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Caucasus Report: September 26, 2003

26 September 2003, Volume 6, Number 33

ARE AZERBAIJANI AUTHORITIES PREPARING TO REPEAL REGISTRATION OF OPPOSITION PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES? The Azerbaijani opposition reacted to the 5 August appointment of incumbent President Heidar Aliev's son Ilham as prime minister with calls to mobilize the population to unspecified acts of protest against what was seen as an unlawful attempt to ensure that Ilham succeeds his father as president.

The Azerbaijani authorities, in turn, seized on such incautious statements as evidence that the opposition was preparing to stage a coup d'etat and seize power. ITAR-TASS on 9 August quoted presidential administration head Ramiz Mekhtiev as claiming that the opposition intends to "provoke tensions" in Azerbaijan. And in a joint statement released on 12 August, Azerbaijan's Interior Ministry and Prosecutor General's Office affirmed that they have the situation in Azerbaijan under control and that any actions that threaten the interests of the state will be resolutely curtailed, reported on 13 August.

Since the campaign for the 15 October presidential elections got under way on 16 August, the authorities have leveled similar accusations against the three opposition presidential candidates who enjoy the greatest popular support: Musavat party Chairman Isa Gambar, Azerbaijan National Independence Party Chairman Etibar Mamedov, and Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (reformist wing) Ali Kerimli. For example, Central Election Commission (CEC) press service head Azer Saryev accused Kerimli of calling during an election campaign broadcast for civil disobedience and a coup d'etat, according to on 2 September. Saryev warned that presidential candidates who make such statements could be stripped of their registration. On 13 September, pro-presidential Modern Musavat party leader Hafiz Hadjiev told a rally in Baku that "the opposition is making every effort to come to power and, having filled its depots with weapons, is getting ready to destabilize the situation in the country on election day."

On 21 September, police clashed with supporters of Kerimli and Mamedov during campaign rallies in two districts in southern Azerbaijan, and with supporters of Gambar at two locations in Baku (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 September 2003). The CEC issued a statement on 23 September alleging that the organizers of those election rallies advocated destabilizing the situation in Azerbaijan, and that a group of Musavat supporters called for the overthrow of the present government.

Also on 23 September, the CEC voted to launch an investigation into the sources of funding of the opposition paper "Yeni Musavat," of which Gambar was the founder. A CEC official noted that the paper's fixed assets in 2002 amounted to 57 million manats ($12,280), but that Gambar did not list that sum on the property declaration appended to his application for registration as a presidential candidate. Lawyer Vidadi Makhmudov, who is the opposition's secretary on the CEC, countered that legally the paper's founder is not necessarily its owner, and therefore the funds in question are not Gambar's property. But the ongoing investigation may nonetheless be intended to serve as a pretext for stripping Gambar of his registration as a presidential candidate. (Liz Fuller)

ABKHAZ TALKS POSTPONED SINE DIE. Talks in Tbilisi under the UN aegis between government delegations from Georgia and Abkhazia were postponed indefinitely on 23 September after the Abkhaz delegation failed to show up, according to Caucasus Press and the website of the independent television station Rustavi-2.

Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba, who was to have headed the Abkhaz delegation, was quoted as offering several different explanations for his delegation's failure to travel to Tbilisi. Rustavi-2 quoted him as attributing that failure to "technical problems," including the failure of the Abkhaz side to complete drafting a document intended for discussion at the talks in which Tbilisi would pledge to refrain from any aggression against Abkhazia during the planned celebrations on 27 September marking the 10th anniversary of the final withdrawal of Georgian troops from Abkhazia at the end of the 1992-1993 war.

According to the Georgian paper "Tribuna" on 22 September, during talks in Sukhum last week with Heidi Tagliavini, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special envoy for the Abkhaz conflict, Shamba raised the possibility of requiring Georgia to sign such a nonaggression pledge. But, the paper continued, Tamaz Nadareishvili, the hawkish chairman of the Tbilisi-based Abkhaz government in exile, has made clear his opposition to any such document. Nadareishvili has repeatedly called for a UN "peace enforcement" operation to restore Tbilisi's hegemony over the breakaway republic. And, on 23 September, "Tribuna" claimed that Nadareishvili threatened during a television interview the previous evening that if Shamba came to Tbilisi he would be arrested (on what charges is not clear).

Alternatively, "Tribuna" suggested, Shamba may have been ordered by the Russian government not to show up for the talks. But Russian State Duma Deputy Aleksei Vashchenko, who chairs a working group of the Duma Committee on geopolitics, told the Georgian paper "Mtavari gazeti" on 25 September that he suspects Nadareishvili's threat was made at the behest of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze in order to sabotage the planned talks.

Meanwhile, the head of the Abkhaz community in the U.S., Inal Kazan, has addressed an open letter to President Shevardnadze challenging him to spell out Georgia's position on Abkhazia. Kazan noted that in two years the presidential terms of both Shevardnadze and Abkhaz leader Vladislav Ardzinba will have expired, and asked rhetorically: "Will you leave the Abkhaz question unresolved for the next generation?" He further advocates that Georgia make unspecified concessions to Russia in return for Moscow's support in resolving the conflict.

Some observers have suggested that the amendment made to the Abkhaz Constitution in 1999 requiring that presidential candidates have lived in Abkhazia for five years prior to the ballot was intended to bar Kazan from contesting the presidency. (Liz Fuller)

ARMENIAN PREMIER LAUDS HIS PREDECESSOR. In remarks that could enrage some of his coalition partners, on 24 September Prime Minister Andranik Markarian spoke unusually warmly about one of his nine predecessors who is now highly critical of President Robert Kocharian.

Markarian credited former Premier Hrant Bagratian, who headed Armenia's government from 1993-96 under then-President Levon Ter-Petrosian, with launching sweeping but unpopular market reforms which, Markarian said, are now beginning to bear fruit.

"I am very happy with the work done by Mr. Bagratian," he said. "The economic reforms began during his tenure and were continued, but not rolled back, by all subsequent prime ministers." "What we have now is not only the result of the work carried out by him but also by our country's former leadership," Markarian added, in a rare praising of Ter-Petrosian by a serving senior Armenian official.

Bagratian served as prime minister at the time of an unprecedented post-Soviet economic decline that left much of Armenia's population in poverty. A staunch advocate of liberal economics, he pursued tight fiscal-monetary policies and initiated a large-scale privatization of state assets that earned his government support from international financial organizations.

The latter believe that those policies laid the groundwork for low inflation and economic growth which has been going on since 1995. Markarian similarly defended the enormous social cost of Bagratian's reforms, saying that the Armenian economy was in a condition that required "surgical solutions which always cause pain."

Interestingly, Bagratian has been a bitter critic of Kocharian's and Markarian's economic record, claiming that some of his reforms stalled under the current regime. He has even challenged the credibility of recent years' official statistics indicating record-high rates of economic growth. Markarian's comments come just as he looks certain to break the record for prime-ministerial longevity set by Bagratian, who held that post from early February 1993 to 4 November 1996. "This is a weird question," he told reporters when asked whether he is keen to cling to the job longer than his predecessor did.

Markarian's assessment is sure to incur the censure of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutiun), one of the three pro-Kocharian parties that comprise the current ruling coalition. Dashnaktsutiun was a vocal opponent of the Ter-Petrosian administration and was controversially banned by it in 1994. Not surprisingly, it welcomed Ter-Petrosian's forced resignation in early 1998.

The differing attitudes are indicative of broader differences simmering inside the coalition. Leaders of Markarian's Republican Party of Armenia turned on Dashnaktsutiun last week for their public criticism of the premier's anticorruption and staffing policies. (Hrach Melkumian)

NEW EU ENVOY PREDICTS TENTATIVE ENGAGEMENT FOR SOUTH CAUCASUS. In a 17 September interview with RFE/RL, Heikki Talvitie, the European Union's first special representative for the South Caucasus, predicted that his appointment will not spell any immediate rapprochement between the EU and Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia. But Talvitie added that the bloc is interested in gradually increasing its presence in the region, and did not rule out closer ties in the long term.

Talvitie stressed that his appointment as the European Union's first special representative for the South Caucasus should be seen as a sign of continuing EU engagement with Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia. What it should not be seen as, however, is an indication that the EU is ready to upgrade significantly its ties with the three countries. Hence, relations between the EU and the South Caucasus will -- for the foreseeable future -- remain predicated on the so-called Partnership and Cooperation Agreements, which are the bloc's designated cooperation instruments for the former Soviet Union.

Talvitie told RFE/RL his job materialized in July as a compensatory gesture once it became clear Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia would not be part of the EU's "new neighbors" initiative: "When the 'Wider Europe' concept was introduced [earlier this year] and the South Caucasus was not included, there was -- let's say -- some criticism in the area, in the region, towards the fact that the South Caucasus was left outside. I think that this was one of the motives why the European Union became more interested in creating this job."

Talvitie is a seasoned diplomat with long ties to the former Soviet Union and the South Caucasus. He served as the Finnish ambassador to Moscow, and in 1995 and 1996 headed the so-called Minsk Group at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is tasked with resolving the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.

He stresses the fact that his mandate -- or that of his successors -- will need to be renewed by EU member states twice a year.

Talvitie described his main task as preparing initial assessments for EU member states on the prospects of his new job, and to help guide EU policy for the region. He said that, while it is not yet clear whether his mandate will be renewed in December, he sees his job as "long-term."

Talvitie acknowledged that his task is not an easy one, given that the key prerequisite for positive developments -- security -- has yet to be achieved in the region: "All three countries and all those countries which are active in the region have one common interest, and this is the stability of the region. This is true even for the great powers. Considering that, the [other] vital interests of these three countries and the other [involved] countries are taken into consideration. There you have it in a nutshell. Then it's up to everyone [themselves] to interpret how their national interests will be fulfilled."

Talvitie said the EU pursues a policy of "democratic stabilization." He noted that the situation in the South Caucasus is "complex" and observed that change -- and thus reform -- although necessary, directly affects stability and must therefore be gradual. He observed that although there are "some aspects of democratic development" present in the South Caucasus, progress is largely hostage to the many festering conflicts. Those conflicts, in their turn, often have to be put on hold as elections take place and their outcomes decided.

Talvitie listed the conflicts. There is Azerbaijan's ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, currently within the purview of the Minsk Group. Then there is the breakaway region of Abkhazia in Georgia, where a UN "Group of Friends" and a UN special representative are attempting to mediate. In addition, secessionist tendencies are evident in South Ossetia, and problems abound with different minorities.

Talvitie said his mandate at this stage is to assist other international bodies in their work, and that he interprets this literally. Although he has already had talks with leading officials in Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, and Russia, Talvitie said the EU is not directly involved in any ongoing talks.

Talvitie avoided any direct comment on Russia's current interests or activities, but indicated that the sovereignty of the three countries in the region, as well as the interests of the other major actors, must be respected: "Russia has a long history with the region. It has political, military, cultural history with the region which reflects Russian interest in the region from time to time. I think the Russians are very keen to see their interests fulfilled in the region, even today. But it will happen in a context with these three countries being independent countries, and the other actors will be present -- I mean the United States, the European Union."

Talvitie noted that Russia appears to have adopted a "waiting position," preferring to react to developments in the EU position rather than engage it directly.

Talvitie preferred to skirt the question of whether he finds local leaders in the South Caucasus cooperative. Rather, he says, the European aspirations of the three countries mean certain choices are unavoidable: "The main positive feature for the EU and its cooperation with these three countries is the fact that all these three countries voluntarily want to become members of the European family -- and I do not mean here a member of the European Union. It means that they value European standards and are voluntarily ready to change their legislation to correspond to European standards as concerns their societies and democratic developments within the society."

Talvitie said he does not think the three countries can become part of the EU's "new neighbors" initiative -- covering, among others, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova -- before they share a border with the bloc.

Another EU official -- who asked not to be named -- said it could take five years before the EU is prepared to look at incorporating Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia into the program. The official said the EU's noncommittal attitude derives partly from the fact that it needs to do more for partner countries on the southern shores of the Mediterranean and partly because no "direct threats" emanate from the South Caucasus.

The foreign ministers of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia will be in Brussels on 29 September to restate their case for closer ties with the EU. (Ahto Lobjakas)

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK. "A certain faction of the youth in Chechnya, who are members of armed units and call themselves Wahhabites, have nothing to do with the Wahhabism of the countries that founded Wahhabism, nor with the teachings of Islam itself." -- Ravil Gauinutdin, chairman of the Council of Muftis of Russia, quoted by Interfax on 22 September.