Imperialism, oil and ethnic rebellion
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Fri Aug 13 09:05:42 MDT 1999
Journal of Commerce, June 25, 1998
Trade bill embroils Senate in the Caucasus' problems; Measure would
authorize funds to all 8 former Soviet republics
BY MICHAEL S. LELYVELD
A bitter ethnic battle in the Caucasus spilled over into Congress this week
as U.S. corporate and oil interests won a key vote on aid to the region in
the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The panel approved the Silk Road Strategy Act, sponsored by Sen. Sam
Brownback, R-Kan., after an amendment by Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., lost on
a 10-8 party-line vote late Tuesday.
WEB OF ENTANGLEMENTS
The Silk Road legislation would ""target assistance to support the economic
and political independence of the countries of the South Caucasus and
Central Asia.'' But behind the measure's bland title is a widening web of
international and U.S. business alliances with stakes in the outcome of a
The bill would authorize assistance to all eight former Soviet republics in
the region. But pro-Armenia groups have focused on provisions that would
lift a ban on aid to Azerbaijan, which Congress imposed in 1992 as a result
of the war over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The territory was an autonomous region of Azerbaijan until it was taken
over by its ethnic Armenian majority, sparking clashes which led to the
deaths of 35,000 people, occupation of one-fifth of Azerbaijan and the
displacement of some 1 million refugees. Since 1994, a tense cease-fire has
Tensions have been raised further this week, following a statement by
Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanyan that his country might annex
Nagorno-Karabakh if Azerbaijan does not compromise.
INTEREST IN CONFLICT
But the long-running conflict would have remained largely neglected in
Washington, were it not for the sudden interest in Caspian Sea oil.
Congress sided with the Armenia lobby when it imposed the aid sanctions on
Azerbaijan under Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act of 1992, on the
grounds that Azerbaijan and Turkey have embargoed Armenia illegally.
Azerbaijan has denied the charge, saying that normal trade is impossible
because of the war.
But influence has gradually shifted toward Azerbaijan since it began
signing a wave of big oil deals in 1994. The committee vote, which is
expected to lead to action on the Senate floor, is Azerbaijan's biggest
success so far. On the House side, a similar bill has been sponsored by
Rep. Benjamin Gilman, R-N.Y., who chairs the International Relations
Aside from big oil, the issue has attracted an array of interests. Before
the vote, the leaders of major Jewish organizations, including the American
Jewish Congress and B'nai B'rith, voiced support for the Brownback bill in
a letter to Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., the committee's chairman, and Sen.
Joseph Biden of Delaware, the ranking Democrat.
Pro-Israel interests are seen as twofold, stemming from the country's
growing alliance with Turkey, Armenia's historic enemy, and its efforts to
keep energy investment out of Iran by promoting Caspian access through the
But the involvement may only increase ethnic rancor. The Armenian National
Committee of America vowed Tuesday that it would continue to fight the
legislation. The split in the committee along party lines was also
troubling, said Chris Hekimian, the group's government affairs director.
Armenian- Americans have generally tended to lean toward the GOP.
In addition to Mr. Brownback, the effort on behalf of the bill in committee
was led by Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore. The
defeated Sarbanes amendment, which would have upheld Section 907, was
supported by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.
FLURRY OF CONTRACTS
The congressional action comes during a new flurry of contract signings
with Azerbaijan, despite continuing reports of disappointing returns from
the Caspian at a time of falling oil prices. Although the country has
signed some $30 billion worth of deals with foreign oil companies, analysts
are becoming increasingly concerned about recent drilling results.
This week Platt's Oilgram News reported that a second well at the Karabakh
field of the Caspian International Petroleum Co. consortium has come in as
gas condensate rather than oil. U.S.-based Pennzoil has a 30 percent stake
in the $2 billion deal which was signed in 1996. The largest shares belong
to Agip of Italy and Russia's Lukoil.
© 1999, LEXIS®-NEXIS®, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All Rights Reserved.
NY Times, August 13, 1999
Dagestan Skirmish Is Big Russian Risk
By CARLOTTA GALL
The mountain villages of Dagestan, scene of Russia's latest military clash
with Chechen and Dagestani rebels, are extraordinarily remote. The people
of the Botlikh region, a high corner on the Chechen-Dagestani border, are
unique to their valley and speak their own language. The stark, barren
crags of the Great Caucasus mountain range where they live are even more
impenetrable than the wooded mountains of Chechnya.
A skirmish in this southernmost point of Russia may seem like a small
problem with bandits in the hills. Yet at least 10 Russian soldiers have
already died in five days of fighting, with many more wounded, and no
accurate count of how many guerrillas have died. The casualties show that
both sides regard the area and the issue important enough to fight for. The
rebels have a vision and proven determination. The Russian authorities are
again trying to smash incipient separatism with brute force, despite the
lessons of Chechnya that such tactics may only reinforce popular resistance
and could bring greater instability and even military humiliation.
For the people of Dagestan, stuck in the middle, the conflict spells
trouble. Dagestan, which only just managed to survive the fallout of the
1994-1996 war in Chechnya, is double the size of its Chechen neighbor and
far more fractured, with a population of 2 million made up of 34 different
ethnic nationalities. The power sharing between them is intricate and
For Russia, Dagestan retains an important strategic value. Dagestan
commands 70 percent of Russia's shoreline to the oil-producing Caspian Sea
and its only all-weather Caspian port at Makhachkala. It provides the
crucial pipeline links from Azerbaijan, where Russia maintains important
oil interests. Geographically placed between Chechnya and the Caspian and
Azerbaijan, it has served as a containing buffer, controlling the Chechens'
access to the outside world.
For Chechnya, which won its freedom from Russian rule but has suffered
drastically from the consequent economic isolation, Dagestan offers the way
out to prosperity. During the war Dagestan, and in particular the Botlikh
region, became a conduit for weapons and men into and out of Chechnya.
Hundreds of wounded Chechen fighters were spirited over the mountain roads
to Azerbaijan for treatment. Now the routes offer the promise of trade,
jobs and economic survival.
There is much more than economics driving this confrontation, though. The
men leading the incursion into Dagestan are determined revolutionaries, who
want to see the whole Caucasus region free from Russian rule. They regard
much of Dagestan as theirs by right, harking back to the Islamic state that
resisted Russian conquest for so long in the last century. The Dagestanis
they see as their Muslim brothers, but those who are loyal to Moscow they
see as their enemies.
There are few people in Dagestan who actively support independence from
Russia, yet discontent with Moscow runs deep. Since the war in Chechnya,
the republic has suffered drastic economic decline and instability.
Unemployment is the highest in all of Russia, and like all people from the
Caucasus, the Dagestanis suffer ethnic discrimination in Russia. Their
predicament leaves them susceptible to ideas of radical Islam, or even
separatism, according to Enver Kisriyev, a Dagestani sociologist.
Mukhu Gumbatovich Aliyev, chairman of the People's Assembly of Dagestan,
said in Moscow on Tuesday that many polls have shown that more than 90
percent of the people in Dagestan think they remain part of Russia. He is a
critic of Moscow's war in Chechnya, but says the guerrillas' incursions
into Dagestan have outraged Dagestanis.
"Our people are really incensed," Aliyev said. "They are demanding that
possession of firearms be legalized. We are setting up companies formed by
local people in each district of Dagestan. We are setting up these
detachments so that they could defend their districts."
Shamil Basayev, the Chechen guerrilla commander who led his troops in the
fiercest fighting of the war and executed the hostage raid on the southern
Russian town of Budyonnovsk in which nearly 150 people died before Prime
Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin began negotiations that led to the release
of hostages and the opening of serious peace talks to try to end the
secessionist war in Chechnya, is the driving force behind the latest
He has had Dagestan in his sights for more than a year now. After six
months as Chechen prime minister last year, he resigned to set up a formal
movement called the Congress of the Peoples of Chechnya and Dagestan and
head its "peacekeeping force."
"The aim is the union of Dagestan and Chechnya," he said in an extended
interview last year. Asked if that meant removing Dagestan from Russian
jurisdiction, he answered, "Inshallah," which means "God willing." He said
that he hoped Dagestan would win independence without recourse to war, but
that there were many Dagestanis willing to fight and he was prepared to
help them. "I am helping Dagestan and will help anyone who is against
Russia," he said.
At 34, Basayev is a fierce fighter with a clear political aim. For many
years he has argued that the world is witnessing the collapse of the
Russian empire and its dominance of the North Caucasus region. He was
always confident that Russia would withdraw from Chechnya and predicts the
same for Dagestan.
"Dagestan will be independent, there is no doubt," he said. "Russia will
not have a presence in the North Caucasus, it will simply leave. Probably
without war or bloodshed, it will collapse. Our job will be to prevent
Basayev is supported and possibly helped with funds by a commander known by
his nom de guerre, Khattab, who arrived in Chechnya in early 1995 to join
the fight against Russia. Khattab keeps his origins secret, but is thought
to be from Jordan or Saudi Arabia and a follower of Wahhabism, the
conservative sect of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia.
He fought with the rebels against the Soviet Army in Afghanistan but has
since made his home in Chechnya and married a Dagestani. Wounded three
times in Chechnya, he is very close to Basayev and has been training young
Chechen and Dagestani fighters. His agenda, he says, is to fight the
Russians and bring Islamic rule once more to the North Caucasus.
Khattab is reticent about his connections with other Wahhabi organizations
around the world and about his long-term aims. Yet he is part of a growing
presence of Wahhabis in the Caucasus, in particular in Dagestan and
Chechnya. Their version of Islam is strict and militant, and much of it
alien to the Caucasus. Not all Wahhabis advocate armed intervention; some
are living peacefully in other Dagestani villages. But militant Wahhabis
are finding fertile ground among the young, particularly when tempted by
While Basayev defends Khattab fiercely as a brother who spilt his blood for
Chechnya, he has spoken against Wahhabism, or extreme Islam, for Chechnya.
Basayev is a practising Muslim. Unlike the Wahhabis who are against the
presence of infidels in a Muslim country, Basayev says that that he would
welcome the presence of NATO in the Caucasus and Chechnya.
The combination of Basayev and Khattab makes the Russian leadership see
red. While Moscow can tolerate the moderate Chechen President, Aslan
Maskhadov, it regards Mr Basayev as a terrorist and a radical with whom it
cannot negotiate, and Khattab as a dangerous foreign mercenary.
The authorities are not even considering negotiating with them over their
occupation of several villages in Dagestan, Zagir Arukhov, the deputy
minister of Nationalities in Dagestan, said in a phone interview. "We will
not go to negotiate. They are bandits and we see this action as an
aggression and occupation of Dagestan." So, as in Chechnya, they are
resorting to helicopters and artillery to attack the rebels.
For the people of Dagestan, the consequences could be long and terrible.
Kisriyev, the sociologist, roundly condemned the Russian action, which he
says will only bring destruction and impoverishment for the local people
and throw them into the arms of the rebels.
"People do not want war but the entire people will gradually be drawn in,
as happened in Chechnya," he said.
Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company
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