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Caucasus Report: January 2, 2004


2 January 2004, Volume 7, Number 1

GEORGIA BRACES FOR PRETERM PRESIDENTIAL BALLOT. Voters in Georgia go to the polls on 4 January to elect a successor to Eduard Shevardnadze, who was forced out of office on 23 November on a wave of popular anger at the falsification of the outcome of the parliamentary election three weeks earlier. Most observers in Georgia and abroad anticipate that Mikhail Saakashvili, the charismatic leader of the opposition National Movement who spearheaded the campaign for Shevardnadze's resignation, will win by a considerable margin. But in the runup to the ballot, Saakashvili and his supporters have expressed concern at the possibility of low turnout or deliberate attempts to sabotage the voting, or both.

A total of five rival candidates have also registered for the ballot. They are former Imereti Governor Temur Shashiashvili; David the Builder Society Chairman Roin Liparteliani; Georgian Barristers Union head Kartlos Gharibashvili; Zurab Kelekhsashvili of the Mdzleveli political organization; and Zaza Sikharulidze. Liparteliani ran against Shevardnadze in the presidential elections in 1995, and Gharibashvili in 1995 and 2000, but they polled less than 1 percent of the vote.

Former Georgian State Security Minister Igor Giorgadze, who submitted to the Central Election Commission (CEC) the required minimum 50,000 signatures in support of his candidacy, was denied registration on the grounds that he has not been a resident in Georgia for the past two years. Giorgadze fled the country in early September 1995 after being accused of masterminding a car-bomb attack on Shevardnadze. A further seven presidential hopefuls, including two women -- one ethnic Russian and one ethnic Armenian citizen of Georgia -- either withdrew their applications or failed to collect the required signatures in their support.

Giorgadze appealed, without success, against the CEC's refusal to register him, and alleged that the interim Georgian leadership is afraid to allow him to participate in the ballot because of the level of clandestine support he claims to command. Of the five registered alternatives to Saakashvili, only Shashiashvili, who made his mark as an energetic and innovative administrator, has any hope of exceeding 10 percent of the vote. Presenting his election program on 31 December, Shashiashvili advocated a federal system, a bicameral parliament, a professional army, nationalizing the energy system, and minimizing the export of raw materials in order to process them domestically. In addition, he pledged to increase the annual budget to $2 billion in 2004 and $3 billion in 2005 (the 2003 figure was 1.46 billion laris, or $677.2 million), and to increase pensions and the minimum monthly wage to between 100-150 laris ($46.4 -- $69.6). Shashiashvili has challenged his rivals, including Saakashvili, to a televised debate, but met no takers.

The key tenets of Saakashvili's election program are clamping down on corruption, including by confiscating illegally acquired wealth; strengthening the rule of law; and creating conditions conducive to an economic revival. In his campaign speeches he has promised virtually all things to all men (and women), from better food for the armed forces and homes for the elderly to fair conditions for small and medium-sized businesses. At the same time, he has threatened to confiscate the fortunes amassed by some prominent members of the Shevardnadze administration and to arrest two cabinet ministers should they fail to fulfill his orders, even though he is not legally empowered at present to issue instructions to members of the government.

Saakashvili's challengers have complained to the CEC that he enjoys an unfair advantage over them, in that his activities as a member of the interim three-person leadership receive considerable media coverage. In addition, they have complained that the free airtime they have been allocated for election broadcasts is at a time of day (between 1500 and 1700 local time) at which few people watch television. Gharibashvili demanded on 26 December that Saakashvili's registration be revoked, arguing that it is illegal for Minister of State Zurab Zhvania to head his election campaign.

The interim leadership and its appointee to head the CEC, Zurab Chiaberashvili, who formerly headed the nongovernmental organization Fair Elections, have stressed repeatedly their determination to ensure that the 4 January vote is not marred by a repetition of the egregious falsification that characterized previous ballots, but is acknowledged by the international community as free, fair, and democratic. To that end they have appealed to all voters to reregister at their local polling station to ensure that no one is prevented from participating in the ballot because his or her name has been omitted from the electoral roll. As of 29 December, 1,739,324 of the 2,870,000 people who participated in the 2 November parliamentary ballot had reregistered and, on 30 December, Chiaberashvili said that reregistration would continue until 4 January.

Reregistration has not, however, taken place in the Adjar Autonomous Republic, whose autocratic and authoritarian ruler, Aslan Abashidze, agreed only on 27 December under pressure from the international community to open polling stations in his fiefdom and to allow the estimated 298,000 voters to participate in the ballot. Abashidze had previously argued that the presidential poll was unconstitutional and that the timeframe of 45 days stipulated by the Georgian Constitution was too short to take adequate measures to ensure that the outcome would not be rigged.

Abashidze proposed, instead, to postpone for a minimum of six months both the presidential ballot and the repeat voting for those 150 parliament seats to be allocated under the party-list system. He has also called for sweeping amendments to the constitution to transform Georgia into a federal state, and thereby formalize the degree of autarky Adjaria currently enjoys.

Even after Abashidze's apparent capitulation, Saakashvili and his supporters expressed concern that the vote in Adjaria might yield "undesirable surprises." Three days after announcing that polling stations will open in Adjaria on 4 January, Abashidze told journalists that members of his Democratic Revival Union will boycott the election. On 30 December, Caucasus Press said unnamed Georgian officials fear that the authorities in Adjaria will force voters to mark the "against all candidates" option on their ballot papers.

Prominent National Movement members Vano Merabishvili and Irakli Chubinashvili told journalists on 30 December that "criminals and supporters of Shevardnadze" are hoping for a low turnout that would invalidate the election. Saakashvili told the independent Georgian television station Rustavi-2 the same day that if the 4 January ballot proves invalid due to voter turnout of less than the minimum 50 percent, "chaos and disorder" will inevitably follow. He pledged that "I am going to win this election honestly," and ruled out artificially inflating the turnout figures in order to reach the required minimum. CEC Chairman Chiaberashvili, too, has urged voters to participate in the ballot, noting that two consecutive presidential elections in Serbia were invalidated due to low voter turnout.

There are two possible reasons why voters might choose not to participate in the ballot: apathy, or defiant rejection of Saakashvili and the absence of a strong alternative candidate. The opposition Labor Party, which alleges that Saakashvili's National Movement as well as the pro-Shevardnadze For a Free Georgia bloc benefited from the "redistribution" of ballots cast in the 2 November parliamentary election, has called on its supporters to boycott the vote. Labor leader Shalva Natelashvili has argued that a Saakashvili victory would lead only to the redistribution of the country's wealth among his supporters, an increase in corruption, and the total collapse of the health-care and education systems.

And some voters who are not Labor supporters may likewise be convinced that as pupils and proteges of Shevardnadze, the new leadership may turn out to be as corrupt as the team it replaced, or that the outcome of the 4 January election will be falsified in the same way as previous ballots were. An opinion poll conducted between 24-29 December and summarized by Caucasus Press on 30 December found that only 38.7 percent of respondents trust the new CEC. (Liz Fuller)

WAITING FOR A 'NEW FORCE.' More than two months after the 15 October presidential election, Azerbaijani opposition parties are still struggling to come to terms with both the defeat of their candidates and the failure of the international community to more strongly condemn the overt falsification that contributed to Prime Minister Ilham Aliyev's victory with 76 percent of the vote. At the same time, just as the main opposition parties failed in the runup to the presidential ballot to agree on aligning behind a single candidate, now they are at odds over whether to embark on a dialogue with President Aliyev's leadership, and who should represent the opposition in any such dialogue.

Musavat party Chairman Isa Qambar, who continues to disclaim any measure of responsibility for his defeat, argues that insofar as he came closest to securing nomination as the single opposition candidate, and won more votes than any other opposition candidate, he alone should represent the opposition in any talks with the leadership. Qambar said any other opposition politician who seeks to engage in such a dialogue is a "traitor." (Qambar says he polled some 60 percent of the vote, while according to zerkalo.az on 6 December, one of his deputies has cited the figure of 70 percent; the final official returns gave Qambar 13.97 percent.) Representatives of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party, however, insist that no such dialogue is possible unless and until the opposition recognizes Ilham Aliyev as the legitimately elected president, which both Qambar and Azerbaijan National Independence Party (AMIP) Chairman Etibar Mammedov refuse to do.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan has questioned the point of any dialogue with the authorities. Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP) progressive wing Chairman Ali Kerimli told Turan on 27 November that the opposition has always been in favor of such a dialogue, but that the authorities must first establish "normal, civil relations" with the opposition rather than ignore it, humiliate it, and resort to violence against it (as was the case during several preelection campaign rallies and during Musavat-led protests in Baku on 15-16 October against the falsification of the election results). At the same time Kerimli, who was the first to advocate the idea of fielding a single opposition presidential candidate and to that end withdrew his own candidacy in favor of Mammedov, continues to call for opposition parties to realign in order to begin preparing for the upcoming municipal elections and the 2005 parliamentary ballot. By contrast, AMIP has proposed that opposition parties revert to acting independently.

If the existing opposition parties continue to eschew dialogue with the authorities, their choice of means of influencing political developments is limited. Of the handful of opposition parliament deputies most, representing the AHCP, have boycotted parliament sessions since last June to protest insulting remarks addressed to Kerimli by a member of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP) (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 May 2003). There remains the Soviet-era practice of convening meetings or demonstrations, but spokesmen for both Musavat, weakened by the arrests of many of its leading members in the aftermath of the presidential ballot, and for the AHCP, were quoted on 24 December as saying they do not consider it expedient to organize such protest meetings in the near future. A commentator for zerkalo.az observed that some opposition parties appear to be waiting for signs of a split within YAP following the death of its founder, former President Heidar Aliyev. But seeking to "rock the boat" in the event of any such internal turmoil within YAP could play into the hands of the more authoritarian members of that party, who might react by demanding more and harsher reprisals against the opposition.

The inability of the four main opposition parties to reach a consensus on whether to embark on a dialogue with the authorities has fueled the ongoing debate in the Azerbaijani press over whether those four parties and their respective leaders should now be written off as a spent force, which political figures might seek to replace them, and what kind of new alignments might emerge (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 7 November 2003). Much of that speculation has focussed on AMIP following the defection from that party's political council in late November and early December of five prominent veteran members. The five include economist Nazim Imanov, one of three political figures identified by zerkalo.az as uncompromised by past failure, enjoying a measure of popular respect, and consequently as potential leaders of a new, post-Heidar Aliyev opposition. Imanov was quoted by the same publication on 10 December as saying that he does not want to be part of an opposition that has forfeited the people's trust.

The news that Imanov had quit AMIP immediately triggered speculation that he would found his own political party. But two weeks later he told zerkalo.az in a long interview that although he considers himself in opposition to the present Azerbaijani leadership, he does not currently represent any political organization nor does he aspire to power. At the same time, he admitted that "I have received and continue to receive a growing number of appeals to found a new political structure. Many people in Azerbaijan believe that the country needs a new kind of opposition. Azerbaijan needs a political organization that is fundamentally different from those we are accustomed to. I am holding active consultations on these problems with my friends." He added, however, that "if society is 'pregnant' today with a new political organization, the 'pregnancy' is still at the initial stage."

Imanov, according to zerkalo.az commentator E. Makhmudov, is widely respected for his honesty, professionalism, intelligence, integrity, and readiness to mediate in disagreements between rival opposition groups. For that reason, any political movement he founded could draw support from diverse existing opposition parties. Imanov's one serious fault, Makhmudov noted, is his track record of self-effacement in order to defuse possible disagreements within AMIP's upper echelons.

The second of the three politicians singled out by Mahkmudov as possible leaders of a "new force" is Tamerlan Karaev, who served as parliament speaker from 1991-1993 under former Communist Party leader-turned-President Ayaz Mutalibov and then under President Abulfaz Elchibey. Karaev was dispatched to Beijing as ambassador following Heidar Aliyev's return to power in May 1993 and returned to Baku in the summer of 2001. He openly backed Qambar's candidacy in the October presidential ballot and, Makhmudov suggested, could count on the support of many Musavat party members who are disillusioned by Qambar's steadfast refusal to accept any personal responsibility for his election defeat.

Two factors may, however, work against Karaev. First, it was rumored at the time of his return from China that he had been coopted by the authorities to try to undermine the Musavat party -- although none of his subsequent actions in any way substantiated those rumors. And second, as a native of Nagorno-Karabakh he is a member of the Karabakh Liberation Organization (KLO) that advocates a military offensive to restore Baku's control over that breakaway region. Several leading members of the KLO have come under pressure in recent weeks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 December 2003) and the Azerbaijani authorities might adduce Karaev's ties to that organization or even arrest him (on charges of planning to create an illegal armed organization?) if they sought a pretext to prevent his return to big-time politics.

The third of Makhmudov's troika is Eldar Namazov, who resigned in October 1999 as an adviser to the late President Aliyev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 October 1999). Like Imanov, Namazov is reportedly widely respected for his intelligence, analytical capabilities, pragmatism, and caution. He was quoted by zerkalo.az on 27 July and 8 November 2003 as arguing forcefully that if the Azerbaijani leadership fails to embark on a program of democratic reforms, it risks "a social explosion" sooner or later.

One possibility that Makhmudov fails to address is that Namazov and Imanov might join forces to create a new political organization. In 2001 the two men, together with former Foreign Minister Tofik Zulfugarov and former State Oil Company President Sabit Bagirov, drafted a "charter" outlining a new approach to resolving the Karabakh conflict (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 6 August 2001). An alliance between Namazov and Imanov would attract a broader following than either could aspire to in isolation. And it would simultaneously avoid the creation of yet another opposition party that its detractors could write off as what Makhmudov termed "one political leader's fan club." (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "The only thing that Russia has not used against the Chechen people over all these years is nuclear weapons." -- Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, in an address to the Chechen people pegged to the ninth anniversary of the sending of troops into Chechnya by President Boris Yeltsin in December 1994 (quoted by Chechenpress on 12 December).

"A peace document cannot be a capitulation document." -- Democratic Party of Armenia Chairman Aram Sarkisian, commenting on a peace proposal for the Karabakh conflict that he drafted together with experts from Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan (quoted by Armenian Public Television on 11 December as cited by Groong).

"If Saakashvili is elected the president, Georgia will be turned into one big concentration camp." -- Democratic Revival Union Tbilisi branch head Tsotne Bakuria, quoted by Caucasus Press on 10 December.

"Russian diplomacy has still not come to terms with the thought that the U.S. has become a player on the post-Soviet space." -- Sergei Markedonov, head of the International Relations Department of the Institute of Political and Military Analysis, quoted by "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 26 December.

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