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Caucasus Report: June 30, 2005

30 June 2005, Volume 8, Number 22

AZERBAIJANI LEADERSHIP IGNORES ELECTION PRESSURE. At its final session before the two-month summer recess, the Azerbaijani parliament approved on 28 June in the second and third (final) readings 43 separate election law amendments proposed by President Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijani media reported.

Those amendments do not include the most important changes called for by the Council of Europe's Venice Commission. The Azerbaijani opposition, which had similarly argued that changes are essential to prevent election fraud, immediately attributed the parliament's apparent imperviousness to Western pressure to the current leadership's determination to "falsify the elections and create a puppet parliament," as Musavat party Chairman Isa Qambar told Turan on 29 June.

The changes deemed most necessary by both the Council of Europe and the opposition focus on the composition of the election commissions responsible for counting and tallying votes. In line with amendments to the law passed two years ago in the run-up to the October 2003 presidential election, the opposition nominates six of the 15 members of the Central Election Commission, four of the nine members of regional election commissions, and two of the six members on local election commissions.

The opposition argues that, as such commissions reach decisions by a two-thirds majority, those ratios enable the authorities, with the support of nominally independent but pro-regime commission members, to manipulate the outcome of the vote. The opposition therefore demands equal representation on election commissions at all levels. The amended version of the law adopted in May 2003 provided for increasing opposition representation on election commissions, but only after the parliamentary elections due in late 2005.

The election law amendments approved on 28 June leave the composition of election commissions unchanged. They also leave in force the provision that domestic NGOs that receive more than 30 percent of their funding from abroad may not monitor elections. The amendments do, however, include some key technical measures intended to ensure that elections are more democratic, such as reducing the deposit election candidates must pay to register, posting updated voter lists on the Internet, and cutting from five days to two days after the ballot the deadline for making public preliminary returns.

As indicated above, Azerbaijani opposition politicians reacted to passage of the amendments with anger and outrage. There has been no international reaction as of late on 29 June, but Council of Europe officials who visited Baku in recent months have made the point that even the most democratically-formulated law cannot prevent fraud if the authorities are dead set on rigging the ballot.

The international community has, however, warned repeatedly that Baku will face international opprobrium if the November ballot (the precise date has not yet been announced) is deemed to be less than free, fair, and democratic. Speaking on 28 June in Gyanja, Azerbaijan's second-largest city, U.S. Ambassador Reno Harnish said that Washington "will issue a comprehensive warning" to the Central Election Commission and the Azerbaijani authorities if an attempt is made to falsify the vote.

Why the Azerbaijani leadership has essentially flouted the international community's recommendations can only be guessed at. If, as is widely believed, there is a covert battle for influence under way within the upper echelons of the leadership between the "reformist" and the "conservative" camp, then the decision not to make changes called for by the Council of Europe suggests that, at present, it is the latter camp which has the upper hand. Alternatively, it is conceivable that a senior official will seek to rationalize the decision by arguing that the decree issued by President Aliyev in May, which enumerates the penalties for any attempt to falsify the vote, is in itself adequate to ensure that the election is free and fair. (Liz Fuller)

IS GEORGIA BECOMING PROGRESSIVELY LESS DEMOCRATIC? Two developments in recent weeks have further tarnished Georgia's claim to be the trailblazer of liberal democracy within the CIS. The first was the launch of a process to staff the Central Election Commission and its lower-level equivalents with people known to be loyal to the ruling elite. That process also effectively excluded many Armenians and Azerbaijanis from southern and eastern Georgia from serving on such commissions. The second was the national legislature's initial backing of an amendment to empower the Tbilisi municipal council to elect the city mayor.

Together, they beg questions about the dedication to democracy of the "democrats" who came to power in the 2003 Rose Revolution.

The claim of Georgia's pioneering democratic role derives from the advent to power in the so-called Rose Revolution in November 2003 of a team of young, pro-Western politicians who proclaimed their shared determination to put an end to the corruption and graft that had been the hallmarks of the Shevardnadze era. The opposition movements that subsequently brought about the fall of the incumbent leaderships in Ukraine in December 2004 and Kyrgyzstan in March 2005 both acknowledged they were inspired and empowered by the Georgian example, and U.S. President George W. Bush has repeatedly hailed the Georgian example, most recently during his visit to Tbilisi in early May.

While the new Georgian leadership lost no time in dismissing and arresting -- sometimes in front of television cameras -- Shevardnadze-era officials suspected of corruption and mismanagement, skepticism swiftly surfaced over the depth of the new government's commitment to true democratization and far-reaching reform. In a lengthy and detailed analysis of the aftermath of the 2003 Rose Revolution published in December, one London-based analyst suggested that the transition from Eduard Shevardnadze to Mikheil Saakashvili (who was elected president in early January 2004 with 96 percent of the vote) was one from "democracy without democrats" to "democrats without democracy."

The first development that supports that implicit contradiction was the selection by President Saakashvili of the 13 members of the new Central Election Commission from a shortlist of 30 compiled by his staffers. At its first session on 7 June, the new Central Election Commission solicited applications from persons wishing to serve on the 75 five-member district election commissions. Applicants must be over 21, have a higher education, and speak fluent Georgian. That latter requirement automatically excludes thousands of Armenians and Azerbaijanis who grew up in regions of southern and eastern Georgia where there are no schools with Georgian as the language of instruction. On 14 June, the parliamentary opposition accused deputy speaker Mikheil Machavariani and other leaders of the parliamentary majority of systematically summoning regional governors to Tbilisi and ordering them to ensure that local election commissions are dominated by members of the ruling National Movement, reported. Machavariani conceded that regional governors are being summoned to Tbilisi to discuss preparations for upcoming midterm elections, but he denied that the leadership is plotting to determine the outcome of that ballot to its own advantage. "We are all eager to hold free and fair elections," quoted Machavariani as saying.

The second potentially troubling event was the approval by parliament in the first reading on 23 June of amendments to the law on Tbilisi that provide for the city's mayor to be chosen by members of the municipal council, rather than directly elected. Until now, the president has appointed the mayor of Tbilisi, just as in neighboring Armenia the president names the mayor of Yerevan. Armenia has for months been under considerable pressure from the Council of Europe to include in a package of proposed constitutional amendments provision for the direct election of the Yerevan mayor, and last week agreed to that demand.

Pro-Saakashvili legislators and Saakashvili himself have sought to rationalize that procedure by arguing that the election of a mayor whose political affiliation differs from that of the majority of municipal council members could paralyze the city legislature. But opposition politicians protested that the legislation would pave the way for the ruling party to dominate the city council on a permanent basis. Koba Davitashvili (Conservative) termed it the first step toward abolishing all mayoral elections in all towns and predicted that it could trigger a serious civic crisis. Even before that amendment was unveiled in parliament, the opposition Conservative party raised the possibility of seeking to impeach President Saakashvili on the grounds that he has violated the constitution by failing to introduce direct elections for the post of mayor in the towns of Batumi, Poti, and Zestafoni, Caucasus Press reported on 14 April.

Another protest situation stems from a recent decree promulgated by Saakashvili that strips Georgia's universities of their autonomy and augments the power of the rector, who is appointed by the president. Faculty members at Tbilisi State University launched a protest on 27 June against the decision by acting rector Rusudan Lortkipanidze to reduce the number of faculties from 22 to six and to dismiss 800 staff. Lortkipanidze responded to that protest action by declaring that anyone who dislikes her planned reforms is free to resign.

It is unclear whether and to what extent Saakashvili's quasi-authoritarian approach has contributed to the growing perception that the level of democracy in Georgia is on the decline. On 27 June, Caucasus Press cited the findings of a recent poll of 500 people conducted by the weekly "Kviris palitra" in which 26.6 percent of respondents said they believe the level of democracy has declined over the past 12 months. By contrast, 49.4 percent of respondents considered that the level of democracy has not changed over that period.

Nor is its apparent reluctance to promote top-down democratization the only perceived failing of the new Georgian leadership. Some of its senior members have been accused of criminal activities. For example, Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili and his protege, Mikheil Kareli, governor of the Shida Kartli region that encompasses the disputed unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, are both believed to be implicated in smuggling, according to the Institute for War and Peace Reporting's Caucasus Reporting Service on 21 April. On 24 June, the opposition New Conservative (aka New Rightist) parliamentary faction accused Kareli of creating obstacles to private business, reported. Okruashvili has further been accused of single-handedly determining how budget funds allocated for the Georgian armed forces should be spent, according to the daily "Rezonansi" on 13 May.

To date, the fractured Georgian opposition has not shown any readiness to close ranks and coalesce in a single, powerful antigovernment force. There have, however, been reports that some members of the present leadership might be considering switching to the opposition camp. On 24 June, quoted parliamentary speaker Burdjanadze as saying she is unaware whether some former close associates of Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania, who died in February under circumstances that have still not been completely clarified, intend to join the Republican Party. At a congress on 27 June, that party elected as its new chairman legal expert David Usupashvili. Outgoing Chairman David Berdzenishvili told congress delegates that he believes Usupashvili is capable of transforming the party into a qualitatively new force with strong chances of emerging among the winners of the next elections. (Liz Fuller)

IS THE RUSSIAN-CHECHEN TREATY DEAD IN THE WATER? Pre-Moscow Chechen administration head Alu Alkhanov has predicted on several occasions in recent weeks that the long-awaited power-sharing treaty between Chechnya and the federal center would be signed during the second half of June (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 May 2005). But on 28 June, Fedor Shcherbakov, press secretary to presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitrii Kozak, said the signing has been postponed indefinitely. "The draft continues to be negotiated by the Southern Federal District and Moscow. There are serious amendments to it," Shcherbakov said.

Work on that treaty first began over two years ago, immediately after the controversial referendum on the new Chechen constitution (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 31 March 2003). But its signing has been repeatedly delayed, first because the Chechen side's economic demands on Moscow were deemed exorbitant; then due to the assassination in May 2004 of pro-Moscow Chechen leader Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov; then again due to Russia's reluctance to agree to all the Chechen leadership's demands.

The initial draft of the treaty, which Kadyrov himself claimed to have authored, stipulated that until 2010 Chechnya should retain all taxes from the sale of oil extracted on its territory, and that the republic's leadership should control the sale not only of oil but other natural resources such as timber. But Russian Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin argued in October 2003 that no exceptions should be made to Russia's unified tax system (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 25 January 2004).

Kadyrov predicted in December 2003 that the treaty would be signed before the Russian presidential election in March 2004 -- but that prediction proved wrong. Following Kadyrov's death on 9 May in a terrorist bombing, Musa Umarov, Chechnya's representative in the Federation Council, told Interfax on 13 July that although the draft treaty had been revised several times, its precise content would depend on who was elected Kadyrov's successor in the ballot scheduled for late August. On 24 July, ITAR-TASS quoted Chechen State Council Chairman Taus Djabrailov as saying that the treaty would be signed by the end of 2004. According to Djabrailov, three separate drafts existed: Kadyrov's, one prepared by the Chechen State Council, and a third prepared by a Russian working group chaired by presidential administration head Dmitrii Medvedev. As Kadyrov had done, Djabrailov too argued that the Chechen leadership should have complete control over the oil and gas sector and the revenues it generates, together with a special tax regime.

Following his inauguration in early October as Kadyrov's successor, Alu Alkhanov said the treaty would be signed in spring 2005, and that it would give Chechnya the status of a free economic zone (even though at that time the Russian State Duma had not yet begun debating a draft bill on such zones). In January 2005, Djabrailov announced that the work on the draft treaty was complete, Interfax reported on 18 January. He said that from 2005-2015, Chechnya will have the status of "a region of intensive economic development," meaning that its land, subsoil resources (oil), plant and animal life will be the exclusive and indivisible property of the people of Chechnya -- a formulation that suggests that Moscow has given in to the maximalist Chechen demands for exclusive control over the republic's resources. In addition, the federal center would grant Chechnya annual subsidies of 3 billion rubles ($100 million). A Chechen National Bank would be established as a subsidiary of the Russian Central Bank, and it would be empowered to register new enterprises, including joint ventures with the participation of foreign capital. The treaty further provided for a one-time compensation payment equal to 720,000 rubles for all surviving Chechen victims of Stalin's repressions.

But over and above those exorbitant economic concessions, the Chechen leadership also insisted on including in the seven-page draft two crucial political demands, according to "Vremya novostei" on 24 January. First, Russian security structures, including the Federal Security Service (FSB), would be forbidden from interfering in Chechnya's internal affairs -- meaning they would no longer be empowered to act as a restraining influence on First Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov and his so-called presidential security service. And second, the Chechen leadership demanded a revision of the de-facto border between Chechnya and Ingushetia agreed upon when the Checheno-Ingush ASSR split in the summer of 1992, to transfer to Chechen jurisdiction parts of Sunzha and Malgobek raions that at present are part of Ingushetia.

The "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," however, on 28 January quoted an unnamed Kremlin official as having told "Moskovskii komsomolets" that Djabrailov's list of anticipated concessions was grossly exaggerated, and that the Kremlin was prepared to grant Chechnya only the status of a special economic zone and certain tax privileges. Chechen Prime Minister Sergei Abramov indirectly confirmed that Djabrailov was exaggerating: Abramov told ITAR-TASS on 26 January that the treaty would not designate Chechnya "a region of intensive economic development." But he said the treaty will nonetheless take into account Chechnya's unique situation, giving it the opportunity "to carry out economic transformations much more effectively and with smaller losses," based on an assessment of both the positive and negative experience accumulated by other federation subjects. A commentary in "Profil," No. 2 suggesting that Djabrailov's list of privileges should simply be regarded as Grozny's initial, maximalist negotiating position may have been close to the mark.

The Chechen-Russian working group tasked with drafting the treaty convened in late February for what was intended to be its penultimate meeting, ITAR-TASS reported on 27 February, after which Abramov announced that the wording of the treaty has been finalized. But on the eve of that discussion, Djabrailov again implied that Moscow had agreed to major concessions. He told Interfax on 25 February that the finished text will be presented to the Russian State Duma, and that "all [Russian] laws that contradict this document will have to be brought into conformity with it." Djabrailov predicted that the treaty may finally be signed before the end of June 2005, a timeframe that Alkhanov repeated on 25 April, then again on 14 and 19 May. But Alkhanov also insisted that the text of the treaty conforms with the basic tenets of the Russian Constitution.

ITAR-TASS on 28 June quoted Alkhanov as saying there are "no points of disagreement" over the treaty, and that the sole unresolved question relates to granting Chechnya the status of a region of intensive economic development. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "There are people in the [Georgian] leadership for whom democracy is just as much of a facade as it was for [former President Eduard] Shevardnadze." -- Davit Darchiashvili, head of the Open Society-Georgia Fund (quoted by RFE/RL's Georgian Service on 28 June).

"I consider [Azerbaijani President Ilham] Aliyev one of the strongest and cleverest [CIS] leaders." -- Former Russian Foreign Minister Evgenii Primakov (quoted by on 21 June).