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Caucasus Report: May 10, 2002

10 May 2002, Volume 5, Number 16

FORMER GEORGIAN RULING PARTY BARRED FROM LOCAL ELECTIONS. The Union of Citizens of Georgia (SMK), created as President Eduard Shevardnadze's power base and now contested between his supporters and those of former parliament speaker Zurab Zhvania, will not be able to contest the 2 June local elections in its own right. Responding to an appeal by former Kvemo Kartli regional governor Levan Mamaladze, a Tbilisi District Court on 3 May suspended the SMK's registration with the Central Election Commission to contest the ballot. Then on 7 May, the newspaper "Alia" printed an open letter from the SMK's Coordinating Council accusing Zhvania of trying to seize control of the party and of making decisions that affect its future without consulting its members.

Zhvania filed an appeal with the Georgian Supreme Court to have the Tbilisi District Court ruling reversed, but on 8 May the Supreme Court adjourned the hearing because Mamaladze failed to appear. The deadline for parties to register for the 2 June elections expired at 6 p.m. local time on 8 May.

Zhvania attributed the district-court ruling to pressure exerted by Minister of State Avtandil Djorbenadze with the aim of "marginalizing" Zhvania and his supporters. But the initiative to bar the SMK from the elections originated with Shevardnadze, who had resigned as its chairman last fall (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 September 2001), precipitating the fragmentation of the party's parliament faction (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 33, 8 October 2001).

Almost immediately after Shevardnadze set the date for the local elections, Zhvania announced that he and his supporters would hold a congress in April at which they would adopt a new name for the SMK and distance themselves from the policies of the present Georgian leadership. In other words, Zhvania seemed to be prepared to force a final split of the SMK and establish a rival political party that he planned to head. But Shevardnadze objected that a decision to split the SMK could only be taken at a full congress of that party (meaning one at which both his supporters and Zhvania's were represented), and that he doubted whether a majority of the party's rank and file would approve such a split. In the event, Zhvania failed to convene a party congress, and as recently as 20 April said that his supporters would participate in the local elections whether they remain in the SMK or leave it to form a rival party.

By setting in motion the process that resulted in the SMK's exclusion from the 2 June elections, Shevardnadze has signaled that he is apparently prepared to abandon that party to Zhvania. `

His probable rationale for doing so is that it is of marginal importance which party has a majority on local councils as long as it is the president who continues to appoint regional administrators and the mayors of the country's largest towns (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 5, No. 15, 2 May 2002). Three opinion polls conducted over the past month all showed single-figure support for the SMK. (Whether that rating reflected popular disillusion with Shevardnadze and his government, and whether a successor party headed by Zhvania would have scored a higher rating, is a matter for conjecture). The four most popular parties are the National Movement headed by former Justice Minister Mikhail Saakashvili, the Labor Party (which unexpectedly won an impressive number of local council seats in the November 1998 local elections), the Industrialists, and the New Right Wing, whose founders left the SMK parliament faction in the late summer of 2000 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 September 2000).

But by ensuring that the SMK does not compete in the local elections, Shevardnadze is simultaneously shielding it from a possible ignominious defeat. The president could therefore be planning to "reinstate" the SMK after the ballot if Zhvania now decides to quit it and take his followers with him. Alternatively, Shevardnadze will need to decide soon on selecting another party as his new power base: analysts in Tbilisi suggest he may try to cut a deal with either the Industrialists or the New Right Wing. Parliamentary elections are due in the fall of 2003. (Liz Fuller)

ARMENIAN PARLIAMENT LEADERSHIP ACCUSED OF BLOCKING GENOCIDE DENIAL BILL. The author of a draft law that declares denial of the 1915 genocide a crime accused the leadership of the Armenian parliament on 8 May of preventing deputies from debating it.

Hmayak Hovannisian, who leads the Agro-Industrial group of nonpartisan deputies, said speaker Armen Khachatrian and other senior lawmakers are taking "illegal" actions to derail a parliament debate on the proposed legislation. Hovannisian said that was the reason why he boycotted parliament sessions this week.

The draft law, unveiled in February, makes it illegal for any Armenian citizen or resident to "deny, justify or call into question" the fact of the 1915 genocide. The National Assembly refused to include the draft in its agenda after several deputies voiced strong objections. They said the bill is ambiguous in defining genocide denial.

But as recently as 20 April, Hovannisian expressed confidence that the parliament would eventually pass the bill, adding that the government backs it. He claimed in a statement on 8 May that the parliament committee on legal affairs submitted a negative opinion about the bill at a meeting held in violation of the parliament regulations.

Hovannisian has previously criticized former government officials who had tried to normalize relations between Turkey and Armenia. He has also attacked Armenian members of the controversial Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission. They have been widely accused of hampering Armenian efforts to achieve international recognition of the genocide. (Emil Danielyan)

CORRUPTION IN ARMENIA NOW 'MORE VISIBLE.' Government corruption in Armenia has been just as endemic during President Robert Kocharian's four-year rule as it was under his predecessor, a leader of an influential propresidential political party admitted on 6 May. Vahan Hovannisian, who is a senior member of the worldwide governing body of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation -- Dashnaktsutiun (HHD), said corrupt practices in Armenia have continued unabated and are now even more discernible in some areas. "Now that the [business] competition field has expanded, manifestations of corruption are becoming more vivid and visible," Hovannisian told a roundtable discussion in Yerevan.

He explained that in the early and mid-1990s -- under former President Levon Ter-Petrossian -- many economic spheres were tightly controlled by the latter's cronies, and there was no need for them to pay kickbacks too often. But Hovannisian, who also heads the committee on defense and security in the Armenian parliament, stopped short of blaming Kocharian for the lack of improvement since Ter-Petrossian's resignation in February 1998.

A pledge to combat corruption was a key theme of Kocharian's 1998 presidential campaign and one of the main reasons why the HHD, banned under Ter-Petrossian, rallied around the new president. Kocharian and his successive governments have repeatedly announced crackdowns on corruption.

But few concrete steps have been taken so far despite strong pressure from Western governments and lending institutions that view the problem as a serious obstacle to Armenia's economic development. U.S. Ambassador to Armenia John Ordway complained last week that the Armenian government has still not come up with a clear plan of action.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Ordway said: "I think that there is a great deal of recognition of the scope of the problem in Armenia and also a general acceptance that something has to be done about. What there isn't at the moment is an effective plan as to how to begin to go about reducing corruption." He described bribery and nepotism as "one of the major psychological barriers to foreign investment in Armenia."

Last year the Armenian government received a $345,000 grant from the World Bank to draw up a comprehensive program to tackle the problem. It is expected to be unveiled by August. In addition, a special commission was set up by Prime Minister Andranik Markarian to coordinate the government's anticorruption measures.

However, a recent opinion poll among Armenian businesspeople exposed widespread skepticism about the success of the government's anticorruption effort. Two out of three local entrepreneurs said they do not believe that the authorities are committed to eradicating corrupt practices.

According to Hovannisian, one of the main causes of Armenian corruption is the close link between business and politics. He argued that many senior government officials have extensive business interests and are therefore not interested in the rule of law and fair competition. He said many businessmen, mindful of the importance of government connections, consequently curry favor with top officials or themselves engage in political activities. (Atom Markarian and Emil Danielyan)

PUNCHING ABOVE HIS WEIGHT? Observers of the Armenian political scene have long identified Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian as a potential successor to Prime Minister Andranik Markarian (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, No. 27, 27 July 2000 and Vol. 4, No. 32, 24 September 2001). Several statements made by Sarkisian during a visit last week to Giumri substantiate that impression.

First, Sarkisian pledged that the government will within the next 12 months allocate apartments to the families of all servicemen from Giumri who were killed in the Karabakh war, and will also do its best to create new jobs in the region. Second, he extended an invitation to Armenians threatened by the campaign to evict non-Russians from Krasnodar Krai (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 25 March and 4 April 2002), arguing that any Armenian living illegally abroad should return to Armenia. And third, he denied the existence of interethnic tensions in the south Georgian region of Djavakheti, the population of which is predominantly Armenian, describing the situation there as "normal." But he went on to hint that should any threat to Djavakheti's Armenian community arise, they know that Armenia will not permit anyone to "offend them." (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "Azerbaijan's position on political prisoners remains unchanged. We believe there are no such persons in our country." -- Presidential administration head Ramiz Mekhtiev, quoted by Turan on 9 May.

"Azerbaijan is Turkey's door opening to the world of the Turks." -- Turkish Deputy Premier Devlet Bahceli, speaking on his return from a three-day visit to Azerbaijan (quoted by the "Turkish Daily News" on 10 May).