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Caucasus Report: September 29, 1998

29 September 1998, Volume 1, Number 31

Are Abkhazia And Georgia Heading For Peace Or War? Two rounds of high level talks last week created the impression that the Abkhaz and Georgian leaderships are determined to find ways of defusing tensions and seeking a mutually acceptable solution to the problem of Abkhazia's future status vis-a-vis the central Georgian government. But parallel developments suggest that either these talks may have been a smoke screen, or that other forces are intent on thwarting any progress towards a settlement.

On 22 September, Abkahz Prime Minister Sergei Bagapsh and Presidential envoy Anri Djergenia attended a session in Tbilisi of the economic committee of the Coordinating Council created last November under the auspices of the UN and the informal "Friends of Georgia" group of western ambassadors in Tbilisi. Bagapsh and Djergenia also met separately with Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, who subsequently told journalists that "our negotiations are making progress, although slowly." Shevardnadze also disclosed that Djergenia had handed him a letter from his Abkhaz counterpart Vladislav Ardzinba, who expressed concern at reports that Georgian forces are being concentrated close to the border with Abkhazia's southernmost Gali raion where, it was claimed, they intend to perpetrate terrorist acts in late September to mark the anniversary of Georgia's 1993 defeat in the war for control of the region. Shevardnadze said he is prepared to accept Ardzinba's invitation to meet with him personally in Sukhumi.

Two days later, on 24 September, Georgian Minister of State Vazha Lortkipanidze, together with the Georgian ministers of security and internal affairs, travelled to Sukhumi for talks with Ardzinba, during which Lortkipanidze denied that Georgia is preparing for a new offensive against Abkhazia, but expressed concern that unspecified forces are preparing to launch new hostilities in Gali. The Georgian "power" ministers and their Abkhaz counterparts made a tour of inspection of the Gali raion, and signed a protocol on the disengagement of forces along the Inguri River that forms the border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia. Georgian Interior Minister Kakha Targamadze even publicly denied the existence of the "White Legion" and the "Forest Brothers," the two Georgian guerrilla formations suspected of having systematically targeted first Russian peacekeepers and more recently Abkhaz police officers in Gali. (It is still not clear whether either of those guerrilla formations was responsible for the 21 September attack on a minibus carrying members of the UN Observer force in Sukhumi. The Abkhaz capital is some 50 km northwest of Gali and thus outside the guerrillas' normal area of operations.)

The sincerity of the Georgian side's conciliatory approach is called into question, however, by a letter sent by Viktor Ilyukhin, chairman of the Russian State Duma Security Committee (and a hard-line Communist) to Ardzinba, a summary of which was published in "Nezavisimaya gazeta/CIS" on 23 September. Ilyukhin claims that Georgia has concentrated up to 10,000 army and Interior Ministry forces in western Georgia, and, since August, has taken delivery of 300 tons of armaments from Ukraine, including two containers of grenade-launchers and 175 tons of 100 millimeter anti-tank shells. Ilyukhin suggests that the Georgian leadership is desperate to bolster its image by regaining control at least over Gali raion in order to preclude an ignominious defeat for Shevardnadze's Union of Citizens of Georgia in the 1999 Georgian parliamentary elections.

Speaking at a press briefing on 25 September, Shevardnadze's press secretary, Vakhtang Abashidze, warned that unspecified Russian forces backed by Georgia's Communists, supporters of deceased President Zviad Gamsakhurdia and some groups of Georgian displaced persons from Abkhazia, aim to export destabilization from the North Caucasus to Georgia, but rejected Ilyukhin's allegations of an imminent Georgian offensive in Abkhazia as "absurd." (Liz Fuller)

Or Is Aslan Abashidze The Target? Ilyukhin does, however, offer an alternative explanation for the alleged buildup of troops in western Georgia, namely, plans to oust Adjar Supreme Council chairman Aslan Abashidze, who is currently perceived as the sole Georgian politician to pose a serious challenge to Shevardnadze. Not only is Abashidze's All-Georgian Union for Revival the second-largest faction within the Georgian parliament: Abashidze has emerged as a focal point around which other Georgian opposition parties could join forces.

Abashidze's most recent act of defiance of Tbilisi was to express his implicit support for the incorporation into the Adjar Autonomous Republic of the predominantly Armenian-populated Djavakheti district of southern Georgia. (How that statement will be received by the Turkish leadership, which according to "Vremya-MN" has assured Abashidze of its support in the event of an attack on Adjaria by Georgian government troops, is not clear.)

Shevardnadze, however, appears to be soft-pedalling, at least for the present: he has ruled that the Adjar Supreme Council's introduction of amendments providing for the direct election of local district administrators into the Georgian Law on Local Administrative Elections do not contradict the Georgian Constitution. (Liz Fuller)

Will The HHSh Split? Tensions between senior members of Armenia's formerly ruling Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh) may result in the exodus from the party's ranks of the last remaining members of the nucleus who created it in 1989 on the basis of the movement for Nagorno-Karabakh's unification with Armenia.

Former deputy parliament speaker Ara Sahakian was expelled from the HHSh earlier this month, apparently at the orders of party chairman Vano Siradeghian. Sahakian condemned the move, warning that the HHSh is turning into its flamboyant chairman's "pocket party." The HHSh's Yerevan branch responded to Sahakian's expulsion by lambasting the party leadership and demanding its resignation. Branch chairman and former deputy parliament speaker Karapet Rubinian accused Siradeghian of playing a "destructive role." Siradeghian had earlier suspended the membership in the HHSh's ruling board of both Rubinian and another well-known figure, Aleksan Hakobian (a member of the former Karabakh committee). Furthermore, meetings of the board are being boycotted by Babken Ararktsian, ex-speaker of parliament and a close ally of former President Levon Ter-Petrossian, who was the HHSH's first chairman. The infighting centers around the controversial personality of Siradeghian, whom the veterans accuse of taking an ambiguous line towards the current authorities. Indeed, the center-right HHSh has failed to officially declare its opposition status. Some observers say Siradeghian's cautious tactics vis-a-vis the Kocharian leadership are motivated by fear of criminal prosecution for alleged wrongdoings in the past. A former interior minister and Yerevan mayor, Siradeghian has been interrogated on several occasions recently by law-enforcement agencies over the testimony given by a group of men arrested earlier this year on charges of political murder. Some of them used to work with him. The interrogations have only reinforced widespread public suspicion about Siradeghian's involvement in criminal acts. His most radical political opponents openly refer to him as a criminal.

All this renders Siradeghian a liability in the eyes of the HHSh's old guard, given that his dominance of the party deters potential allies from the right of the political spectrum, most of whom split from the HHSh at various junctures. Yet although the veterans want to ditch him, no dissenting group in the HHSh has ever managed to unseat its leadership and all of them have ended up as separate political parties. The same is likely to happen this time considering the predominance of Siradeghian cadres, few of whom could be described as activists of the 1988 movement that gave birth to the party. The departure of the last veterans would deprive the HHSh of a major self-identification factor and political continuity.

Siradeghian is nonetheless apparently intent on consolidating his personal hegemony over the party that led Armenia to independence and shaped the country's modern history. Siradeghian has made it clear that he does not want Ter-Petrossian to return to the party helm as he "cannot collect many votes." But whether Siradeghian would be any more successful in restoring the HHSh to the forefront of Armenian politics is highly doubtful. (Emil Danielyan)

Observation Of The Week "The authorities in Azerbaijan consider the opposition as their enemy. And the opposition is united by the idea that the authorities are also the enemy, which must be destroyed. Azerbaijan must become a civilized country in which the authorities and the opposition can co-exist within the framework of the law." -- Azerbaijan National Independence Party chairman and presidential candidate Etibar Mamedov, quoted in "Vremya - MN," 22 September 1998.

Quotes Of The Week "Armenia is a stable country today and potentially can become the most stable country in the region." -- President Robert Kocharian, meeting on 22 September with a group of journalists from the CIS and Baltic states, quoted by Noyan Tapan.

"The practice of selecting regional leaders based on their loyalty to Moscow is wrong. Such practice leads to a great deal of problems." -- Newly appointed Russian Nationalities Minister Ramazan Abdulatipov, discussing the situation in Dagestan (Interfax, 25 September 1998.)