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Caucasus Report: January 7, 2005

7 January 2005, Volume 8, Number 1

CHERKESS OPPOSE MERGING ADYGEI REPUBLIC, KRASNODAR KRAI. In yet another sign that President Vladimir Putin's plan to combine Russia's federal units faces an uphill battle, the Cherkess Congress -- a public organization that represents the various Circassian peoples in the northern Caucasus -- said in late December that it will seek to involve its Middle East diasporas to oppose combining the Adygei Republic and Krasnodar Krai. Cherkess Congress Chairman Murat Berzegov told the Regnum news agency on 31 December that the group plans to appeal to the large Circassian communities in Turkey, Jordan, and the Middle East to help block a move that would further undermine the Circassian community in Russia. That community was nearly destroyed during the tsarist conquest of the North Caucasus, a process that lead to the expulsion of several hundred thousand Circassians in the middle of the 19th century. And it was further threatened when Josef Stalin not only divided the remaining Circassians into a number of different ethnic groups but also repressed many of them.

The descendents of those expelled in the 19th century, the Circassians of the Middle East -- who now number more than 1 million -- have maintained an active interest in their homelands and continue to occupy influential positions in the militaries and security agencies of the countries in which they now live. These Circassians abroad, Berzegov suggested, can be counted on to speak out in support of the internationally recognized principle of the right of peoples to national self-determination and against any plans to eliminate the Adygei Republic, one of the major institutional supports for the continued existence of the Circassian nation.

Another participant in the Cherkess Congress told the Russian news agency that Krasnodar officials should remember that any plans to unite the two federal units would require the redrawing of borders so as to include besides the Adygei Republic the Shapsug national region, which existed from 1924 to 1940. That would give the Adygei an outlet to the sea, this Cherkess representative said. But taking that step would almost certainly have a domino effect, leading various other Circassian groups to seek unity and other nationalities there to demand changes as well. Such demands would create political nightmares for those who hope to gain from redrawing borders.

The idea of combining the Adygei Republic and Krasnodar Krai has been on the table for several years. President Putin has listed it as one of the steps in his plans to reduce the number of units within the Russian Federation. But the Adygei, like their fellow Circassians in Russia -- the Kabardinians, the Cherkess, the Abaza, and the Shapsugs -- have opposed it.

The current flap began on 29 December when Krasnodar Krai Governor Aleksandr Tkachev told journalists that he fully backs the idea and will work to implement it. That infuriated the Adygei and their Circassian allies, but it also led them to wonder just why Tkachev made the statement when and how he did. Azamat Borus, a deputy in the Adygei State Council, said that Tkachev's remarks might not have been entirely serious because the Krasnodar governor knows how difficult unification would be. He noted that Tkachev's staff did not rush to confirm his remarks. And he added that Tkachev might have wanted to curry favor in Moscow at the cost of spoiling the holidays for the Adygei.

Regardless of what Tkachev's intentions were, his remarks and the immediate Circassian response to them are an indication of just how finely balanced interethnic relations now are in the northern Caucasus and how any incautious move will almost certainly not only further exacerbate national passions, but quite possibly spark new conflicts there. (Paul Goble)

POLL FINDS STRONG SUPPORT FOR ARMENIAN ENTRY INTO EU. Almost two in three Armenians believe that their country should eventually join the European Union in order to become democratic, secure and prosperous, according to a new opinion poll released on 21 December. Pollsters from the Armenian Center for National and International Studies (ACNIS), an independent think-tank, said 64 percent of some 2,000 people interviewed by them in recent weeks were firmly in favor of EU membership and only 11.8 percent were against. They said a concurrent survey of 100 political and policy experts found almost unanimous support for Armenia's accession to the expanding bloc.

The findings of the nationwide survey are in tune with a similar poll conducted in Yerevan in October by another private institution, Vox Populi. It suggested that as many as 72 percent of city residents believe, with varying degrees of conviction, that their country's future lies with the EU rather than the Russian-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

In the words of Stepan Safarian, a senior ACNIS analyst, public opinion in Armenia, traditionally sympathetic to Russia, appears to have undergone a pro-Western shift over the past year due to the "revolutions" in Georgia and Ukraine. "Armenians are quite pragmatic people," he told RFE/RL. "They probably think that if the EU was a bad place others would not be so keen to join it."

Safarian also claimed that Russia's hard bargain on debts owed by Armenia is losing it support among ordinary Armenians. "Sooner or later society will have to make a choice between one or another [foreign policy] direction," he said. "I believe that this choice will be in favor of the EU." Still, many people continue to think well of Russia, with just over half of those polled thinking that the latter will help Armenia gain EU membership. By contrast, 60 percent of the experts feel that the Russians will try to thwart it.

Public and expert opinions also differ markedly on Turkey's accession to the EU. ACNIS experts said 52 percent of ordinary respondents are opposed to Turkish membership, while 61 percent of experts say it would be good for Armenia.

Armenians also seem to realize that their possible EU entry is a long way off. More than two-thirds of them, according to the poll, believe that Armenia will not be ready to join the union for at least 10 years. (Anna Saghabalian)

SOME GEORGIAN JOURNALISTS STILL FEEL LESS EQUAL THAN OTHERS. While the new Georgian leadership that came to power in November 2003 has tackled many of the negative phenomena that characterized the Shevardnadze era, one sphere in which conditions have not improved markedly is journalism -- at least in the estimation of many journalists.

Within days of President Eduard Shevardnadze's ouster in November 2003, reprisals were reported against journalists and media outlets that were less than unequivocal in their approval of the regime change. And over the past year, the new leadership has on several occasions targeted individual journalists perceived as loyal to the previous regime, and editors who dare publicize instances of official corruption. It must be admitted, however, that pressure on and reprisals against independent journalists in Georgia are not on the same scale as, for example, the single-minded vindictiveness with which police and law courts seek to intimidate their counterparts in neighboring Azerbaijan.

Television is by far the most popular media in Georgia, as in most former Soviet republics, with the print medium reduced to Cinderella status, largely because of the impoverished population's limited spending power. Within weeks of Mikheil Saakashvili's election on 5 January as Georgia's new president, the independent television stations Imedi, Mze, and Rustavi-2 pulled popular late-night talk shows. Opposition Socialist faction head Irakli Mindeli told the parliamentary bureau on 9 February that the directors of the three broadcasters were warned that if they did not do so, they would "meet the same fate as" Mikhail Khodorkovskii, CEO of Russia's embattled oil giant Yukos, who was arrested in the fall of 2003 on charges of fraud and tax evasion. (Imedi is financed by Badri Patarkatsishvili, who was close to Shevardnadze; it and Mze are perceived as "opposition" outlets, while Rustavi-2, which backed Saakashvili during the November 2003 protests that culminated in Shevardnadze's ouster, is perceived as supportive of the new leadership.) Parliament duly set up a working group to investigate those allegations, but it failed to register any political pressure on the three stations, Caucasus Press reported on 24 February.

Two independent television stations have folded over the past year, however, while a third is in financial difficulties. In February, then Prosecutor General Irakli Okruashvili accused the Omega group owned by parliament deputy Zaza Okuashvili of evading excise payments totaling 12 million laris ($6.7 million) by counterfeiting excise stamps on smuggled cigarettes, a charge Okuashvili rejected as "absurd." The Omega group included the Iberia television company, the newspaper "Akhali epokha" and a news agency. Okruashvili incurred criticism from then Council of Europe Secretary-General Walter Schwimmer for having the building that housed Omega headquarters cordoned off by police who opened fire on 21 February at journalists employed by Omega who sought to enter the building. In May, a Tbilisi district court ruled that Iberia's property be returned to businessman Kakha Gagloshvili, from whom Okuashvili acquired the station.

In April, businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili unexpectedly announced the closure of his Metskhre Arkhi (Ninth Channel), which two months earlier won a tender for a 10-year, nationwide broadcasting license. Ivanishvili did not give any explanation for his decision. Seven months later, most of Mtskhre Arkhi's journalists had still not found alternative employment despite their acknowledged professionalism, according to the daily "Akhali taoba" on 22 November.

In mid-August, Nino Djangirashvili, general director of the independent television station Kavkazia, told a news conference that the authorities were seeking to close it on the grounds of unpaid debts of 14,000 laris for use of state-owned transmission facilities. Djangirashvili attributed that pressure to the authorities' reluctance to tolerate "a television company with an independent point of view."

The fate of Metskhre Arkhi might simply reflect the pragmatism of some Georgian businessmen who acquire, and then sell, media outlets as part of a larger business empire. But by virtue of television's domination of the media scene, private television stations can also become powerful political instruments. As noted above, Rustavi-2 for years served as the primary opposition media outlet, and played a major role in reporting on the attempted rigging of the 3 November 2003 parliamentary elections that served as the catalyst for the popular protests that culminated in Shevardadze's ouster. Yet in the months following the so-called Rose Revolution, Rustavi-2's popularity declined as it was increasingly perceived as the mouthpiece of the new leadership and a weapon in its campaign to denigrate influential survivors from the Shevardnadze era, including Patarkatsishvili. In early summer, Rustavi-2 owner Erosi Kitsmarishvili filed for bankruptcy in a Tbilisi court; but thanks in part to Saakashvili, who according to the daily "Alia" on 29 June argued that the "channel of the victorious" must not be allowed to disappear, the station succeeded in negotiating a deal under which its management is to pay off debts totaling 9 million laris ($5 million) over a period of 15-20 years.

That preferential treatment is in stark contrast to the reprisals meted out to journalists who persist in highlighting official corruption. In early May, Zurab Kachvlashvili, the editor of a local paper published in the eastern Georgian town of Telavi, was attacked by unknown assailants who warned him against continuing to publicize illegal activities by provincial Governor Petre Tsiskarishvili and Telavi administration head Gocha Mamatsashvili. In July, the English-language "Georgian Times" was harassed by state auditors after publishing an article that criticized Tbilisi city prosecutor Valerii Grigalashvili. Also in July, Revaz Okruashvili, editor of the Gori local newspaper "Sakhalkho gazeti" and the author of similar articles criticizing local bigwigs, was arrested after police apparently planted drugs on him during a search. Okruashvili was sentenced to three months' pretrial detention but subsequently released after agreeing to pay a fine.

Neither the closure of some independent television channels nor reprisals of the type described above have affected the popular perception, corroborated by international human rights watchdogs such as Freedom House, that the media in Georgia enjoy greater freedom than in most other former Soviet republics. A poll of 442 people summarized by the weekly "Kviris palitra" in early October found that 73 percent of respondents believed that the media now enjoy the same degree or more freedom than under Shevardnadze.

In late June, the Georgian parliament passed new legislation on freedom of speech that, among other things, stipulates that in the event of a libel suit, the journalist responsible for the offending statement is subject to legal action, but not the owner of the media outlet that published or broadcast it. The new law also absolves journalists from responsibility for publishing information designated as a state secret. Then on 23 December, parliament passed a new law on broadcasting intended to provide the legal framework for the transformation of the first channel of state television into a public broadcaster. That broadcaster is to be financed by the state from tax revenues, receiving some 17 million laris in 2005. That provision of the law is one of several protested by the opposition New Rightists parliamentary faction, which argued that the receipt of state funding would automatically render the new broadcaster vulnerable to government pressure, and that it should be self-financing. The New Rightists also objected to the 1 December decision by the interim commission formed to monitor the creation of the new public broadcaster that any journalists who worked for state television and radio under Shevardnadze, including former director Zaza Shengelia, should be declared ineligible for employment by the new station.

The owners of independent television stations, for their part, object to the article of the new law that permits the public television station to broadcast commercial advertising. They argue that it should not need to do so in light of the funds it will receive from the budget, and that allowing commercial advertising on that station will deprive them of a crucial source of income.

That financial concession to the new public broadcaster decision is only one of many decisions that, taken together, give the impression that, possibly unintentionally, the new Georgian leadership is failing to deliver on its stated commitment to strengthen media freedom. To a certain extent, that failure might reflect a conflict of interest within the government, as in the case of the ongoing debate over whether the media should pay income tax. Finance Minister Zurab Nogaideli argued on 7 December that as media outlets are exempt from paying value-added tax (VAT), they should not be exempt from income tax as well. The following day, President Saakashvili told journalists that unspecified tax privileges are essential to safeguard the media from political pressure.

Some apparent inconsistencies, such as preferential treatment for television over radio and the print media, might be purely fortuitous. For example, Saakashvili pledged at a news conference on 28 September that "as long as I am president, nothing will threaten independent television." And for reasons that the newspaper "Alia" could not explain, only television stations -- but no journalists from the print media -- were invited to cover President Saakashvili's special press briefing on 23 November, the first anniversary of Shevardnadze's ouster. But in the politicized and still polarized world of Georgian journalism, such decisions inevitably fuel independent journalists' perceptions of persisting inequality and discrimination. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "If Russia has such heroes, it is hard to say what our state has sunk to." -- Moscow Helsinki Group member Tatyana Lokshina, commenting on the announcement that President Vladimir Putin has bestowed the prestigious Hero of Russia award on Chechen First Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov. Quoted by Reuters on 29 December.

"It is simply pointless to talk about the independence of our law-enforcement officials. Without outside intervention they are unable to even button their trousers." -- From an editorial published on 17 December in the Armenian daily "Hayots Ashkhar."