous given that the Georgian Constitution adopted in 1995 does not formally define the status of the country's autonomous regions.

Opposition Georgian political parties are divided over Adjaria. The Republican Party of Georgia, which enjoys considerable support in Adjaria, favors resolute action by Tbilisi to restrain Abashidze, whom it suspects of aspiring to secede from Georgia and create an independent statelet with Russian backing. But the opposition "People" faction argues that the existence of Adjaria as an autonomous republic, with Abashidze as its leader, constitutes the sole obstacle to Georgia's transformation into an autocracy with Shevardnadze as its undisputed head.

There exists, however, one issue on which the Georgian parliament is united, and which has a direct bearing on both Adjaria's and Abashidze's future. That issue is the treaty giving Russia the right to maintain military bases in Georgia -- a right which the Georgian parliament has threatened to revoke. The departure of the sizable Russian military presence in Batumi, the Adjar capital, would seriously weaken Abashidze's position and render him vulnerable to pressure from Tbilisi. (Liz Fuller)