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Obituary: Viktor Polyanichko

Viktor Petrovich Polyanichko, politician: born Rostov-on-Don, Russia 9 March 1937; died Tarskoye, North Ossetia 1 August 1993.

VIKTOR POLYANICHKO - at the time of his death Boris Yeltsin's special envoy in the troubled North Ossetia-Ingushetia region in the North Caucasus - was acknowledged by admirers and detractors alike to be tough and uncompromising. His violent death at the hands of one or other ethnic group has brought grim satisfaction especially to the Armenians, who remember with bitterness his brutal deportations of whole Armenian villages in Nagorno-Karabakh in summer 1991. Last year the Armenian- dominated people's court in Nagorno- Karabakh began a criminal case against him.

Polyanichko was born in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don in 1937. He started work as a fitter before joining a local paper in the Moscow region. After three years in the army he began his upward course through the ranks of the Komsomol - a usual career path for budding Communist Party officials. By the early Sixties he was First Secretary of the Communist Youth League in the Urals town of Orsk, before being picked to study at Moscow State University. He graduated in 1962 and from 1964 worked in the Komsomol Central Committee apparatus. Next year he was transferred to Chelyabinsk, where he later switched from Komsomol to Communist Party work. In 1978 he returned to Moscow as an inspector in the propaganda department of the Communist Party Central Committee.

It was in the mid-1980s that Polyanichko's controversial career took off. In 1985 he was sent to Afghanistan as a leading 'special adviser' to Najibullah, becoming a cavalier of the Order of the Saur Revolution of the Republic of Afghanistan for his services. He played an active part in the brutal deportation of rebel Afghan villages, experience that he would later use in Nagorno-Karabakh.

He returned to the Soviet Union in 1988, taking up the post of Second Secretary of the Azerbaijani Communist Party - in effect Moscow's ruler in Baku. Conflict had already begun over Armenian demands for reunification of Karabakh with Armenia, and Polyanichko spent much of his time from January 1990 in the enclave as chairman of the Azerbaijani party committee for Nagorno-Karabkh. His duty was to suppress the demands of the majority Armenian population. Immediately on arrival he ordered the arrest of leading Armenians. He organised a campaign to deport Armenian villages, using Soviet troops and semi- official Azeri militias. And he devised the notorious 'Operation Ring', begun in April 1991 in the villages of Getashen and Martunashen and continued throughout the summer.

Raids followed the Afghan pattern: first the villages were surrounded by troops of the 23rd Division of the Soviet Fourth Army. Then Azeri special forces, the dreaded OMON, moved in to drive out the inhabitants, in the process murdering, raping and stealing. In July 1991 I witnessed Polyanichko and the Azeri President, Ayaz Mutalibov, brazenly declare that the Armenians were leaving voluntarily; they denied all allegations of brutality. As questioning became difficult and Mutalibov waited for his deputy to reply, it was quite clear that Polyanichko was the one in charge.

For his role in the operation Polyanichko was sentenced to death by Armenian guerrilla groups. However, despite three attempts on his life in Karabakh, success eluded the guerrillas. Polyanichko likewise had his opponents among the Azeris, who remember him for organising the arrival of Soviet troops in Baku in January 1990 to put down the Popular Front revolt against Communist Party rule. For this he was reportedly sentenced to death by the Grey Wolves, an Azeri paramilitary group.

Following the failure of the August 1991 coup attempt in Moscow, Polyanichko was removed from his post. He spent the next year and a half out of the limelight, before suddenly being appointed by President Yeltsin as the fifth temporary administrator of North Ossetia and neighbouring Ingushetia. Conflict had broken out between the Ossetians and Ingushetians last year, and martial law was declared in November. Polyanichko's appointment - which came with the rank of deputy prime minister - was made on 28 June (after more than 20 others had refused the post) and was widely condemned among the Russian intelligentsia. 'Wherever Polyanichko is,' said one Russian MP, 'there is blood.' He had barely started his new work before blood was shed. This time it was his own.