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Caucasus Report: November 24, 2005


24 November 2005, Volume 8, Number 42

CHECHEN ELECTIONS WILL AUGMENT STRONGMAN'S POWER. On 27 November, elections will take place in Chechnya for a new bicameral parliament. The ballot is intended as the final stage in the ongoing process of "normalization" in the wake of Russian President Vladimir Putin's announcement that the war against the Chechen resistance is over. That "normalization" process began with the adoption of a new constitution in March 2003, followed by the election in August of that year of former mufti Akhmad-hadji Kadyrov as republican head. Kadyrov's death in a bomb attack on 9 May 2004 further delayed the parliamentary elections, the date of which had been pushed back from the fall of 2003 to March 2004 to March 2005.

In late August 2004, acting Interior Minister Alu Alkhanov was elected Kadyrov's successor as head of the pro-Moscow administration. But the real power in Chechnya devolved after Kadyrov's death on to his 27-year-old son Ramzan. Ramzan Kadyrov previously headed a presidential guard service whose members reportedly engaged with impunity in the arbitrary abduction, torture, and killing of Chechen civilians whose corpses they then ransomed for exorbitant sums of money. Within hours of Akhmed-hadji's death, Ramzan was granted a meeting (shown on Russian television) with Putin; days later, he was named first deputy prime minister. Since then his remit has expanded to embrace responsibility for the distribution of compensation payments to Chechens whose homes and property were damaged or destroyed during the fighting of the past decade.

Most independent Russian observers, together with many Chechens, regard the 27 November ballot as a mere formality intended to institutionalize Ramzan Kadyrov's absolute power. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 23 November dubbed the new legislature "the Ramzan parliament." And in a recent opinion poll conducted in Chechnya, 72 percent of respondents said they believe that Ramzan Kadyrov will determine the outcome of the ballot, according to annews.ru as cited on 23 November by kavkazweb.net. Eight political parties have registered to participate in the ballot: Unified Russia; Yabloko; Rodina (Motherland); the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS); the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF); the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia; the Eurasian Union; and Narodnaya Volya (People's Will). The Republican Party was disqualified as over 10 percent of the signatures collected in its support were ruled to be false. Ninety candidates will compete in single-mandate constituencies for the 18 seats in the upper chamber, the Council of the Republic. A total of 161 candidates will compete for the 20 seats in the lower chamber, the People's Assembly, that are to be allocated in single-mandate constituencies, and a further 106 for the remaining 20 seats in the People's Assembly allocated on the basis of party lists, according to kommersant.ru on 24 October.

Few observers doubt, however, that the new parliament will be dominated by deputies from the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party. "Newsweek-Russia" No. 43 predicted that Unified Russia will win 70 percent of the seats, the SPS 15 percent, and the KPRF 15 percent, noting that candidates known to be loyal to Kadyrov occupy the top three places on the party lists of all three parties. Unified Russia's top candidates include Magomed Khambiev, who served as defense minister under Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov but surrendered last year after dozens of his relatives were taken hostage (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9, 10, 11 and 12 March 2004).

The one influential political figure who could have posed a serious challenge to Kadyrov in the event of his election to parliament has been squeezed out of the race. Beslan Gantamirov, the former Grozny mayor who served as a deputy prime minister under Akhmad-hadji Kadyrov, announced in June his intention of participating in the ballot with the backing of Rodina (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 June 2005). "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 9 August identified Gantamirov -- who has his own armed force and, according to "Vremya novostei" on 10 June, enjoys the support of several wealthy Moscow-based Chechen entrepreneuers -- as one of three centers of power in Chechnya, along with Ramzan Kadyrov and the Yamadaev brothers, Sulim and Ruslan. Relations between Kadyrov and the Yamadaevs deteriorated sharply during the summer following the exodus in late May of residents from the village of Borodinovskaya in the wake of a punitive raid for which Sulim Yamadaev's Eastern Battalion was blamed, but they have since buried their differences, according to "Izvestiya" on 13 October.

As recently as mid-September, Rodina leader Dmitrii Rogozin told "Izvestiya" that Gantamirov would head the Rodina list for the Chechen ballot. But when that final list was made public in late October, Gantamirov's name was not on it. "The Moscow Times" on 24 October quoted Rogozin as having told "Vedomosti" his party decided to ditch Gantamirov because the conflict between Gantamirov and Ramazan Kadyrov "threatened stability" in Chechnya. Rodina's Nikolai Buragov gave a slightly different explanation, telling RFE/RL on 21 November that the party's presidium decided not to include "prominent" Chechens on its list. He denied that any pressure was exerted on Rodina to come to that decision. "The decision was taken by the party, by the president of the party's presidium, because we did not include our leaders in the list of candidates for the State Duma elections," Buragov said. "This is a cohesive approach, and so we did not include prominent people there [in Chechnya] either."

Gantamirov himself has maintained a discreet silence concerning his failure to participate in the elections, possibly because he knows he is being held in reserve by the Kremlin to be deployed against Kadyrov should the latter become too difficult to control.

Nor is Gantamirov the only candidate to be dropped from a place at the top of one of the party lists. Taus Dzhabrailov, chairman of the State Council (the interim legislature established after the 2003 referendum) and until recently a close associate and ally of Kadyrov, initially figured second on the Unified Russia party list. But he was removed in favor of Deputy Prime Minister and Agriculture Minister Dukvakha Abdurakhmanov. Dzhabrailov will run instead in a single-mandate constituency, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 23 November, but can no longer count on receiving the post of speaker in the new parliament.

With a compliant and allegedly democratically elected parliament behind him, Ramzan Kadyrov will be ideally placed to lay claim to the role of "president" as soon as he turns 30 -- the minimum age -- in October 2006. (Liz Fuller)

ARMENIA: BOTH SIDES GEAR UP FOR CONSTITUTIONAL REFERENDUM. Armenia's estimated 2.4 million registered voters will be called upon to vote on 27 November in a referendum on a package of draft constitutional amendments. Passage will require that a minimum of one-third of those voters approve the amendments -- which the United States, European Union, and Council of Europe have described as "vital" for the ongoing reform process.

But most opposition parties reject the amendments, arguing that the Armenian authorities themselves lack legitimacy, and therefore do not have the right to reform the country's basic law. The opposition is therefore urging voters to boycott the referendum, the outcome of which they accuse the leadership of planning to falsify.

The process of drafting the amendments and their passage by parliament has been protracted and acrimonious. It has, moreover, been overshadowed by the failure of a previous constitutional referendum two years ago. On that occasion, just over 52 percent of registered voters participated, with "yes" votes only narrowly exceeding "no" votes, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on 28 May 2003.

In September 2004, three separate draft packages of proposed amendments were submitted to the Armenian parliament, prepared respectively by the ruling three-party coalition, the pro-government United Labor Party, and veteran oppositionist Arshak Sadoyan, leader of the National Democratic Party. Those three drafts were then submitted for evaluation to the Council of Europe's Venice Commission, which assessed the first two as an improvement on the present constitution; but the Venice Commission rejected Sadoyan's as failing to address certain crucial issues related to human rights and the judiciary, according to Noyan Tapan on 22 December. The commission further suggested a number of changes to the government draft, specifically with regard to expanding the powers of the legislature, limiting the president's authority to appoint and dismiss judges, and introducing elections for the post of Yerevan mayor.

In early May, the Armenian parliament approved a slightly revised version of the draft prepared by the ruling coalition. Sadoyan promptly denounced that draft as "evil" and warned that it could lead to an "Asian-style dictatorship," according to Noyan Tapan on 13 May. He called on all political forces to reject that draft. In seemingly partial agreement, the Council of Europe's Venice Commission expressed in late May its "deep dissatisfaction" at the authorities' failure to take into account its previous recommendations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 June 2005). That negative assessment prompted the two opposition parliamentary factions -- the Artarutiun bloc and the National Accord Party (AMK) -- to advise their members to reject the proposed changes, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on 31 May. In late June, Armenia submitted to the Venice Commission an amended draft that addressed the commission's three main concerns. The commission approved the revised draft on 21 July, but opposition parties nonetheless continued to demand further changes and boycotted the subsequent parliament debates in August and September at which the final draft was approved.

Yet despite their shared disapproval of the draft amendments and apprehension that the government would resort to subterfuge to ensure their approval by the population at large, the opposition initially failed to agree on a course of action. Even during the emergency debate in late August in which the draft was approved in its first and second readings, Artarutiun and the AMK announced that they rejected the draft and would urge voters to vote against them, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Days later, they announced plans to stage rallies across the country in an attempt to persuade voters to reject the proposed changes. But on 16 November, just 11 days before the referendum, most opposition parties shifted tactics and decided to urge voters to boycott.

Opposition leaders, first and foremost former Prime Minister and Hanrapetutiun party Chairman Aram Sargsian, repeatedly accused the authorities of seeking to falsify the outcome of the plebiscite and warned that attempts to do so would trigger a spontaneous uprising and the collapse of the regime. "We will be living in a new Armenia on 28 November," Sargsian declared on 11 November in the town of Yeghard.

The Armenian authorities too launched an intensive public-relations campaign to drum up support for the proposed constitutional amendments, for which 21 political parties plus the People's Deputy parliamentary faction expressed their backing in an 18 October statement, Noyan Tapan reported.

Some aspects of that campaign, such as orders issued to teachers in Yerevan by the city mayor to persuade students and their parents of the merits of the planned changes, have fueled opposition suspicions that the authorities plan to rig the outcome of the vote. And while television stations are not charging for government-sponsored advertising promoting the constitutional changes, the opposition has encountered problems in securing paid airtime to argue its case against, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on 31 October.

While Armenian officials are unanimous in insisting that the voting will be free and fair, and that they will not resort to rigging to obtain the required minimum number of votes in favor of the proposed changes, differences of opinion have emerged within the ruling coalition over the likely impact of failure. Prime Minister Andranik Markarian said on 6 October that speculation that the failure of the referendum would necessitate the government's resignation is misplaced, Noyan Tapan reported. Galust Sahakian, who heads the parliamentary faction of Markarian's Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), suggested that it would be better for the draft not to pass than for it to be pushed through by means of violations. But Armen Rustamian of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun argued on 22 September that failure to pass the amendments would mean "failure for Armenia" insofar as it would, he suggested, be construed by the European Union and the Council of Europe as a rejection of Europe and of European values, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported.

In a 28 October address to students at Yerevan State University that was subsequently posted in English translation on the Foreign Ministry's website (http://www.armeniaforeignministry.am), Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian sought to demolish the opposition's arguments against the proposed changes and the "myths" that he said have grown up around some of them. Oskanian dismissed as "excuses with no underpinnings" the argument that the present Armenian leadership does not have the right to reform the constitution because it was not legitimately elected and has repeatedly violated it. He further dismissed as "myths" claims that the revised constitution would make it possible for the parliament to endorse changes in the country's borders, without the issue being put to a nationwide referendum; would give non-citizens the chance to buy unlimited quantities of land in Armenia; would make it possible, by removing the existing ban on dual citizenship, for Diaspora Armenians to play the decisive role in running the country; and would grant the incumbent president immunity from prosecution and lift the existing ban on a president serving more than two consecutive terms. (President Robert Kocharian's second term in office expires in early 2008.) Senior HHK lawmaker Samvel Nikoyan reminded voters in Armenia's northwestern Shirak district on 17 November while seeking to persuade the population to endorse the proposed constitutional changes that Kocharian has repeatedly vowed that he will not seek a third term. "All the political forces that have backed [the president] until now are of the opinion that the constitution must be respected and that no president should have the right to be reelected for a third term," Nikoyan said.

Kocharian's national security adviser, Garnik Isagulian, affirmed on 16 November, "I can say for certain that we will get a 'yes' vote. We will get more votes than are required by law," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. HHK faction head Sahakian predicted on 18 November that the ratio of "yes" to "no" votes will be 80:20, Noyan Tapan reported. AMK Chairman Artashes Geghamian proclaimed with similar confidence on 16 November that "the constitutional changes are doomed to be rejected by our people. That is obvious to all of us."

According to an opinion poll conducted by the Vox Populi center in Yerevan in early November and summarized on 18 November by Noyan Tapan, 54 percent of respondents intend to participate in the referendum, of whom 46.6 percent said they will vote "yes." Whether that comparatively low level of support is due to deep-rooted discontent with the present leadership remains unclear.

Equally unclear is what percentage of voters have a clear understanding of the changes they are being asked to approve, especially as voters are required to say "yes" or "no" to the entire package rather than to vote on individual changes or, as was the case in the 2002 Azerbaijani constitutional referendum, on groups of proposed amendments. That referendum entailed approving or rejecting eight distinct packages of changes relating to such issues as the conduct of parliamentary and presidential elections, the conduct of referendums, the restructuring of the government, and judicial reform, according to zerkalo.az on 30 August 2002. (Liz Fuller)

FORMER ARMENIAN PRIME MINISTER AGAIN QUESTIONS GROWTH STATISTICS. Hrant Bagratian, Armenia's former liberal prime minister, on 23 November again accused the government of grossly inflating the rate of economic growth, which is set to remain in double digits for the fifth consecutive year. Official figures show the Armenian economy expanding by 12.2 percent in the first 10 months of this year.

Bagratian, who served as prime minister from 1993-96 and is now in opposition, claimed that this and previous growth data posted by the government are not credible. "I don't consider the economic situation to be bad," he told RFE/RL in an interview. "But the economic growth which they are talking about -- 10-12 percent -- is non-existent. I have repeatedly analyzed and said that real growth is three or four times slower."

Bagratian's allegations have always been dismissed by government officials. The government's macroeconomic statistics are trusted by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. A senior IMF official specifically mentioned the reported double-digit growth during a visit to Yerevan last month. "I think Armenia has now achieved a double-digit economic growth for the fifth year in a row," Jeroen Kremers said. "It can be a record showing on the world level."

The IMF and World Bank also think highly of the painful economic reforms which Bagratian, a staunch advocate of liberal economics, initiated while in power. The two institutions believe that Armenia is now reaping their benefits. Kremers said continued growth is contingent on further structural reforms.

Bagratian, who is now a senior executive at the French-owned Yerevan Brandy Factory, claimed that the reform process has "slowed significantly" in recent years. He pointed to what he see as a decline in education standards, the virtual disappearance of a nascent stock market, the absence of private pension funds and underdeveloped insurance services.

"Some things have been done of late, but that's very little," he said, citing a new social security net introduced by the government in 2000. (Shakeh Avoyan)

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