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Caucasus Report: January 9, 2004

9 January 2004, Volume 7, Number 2

NEW GEORGIAN LEADERSHIP SEEKS TO BUILD ON PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION VICTORY. In a clear bid to capitalize on National Movement leader Mikheil Saakashvili's landslide victory in the 4 January presidential ballot, the new Georgian leadership has ignored the advice of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and scheduled parliamentary elections for 28 March. Assembly President Bruce George, who was one of the members of the International Election Monitoring Mission, said on 5 January that he considers April or May the optimum date for the parliamentary poll. The Georgian Supreme Court on 25 November annulled the results of the disputed 2 November parliamentary election for the 150 mandates distributed under the party-list system; the election of 60 deputies in single-mandate constituencies was deemed valid. Repeat or runoff elections in 13 of the remaining 15 single-mandate constituencies took place on 4 January simultaneously with the presidential ballot.

On 6 January, acting President Nino Burdjanadze mentioned 7 March as the likely date for the new parliamentary elections, but several opposition parties immediately protested that that was too soon (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 January 2004). In a 5 January statement, the New Rightists argued that holding the parliamentary election in early March would preclude compiling new and accurate voter lists and, more importantly, deprive political parties of the chance to conduct effective election campaigns. This, the statement continued, "will bring an end to political pluralism in Georgia, and the country will get a single-party parliament with no real opposition force to balance it." The statement called on the new leadership to schedule the ballot for May or June.

Announcing the 28 March date on 9 January, Burdjanadze explained that the later date was selected following talks with unnamed opposition parties. "It is critically important for us that the opposition parties have time to use their resources in order to try to cross the parliamentary barrier [the 7 percent minimum of the vote required for party representation in parliament]," Burdjanadze said. "We have taken into account the points of view of concrete [parliamentary] factions and political leaders and decided to hold elections on 28 March instead of 7 March."

Some observers in Tbilisi believe, however, that the three-week delay will not be enough for the opposition to plan and conduct a strong campaign against the new bloc created by the merger of Saakashvili's National Movement with the Burdjanadze-Democrats bloc jointly headed by Burdjanadze and Minister of State Zurab Zhvania. Ghia Nodia of the Caucasian Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development told RFE/RL on 5 January that all other parties are still in a state of "deep crisis" in the wake of Eduard Shevardnadze's ouster. For that reason, Nodia said, "I think we have a danger of a parliament that will be strongly dominated by supporters of the president"

Three opposition parties -- the New Rightists, the Union of Georgian Traditionalists, and the National Democratic Party of Georgia -- have nonetheless embarked on talks aimed at forging an opposition electoral bloc. The opposition Labor Party, which does not recognize Saakashvili's election as legitimate, has not yet decided whether to contest the parliamentary ballot, its chairman, Shalva Natelashvili, told Caucasus Press on 9 January. The head of the Tbilisi branch of Adjar Supreme Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze's Democratic Revival Union said on 9 January that the party will participate in the ballot, but that it has not yet been decided whether it will do so independently or in alliance with another party or parties.

Western commentators, including "Die Welt," have pointed out, however, that even if the Saakashvili-Burdjanadze-Zhvania bloc ends up dominating the new legislature, that in itself will not make it easier to resolve the problems the country faces. And voters' optimism and trust in the new leadership might evaporate swiftly if the anticipated improvement in living standards fails to materialize. The danger is that the new leadership might then seek to shore up its dwindling support either by publicized trials of former Shevardnadze-era officials on corruption charges, or by the launch of a military campaign to restore Tbilisi's control over the breakaway Republic of Abkhazia. Possibly anticipating such an offensive, Abkhaz Vice President Valerii Arshba has advocated signing a treaty on peace and the non-resumption of hostilities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 January 2004). (Liz Fuller)

ARMENIAN OPPOSITION PARTIES MULL NEW ALLIANCE. Armenia's leading opposition parties, including the two largest opposition groups represented in parliament, are holding confidential talks on the possibility of forming a united front against President Robert Kocharian and his political allies. Opposition leaders told RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau on 8 January that they are considering launching a concerted drive to oust the ruling regime in the coming months. National Unity Party leader Artashes Geghamian said recent unspecified developments in the region make it imperative for the Armenian oppositionists to join forces. "Armenia cannot have a future with a corrupt system," Geghamian said.

"We are very happy that there is such a mood among other opposition forces and politicians," said Albert Bazeyan of the Artarutiun (Justice) bloc, which has the largest opposition faction in the National Assembly. "We must try to consolidate the entire opposition field for the sake of establishing democracy in Armenia."

Both Geghamian and Bazeyan declined to divulge any details of the talks, saying only that they also involve smaller opposition groups not represented in the National Assembly. One of them, it turns out, is the National Self-Determination Union (AIM) headed by Paruyr Hairikian, a prominent Soviet-era dissident. He indicated that the opposition forces might soon form an umbrella structure that already has a tentative name: Cooperation For Democracy.

Speaking at a news conference, Hairikian made his most blistering attack yet on the Armenian authorities, branding them "traitors" and "butchers of the Armenian people." Hairikian had previously supported Kocharian and advised him on human rights issues until 2002. He became particularly critical of the president after the Armenian government's controversial decision late last year to strip his party of its offices in Yerevan and other parts of the country (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 August 2003).

The attempts at opposition unity might, however, be seriously hindered by the persisting mistrust between Geghamian's National Unity and Artarutiun, led by Stepan Demirchian. The two men were Kocharian's main challengers in last year's presidential election, which they both claim was rigged by the incumbent.

They have also accused each other of secretly collaborating with the authorities during the presidential race, with Geghamian denouncing Demirchian for agreeing to contest the 5 March runoff showdown with Kocharian. Artarutiun, for its part, has alleged that National Unity helped the authorities commit serious irregularities that were reported by international observers after the disputed vote. Geghamian and Demirchian have not been on speaking terms since the 19 February first round of voting, which was criticized as deeply flawed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe.

It is unclear whether Geghamian will back Artarutiun plans to launch a campaign next month of mass demonstrations aimed at forcing the Kocharian-controlled parliament to call a "referendum of confidence" in the Armenian president. The National Unity leader has until now avoided any participation in antigovernment street protests, saying that they are ineffectual.

Bazeyan, meanwhile, again acknowledged that Artarutiun was buoyed by the success of November's "rose revolution" in neighboring Georgia in which opposition protests backed by tens of thousands of people forced unpopular President Eduard Shevardnadze to step down. (Karine Kalantarian)

WEBSITE TARGETS INGUSHETIA'S PRESIDENT. The website, which until recently served as the official website for the leadership of that North Caucasus republic, has changed ownership. It now designates itself independent, although many residents of Ingushetia believe it has become the property of Moscow-based businessman Mikheil Gutseriev and his brother Khamzat, a former Ingushetian interior minister who was barred on a technicality from contesting the republic's presidential elections in April 2002 (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 25 April 2002).

On 2 January, the website launched a poll in which visitors are asked to evaluate the track record of Murat Zyazikov, the former Federal Security Service general who won the April 2002 ballot (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 April 2002). The two evaluations offered are "Zyazikov is coping with his responsibilities and benefits the people" and, alternatively, "Zyazikov does not benefit the people of Ingushetia and should leave the post of president."

One week earlier, on 26 December, the website published an unsigned statement decrying the "atmosphere of chaos, lawlessness, injustice, theft, corruption, and poverty" into which it claims the republic has sunk. The commentary accused the republic's leadership of ignoring the legitimate aspirations of the population by rigging the outcome of elections (presumably the December election for a new republican parliament) and of other unspecified "crimes," and called for its replacement, "but only by means of elections and other electoral procedures envisaged by the law."

The statement listed a number of prominent politicians who might seek the presidency. But it noted that former President Ruslan Aushev has affirmed that he has no intention of ever running again for that post, and that Alikhan Amirkhanov (who ran unsuccessfully against Zyazikov in 2002) and Mikhail Gutseriev are also unlikely to propose their candidacies. It then lists four more possible candidates -- deputy presidential envoy to the South Russia Federal District Musa Keligov, Russian State Duma Deputies Mukharbek Aushev (no relation to Ruslan) and Bashir Koddzoev (both of whom represent the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia), and legal expert Issa Kostoev -- with the reservation that "it is too early to say" whether any of them could become "a national leader capable of heading the republic." Kostoev and Mukharbek Aushev both ran against Ruslan Aushev in the 1998 presidential ballot, placing second and third respectively with 13.36 percent and 9.13 percent of the vote (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 March 1998).

In conclusion, the statement invited visitors to the website to propose other candidates to replace the present discredited leadership. It stressed that the prospective future president should be "decent, honest, energetic, focused, courageous,... and a true patriot." He should have no connections to developments in Ingushetia over the past decade nor ties to "criminal-financial clans." Finally, he should be capable of "giving the people of Ingushetia hope and saving them from degradation;" mobilizing a large number of supporters in a limited time period; and "preventing the bandit falsification" of the outcome of the ballot for a new president.

On 8 January, the website announced a two-week moratorium on further responses to its poll on Zyazikov due to "the deterioration of the situation in the republic." (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK. "There are other colors in politics apart from black and white." -- Former Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze (in an interview with "Novye izvestiya," 25 December 2003).