Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 195

The top Muslim cleric of the Caucasus, Sheik ul-Islam Allahshukur Pashazade, has accused the Russian government and military of waging a war of extermination against the Chechen people and preparing to restore control over the countries of the South Caucasus. His step is the first of its kind by any senior official Muslim authority. Pashazade, who is an Azeri and is based in Baku, heads the Spiritual Board of the Muslims in the Caucasus, the supreme religious authority for the entire region. He personifies the official clerical establishment, in uninterrupted control of religious affairs since the Soviet era, working closely with the state, accepting the secular orientation of Azerbaijan and other countries and strongly opposing the penetration of fundamentalism from abroad–not least because the fundamentalist groups challenge the clerical establishment’s own authority.

Based on such credentials, Pashazade issued an open message to Russian President Boris Yeltsin on October 19, assailing the Russian authorities for “turning the Russian people and the peoples of the North Caucasus into hostages to political intrigues, unleashing a new war in the Caucasus and using the anti-terrorist struggle as a cover for destroying the Chechen people.” Pashazade describes that justification as “hypocrisy, since Moscow itself has for decades sponsored and inspired terrorist groups of all types.” He observes that Russia’s conduct of the war can only “erase any goodwill toward Russia from human hearts, leaving in its place only fear, contempt and mistrust.” Pashazade expresses concern that Azerbaijan or Georgia might become the next targets of the Russian military, “based on groundless accusations that these two countries support anti-Russian extremists.”

Russia’s ambassador to Azerbaijan, Aleksandr Blokhin, appeared yesterday at the Spiritual Board for a discussion with Pashazade behind closed doors, following which Pashazade reaffirmed his standpoint in a press interview. Considering Pashazade’s official position and record, the message to Yeltsin most likely reflects the views and concerns of the leadership of Azerbaijan (Turan, AP, October 19-20).

Moscow has recently done a great deal to stoke such concerns in the South Caucasus. At the public level, Russian civilian, military and intelligence officials have been charging that Georgia and Azerbaijan passively tolerate the transit of foreign gunmen and supplies to anti-Russian forces in the North Caucasus. Stories to this effect, often bearing the stamp of Russian intelligence agencies, pervade the Moscow media (see the Monitor, September 21, October 5-6).

Barely below the public level, the Russian government and military have a number of aims in mind. First, to obtain Georgian consent for stationing Russian border troops at least on the Georgian side of the Georgian-Russian border sector opposite Chechnya. Second, to stop the negotiations on the removal of Russian army and airforce bases from Georgia, which negotiations had in any case hardly begun. Third, to arm-twist Georgia into ceding to Russia a part of the Georgian conventional arms quotas under the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty. Fourth, to extract the consent of Georgia and Azerbaijan to the increase of Russian military forces on the two countries’ borders, well in excess of the CFE treaty’s ceilings. Fifth, to pressure Azerbaijan into approving, and investing in, the Baku-Novorossiisk oil pipeline, a project that Moscow has suddenly revived as its alternative to the Baku-Ceyhan project. Sixth, to promote a new collective security scheme at the regional level, dubbed “Greater Caucasus security space,” encompassing the North Caucasus and the South Caucasus and designed to sever Georgia’s and Azerbaijan’s incipient security ties with the West. These recent steps by Moscow suggest that a consolidation of its control over Chechnya and Dagestan is likely to be followed by stronger pressures upon Georgia and Azerbaijan.