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Caucasus Report: November 22, 2005


22 November 2005, Volume 8, Number 41

POSTELECTION PROTESTS IN AZERBAIJAN CONTINUE -- BUT FOR HOW LONG? As many observers had predicted, the 6 November Azerbaijani parliamentary ballot was marred by blatant procedural violations, including ballot stuffing, the removal of ballot boxes during the vote count, and inaccurate tabulation of votes cast. Those violations led international organizations, including the OSCE Election Monitoring Mission, the EU and NATO, and individual Western governments to express concern and disappointment, but not to query the overall validity of the ballot.

Just as predictably, opposition candidates from the three parties aligned in the Azadlyq (Liberty) bloc, Yeni Siyaset and the National Unity bloc began calling as early as 7 November for the proclaimed preliminary results, which gave Azadlyq only six mandates, to be revised in order to eliminate falsifications. The Central Election Commission (MSK) responded to a flood of written protests by suggesting on 7 November that the preliminary results in 10 of the 125 constituencies could be annulled.

To date, the results have been annulled in four constituencies where opposition candidates had reason to believe that they had won, while results from two dozen polling stations have been declared void in another five constituencies, and the number of opposition mandates now stands at nine. But Azadlyq campaign manager Panakh Husein claimed on 13 November that unfalsified protocols show that opposition candidates won two-thirds of the seats. For that reason, he continued, the opposition will not content themselves with the additional 10-15 mandates that the MSK has hinted they could still receive as a result of recounts. Moreover, several hundred defeated opposition candidates aligned on 10 November in a Democratic Front to campaign no longer just for the revision of the election results but for their complete abolition and a new ballot. Presidential administration official Ali Hasanov promptly termed that latter demand "out of the question," zerkalo.az reported on 15 November. In contrast to the standoff that emerged in Georgia two years ago in the aftermath of a parliamentary ballot that was similarly falsified, however, the ongoing protests in Azerbaijan do not appear to pose a serious threat to the incumbent authorities.

Days before the 6 November vote, Azadlyq leaders warned that in the event of suspected fraud they would convene protest mass protest rallies on 8, 9, and 10 November. But unlike in the aftermath of the disputed presidential ballot in October 2003, they did not defy the municipal authorities by ignoring the latter's ban on such protests. When permission to rally on 8 November was withheld, Azadlyg staged a two-hour protest the following day that was attended by an estimated 15,000 people (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 November 2005). Similarly, a second demonstration planned for 12 November was postponed until 13 November; on that occasion turnout was estimated at 20,000. Between 15,000-20,000 people turned out on 19 November for a third protest. Police did not intervene in Baku on any of those dates, and there were no violent clashes. (Local police did, however, use force to disperse demonstrators in Fizuli, southwest of the capital, on 20 November, Turan reported.) Calls by a handful of hotheaded youth activists on 13 November to set up a tent camp and launch indefinite protests in emulation of last year's Orange Revolution in Ukraine were firmly vetoed by the protest organizers. Presidential administration official Fuad Akhundov had warned two days earlier that the Baku authorities would not permit any such open-ended protest, according to echo-az.com on 12 November.

Even more important, the United States, which in Georgia implicitly encouraged the opposition's mobilization to topple the regime of President Eduard Shevardnadze, has not expressed backing for the Azerbaijani opposition's demand that the results of the entire ballot be annulled and new elections held. Ambassador Reno Harnish told Azerbaijani journalists on 15 November that Washington concurs with the initial findings of the OSCE Election Observer Mission that the ballot did not meet a number of international standards, zerkalo.az reported on 16 November. Harnish said he has impressed on MSK officials the need to investigate scrupulously all reported procedural violations. Doing so is imperative, he continued, in order to preclude the "radicalization" that would result if the opposition lost faith in the possibility of peaceful democratic change. Sardar Djalaloglu, first deputy chairman of the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, one of Azadlyq's three members, criticized as a manifestation of double standards Washington's failure to condemn the Azerbaijani elections as resolutely as they previously did those in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004, according to echo-az.com on 12 November. Djalaloglu suggested that the United States "does not want to see democratic transformations in a Muslim country." Some Western commentators have suggested that Washington's response is predicated primarily on Azerbaijan's Caspian oil wealth and its strategic importance as a potential military ally.

It is not clear whether the MSK's decisions to annul the election results in four constituencies, President Aliyev's dismissal of several regional officials for either encouraging or turning a blind eye to egregious falsification of the vote in favor of a candidate from the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party, and the restraint shown by the Baku police are part of a broad strategy crafted in advance, or purely tactical moves in response to unfolding events. Rauf Mirkadyrov, a commentator for the online daily zerkalo.az, noted that the authorities' tactics in the months preceding the ballot of successive small concessions at the last possible moment may have been a mistake, given that the leadership could have taken the wind out of the opposition's sails by agreeing in mid-summer to all the procedural changes the Council of Europe and its Parliamentary Assembly were demanding. "The Washington Post" on 20 November quoted analyst Arastun Orujlu as suggesting that the authorities constantly weigh the risks inherent in each successive concession against the anticipated positive reaction from the international community. "Every step is a calculation," Orujlu was quoted as saying "How much to give, how much to take, and how the West will react."

Those tactics failed to prevent the opposition from expanding its demands, as noted above, from simply making public the unfalsified election outcome to holding new elections, punishing all those responsible for falsification, and even for the resignation of the present leadership. But the authorities appear to have staked on the assumption that, given time, and without the unambiguous backing of the West, the opposition protests will either lose momentum, or that radical elements will trigger a violent attack on police that can be adduced as justification for a brutal response on the lines of that which put an end to the protests that followed the previous parliamentary elections in 2000 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20, 21 and 22 November 2000). "The New York Times" on 16 November quoted an unnamed Western diplomat in Baku as pointing out that "there is a limited number of people who want to go out and risk having their heads beaten." The opposition is already spilt between more hard-line elements who advocate civil disobedience, including Husein, Djalaloglu, and "Yeni Musavat" editor Rauf Arifoglu (all of whom had their heads beaten during the October 2003 postelection protests), and more circumspect politicians such as Musavat party Chairman Isa Qambar, who has called for a dialogue with the authorities, according to echo-az.com on 15 November. (Liz Fuller)

FORMER ARMENIAN FOREIGN MINISTER SEEKS POPULAR SUPPORT FOR PRESIDENTIAL BID. Raffi Hovannisian, Armenia's U.S.-born former foreign minister, has begun collecting signatures in support of his demand to be declared eligible to contest the presidential election due in 2008, it emerged on 14 November. Tigran Xmalian, a filmmaker and adviser to Hovannisian, told RFE/RL that some 50,000 people have already signed a petition demanding that Hovannisian be considered to have been an Armenian citizen since 1991.

Under Armenia's constitution, only those persons who have had Armenian citizenship and lived "permanently" in the country for the past 10 years can be registered as presidential candidates. Hovannisian received an Armenian passport in 2001, 10 years after he first applied for one.

Hovannisian insists that President Robert Kocharian and his predecessor Levon Ter-Petrossian illegally blocked his citizenship applications. He says Kocharian's decree granting him Armenian nationality should therefore be backdated to 1991. The authorities rejected this demand, preventing him from standing in the last presidential election (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 January 2003).

A statement appended to the petition says that that decision was politically motivated and was upheld by Armenian courts due to Kocharian's "biased interference." "It is clear that the first and the second presidents resorted to that step in order to make it impossible for him to run for president," said Xmalian. "Raffi Hovannisian, who has lived with us and shared our successes and difficulties for 15 years, must have the right to contest the 2008 presidential election."

Xmalian added that the signature collection began in areas outside Yerevan last month and will reach the Armenian capital after the upcoming constitutional referendum. He said Hovannisian's objective is to secure 300,000 signatures. "The authorities would not be able to ignore the popular demand after that," he said. However, no petitions can be legally binding for the authorities regardless of the number of citizens who signed it.

Still, other prominent opposition figures such as Vazgen Manukian back Hovannisian's demands. Manukian believes that the former foreign minister was "artificially" denied Armenian citizenship for so long.

The radical opposition party Hanrapetutiun has also promised to assist in the campaign. But Hanrapetutiun spokesman Suren Sureniants cautioned that he thinks it will not succeed as long as Kocharian is in power. "I don't expect this issue to receive a fair solution through courts or otherwise under this regime," he said. (Ruzanna Stepanian)

FORMER MINISTER CAMPAIGNS AGAINST AMENDMENTS TO GEORGIA'S CRIMINAL, CRIMINAL-PROCEDURAL CODES. Some 300 people responded to an appeal by Salome Zourabichvili, who was fired last month as Georgian foreign minister (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 October 2005), to promenade for one hour on Tbilisi's main boulevard on 13 November displaying white ribbons and national flags to protest Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili's recent affirmation that police should not hesitate to open fire on armed criminals, Caucasus Press reported. That is far fewer than the estimated 5,000-6,000 people who turned out to demonstrate their support for Zourabichvili in the wake of her dismissal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 October 2005). In making that appeal on 12 November, Zourabichvili described Merabishvili's words as contravening both international law and the international conventions to which Georgia has acceded, and as proof that human rights are violated in Georgia. Merabishvili was apparently echoing a similar statement by President Mikheil Saakashvili, whom the daily "Akhali taoba" quoted on 10 November as having encouraged police several days earlier to shoot to kill when threatened by armed criminals.

Zourabichvili also criticized on 12 November the planned amendments to the Criminal Code and Criminal-Procedural Code, which the Georgian parliament approved in the first reading on 9 November, the first by a vote of 100-24, the second by 96 votes in favor and 28 against. Opposition parliament deputies, including Ivliane Khaindrava (Republican Party) have also protested those planned changes, which include a ban on photography on prisons and detention centers; a ban on filming court proceedings except with the explicit permission of the presiding judge; the abolition of house arrest; and opening a criminal case on the basis of anonymous testimony. The parliament's juridical committee, which drafted the amendments, claims that they will simplify court procedure, but Khaindrava branded them a return to the Soviet era when the courts were controlled by the KGB, RFE/RL's Georgian Service reported.

Elene Tevdoradze, who for years has chaired the parliament's Human Rights Committee, queried the rationale for abolishing house arrest, which is to be replaced by bail. She pointed out that many Georgians live below the poverty level and are consequently not in a position to post bail. Kakha Kukava (Conservative) argued that Georgia's prisons are already filled to bursting with persons remanded for three months for petty theft and similar offenses.

Opposition deputies and independent jurists protested as infringing on media freedom the proposed restriction on media coverage of criminal proceedings, but the authors of the draft amendments rejected that criticism as unfounded.

The parliament bureau met on 14 November to discuss the implications of Zourabichvili's protest action, and Tevdoradze met later the same day with parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze to discuss the proposed amendments. No details of those discussions have been made public. (Liz Fuller)

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