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Caucasus Report: October 30, 2003

30 October 2003, Volume 6, Number 38

VOTER-LIST CHAOS FUELS FEARS THAT GEORGIAN PARLIAMENTARY ELECTION WILL BE RIGGED. On 2 November, Georgia's voters will go to the polls to elect a parliament that will preside over the transition in April 2005, after 13 years, to the post-Shevardnadze era. The incumbent president, who served for three years as nominal head of state before being elected president in November 1995, has repeatedly ruled out amending the Georgian Constitution to allow him to run for a third term.

Since his re-election as president in April 2000, Eduard Shevardnadze has failed to resolve any of the most pressing problems Georgia faces. Although on paper gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 4.5 percent in 2001 and 5.4 percent in 2002, and by 8.3 percent in the first nine months of 2003, living standards have not improved. Ten percent of the population earns less than 40 laris ($19) per month, compared with a subsistence minimum of 115 laris. The minimum monthly pension is 14 laris, but as of 1 October, the state owed a total of 90 million laris in pensions arrears dating back to 2000. The International Monetary fund (IMF) suspended cooperation with Georgia several months ago due to the government's failure to implement structural reforms and crack down on tax evasion. The population is subjected to periodic power outages. Relations with Russia are strained as a result of repeated accusations that Chechen militants maintain base camps on Georgian territory. And little progress has been made in reaching a solution to the Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflicts that would restore Tbilisi's hegemony over those two breakaway unrecognized republics.

The government's dismal record contributed to the disintegration in the late summer of 2001 of the majority Union of Citizens of Georgia (SMK) parliament faction (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 8 October 2001). The popularity of the SMK, which Shevardnadze created in 1993 as his personal power base, has plummeted, and according to polls conducted over the past 15 months, does not exceed single figures. The SMK failed to win a single seat on the Tbilisi City Council in the June 2002 municipal elections.

In a clear effort to preserve its dwindling influence, the SMK aligned in March with Vakhtang Rcheulishvili's Socialist Party -- which won 11 seats in the parliament elected in 1999 as part of the opposition Revival Union bloc -- in the pro-presidential For a New Georgia (AS) bloc (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 March and 7 April 2003). Seven other parties and groups have since joined AS, including the National Democratic Party of Georgia and the Christian Democratic Union headed by another former minister of state, Vazha Lortkipanidze.

Rcheulishvili has gone on record as predicting that AS will win between 60-70 of the total 225 parliament mandates, according to the daily "Tribuna" on 21 October, while a second leading AS member, Irakli Mindeli, told Caucasus Press on 24 September he believes the bloc will garner 118 seats. But opinion polls suggest otherwise, although their findings differ significantly, with some giving AS less than 1 percent of the vote and others 8 percent or even 20 percent.

Rival opposition parties have repeatedly accused the government of plotting to falsify the outcome of the ballot in favor of AS. Consequently, the perceived need to prevent anticipated falsification has become a key issue in the election campaign, eclipsing debate on economic, social, foreign, and security policy.

In an attempt to allay those fears, the U.S. intervened in early July, sending former Secretary of State James Baker to Tbilisi to persuade the Georgian leadership to yield overall control of election commissions at all levels (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 July and 6 August 2003, and "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 1 August 2003). The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), for its part, has provided transparent plastic ballot boxes to deter ballot stuffing and equipment for stamping an invisible but indelible mark on voters' thumbnails to preclude multiple voting. This procedure has, however, proved contentious, with some Georgians protesting that the stamp is "the mark of the devil," while others have expressed the fear that the ink used causes impotence. Some stores in Tbilisi are reportedly offering for sale a fluid that vendors claim will remove the indelible mark, Caucasus Press reported on 23 October.

Fears that the authorities will rig the election outcome have been fuelled by widespread irregularities discovered in the updated, and supposedly accurate, voter lists. The new lists were compiled by the Interior Ministry and then submitted in July to the Central Election Commission (CEC), which was reconstituted in late August, to be computerized. But the computerized lists yielded numerous inaccuracies. The names of thousands of nonexistent or deceased voters were included (including one whose date of birth was given as 1800), while many genuine voters were omitted. Interior Minister Koba Narchemashvili denied any responsibility for the errors, which he blamed on the outgoing CEC. But CEC Chairwoman Nana Devdariani told Caucasus Press on 27 October that the lists the CEC received from the Interior Ministry were incorrect. She said a criminal investigation will be opened to determine why those inaccuracies were not corrected.

The deadline for completing and publicly displaying the lists was put back from 19 October to 22 October then to 26 October, then to 30 October, and voters whose names have been omitted will be able to appeal to a local court until 1 November to be reinstated. Shevardnadze in his weekly radio interview suggested on 20 October that all voters should check at their local polling station to determine whether or not their names figure on the updated lists. But the results of a poll of 600 people in Tbilisi summarized on 21 October by the weekly newspaper "Kviris palitra" found that 25 percent of respondents would not protest if they found they had been left off the lists as they are convinced that the outcome of the ballot has been predetermined.

Nor are the Georgian authorities the sole target of opposition allegations: opposition parties are also accusing each other of malpractice. In numerous cases, candidates contesting one of the 75 single-mandate constituencies have appealed to local courts to annul the registration of rivals from another party. And at a 27 October meeting with U.S. Ambassador Richard Miles, Labor Party leader Shalva Natelashvili claimed that the alternative voter lists currently being compiled by the Burdjanadze-Democrats bloc and the National Movement (EM) contain even more errors that those prepared by the CEC.

A total of nine blocs and 11 individual political parties have registered to contest the ballot. Parties and blocs contesting the 150 seats to be allocated under the party-list system must poll a minimum of 7 percent of the vote to win representation.

During the spring and summer, polls consistently identified Natelashvili's Labor Party as the most popular party with approximately 30 percent backing. But more recent surveys suggest an increase in support for the Burdjanadze-Democrats bloc and the EM at the expense of Labor. Most observers predict a hung parliament, in which those three parties have more or less equal representation, with AS, the New Rightists, Adjar Supreme Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze's Revival Union, and former Communist Party of Georgia First Secretary Djumber Patiashvili's Ertoba bloc also surpassing the 7 percent minimum. If, as appears likely, no party or bloc wins a clear majority, a protracted period of horse-trading may be required before a new government emerges. (Liz Fuller)

ARMENIAN, AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENTS WERE 'INCREDIBLY CLOSE' TO KARABAKH SETTLEMENT. President Robert Kocharian and his outgoing Azerbaijani counterpart, Heidar Aliyev, were "incredibly close" to hammering out a comprise deal on Nagorno-Karabakh even one year after their ill-fated 2001 peace negotiations, according to a senior U.S. diplomat.

In a keynote address to a conference on conflict resolution in the former Soviet Union held in Washington in May 2002, Ambassador Rudolf Perina, the chief U.S. negotiator in the decade-long Karabakh talks, said the two sides need to settle only minor differences.

Details of the conference, attended by U.S. government officials and regional experts, were found by RFE/RL only last week. It was sponsored by the U.S. National Intelligence Council (NIC) and the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research. NIC is an analytical body that advises the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) on security challenges facing the United States in various parts of the world.

Much of the information, posted on the CIA website, is still relevant to the current state of the stalled Karabakh peace talks which are set to gain fresh momentum after the handover of power from ailing Aliyev to his son Ilham.

"After the Key West meeting there was disappointment with the follow-up, and some have concluded that these negotiations are dead," Perina is quoted as saying in a conference report dated September 2002. "Yet the two sides are incredibly close. The issues of principle have been decided, and what is left are technical differences."

Perina did not disclose the essence of Armenian-Azerbaijani agreements reportedly reached during the U.S.-sponsored talks on the Florida island in April 2001. He predicted only that the 2003 elections will open a "window of opportunity" for further progress.

The U.S. envoy apparently spoke on the assumption that the elder Aliyev would win another term in office in the October 2003 presidential ballot. However, Aliyev effectively exited the political arena this summer due to his rapidly deteriorating health. It remains to be seen whether his politically inexperienced son will have the muscle to continue his father's Karabakh policy

Azerbaijani officials have repeatedly denied the existence of any Key West agreements. The Armenians, however, claim the opposite, accusing Baku of reneging on them shortly before a follow-up Aliyev-Kocharian meeting, scheduled for June 2002 but cancelled at the last minute.

Precisely what was agreed on at Key West remains unclear. Armenian officials have hinted at a peace formula that goes along the lines of U.S., Russian, and French mediators' 1998 idea of a "common state" between Azerbaijan and Karabakh. That idea, rejected by Aliyev, would essentially uphold Karabakh's de facto independence and give it a land corridor to Armenia.

But Armenian opposition groups, notably close associates of former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, claim that Kocharian agreed to a territorial swap with Azerbaijan whereby Karabakh would become a de jure part of Armenia in return for Yerevan handing over its southeastern Meghri district to Baku. "The Meghri option remains on the negotiating table," Ter-Petrosian's former national security chief, David Shahnazarian, insisted on 23 October.

Perina stressed back in 2002 that the mediating troika's new peace proposals, expected to be unveiled next month, will not differ markedly from the previous ones as "most ideas have already been placed on the table." "One can juggle and readjust the old proposals, but the basic concepts for resolution are already out there," he said.

In Perina's words, the main reason why conflicts in the Caucasus and other parts of the former USSR remain unresolved is the conflicting parties' reluctance to make serious concessions. "People are looking for a magical solution that will spare them the burdens of compromise. Of course, no one can offer that," he said. "When we try to persuade secessionist leaders that the world will never recognize them as an independent sovereignty, they remain unconvinced that the historical window has closed," he added.

It is widely agreed that a lot also depends on the posture of external forces. Russia's ambiguous role in conflict resolution is seen as particularly important, with many in the West viewing Moscow as an obstacle to peace.

According to Joe Presel, a retired top diplomat who coordinated U.S. policy on the ex-Soviet conflicts from 1994-97, having Moscow on board is a "prerequisite for effective peacemaking." "We cannot succeed at peacemaking in the [former USSR] without the Russians," Presel told the conference. "This seems self-evident. Yet at first we thought we could do it without them, since we saw them as part of the problem."

"Russia is key to the resolution of these conflicts," agreed another participant, Anne Herr of the State Department's Intelligence Bureau. She argued that with Russian foreign policy increasingly driven by economic interests, Moscow may become more interested in peace and stability in the Caucasus.

But as Presel cautioned, "the Russians do not really trust" the U.S. "They tend to operate on the assumption that we will attempt to take advantage of them," he said. "The Russian policy towards Nagorno-Karabakh depends on what part of the bureaucracy you are talking to, and perhaps it depends what day of the week you talk to them."

Also discussed was the involvement of other major regional players: Iran and Turkey. Some participants made the point that despite their regional ambitions neither country is able or willing to play a major role in conflict resolution. Tom King, another Intelligence Bureau official, said Iran is primarily worried about Turkey's presence in the South Caucasus and its alliance with the U.S.

Bulent Aliriza, a senior Turkey analyst at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, believes that the Turkish military and political elite will avoid far-reaching diplomatic or military moves in the Caucasus, despite cultivating ties with Azerbaijan and Georgia. Membership of the European Union and events in Iraq are of more immediate interest to Ankara, he said.

Perina made it clear that even global powers like the United States are unlikely to exert the kind of pressure on Armenia and Azerbaijan that put an end to the bloody war in Bosnia in 1993 when the conflicting parties were forced to sign a peace accord in Dayton, Ohio. He said none of the parties should hope that "outside mediators will shove their proposals down the throats of the other side."

"The situation in the former Yugoslavia differed from this part of the world in terms of a heated conflict that included military action, massive troop deployments, and bombing," the U.S. envoy argued.

"These conflicts will be solved, but their costs will increase as long as their solutions are delayed. [Oil-rich] Azerbaijan alone has a promising economic future and might weather the impact of these conflicts. For the other countries involved, these disputes have devastating consequences that should be of great concern to us. If any of these countries fail, the consequences would be extremely serious," Perina said. (Emil Danielyan)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "Compromise is a dirty word in this part of the world. It's seen as betrayal. It's very difficult to get to a position where no one gets everything but everyone gets something." -- Julian Braithwaite, director of communications to High Representative for Bosnia-Herzegovina Paddy Ashdown, quoted by the "Financial Times," 25-26 October.

"NATO cannot be an institution, a kind of 'elder brother,' to whom former allies, Eastern European countries, or former Soviet republics could turn in the hope of obtaining an additional instrument for settling their mutual conflicts." -- Russian Federation Council International Affairs Committee Chairman Mikhail Margelov, quoted by Interfax on 29 October.