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Caucasus Report: March 19, 2004


19 March 2004, Volume 7, Number 12

BRINKMANSHIP IN BATUMI. The tensions that have bedeviled relations between the central Georgian government and Aslan Abashidze, autocratic leader of the Adjar Autonomous Republic, since the ouster last November of President Eduard Shevardnadze escalated dangerously on 14-15 March, only to be defused at least temporarily as a result of talks in Batumi on 18 March between Abashidze and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.

The crisis erupted on 14 March, when Adjar armed special troops backed by armored personnel carriers refused to permit Saakashvili's motorcade to enter Adjaria. Telling journalists that "it's all about an attempt at armed mutiny against Georgia," according to Reuters, Saakashvili responded by demanding that Abashidze guarantee him and members of the Georgian government freedom to enter and travel around Adjaria; observe freedom of expression and campaigning in the run-up to the 28 March parliamentary election and ensure that the ballot is democratic; disarm illegal armed groups; and cede to Tbilisi control over customs, borders, communications, finances, and the port of Batumi. It is that flow of revenues, estimated at between $200-300 million, that has helped Abashidze not only to retain power for the past decade but to provide Adjaria with a far higher standard of public amenities than the rest of Georgia. The price for those social benefits has, however, been the repression of all manifestations of anti-Abashidze dissent.

Saakashvili warned that if Abashidze failed to comply with those demands within 24 hours, he would impose a total economic blockade on Adjaria. Abashidze for his part condemned Saakashvili's ultimatum, telling Russian journalists in Batumi on 15 March ultimatums are inappropriate when dealing with one's own citizens, and that as president, Saakashvili should have set an example of how to behave. At the same time, Abashidze again affirmed his readiness to meet with Saakashvili to discuss resolving the tensions between them in accordance with the law, Caucasus Press reported. Abashidze said Saakashvili is free to come to Adjaria, but accompanied by only two or three armed bodyguards, not an armed entourage of several hundred. Even before Abashidze's public refusal to comply, Saakashvili had issued orders to close the airport in Batumi, and the border crossing to Turkey at Sarp, and to inspect all cargo entering Adjaria via the port of Batumi, Russian and Georgian media reported. Saakashvili said the latter measure is necessary in order to prevent arms being supplied to Abashidze's loyalists, Reuters reported.

Saakashvili's 14 March ultimatum to Abashidze was not the first: he had already given Abashidze 10 days to apprehend the persons responsible for severely beating a Georgian journalist in Batumi on 5 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 March 2004). Abashidze for his part has consistently rejected Saakashvili's repeated allegations that he is trying to split Georgia, countering that he too seeks to resolve the tensions that have arisen in relations between the central and the Adjar government peacefully, within the framework of the Georgian Constitution. That avowal, however, means little because the Georgian Constitution adopted in 1995 does not define the basis for relations between the central government and the regions, except insofar as it grants the president of Georgia the right to appoint and dismiss members of "local" governing bodies.

It is not clear whether Saakashvili's 14 March ultimatum was an emotional response to the humiliation of being refused access to Adjar territory, or a cool tactical move based on the assumption that the international community would take his side and censure Abashidze. Nor is it clear whether Saakashvili was really prepared to risk the use of force less than two weeks before a national election in which his National Movement appears poised to win an overwhelming majority.

Saakashvili has repeatedly argued, both before and during the crisis of recent days, that as president he has both a right and a moral obligation to protect Georgia's territorial integrity, and to ensure that laws and human rights are observed throughout the country, and its territory. "Our main task in Adjaria is to defend democracy and human rights," ITAR-TASS quoted him as saying on 15 March. He has also stressed the need to ensure that the population of Adjaria can vote freely without intimidation in the 28 March parliamentary ballot. But he has also used harsher language, stressing the need for all Georgians to stand united to eradicate "banditism, feudalism, and treachery." At the same time he insists that Adjaria should be firmly subordinated to the central Georgian government, which should control the Adjar land and sea borders and the port of Batumi and the republic's revenues. Saakashvili rejected, however, as "a dirty lie" reports that his ultimate goal was to abolish Adjaria's status as an autonomous republic.

Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania has also sought to clarify the limitations to the central government's intentions with regard to Adjaria. He told Azerbaijan's ANS television on 17 March that "the government of Georgia does not aim to determine who will be the leader in Adjaria. This must be decided through elections." Zhvania added that "the main thing...is to prevent the autonomous republic from being turned into an enclave where Georgian laws and rules have no force. We respect the political autonomy of Adjaria. Let local voters elect their leader independently. But Georgia will not put up with the existence of two customs services, two border departments, and two ministers of defense and national security," Caucasus Press reported.

Statements over the past few days by both Saakashvili and Georgian parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze suggest, however, that of all the central government's various objectives, the holding of free elections on 28 March is the most immediate. Saakashvili told journalists in Tbilisi on 15 March that "hopefully, with the arrival of Council of Europe experts, with the OSCE and other Westerners, [the Adjar leadership] will not dare to fake the elections, they will not dare to deny our citizens the right to vote, and this is why the whole struggle was stirred up. The Adjar leadership does not want these elections. They are afraid of them."

Similarly, announcing on 17 March that Abashidze had agreed to meet with Saakashvili the following day, Burdjanadze said "it is important to us that fair and normal elections be held on our entire territory, including in Adjaria," Interfax reported. And Saakashvili himself told journalists following his meeting with Abashidze in Batumi that "all the main issues have been resolved, there is no problem with holding free elections," Caucasus Press reported.

The question thus arises: did the Georgian leadership set out deliberately to provoke a crisis in relations with Abashidze in the hope of engineering a humiliating defeat for Abashidze's Union for Democratic Revival (DAK) in the nationwide parliamentary ballot to be held in March? It remains unclear whether that party was the primary target of the Georgian leadership's refusal to comply with a Council of Europe proposal to lower the threshold for parliamentary representation from 7 percent to 4 or 5 percent.

Following his talks with Abashidze in Batumi on 18 March, Saakashvili brushing off the standoff of the past few days as "a misunderstanding, not a conflict." He said that Abashidze agreed to his demands, and that consequently the "restrictions -- there was never any blockade" imposed on Adjaria would be lifted at midnight. Saakashvili added that Abashidze agreed to release opposition representatives detained for participating in protests in Batumi calling for his dismissal. Georgian media had reported that reprisals against anti-Abashidze groups were continuing. The daily "Rezonansi" on 16 March quoted Nato Imnadze, whose father, Adjar parliament speaker Nodar Imnadze died in a shootout in Abashidze's office in May 1991, as saying that opposition supporters were being "terrorized," and that many of them had evacuated their families to locations elsewhere in Georgia.

Saakashvili has thus emerged from the confrontation the clear victor, having extracted the required concessions from Abashidze and avoided bloodshed. By contrast, Abashidze's position has been seriously weakened, not least because of repeated statements in Moscow that the Russian military contingent in Batumi would not intervene in the standoff to support him. One of Saakashvili's close supporters, David Berdzenishvili, was quoted by "Novye izvestiya" on 16 March as saying he is 100 percent convinced that Abashidze's party will suffer a crushing defeat in the 28 March elections, making him "politically bankrupt." And Georgia's Prosecutor-General Irakli Okruashvili announced on 16 March that charges of treason have been brought against several senior Adjar officials, including National Security Minister Soso Gogitidze, Deputy Interior Minister David Bakuridze, and Kobuleti administration head Tariel Khalvashi, for their role in preventing Saakashvili from entering Adjaria on 14 March. Okruashvili has also asked the Georgian parliament to lift the immunity from prosecution of Adjar Interior Minister Djemal Gogitidze. The arrest of his national security and interior ministers would seriously limit Abashidze's ability to control the situation in the runup to the election.

What further undisclosed agreements were reached on 18 March during the Saakashvili-Abashidze talks remains a matter for conjecture. "Rezonansi" on 16 March quoted Russian media reports that cited sources close to Russian President Vladimir Putin as saying that senior members of Abashidze's DAK were engaged in covert talks with the Georgian leadership aimed at preserving a DAK representation in the new Georgian parliament -- which would seem a small price to pay for securing the lifting of economic sanctions imposed on Adjaria that would also have inflicted significant damage on the Georgian economy. In that connection, the question arises whether Abashidze may be holding out for an Azerbaijani-style transfer of power in Batumi from himself to his Cambridge-educated son Giorgi, who is mayor of Batumi. Giorgi Abashidze has made overtures to his father's political opponents at least twice in recent weeks.

Finally, the standoff has underscored yet again the hostility of some leading members of Saakashvili's National Movement (EM) towards anyone who questions the wisdom of the president's actions. At a press conference in Tbilisi on 14 March, leading EM members accused opposition parties who denounced Saakashvili's ultimatum to Abashidze of "betraying Georgian national interests." (Liz Fuller)

ARMENIAN OPPOSITION SETS APRIL DEADLINE FOR 'DECISIVE ACTION.' Meeting on 15 March, Armenia's largest opposition alliance set a mid-April deadline for the launch of its long-awaited push to oust President Robert Kocharian which is likely to involve a campaign of demonstrations outside the main government buildings in Yerevan. The decision was made at a two-hour meeting of the ruling board of the Artarutiun (Justice) bloc. One of its members, Albert Bazeyan, told RFE/RL that the "decisive actions" will begin between 27 March and 12 April. He said Stepan Demirchian and other Artarutiun leaders are still weighing up the situation to determine an "optimal date" for what they hope will be massive street protests against Kocharian. Speaking on 16 March, Artarutiun parliament faction secretary Viktor Dallakian vowed that "in April we will overthrow the regime headed by Kocharian," Noyan Tapan reported.

"There is a certain divergence of views in the alliance," he said. "Some insist that it is still possible to push legal amendments through the National Assembly and hold a referendum of confidence [in Kocharian], but others think that that is not realistic. The dominant view is that the authorities have already missed an opportunity to hold a referendum of confidence."

Bazeyan added that Artarutiun will soon present its plan of action to another major opposition force, the National Unity Party (AMK) of Artashes Geghamian, and hopes that it will join in the onslaught. Geghamian has so far sent ambiguous signals about his willingness to participate in Artarutiun-led rallies. He has spoken of May as a more appropriate time for the campaign.

Both Artarutiun and National Unity have been touring the country for the past several weeks in the hope of mobilizing public support for their cause. Kocharian and his government, for their part, are conducting their own public relations campaign, with ministers sent to rural areas to hear popular grievances and explain government polices.

Precisely how the opposition intends to achieve regime change remains unclear. Some of its leaders have admitted drawing inspiration from the November bloodless "revolution of roses" in neighboring Georgia that brought about the downfall of its president, Eduard Shevardnadze. "We'll do and you'll see," Bazeyan said vaguely. (Karine Kalantarian)

INCONSISTENCY AS A COMPONENT OF AZERBAIJAN'S DOMESTIC POLICY. Ever since then Azerbaijani parliament speaker Heidar Aliyev returned to power in his native Azerbaijan following the collapse of the Popular Front government in June 1993, relations between the Azerbaijani authorities and the opposition (and independent media) have been tense and inimical. That tension, however, derives not so much from the repressive policies the leadership has on occasion resorted to as from the inconsistent nature of those reprisals, which finds expression both in the apparently random selection of targets for repression and in the seemingly arbitrary reversals of undemocratic actions.

While many governments make the occasional tactical U-turn, Heidar Aliyev seems to have elevated inconsistency to a pillar of domestic policy. And given that he exercised supreme control over all aspects of national politics, it seems reasonable to conclude that that decision was deliberate, given that inconsistency serves several purposes.

In terms of purely domestic politics, uncertainty over what is actually permitted (as distinct from what the law says is permitted, or the content of international legal and human rights conventions that Azerbaijan has signed) can and has served to deter opposition politicians from challenging the existing order too audaciously. And occasional gestures of seeming magnanimity (such as Heidar Aliyev's decision on the eve of the 1995 parliamentary elections to pardon several young journalists sentenced to prison terms for slander, or the pardoning and release from jail of persons designated by the Council of Europe as political prisoners) can be presented both to the Azerbaijani people and to the international community as "evidence" that Baku takes seriously and is complying with its commitments to act as a democratic state in which basic human rights are sacrosanct.

In addition, by targeting opposition parties and media outlets selectively, the authorities can create or fuel rumors that those left unscathed are either too insignificant to play a major political role, or are secretly collaborating with the incumbent leadership.

The track record of conflicting moves has continued since Ilham Aliyev succeeded his father as president in a disputed ballot last October. In the most recent example, on 16 March Musavat Party Deputy Chairman Sulhaddin Akper, one of hundreds of opposition activists detained for allegedly participating in post-presidential election clashes in Baku, was released from pre-trial detention. The charges against him of organizing mass disorder and resisting the police have been replaced with one of failing to report a crime (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 March 2004). One week earlier, President Aliyev refused to sign into law a bill on creating a public broadcaster that failed to take into account Council of Europe recommendations, and sent it back to the legislature for revision (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 March 2004).

Many observers doubt, however, that Ilham Aliyev exercises the total authority over domestic policy that his father did. It is therefore not clear whether the apparent continuing pattern of inconsistency reflects a conscious choice of policy rather than masking a series of ad hoc tactical decisions. From that standpoint, there is one further advantage of deliberately deciding to continue the policy of inconsistency, in addition to intimidating the opposition and creating opportunities to deflect criticism by the international human rights community through engaging in occasional acts of seeming clemency. The fact that policy towards the opposition has been so erratic and unpredictable for so long gives the new president a certain leeway vis-a-vis powerful dissenters within the upper echelons of the government on the one hand, and an international community exerting verbal pressure for greater democratization on the other. He can, for example, tell Western diplomats that it was hard-liners within his team who insisted on reprisals, and that for the West to exert pressure over human rights violations only serves to render him personally more vulnerable. And the long list of precedents makes it easier to "sell" such U-turns as the fruit of a measured policy decision, rather than yielding to pressure.

While further moves to honor Azerbaijan's human rights commitments, such as President Aliyev's 17 March decree pardoning 129 prisoners, including some prominent political prisoners (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 March 2004), can only be welcomed, they do not preclude the possibility of occasional regressive acts. Any increase in apparently erratic and irrational reversals of policy decisions in coming months could signal deepening dissent within the Azerbaijani leadership. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "The OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] is not capable of miracles." -- OSCE Chairman in Office and Bulgarian Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi, speaking in Yerevan on 17 March a propos of the OSCE Minsk Group's Karabakh mediation efforts (quoted by RFE/RL's Armenian Service).

"The way we live would be a catastrophe for any normal European." -- Chechen villager Alafdi Aminkulov, explaining why he voted "against all" in the 14 March Russian presidential ballot. (Quoted by Reuters.)

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