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Caucasus Report: May 30, 2002

30 May 2002, Volume 5, Number 19

FRONTS HARDEN ON EVE OF GEORGIAN LOCAL ELECTIONS. On 2 June, the Georgian electorate will vote in local elections that in effect mark the first stage in the struggle that will determine who succeeds Eduard Shevardnadze as president once his second term in office expires in 2005. (The second stage will be the parliamentary elections due in October 2003).

The run-up to the local elections has been marred by a major legal controversy that ended with the Georgian Supreme Court upholding a Tbilisi district court ruling that the pro-presidential wing of the divided Union of Citizens of Georgia (SMK) is the rightful successor to the party of that name and is therefore entitled to contest the ballot under the SMK banner (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21, 22, and 28 May 2002). That decision deprived the opposition representatives within the SMK led by former parliament Speaker Zurab Zhvania of an organizational base to contest the ballot. But in what Zhvania has described as "a gesture of civil solidarity," the small Christian Conservative Party approached him in early May after the initial court ruling and offered to withdraw its own candidates to enable Zhvania's people to run on its lists. Zhvania plans to file an appeal against the Supreme Court ruling with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

The Central Election Commission has registered 22 parties to contest the ballot. The fiercest competition is expected in Tbilisi, where over 2,000 candidates will vie for the 49 seats on the municipal council. The pro-presidential SMK, however, is not participating, either because it fears an ignominious defeat at the hands of an electorate worn down by a decade of electricity, gas, and heating shortages or because the city mayor is not elected but appointed by the president.

The Tbilisi city race highlights the extent to which the poll is being portrayed by the opposition as a vote of no confidence in the Shevardnadze leadership. Former Justice Minister Mikhail Saakashvili, who quit the SMK last fall to establish his own New National Movement-Democratic Front (EMDP), is campaigning on the slogan "Tbilisi Without Shevardnadze." He told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" the slogan means abolishing the all-pervasive influence in the capital of Shevardnadze's family, who, Saakashvili claims, control all the most lucrative sectors of the Georgian economy.

Passions are running equally high elsewhere in the country, with the exception of the unrecognized republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and of Adjaria, where elections will be held only on 16 June. In Zugdidi, capital of the west Georgian province of Mingrelia, unidentified assailants opened fire on 20 May on the home of one of the candidates for city mayor, while a second candidate warned that the region (a bastion of support for former President Zviad Gamsakhurdia which has been hostile to Shevardnadze since the paramilitary Mkhedrioni engaged in brutal reprisals against its population in 1992) could erupt in "civil war" if the authorities attempted to rig the outcome of the ballot. "You can already smell blood in Zugdidi," he said. And in districts of southeastern Georgia where the population is predominantly ethnic Azerbaijani, local residents have blocked the highway linking Bolnisi with Tbilisi to protest the local authorities' refusal to register 420 Azerbaijanis as candidates in the elections.

The Georgian police have been placed on enhanced alert countrywide to protest the population and "prevent the escalation of tension" between rival parties, Interior Minister Koba Narchemashvili said on 28 May.

Apprehension that the poll results will be rigged is widespread. The Georgian press in recent days has published several articles by opposition politicians detailing the various methods likely to be employed to ensure the desired outcome. Those range from ballot-stuffing to multiple voting to pressure on the electorate in the run-up to the vote. Caucasus Press reported on 30 May that pensioners in the west Georgian district of Chkhorotsku, who have not received their pensions for four months, are being paid provided they sign a pledge to vote for the SMK.

The Central Election Commission responded to allegations of official intent to commit deliberate fraud by junking the ballot papers already printed and starting afresh. Saakashvili flew to Strasbourg on 29 May with the stated intention of alerting the Council of Europe to the possibility of widespread fraud. (The Council of Europe will field a team of five observers on 2 June to monitor the vote.)

Opinion polls suggest that it is Saakashvili who has the most to lose from any systematic manipulation of the poll outcome: Opinion polls over the past month have consistently identified the EMDP as the most popular political party with support ranging from 15-29 percent, followed by the Labor Party, the "New Rightists," and "Industry Will Save Georgia." (Liz Fuller)

WHO FABRICATED THE 'GEORGIAN COUP' SCENARIO, AND WHY? On 28 May, a Russian TV channel broadcast a program featuring what it claimed was a secret U.S. State Department memorandum dated mid-February 2002 giving a detailed prognosis of a coup allegedly in preparation to replace Eduard Shevardnadze as Georgian president with "a more pragmatic leader" able to forge compromises with neighboring states that are advantageous to the U.S. The purported memorandum goes on to forecast specific events that, it argues, will culminate in Shevardnadze's resignation in October after he suffers a heart attack.

The document appears (insofar as it is possible to judge from the English-language summary provided by Caucasus Press on 29 May) to consist of two separate sections. While the first may reflect the thinking of some U.S. officials, the second is clearly a fabrication.

The first section states that a further deterioration of the socioeconomic situation in Georgia is undesirable as it will lead to the strengthening of Russia's position in the South Caucasus. The Georgian leader's popularity is eroding rapidly. It is "very expensive and ineffective to support Shevardnadze. It causes problems. Georgia needs immediately a new pragmatic leader." (In the context, "pragmatic" appears to mean "someone who will not take such an antagonistic stance toward Moscow.") The first section further notes that Shevardnadze "demands guarantees that Washington not allow Moscow to exert economic pressure on Tbilisi" or to keep its "presence in Abkhazia" (presumably the Russian peacekeepers deployed under the Commonwealth of Independent States aegis in the Abkhaz conflict zone which Tbilisi would like to see augmented by an international contingent.)

The second section of the alleged memorandum comprises a detailed chronological prediction of the events that are expected to culminate in Shevardnadze's replacement. That anticipated chronology is interesting in that it names key players in the drama, including former Georgian Ambassador to Moscow Vazha Lortkipanidze and former Georgian intelligence service head Igor Giorgadze, who left Georgia in 1995 after being accused of masterminding the botched car-bomb attack on Shevardnadze in August of that year.

The scenario predicts a wave of terrorist acts in June and July perpetrated by an organization named "For Abkhazia With Russia"; an attempt on Shevardnadze's life between 25 and 30 July; attacks on Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia in late July and early August which will prompt Shevardnadze to demand the withdrawal of the entire peacekeeping contingent; and the kidnapping by "Abkhaz extremists" in late September of Lortkipanidze and parliament Speaker Nino Burdjanadze, following which Shevardnadze will appeal to the U.S. president to send troops. Shevardnadze will suffer a heart attack on 9-10 October, after which Lortkipanidze and Burdjanadze will be released and both will run for president.

It is not inconceivable that some officials in Washington may indeed have come to the conclusion that Shevardnadze is incapable of delivering on his perennial promises to crackdown on top-level corruption and create conditions for foreign investment that would help to bring the country out its decade-long economic crisis, and should therefore step down before popular dissatisfaction reaches a level that could be tapped by a pro-Russian political faction. But it is implausible that the U.S. considers Lortkipanidze the optimum replacement for Shevardnadze. On the other hand, some in Moscow might welcome Lortkipanidze's election as Georgian leader. The question thus arises whether the alleged memo reflects the desire, or even the intention, of Shevardnadze's enemies in Moscow to engineer a situation in which his dependence on the U.S. may precipitate his downfall, or whether it was fabricated in Moscow with the express intent of trying to drive a wedge between Tbilisi and Washington. (Liz Fuller)

WILL CHECHEN BOSS SUCCEED IN TAKING CONTROL OF GROZNEFTEGAZ? Lieutenant General Vladimir Moltenskoi, who commands the joint federal forces in Chechnya, went on record in May publicly confirming what observers of the war in Chechnya have long known: that some members of the Russian military contingent there are engaged in the theft of oil (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 1, 5 January 2001 and No. 4, 26 January 2001). Commenting on that revelation to "The Moscow Times" of 21 May, Andrei Ryabov of the Moscow Carnegie Center suggested that Moscow might react by transferring control of the oil sector in Chechnya to administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov. During the protracted process of creating a new company, Grozneftegaz, to control that sector, Kadyrov consistently argued that his administration should have the controlling stake. But when Grozneftegaz was formed in November 2000, Rosneft as the parent organization was given a 51 percent stake to the Chechen administration's 49 percent (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 5, 2 February 2001).

This was not the first issue over which Moltenskoi has taken a position closer to Kadyrov's than to that of other members of the Russian military command. In March, he issued orders aimed at precluding human rights violations by Russian servicemen engaged in "sweep" operations for Chechen fighters. Kadyrov has repeatedly condemned the fact that those orders have been routinely ignored.

Should Kadyrov indeed gain full control of Grozneftegaz, he would have a convenient source of funding for his presidential election campaign, once Chechnya adopts a new constitution paving the way for such elections (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 5, No. 17, 17 May 2002). Could the cash-strapped Kremlin have decided to deprive its top brass of their illicit oil income in order to ensure the elections of its preferred candidate as Chechen president? (Liz Fuller)

POSTSCRIPT TO AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENT'S TEHRAN VISIT. The tone for President Heidar Aliev's long-anticipated visit to Iran on 18-20 May was set by the welcome he received at Tehran airport, where only Iran's Cooperation Minister Ali Sufi and a number of low-ranking officials turned out to greet him, the independent daily "Azadlyg" reported on 21 May. (Liz Fuller)

STATISTIC OF THE WEEK: A total of 120 million laris ($54.6 million) is taken annually in bribes in Georgia, Caucasus Press on 29 May quoted Economy, Industry, and Trade Minister Gia Gachechiladze as saying. That figure is reportedly based on calculations by World Bank experts and Georgian statisticians.

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK: "If the Russian bases [in Georgia] are withdrawn, a conflagration of internecine wars will engulf the entire territory of the Transcaucasus from the Black Sea to the Caspian." -- Major General Vyacheslav Boriov, commander of the Russian garrison in Batumi, in a 29 May interview with "Parlamentskaya gazeta."

"Today we have a stable domestic political situation." -- Armenian President Robert Kocharian, quoted by Noyan Tapan on 27 May.

"Any solution which will promote the process of peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the establishment of an atmosphere of trust between the conflicting sides is acceptable [to Tehran]." -- Iranian Ambassador to Yerevan Mohammad Farhad Koleini, quoted by Caspian News Agency on 28 May.