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Caucasus Report: January 10, 2002

10 January 2002, Volume 5, Number 2

WILL GEORGIA INSIST ON CIS PEACEKEEPERS' WITHDRAWAL FROM ABKHAZIA? Last month Dieter Boden, who is UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special envoy for the Abkhaz conflict, unveiled the final version of a UN-sponsored document outlining the proposed division of constitutional powers within a sovereign Georgian state between the central Georgian government and that of the breakaway Republic of Abkhazia. Moscow has withdrawn its earlier objections to that document (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 April and 5 November 2001). But two obstacles still remain to a final political settlement of the deadlocked conflict. First, Abkhaz leaders have rejected any talks on the UN document as irrelevant, arguing that Abkhazia is already de facto and de jure an independent state. And second, Georgia is demanding either the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeeping force that has been deployed in the Abkhaz conflict zone since mid-1994 under the CIS aegis and its replacement by a UN or OSCE contingent, or changes to the peacekeepers' mandate to enable them to provide greater security for Georgian displaced persons wishing to return to their abandoned homes in southern Abkhazia.

The Abkhaz leadership's refusal to discuss any hypothetical status as part of a unified Georgian state predates Boden's appointment to his present position in late 1999 (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 2, No. 48, 3 December 1999). In recent months, however, Abkhaz Prime Minister Anri Djergenia has raised the possibility of an independent Abkhazia becoming an "associate member" of the Russian Federation (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 36, 29 October 2001). At the same time, the Abkhaz leadership has signed a series of cooperation and economic agreements with regions in the Russian North Caucasus.

Until the deployment in October of a Georgian military contingent in the Kodori gorge following the incursion of a group of armed men identified as Chechens led by Ruslan Gelaev (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 34, 12 October and No. 35, 22 October 2001), the Abkhaz have generally been willing to continue talks with Tbilisi on two other draft agreements: one on a formal cease-fire and measures to preclude a resumption of hostilities, the second on the repatriation to Abkhazia of ethnic Georgian displaced persons and measures to restore the socioeconomic situation in Abkhazia. Both those agreements have been under discussion since 1998 (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 2, No. 18, 6 May 1999). But since November, Abkhaz officials have made a resumption of talks on those drafts contingent on the withdrawal of the Georgian troops from the Kodori gorge (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 and 26 November and 21 December 2001).

More potentially destabilizing, at least in the short term, than the Abkhaz refusal to accept the UN draft document as a basis for resolving the conflict is the debate under way in Georgia on the future of the CIS peacekeeping force. On 11 October, as the fighting in the Kodori gorge escalated, the Georgian parliament voted to demand the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeepers within three months of the expiry of their mandate on 31 December.

President Eduard Shevardnadze initially appeared to support that demand, remarking during his traditional Monday radio broadcast on 15 October that the CIS peacekeepers' continued presence is pointless as they are incapable of protecting the local (Georgian) population. But both Shevardnadze and other senior Georgian officials, including Foreign Minister Irakli Menagharishvili, former parliament speaker Zurab Zhvania, and his successor Nino Burdjanadze, have subsequently suggested an alternative to the complete withdrawal of the CIS peacekeeping force. They advocate augmenting the100 percent Russian force with contingents from other CIS states, redeploying the peacekeepers along the River Galidzga, which forms the northern boundary of Abkhazia's southernmost Gali raion, and amending their mandate to give them broader powers to protect Georgian displaced persons who wish to return to Gali. (The prewar population of Gali was 90 percent Georgian. Some former residents have returned to their homes permanently, while others do so during the summer months to cultivate their orchards.) Those proposed changes to the peacekeepers' mandate would effectively undercut the Abkhaz government's influence in Gali, but it is unclear whether they can be implemented without the consent of the Abkhaz side, which has already formally requested that the peacekeepers' current mandate be prolonged.

UN special envoy Boden, like the Abkhaz, is categorically opposed to the CIS peacekeepers' withdrawal, pointing out that they provide security for the UN Observer Mission (UNOMIG), which would be constrained to terminate its activities in Abkhazia if the CIS peacekeepers leave. Moreover, Boden has also backed the Abkhaz demands for the withdrawal of the Georgian troops sent to the Kodori gorge, which Georgian Defense Ministry officials have repeatedly ruled out. Boden's stance has incurred harsh criticism from several Georgian parliament factions which have accused him of harboring pro-Abkhaz or pro-Russian sympathies. (The latter charge is apparently based on Boden's chairmanship of the Pushkin Book Club in his native Germany.)

That criticism of Boden personally has been paralleled by a smear campaign in the English-language "Georgian Times," which on 13 December alleged that members of UNOMIG recruit local women to provide sexual favors to visiting dignitaries, for which the women are paid $50. The same issue of "Georgian Times" quotes former Justice Minister Mikhail Saakashvili as claiming that UNOMIG was the product of a trade-off between Russia and the U.S., and that its members have no interest in resolving the Abkhaz conflict.

The Russian Foreign Ministry, for its part, is pressuring Georgia to make a clear decision on whether the CIS peacekeeping force should stay or leave. Shevardnadze assured visiting CIS Executive Secretary Yurii Yarov on 4 January that the National Security Council would make such a decision within one week. Yarov, too pointed out that the peacekeepers' withdrawal would risk triggering fresh hostilities in the conflict zone, as did Abkhaz First Deputy Defense Minister Givi Agrba. Agrba told journalists in Sukhum on 9 January that "Tbilisi should take into consideration the possible resumption of an armed confrontation in Abkhazia...the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeepers implies a 95 percent probability of a new war." (Liz Fuller)

GEORGIA GEARS UP FOR NATIONAL CENSUS. On 18 January 2002, a nationwide census will get under way in Georgia that, it is hoped, will clarify the extent of emigration over the past decade, and, by extension, the severity of the "demographic crisis" that some experts have predicted is imminent (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, No. 33, 18 August 2000). Some demographers estimate that the country's population has fallen over the last 13 years by up to 45 percent, from 5.449 million at the time of the last Soviet census in 1989 to between 3-4 million today. Government officials, however, claim that the country's total population is still over 5 million.

But while the true extent of the decrease may be a matter of dispute, experts agree that it is the result of two interlinked trends, both of them occasioned by the catastrophic decline in living standards since the collapse of the USSR: the emigration in search of employment of up to 1.4 million people, and a decline in the birthrate from 17 births per thousand population in 1990 to nine per thousand in recent years. (In 1989, 91,138 children were born in Georgia; in 2000, only 40,392.) As a result, in 2001 for the first time the mortality rate in Georgia exceeded the birthrate, Institute of Demography Director Leo Chikava told journalists in November 2001.

Those who have left Georgia over the past decade in search of employment are primarily persons in the age group 17-38, with men significantly outnumbering women. As a result of the ensuing disbalance between the sexes, one in three Georgian women in the age group 15-44 has never been married. Of those women who are married and have children, over half say they do not want another child: the number of families with three or more children has fallen from 35 to 15 percent of the total. That trend is reflected in the estimated 120,000 abortions performed annually, over 80 percent of them illegally, and of which four last year proved fatal. As a result, the number of children who begin school each year is also falling, from 13,171 in 2000 to 12,248 in 2001, a decline of 8 percent.

By the same token, the share of the Georgian population over the age of 65 has risen from 8.9 percent in 1989 to 14.3 percent in 2000. As a result of that aging process, and also partly as a result of out-migration from rural areas in the 1980s and 1990s, some remote mountain districts are undergoing depopulation. (In eight high-mountain districts the census was conducted in May 2001, but no relevant data have yet been released.)

Nor is the outflow of the population from Georgia likely to be reversed in the near future: Caucasus Press in July 2001 quoted unnamed UN experts as calculating that 80,000 people leave Georgia every year, and that out-migration will continue until 2010-15.

The UN experts also provided a data on the nationality of emigrants, according to which 56 percent are Georgians, 9.8 percent each Armenians and Russians, and 6.8 percent Azerbaijanis. Those figures will, in the medium term, translate into a decrease in the Russian population both in percentage and actual terms. But given that even two decades ago Georgia's Azerbaijani minority had a far higher rate of natural increase than did the Georgian population, the upcoming census may show that Azerbaijanis now account for significantly more than the 5.7 percent of the population they constituted in 1989. At that time, Georgians accounted for 70.1 percent of the republic's population.

The census findings will not, however, provide a completely accurate picture insofar as no data will be collected in the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Prior to the 1992-93 war, the population of Abkhazia was approximately 450,000, of whom up to 200,000 fled during the fighting. The population of South Ossetia in 1989 was some 70,000. The Georgian leadership has, moreover, a vested interest in either minimizing the extent of overall population loss, or not making public a detailed breakdown of data from individual towns and districts. Such detailed data could necessitate the revision of existing, or the compilation of new, registers of eligible voters, and the presence on existing lists of "dead souls" who are either deceased or no longer resident in Georgia provides leeway for revising the actual outcome of elections to benefit the current leadership. (Liz Fuller)

AZERBAIJAN UNDER PRESSURE FROM COUNCIL OF EUROPE TO RELEASE POLITICAL PRISONERS. Azerbaijan's relations with the Council of Europe, of which it became a full member in January 2001, are becoming increasingly strained as a result of Baku's reluctance to release from prison of up to 500 persons whom the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) regards as political prisoners.

A PACE delegation headed by rapporteurs Andreas Gross and Georges Clerfayt traveled to Baku in late December where they urged Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev to free all political prisoners, including former Interior Minister Iskander Hamidov, former Defense Minister Rahim Kaziev, and Alikram Gumbatov. Gumbatov was imprisoned for having proclaimed an independent Talysh-Mugham Republic in southeastern Azerbaijan in the summer of 1993.

Aliyev subsequently signed an amnesty releasing 59 prisoners and shortening the sentences of a further 27 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 January 2002), but he rejected clemency for Hamidov, Kaziev, and Gumbatov on the grounds that they had committed "crimes against the state." During a meting with Council of Europe officials six months earlier, Aliyev had denied outright that there are any political prisoners in Azerbaijan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 July 2001). Aliyev told journalists after the December meeting that he would consider any international pressure in connection with those three cases as being directed "against the Azerbaijani state (see "RFE/RL Azerbaijan Report," 4 January 2002). The Azerbaijani delegation demonstratively walked out of what was described as a "tense" eight-hour meeting in Paris on 7 January with a PACE delegation that included Clerfayt after the latter again called for the unconditional release of Hamidov, Kaziev, and Gumbatov. Their case is to be discussed at a special session of the PACE bureau on 14 January.

Azerbaijani opposition parties have seized on the controversy as a way to embarrass the country's leadership, including President Aliev's heir-apparent, his son Ilham, who heads Azerbaijan's permanent delegation to the Council of Europe. On 9 January, leaders of seven prominent opposition parties signed a statement criticizing the government's reluctance to comply with what they termed its obligations to the Council. Some opposition politicians have even suggested that Azerbaijan may temporarily be deprived of its PACE mandate.

But the Azerbaijani leadership shows no sign of yielding; on the contrary, on 10 January "Yeni Azerbaycan," the newspaper of the eponymous ruling party, published the results of an opinion poll conducted by the hitherto unknown Memleket Center which reportedly show that 91 percent of the population does not support the PACE demand that political prisoners be released. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK. "Think big, act big, and dream big." Slogan printed on cartons of the new Tigran brand of cigarette produced by Armenian tobacco magnate Hrant Vartanian (quoted by "Aravot" on 9 January).