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Caucasus Report: June 2, 1998

2 June 1998, Volume 1, Number 14

Georgian Fugitives As Political Football. Both Russia and Georgia have condemned the three-month state of emergency imposed by Abkhaz President Vladislav Ardzinba on 27 May on Gali and parts of neighboring Ochamchira and Tkvarcheli raions. The Russian Foreign Ministry termed that measure a violation of international law and of the agreement signed in April 1994 by Georgian, Abkhaz, Russian and UN representatives on the repatration to Gali of the ethnic Georgian displaced persons who fled during the 1992-1993 war. It says stabilization of the situation in Gali is contingent on the lifting by Abkhazia of such restrictions of the return of the Georgian population -- an argument that ignores the fact that many of those Georgians no longer have homes to return to.

Ardzinba, however, told journalists in Sukhumi on 29 May that the state of emergency is intended to expedite, not to hinder, the repatriation process. But in a telephone conversation with Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze later that day, Ardzinba proposed that the return of the fugitives proceed in stages, with women, children and elderly people repatriated first, while men who participated in the recent fighting would be screened in order to preclude the return of those guilty of war crimes or who are members of "armed formations that are preparing for military activities in Abkhazia." (The April 1994 repatriation agreement does not extend to such persons.) Ardzinba's insistence on compliance with this proviso of the 1994 repatriation agreement is likely to stymie the entire process, for two reasons: first, families who have been expelled twice at gunpoint from their homes are unlikely to agree to return without anyone to protect them from possible Abkhaz reprisals. And second, the screening process would inevitably be protracted and contentious.

Reluctant acceptance of Ardzinba's conditions by the Georgian authorities could impel fugitives who fear they may be arbitrarily barred from returning to throw in their lot with the guerrillas. Caucasus Press on 30 May quoted an unidentified guerrilla commander as claiming that more and more volunteers are joining his ranks. (Liz Fuller)

How United Is The Abkhaz Leadership? In mid-May, before the recent fighting erupted, the Abkhaz parliament adopted a resolution calling on President Ardzinba to raise with the Russian leadership the possibility of revoking the mandate of the CIS peacekeeping force and rejecting any further Russian mediation in the conflict (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol.1, No.12, 19 May, 1998). "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 2 June quoted the former chairman of the Abkhaz parliament in exile, Tamaz Nadareishvili, as explaining that this demand reflected a split within the ranks of the present Abkhaz parliament between pro-Russian and what he termed pro-Muslim elements. But Ardzinba's special envoy, Anri Djergenia, speaking in Moscow on 1 June, stressed that Abkhazia has "special relations" with Russia and is "firmly oriented towards cooperation with the Russian Federation." He also said that Sukhumi "has never supported and does not support" the withdrawal of the CIS peacekeeping force from Gali. (Liz Fuller)

Fault Lines in Dagestan. Religious extremism, subversion by neighboring Chechnya, social tensions, political rivalries, violent crime, and friction among the republic's 34 ethnic groups have all been identified as potential catalysts for serious unrest in Dagestan. Although these elements overlap and reinforce each other, it is possible to distinguish three separate tendencies.

The first of these is the political/criminal/ethnic nexus. Former Russian Deputy Premier Ramazan Abdulatipov, himself an Avar from Dagestan, says Dagestan's weak authorities are forced to seek a modus vivendi with the dozens of criminal groups. Political parties as such do not play a significant role. Their place is taken by criminal formations or individuals who have accumulated enormous fortunes by dubious means, and whose support base is likely to be a private army masquerading as a movement representing an ethnic group. One such individual is Nadirshakh Khachilaev, a State Duma deputy, the chairman of the Union of Muslims of Russia, and leader of the Laks. Another is Gadzhi Makhachev, head of the republican oil company Dagneft and leader of Dagestan's ethnic Avars. It was Khachilaev's supporters who stormed the government building in Makhachkala two weeks ago to demand the government's resignation and direct elections to the post of chairman of the State Council. Cognizant of the role that ethnic movements could play in a future confrontation, the current State Council chairman, Magomed-Ali Magomadov, has called on them either to disband voluntarily or to agree to a republic-wide referendum on whether they should do so. (Possibly the sole ethnic movement in Dagestan that poses a real threat is the separatist Lezgin organization "Sadval," which aspires to unite the Lezgin populations of southern Dagestan and northern Azerbaijan in an independent state.)

The second convergence is the religious/social. One of the criticisms levelled by Khachilaev against Magomadov in a rambling tirade published in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" last year was the latter's alleged indifference to the impoverishment of much of Dagestan's population, and in particular his "un-Islamic" failure to provide for the material security of the younger generation, 80 percent of whom are unemployed. Khachilaev warned that these disaffected youths are vulnerable to wahhabi religious propaganda. Opinions differ widely, however, as to whether wahhabism constitutes a danger to Dagestan: one Makhachkala commentator, Nabi Abdullaev, has suggested that some local leaders deliberately equate wahhabism with fanaticism and political extremism in order to create a convincing rationale for cracking down on wahhabis. This fallacy is, wittingly or unwittingly, perpetuated by journalists (and certain political figures) in Moscow.

The third area of overlap is Islam/Chechnya. In late April, Chechen Prime Minister Shamil Basaev convened a so-called Congress of Peoples of Chechnya and Dagestan, the avowed aim of which is to unite the two republics in an independent North Caucasian state -- a vision that is anathema to the pro-Russian leadership in Makhachkala. A double danger exists here: first, that radical Chechens could try to play the Islamic card in order to destabilize Dagestan as a way to create additional problems for the Russian leadership, and second, that hardliners in Moscow could adduce the threat of spillover from Chechnya into Dagestan as the rationale for punitive actions against Chechnya. In this context, and given the endemic cross-border raids between Chechnya and Dagestan, the decision to hold Russian military exercises in Dagestan beginning on 5 June seems, at the very least, injudicious. (Liz Fuller)

Is Karabakh's Strong Man Set To Become Prime Minister? In several recent interviews in the Armenian press, Murad Petrosian, chairman of the Defense and Security Committee of the parliament of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, has criticized the region's government for its alleged outdated approach, specifically to economic problems, and called for the resignation of Prime Minister Leonard Petrosian, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reports. Murad Petrosian argues that "new people are needed to unite clever and creative organizers" in order to capitalize fully on the region's economic potential. Such an individual, he argues, is Karabakh defense minister Samvel Babayan. Petrosian claims that individuals of Babayan's calibre "are born once in a century," and that between 80 and 90 percent of all creative innovations in Karabakh originated with him. Petrosian adds that Karabakh President Arkadii Ghukasian "fully agrees" with that assessment. Political commentator David Petrosian has identified Babayan as one of four Karabakh Armenians who dominate the decision-making process in Yerevan, together with President Robert Kocharian, Armenian Defense Minister Vazgen Sargsian, and Interior and National Security Minister Serzh Sargsian. (Liz Fuller)

CORRECTION: to "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 1, No. 13. In the second item, "Is Armenia Heading For Pre-Term Parliamentary Elections?" in the third paragraph, the third sentence should read: But the Yerkrapah nonetheless insist that the new electoral law should provide for a maximum of 40 seats allocated on the basis of party lists. . .