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Caucasus Report: September 30, 2004


30 September 2004, Volume 7, Number 38

NOTE TO READERS:
The next issue of "RFE/RL Caucasus Report" will appear on 15 October.

ABKHAZ PRESIDENTIAL BALLOT TOO CLOSE TO CALL? On 3 October voters in the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia go to the polls to elect a successor to President Vladislav Ardzinba. The Abkhaz Constitution bars Ardzinba, the republic's wartime leader, from serving a third five-year presidential term.

A total of six candidates registered for the ballot, of whom one, Vice President Valerii Arshba, subsequently withdrew. Popular former Interior Minister Aleksandr Ankvab was denied registration on the grounds that he had not lived in Abkhazia for most of the previous five years, and that he refused to sit an Abkhaz-language test (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 August and 2 September 2004). Ankvab left Abkhazia in 1993 for Moscow, where he went into business; he reportedly has close connections with Turkey's Abkhaz community, according to "Moskovskaya pravda" on 24 September. The Abkhaz Supreme Court upheld the Central Election Commission's refusal to register Ankvab, Caucasus Press reported on 11 September, whereupon Ankvab threw his support behind Chernomorenergo head Sergei Bagapsh. According to "Moskovskaya pravda," Bagapsh has offered Ankvab the post of prime minister in the event he is elected.

Initially, most observers anticipated an easy victory for Prime Minister Raul Khadjimba, whom Ardzinba endorsed as his preferred successor in August (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 August 2004). Russian President Vladimir Putin has likewise signaled his approval of Khadjimba (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 August 2004), as has Khazrat Sovmen, president of the neighboring Republic of Adygeya, Caucasus Press reported on 18 September. Sovmen praised Khadjimba's professionalism and described him as a decent human being capable of resolving Abkhazia's economic problems.

Russian journalists, too, describe the 46-year-old Khadjimba -- who began his career in the KGB, fought in the 1992-93 war, and then served as Abkhazia's security chief, first deputy prime minister, and defense minister -- as honest and capable. Since being named prime minister in April 2003, Khadjimba, dubbed "the Abkhaz Putin," has functioned as de facto leader in place of Ardzinba, who for the past few years has been incapacitated by an unidentified illness. Khadjimba presided over a modest economic upswing, cemented economic ties with various Russian regions, and engineered the granting of Russian citizenship to those Abkhaz who applied for it -- a privilege that entitles the holder to the minimum Russian pension.

Khadjimba is nonetheless at a disadvantage in that he reportedly does not enjoy the support either of the Abkhaz parliament or of any major political party. By contrast, Bagapsh, perceived as his sole serious rival, has the support of a bloc comprising the Amtsakhara union of veterans of the 1992-93 war and United Abkhazia (the two bodies merged earlier this summer), the Federation of Independent Trade Unions, and the opposition movement Aitaira, which initially backed Ankvab. Bagapsh, who is 55 and a former first secretary of the Abkhaz Obkom of the Georgian Kosmomol is, like Khadjimba, regarded as pragmatic and a competent economist. He too served for several years as prime minister, from 1997 to October 1999.

"Nezavisimaya gazeta" observed on 27 September that the programs of all candidates are very similar: all rule out any compromise settlement with Georgia that would undercut the republic's proclaimed independence, and all advocate close cooperation with Russia, especially in the economic field. There are, however, a few key differences: Khadjimba advocates constitutional reforms that would reduce the powers of the president and enhance those of the parliament, according to Caucasus Press on 4 September. Bagapsh for his part was quoted by regnum.ru on 2 September as saying he is ready to form a coalition government in which all political parties and movements would be represented. Bagapsh also stressed the need to win the trust and support of the largely Georgian population of Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion. The Gali Georgians fled at the end of the 1992-93 war, and not all have returned. While the Abkhaz authorities have not deliberately placed obstacles in the path of those wishing to return, those Georgians who risk doing so are frequently targeted by Abkhaz criminal bands, and most schools in Gali have Abkhaz as the language of instruction; two do not teach Georgian at all, according to Caucasus Press on 29 September. The need for measures to facilitate repatriation of displaced Georgians to Gali is routinely stressed in the UN Secretary Council's six-monthly resolutions on Abkhazia.

According to a poll of 830 students at Abkhaz State University summarized by Apsnipress, 47.2 percent said they will vote for Bagapsh, 39.6 percent for Khadjimba, 9.1 percent for former Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba, 3.4 percent for former presidential adviser and Prime Minister Anri Djergenia, and 0.7 percent for People's Party leader Yakub Lakoba, Caucasus Press reported on 17 September. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 27 September similarly predicted that Shamba will receive between 10-15 percent of the vote, enough to deprive either Khadjimba or Bagapsh of the 50 percent plus one vote required for a clear first-round victory. Whether or not on Khadjimba's orders, leaflets began circulating warning the electorate not to vote for Bagapsh and alleging that he has already allocated cabinet positions. Some Abkhaz have publicly argued that Bagapsh should not become president as his wife is Georgian. One argued in print that a Georgian "first lady" would be not only inappropriate but a threat to national security, according to "Russkii kurer" on 18 August. The political parties supporting Bagapsh have condemned the use of such "dirty election technology."

If the current Abkhaz leadership is indeed intent on rigging the outcome of the ballot to ensure a victory for Khadjimba, they should not find it difficult to do so given the chaotic conditions created by the election law. The Abkhaz Central Election Commission gives the total number of voters as 165,248, but the number of registered voters in Gali (where Bagapsh hopes to win the support of the predominantly Georgian electorate) is not known with any certainty: it has been variously estimated at 9,000 and 15,000. Moreover, all voters are required to cast their ballots at the location where they are officially registered as resident, which in many cases is not the location where they actually live. (Liz Fuller)

ARMENIANS UNEASY AT PROPOSED IRAQ DEPLOYMENT. The Armenian government's decision to send noncombat personnel to serve with the international peacekeeping force in Iraq has met with resistance from civic groups, opposition parties, one member of the three-party ruling coalition, and some senior military officers.

Acknowledging that unease, Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian told parliament on 22 September that the Armenian contingent, which numbers some 50-60 medics, U.S.-trained sappers, and drivers, will be sent to Iraq only after the legislature has approved the planned deployment that he stressed is of a "humanitarian" nature.

Deputy Defense Minister Artur Aghabekian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on 3 September that the Armenian contingent will serve in central-southern Iraq as part of a Polish-led international peacekeeping force. On 6 September, Armenian President Robert Kocharian and his Polish counterpart Aleksander Kwasniewski signed a protocol formalizing the Armenian commitment (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 September 2004). John Evans, the new U.S. ambassador to Yerevan, hailed Armenia's announced intention to send noncombat troops to Iraq, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on 16 September. But some senior military officers were less than enthusiastic. Deputy Defense Minister Lieutenant General Yurii Khachaturov told journalists on 7 September he is "not delighted" at the prospect. He expressed concern that the deployment could create future problems both for the Armenian community in Iraq and for Armenians in general.

Armenians across the political spectrum appear to share those misgivings. Parliament deputy Grigor Harutiunian of the opposition Artarutiun faction warned on 14 September of the potential danger to Armenian communities throughout the Middle East, Noyan Tapan reported. One week later, a second Artarutiun parliamentarian, Viktor Dallakian, argued that the threat could extend to Armenia, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. He told parliament that "sending a medical, humanitarian or any other Armenian contingent to Iraq is dangerous for the security of the Republic of Armenia as well as for the Armenian population of Iraq." That minority is estimated to number some 20,000-25,000.

Armenian civic groups issued a statement on 24 September appealing to the Armenian parliament not to approve the planned deployment. One signatory told RFE/RL that the deployment risks turning the entire Armenian minority in Iraq into hostages; a second argued that "60 people cannot cause a breakthrough in the Iraq war."

In a 25 September press release, the extraparliamentary Hayrenik front argued that the dispatch of an Armenian contingent to Iraq "will destroy the mutual trust and friendship between the Armenian and Arab peoples," Noyan Tapan reported. The press release suggested that the entire Armenian diaspora could suffer "human, cultural, and economic losses" as a result.

The planned deployment may even exacerbate perceived tensions within the governing three-party coalition. On 24 September, Vahan Hovannisian, a leading member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun, one of the two junior coalition partners, told parliament that as a signatory to the CIS Collective Security Treaty, Armenia should consult with Russia before sending its contingent to Iraq, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. He added that as a member of the Council of Europe, Armenia should similarly take into account the opinion of those European states -- he mentioned specifically France and Germany -- that opposed the U.S. intervention in Iraq. But Hovannisian too stressed that the primary consideration should be the safety of the large Armenian communities throughout the Arab world.

Finally, members of the Armenian community in Iraq have themselves signaled their opposition to the planned deployment. Archbishop Avak Asadurian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on 28 September that he has written to both President Kocharian and the Armenian parliament asking that Yerevan not send troops to Iraq lest the Armenian community there become "a target for terrorists." The wife of the priest at Baghdad's sole Armenian church said that the Arab population has already learned from media reports of the imminent Armenian deployment, and is displeased that "even friendly Armenia...is going to help the occupiers."

But during talks in Yerevan on 28 September with Armenian Deputy Foreign Minister Ruben Shugarian, Tariq Muhammad Yahya, an official from the interim Iraqi government, praised what he termed Armenia's "balanced" policy toward Iraq and called for the restoration of bilateral economic ties, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. (Liz Fuller)

ARMENIAN POLITICIANS, ECONOMISTS DIVIDED OVER OPENING BORDER WITH TURKEY. A roundtable discussion on 29 September among politicians and economists in Yerevan produced a broad divergence of opinion on consequences of a possible opening of the land border between Armenia and Turkey. Supporters of cross-border commerce between the two estranged states, among them an aide to President Robert Kocharian, cited potential benefits to the Armenian economy, such as lower transportation costs and access to the Turkish market. But their opponents warned that Armenia would risk becoming economically dependent on its historic foe.

"A landlocked country cannot compete internationally with closed borders," said Ashot Soghomonian, a member of the Turkish-Armenian Business Council (TABC), a private group which strongly supports an open border.

Seyran Avagian, a presidential adviser and the leader of the pro-Kocharian Democratic Liberal Union, also made a strong case for the lifting of the Turkish embargo, saying that it would benefit both countries. "I believe that political circles in both Turkey and Armenia are deeply conscious of that," he said.

Avagian's comments reflect the stated view of official Yerevan, which has long been urging Ankara to open the frontier and stop linking the normalization of Turkish-Armenian ties with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The issue appears to have topped the agenda of this week's meeting between Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian and his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gul (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 September 2004).

However, one of the three parties represented in Armenia's coalition cabinet, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun, takes a different view, warning of a "Turkish political and economic expansion." Ashot Yeghiazarian, a senior member of Dashnaktsutiun attending the discussion, said the Armenian market would be flooded with cheap Turkish goods in the event of an open border.

"There are already plenty of Turkish goods in our market," countered Eduard Aghajanov, an economist critical of the government. He argued that Armenian manufactures should not be artificially protected against competition at home if they are to sell their products abroad.

Turkish-Armenian trade has been mainly carried out through neighboring Georgia. The Armenian government estimates its annual volume at $60 million. (Shakeh Avoyan)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "There will be no peace in Chechnya without a political dialogue." -- Former Ingushetian President Ruslan Aushev, quoted by Interfax on 28 September.

"It is only common sense that a stable and durable peace in Chechnya will eventually require a solution that has a solid political and socioeconomic basis. And it is also obvious that a solution will only be durable if it is acceptable to the people of Chechnya." -- U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Alexander Vershbow, quoted by Interfax on 28 September.

"Grozny continues to resemble Stalingrad." -- Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Alvaro Gil-Robles, speaking in Moscow following a recent visit to Chechnya, quoted by Interfax on 29 September.

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