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Caucasus Report: April 12, 2002


12 April 2002, Volume 5, Number 13

GEORGIA GEARS UP FOR LANDMARK LOCAL ELECTIONS. Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze signed a decree on 28 March scheduling local elections for 2 June. Those elections were originally to have taken place last November, but were postponed in early October at the time of the mysterious incursion by gunmen into Abkhazia on the grounds that the Georgian government could not raise the $2 million needed to finance them (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 October 2001).

The local elections are likely to prove a watershed in Georgian politics insofar as they will demonstrate the degree of popular support for both the former majority Union of Citizens of Georgia (formed by Shevardnadze in 1993 as his personal power base) and for the umbrella opposition National Movement headed by former Justice Minister Mikhail Saakashvili. The SMK parliament faction collapsed last fall shortly after Shevardnadze announced his decision to step down as the party's chairman (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 33, 8 October 2001), after which the party effectively split into two wings. One wing continues to support Shevardnadze, as does the "Tanadgoma" parliament faction, which also split from the SMK last fall (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 33, 8 October 2001). The other, headed by former parliament speaker Zurab Zhvania, is debating moving into open opposition to the president.

In late March, the collective leadership of Zhvania's wing of the SMK announced that the party will hold a congress in April, change its name, and "resolutely distance itself" from the policies of -- and the corruption condoned by -- the present Georgian leadership. Shevardnadze responded on 25 March that a decision that the SMK will join the opposition can only be taken at a full-fledged SMK congress, and that he doubts a majority of the party's members would approve it.

But while many Georgians have lost faith in Shevardnadze's leadership team, at present no single political party can claim to offer a convincing alternative. An opinion poll conducted in early March found that if parliamentary elections were held now, only 6.9 percent of the 5,000 respondents would vote for the (divided) SMK, as opposed to 13.1 percent for the opposition Revival Union, 10.8 percent for Saakashvili's National Movement, 7.9 percent for the Labor Party, and 7 percent for "Industry Will Save Georgia."

Saakashvili is nonetheless optimistic that voters will support his umbrella organization which, he explained in a recent roundtable discussion hosted by RFE/RL's Russian Service, is "supranational" in the sense that it intends to represent all citizens of Georgia regardless of their ethnicity. Moreover, he pointed out, the National Movement brings together such unlikely partners as the Republican Party, the more moderate supporters of deceased President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, and the Democratic Elections for Georgia group that drafted the country's first election law.

Saakashvili affirmed that opposition sentiment in Georgia is extremely strong, especially in the wake of the April 2000 presidential elections, the outcome of which he claims was rigged. According to official returns, Shevardnadze was re-elected for a second term with over 80 percent of the vote, while his closest rival, former Georgian Communist Party First Secretary Djumber Patiashvili, received 17 percent; but a second former Communist Party leader, Avtandil Margiani, claimed that Patiashvili polled 72 percent (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 and 17 April 2000.)

The issue on which Saakashvili is likely to campaign is one that affects the entire population, namely Shevardnadze's inability, or unwillingness, or both, to crack down on flagrant and endemic corruption that has visibly enriched a small minority of businessmen while most of the population struggles to survive. As justice minister, Saakashvili tabled a bill last summer that would have required senior government officials to prove that their wealth was acquired legally. Shevardnadze, however, rejected that approach as violating the presumption of innocence principle (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 and 14 August 2001).

Following his resignation as minister and his election to parliament, Saakashvili attempted to revive his draft bill, but parliament again rejected it in favor of a rival draft prepared by the government. That alternative draft, according to Saakashvili, does not empower individuals to bring a court case against persons suspected of corruption. Instead, the government office that is charged with checking officials' mandatory declarations of their income and assets will investigate allegations of malpractice.

But as the last Georgian local elections demonstrated, a strong showing by an opposition party headed by a charismatic politician does not necessarily guarantee an equally strong showing in subsequent parliamentary elections. In November 1998, the Labor Party headed by Shalva Natelashvili (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 1, No. 39, 25 November 1998) won control of many local councils, but failed to parlay that success into a comparable representation in the parliamentary elections one year later. Moreover, voter turnout in the 1998 local elections was extremely low (20-30 percent).

Assuming, however, that those voters who do cast their ballots on 2 June are likely to be those members of the population who harbor strong negative feelings about the present leadership, that ballot may well result in a crushing defeat for the pro-Shevardnadze wing of the SMK, which would be constrained to seek allies to contend the parliamentary elections due in November 2003. Some observers have suggested that the pro-Shevardnadze SMK might align with Shevardnadze's erstwhile rival, Adjar Supreme Council chairman Aslan Abashidze, whose Revival Union is currently the largest single parliament faction, in a bid to prevent the National Movement from gaining a majority. Abashidze has close ties to Moscow and is in no hurry to see the closure of the Russian military base in Batumi, while Saakashvili would undoubtedly increase the pressure on Moscow to comply with its commitment to do so.

But Abashidze, possibly at Moscow's instigation, has chosen to highlight what he perceives as a new "economic war" by Tbilisi to cripple his autonomous republic financially by insisting that it transfer all its tax revenues to the central treasury, not just 40 percent as at present. He appealed on 9 April to the international community not to allow a deterioration of relations between Adjaria and the central Georgian government.

Meanwhile, some observers in Tbilisi have suggested that Shevardnadze may seek to avoid what they perceive as an inevitable election defeat for his remaining SMK supporters by postponing the local elections. But at a press briefing in Tbilisi on 8 April, Shevardnadze declared that the local elections will take place in June whether or not the parliament has made the anticipated amendments by then to the election law and the law on local government. (Liz Fuller)

PARTICIPANTS DISCLOSE DETAILS OF GELAEV ABKHAZ INCURSION. Glasnost-North Caucasus on 8 April circulated an interview by one of its correspondents with two unidentified residents of Daghestan who claimed to have participated in the invasion of Abkhazia last October led by Chechen field commander Ruslan Gelaev. Their story corroborates the existing, admittedly fragmentary and speculative accounts of that operation (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 34, 12 October 2001 and No. 35, 22 October 2001).

The two men said they were recruited by Gelaev in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge with the stated aim of launching an incursion into Russia's Stavropol Krai. They said Gelaev's fighters numbered some 200-300 men including Chechens, residents of Daghestan, Kabardians, Azerbaijanis, and some Adjars. Over half of the group, the two men said, were "not professional fighters," but simply young men who had no idea of what they had let themselves in for. The contingent was transported in closed lorries via Tbilisi to western Georgia and then to Kodori. At the final stage, when they left the lorries, they were followed by a unit of some 600-700 Georgian police to prevent them from escaping. The two men nonetheless managed to do so having said they refused to fight the Abkhaz.

Asked by Glasnost-North Caucasus why Gelaev had agreed to the raid, they said Gelaev's aides told them the Georgian authorities had initially tried to dislodge Gelaev from his base in Pankisi "because he posed problems for both Shevardnadze and [unnamed] foreign states," but that the Georgian authorities subsequently co-opted him. They said that Gelaev's ultimate objective was to capture Sukhum. They also said that they believe Gelaev is still in Georgia, but did not specify where. (Liz Fuller)

ARMENIAN TV STATION TENDER SERVES AS CATALYST FOR FURTHER POLARIZATION. With almost a year still to go, the Armenian presidential ballot due next spring already seems likely to surpass all previous elections in terms of the mutual recriminations between the incumbent and the opposition. The 2 April decision by a panel appointed by incumbent President Robert Kocharian to deprive the independent TV channel A1+ of its broadcast frequency has served to intensify the opposition's resentment and suspicion of the present leadership.

Several opposition politicians, including National Unity Party chairman Artashes Geghamian and National Democratic Union chairman Vazgen Manukian (both of them potential presidential candidates) have accused Kocharian of giving orders to the commission to "silence" A1+ -- one of very few channels to engage in objective reporting that frequently reflected badly on the present leadership -- in the runup to next year's presidential and parliamentary elections.

The Armenian Foreign Ministry countered those allegations in a statement released on 4 April pointing out that all independent TV channels are free to cover all candidates for the elections, while under the terms of the election law Armenian Public Television is obliged to grant equal air time to all parties and candidates contesting nationwide elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 April 2002).

Fourteen opposition parties (not including the former ruling Armenian Pan-National Movement) aligned to convene a rally in Yerevan on 5 April at which some 10,000 demonstrators protested the tender outcome. The 14 parties affirmed their shared intention to campaign to protect media and civil freedoms, which they perceive as being directly threatened by the demise of A1+. They also issued an ultimatum to the president, warning that if a compromise solution is not found that would enable A1 + to resume broadcasting by 12 April they will launch a nationwide campaign of civil disobedience. The newspaper "Or," however, commented on 6 April that it is unlikely that the population would take to the streets en masse to defend the idea of media freedom; most Armenians, it suggests, are disillusioned with both the present authorities and the opposition.

In reports on its website (http://www.a1plus.am) A1+ nonetheless construed the 5 April protest demonstration as "the beginning of the pre-election marathon," and, on the basis of the applause that various opposition politicians received, inferred that People's Party of Armenia chairman Stepan Demirchian is the most popular opposition leader. (Kocharian defeated Demirchian's father Karen in the runoff for the March 1998 presidential poll.)

It also suggested that former Prime Minister Aram Sargsian is unlikely to run as a separate candidate and will back a presidential bid by Stepan Demirchian. It is far from certain, however, that the anger generated by the A1+ tender debacle can be parlayed into an agreement among major opposition parties to unite and back a single candidate as they did in 1996. Even before the tender, commentators were predicting that the present leadership would seek to -- and probably succeed in -- playing potential opposition candidates off against the other. (Liz Fuller)

FORMER ARMENIAN FOREIGN MINISTER TO RETURN TO POLITICS. Raffi Hovannisian, the U.S.-born former foreign minister of Armenia, officially announced on 9 April the creation of a new civic organization, signaling his plans to enter active politics 10 years after his resignation.

The NGO, called the Civic National Initiative (KAN), held a presentation for journalists at its newly built headquarters in Yerevan. Its governing board, which includes several prominent public figures, said the KAN will strive to promote civic activism and public participation in political life.

"We want to render Armenian citizens and the public participants of state and public processes," Hovannisian said in a welcoming speech. "We will take no steps without having the public's support and heeding its suggestions and criticism."

Hovannisian, who served as independent Armenia's first foreign minister in 1991-92, did not rule out the organization's transformation into a political party. "We will decide together what should happen next," he told reporters. Asked about his participation in next year's presidential elections, the ex-minister replied: "I have no such intentions yet."

Hovannisian, who supported President Robert Kocharian's rise to power in 1998, is increasingly critical of the current Armenian authorities. Last summer, shortly after giving up his U.S. citizenship, Hovannisian accused Kocharian of ignoring his application for Armenian nationality for political reasons (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 August 2001). He was granted an Armenian passport shortly afterwards.

Officials in Kocharian's administration claimed at the time that Hovannisian wanted his Armenian citizenship to be backdated to 1991, which would have allowed him to run for president in 2003. Armenia's Constitution stipulates that only a person who has been an Armenian citizen and has "permanently" resided in the country for the 10 preceding years can run for president. The threshold for candidates in parliamentary elections is five years.

The KAN, further highlighting its political aspirations, said it will soon publish its own newspaper and draw on research conducted by the Armenian Center for National and International Studies, a think-tank founded by Hovannisian in 1994.

The former minister again criticized Kocharian on 9 April over the controversial closure of the A1+ TV channel. He voiced his support for opposition parties campaigning for the channel's return to the air, but said their activities should be "more organized, flexible and constructive." (Ruzanna Khachatrian)

FATE OF TURKISH-ARMENIAN COMMISION STILL UNCLEAR. Four Armenian members of the moribund Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC) met in Yerevan on 8 April amid lingering uncertainty over the future of the U.S.-backed initiative, which ran into trouble last December.

"We would very much like to proceed with the TARC, but that primarily depends on the Turkish side," one of the Armenian members, who asked not to be identified, told RFE/RL. He said the controversy over an initial TARC decision to request an international study on the 1915 genocide of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire remains the key obstacle to reviving the commission.

An analysis of the applicability of the 1948 UN Genocide Convention to the 1915 massacres was due to be conducted by the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), a New York-based human rights organization. The six Turkish members of the commission, however, unexpectedly asked the ICTJ in early December not to go ahead with the study. The move that angered the Armenian participants who effectively pulled out of the TARC (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 41, 13 December 2001).

The two sides have maintained unofficial contacts over the past two months in an attempt to revive the initiative which they believe could lay the groundwork for the normalization of relations between Armenia and Turkey (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 5, No. 3, 17 January 2002). But no agreement on the future of the TARC appears to have been reached in time for the Yerevan meeting of former Foreign Minister Alexander Arzumanian, retired senior diplomat David Hovannisian, Moscow-based political analyst Andranik Migranian, and the former chairman of the Armenian Assembly of America, Van Krikorian.

The Armenian commissioner, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, would not disclose details of the meeting, pointing to the confidentiality of the process. Nor did he specify whether the Armenians are insisting that their Turkish counterparts agree to a genocide study by the ICTJ.

A source close to the TARC told RFE/RL last month that the private body, which enjoys the backing of the U.S. government, could resume its activities "with a new name." "Alternatively, the Armenian members may do nothing and may leave it where it ended and walk away," the source said.

The Armenian commissioners are also understood to be pushing for more direct contacts between the governments of Armenia and Turkey, which do not have diplomatic relations.

The Turkish participants of the reconciliation effort, most of them former top diplomats, believe that Ankara should normalize relations with Yerevan without any precondition. However, the Turkish government, which has given its full support to Azerbaijan, appears adamant in pegging the establishment of diplomatic relations to a solution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that would preserve Azerbaijan's territorial integrity.

Still, the two neighboring states are now thought to be exploring possible options for easing the long-running Turkish-Armenian tensions. An informed source said on 8 April that Foreign Ministers Vartan Oskanian of Armenia and Ismail Cem of Turkey are likely to meet in May to discuss bilateral ties.

The two men already met in New York last February. Oskanian said afterwards that Ankara and Yerevan may soon launch direct intergovernmental negotiations.

Oskanian told reporters on 4 April that Armenia should "keep its channels of communication with Turkey open and try to reach progress in our relations." He said that is all the more necessary in the light of recent geopolitical changes in the region which have led Yerevan to seek closer security ties with NATO and the United States in particular. (Emil Danielyan) ˇ

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