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Caucasus Report: October 10, 2003

10 October 2003, Volume 6, Number 35

THE END OF AN ERA. Azerbaijan's octogenarian President Heidar Aliyev has not been shown on state television since before he was admitted to the Gulhane military clinic in Ankara in early July. It was therefore no great surprise when on 2 October, an announcer on Azerbaijani state television read a statement in which the president announced that due to his ongoing health problems, he had decided to withdraw his candidacy for the 15 October presidential elections, and called on the electorate to vote for his son Ilham, whom he had appointed prime minister two months earlier.

The fact that President Aliyev was not shown reading the statement in person only fuelled speculation that he is either no longer alive, or no longer compos mentis -- especially as on 22 September, presidential administration head Ramiz Mekhtiev had told journalists that the doctors treating Aliyev at the Cleveland Clinic were optimistic that he would be able to return to Azerbaijan by the end of September (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 September 2003). Vagif Akhundov, who heads the presidential security service, similarly told journalists in Baku on 30 September that Aliyev "feels okay" and is undergoing rehabilitation in preparation for his return to Baku "within the next few days" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 October 2003).

Opposition presidential candidates Isa Gambar and Etibar Mamedov both expressed skepticism on 3 October that President Aliyev really was the author of the statement announcing his withdrawal from the 15 October ballot.

In the final analysis, however, whether or not Aliyev is alive is no longer relevant. As Azerbaijani politologist Arif Yunusov told a conference in Yerevan on 29 September, "From the biological point of view [Aliev] is still alive, but he is dead as a president," Noyan Tapan reported.

On 5 October, Azerbaijan's ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party wholeheartedly endorsed Ilham Aliev's presidential candidacy. ITAR-TASS on 3 October quoted Central Election Commission Chairman Mazahir Panahov as estimating Ilham Aliev's rating at between 60 percent-65 percent. A public opinion survey of 500 Azerbaijanis in Baku and Sumgait summarized on 25 September by "Izvestiya" (which has in recent years consistently sought to present a positive image of Azerbaijan in general and of the Aliyev clan in particular) similarly gave Heidar or Ilham Aliyev 61.7 percent, followed by independent candidate Lala Shovket Gadzhieva (8.7 percent), Azerbaijan National Independence Party Chairman Mamedov (8.2 percent) and Musavat Party Chairman Gambar (7.4 percent).

Most observers anticipate that the Azerbaijani authorities will resort to whatever measures they consider appropriate and necessary to ensure that Ilham is elected in the first round of voting on 15 October. Some opposition politicians even fear that the authorities could go so far as to strip Ilham Aliev's perceived most dangerous rivals, Mamedov and Gambar, of their registration, or even declare martial law and arrest opposition leaders on charges of preparing to stage a coup d'etat. Presidential administration head Ramiz Mekhtiev, who appears publicly to be functioning as Ilham Aliev's eminence grise, has repeatedly accused the opposition of planning to "disrupt" the ballot on 15 October.

But at the same time, despite repeated denials by senior members of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party of dissent within its ranks, doubts persist whether Prime Minister Aliyev can count on the unanimous support of the ruling elite. In an in-depth analysis of the political situation in Azerbaijan published late last year, politologist Alec Rasizade points out that "a significant number of people in Azerbaijan depend on patronage from the Aliyev regime for their privileged position and have a vested interest in maintaining the regime in power in order to preserve their illegally privatized property and illicit incomes. This is the main reason for Ilham's strong support within state structures and among the 'New Azeris.' They are largely conservative and profit from the status quo. The 'New Azeris' will not lead the charge for reform, and although they compete and conflict, they have created what the Italians call 'garantismo' or an agreement by the major shareholders of the regime to stick to the rules of self-preservation."

But while the new elite may be willing to support the status quo, that status quo may itself be imperiled by Ilham Aliev's advent to power. Commenting in mid-August on President Aliev's appointment of his son Ilham as prime minister, the Russian journal "Ekspert" predicted that the one-man authoritarian regime that President Aliyev has established in Azerbaijan during the decade since his return to power in the summer of 1993 is unlikely to survive his demise. What will follow, the journal predicted, will be either a retreat to totalitarianism, accompanied by the repression characteristic of police states, or democratization.

The underlying premise, although not explicitly spelled out, was that Ilham Aliyev does not possess the authority, or the support within the government apparatus, needed to maintain the precise degree of limited political freedom that his father judged adequate to counter criticisms from the international community and human rights organizations.

Ilham Aliev's statements to date suggest that he is more likely to adopt a harsh line both in domestic political issues and over the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. He has, for example, affirmed that "we shall never let the opposition come to power," which implies that he would have no qualms about falsifying the outcome of the parliamentary election due in 2005. And some of his comments about leaders of opposition political parties have been disparaging if not downright insulting, suggesting that he would not under any circumstances consider a coalition government of national reconciliation. On Nagorno-Karabakh, he reserves for Azerbaijan the right to resort to armed force should it prove impossible to resolve the deadlocked conflict by negotiations in a way that would not entail yielding any Azerbaijani territory.

The first test of Ilham Aliev's leadership ability could come within hours of the polls closing, if the population at large takes to the streets to protest overt falsification, or even earlier, if the authorities resort to mass arrests of opposition supporters on the eve of the ballot, and that crackdown sparks similar violent protests. Shortly before the 1998 presidential election, both Gambar and then Liberal Party of Azerbaijan Chairwoman Gadzhieva predicted mass popular protests in the event the election was falsified, but no such protests took place. Two years later, however, there was rioting in the northern town of Sheki to protest the falsification of the parliamentary ballot (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 and 22 November 2000).

On 3 October, "The Washington Post" quoted former presidential adviser Eldar Namazov (whose application to register as a presidential candidate was rejected), as saying that there is "a real danger of destabilization" if the elections are completely rigged. The fact that tens of thousands of people have braved official pressure and police violence to attend campaign rallies for Gambar and Mamedov in towns across Azerbaijan testifies to a powerful desire for regime change. But whether those opposition supporters will have the courage to risk their freedom and the livelihood of their families to protest a rigged election is difficult to predict. (Liz Fuller)

FORMER ARMENIAN PRESIDENT ADMITS TO STRATEGIC ERROR. Former President Levon Ter-Petrossian believes that his 1997 decision to appoint then Nagorno-Karabakh leader Robert Kocharian as prime minister of Armenia was a serious mistake that proved fateful for his political career, according to one of his top allies. Ararat Zurabian, chairman of the opposition Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh), revealed on 4 October that the decision was made over strong objections from his then ruling party and that Ter-Petrossian now regrets it. "The HHSh was unhappy [with Kocharian's appointment] even at that time," Zurabian told reporters. "We felt that it is not the right step and that was always expressed in internal [government] discussions." "I think that he is definitely remorseful, even if that is not being expressed," he added.

Kocharian, who had ruled the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic from 1992-97 as a staunch Ter-Petrossian loyalist, was named Armenian prime minister during a political crisis caused by the ex-president's controversial re-election in September 1996. He succeeded in that post Armen Sarkisian, who stepped down due to health problems less than seven months after his post-election appointment.

Kocharian quickly earned substantial political clout in Yerevan and by the end of 1997 was a key member of a powerful government faction that opposed Ter-Petrossian's softer line on resolving the Karabakh conflict. That faction, led by then Defense Minister Vazgen Sargsian, succeeded in squeezing Ter-Petrossian and the HHSh out of power in February 1998. The center-right party, founded by Ter-Petrossian and other pro-Western politicians in 1990, has been a vocal opponent of the current regime since then.

"I am convinced that Ter-Petrossian did not bring in Kocharian to make him a president," Zurabian claimed. "Kocharian was only supposed to head the government."

Ter-Petrossian himself has not spoken out in public on this or any other subject for the past five years, refusing to answer questions from journalists during his extremely rare public appearances. Last year he signaled his readiness to contest the 2003 presidential election, but backed away after failing to build a broad-based opposition coalition (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 1 July and 4 September 2002).

"I am convinced that Ter-Petrossian will return to active politics within a certain period," Zurabian said vaguely.

The HHSh leader indicated that the ex-president now pins his hopes on dramatic developments in the Karabakh peace process which might put Kocharian in a difficult situation similar to the one which he faced in late 1997. Kocharian will have to either accept new Karabakh peace proposals to be unveiled by international mediators after this month�s presidential election in Azerbaijan or resign, Zurabian said.

Ter-Petrossian has until now relied on the HHSh and several small parties. They failed to join forces for the May parliamentary elections and did not win a single seat in parliament. Zurabian admitted that the HHSh is now too weak to affect political processes in Armenia, but said it will regain some of its erstwhile strength within a year or two.

"I don't think that our party can today mobilize the masses to achieve certain solutions," he said. "The situation in Armenia is now such that we have to wait a little. We don't see a way out of it yet." (Karine Kalantarian)

CHECHEN PRESIDENT-ELECT WARNS HE WILL TAKE TOUGH LINE. On 7 October, two days after he was proclaimed the victor in the 5 October Chechen presidential election, Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov was quoted by "Kommersant-Daily" as saying that he will move his loyalists into all key positions in Chechnya. "I will get even tougher. There can be no deviation here. They must be wholly responsible to the president. I will allow no one to issue orders in the republic. Anyone harboring such hopes is making a serious mistake," Reuters quoted him as saying.

"The Moscow Times" on 7 October quoted Imran Ezheev of the Ruian-Checvhen friendship Society as saying that even before the ballot, Kadyrov had begun "sacking disloyal people." Moreover, Ezheev also said that Kadyrov is rewarding his supporters. "People close to him are getting all the economic advantages. Large tracts of land are already being sold to his allies, and enterprises too. Very soon Chechnya will physically belong to him and his men."

Even more important, Kadyrov has signaled that he wants a clause written in to the Russian-Chechen power-sharing treaty currently being drafted that would increase the percentage that the Chechen leadership receives of the profits from the sale of Chechen oil. And in what may presage a bid to divert into the local government's coffers the lion's share of the 14 billion rubles ($465 million) Moscow has allocated for compensation payments for those Chechens who lost their homes in the ongoing war, Kadyrov announced on 7 October that payment of compensation will be suspended for one week so that the lists of those whose applications for compensation have been approved can be verified. Kadyrov claimed that in five districts where lists have been checked, between 45 percent-50 percent of prospective recipients have been found not to qualify for such compensation payments. (Liz Fuller)

CHECHEN SECURITY OFFICIAL SAYS SOME MILITANTS STILL IN PANKISI. Chechen Security Council Secretary Rudnik Dudaev told Interfax on 2 October that "more than 100 members of illegal armed units, including those staying in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, want to lay down their arms and live a peaceful life." The same day. Georgian Foreign Minister Irakli Menagharishvili told the UN General Assembly session in New York, "The Pankisi Gorge...does not represent any danger to Georgia and its neighbors." He added that "with the support of and active assistance of its partners, first of all the United States, Georgia has successfully carried out the antiterrorist operation in Pankisi, cleared the region from illegal armed groups and confiscated a huge amount of arms and ammunitions." Addressing a Georgian cabinet session on 1 October, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze urged the country's security agencies to take whatever measures are necessary "to avert any new tensions in the Pankisi Gorge," Interfax reported. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK. "The main argument in the election campaign in Chechnya is the Kalashnikov machine gun." -- Russian human rights campaigner Lev Ponomarev, quoted by "The New York Times" on 3 October.

"If peaceful methods fail we must act as the United States acted in Iraq and Russia behaved in Chechnya. We must win Abkhazia back by force. It's quite realistic if Russia stays neutral." -- Tbilisi-based Abkhaz government-in-exile head Tamaz Nadareishvili, who is seventh on the election list of the pro-presidential For a New Georgia election bloc, quoted by the daily "Akhali taoba" on 7 October.