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Caucasus Report: August 1, 2003

1 August 2003, Volume 6, Number 27

U.S. PRESSURES GEORGIA TO ADOPT ELECTION LAW AMENDMENTS. Visiting Georgia in early July, former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker unveiled a draft plan for forming the new Central Election Commission (CEC) which was immediately hailed by President Eduard Shevardnadze as a way of ending the months-long standoff between the authorities and the opposition (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 May and 2 and 17 June 2003). The latter had rejected all earlier government proposals for dividing up the seats on the commission, arguing that those proposals gave the authorities an unfair advantage and would facilitate the falsification of the vote in favor of the recently created pro-Shevardnadze bloc, For a New Georgia.

Several opposition parties, too, endorsed the so-called "Baker model," which envisaged a 15-person CEC, nine of whose members would be selected by the opposition and five by forces aligned with the present leadership. The CEC chairman would be a person with no political affiliation selected by the OSCE from among candidates nominated by Georgian political parties. United Democrats leader Zurab Zhvania predicted on 7 July that if Baker's "recommendations are implemented, the elections...will be free and democratic." Labor Party chairman Shalva Natelashvili described Baker's proposals as "a great victory" for the Georgian people and for his party.

But not all opposition parties were as enthusiastic. The All-Georgian Revival Union, led by Adjar Supreme Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze, and the Industrialists Union protested that, since they polled second and third place respectively in the 1999 parliamentary elections, they should be entitled to more seats on the CEC than parties that are not represented in the outgoing parliament. Abashidze laid claim to four seats -- three for "Revival" and one for his autonomous republic -- while they "Industrialists" demanded two (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 and 18 July 2003).

Following talks with Shevardnadze on 8 July, most other opposition parties reached consensus in discussions on 12 July that the Union of Traditionalists, the Labor Party, Ertoba (Unity), the New Rightists, the National Movement, the United Democrats, the Industrialists Union, the Revival Union, and one faction of the divided supporters of deceased President Zviad Gamsakhurdia should each have one seat. But the Revival Union and the Industrialists Union, which boycotted the 12 July talks, rejected that model.

Two further rounds of talks, on 14 and 17 July, failed to yield an agreement. On the contrary, the Revival Union continued to argue in favor of an alternative allocation that would increase the number of CEC members to 17. The three parties that polled the 7 percent minimum needed for parliament representation (the pro-presidential Union of Citizens of Georgia, the Revival Union, and the Industrialists Union) would receive three seats apiece, the autonomous republics of Abkhazia and Adjaria one each, and the remainder would go to the parties that polled the best results during the 2002 local elections. The Industrialists Union, for its part, proposed that the parties that polled over 7 percent in 1999 should have two seats each, the parliament elected under Gamsakhurdia should get one, and that the remainder be divided among other opposition parties.

On 24 July, parliament adopted the "Baker model" in the first reading with 123 votes in favor; the Revival Union and Industrialists Union did not take part in the vote. The following day, Adjar Supreme Council Chairman Abashidze warned that his party will boycott the 2 November parliamentary elections unless two of the five seats earmarked for the progovernment forces are given to the autonomous republics.

That demand risks compounding tensions between Abashidze and the central government. In mid-July, Georgian Minister of State Avtandil Djorbenadze blamed Abashidze for exacerbating the budget shortfall during the first six months of the year by systematically withholding tax revenues. The revenue shortfall was one of the factors that prompted the IMF to demand sweeping budget cuts (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 July 2003).

Even some members of the pro-presidential For a New Georgia bloc have expressed reservations about the "Baker model." Socialist Party leader Vakhtang Rcheulishvili told Caucasus Press on 7 July that his party is "not particularly delighted" by the U.S. proposals but will accept them because it has a vested interest in the elections being free and fair. Following passage of the amendments in the first reading on 24 July, majority faction leader Elgudja Medzmarishvili admitted that some deputies from the pro-presidential bloc had been reluctant to endorse the Baker model and did so only under pressure. On 28 July, the website of the independent television station Rustavi-2 reported that For a New Georgia planned to demand unspecified changes to the election code amendments during the second and third reading.

Shevardnadze immediately dismissed rumors of dissent within his bloc as untrue, Caucasus Press reported on 28 July. But during a further reading of the amendments that ended in the small hours of 31 July, the progovernment bloc supported the XXIst Century faction, which is part of the Revival Union, in its demand that the Revival Union be given three of the nine opposition seats on the CEC and the Industrialists Union two, with the remaining four going to other opposition parties.

United Democrats leader Zurab Zhvania immediately demanded a meeting with Shevardnadze, implying that the president was behind For a New Georgia's reluctance to endorse the "Baker model" in the second reading. Shevardnadze refused, saying it is for the parliament to approve the proposed election law amendments and that he personally has already affirmed his commitment to free and fair elections. Parliament failed to raise a quorum on 31 July; if it does not adopt the amendments to the Election Code by 2 August then the 2 November elections must be supervised by the outgoing CEC, the chairman, and several other members of which have already resigned. (Liz Fuller)

TWO DIASPORA-BASED ARMENIAN POLITICAL PARTIES AGREE TO COOPERATE. Following talks in Yerevan on 30 July between their respective leaders, two of Armenia's oldest political parties -- the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD) and the smaller Ramkavar Azatakan (Liberal Democratic) Party of Armenia (HRAK) announced on 31 July that they will join forces to achieve shared goals such as legal reform and a fight against corruption. The move was unexpected since the two parties have a long history of mutual antagonism.

Founded more than a century ago, the two parties have for decades been the main political organizations in the worldwide Armenian diaspora and reopened their branches in Armenia following the fall of its Soviet-era Communist government in 1990. Their Cold War-era feud stemmed from differing attitudes towards the Soviet Union, with the liberal Ramkavars strongly supporting its Armenian SSR and the Socialist Dashnaks favoring a tough anti-Soviet line.

Relations between the two parties remained cool even after Armenia gained independence. Its first post-Communist leadership under President Levon Ter-Petrossian was backed by the HRAK but strongly opposed by the HHD. Now both parties support current President Robert Kocharian and their Armenia-based leaders see that as enough of a reason for burying the hatchet.

"Forget about the Cold War years," HRAK's Harutiun Arakelian told RFE/RL. "Those times are gone. The two parties should now learn lessons from their past mistakes."

A senior Dashnaktsutiun member, Spartak Seyranian, similarly blamed the Dashnak-Ramkavar feud on the former Soviet empire. He said the two organizations now have more common interests than differences.

The party leaders say they will cooperate in drafting new laws and suggesting amendments to the existing ones, including the constitution and the electoral code. They say they will also coordinate their anticorruption efforts.

It is not yet clear, though, how that cooperation will unfold in practice. Dashnaktsutiun has a major faction in the Armenian Parliament and is one of the three pro-Kocharian parties making up the current government. The HRAK, by contrast, failed to win any parliament seats in the 25 May elections. Nor is it clear whether their diaspora-based elites also plan to heal past wounds.

The bipartisan deal followed a sudden change of leadership of the HRAK, whose longtime chairman, Ruben Mirzakhanian, was removed earlier this month as a result of an internal party coup (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 July 2003). Some local media have speculated that the revolt was orchestrated by Kocharian's administration which, some observers suggest, was increasingly uneasy over Mirzakhanian's close ties with ambitious Russian-Armenian tycoon Ara Abrahamian. (Karine Kalantarian)

ARMENIAN GOVERNMENT MULLS MAJOR RESTRUCTURING OF POLICE. The Armenian government is considering a major overhaul of its structure that could lead to the creation of a single powerful ministry overseeing local governments and the national police, a senior official confirmed on 26 July. "There have been discussions in the government about the creation of such a structure," Minister for Local Government Hovik Abrahamian told RFE/RL. "The issue is still at the discussion stage."

Abrahamian, who played a key role in President Robert Kocharian's reelection campaign earlier this year and is regarded as the unofficial number two figure in Prime Minister Andranik Markarian's coalition government, has already been tipped as the most likely head of the new agency, which would merge his current ministry and the Armenian police. But he himself has dismissed such speculation as "not true."

The law-enforcement agency was already reorganized into the Police Service late last year as a result of the abolition by President Kocharian of the interior minister in accordance with a new Armenian law on police. The move placed the police under Kocharian's direct control, reinforcing his grip on Armenia's security apparatus.

The possible police reorganization could give Markarian and three pro-Kocharian parties making up his cabinet some degree of oversight over the police just as it faces strong criticism in connection with the recent wave of high-profile killings in Armenia. One of those parties, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutiun), is already pushing for a sweeping "reform" of all law-enforcement bodies, which have been widely accused of corruption and abuse of power.

Some Dashnaktsutiun leaders are known to be critical of Abrahamian and would oppose his appointment as the head of the new Interior Ministry. But Abrahamian, who is a leading member of Markarian's Republican Party (HHK) and has extensive business interests, denied having any major disagreements with Dashnaktsutiun, saying that his relations with its leaders are "very warm."

Some Armenian media speculated recently that Kocharian is intent on making Abrahamian a counterweight to his most influential associate, Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, and other pro-presidential forces. One newspaper claimed that the local government minister underscored his loyalty to the head of state by presenting the latter's newly married son with a luxury car. Abrahamian vehemently denied those claims as "false" and "immoral." (Armen Zakarian)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "There are forces in Russia, extremely influential ones, for whom saying one thing and doing the polar opposite has become a way of life." -- Georgian Foreign Minister Irakli Menagharishvili, interviewed in "Vremya novostei" on 25 July.

"The opposition's chances of coming to power are zero.... The opposition is made up of mediocre and amoral people who are incapable of constructive thinking. We shall never allow people who are uneducated fruit sellers to come to power, or people who over 12 years have not managed to complete a scientific treatise." --Yeni Azerbaycan Party Deputy Vhairman and Azerbaijani presidential candidate Ilham Aliev, son of president Heidar Aliyev (quoted by on 29 July).

"Passing legislation is the easiest thing. It's monitoring the implementation of that legislation which is the most long-term and problematic area." -- Outgoing head of the OSCE Office in Armenia Ambassador Roy Reeve, speaking at a press conference in Yerevan on 28 July. He was commenting on the need for new election legislation in the wake of international criticism of the presidential and parliamentary elections held earlier this year (quoted by RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau).