MINELRES: Caucasus Reporting Service No. 282: excerpts

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WELCOME TO IWPR'S CAUCASUS REPORTING SERVICE, No. 282, 14 April, 2005

CAUCASUS NEWS UPDATE APRIL 14

ADYGEIA: SPECIAL STATUS UNDER THREAT  Furore over plans to merge a
Circassian homeland with the surrounding Russian region.  By Oleg
Tsvetkov
in Maikop

DAGESTAN: MUSLIM FACTIONS CLASH  An eruption of violence closes one of
the
oldest mosques in the Caucasus.  By Rinat Turabov in Derbent

GEORGIA: ARMENIANS BARGAIN WITH GOVERNMENT  A delegation of Armenians
seeks
a shift of policy in Tbilisi.  By Olesya Vartanian in Akhalkalaki and
Tbilisi

BAR FIGHT IN ARMENIA  A new barristers' association is riven with
disputes
even before it gets off the ground.  By Zhanna Alexanian in Yerevan

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.....................

ADYGEIA: SPECIAL STATUS UNDER THREAT

Furore over plans to merge a Circassian homeland with the surrounding
Russian region. 

By Oleg Tsvetkov in Maikop

A debate is raging within the North Caucasian autonomous republic of
Adygeia as to whether it should be merged with the bigger Krasnodar
region that surrounds it. 

Supporters of the move to abolish the territory's separate status is an
artificial construction that benefits only a small elite. But opponents
say abolishing Adygeia would deprive Circassians of a unique haven. The
Adygeis, with the Kabardins and Cherkess, together make up the
Circassians, one of the largest ethnic groups in the North Caucasus. 

At the end of March, some 700 villagers each in the villages of
Yablonovsky and Enem demonstrated against rocketing prices for
utilities, against the local president Hazret Sovmen, but also in favour
of a merger with Krasnodar region. More rallies are expected in late
April or early May, the traditional marching season in Russia.

Timur Kalakutok, a deputy in the local parliament, has vowed to put the
proposed merger with Krasnodar on the local parliament's agenda.

The debate has sharpened political divisions within the republic with
President Sovmen, a gold magnate, speaking out strongly against it.
"Adygeia is an autonomous entity established so as to conserve Adygei
culture, language and traditions.  and create opportunities to fulfil
Adygei national aspirations with the help of government institutions."

President Sovmen is urging all those in favour of the merger to "pack up
and go and live on the other side of the Kuban", the river that
separates Adygeia from Krasnodar. He vowed never to let his republic
become "a colony of [Krasnodar] province again".

Only 23 per cent of Adygeia's population are ethnic Adygei, while the
overwhelming majority are Russians. Some Russian rights groups, most
notably the Slavic Union, complain of gross discrimination in local
employment policies. As well as the president, they say, the prime
minister and presidential chief of staff (a rank equal to minister) are
all ethnic Adygei, as are six of the eight cabinet ministers. In some
government institutions, such as the court bailiffs' office in the local
capital Maikop, 80 per cent of staff are Adygei.

Nina Konovalova, who chairs the Slavic Union's board and supports the
merger, told IWPR, "Russian professionals are being kicked out
everywhere, or almost everywhere. Look at the faculties of Adygeia's
universities. Not only are the rectors all Adygei, the percentage of
Adygei teachers on staff is disproportionately high."

So far, however, there has been no mass exodus of Russians leaving the
republic. According to official figures, the percentage of Russians in
Adygeia has dropped only five per cent in the past 10 years. This is the
lowest rate of Russian out-migration amongst all the North Caucasian
republics.

The small republic of Adygeia is an enclave within the Krasnodar region,
given the status of a republic within the Russian Federation in 1991 so
as to give autonomy to the local Circassian population. 

Local scholars and cultural figures have been vocal in expressing
concern that the Circassian people could lose their culture and language
if the one territory in the world where the titular nationality is
Circassian were to be abolished (Kabardino-Balkaria and
Karachay-Cherkessia are each shared with another group).

The language is already close to extinction. Recent surveys indicate
that as few as five to 10 per cent of Adygei are fluent in their mother
tongue.

"Adygeia's continuity as an independent administrative unit within the
Russian Federation provides a modicum of protection for its ethnic
culture," Almir Abregov, director of the Adygeia National Museum, told
IWPR. 

He believes that "all this fuss about the merger is completely
contrived", noting that many other regions in Northern Caucasus are no
better off economically than Adygeia. "How this merger is going to
change or improve anything is a mystery to me," he said.

Taliy Beretar, the Adygeian president's chief of staff, believes that if
Adygeia becomes part of Krasnodar, the result could be rising
inter-ethnic hostility.

"I am absolutely clear: I'm against the merger," he told IWPR. "In the
North Caucasus, which is home to hundreds of ethnicities, the
inter-ethnic situation is already tense. There is no reason to further
exacerbate tensions by unwisely changing a republic's administrative
status."

Beretar added that Circassian emigrants in Israel have voiced concern at
the proposed merger and said that they have written to the Adygei
government, urging it not to let the merger happen. 

"They still regard Adygeia as their historical homeland," he said. "They
were overjoyed when Circassian emigrants - the descendants of refugees
who fled Russian troops in the 19th century -returned here from [a
century in exile]. They don't want the republic to be erased from the
map as the homeland of Circassians everywhere in the world."

Members of the Circassian Congress, an organisation recently established
in Adygeia, are sworn opponents of the proposed merger.

"The abolition of Adygeia as a republic will anger not only the Adygei,
but all North Caucasian expatriates," said one of its leaders, Aslan
Shazzo. "This may prompt some of them to take up arms and return here as
freedom fighters against Russia."

However, as the rallies in Yablonovsky and Enem showed, the idea of
Adygeia joining Krasnodar has its supporters among local Adygei as well
as Russians, especially those who live in parts of the republic that are
economically and geographically closely linked to Krasnodar. 

Kalakutok, an Adygei elected to represent one of these areas in
parliament, has been lobbying for years for a union with Krasnodar.

"Both the Russians and the Adygei taking part in those rallies did so
for the same reason," he told IWPR. "They believe Adygeia is an
artificial administrative formation whose sole reason for existing, as
far as they can see, is to feed and clothe Adygeian ministers and
nationalists, who account for between one and one-and-a-half per cent of
the population."

The Russian federal authorities have so far refrained from comment.
Krasnodar governor Alexander Tkachev, speaking at a press conference in
March, lent his backing to Russian president Vladimir Putin's policy of
creating larger regions, but he was evasive about the chances of Adygeia
merging with his own province. "This is a complex matter. The decision
to unite or stay apart should be made by our respective people," he
said.

Tkachev noted, however, that Adygeia and Krasnodar should be able to
live together. Until 1991, Adygeia was an autonomous district within the
Krasnodar region, before it was granted the status of a republic.

Ruslan Khanakhu, who heads a department at the Adygeian Institute of
Humanities, told IWPR the idea should be abandoned altogether. "The
issue of a merger is irrelevant to what the public really wants. It is
only making things worse for everyone," he said.

A taxi driver in Maikop told IWPR, "It does not matter if we do or don't
merge. Like snakes, the bureaucrats of the [Adygei] republic and
Krasnodar will keep on working together and continue to suckpeople's
blood."

Oleg Tsvetkov is an independent political scientist in Maikop, Adygeia.

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GEORGIA: ARMENIANS BARGAIN WITH GOVERNMENT

A delegation of Armenians seeks a shift of policy in Tbilisi 

By Olesya Vartanian in Akhalkalaki and Tbilisi

In the first meeting of its kind, a group of around 20 Armenians from
the southern region of Javakheti are meeting Georgian cabinet ministers
to discuss the region's many social problems.

The three days of talks, set to begin on April 14, are seen as a test of
the Georgian authorities' commitment to the under-developed region, in
which around 90 per cent of the population is ethnic Armenian.

The Javakheti Armenians will meet with officials in the education,
culture, transport and conflict settlement ministries in Tbilisi and
also the parliamentary human rights committee.

If new policies come out of the meetings it will be a significant
victory for the young delegation, most of whose members come from a
newly formed organisation called Yediny Javakhk, or United Javakheti.

If not, it may strengthen the hand of sceptical Armenians who say
Tbilisi is deliberately neglecting the region.

Yediny Javakhk shot to prominence on March 13 - just three days after it
was first founded - when it organized a meeting of 8,000 people in the
centre of Akhalkalaki, the main town of Javakheti. 

The organization's mainly young members said they had come together so
quickly in response to reports that the pro-government Georgian youth
movement Kmara was planning a protest rally in Akhalkalaki, against a
local Russian military base which is the main centre of employment for
the local population. 

But the young Yediny Javakhk quickly split into a more moderate and more
radical wing.

While the moderates sought to contact the Georgian government, the
radical members undertook political agitation, brought people to the
rally, made banners and invited a pop-group from Armenia to perform.

"We want to achieve the rights that our people are entitled to as
citizens of Georgia," Artur Pogosian, one of the leaders of the moderate
wing, told IWPR. "We do not want to be second- or third-class citizens."

"For the last 15 years our people have been silent and loyal to all
three presidents of Georgia," he added. "And today the time has come for
the government to pay attention to us."

The radicals have refused to take part in the Tbilisi delegation.

Vaag Chakhalian, one of the more radical leaders of the organisation, is
sceptical about the moderates' approach.

"If they really want to solve problems, then we are ready to work with
them," he told IWPR.

But he insisted this could not take the form of opposition figures being
bought off with highly paid jobs in government, "We need problems to be
put to them and to be solved."

Tbilisi political analyst Gia Nodia said he was not surprised by the
schism. "[This organisation] is the latest attempt to find some common
interests or common demands, around which people can unite," he told
IWPR. "But differences in interests, conceptions of strategy or
political ambitions generally stand in the way of this unity." 

At the March 13 rally Pogosian read out a letter to the government of
Georgia setting out the problems of the region, one of the most backward
in Georgia.

Many of the issues - including ineffective local government, poor
electricity supply, bad roads and problems with customs, taxes and
passports - also apply elsewhere in the country.

Others are specific to Javakheti - like the demand that Armenian history
be taught in schools and that official paperwork be done in the Armenian
language as well as Russian.

But calls for autonomy or secession from Georgia were muted at the
rally, in contrast with the more nationalist days of the early 1990s.

A major demand is for the government in Tbilisi to ease pressure on the
Russian military base in Akhalkalaki, which large numbers of locals
regard as an important strategic and economic asset in the region.

"It's always the ordinary folk who suffer," said local resident Bograt
Kakosian, "those in comfortable jobs don't have any problems."

"People are selling their last calf to get a visa and move to Russia -
and there, because relations between Russia and Georgia are so bad, they
risk getting deported just because they are a citizen of Georgia. And if
they close the base, it will be bad for us in Georgia too."

Most of those who came to the rally were seasonal workers, who find
employment in Russia for part of the year because there are no jobs at
home. Until recently, they had to spend time and money getting foreign
passports in the regional capital Akhaltsikhe. But following the rally,
the government has set up a new passport office in Akhalkalaki.

Artur Yeremian - the gamgebeli, or governor, of Akhalkalaki - says
problems like this occur because the central government does not
understand the complexities of the region.

"Every ministry is told to carry out reforms," he said. "But no one is
interested how they come about, [even though] every region has its
special features."

One of the leaders of Yediny Javakhk, who asked to remain anonymous,
said the main reason for the region's social ills was the domination of
several powerful clans, who operate according to their business
interests, are supported by the authorities in Tbilisi and Yerevan, and
have influence on the local government.

Nodia explained that one of these clans in particular, grouped around
the family of parliamentarian Melik Raisian, had enabled the government
in Tbilisi to exert control over the region. 

"[The government] gave the leaders who spoke out against Tbilisi
well-paid posts," he told IWPR. "And by doing so, it calmed them down.
This policy went on under Shevardnadze and there has not been any
principled change of policy under the current government. It is relying
on influential local players and not on civic democratic progress."

Nodia said that these kind of intrigues had naturally made people
suspicious about the new Yediny Javakhk movement, "Many people thought
the rallies in Akhalkalaki were designed to discredit someone so someone
else could take his place. that it was being  done to strengthen the
position of people close to [interior minister Vano] Merabishvili or to
the president."

Merabishvili comes from Samtskhe-Javakheti and wields a lot of influence
in the region. On March 27 he met the Yediny Javakhk moderates and
persuaded them not to take part in a rally that had been called for
March 31. He himself promised to visit the region in May and check on
the enforcement of government policy there.

At the meeting with the minister, the decision was taken to create a
Javakheti Public Committee which would be in regular consultation with
the government in Tbilisi.

"I see the solution in a dialogue between representatives of the region
and the authorities, so the authorities understand what we want," said
Samvel Manukian one of the Yediny Javakhk moderate leaders. "If not, we
will call another rally in the middle of May."

In the event, the March 31 rally was dominated by the Sport-Cultural
Union of Youth of Javakheti, JEMM, which has more of an Armenian
nationalist agenda - amongst other things, it calls on Georgia to
recognize the Armenian genocide of 1915.

Vaag Chakhalian of JEMM said he saw no point in negotiating with the
Georgian government because he said the Javakheti Armenians had been
deceived many times in the past.

Olesya Vartanian is a correspondent with Southern Gates newspaper in
Samtskhe-Javakheti region, which is supported by IWPR.

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CAUCASUS REPORTING SERVICE No. 282