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Caucasus Report: August 22, 2003

22 August 2003, Volume 6, Number 30

11 CANDIDATES SEEK REGISTRATION FOR CHECHEN PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION. By the 20 August deadline, a total of 13 candidates had submitted applications to Chechnya's Central Election Commission (CEC) to contest the 5 October presidential election. Two of them -- journalist Ruslan Zakriev and pensioner Zaindi Movlatov -- were immediately disqualified on the grounds that they had submitted fewer than the required 10,800 signatures in their support. The 11 remaining hopefuls are Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov; Aslanbek Aslakhanov, who represents Chechnya in the Russian State Duma; former Chechen Deputy Prime Minister Khusein Bibilatov; chief inspector for the South Russia Federal District Abdulla Bugaev; former Achkhoi-Martan Raion administrator Shamil Buraev; Khusein Dzhabrailov, deputy director of Moscow's Hotel Rossiya; Grozny University lecturer Avkhat Khanchukaev; poet Nikolai Paizullaev; Grozneftegaz Deputy Director Kutuz Saduev; Moscow-based businessman Malik Saidullaev; and Chechen deputy military commandant Colonel Said-Selim Tsuev.

Kadyrov has been widely regarded as the clear favorite, not because of his popularity (he is widely hated and feared), but because he controls enough administrative and financial resources to neutralize his opponents. Saidullaev is respected because of his charitable activities; Aslakhanov is regarded as a decent human being -- hence his victory over 12 other candidates in the State Duma elections with 30 percent of the vote (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 August 2000).

Two prominent Chechen political figures decided not to contest the ballot. Former Russian Supreme Soviet speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov, who in early August announced he would definitely run and was confident of winning, changed his mind and withdrew from the race just two weeks later (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1, 11 and 15 August 2003). Chechen Press Minister Beslan Gantamirov, who twice crossed swords with Kadyrov in 2000 (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 21 July and 15 September 2000) said on 14 August that he will not contest the ballot. Gantamirov predicted that if the elections are fair, Kadyrov will poll nor more than 3 percent-5 percent of the vote. He announced that he will instead support Dzhabrailov who, he said, could successfully promote reconciliation between rival Chechen factions.

A poll conducted in June of 1,000 Chechens in 75 towns and villages across the republic demonstrated that 20.1 percent of respondents planned to vote for Saidullaev, 19.62 percent for Khasbulatov, 17.6 percent for Aslakhanov, and only 12.5 percent for Kadyrov, according to "Vedomosti" on 25 July. Over 60 percent of the respondents said they would definitely vote against Kadyrov.

But until very recently, most observers considered that Kadyrov had the unequivocal backing of the Kremlin and that, by a combination of intimidation and falsification, he would secure a convincing victory. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 4 August quoted Russian State Duma deputy Sergei Mitrokhin (Yabloko) as saying "Kadyrov will win regardless of how many votes he obtains."

On 7 August, Saidullaev told a press conference in Moscow that Chechen election officials are being bribed to arrange for a big vote count for Kadyrov, "The Moscow Times" reported on 8 August. "The situation is such that free elections are not possible," Reuters quoted him as saying. Saidullaev explained that the Chechen government, the State Council (the interim legislature), and the media are all backing Kadyrov. Nationalities Minister Taus Dzhabrailov is Kadyrov's campaign manager.

In addition, Kadyrov can rely on his own vast security guard, which Anna Politkovskaya, writing in "Novaya gazeta" on 14 August, said numbers thousands of men who control virtually the entire republic, and intimidate those presidential candidates who do not have the Kremlin's official blessing. Aslakhanov said in an interview published in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 15 August that Kadyrov's men have at their disposal every imaginable kind of weapons "with the possible exception of atomic bombs and Topol [inter-continental ballistic] missiles." Aslakhanov was quoted by "Gazeta" on 20 August as saying that when he started collecting signatures, his supporters were warned "Vote for Aslakhanov and your family will be wiped out!" For that reason, Aslakhanov told "Nezavisimaya gazeta," he decided to borrow the 4.5 million rubles ($150,000) needed as a deposit rather than endanger the lives of his supporters.

Politkovskaya told "The Moscow Times" on 8 August that as a result of intimidation by Kadyrov's armed thugs, opposition candidates are "terribly afraid," but are unable to communicate those fears to the CEC because its members are held incommunicado. Commission member Buvaisari Arsakhanov, however, told "The Moscow Times" by telephone from Grozny on 12 August that the commission had met that morning with candidates, who voiced "no complaints."

CEC Chairman Abdul-Kerim Arsakhanov told Interfax on 18 August that once registered, presidential candidates will be provided with security guards and mobile phones. But three days later, Russian presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembskii said in an interview with "Rossiiskaya gazeta" that Chechen presidential candidates would not be provided with security guards. He affirmed that the Russian troops deployed in Chechnya are quite capable of ensuring that the voting takes place without violence.

Meanwhile, indications have emerged that, while the Kremlin may be reluctant to call Kadyrov to order, neither will it go out of its way to ensure he wins the ballot. The "Los Angeles Times" on 20 August quoted Yastrzhembskii as saying that "it is clear the federal authorities are reluctant to associate themselves with a loser. So we don't have a favorite in Chechnya." In an earlier interview with "Ezhenedelnyi zhurnal," Yastrzhembskii had admitted that "Kadyrov is a controversial and ambivalent man [and]...his not his strong point."

Yastrzhembskii further told the "Los Angeles Times" that "Kadyrov...has been warned that it's a totally different game now, and he has to fight for his own goals himself." He said Kadyrov has been informed that should he be defeated, he will be found an alternative post. Yastzrhembskii commented that he considers Kadyrov enough of a politician to accept that offer, rather than join the Chechen opposition.

Some observers believe that the Russian leadership may have belatedly concluded that Kadyrov already wields too much power (an analysis written for earlier this year suggested that Kadyrov had already become the tail that wags the Kremlin dog -- see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 10 February 2003), and have decided Aslakhanov, a retired Interior Ministry troops general, is a more appropriate candidate.

Aslakhanov told a press conference in Moscow on 20 August that he has had a telephone conversation with President Vladimir Putin in which Askakhanov outlined proposals for ensuring that the presidential ballot is democratic. He said that in the course of that conversation, Putin congratulated him on his "courageous decision" to join the race, but declined Aslakhanov's request for a personal meeting on the grounds that such a meeting could be construed as lobbying on Aslakhanov's behalf, which would not be fair to the other candidates.

On 15 August, the day after Aslakhanov announced that he would contest the election, Chechen CEC Chairman Arsakhanov told Interfax he expects the ballot to go to a second round. Saidullaev hinted on 7 August that he might pull out of the race in favor of Aslakhanov, and that in the event of a runoff, all other candidates would throw their support behind whoever faced off against Kadyrov. (Liz Fuller)

GEORGIA FAILS TO MEET IMF DEADLINE. An IMF delegation that visited Tbilisi from 24 June-7 July presented the Georgian leadership with a list of conditions the country must meet by 15 August in order to qualify for disbursement of the third and final annual installment of a $141 million three-year Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility (PRGF) program. Those conditions included budget revisions totaling some 135 million laris ($63 million) to close a fiscal gap estimated at 1.7 percent of GDP; prompt passage of a new simplified tax code; and the abolition of a Constitutional Court rejecting a proposed increase in electricity tariffs.

Compliance with those measures was considered crucial because Tbilisi is relying on the IMF to support its request to the Paris Club of creditor countries this fall for the rescheduling of Georgia's $1.7 billion debt. But as of 14 August, not a single one of the fund's conditions had been met. First, government ministers argued for weeks over the optimum ratio of expenditure cuts to increased revenues, and over which ministry should have how much of its budget cut. Initially, the Finance Ministry proposed cutting expenditures by 95.5 million laris and boosting revenues by 40 million laris, including by the introduction of a controversial tax on mobile phone conversations longer that 10 minutes, according to Caucasus Press on 10 July. The final draft bill, however, stipulated expenditure cuts of 85 million laris and an additional 40 million laris in revenues, the website of the independent television station Rustavi-2 reported on 15 August. Among the individual ministries, the Interior Ministry had its budget cut by 3 million laris, the Defense Ministry by 6.3 million laris, the Energy Ministry by 2 million laris, the Labor, Health, and Social Protection Ministry by 6.7 million laris, the Agriculture Ministry by 4.5 million laris, and the Finance Ministry by 6 million laris.

The final version of the draft cuts was submitted to parliament on 4 August. But Roman Gotsiridze, chairman of the parliament budget office, said he does not think the cuts go far enough, given the need to find $37 million for domestic and foreign debt servicing. He predicted that a further round of cuts totaling some 50 million laris will be needed within two months.

Meanwhile, the legislature, which had failed to meet the 2 August deadline for passage of amendments to the election law, postponed debate on the budget cuts. That debate was finally scheduled for 15 August, but failed to take place for lack of a quorum. State Minister Avtandil Djorbenadze laid the blame for the failure of parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze, who managed to secure a stay of execution -- until the middle of this week -- from the IMF representative in Tbilisi. But as of late on 21 August, parliament had not voted on the proposed cuts.

The government did, however, succeed in meeting one of the IMF's conditions, by endorsing on 15 August a proposed differential increase in electricity tariffs designed to protect the most impoverished strata of the population. But the opposition Labor Party, which in late July topped opinion polls with 29.3 percent support, immediately appealed that decision to the Constitutional Court, as it did when the government tried to raise electricity tariffs last year. The court is to consider that appeal on 1-2 September.

According to the statement the IMF delegation released before leaving Tbilisi in early July, it was envisaged that if the Georgian government complied with the IMF's conditions, a decision would be made in late August on completing the third annual PRGF review and disbursing the remaining funds. In the event that Tbilisi failed to comply, IMF staff would return to Tbilisi in December to initiate discussions on a new three-year PRGF agreement.

Georgia's current run-in with the fund began a year ago, after the second annual review in July 2002 under the PRGF loan first approved in January 2001. Following that review, the fund postponed disbursement of further installments first until October 2002, then February 2003, and then June 2003, repeatedly urging the Georgian government to improve tax collection. (Liz Fuller)

RELATIVES SEEK MISSING AZERBAIJANI SOLDIERS IN KARABAKH. A group of relatives of Azerbaijani soldiers who went missing during the war for Nagorno-Karabakh paid a landmark visit to Stepanakert on 16-17 August in the hope of ascertaining their whereabouts and establishing contacts with similar families in the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic and in Armenia.

The five Azerbaijanis, as well as several Armenians who also lost their loved ones in the conflict, held a series of meetings with Karabakh officials as part of a confidence-building initiative sponsored by the Interchurch Peace Council (IKV), a Dutch nongovernmental organization promoting peace around the world. The meetings are part of a broader IKV effort to heal the persisting wounds left by ethnic disputes in the South Caucasus.

"We have arrived here with great expectations and hopes for finding our loved ones," said Tamara Ayubova, head of an Azerbaijani nongovernmental organization uniting families of the missing soldiers. "We are acting on behalf of friends and relatives of all Azerbaijani soldiers who disappeared or were taken prisoner."

"My hope is to at least get some information about the missing soldiers," said Beyuk Beyuk-zade, a resident of the Azerbaijani city of Gyanja whose son Elshan went missing in February 1994 in the Kelbajar district west of Karabakh. He said his son was seen seriously wounded shortly before his disappearance. Kelbajar was occupied by Karabakh Armenian forces in 1993 and remains under their control.

Both Ayubova and Beyuk-zade told RFE/RL that their organization would like to cooperate with similar groups in Karabakh and Armenia in tracking down the victims of the Karabakh conflict who are still unaccounted for nine years after the end of fierce fighting.

At least 20,000 people from both sides were killed and hundreds of thousands of others were displaced by the 1991-94 Armenian-Azerbaijani war. The conflict saw a relatively small number of prisoners of war. Several dozen of them have been exchanged and sent back home since 1994. Each party now claims to have no enemy prisoners on its soil and accuses the other of secretly holding hundreds of captives.

According to Ayubova, 783 Azerbaijanis are currently listed as missing. The Azerbaijani government claims that many of them are alive and are being held by the Armenians. The Nagorno-Karabakh government, for its part, maintains that about 680 Armenian residents of the disputed territory, both civilians and former fighters, remain in Azerbaijani captivity.

Vilen Kocharian, the head of a Karabakh commission on missing persons, welcomed the idea of Armenian-Azerbaijani cooperation on the sensitive subject. "We are using and will continue to use every opportunity to both repatriate Armenian soldiers and help the Azerbaijani side," he said. (Hrant Aleksanian)

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK. "Revolutionary changes are needed in Georgia [but] without a revolution." -- Parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze, in an interview with "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 5 August.