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Caucasus Report: October 29, 2004

29 October 2004, Volume 7, Number 41

AZERBAIJAN PREPARES FOR MUNICIPAL ELECTIONS. With less than two months left before the municipal elections scheduled for 17 December, Azerbaijan's ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP) is already set to preserve its control over local councils across the country.

Speaking on 22 October at a press conference to assess the election campaign, YAP Executive Secretary Ali Akhmedov said that almost 60 percent of the total 38,321 candidates registered for the ballot were nominated by YAP, reported on 23 October. Of the more than 18,000 YAP candidates who sought registration, Akhmedov continued, 17,705 were successful. By contrast, under 6 percent of all registered candidates represent opposition parties. In all, 21,647 seats on 2,735 municipal councils are to be contested.

Akhmedov noted on 22 October that the total number of candidates registered to contest the ballot is almost 2,000 fewer than participated in the previous local elections in 1999, and he attributed the decline to dwindling support for the opposition. Azerbaijan's main opposition parties are indeed still struggling to come to terms with the aftermath of the 15 October 2003 presidential ballot in which, according to official returns, Ilham Aliyev, the son of the outgoing president, won almost 80 percent of the vote. International observers who registered widespread blatant fraud nonetheless concluded that the violations were not extensive enough to call into question Aliyev's overall victory. But supporters of his main challenger, Musavat party Chairman Isa Qambar, challenged that supposition and on 16 October engaged in violent clashes with police in Baku. Seven prominent oppositionists were arrested for their role in those events and were sentenced last week to prison terms ranging from 2 1/1 to five years (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 October 2004).

Over the past year, the Azerbaijani opposition has maintained a low profile, waiting and hoping for the international community to pressure the leadership to make some gesture of conciliation. But when President Aliyev made a well-publicized offer in late summer of "dialogue," opposition parties rejected it, arguing that Aliyev should first demonstrate his good faith (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 September 2004). In short, the opposition is currently marginalized, demoralized, and perceived as ineffective by much of the electorate.

Opposition party activists interviewed by offered further explanations for most parties' failure to mount an all-out campaign for the municipal elections. The most important of those reasons is that local councils in Azerbaijani are wholly subordinate to, and at the mercy of, the regional administrator, who is appointed by the president. Such administrators appear to enjoy an even greater degree of impunity than did Communist Party raikom first secretaries during the Soviet era. An opposition activist who launched a campaign two months ago to publicize blatant corruption on the part of a local administrator in Masally and members of his family has been arrested and is currently being held in pretrial detention on what appear to be fabricated charges of illegal possession of drugs (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8, 13, and 29 September and 21 October 2004). Consequently, even those few opposition representatives who succeeded in winning election to local councils in 1999 found themselves powerless to challenge the local strongman and his supporters.

Hasan Kerimov, head of the election campaign staff of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHChP), explained to that the party began selecting candidates in January, but that in some districts they were told that there was no point in registering to contest the elections as the local council had already received instructions "from above" concerning which candidates should win.

Ali Aliev of the Azerbaijan National Independence Party (AMIP) pointed out to that the electorate is aware of the relative unimportance of local elections, and is therefore reluctant to endorse prospective opposition candidates. He said AMIP had hoped to field 8,000 candidates, but most of them proved unable to garner the requisite minimum number of signatures in their support to register for the ballot. In the end, AMIP succeeded in registering only 422 candidates, Turan reported on 22 October. By contrast, the AHChP registered 512 and the Musavat party 254.

Moreover, some local election commissions have reportedly refused to register opposition candidates for the ballot on various pretexts. On 15 October, AMIP issued a statement complaining that local election commissions were demanding that would-be candidates produce 40 separate items of documentation in support of their applications to register for the vote. Turan reported on 13 October that in one district in the exclave of Nakhichevan, the Shahbuz-Babek district election commission has refused to register any opposition candidates. Residents of one village in Babek subsequently announced that they will boycott the ballot, Turan reported on 19 October. In five districts, the authorities have officially designated candidates loyal to the authorities as representing the progressive wing of the AHChP, and have subsequently refused to register the bona fide AHChP candidates. Kerimov told that many such episodes are still being reported, and this did not exclude the possibility that the AHChP will call on its supporters to boycott the vote in protest against such violations. Musavat party Chairman Qambar similarly told journalists on 26 October that his party and the Our Azerbaijan bloc, of which Musavat is a member, may decide to join an opposition boycott of the elections.

Meanwhile the Central Election Commission (CEC) is seeking to ensure that the actual voting proceeds smoothly and with the minimum of blatant violations. CEC Chairman Mazahir Panahov told a session on 18 August that Baku is seeking financial assistance from the international community in order to acquire a further 5,000 computers that will make it possible for tabulated returns from individual districts to be posted immediately on the Internet, thereby increasing the transparency of the election process. (Under the election law, the preliminary returns must be made public no later than five days after the election, and the final returns within 30 days.) In addition, the governments of the United Kingdom and Norway will finance the purchase of an additional 2,500 transparent ballot boxes, Turan reported on 12 October. They are to replace the transparent boxes used during last year's presidential ballot, in which the aperture is too small to accommodate the folded ballot papers for the municipal elections, some of which list up to 100 candidates, Panahov explained on 18 August. (Liz Fuller)

ARAM SARGSIAN: HAMLET FIGURE OR ARMENIA'S SAAKASHVILI? Hardly anyone in Armenia knew the timid and reticent man who was appointed as their new prime minister in the immediate aftermath of a bloody terrorist attack on their parliament on 27 October 1999.

Aram Sargsian, then the director of a state-owned cement factory in the southern town of Ararat, had never engaged in politics or come under public spotlight before. The reason why he was chosen for the second most important post in the country was, quite simply, that he was the brother of the charismatic (and feared) Prime Minister Vazgen Sargsian, one of the eight officials assassinated in the parliament chamber. President Robert Kocharian is widely believed to have named him Vazgen's successor in an attempt to contain the fury of powerful government factions and top army generals who suspected him of engineering the carnage.

It was a brilliant, and Machiavellian, move. Kocharian fired the new, politically inexperienced premier six months later, reasserting his complete control over government. Aram Sargsian would later say that had he been more uncompromising and ruthless at the time, Kocharian would have lost the power struggle. He may have had a point.

The 42-year-old Sargsian has undergone a remarkable transformation from a political lightweight to the most dangerous challenger to the ruling regime. A man who felt uncomfortable before television cameras and had trouble expressing himself publicly five years ago is now the most passionate and rousing speaker at opposition rallies in Armenia, someone who can galvanize crowds with scathing and derogatory attacks on the authorities. He also projects a sense of optimism which is usually missing in the discourse of other opposition leaders.

Sargsian's oratorical skills were most recently on display in the opposition campaign of street protests during the spring of this year aimed at forcing Kocharian to step down. Addressing the first major opposition rally in Yerevan on 9 April, he appeared to succeed in persuading tens of thousands of people that Kocharian's resignation was just a matter of days. Sargsian sounded strikingly bullish even on the night of 12-13 April, when riot police used excessive force to break up an opposition protest near the presidential residence. Hiding from the police, he told the author that he believes the security forces suffered more casualties than the demonstrators. He stated proudly that he himself threw a few punches in self-defense.

Two months later, when it was clear that the bid for regime change was fizzling out, Sargsian told supporters at another rally that he deliberately misled them with upbeat statements to make them believe in their victory. There were no boos from the crowd.

The ill-fated spring campaign was clearly inspired by the November 2003 "Rose Revolution" in neighboring Georgia, where veteran President Eduard Shevardnadze was toppled in a popular uprising led by Mikheil Saakashvili, then a firebrand opposition politician. If there is anyone in Armenia who even remotely resembles the current Georgian president, it is Sargsian. In an interview last week, he did not object to being compared with Saakashvili. "Why not?" he said. "The people of Georgia see that their government is democratic and is demanding compensation from former plunderers."

Sargsian may still be far from becoming as popular as Saakashvili. But he has been the main target of government attacks in recent years. Senior members of his Hanrapetutiun (Republic) party were the only prominent political figures arrested and kept in jail for several months during a harsh crackdown on the opposition launched by Kocharian in March. Hanrapetutiun is one of nine parties aligned in Armenia's main opposition alliance, Artarutiun (Justice). It reportedly pushed for more radical opposition actions both in the spring and during last year's disputed presidential elections, when Artarutiun's top leader, Stepan Demirchian, was Kocharian's main challenger.

Demirchian is the son of parliament speaker Karen Demirchian, who was also murdered in the October 1999 attack. Though more popular than Sargsian, he is notoriously indecisive and therefore seen as less dangerous for the regime. Demirchian too believes that Kocharian covered up, if not masterminded, the parliament killings. Yet he scoffs at suggestions that the relatives of the two most prominent parliament attack victims are primarily motivated by vengeance in their struggle against Kocharian.

Sargsian, by contrast, does not deny that. "Love and revenge are values of almost the same significance," he said bluntly. "A human being is characterized by both love and revenge. While being more of a loving person, I am no exception when it comes to hatred."

Sargsian suffered a second personal blow during the 2003 presidential race. On 5 March, immediately after polls closed in the second round of voting, his second brother Armen was charged with commissioning the December 2002 murder of Tigran Naghdalian, director of Armenian state television and radio, over the latter's alleged role in the parliament massacre. Armen Sargsian was eventually sentenced to 15 years in prison despite pleading not guilty to the charges. His family denounced his imprisonment as politically motivated.

That case raised the stakes for Aram Sargsian. So far he has acted in the shadow of Demirchian and Artashes Geghamian, another opposition leader who made a strong showing in the 2003 presidential ballot. But experience has shown that the same opposition candidates do not do well in two consecutive elections in Armenia. Public support for Demirchian and Geghamian seems to have declined since 2003, as evidenced by their failure to pull huge crowds during their joint spring campaign.

Sargsian might thus feel that their time is gone and try to take the center stage in the opposition camp next time around. He is among those who stand to gain from a possible deepening of the ongoing government infighting fueled by uncertainty over what Kocharian will do after completing his second term in 2008. Armenia's constitution bars him from seeking a third term.

But whether disenchanted voters could embrace Sargsian as a new viable alternative to Kocharian is also an open question. The former premier has until now appealed to their hearts but not minds, failing to come up with a clear vision of Armenia's future. He has yet to convince most Armenians that there is more to his political activities than a mere desire for vengeance. (Emil Danielyan)

ABKHAZ GOVERNMENT IN EXILE TO MOVE TO WESTERN GEORGIA. The Abkhaz government in exile, which represents the Georgian displaced persons who fled from Abkhazia during the 1992-1993 war, will move its headquarters from Tbilisi to Zugdidi, in western Georgia, by the end of this year, Caucasus Press reported on 27 October. The composition of the government in exile has been radically revised following the appointment last month of former National Security Council Deputy Secretary Irakli Alasania as its head to replace Temur Mzhavia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 and 29 September 2004).

Alasania has replaced First Deputy Prime Minister Paata Davitaya with former Sukhumi Mayor Gia Chikovani; David Tsanava and Irakli Gegechkori were named second and third deputy prime ministers respectively. The number of government ministers will be cut from 12 to five, Caucasus Press reported on 18 October. Davitaya will continue to work on providing the International Criminal Court in The Hague with materials to substantiate Georgia's claim that the Abkhaz leadership engaged in genocide and ethnic cleansing of the Georgian population during the 1992-1993 war.

Chikovani told journalists in Tbilisi on 19 October following the first session of the new government that he sees a need to coordinate more effectively the efforts of various Georgian NGOs engaged in civic diplomacy as a way to expedite a solution of the conflict with Abkhazia, Caucasus Press reported. (Liz Fuller)