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Caucasus Report: June 9, 2003

9 June 2003, Volume 6, Number 21

NEW GEORGIAN OPPOSITION ALIGNMENT EMERGES. On 3 June, five Georgian opposition parties organized a mass demonstration outside the parliament building in Tbilisi. The initial objective was to wrest concessions from the Georgian leadership on the composition of the Central Elections Commission (CEC) in a bid to thwart anticipated attempts by the authorities to rig the outcome of the 2 November parliamentary elections. But the estimated 7,000 protesters spontaneously expanded their demands to encompass the resignation of President Eduard Shevardnadze. Moreover, the five political parties that organized the protest -- the United Democrats, the New National Movement, the New Rightists, the Union of Traditionalists, and the People's Party of Georgia -- also announced the creation of a new United Resistance Front whose stated objective is to pressure the country's present leadership, by peaceful means, to step down.

As Georgian media broadcast coverage of the Tbilisi protest, people took to the streets in up to a dozen towns across Georgia, from Poti and Zugdidi in the west to Akhaltsikhe in the south and Gurdjaani in the east, to air their grievances. In Tbilisi, CEC chairman Djumber Lominadze and four more members of that 18-person body announced they had submitted their resignations. After that, a hard core of a few hundred protesters accompanied United Democrats leader Zurab Zhvania and National Movement (EM) leader Mikhail Saakashvili to the state chancellery on the evening of 3 June to demand that Shevardnadze resign. Even though Zhvania had vowed earlier in the day that the protest would continue until the participants' demands were met, the hard core dispersed after talks with State Security Minister Valeri Khaburzania.

Marina Molodini, a member of the United Democrats parliamentary faction, was quoted on 5 June by the independent newspaper "Akhali taoba" as saying that the 3 June protest was intended as "a warning" to the government, and that the organizers were "satisfied" with the outcome. They had, indeed, not only managed to demonstrate the support they could muster within the capital and the extent of popular resentment in the provinces, but also concluded a tactical alliance that unites five political groupings with disparate ideologies and which in last year's local elections were competing for the "protest" vote (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 7 June 2002). What's more, despite their differences, four of the five party leaders travelled to Kutaisi, Georgia's second city, on 5 June to establish a regional headquarters there. They also intend to set up similar regional offices in other Georgian towns to coordinate the campaign to force the present leadership to resign.

What is unclear, however, is whether the members of the new front are willing and able to transform it into an election bloc. Their differences are not confined to ideology, but also extend to tactics. Zhvania, for example, is quoted in a 6 June "Eurasia View" analysis as condemning what he termed Saakashvili's "redundant populism." While Zhvania brought his young children with him to the protest to show that the participants had no intention of risking clashes with security forces, and New Rightists leader David Gamkrelidze similarly stressed that the Tbilisi protest would be non-violent, Saakashvili appealed to participants to break into the parliament building by force and evict deputies from the former ruling Union of Citizens of Georgia. And while other opposition politicians abjure violence, some apparently do not rule out such "radical tactics" as blocking railroads and major highways, according to Akaki Bobokhidze of the EM.

Addressing the weekly government session on 4 June, President Shevardnadze played down the challenge to his authority posed by the previous day's protests. But at the same time he warned again that he will not permit the opposition to promote "organized chaos." Some may construe that warning as an indication that Shevardnadze is planning to ensure that his supporters retain power at any price, especially in conjunction with statements he made in a recent interview with "Moskovskie novosti." That publication quoted him as accusing unnamed opposition leaders of acting "irresponsibly" and predicting that "if they come to power, they will lead the country to ruin." Shevardnadze added, however, that "if we do not win a majority in parliament this autumn, we shall definitely think of something [to prevent that happening]."

On 7 June, the website of the independent TV station Rustavi-2 reported that Shevardnadze may convene a special parliamentary session to resume discussions on the optimum composition of the CEC. In the absence of parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze, who on 3 June affirmed her support for the opposition, and who left Tbilisi on 7 June for a week-long visit to the United States that session will presumably be chaired by one of the six deputy speakers. (Liz Fuller)

WHO WILL HEAD ARMENIA'S NEXT PARLIAMENT? Two weeks after the Armenian parliamentary elections, agreement has reportedly still not been reached either on the most appropriate candidate to head the new legislature, or on the allocation of portfolios within the new government. On 31 May, the opposition newspaper "Haykakan zhamanak" reported that President Robert Kocharian had proposed as parliament speaker 34-year-old Artur Baghdasarian, whose Orinats Yerkir (Law-Based State) party has 22 seats in the new legislature (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 June 2003). The paper further claimed that Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, whose Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) will be the largest single faction with 39 of the total 131 seats, had concurred with Kocharian's choice. In addition, Baghdasarian reportedly has the backing of Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian. Sarkisian's name was linked for several years with Orinats Yerkir, but in the recent elections he ran on the HHK ticket.

Baghdasarian himself has made no secret of the fact that he considers himself entitled to the speaker's post by virtue of the number of seats his party won, and that he has the required experience and ability to forge a consensus, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported on 7 June. Baghdasarian reasoned that as no party has an absolute majority within the new legislature, "there has to be a process of political consultations."

But some senior HHK members argue that as the largest faction, that party should choose the parliament head. Their distaste for Baghdasarian may well have been compounded by his party's criticism of the HHK during the election campaign as a party of oligarchs concerned solely with protecting their own personal and financial interests. Several newly elected HHK deputies have told RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau that they will not endorse Baghdasarian's candidacy as parliament speaker even under pressure from the HHK leadership.

The HHK is, moreover, not the only pro-Kocharian party that has serious misgivings about Baghdasarian's suitability for the post of speaker. The Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD) would reportedly also prefer an alternative candidate but, inside sources privy to the power-sharing talks told RFE/RL on 5 June that Kocharian has refused to propose anyone else.

Those sources implied that Baghdasarian's appointment may be contingent on concessions by the HHK to the HHD (which has 11 parliament mandates). On 5 June, those government insiders told RFE/RL that the HHD has been offered one of the two deputy speaker posts, the chair of one parliament standing committee, and an unspecified number of ministerial posts, but that the HHD was holding out for more executive positions. On 7 June, they told RFE/RL that the HHD has been offered the chairs of two standing parliament committees, together with three ministerial positions and the governorships of two marzes (provinces), in return for the party's endorsement of Baghdasarian. HHD spokesman Gegham Manukian told RFE/RL on 6 June that talks that day between HHK, HHD, and Orinats Yerkir leaders failed to reach any agreement on the distribution of senior positions.

Defense Minister Sarkisian has, however, reportedly secured the backing of Artashes Geghamian's National Unity Party (AMK) in the secret vote on Baghdasarian's candidacy, in return for which Geghamian will be granted one of the deputy speaker posts, according to the opposition newspaper "Azg" on 5 June. That deal, according to "Azg," was struck over dinner at a plush Yerevan restaurant on 3 June. Earlier on 3 June, Geghamian announced that he has neither been offered nor accepted any parliament or government posts (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 June 2003). The opposition AMK has nine deputies in the new parliament. During the election campaign, leading members of the opposition alignment Artarutiun repeatedly branded Geghamian the authorities' stalking-horse. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK: "In current conditions, democratic presidential elections in Azerbaijan are impossible." -- Former Azerbaijani President Ayaz Mutalibov, in an interview published in "Konservator," on 30 May.

"The upcoming [presidential] elections...will be the most democratic in the political history not only of Azerbaijan but of the entire Transcaucasus." -- Azerbaijani parliament deputy Anar Mamedkhanov, in an interview with on 7 June.

"Vladimir Putin is a president with a real human soul." -- Azerbaijan's President Heidar Aliev, meeting in Baku on 30 May with Russian Ambassador Nikolai Ryabov (quoted by Turan).

"Political Darwinism is evident in Armenia: he who can adapt, survives." -- National Accord Party leader and defeated presidential candidate Aram Harutiunian, speaking at a press conference in Yerevan on 6 June (quoted by Noyan Tapan).