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Thomas Goltz

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Thomas Goltz (b. 1954) is an American author and journalist best known for his accounts of conflict in the Caucasus region during the 1990s.

When speaking to a mostly Azeri audience in March, 2009, Goltz said:

By building a forward-looking democracy, you will be able to let the garlic-growing Armenians beg to join you [Azerbaijan].

LETTER FROM EURASIA: THE HIDDEN RUSSIAN HAND by Thomas Goltz

There is not a civil war or separatist conflict in the former Soviet Union without them. They fight alongside Armenians against Azeris in Nagorno-Karabakh and fly bombing missions for Abkhaz rebels in the war against Georgia; they openly side with the conservative forces in Tajikistan against the independence-minded Islamists, and join their own ethnic kin against the state of Moldova. They are the Russians, or some of them-- representatives of the former Soviet armed forces who are now being encouraged, or or- dered, to stir the political pot in the newly independent states along the frontier of the erstwhile Soviet empire. In those states that are reluctant to join the Commonwealth of Inde- pendent States (CIS), the Russians have been especially busy. Why Russia or some Russians are interfering in the affairs of the newly independent states is dear. No colonial power, from Darius to de Gaulle, has ever voluntarily and peacefully re- linquished its previous sphere of influence, and the crumbling of the Russian-led Soviet empire is yet another ease of painful decolonization. But unlike other great powers that have claimed the prerogative of meddling in client states (and especially those states that no longer wish to be clients), the Russian policy appears to be based on the tacit threat of dismember- ment of those states that wish to leave Mos- cow's orbit. That is effected by promoting the concept of self-determination of local minorities at the expense of the territorial integrity of existing states.

Such concerns are more than the familiar paranoia about the dark hand of the "center" shared by many in the former LTSSR. That is made evident by reviewing a series of specific events and drawing conclusions from general patterns of Russian behavior. The most celebrated case of that tactic is the increasingly bloody conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over control of the Nagorno (Mountainous) Karabakh Autonomous Region in Azerbaijan. The majority Armenians an- nounced their intention to secede in 1988, but it was only in the post-Soviet period that the conflict became synonymous with ethnic blood- shed and Russian manipulation. The same theme has been picked up in Georgia (South Ossetia and Abkhazia) and in Moldova (the Trans-Dniester region). It seems destined to worsen tensions with Ukraine ff and when enough Crimean Tatars return to the disputed strategic peninsula, now part of Ukraine. Russian minorities in neighboring states are also potential points of conflict. On July 16--17, 1993, local authorities in Narva and Sillanae in northeast Estonia conducted a referendum on whether the region should become "autono- mous." Ninety-eight per cent of those vot- ing--a little more than half of the local popula- tion---supported autonomy; the government called the vote unconstitutional. Similar rum- blings are coming out of eastern Ukraine. Few want to consider what might happen if the large Russian population in Kazakhstan starts to sue for its own right of self-determination, though some wags have already come up with a term to describe it: the "Texas Solution," in memory of the brave freedom fighters who died in the Alamo, that chapel-fortress outside San Antonio, so that Texas, then part of Mexi- co, might be free to be annexed to the United States. A foretaste of this dangerous state of affairs came in Moldova in the spring of 1992, when talk of reuniting Moldova and Romania was met by secessionary moves by the Russian minority in the Trans-Dniester region. When Moldovan government forces were sent to the area, they found themselves squaring off not only against separatist local Russians, but also gainst dements of the Soviet-Russian 14th Army, fortified by unknown numbers of Cos- sacks from various parts of Russia itself. The participation of the Cossacks was partic- ularly interesting. This warrior dass of Rus- siam, celebrated in nineteenth-century prose and verse as the thin edge of Russian imperial- ism in the Caucasus and Central Asia, has its American counterparts in such frontiersmen as William Travis, Jim Bowie, and Davy Crockett, who spearheaded American expansion into the Southwest until their demise at the Alamo. The reemergence of such a conveniently uncontrol- lable group of freebooters in the sundry con- tticts along the old Soviet periphery appears to be a modern variation on an old imperial theme. That a Russian military presence in the suc- cessor states continues is no secret. In some, like the Central Asia republics, Russian soldiers are officially accepted as part of the standing mutual defense pact of the cls. An unspoken reason for the presence of the Russian troops and their equipment is for rapid deployment on behalf of unpopular neocommunist regimes, like that in Tajikistan. There, the "democratic-Islamist" coalition that had driven the old communist regime out of Dushanbe was in turn ousted by the "legiti- mate" head of state, Imamali Rakhmanov, who was elected chairman of the Supreme Soviet by the neocommunist parliament in exile in No- vember 1992. Lacking its own means, Rakh- manov's government called on Russian and Uzbek troops to deal with the rebels, thus ending the maverick CemTal Asian state's pre- tensions of breaking free from the cIs. The Russian involvement continues. In mid July 1993, for example, Moscow sent more troops to Tajikistan to protect "compatriots," such as border guards who were coming under fire from refugee Tajiks in neighboring Afghani- stan. In the Baltic states, the situation is different: The governments do not welcome the former Soviet troops at all; they impose real limits on Baltic sovereignty. A timetable for withdrawal of the Russian troops from Lithuania was agreed upon in 1992, but Moscow has been slow in implementing it Although a few proto- cols have been signed, no official agreement has been reached with the other two Baltic states. Two reasons are usually given: lack of housing for returning troops and the perceived need to protect ethnic Russians in the post-Soviet dias- pora against potential violence at the hands of xenophobic Balm. Another interpretation, related both to the lack of housing and to the desire to protect one's kin, is Moscow's concern that returning troops might become the core of a brown-shirt movement that could threaten Boris Yeltsin's new democratic order. Keeping them busy on the fringes of the erstwhile empire is as good a way as any to prevent millions of disgruntled men from reaching critical mass on the streets of Russian cities. Cau~a~n Ouest/ans It is in the former Soviet republics of the Caucasus that the role of the Russian military (and thus Russian influence) remains the most pronounced. Two of the three states in this vital crossroads region--Azerbaijan and Geor- gia~have never ratified membership in the cIs, declaring that the organization is merely a new name for the Russian-dominated USSR of which they want no part. The third state, Armenia, is a signatory member of all the Os treaties, and has not shown the slightest inclination to assert its independence from Moscow. There are, of course, historical reasons for the difference in attitudes toward Russia. Land- locked, small, and with its share of national disasters to recall, Armenia has seen Moscow as a guarantor of its very existence. It has thus been more willing to cooperate with Mos- cow-even to the extent of playing Moscow's regional proxy against the other two Caucasian states. Also, it is significant that Armenia be- came perhaps the most homogeneous former Soviet republic after the majority of its Muslim Azeris and Kurds departed, fearing for their safety. Consequently, it has become virtually immune from separatist tendenei~ unlike the multiethnic societies of Azerbaijan and Georgia, which are ripe for outside manipulation through the astute implementation of the old saw, divide and rule. Aware of that, both Georgia and Azerbaijan have felt a deep antipathy toward Moscow as a colonial power, a memory most recently rekin- dled by the brute force used m put down na- tionalist movements in the fading days of the USSR. The crackdowns in Tbilisi in April 1989 and in Baku in January 1990 did not dispel the renascent nationalistic consciousness; they only heightened it. As a result, first Georgia and then Azerbaijan became avant-garde states in the struggle to exit Moscow's sphere of influ- ence--and thus the prime targets of a Russian "object lesson" designed to teach other states how to stay in line. As with Russia's past allies in the Warsaw Pact and with the other former Soviet repub- lics, one of the most contentious issues between Moscow and Tbilisi and Baku is over the de- mand that all Russian troops on their sovereign territories be withdrawn. In Georgia, the Rus- sians have proved reluctant to go, citing that "vital strategic interests" dictate a continued Russian presence in Black Sea bases and else- where in the country. Those same bases sup- plied the weapons used by Tengiz Kitovani's "national guard," which overthrew the maverick president Zviad Gamsakhurdia in January 1992. They are still used as supply depots for other armed groups in the country that have refused to fully integrate themselves into the national army--much to the chagrin and worry of Gam- sakhurdia's successor, Eduard Shevardnadze. Shevardnadze, though a former Soviet foreign minister, has not proved as compliant to Mos- cow as many believed (or feared) he would be. Azerbaijan, meanwhile, was unique among the former Soviet republics: It actually succeed- ed in getting the Russians out. But their final withdrawal on May 24, 1993, from the city of Ganje--ahead of schedule---seems to have been the trigger for an army mutiny, which evolved into a successful June 1993 putsch against the nationalist government of President Abulfez Elchibey. That led to Elchibey's replacement with a regime headed by the former KGB gen- eral, Azerbaijani Communist party boss, and onetime Soviet Politburo member Heydar Although Aliyev, who now claims m be re- born as an Azeri patriot and devotee of demo- cratic pluralism and the free market, has not yet invited the Russians back into Azerbaijan, there is no question that the shrill anti-Russian (and pro-Turkish) line taken by Elchibey is out of favor. Russian interests in Azerbaijan will now be taken carefully int, account--with a pre- sumed quid pro quo that Moscow's pro-Arme- nian line in the undeclared war between Arme- nia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh will end. That prospect obviously concerns Arme- nia, which had worked its way even tighter into the Russian embrace in the post-Soviet period in exchange for militaty and intelligence assistance. Although publicly jubilant at the demise of the nationalistic Elchibey regime, Armenian leaders at the highest level now pri- vately express their concern that the victory of Armenian arms in the five-year-old Karabakh conflict may be only a Pyrrhic one if Russia now turns off the spigot of assistance to Yer- evan (and the Karabakh capital of Stepanakert) and turns it on for Baku. Freebooters in Karabakh Russian meddling across the old Soviet southern tier is thus macro and micro, and it is in the latter area that it is most ugly and ob- scure. Finding a smoking gun is difficult, though there are bullet casings lying all around. The most celebrated case to date is that of six Russian nationals who were picked up by Azerbaijani security forces while on a surveil- lance mission in Karabakh in September 1992. Five of the six were condemned to death by a military tribunal in April 1993 on charges of serving as mercenaries, while the sixth was given a prison term of 15 years. Beyond the grim details of their activities in the field, the case of the six deserves particular attention because of one curious fact: The self- admitted mercenaries, all Spetsnaz (special forc- es) men assigned m the Russian 7th Army in Armenia, were not listed as deserters from their unit until a year after they first went AWOL. During that interval, they killed for money, brought home and buried two dead comrades in Russia, took vacations with the profits of their trade, and returned to fight and kill some more before being captured. X~rhen, in October 1992, the chief military prosecutor in Azerbai- jan, Rovshan Aliev, contacted the Russian mili- tary prosecutor's office in Moscow as well as the regional military prosecutor's office for the Caucasus in Tbilisi about the status of the men, the initial response he received--in Decem- ber--stated that the six men were still at their posts in Yerevan, and that there was no deroga- tory information about them on record. Signifi- candy, the men were only officially listed as AWOL when they were sentenced, at which point Russia asked for their extradition so that they might stand trial back home on charges of desertion. In Russia, a political furor grew around the six mercenaries--both Russian president Boris Yeltsin and his arch-rival, Ruslan Khasbulatov, asked Azerbaijan for clemency, albeit without reference to the freebooting activities of the men. But the Russians have yet to answer the more important question: How can the Russian equivalent of Special Forces troops go AWOL for nearly a year without the knowledge of superiors? In other words, who sent the soldiers to someone else's war, and why? "We have no evidence and no means of obtaining any specific Russian orders dispatch- ing the men to go kill our people on the front," prosecutor Aliev admitted in an inter° view in his Balm office. "But as a citizen of what was once the Soviet Union, I can assure you that no Russian soldier could take the sort of extended absences from duty that these men took without some sort of collusion much high- er up. They are too base and they obey orders too well to do anything on their own initia- tive." In truth, the six men themselves are not very impressive. At a press conference held shortly after their capture in September 1992, they appeared more like skinny, pathetic kids than the prime specimens of invincible Russian Ram- bohood that have struck such terror in the hearts of the Azeris. They said they had noth- ing personal against the citizens of Azerbaijan, but rather had been tempted by cash bonuses offered by Armenians and were fighting in FOREIGN POLICY Karabakh for nothing less than the love of money. The personal histories of the six, too, seem identical: Sons of typical working-class homes scattered across the Russian steppe, they were all drafted in late 1991, just as the USSR was falling apart and morale in the former Soviet armed forces was at an all-time low. Desertions--especially by non-Russians---grew to an all-time high. I saw many such youths pass through Balm during the late fall of 1991 and spring of 1992, making their way from units in Karabakh to their homes in Kazakh- stan, Turkmenistan, and Ukraine. Finding a smoking gun is difficult, though there are bullet casings lying all around. But these six were Spet.maz, not deserters from their units in Karabakh; they had formed a new unit to fight there after having departed their usual barracks on the base of the Russian 7th Army in Yerevan. It is at that point that the connections become interesting but murky. According to the testimony of the six before and during their trial, their unit was command- ed by a Captain Katanja, reportedly a relative of Major General Nevorov, second in com- mand of the 7th Army. The 7th's chief then was General Theodor Rayut. Rayut is now in charge of all Russian forces based in the Cauca- sus; his headquarters are in Georgia--a republic currently beset by its own problems with "rogue" Russian soldiers. According to the trial testimony of the men, in the spring of 1992 Captain Katanja intro- duced the recruits to a Colonel Jena, a Russian Spetmaz officer who had served in the 366th Motorized Rifle Regiment that had been based in Stepanakert. Both Azerbaijan and Armenia accused that regiment of taking sides according to the political winds blowing from Moscow during the early days of the Karabakh conflict. The 366th was officially withdrawn from Kara- bakh after a massacre in the Karabakh town of Khodjali, on February 26, 1992, when up to 1,000 Azeri residents were killed and other Azeri civilians effectively cleansed from the disputed area. The Khodjali massacre was a turning point in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, marking the end of what had largely been a guerrilla struggle between inimical neighbors and the beginning of something more like a conven- tional war between armies. But many points remain unanswered---especially the role of the 366th. A half-Armenian, half-German photog- rapher traveling with Armenian units on patrol the night of February 25-26, 1992, told me that the participation of dozens of tanks and armored personnel carriers (APCs) of the 366th in the attack on Khodjali was a surprise, if a welcome one for the Armenians; two Turkmen deserters from the 366th I interviewed, who escaped to the Azeri town of Agdam with survi- vors from Khodjali, likewise confirmed that their former unit spearheaded the attack. Even more bizarre was the grisly aftermath, when fleeing civilians were cut down and then mutilated in the no-man's land between the two sides. The Azeris, quite naturally, accused the Armenian forces of perpetrating a massacre; the Armenians replied that their forces had merely flushed the Azeris out of Karabakh and that the subsequent massacre of civilians must have occurred at the hands of the Azeris them- selves. While horrific brutality and the cynical sacrifice of one's own people by both sides are hardly strangers to the Karabakh conflict, there is a third possibility: that the massacres and mutilations in the no-man's land were carried out by others determined to make Khodjali a point of no return in the escalation of hatred between the two peoples. The evidence for that interpretation is thin, but tantalizing: Two days after the massacre, Azerbaijani authorities managed to acquire a Russian military helicopter to ferry internation- al journalists to the killing grounds. Before they could set down among hillocks littered with dead bodies, they were engaged by another military helicopter and driven away under fire. Neither the Azerbaijani nor the Armenian forces operating in the area were known to control such aircraft at the time. So what is left is the strange conclusion that Russians were shooting at--or playing with--other Russians in the sky, possibly to prevent the passengers aboard the first craft from observing the activi- ties of the rogue Russians on the ground. After Khodjali, the 366th was officially re- moved from Karabakh, but many of its soldiers and officers--as well as most of its equip- ment--stayed behind.