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Caucasus Report: September 15, 2005


15 September 2005, Volume 8, Number 32

ABKHAZIA UNVEILS NEW ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT CONCEPT. President Sergei Bagapsh, Prime Minister Aleksandr Ankvab, parliament speaker Nugzar Ashuba, together with government ministers, parliamentary deputies, and district administrators attended the presentation in Sukhum on 9 September of a new draft program for the socioeconomic development of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia, apsny.ru reported. That desired economic upswing is not, however, seen as an end in itself but as part of the broader process of strengthening Abkhaz statehood.

Speaking at the presentation, the program's author, Artur Mikvabia, who is Bagapsh's economic adviser, acknowledged the magnitude of the problems Abkhazia faces 12 years after the end of the civil war in which it won de facto independence from Georgia. He described the present level of socioeconomic development as "comparable with the least developed countries of the world," but added that unlike many of those countries, Abkhazia "has considerable economic potential."

Abkhazia's population is believed to be in the region of 220,000; the republic's budget for 2005, belatedly passed in April, is 643 million rubles ($22.78 million), according to Apsnypress on 20 April. That is over 200 million rubles more than in 2004, when the budget amounted to 432 million rubles, according to Apsnypress on 6 February 2004.

In an interview carried by regnum.ru on 30 August, Mikvabia singled out raising living standards and improving social conditions as one of the primary tasks facing Bagapsh's leadership. And on 9 September, he stressed that solving that problem requires mobilizing all available resources and using them effectively. Given the limits of the domestic market, he continued, this entails "building an export-oriented model of development aimed at making use of our comparative advantages, in the first instance in the spheres of agriculture and tourism." At the same time, Mikvabia stressed that Abkhazia will continue to "integrate" its economy with that of Russia, a process that he said will be facilitated by the continued use of the Russian ruble as Abkhazia's national currency.

Bagapsh for his part focused at the 9 September meeting on the need for a long-term strategic vision of economic development to replace what he termed "economic improvisation" from year to year on the part of individual ministries. "We need to know what reserves we have, [we need] to define clearly the priorities for the country's economic development, achieve the optimum allocation of resources in all spheres, and create mechanisms" to ensure the changes introduced cannot be reversed, Bagapsh said. To that end, he advocated a long-term program of economic development for at least the next five years, and he said a special working group will be tasked with drafting it.

Bagapsh listed as spheres with particular development potential communications, energy resources, and tourism. (On 15 August, Bagapsh announced that some 1.5 million Russian tourists have visited Abkhazia so far this summer, Apsnypress reported. That compares with a total of 400,000 in 2004.) He made it clear that the hoped-for resumption of rail traffic from Russia via Abkhazia to Tbilisi and Armenia would serve as a huge boost to the Abkhaz economy.

It is not clear, however, from his published comments whether Bagapsh touched on the possibility of developing Abkhazia's putative hydro-carbon resources. Interfax on 5 September quoted Bagapsh as having told journalists that Russia's LUKoil has expressed an interest in developing offshore oil fields off Ochamchira Raion.

But Bagapsh's predecessor as president, Vladislav Ardzinba (who according to a poll conducted by the newspaper "Chegemskaya pravda" and cited by apsny.ru on 20 July remains the fourth-most-popular politician in Abkhazia after Bagapsh, Ankvab and Security Council Secretary Stanislav Lakoba), argued last month against doing so, according to Caucasus Press on 18 August. Ardzinba reasoned that drilling for offshore oil would not only seriously impact on tourism, but that as long as Abkhazia is not internationally recognized as an independent state it will be powerless under international law to protect its legal interests in the event of the inevitable protests by the Georgian government against any such development.

On 5 September, Interfax quoted Kote Gabashvili, chairman of the Georgian parliament's Foreign Relations Committee, as saying that Georgia would not only call for sanctions against any Russian oil company that concluded an agreement with the Abkhaz leadership, but would demand the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeeping force currently deployed in the Abkhaz conflict zone under the CIS aegis.

Bagapsh pledged that his administration will do all in its power to attract foreign investment to Abkhazia. He also pledged, in line with his election promise, to raise wages for budget-sector employees by between 30-35 percent in January 2006 and by a further 20 percent by the end of next year. Apsnypress on 4 November 2004 gave the minimum monthly wage as 1,828 rubles and the "average" wage as 1,087 rubles. On 31 March, "Russkii kurer" quoted Ankvab as saying that the official monthly pension is 100 rubles, a sum on which he admitted it is impossible to live.

In addition to outlining purely economic provisions and priorities, the draft concept, which is to be published soon for public discussion, stresses the role of economic development in strengthening the Abkhaz nation and statehood. A democratic Abkhaz state, Mikvabia told regnum.ru, must be based on a market economy: he acknowledged that "forming a market economy is a complicated process that will take time," but added that "there is no alternative."

At the same time, Mikvabia stressed in his interview with regnum.ru that the draft program affirms that all citizens of Abkhazia, regardless of their ethnicity, nationality, or religious faith, should have equal economic, political and social rights. He explicitly denied that the Abkhaz would enjoy any special privileges not extended to other nationalities. That pledge is clearly intended to counter the fears of some Georgian politicians that Georgian displaced persons who fled Abkhazia during the war in 1993 and now decide to return may encounter problems in taking possession of their former homes, or in finding employment. (Liz Fuller)

ARMENIANS 'DON'T CARE' ABOUT CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM. Most Armenians remain apathetic about their government's efforts to amend the constitution despite increased publicity attracted by the issue in the last few weeks, parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian admitted on 12 September. Baghdasarian said getting a majority of voters to endorse a package of draft constitutional amendments that will be put to a referendum in November will therefore be an uphill struggle for President Robert Kocharian and his governing coalition. "We must be able to carry out correct and effective propaganda," he told reporters. "We need to explain the significance of constitutional reform to our people, the vast majority of whom do not care about it at all."

Opinion polls conducted so far indicate that the majority of the country's population is unaware of the essence of the reform sought by the Council of Europe and approved by the European Union and the United States. According to the most recent voter survey reported last week, only 13 percent of Yerevan residents intend to take part in the planned referendum. A high voter turnout is a necessary condition for the passage of the amendments that would somewhat curtail sweeping powers enjoyed by the president. To pass, they need to be backed by at least one-third of Armenia's 2.4 million voters.

Kocharian indicated last month that he will mobilize all political and administrative resources at his disposal to ensure a desired outcome of the referendum (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 26 August 2005). But his political opponents, who have rejected the proposed changes as insignificant and irrelevant to Armenia's democratization, claim that the authorities cannot do that without vote rigging.

Some senior representatives of the presidential camp insist that the authorities will not seek to push the amendments through at any cost. Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, Kocharian's top lieutenant and most likely successor, has noted in this regard that the failure of the referendum would not mean a popular vote of no confidence in the ruling regime.

Baghdasarian, who has just returned from a weeklong visit to the United States organized by the State Department, said the constitutional reform was high on the agenda of his meetings with U.S. government officials and legislators. "I had about 57 meetings in eight days," he said. "The United States finds the realization of constitutional reform in Armenia important."

In an interview with RFE/RL earlier this month, U.S. Ambassador in Yerevan John Evans said success of the reform would be "a step forward" for Armenia provided that it is not achieved through electoral fraud. "We have already made it very clear in a number of ways that this referendum should be carried out as a free and fair vote of the Armenian people," Evans said. (Astghik Bedevian)

2002 RUSSIAN CENSUS RESULTS FOR CHECHNYA 'CONTRADICT COMMON SENSE.' The published results from the 2002 Russian Federation census on Chechnya not only are internally inconsistent but in fact "contradict good sense," according to specialists at the Russian Academy of Sciences Center for Demography and Human Ecology. And these distortions, the product of both bad decisions about the way in which the census was carried out and of official intervention intended to overstate the number of residents and understate combat and other population losses, reduce the utility of the census as a source of information about that republic and a guide to future action.

In the current issue of "Demoscope Weekly" posted online, scholars at the center provide a comprehensive critique of the census numbers about Chechnya while showing what the census returns can say about various questions concerning Chechnya (http://www.polit.ru/research/2005/09/07/demoscope211.html).

Obviously, any effort to conduct a census in a combat zone is doomed to fall short of perfect accuracy, the Moscow demographers acknowledge, but the way in which the 2002 census was carried out there ensured that the departures from reality would be both large and almost randomly distributed along age, sex, and national lines.

Among the problems they point to are the double counting of people because the census examined permanent residents alone rather than in combination with temporary ones; border changes between Chechnya and Ingushetia since the last census; and official interest in falsifying results to gain political approval and obtain more resources by hiding losses.

The authors of this analysis note that the clearest evidence of the problems with the census is to be found in a comparison of the number of people born between 1959 and 1988 who were counted in the 1989 census, and the same category of people reported in the 2002 returns. Although there was obvious out-migration during that period and although there must have been an increase in mortality from combat and from the collapse of social and medical infrastructure, the 2002 census showed that the size of almost all age cohorts with these birthdays had in fact increased over time -- and by as much as 23 percent! The demographers then considered how much the census could tell them about the exact number of people in Chechnya who died in combat or in other ways -- speculation about that has produced figures from 40,000 to 250,000 or more -- or who left the republic and also what the ethnic breakdown of those figures in fact has been. Because the overall figures provided in the 2002 census for Chechnya are overstated by a quarter or a third, the demographers say, one cannot use these figures directly to establish the exact number of losses from deaths or out-migration. But they insist that one can develop reasonably accurate numbers indirectly.

One of the ways to do that is to consider the sources of some of the improbable numbers that the 2002 census does provide. For example, the returns show that the male-female ratios for young adults in Chechnya are significantly closer than in noncombat areas, precisely the opposite of what historical experience would lead one to expect. The reasons for that, the demographers say, is that male-female ratios in Chechnya have been closer than elsewhere, that Chechen women tended to be counted in Ingushetia while Chechen men tended to enumerated in Chechnya, and that the large number of ethnic Russian males in the Russian force structures also distorted the figures.

Using these and a variety of other statistical techniques -- which they present in the "Demoscope Weekly" article -- they provide the following summary of population losses in Chechnya and Ingushetia from all causes: 16,500 Chechen and Ingush men have died in military action and 8,500 civilians have died from military actions. Moreover, the Moscow demographers say, some 40,000 additional people have died (38,000 of whom are Chechens and Ingush) as a result of deteriorating social conditions during the conflict. And a net 420,000 have left the republic, overwhelmingly Russians and other nonindigenous groups.

The demographers carefully note that the military losses include not only deaths among militants but the losses of Chechens in the federal forces, or who died in terrorist attacks or were killed during Chechen purges of suspected pro-Moscow officials. But they do not include the 500 to 1,000 foreigners who have died while fighting on the Chechen side.

These figures also do not include the 12,000-15,000 Russian troops who have died in the fighting, or the 7,000-10,000 Russian civilians who have died directly or indirectly as a result of the conflict, the demographers say. But they do point out that "the military losses of the Russian and Chechen 'sides' are approximately equal." Like other numbers that have been offered by various sides in this conflict, these numbers are certain to be disputed. But they do represent what must be the most objective and interpersonally comparable data likely to be available to researchers and analysts anytime soon.

And that reality is highlighted by the details that the demographers are able to tease from what they themselves call very defective data: In a conclusion that puts a very human face on the conflict, the Moscow scholars show that Chechens with sons appear more likely to have left that republic than Chechens who have daughters. The reason? Under current conditions, Chechen boys are more likely to be killed by pro-Moscow forces or to die in combat after being recruited by pro-independence Chechen military leaders. (Paul Goble)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "This state is sick. The source of the illness must be looked for not within society but within the government. We have an uncontrolled, unaccountable, and narcissistic regime for which democracy, human rights and the rule of law are false concepts." -- Opposition National Democratic Union Chairman Vazgen Manukian, speaking at a press conference in Yerevan on 9 September (quoted by RFE/RL's Armenian Service).

"The authoritarianism and corruption that exist in our country could lead to the squandering [of the billions of dollars Azerbaijan will earn by exporting oil and gas, and consequently Azerbaijan] will become not a second Norway but a second Nigeria." -- Former presidential adviser and opposition parliamentary candidate Eldar Namazov, in a 10 September interview with day.az

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