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Caucasus Report: May 21, 2001


21 May 2001, Volume 4, Number 19

CAN SHEVARDNADZE WIN PARLIAMENT'S APPROVAL FOR HIS PROPOSED CONSTITUTIONAL CHANGES...? In his annual address to the nation, delivered in the Georgian parliament on 12 May, President Eduard Shevardnadze outlined his ideas for a new model for relations between the president, the executive, and the legislature following the reintroduction of the post of premier, which was abolished in 1995. But opposition parties currently reject both Shevardnadze's specific model and the time frame he has proposed for introducing it, and consequently, the measure may not receive the two-thirds majority vote in parliament required for passage.

The restoration of the post of premier as part of a broader redistribution of powers has been under discussion for over a year. In April 2000, shortly after Shevardnadze was re-elected for a second term, opposition Union of Traditionalists Chairman Akaki Asatiani presented a draft bill, modeled on the Finnish system, that would have limited the powers of the president to rule on financial and personnel issues and given the government the right of legislative initiative.

Asatiani succeeded in collecting the requisite number of signatures to initiate a debate on that bill, apparently including that of former Premier Niko Lekishvili, who had called for the reintroduction of the premiership in August 1999, simultaneously disclaiming any desire to get his old job back. But parliament Speaker Zurab Zhvania intervened, pressuring those deputies from Shevardnadze's majority Union of Citizens of Georgia (SMK) who had endorsed Asatiani's initiative to retract their support for it (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, No. 17, 28 April 2000 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 May 2000). Both Zhvania and then SMK parliament faction leader Mikhail Saakashvili went on record as saying they considered the reintroduction of the cabinet model inappropriate and unwarranted at that juncture.

But eleven months later, at a closed-door meeting in Tbilisi on 20 April of the SMK board -- a session which Shevardnadze attended in his capacity as chairman of that party -- it was agreed that the constitution should be amended to reintroduce the post of prime minister and to amend the balance of power between the president, the executive, and the legislature (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 16, 27 April 2001).

Under Shevardnadze's proposed new state model, the president nominates a candidate for prime minister whose candidacy the parliament must approve. The prime minister then forms a cabinet that the parliament must similarly approve. The president has the right to disband parliament if legislators reject his candidate for premier three times. The constitution does not, however, allow the president to disband parliament during the final six months of his term in office, during a state of emergency or martial law, or after it has launched impeachment proceedings against him. Shevardnadze said that model of "a strong president, a strong parliament, and an authoritative government" would further the process of democratization.

Officials close to Shevardnadze hope that the parliament will adopt the required amendments to the constitution before the spring session ends in June. But that may prove not to be feasible: Constitutional Court Chairman Avtandil Demetrashvili was quoted by the daily newspaper "Akhali taoba" on 27 April as saying that up to 80 percent of the constitution would have to be rewritten. Demetrashvili said he considered the proposal to reintroduce the cabinet "untimely" during the present "transition period," warning that it could lead to the "devaluation" of the legislature and to political instability. He said he believes that such changes to the constitution should not be made until the state and society become more stable and more mature.

Moreover, the amendments appear unlikely to win the support of the minimum of two-thirds of all parliament deputies (157 out of 235) to be passed. The SMK has at present 125 deputies. While a faction meeting on 18 May failed to reach a consensus on the proposed changes, it seems improbable that any deputies would vote against them. Meanwhile the Revival parliament faction, which is the second largest, issued a memorandum on 19 May saying that it will not support the proposed constitutional amendments until the adoption of new "democratic" laws on elections and self-government. The opposition Industrialists faction, too, has made clear its objections to the proposed amendments. (Liz Fuller)

...WITH WHICH BOTH HIS SUPPORTERS AND OPPOSITION FIND FAULT. Two Georgian parliament deputies, one from the SMK and one from the Industrialists faction, enumerated their objections to Shevardnadze's proposals in a roundtable discussion on 16 May moderated by RFE/RL's Tbilisi bureau.

Giorgi Baramidze, who is chairman of the parliament Committee on Defense and Security, expressed regret that the proposed changes do not provide for the creation of as strong, authoritative, and responsible a cabinet of ministers as the SMK would have liked. He explained that the whole rationale for the proposed constitutional amendments centered on the need for such a strong cabinet, which, he continued, is a precondition for extricating Georgia from the present crisis situation. But the model under discussion does not give the government even "that minimum dose of independence" that would guarantee that the policies which it considers correct and embarks on implementing are not cut off at the halfway mark.

But in a seeming contradiction, Baramidze went on to argue that "we have a moral obligation" to adopt the proposed constitutional changes, with some unspecified modifications, as doing so constitutes the sole chance of giving the present executive the chance to function effectively. If we fail to adopt those amendments, Baramidze concluded, then "everything will stay as it is" and the government will be unable to make any headway against the interests of various political and clan groups and interests.

Vaktang Khmaladze (Industrialists) agreed that Shevardnadze's proposed changes do not give the new cabinet adequate powers. But he went further than Baramidze, arguing that this failure is only one aspect of the way in which the proposed draft constitutional amendments violate the basic principles of the division of power between president, executive, and legislature, and of the clear definition of the extent of the powers and responsibilities of each of the three branches of power.

Khmaladze identified a fundamental imbalance in the proposed new division of power. The new model, he pointed out, makes both the parliament and the cabinet extremely vulnerable to pressure from the president. He cites the proposal (to which Baramidze too objected) that the president automatically dissolves the parliament if deputies fail by the end of the year to endorse the budget for the following year proposed by the cabinet -- regardless of whether that budget is balanced and realistic.

Similarly, the president is empowered to dissolve parliament if on three consecutive occasions its rejects his candidate for premier. And, if the parliament votes no confidence in the government, the president has the choice of dissolving parliament or dismissing the government. Moreover, whereas in most other functioning democracies the election of a new parliament automatically entails the formation of a new government, under the proposed new Georgian model, it is the president who on his election selects a new premier, who then forms a government that the parliament is called on to endorse. All those provisions, Khmaladze argued, inevitably create a "tame," "pocket" parliament that will not risk incurring the president's displeasure.

Nor is the government in a position to challenge the president, who would have the power to overrule or annul government directives, and even to dismiss the government and make it the scapegoat for any perceived failures or criticism. And because the president's responsibilities are nowhere clearly defined, it is impossible to say who would bear legal and moral responsibility if the president's dismissal of the government triggered a political crisis. In short, Khmaladze argued, under the proposed amendments the president acquires "practically unlimited powers" to the point that he becomes, in Khmaladze's words, "a constitutional monarch." That would, he warned, be "extremely dangerous" for Georgia. (Liz Fuller)

CHECHEN OFFICIAL: RUSSIAN CAMPS USED FOR 'EXTERMINATION.' Russian forces in Chechnya are using filtration camps as part of a broader effort to exterminate the Chechen people, according to one who survived these camps and now serves as the Chechen health minister.

Dr. Omar Khanbiev told an RFE/RL briefing in Washington on 17 May that he personally saw Russian troops engage in tortures that "can be imagined only by a totally depraved human mind" -- the beating of the wounded on the stumps of their amputated arms and legs, the use of electric shocks to genitalia, exposure to extreme cold, faked executions, and suffocation.

Tragically, Khanbiev said, this is not the work of individual "sadists" but rather a system "created by the state" and intended to destroy the Chechen nation. He said that when Russian troops round up Chechens, "especially the young and healthy," the troops first put the prisoners in a hole in the ground and seek to collect ransoms from their relatives.

If a ransom is not paid quickly -- and the Russian forces use such money collected to support themselves -- then, all who remain in prison are labeled "militants" and the cycle of torture begin. Khanbiev noted that he had escaped a tragic end only because he had been ransomed at that stage.

From the Russian bases, the prisoners are sent to a series of filtration camps and Russian prisons, each of which has a special "Chechen department" with torture facilities. Khanbiev said that 90 percent of those that begin this cycle disappear without a trace, noting that "disappeared" in this case means "dead."

If the Chechens held there die, Russian authorities prepare documents saying that they have been released after the bodies have been disposed of. The "lucky" 10 percent who survive this process are then returned to the main filtration camp at Chernokozovo, where Russian soldiers again seek ransoms. If none is forthcoming, the prisoners are recycled until all are dead, Khanbiev reported.

The health minister said that these camps are part of a broader Russian effort to exterminate the Chechen people using a variety of weapons prohibited by the Geneva Convention and noted that some 87,000 Chechens have been killed during the current war.

Despite these horrors, which have had a deep psychological impact on him and others, Dr. Khanbiev said that Chechens remain hopeful that Western countries will intervene to help. But he reported that his recent experience at the United Nations Human Rights Commission hearings was not encouraging.

There, the Russian delegation objected and prevented him from finishing his report because he referred to his homeland of Chechnya, and not a single other member of that commission objected to that Russian veto. (RFE/RL)

HOW SERIOUS ARE THE TENSIONS WITHIN MUSAVAT? In the run-up to the congress of the Azerbaijani opposition Musavat Party scheduled for late May, Rauf Arifoglu, who is editor of the party's newspaper, "Yeni Musavat," has expressed sweeping criticisms of the party's leadership and tactics. But at the same time he has claimed that his criticism is ultimately aimed at making the party's chairman, Isa Gambar, president of Azerbaijan.

Arifoglu's criticisms were expressed in an interview published on 12 May in the independent daily newspaper "525-gazeti." That interview was summarized by "Ekho" three days later. Arifoglu claimed in that interview that the Musavat Party is in the process of splitting into factions grouped around individual members of the leadership. He said that pressuring the present leadership to step down and thus make way for himself and his supporters could halt that process. If that happened, Arifoglu said, he could then bring Gambar to power. Arifoglu also characterized the party's performance as unsatisfactory, saying that in the past 10 years "it has not been able to achieve any serious political successes."

That claim is both misleading and unfair insofar as Musavat was blatantly discriminated against in its attempts to field candidates in both the 1995 and the 2000 parliamentary elections. It is also at variance with Gambar's claim immediately after the 5 November ballot that his party had polled over 60 percent of the vote. Arifoglu did not challenge that claim at the time. (The official returns gave Musavat 4.9 percent of the vote, less than the minimum 8 percent required to win representation under the proportional system.) As a result of that discrimination, and of the widespread falsification and procedural violations that accompanied the 2000 parliamentary elections, Musavat won only two mandates in the new parliament. Both those deputies were subsequently expelled from the party for defying its leadership's decision that its members should not participate in the work of what it considered an illegal legislature.

In comments to "Ekho," Gambar sought to downplay Arifoglu's criticisms, recalling that he himself proposed at the party's previous congress in 1995 that one individual should not be allowed to hold the post of party chairman for more than two consecutive terms, a proposal that deputies to the congress rejected. Similarly, Gambar told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service on 19 May "Of course...there are free discussions going on within the party on the eve of the upcoming congress. Of course some members of the Musavat express their desire to have a new leadership. This is natural for a democratic party."

But Musavat secretary Arif Gadjiev told "Ekho" that while Arifoglu, like any other Musavat Party member, has the right to express an opinion about the party's performance, he does not have the right to pass judgment on it. He added that Arifoglu's statements to "525-gazeti" contradicted earlier statements Arifoglu had made and attributed the discrepancy to what he termed the editor's "current nervous state," adding that it is those earlier, less categorical pronouncements that reflect Arifoglu's true opinions.

"Ekho" recalled, however, that Arifoglu crossed swords with Musavat's leadership last summer, challenging his listing in sixth place in the list of candidates to contest the November elections under the proportional system. The paper also notes that Arifoglu's popularity within the party has risen since then as a result of the heavy-handed official attempt to implicate him in a botched airplane hijack last year (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, No. 36, 7 September 2000).

Whether in tacit acknowledgment of Arifoglu's standing within Musavat, or in a bid to secure his loyalty, the obstreperous editor has been chosen to accompany Gambar on his ongoing trip to Turkey. The electronic "Azerbaijan Bulletin" reported in its 17 May issue that many in Turkey view Gambar as a future Azerbaijani president. Gambar met on 15 May with State Minister for relations with Turcophone countries Abdulhalik Cay, and may also meet with Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit and President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, the "Bulletin" predicted. Those predictions raise a third possible motive for coopting Arifoglu to accompany Gambar: to demonstrate to him the futility of any attempt to challenge the latter's authority. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "There are no political prisoners in Azerbaijan. This is what I have always been stating, including [during my] meeting with Council of Europe experts." -- Ilham Aliev, who headed a recent Azerbaijani parliamentary delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, speaking to journalists in Baku on 15 May (quoted by Turan).

"What we are saying now about the peace process may create the illusion that progress is within reach, but that is not the case -- it is still quite far away." -- Russian Minsk Group co-chairman Nikolai Gribkov, speaking in Baku on 18 May (quoted by RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service).

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