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Caucasus Report: July 16, 2001

16 July 2001, Volume 4, Number 26

WHAT LIES BEHIND RUSSIA'S DELAYED WITHDRAWAL FROM GUDAUTA? No one, least of all the Georgian leadership, is likely to have been surprised either by Russia's failure to meet the 30 June deadline for leaving the Gudauta military base in Abkhazia, or by subsequent Russian statements blaTbilisi for failing to create conditions that would permit the remaining materiel at Gudauta to be withdrawn. The base has been blockaded for the past month by local residents (both Abkhaz and Russians) who perceive the Russian military presence as the sole factor preventing a new attack on Abkhazia by Georgian forces.

The question is what exactly Russia hopes to gain from its delaying tactics. One possibility is that Moscow wants to use the opportunity to broker a settlement of the Abkhaz conflict. In a statement issued on 10 July, the Russian Foreign Ministry affirmed Moscow's readiness to continue to do so, both in the framework of the multilateral talks under the aegis of the "Friends of the UN Secretary-General" group and acting independently (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 July 2001). Having objected to the document drafted by UN Special Envoy Dieter Boden on the framework for future relations between the central Georgian and the Abkhaz government, Russia has now come up with an alternative framework proposal. Its contents have not been made public, but Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze said it reflects a "much more progressive" approach on Moscow's part, while Georgian Foreign Ministry spokesman Kakha Sikharulidze noted that it contains "positive elements."

Those comments suggest that Tbilisi may be prepared to allow Moscow to claim the credit for coming up with a political solution to the Abkhaz conflict (a solution that would preserve Georgia's territorial integrity, rather than set an inconvenient precedent that the Chechens could then adduce in their campaign for de jure independence from the Russian Federation), in return for expediting the permanent closure of the Gudauta base. With the Abkhaz conflict safely resolved, Moscow would have no further need of that facility as a rehabilitation center for the Russian troops currently deployed under the CIS aegis as peacekeepers along the border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia.

The UN Security Council is scheduled to discuss the Russian draft document on 25 July. (Liz Fuller)

ADJARIA CHALLENGES TBILISI -- AGAIN. One of the leitmotivs of Georgian politics over the past decade has been the standoff between the central Georgian government and the autonomous Republic of Adjaria in the person of its leader, Aslan Abashidze. That standoff is not confined to center/periphery relations: it also informs everyday parliamentary politics insofar as the Union for Georgian Revival which Abashidze heads is the nucleus of the largest opposition faction within the Georgian parliament.

Over the past two months, Adjaria has defied Tbilisi on three separate counts. First, it refused in May to transfer any taxes to the federal budget, and advanced a counter-claim of 135 million Georgian laris ($60.5 million) for pensions and organizations funded from the federal budget (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 June 2001). Second, in an address on republican television on 19 June, Abashidze likened the central leadership, and specifically parliament speaker Zurab Zhvania, to fascists (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 June 2001). And third, on 7 July, the Adjar Supreme Council (parliament) voted to amend the republic's constitution to create a bicameral legislature. The upper chamber would consist of 10 senators while the lower chamber would consist of 35 deputies elected under the proportional system. In that the Union for Georgian Revival is the only party that can function unimpeded in Adjaria, it would thus be guaranteed a majority.

Predictably, some Georgian leaders have condemned the Adjar parliament's decision as presaging an attempt to secede from Georgia, while politicians from both the SMK and the opposition have branded it unconstitutional. (One notable exception is Vakhtang Khmaladze of the opposition Industrialists faction, a legal expert who told Prime News that "what is not prohibited [by the Constitution of the Republic of Georgia] is legal.")

But regardless of the constitutionality of the Adjar move, many within the SMK remain convinced that Abashidze is acting on Moscow's orders with the express aim of destabilizing the political situation in Georgia. As SMK parliament faction leader Revaz Adamia told Georgian television on 20 June, Russia "will go to extreme measures to retain the strategic balance in the Transcaucasus." (Liz Fuller)

MINGRELIAN DEMANDS FOR AUTONOMY ENGENDER UNEXPECTED COUNTER-MOVE FROM TBILISI. Nor is Adjaria the only region of Georgia seeking greater independence from the central Georgian government. Last month, representatives of 25 political parties and organizations aligned in the Coordinating Council of Opposition Parties of Mingrelia called for granting the region formal autonomy in order to galvanize its stagnating economy. They also demanded that the Mingrelian language (which is similar to Georgian) be taught in local schools. Mingrelia was the ancestral home of, and a center of support for, former President Zviad Gamsakhurdia. Since the latter's ouster in early 1992, relations between the population of Mingrelia and the central Georgian government have been strained.

President Shevardnadze promptly condemned the Mingrelian demands as a "provocation." And within a couple of weeks, the Georgian leadership launched a counter-offensive, announcing on 10 July the creation in the province's capital, Zugdidi, of a new public organization named "Mingrelia for a Powerful Georgia." The primary stated aim of that body, which is backed by the ruling Union of Citizens of Georgia, is to expedite the creation of a new framework for political and economic relations between Georgia's various regions -- presumably one that will defuse demands for regional autonomy.

But the new organization is also intended to serve a second purpose, namely "to support the pro-Western orientation of parliament speaker Zurab Zhvania." In other words, it appears to be intended as a support base for a politician with ambitions to become premier, once that post is introduced, and then possibly president when Shevardnadze's term expires in 2005. Whether one organization, based in an inherently unstable region, can fulfill two such disparate functions successfully is more than doubtful, however. And if it fails to quell local discontent, that failure could reflect badly on the man the organization is intended to support. The Tbilisi daily "Rezonansi" on 12 July quoted Georgian Intelligence Department chief Avtandil Ioseliani as expressing concern that Russia may seek to take advantage of the tensions in Mingrelia and back centrifugal tendencies there. (Liz Fuller)

FORMER GEORGIAN PREMIER PREPARES POLITICAL COMEBACK. Vazha Lortkipanidze, who served as Georgian minister of state from August 1998 until May last year, announced on 1 July that he intends to contest an upcoming by-election in his native district of Bagdadi in western Georgia in a bid to return to national politics. In all likelihood, however, Lortkipanidze will not represent the majority Union of Citizens of Georgia (SMK), of which he was a founding member, but will run as an independent, parliament speaker Zurab Zhvania told journalists on 2 July, referring to unspecified "problems" that had emerged between Lortkipanidze and the SMK in recent years.

SMK Secretary-General Eduard Surmanidze similarly said on 4 July that the party will consult with President Shevardnadze before coming to a decision on whether or not to endorse Lortkipanidze's candidacy. A second SMK member, Zurab Mskhviladze, who earlier represented that constituency before transferring to a post within the Justice Ministry from which he has since resigned, has also announced his intention of contesting that parliamentary seat.

Lortkipanidze, nonetheless, has a number of powerful and influential supporters, including Georgian Border Guards commander Colonel General Valeri Chkheidze and Prosecutor-General Gia Meparishvili, both of whom also come from Bagdadi. Chkheidze was quoted by Prime News on 2 July as saying that it is time to make the Georgian parliament "a really efficient body," and that the only way to do so is by electing "such professional politicians" as Lortkipanidze. (Liz Fuller)

SPLINTER GROUPS MULL REJOINING FORMER ARMENIAN RULING PARTY. The former ruling Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh) and several smaller groups that split from it over the last six-seven years are now considering joining forces to step up their challenge to the present authorities. Representatives of those center-right opposition parties, who remain united in their support of former President Levon Ter-Petrossian, are currently negotiating the possibility of merging again into a single party.

Among them are the Azatutiun (Freedom) party of former Prime Minister Hrant Bagratian, the 21st Century party led by former national security chief David Shahnazarian, and the "Armat" organization headed by several veteran members of the HHSh. Armat leaders were until recently at odds with the HHSh's controversial chairman, fugitive former Interior Minister Vano Siradeghian.

"It is too early to say whether or not these negotiations will yield any concrete results," former deputy parliament speaker Ara Sahakian, who is currently affiliated with Armat, told RFE/RL on 5 July.

Other sources close to the HHSh and its splinter groups say the creation of the new political organization, tentatively called "united liberal party," now looks almost certain. They do not rule out the possibility of Ter-Petrossian taking on a major role in the party, which they say will campaign on a free-market platform in the next parliamentary elections due in 2003.

Ter-Petrossian has kept an extremely low profile since he was forced to resign in February 1998. (Armen Zakarian)