|Druzhba - eto spokojnaya i tihaya privyazannost', napravlyaemaya i ukreplyaemaya privychkoj, voznikayuschej iz dolgogo obscheniya i vzaimnyh obyazatel'stv. - D. YUm|
RFE/RL NEWSLINE Vol. 3, No. 183, Part I, 20 September 1999
___________________________________________________________ RFE/RL NEWSLINE Vol. 3, No. 183, Part I, 20 September 1999 A daily report of developments in Eastern and Southeastern Europe, Russia, the Caucasus and Central Asia prepared by the staff of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. This is Part I, a compilation of news concerning Russia, Transcaucasia and Central Asia. Part II covers Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe and is distributed simultaneously as a second document. Back issues of RFE/RL NewsLine and the OMRI Daily Digest are online at RFE/RL's Web site: http://www.rferl.org/newsline xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx Headlines, Part I * MOSCOW STEPS UP AIR BOMBARDMENT OF CHECHNYA * RESIGNATION RUMORS GAIN INTENSITY * OSCE CRITICIZES KAZAKHSTAN'S SENATE ELECTIONS End Note: GEORGIA'S ARMENIAN-POPULATED REGION IN LIMBO xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx RUSSIA MOSCOW STEPS UP AIR BOMBARDMENT OF CHECHNYA... Beginning late on 17 September, Russian aircraft flew some 100 raids on Chechen targets within 24 hours and continued bombing the following day, Interfax reported, citing Defense Ministry sources. Russian Premier Vladimir Putin, speaking in Arkhangelsk on 18 September, insisted once again that only guerrilla bases are being targeted in those raids, and Interfax on 19 September quoted a Russian military spokesman in Makhachkala as estimating that 140 guerrillas were killed in the previous day's bombing. But Chechen presidential spokesman Selim Abdumuslimov said that more than 20 people died and 50 were injured air attacks on villages in the districts of Shelkovksii, Gudermes, Nozhai-Yurt, and Vedeno over the previous two days. Chechen Deputy Prime Minister Akhmed Zakaev told Interfax on 19 September that "not a single so-called militant or mudjahedin" was among the 200 people killed since the bombing raids began three weeks ago. LF ...BUT REPORTS OF GROUND INVASION PROVE PREMATURE. Chechen government officials claimed on 18 September that Russian motorized units had penetrated 1.5 kilometers into Chechnya from neighboring Ingushetia and were digging in, Interfax reported. But Russian Defense Ministry sources in Moscow denied that claim, as did Ingushetia's President Ruslan Aushev. Reuters quoted a Russian military spokesman as saying that it is "senseless" to invade Chechnya from the west given that the Chechen threat to Russia is aimed at Daghestan, which borders Chechnya to the east. But on 19 September, ITAR-TASS reported that more federal troops were moved from North Ossetia to the border between Ingushetia and Chechnya. LF FEDERAL FORCES REGROUP IN DAGHESTAN. In Daghestan, Russian forces have been redeployed in the border districts of Kizlyar, Khasavyurt, and Babayurt in order to repel anticipated new attacks from Chechnya, ITAR-TASS reported on 18 September. At the same time, Interior Ministry and OMON troops are reportedly still combing and demining the villages of Shushia, Karamakhi, and Chabanmakhi as well as the Kizlyar uplands. ITAR-TASS reported on 19 September that "small groups" of militants remain in Daghestan, but he did not specify in which areas. LF INTERIOR MINISTRY CLAIMS PROOF OF OFFICIAL CHECHEN INVOLVEMENT IN DAGHESTAN FIGHTING. Russian Interior Ministry spokesmen told ITAR-TASS and Interfax on 17 September they have evidence that a 300-strong unit of the Chechen army directly subordinate to President Aslan Maskhadov took part in the fighting in Daghestan, returning to its base in Gudermes on 11 September. There has been no official Chechen response to those accusations, although Chechen government spokesmen earlier denied any involvement in the attacks on Daghestan. LF NATIONALITIES MINISTER CALLS FOR MASKHADOV-PUTIN MEETING. Russian Nationalities Minister Vyacheslav Mikhailov told journalists in Moscow on 18 September that Maskhadov should state definitively that he is "against bandits," ITAR-TASS reported. Mikhailov added that a meeting between Maskhadov and Russian leaders is planned to discuss joint measures against terrorism. Maskhadov wrote to President Yeltsin to propose such measures last week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 September 1999). Both Mikhailov and Chechen Deputy Prime Minister Kazbek Makhashev said on 18 September that preparations are under way for a meeting between Maskhadov and Russian Premier Putin at which the two men will sign a declaration outlining measures for resolving the North Caucasus crisis. LF FEDERATION COUNCIL SKEPTICAL OF PUTIN'S CHECHEN PROPOSALS? Addressing a closed session of the Federation Council on 17 September, Prime Minister Putin outlined his measures for countering the Chechen threat, including the imposition of a cordon sanitaire and continuing air strikes against the "guerrillas," "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 18 September. Putin himself told journalists after the session that senators expressed support for those plans and urged the Russian government to act "harshly and rapidly." But the daily said all senators with whom its correspondent spoke unanimously slammed Putin's proposals, arguing that air strikes are insufficient and ground troops should be sent into Chechnya. The newspaper quoted unidentified senators as expressing doubts that it will be possible to "resolve the Chechen problem" before next year's Russian presidential elections. LF CHECHNYA STIPULATES CONDITIONS FOR EXTRADITING 'TERRORISTS.' In a 19 September letter to Russian Prime Minister Putin and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, Chechen Foreign Minister Ilyas Akhmadov said Chechnya will "consider" extraditing to Moscow the terrorists responsible for the apartment bombings in Moscow and Buynaksk only on certain conditions, Interfax reported. He said that Moscow must furnish convincing proof of those persons' involvement in the bombings, and agree to hand over to Chechnya the "war criminals responsible for the genocide of the Chechen people in 1994-1996" as well as Russian pilots responsible for the air raids on Chechnya during the past three weeks. LF RESIGNATION RUMORS GAIN INTENSITY. Duma deputy and former Economics Minister Aleksandr Shokhin wrote in "Segodnya" on 20 September that Russian President Boris Yeltsin will resign on 19 October in order to force his opponents to choose between running in the State Duma elections scheduled for 19 December or in presidential elections. One of Yeltsin's chief rivals, Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov, is planning to seek re- election as head of the capital on that date, and Yabloko leader Grigorii Yavlinskii is another likely presidential candidate who will be participating in the State Duma elections. In an earlier article in "Segodnya," Shokhin had been only one day off when he predicted Yevgenii Primakov's ouster from the premier's office. JAC LEBED TOUTED AS YELTSIN'S SUCCESSOR... Referring to unnamed Kremlin sources, "Segodnya," which is owned by Vladmir Gusinskii's Media-Most Group, reported on 18 September that Prime Minister Putin is about to be dismissed and Krasnoyarsk Krai Governor Aleksandr Lebed named in his place. In addition, Lebed's backer, media magnate Boris Berezovskii, will receive a "high administrative position" probably connected with North Caucasus affairs, the daily claimed. The next day, Igor Shabdurasulov, deputy chief of presidential administration, dismissed the report, telling Interfax that the "goal in fabricating sensational rumors is simple--to create the pretext under which the opportunity is given over and over again to 'show oneself' and gain publicity through electronic and press media professing one's comments, assessment, and forecasts." On 15 September, presidential spokesman Dmitrii Yakushkin had described earlier reports about Lebed's appointment as "utter rubbish." JAC ...AS GOVERNOR SAYS HE'S NOT MOVING TO MOSCOW--YET. In an interview with the German magazine "Der Spiegel" on 19 September, Lebed said that he would not accept any position in the Yeltsin government. The same day, Lebed told Russian Public Television that if he were elected president, he would have a better chance than others of resolving Russia's problems with Chechnya. Earlier, Lebed had said Russia needed a military man as president (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 September 1999). JAC RAISA GORBACHEV LOSES BATTLE WITH LEUKEMIA. Raisa Gorbachev died early on 20 September at the Muenster University Clinic, where she had been undergoing treatment for leukemia since late July. Her husband, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, had remained with her throughout her stay in the German hospital. While earlier having found little sympathy among the Russian public, the couple was flooded with letters from well-wishers within Russia after Raisa Gorbachev was diagnosed with leukemia. JC MOSCOW'S FIRST LADY THROW HER HAT INTO RING... Yelena Baturina, the wife of Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov, announced on 18 September that she will seek a seat in the State Duma from a single-mandate district in the Republic of Kalmykia. Baturina said she will run as an independent candidate and plans to "engage in creative activity, notably implement construction projects" in Kalmykia, according to Interfax. Baturina's brother, who runs the INTEK construction company, is prime minister of Kalmykia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 November 1998). Baturina also said that she plans to take an active part in the construction of a Buddhist temple in Moscow. The predominant religion in Kalmykia is Tibetan Buddhism. JAC ...AS MAYOR DESIGNATES HIS RUNNING MATE. Mayor Luzhkov has tapped Valerii Shantsev, current deputy Moscow mayor, as his running mate in the upcoming mayoral elections, "Izvestiya" reported on 18 September. Luzhkov is pledging to reduce taxes, construct housing on a scale of 3-4 million square meters a year, and upgrade the standard of living of Muscovites by one-third, according to the daily. On 14 September, Luzhkov launched his "official" web site at http://www.luzhkov.ru. JAC MORE MANAGEMENT PROBLEMS CLOG WORK AT TRANSNEFT. Transneft's top managers decided not to show up at work on 17 September to show solidarity for ousted director Dmitrii Savelev, "The Moscow Times" reported the next day. Policeman armed with saws had forcibly installed new director, Semen Vainshtok, the previous day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 & 16 September 1999). "Komsomolskaya pravda," in which the Interros financial group holds a 51 percent stake, suggested that Savelev was dismissed primarily because of his support for the Baltic Pipeline System project over a competing pipeline project backed by LUKoil. Both Deputy Fuel Minister Vladimir Stanev and Vainshtok are former LUKoil vice presidents. According to the daily, Fuel Minister Viktor Kalyuzhnii had to dismiss Savelev in an unorthodox manner because he was in a hurry: Savelev reportedly intended to run in the State Duma elections, and once he was registered as a candidate, he could have been dismissed only with the permission of the Central Election Commission. JAC RUBLE FIRMS TEMPORARILY, STOCKS DIP... The ruble exchange rate rose to 24.41 rubles to $1 on 17 September from 25.47 rubles two days earlier. Traders attributed the rise to the Central Bank's issuing a new regulation for commercial banks that had the effect of tightening the money supply, AFP reported. However, traders do not expect the trend to last because of expected higher inflation and rising political tensions, according to Interfax. Meanwhile, the stock market values continued to slide. The benchmark RTS index slipped 2.77 percent on 15 September from the previous day, Reuters reported. Stocks have fallen steadily since the apartment bombings in Moscow. JAC ...AS INFLATION PREDICTED TO RISE. Finance Minister Mikhail Kasyanov said on 17 September that inflation will be slightly over 40 percent in 1999, rather than the 30 percent projected in this year's budget. Kasyanov added that GDP will experience zero growth in 1999, compared with the previous year. Real incomes fell 14.8 percent and real wages 35.9 percent during the first eight months of 1999, the Russian Statistics Agency reported the same day. JAC GROMOV SAYS START-2 IMPORTANT FOR RUSSIA. In an interview published in the 19 September "The Washington Times," Colonel General Boris Gromov, chairman of the Russian State Duma's Subcommittee on International Affairs said he believes that START-2 ratification is "strategically important" for both Russia and the U.S. and that the treaty has not lost its "significance and positive potential" since it was signed in 1993. He attributed the delay in ratifying START-2 to the "serious decline of the economic and social situation in Russia," noting that the cost of implementing START-2 is a "heavy burden" for the current Russian budget. With regard to the U.S. desire to amend the 1972 ABM treaty, Gromov stressed the Russian standpoint that it is an "indispensable part of any system of strategic stability." He urged that the two sides find a compromise, possibly establishing a joint ABM system or making "mutual concessions within the future START- 3 framework." JC U.S. JETS INTERCEPT RUSSIAN BOMBERS OFF ALASKA. U.S. fighter jets were sent to intercept two Tu-95 Russian Bear bombers some 200 miles off the coast of Alaska on 17 September. The bombers did not stray from international air space, but once they entered the "outer defense identification zone," the U.S. planes were sent to identify them. Interfax quoted the Russian Air Force press center as expressing "surprise and regret" over the incident. It stressed that its aircraft did not violate U.S. airspace and commented that the air force witnesses the "daily barraging of NATO intelligence aircraft along the Russia border but does not take hurried steps." The last time a Russian Bear aircraft was intercepted off Alaska was in March 1993, according to Reuters. JC TRANSCAUCASUS AND CENTRAL ASIA AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENT WANTS NEW KARABAKH PEACE PLAN... Meeting in Baku on 18 September with visiting OSCE Chairman in Office Knut Vollebaek, Heidar Aliev argued that the OSCE Minsk Group is unable to resolve the Karabakh conflict and is biased toward Armenia in its efforts to do so, Turan reported. Aliev added that he expects the Minsk Group to prepare a new draft peace plan before the OSCE summit in Istanbul in mid-November. Turan quoted Aliev as saying that his direct talks over the past two months with his Armenian counterpart, Robert Kocharian, have yielded no results, as "Armenia is offering very difficult proposals that could not be accepted by Azerbaijan." Vollebaek expressed the OSCE's support for a continuation of those direct talks, which he termed "vital" to resolving the conflict, according to ITAR- TASS. LF ...ORDERS RELEASE OF ARMENIAN POWS. President Aliev announced during his talks with Vollebaek that he has ordered the National Security Ministry to release the last four Armenian prisoners of war held in Azerbaijan. He added that he hopes Armenia will reciprocate by releasing the 15 remaining Azerbaijani prisoners before the OSCE Istanbul summit, ITAR- TASS reported. Armenia released three Azerbaijani POWs on 17 September. Armenia says it still holds six Azerbaijani POWs, while the leadership of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic admits holding five Azerbaijani servicemen, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported on 17 September. LF POLICE DISPERSE DEMONSTRATIONS IN AZERBAIJANI CAPITAL. Baku police dispersed some 50 people taking part in a picket of the city mayor's office on 18 September, Caucasus Press reported. The picket was organized by the chairmen of the Movement for Electoral Reform and Democratic Elections to demand permission to convene a rally in Baku on 25 September. Two days earlier, some 300 police had broken up a rally by opposition representatives at the Salyany race track on the outskirts of Baku. Several participants were arrested. The demonstrators had been protesting alleged violations by local election officials during the first stage of preparations for the 12 December municipal elections. LF RUSSIA RELAXES, REIMPOSES CONTROLS ON BORDERS WITH GEORGIA... Interfax reported on 17 September, quoting Abkhaz President Vlasislav Ardzinba, that a week or so earlier, on 9 September, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin signed a resolution lifting restrictions imposed in 1994, 1995, and 1997 on crossing Russia's borders with Azerbaijan and Georgia, Ardzinba termed that step "the lifting of the economic blockade" against Abkhazia. But within days of the signing of the Russian government document, State Duma speaker Gennadii Seleznev called for the closure of those borders to prevent the transport of arms via Azerbaijani and Georgian territory to militants fighting in Chechnya and Daghestan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 September 1999). On 17 September, Russian border guards closed the Psou border crossing between Russia and Abkhazia in response to last week's terrorist bombings in Russia, according to Caucasus Press. LF ...SPARKING PROTESTS IN TBILISI. The Georgian State Frontier Department issued a statement condemning the 9 September Russian government resolution as an infringement of Georgia's sovereignty, Caucasus Press reported on 18 September. The statement added that the Russian move abets Abkhaz separatism and "does not promote the development and strengthening of good-neighborly relations" between Moscow and Tbilisi. Also on 18 September, the Abkhaz parliament in exile, which is composed of the ethnic Georgian deputies to the Abkhaz parliament elected in 1991, issued a statement demanding that the Georgian government completely reassess relations with Moscow in the light of the Russian government resolution. The statement called for the closure of Russia's four military bases in Georgia and for the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeepers deployed under the CIS aegis along the border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia. LF OSCE CHAIRMAN IN OFFICE DISCUSSES GEORGIAN CONFLICTS. During talks in Tbilisi on 17 September, Georgian Foreign Minister Irakli Menagharishvili thanked Knut Vollebaek for the OSCE's contribution to resolving the conflict in South Ossetia, Caucasus Press reported. Interfax quoted Vollebaek as telling a press conference after his talks that the OSCE is prepared to join the process of trying to resolve the Abkhaz conflict and will hold talks with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on doing so. Vollebaek also met with Parliamentary Chairman Zurab Zhvania and with representatives of several opposition parties to discussed preparations for the 31 October parliamentary elections. He was scheduled to meet with Minister of State Vazha Lortkipanidze and President Eduard Shevardnadze. LF BRZEZINSKI PROPOSES THAT ARMENIA JOIN GUUAM. Former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski told journalists in Tbilisi on 17 September that he considers the GUUAM alignment comprising Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Moldova, "a good initiative" that may at some point evolve into a security system, Caucasus Press reported. But Brzezinski added that he thinks Armenia should also become a member of GUUAM, together with Romania, Poland, and Turkey. He proposed that Tbilisi offer the maximum concessions in order the resolve its conflict with Abkhazia. But he ruled out independence for the breakaway republic, advocating instead a confederation with Georgia, according to Caucasus Press. The Georgian leaders insist they would agree only to Georgia becoming an "asymmetric federation." LF OSCE CRITICIZES KAZAKHSTAN'S SENATE ELECTIONS. In a statement issued in Almaty on 17 September, the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights criticized the conduct of elections that day to the upper chamber of Kazakhstan's parliament, Reuters reported. The statement noted the failure of an unspecified number of local election commissions in the city and oblast of Almaty to comply with new regulations allowing local political party representatives to observe and monitor the vote count. The previous day, Central Electoral Commission chairwoman Zaghipa Balieva had pledged that voting would be "absolutely fair, transparent and democratic" and that "all the election laws will be followed." Twenty-nine candidates, all of whom were either government officials or senators whose term is about to expire, were contesting 16 senate seats. LF KAZAKHSTAN'S EX-PREMIER LEAVES RUSSIA. Akezhan Kazhegeldin, who was hospitalized after suffering a suspected heart attack following his detention by police in Moscow on arriving from London on 10 September, returned to London on 16 September, Reuters reported on 17 September, quoting members of Kazhegeldin's Republican People's Party of Kazakhstan. Those party members added that Kazhegeldin has no firm plans to return to Kazakhstan, where he faces charges of tax evasion. LF SEVEN KILLED IN NEW CLASH IN SOUTHERN KYRGYZSTAN. Seven Kyrgyz troops were killed and another six injured in a four- hour exchange of fire with more than 100 guerrillas who attacked their positions near the village of Syrt in southern Kyrgyzstan early on 18 September. Kyrgyzstan's Security Council secretary Bolot Djanuzakov told journalists that the guerrillas were attempting to gain access to the Uzbek exclave of Sokh, which is surrounded by Kyrgyz territory, but were prevented from doing so. He added that the guerrillas lost 15 men in the fighting, including the field commander who led an earlier incursion on to Kyrgyz territory. During the fighting, the guerrillas also seized some 12 local civilians whom they intend to use as human shields, ITAR-TASS reported on 19 September. LF NEW POLITICAL PARTY FORMED IN KYRGYZSTAN. Some 100 deputies elected Zamira Sydykova, chief editor of the opposition weekly paper "Res Publika," as chairwoman of the Party of Republicans at that party's founding congress in Bishkek on 18 September, RFE/RL's bureau in the capital reported. Parliamentary deputy and Ata-Meken party chairman Omurbek Tekebaev, who also attended the congress, said his party may align with the Republicans. LF TAJIK OPPOSITION PARTY HOLDS CONGRESS. Addressing a congress of the Islamic Renaissance Party in Dushanbe on 18 September, United Tajik Opposition leader Said Abdullo Nuri called for the consolidation of the peace process in Tajikistan and affirmed that the party's ultimate objective is to come to power "by political means, strictly within the bounds of the constitution," ITAR-TASS reported. The 540 delegates to the congress elected Nuri as the party's new chairman. Former chairman Mukhammed Sharif Himmatzode and First Deputy Prime Minister Khodja Akbar Turadjonzoda were elected deputy chairmen. In August, Tajikistan's Supreme Court lifted the ban it had imposed on the Islamic Renaissance Party in June 1993. But on 17 September, a leading member of the country's Central Electoral Commission said the party will not be able to contend the presidential and parliamentary elections later this year unless it first re-registers with the Ministry of Justice, Reuters reported. LF TAJIK PRESIDENT TO RUN FOR SECOND TERM. Abdulmadzhid Dostiev, who is deputy chairman of the People's Democratic Party, told Reuters on 17 September that Imomali Rakhmonov will run for a second term in the 6 November presidential poll "at the party's request" as there is "simply no alternative." The party is to convene a congress on 23 September. A former Tajik Supreme Soviet chairman, Rakhmonov was elected president in November 1994 with some 60 percent of the vote. LF UZBEKISTAN AGAIN IMPLICATES TAJIK OPPOSITION FIGHTING IN KYRGYZSTAN. Speaking at a press briefing in Tashkent on 17 September, Uzbekistan's Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov claimed that the ethnic Uzbek guerrillas in Kyrgyzstan receive support and instructions from members of the UTO, Reuters and Interfax reported. The UTO has denied earlier Uzbek charges that it supports the guerrillas (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 and 13 September 1999). Kamilov said that the leader of the band now holding hostages in Kyrgyzstan's Osh Oblast reports by radio to former UTO commander Mirzo Zioev, Tajikistan's Minister for Emergency Situations and Civil Defense, and to headquarters in Kabul and Qaraganda in Kazakhstan. He added that the Tajik government refuses to acknowledge that it has lost control of the situation in the eastern part of the country. At the same press conference, National Security Council Secretary Mirakbar Rakhmonkulov said Uzbekistan will not send ground troops to Kyrgyzstan to help fight the militants, according to Interfax. LF END NOTE GEORGIA'S ARMENIAN-POPULATED REGION IN LIMBO By Emil Danielyan Georgian and Armenian words mingle at the noisy bazaar and in the busy shops and cafes of Akhaltsikhe, a town in the west of Javakhetia. But the situation is quite different in the smaller town of Akhalkalaki, 70 kilometers to the east, at the heart of the southern region of Georgia, where ethnic Armenians constitute an overall majority. Akhalkalaki's population is overwhelmingly Armenian. Georgian is rarely spoken, and there are few other signs that this is Georgian territory. The place looks depressing and is deceptively calm. Javakhetia's location on Georgia's border with Turkey and Armenia gives the region strategic importance as Russia and the West compete for influence in the post-Soviet South Caucasus. The continuing presence in Javakhetia of Russian troops and the region's ethnic composition are the main causes of tension. Added to those factors are the longstanding grievances of the local population largely stemming from severe living conditions. Achieving a modus vivendi with its sometimes obstreperous national minorities has been a huge challenge for independent Georgia. Attempts to rein in Abkhazia and South Ossetia by force have resulted in Tbilisi's loss of control over those two breakaway regions. And although relations with local Armenians have been mainly peaceful, finding a long-term arrangement with Javakhetia has proved problematic. The area known as Javakhetia (Javakhk in Armenian) is composed of four raions. Ethnic Armenians are concentrated in two of those raions, Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda, accounting for more than 95 percent of the population. The Tbilisi government's influence there is fairly limited. Akhalkalaki still hosts a Russian military base, one of the four remaining in Georgia. In a town with a virtually non-existent economy, the base is the main employer. The locals are strongly opposed to the withdrawal of the Russian troops, which Tbilisi is seeking as part of its bid to establish close ties with NATO and the West. Some Russians did pull out last year, however, raising the question of who would occupy their empty barracks. Under pressure from local Armenians unwilling to see Georgian army units stationed in Akhalkalaki, the Georgian government agreed to turn the barracks into a hospital. Local government officials now say that Tbilisi has assured them it will not deploy Georgian troops in the area in the foreseeable future. A recent meeting in Akhaktsikhe between the Armenian and Georgian defense ministers was also intended to reassure the local Armenia population. In terms of culture and education, the region's ethnic Armenian population is oriented toward Armenia. Only a handful of the inhabitants of Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda Raions speak Georgian. Schooling is in Armenian, and textbooks are those used in Armenia. High-school graduates generally choose to continue their education in Yerevan, rather than Tbilisi. Many Armenians in Javakheti have subsequently made careers in the Armenian military, where they are well represented in the officer corps. Armenia's present defense minister was born in Javakheti. Employment opportunities in Javakheti are limited. Apart from the Russian base and trade, the locals live off farming or money received from relatives working in Russia. Three hours of electricity a day is no incentive to launch a business. Moreover, meager pensions and public-sector wages have not been paid for more than six months. As a result of the crumbling infrastructure and the lack of prospects, many people feel forsaken by the central government. Akhalkalaki district council chairman Levon Gabrielian, who is a member of Georgia's ruling Union of Citizens of Georgia, says Tbilisi's attitude toward the region is "not objective," while more radical local leaders speak about covert discrimination. Anti-Turkish and pro-Russian nationalists, who until recently operated under the umbrella group Javakhk, have formed a party called Virk (the medieval Armenian name for Georgia.) The Georgian Justice Ministry refuses to register the party, citing its "regional" character. But one of Virk's leaders, David Restakian, says Tbilisi wants to bar the party from participating in parliamentary elections next month. "We are more dangerous for them than Javakhk because we want to obey their rules of the game," he says. "One in 10 Georgian citizens is an [ethnic] Armenian, and yet we have no senior officials in Tbilisi." Virk's stated aim is a "federal" Georgia in which Javakhetia would be a separate entity. Its members are against the possible construction through the region of a pipeline carrying Azerbaijani oil to the Turkish Mediterranean coast. They are clearly a force on which Russia can depend to keep its presence in the region. As the polls near, Georgian parties are competing to win the sympathy of Javakhetian Armenians, who in the 1995 elections voted for President Eduard Shevardnadze's Union of Citizens of Georgia (not least because the Armenian leadership urged them to do so). Posters of Aslan Abashidze, the autocratic ruler of the Adjar Autonomous Republic, can already be seen in Akhalkalaki, while those of his newly formed electoral bloc urge the ouster of the Shevardnadze administration, which, it contends, "has no future." Abashidze rules virtually independently of Tbilisi, relying on Russian troops to preserve Adjaria's quasi- independence. He recently proposed incorporating Javakhetia into his Black Sea republic, which reportedly enjoys the highest living standards in the country. However, both the Armenian moderates and nationalists are highly mistrustful of Abashidze, pointing to his suspected Turkish connections. The October parliamentary elections will show whether their warnings carry more weight than his economic track record among Javakhetia's impoverished population. xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx Copyright (c) 1999 RFE/RL, Inc. All rights reserved. xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx HOW TO SUBSCRIBE Send an email to email@example.com with the word subscribe as the subject of the message. HOW TO UNSUBSCRIBE Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the word unsubscribe as the subject of the message. 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