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Caucasus Report: April 11, 2006

11 April 2006, Volume 9, Number 12

GEORGIA'S PARLIAMENTARY OPPOSITION CHALLENGES LEADERSHIP. Following several days of deliberations, three opposition parliament factions -- the Democratic Front comprising the Conservative and Republican parties, the New Conservatives (aka New Right Wing), and the Industrialists -- made public on April 7 a list of conditions for ending the boycott of parliamentary proceedings they declared on March 31. Representatives of the majority United National Movement-Democrats have responded with an all-out campaign to drive a wedge between the various boycotting factions and induce them to abandon that boycott -- even though the dissenters between them account for only 36 of the 224 parliament mandates, and their absence will therefore have only minimal impact on day-to-day parliamentary proceedings. The opposition deputies will continue, however, to participate in the work of parliament committees.

The catalyst for the opposition boycott was the 31 March decision by the parliament majority to suspend the mandate of opposition deputy Valeri Gelashvili (Republican) on the grounds that parliamentarians are not permitted to engage in business activities. Gelashvili, a wealthy businessman, came under pressure from Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava in late March after a fire destroyed a school building in Tbilisi that Gelashvili hoped to acquire in order to construct a new school building on the same site (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 21 and April 3, 2006). Detailed lists published in various newspapers in recent weeks of businesses allegedly owned by government ministers and deputies from the majority United National Movement-Democrats faction suggest that the nominal ban on parliamentarians engaging in commercial activity is honored more in the breach than the observance. In that light, some might view the decision to strip Gelashvili of his deputy's mandate as vindictive or hypocritical, or both.

The opposition conditions for ending their boycott are: changes to the election law that would give the opposition representation on election commissions and guarantee the secrecy of the ballot; the introduction of direct elections for the post of mayor of Tbilisi and other major cities; the resignation of Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili; the dismantling of the Interior Ministry's so-called "death squads"; and the creation of a special parliamentary commission to investigate crimes those death squads are suspected of having committed.

Even while the three factions were hammering out their demands last week, parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze held separate talks with Industrialist faction leader Zurab Tkemaladze on April 5 and with Pikria Chikhradze of the New Rightists the following day in a fruitless attempt to persuade them to abandon the boycott. The Democratic Front declined to meet with Burdjanadze on the grounds that she is President Mikheil Saakashvili's "puppet," according to "The Messenger" on April 6.

The boycott is not the first time the opposition groups in question have formed a tactical alliance: the Conservative Party, the Right-Wing opposition, the Tavisupleba (Liberty) movement, and the extra-parliamentary Labor Party concluded a formal agreement last summer to field a single candidate in each of five parliament by-elections on October 1 (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," August 26, 2005). Then on March 3, representatives of the New Rightists, the Conservative Party, the Republican Party, and the Labor Party, vowed to coordinate their policies with regard to what Republican Party leader Davit Usupashvili termed "certain problematic issues," according to Civil Georgia on March 4. At that time, the primary focus of opposition was the spontaneous protests by thousands of Georgian traders against new legislation requiring them to acquire and install cash registers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 2, 10, and 16, 2006), and the four parties between them succeeded in mobilizing between 5,000-7,000 people in Tbilisi on March 30 to protest that requirement, and also the January killing, apparently at the behest of senior Interior Ministry personnel, of banker Sandro Girgvliani and the death of seven inmates in fighting in a Tbilisi prison on March 27 (see "End Note," "RFE/RL Newsline," March 30, 2005).

This opposition tactical alliance is, however, tenuous, as evidenced by the New Rightists' refusal to talk directly with the seven Industrialist parliamentarians, who defected from the New Rightists in February to form their own parliament faction. (The Democratic Front acted as a go-between in those talks, according to Civil Georgia on April 6.) So why, in that case, have the Georgian authorities reacted so nervously and launched an all-out bid to undermine the boycott, especially as the number of deputies involved is so small that it will have only minimal impact? Why not instead emulate the ruling Armenian coalition, which for two years was content to let the opposition parliament deputies who walked out of the parliament chamber in early February 2004 simply cool their heels and stew in their own juice?

There are several possible explanations. First, the Georgian leadership is clearly on the defensive in the wake of the March prison disturbance. In a televised address on April 9, Saakashvili appealed to all political parties to set aside their ambitions and unite to work for the "common goal" of building a prosperous and democratic state. Second, the conditions the opposition set for abandoning its boycott were widely known even before they were formally adopted on April 7. Some of those demands were obvious nonstarters: President Saakashvili has repeatedly made it clear he will not dismiss Interior Minister Merabishvili. Indeed he cannot risk doing so: he may some day need Merabishvili's help to rein in Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili. Moreover, Caucasus Press on April 7 quoted Gogi Topadze, leader of the Industry Will Save Georgia party, as pointing out that the firing of another government minister would bring the total number of dismissals to six, or one-third of the total, which would necessitate the resignation of the entire cabinet. On the other hand, the Georgian leadership could find itself in an uncomfortable situation should the Council of Europe or the OSCE express support for the opposition's demands for representation on election commissions and that city mayors be democratically elected, rather than appointed by fiat. Therefore, the Georgian leadership's anxiety may well have been prompted not by the prospect of a parliamentary boycott per se, but by the implications of being publicly presented with a list of conditions for lifting it. And third, opinion polls suggest that Saakashvili's popularity has eroded to the point that if a presidential election was held now, he would not win the required 50 percent plus one vote required for a first round victory (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 10, 2006).

In a trenchant analysis of the Georgian political situation published last summer (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," September 10,2005), commentator Ghia Nodia made two crucial points that are relevant to the current standoff. He noted that the Georgian opposition is weak not only because it is divided and has few parliament mandates, but because it lacks popular leaders and ideas capable of mobilizing the population at large. Consequently, Nodia continued, the opposition pins its hopes on, and seeks to capitalize on, growing public dissatisfaction with government policy -- which is precisely what it is seeking to do now. And second, Nodia pointed to a "communication breakdown" within the political elite in which government and opposition "simply do not speak to each other any more," with politicians instead engaging in "monologues" that frequently stoop to the realm of personal insults. The opposition's boycott of parliament, in tandem with its unacceptable demands for shelving that boycott, is likely to strengthen, rather than undercut, that absolutist approach. (Liz Fuller)

THE GRAPES OF WRATH. Georgian officials, first and foremost President Saakashvili, reacted with outraged denials to Russian explanations that the recent ban imposed on the import of Georgian wine was necessitated by the huge volume of counterfeit Georgian wine available in Russia. But some Georgian wine producers have admitted that the problem does indeed exist: Reuters on October 4, 2005, quoted an official from Georgian Wine and Spirits, the country's largest producer, as saying that Georgia can produce a maximum 900,000 bottles of Khvanchkara red annually, but 15 million bottles are sold in Russia. How much of that "wine without grapes" originates in Georgia, and how much is manufactured in Russia from raw alcohol, food coloring, and chemical additives is, however, impossible to calculate.

Even before the announcement of the Russian import ban, some Georgian grape growers were ready to uproot their vineyards and switch to other, more lucrative crops such as wheat, according to the same Reuters report. In September 2004, farmers from Dedoplistsqaro in eastern Georgia gathered outside the state chancellery in Tbilisi to protest that state-owned wineries were paying them only 30 tetris ($0.16) per kilogram of grapes rather than the promised 40 tetris. Privately owned wineries reportedly offered even lower prices. Eastern Georgia produces mostly white grapes, whereas the main export market is for red wine. The situation reportedly improved somewhat in 2005, despite a far larger harvest (250,000 tons compared with 150,000 in 2004), but many farmers still had problems finding buyers.

Meeting with grape producers in Georgia's eastern Kakheti region on April 5, President Saakashvili promised them government support (in the form of fertilizers, tractors, and more irrigation water, not cash). But among the measures Saakashvili proposed the following day to overcome the problems created by the Russian ban was one that could create further hardship for farmers in the short-term, and irreparable damage to bio-diversity in the long-term. He proposed providing farmers with vines of the grape varieties currently "fashionable" in Europe, apparently in the hope that producing cut-price Chardonnay and Merlot could help Georgia expand into a putative alternative market encompassing Ukraine, the Baltic states and Kazakhstan. The large-scale replacement of native grape types unique to Georgia would, however, only compound the damage inflicted to viticulture in the former USSR by then CPSU General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev's ill-fated anti-alcohol campaign in the late 1980s, during which thousands of hectares of vineyards were destroyed. (Liz Fuller)

EUROPEAN SOCCER BODY PONDERS VENUES FOR ARMENIA-AZERBAIJAN MATCHES. European football's governing body would like Armenia's and Azerbaijan's national teams to play each other in their respective capitals but may opt for neutral venues for those matches for security reasons, UEFA's chief executive Lars-Christer Olsson told journalists in Yerevan on April 4. The two squads will have to face each other for the first time in their short history after being drawn into the same Group A of the qualifying competition for the 2008 European football championship. The UEFA draw created a logistical nightmare for the football federations of the two South Caucasus states that remain in a state of war over Nagorno-Karabakh.

The Armenian Football Federation, backed by Armenia's government, wants the two fixtures, which are scheduled for September 2007, to be played in Baku and Yerevan. But the corresponding Azerbaijani body is categorically against this, saying that Azerbaijan cannot guarantee the security of Armenian players and coaching staff and that the games should therefore take place in third countries. They also say that the very fact of Armenians arriving in Azerbaijan would be an affront to the memory of Azerbaijanis killed during the Karabakh conflict.

Speaking to reporters on April 4, the second day of his visit to Yerevan, Olsson said holding the politically charged matches in the Armenian and Azerbaijani capitals could in fact contribute to a peaceful resolution of the conflict. "We have a special group in our executive committee which will look into the matter," Olsson said. "They will visit Armenia and Azerbaijan in the beginning of May and try to see if we can find a solution." "Perhaps through the matches between Azerbaijan and Armenia we could make the first step in the peace process," he added.

"Armenia is ready to host the game with Azerbaijan and guarantee the security of its players," the Armenian Football Federation chairman, Ruben Hayrapetian, reiterated for his part. "We are also ready to travel to Azerbaijan and play there. However, the Azerbaijanis are still refusing to receive us." Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian was similarly quoted by the Russian daily "Vremya novostei" on April 7 as affirming that Yerevan is willing and able to guarantee the security of the Azerbaijani national team.

The unresolved conflict has already thwarted a major game between the top football clubs of Armenia and Azerbaijan as recently as January 2006. Neftchi Baku and Pyunik Yerevan were due to play each other in the semi-finals of the annual CIS Cup held in Moscow. The Armenian team, which is sponsored by Hayrapetian, unexpectedly pulled out of the game, citing the Russian organizers' failure to guarantee the security of its players. The move was widely denounced by Armenian soccer fans and media. (Misak Krkyasharian)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "The weaker democracy in a country is, the more cars there are [on the streets] worth $40,000 and more." Commentary in the Armenian opposition daily "Haykakan zhamanak," March 24, 2006.

"The Saakashvili regime wants a small victorious war [in South Ossetia]." -- Former Georgian National Security Minister Igor Giorgadze, interviewed in "Moskovsky komsomolets," No. 60, March 22, 2006.