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Caucasus Report: October 8, 2001


8 October 2001, Volume 4, Number 33

GEORGIA'S ROBIN HOOD STAKES HIS POLITICAL FUTURE. A year ago, "RFE/RL Caucasus Report" predicted (see Vol. 3, No. 39, 6 October 2000) that the appointment of Mikhail Saakashvili as minister of justice would have a major impact on the future of the Union of Citizens of Georgia (SMK), the majority faction within the Georgian parliament, and on the political landscape in the country as a whole. Saakashvili's activities over the past 12 months have indeed helped transform the Georgian political landscape. But his resignation from that position on 19 September risks leaving him in the political wilderness.

In his capacity as justice minister, Saakashvili assumed the role of a latter-day Robin Hood, systematically sniping at those Georgian "oligarchs" (some of them his fellow ministers) whom both he and much of the Georgian public suspect of having amassed fortunes by dubious, if not illegal means. In April, he crossed swords with Economy Minister Vano Chkhartishvili, who rejected his accusation that Georgian oligarchs (including Chkhartishvili himself) are lobbying Russian interests in Georgia. And in August, Saakashvili submitted to the legislature a draft bill that would have legalized the confiscation of assets whose owners could not prove had been acquired legally (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 August 2001 and "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 30, 17 August 2001). Presenting that bill, Saakashvili produced photographs of the opulent mansions owned, or being built, by Chkhartishvili, Interior Minister Kakha Targamadze, Security Minister Vakhtang Kutateladze, Tbilisi police chief Soso Alavidze, and others.

Opinion polls indicated that the population at large overwhelmingly supported Saakashvili's draft bill. But Shevardnadze rejected it on the grounds that it encroached on the presumption of innocence. Moreover, in his traditional Monday radio broadcast of 13 August, Shevardnadze argued that demands to "take from the rich and give to the poor" are inappropriate in the Georgian context. Three days later, Saakashvili told a press conference in Tbilisi that he would not resign from his post, and that "I am going to fight till the end to get the law on the confiscation of illegally obtained property passed."

Saakashvili has offered no explanation why despite that assertion he stepped down one month later, or specifically, whether Shevardnadze's own announcement on 17 September that he plans to relinquish the chair of the majority Union of Citizens of Georgia had any bearing on his decision. Nor is it clear whether an incident on 15 September in which someone broke into Saakashvili's Tbilisi apartment and accessed computer files, but did not take money or valuables, is of any relevance.

On 21 September, the deadline for registration, Saakashvili's supporters applied for his registration as an independent candidate in the 21 October by-election in the Tbilisi district of Vake (the constituency he had represented in parliament prior to his appointment as justice minister in October 2000). The Central Electoral Commission duly registered his candidacy immediately, waiving the requirement that all candidates provide a minimum 100 signatures in their support on the grounds that he had earlier participated as an election candidate to represent that same constituency.

But Saakashvili's by-election victory is by no means a foregone conclusion: he faces 15 rival candidates, of whom the most formidable are National Democratic Party of Georgia (SEDP) Chairwoman Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia and former Mkhedrioni paramilitary leader Djaba Ioseliani.

Sarishvili-Chanturia, who together with Liberal Party of Azerbaijan Chair Lala-Shovket Gadjieva and former Ukrainian Deputy Premier Yuliya Tymoshenko is one of the most likely candidates to become the first democratically (as distinct from universally) elected woman president of a CIS state, is one of the very few influential Georgian opposition figures whose political activity dates back to the late 1980s. Together with her husband Giorgi Chanturia (whose murder in 1993 has never been solved), she was one of the founding members of the SEDP in August 1988, and since then has campaigned in opposition to, first the Communist Party of Georgia, then President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, and finally the Shevardnadze regime. Her present election manifesto focuses on developing a national democratic ideology, solving social problems, facilitating the creation of small and medium business, and creating "normal living conditions" for Georgia's children.

Djaba Ioseliani's electorate, to judge by the support personnel whom this writer encountered in his election headquarters in November 1995, consists primarily of now-impoverished intellectuals in their 50s and 60s who in the 1980s constituted the creme de la creme of the Georgian intelligentsia. But Ioseliani's political influence has greatly diminished over the past six years, and many of those who backed him in 1995 may now transfer their support to Saakashvili.

The election rivalry between Saakashvili and Sarishvili-Chanturia is compounded by the bad blood that has existed between them for the last few years. In December 1999, Sarishvili-Chanturia accused Saakashvili, then head of the SMK parliament faction, of connections with the "gas mafia," whereupon Saakashvili immediately challenged journalists to investigate those charges in order to clear his good name. When he was attacked and beaten up on the street the same evening, he blamed Sarishvili-Chanturia, who brought a libel suit against him.

It is therefore hardly surprising that over the past three weeks the two have engaged in mutual incriminations and insults. A member of Saakashvili's campaign staff claimed that Sarishvili-Chanturia intended to orchestrate a botched attempt on her own life to boost her support, whereupon she implied that Saakashvili is mentally deranged and in need of psychiatric treatment. A week later, Saakashvili responded with the counter-allegation that Sarishvili-Chanturia had solicited the help of Adjar Supreme Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze, who is widely perceived as Moscow's cat's-paw, in forcing the postponement of the 21 October ballot, whereupon his supporters vowed to respond to such a postponement with street demonstrations. Sarishvili-Chanturia admitted having had a telephone conversation with Abashidze, whose Union for Georgia's Revival has endorsed her candidacy, but denied planning to delay the ballot. Both she and Saakashvili have publicly pledged that while the election campaign may be "dirty," the vote will be "clean," meaning that neither will attempt to falsify the outcome.

That level of vitriol, which Saakashvili must have anticipated given the ill-feeling between himself and his main rival, again raises the question why he should have resigned in the first place from a prestigious government position that enhanced his reputation as a crusader for justice, in order to run for parliament as an independent. The timing of the break-in to his apartment raises the question: did the intruder uncover incriminating evidence, thereby impelling Saakashvili to seek election to parliament in order to gain immunity from prosecution? Others have accused Saakashvili of lobbying the interests of foreign energy companies since Sarishvili-Chanturia accused him of links to the gas mafia in 1999.

Parliament deputy Koba Davitashvili, who quit both the SMK and the parliament majority last month to protest Shevardnadze's failure to combat corruption, said on 4 October that, whatever the outcome of the 21 October by-election, Saakashvili plans to launch a new national political movement. But where would such a movement figure on the current Georgian political landscape, and, crucially, would it be aligned with, or in opposition to, the current president?

In the light of Saakashvili's public statement at the time of his resignation that there are no political differences between him and parliament speaker Zurab Zhvania, and that he remains one of the latter's team, it is logical to assume, as most observers have done, that in the wake of Zhvania's standoff with Shevardnadze in late August (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 31, 10 September 2001), Zhvania and Saakashvili have chosen to disassociate themselves completely with a leadership they consider discredited. But cynics and conspiracy theorists in Tbilisi have put forward an alternative explanation, namely that Shevardnadze is disillusioned with Zhvania, whom he had clearly been grooming as his successor, and would now prefer to see Saakashvili as the next president. To that end, those observers suggest, Shevardnadze will covertly facilitate Saakashvili's election to parliament, which would enable the latter to set about creating his own support base from the so-called progressive wing of the SMK. Saakashvili's future prospects in that case would hinge on him reaching some kind of accommodation with Zhvania.

If that second hypothesis is correct, a defeat for Saakashvili on 21 October would thus be a defeat for Shevardnadze, and one likely to be compounded by the outcome of a second by-election on that day in Bagdadi, western Georgia, in which former Minister of State Vazha Lortkipanidze will run as an independent candidate and will almost certainly be elected to parliament. In September, 86.9 percent of Bagdadi residents polled said they will vote for Lortkipanidze, who has the backing of a number of influential conservative political figures (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 26, 13 July 2001).

If on the other hand both Saakashvili and Lortkipanidze are elected, they may well between them complete the process of dividing up the disintegrating SMK parliament faction. In that case, it is by no means clear which, if any, parliament faction would emerge with a majority (see below). Lortkipanidze would, however, almost certainly be able to count on the support of rank-and-file members of the SMK now occupying influential positions in local government, who would have a vested interest in ensuring that candidates from his party win in the parliamentary election due in November 2003.

Ultimately, however, Saakashvili's chances of becoming Georgian president hinge on the timing of the next ballot: he does not turn 35, the minimum age to register, until 21 December 2002. If for whatever reasons a preterm election takes place before that date, he cannot contest it. (Liz Fuller)

HAS THE COUNCIL OF EUROPE WASHED ITS HANDS OF CHECHNYA? In an emotional statement released on 21 September, Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov criticized the Council of Europe for its failure either unequivocally to condemn "genocide and terrorism" committed against the civilian population of Chechnya by the Russian military, or to urge the Russian leadership to agree to calls by Maskhadov for talks on ending the fighting. Maskhadov declared that he is therefore suspending all further contacts with the Council of Europe until such time as it modifies its "negative" policy towards Chechnya.

But a commentary in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 25 September suggests that the primary cause of Maskhadov's anger and disappointment is the Council of Europe's apparent readiness to offload responsibility for seeking a political solution to the conflict on to the Russians and those Chechens with whom the Russian leadership is prepared to negotiate, rather than pressure Moscow to accept Maskhadov's repeated offer of peace talks.

The format that Moscow and the Council of Europe have apparently agreed upon at the latter's suggestion is a public Consultative Council on which all Chechen factions, including Maskhadov, are to be represented, together with representatives of the clergy and the Chechen business community. The Council's aim is to "consolidate the activity of all political forces" in Chechnya in order to promote reconciliation. It will be charged with preparing a new draft constitution and for new elections. The task of drafting a constitution was originally allocated to former Grozny Mayor Beslan Gantemirov, who is now a member of the staff of presidential envoy to the South Russia federal district Viktor Kazantsev. (In an interview with "Nezavisimaya gazeta" in late 1998, Gantemirov claimed he was spending his detention under investigation for embezzlement by reading works by both Russian and foreign specialists in the field of federalism, statehood, and law.)

Both Gantemirov and Chechnya's representative on the Federation Council, Akhmed Zavgaev, have signaled their support for the new council. Chechnya's Duma representative Aslanbek Aslakhanov, who tried without success earlier this year to convene a pan-Chechen forum (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. No. 14, 10 April 2001) has not commented on it. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "[Russian-Armenian economic cooperation] is a continual process, and it would be a mistake to think that we'll ever stop." -- Russian State Duma deputy and former chairman of the USSR Council of Ministers Nikolai Ryzhkov, speaking in Yerevan on 24 September (quoted by Noyan Tapan).

"No one has the right to try to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh problem by force of arms. Those who want to do so will just get burned." -- Armenian Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, quoted by Caucasus Press on 3 October.

GEORGIAN PARLIAMENT MAJORITY PLAYS MUSICAL CHAIRS. Eduard Shevardnadze's 17 September announcement of what he termed his "long overdue" decision to step down as chairman of the majority Union of Citizens of Georgia has triggered a broad realignment of forces within the Georgian parliament. Over the past three weeks, the Union of Citizens of Georgia (SMK) faction, which together with the Majoritarian-Georgia's Regions faction constituted the majority, has seen its strength halve from 98 to 50 deputies. (Even before Shevardnadze's announcement, two deputies had quit the SMK -- see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 September 2001). Not all of these deputies have quit the majority, however: at least two new factions are set to emerge within the majority. The first, named Alliance for a New Georgia, comprises 18 deputies. According to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 6 October, its orientation is center-left and it will "fully support" Shevardnadze's policies; at the same time, it will not be in opposition to Zhvania. After the current realignment is over, Alliance for a New Georgia aims to become the cornerstone of a new coalition supporting the president.

A second faction, provisionally named Support (Tanadgoma) similarly aims to support Shevardnadze; some 20-25 deputies have expressed their wish to join it, its leader Elgudja Medzmarishvili told Caucasus Press on 5 October. As of 8 October, Tanadgoma numbered 15 deputies, who will "cooperate" with Alliance for a New Georgia, Caucasus Press reported.

A third group, the "Reformers," which had originally planned to quit the SMK, on 3 October suspended the process of formalizing itself as a new faction until it became clear how strong or weak the "rump" SMK will prove to be. On 5 October, the SMK faction reregistered itself, with 50 deputies, on the basis of a new political platform, details of which are not yet known.

Majority faction leader and former Minister of State Niko Lekishvili has played down the likely repercussions of the splits in the SMK, stressing that most of those deputies who quit the SMK faction nonetheless remain within the parliament majority. He reasoned that it is the "rump" SMK consisting of Zhvania's supporters, which is now faced with the choice of whether or not to quit the majority (as Zhvania has threatened to do in the past.)

The parliament minority, too, has undergone an internal realignment. On 3 October the Union of Georgian Traditionalists, one of five factions grouped together in the 58-deputy Union for Georgia's Revival, formally aligned with two other factions, the Industrialists and the "New Abkhazia-Christian Democrats." Those three groups have 14, 14, and 10 deputies respectively. But Traditionalists' leader Akaki Asatiani stressed that the new alignment does not mean that his party has disassociated itself from the Union for Georgia's Revival, and that it has the blessing of Aslan Abashidze, who remains a powerful force within the Union. (Liz Fuller)

THREE AZERBAIJANI SCENARIOS FOR NAGORNO-KARABAKH. Over the past month, two unofficial groups in Azerbaijan have unveiled their respective blueprints for resolving the Karabakh conflict. But following the 11 September terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, those proposals may be eclipsed by growing official support for an "antiterrorist" campaign to bring the enclave back under Baku's control -- an option that Turkey, too, appears to approve.

On 17 September four prominent Azerbaijani politicians unveiled the final version of their long-awaited Charter comprising a new strategy for negotiations with Armenia on resolving the Karabakh conflict. An earlier draft was published for discussion several months ago, and has been endorsed by the leaders of all the country's political parties, with the notable exception of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party.

That draft encompassed both the peaceful and the military options. While predicated on the hope that international mediators would exert pressure on Yerevan to retreat from its insistence that there can be no vertical subordination of Nagorno-Karabakh to the central Azerbaijani government and to withdraw all Armenian forces from occupied territories surrounding the enclave, it also foresaw building up Azerbaijan's armed forces to enable the country's leadership to negotiate from a position of strength and, if such negotiations failed to achieve the required results, to launch a new offensive to restore control of Karabakh (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 44, No. 28, 6 August 2001).

According to one of its four co-authors, former Foreign Minister Tofik Zulfugarov, the final draft comprises three basic principles that must be observed in any final settlement: Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding districts must be freed from "Armenian occupation"; all displaced Azerbaijanis must be enabled to return to their homes; and the status of the present unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic must be determined within the parameters of Azerbaijani laws. He added that the third of those issues can only be addressed after the first two have been resolved.

A second co-author, former presidential advisor Eldar Namazov, described the Charter as "the position of Azerbaijani society, a mini-referendum, which has played a unifying role." According to the news agency Sharq, the final draft incorporates suggestions made by various people, including Arzu Abdullaeva, chairwoman of the Helsinki Citizens' Assembly, who proposed that the original reference to the use of force to liberate occupied territories be qualified to specify that force must not be used against the unarmed civilian population of the unrecognized enclave.

Zulfugarov claimed that the majority of Azerbaijan's population support the Charter. But YAP has not formally endorsed the document. According to "Kommersant-Daily," Ali Hasanov, who heads the political department within the presidential administration, explained that the reason for that failure was that the Charter "contains nothing new," and that the leadership has always adhered to the principles it enumerates. A second possibility is that the Azerbaijani leadership fears that the successful implementation of the Charter could transform its authors into the nucleus of an influential popular political force. (Former Azerbaijan State Oil Company head Sabit Bagirov, the third member of the "Four," hinted in August that he and his associates were considering that option.)

The independent daily "Zerkalo" on 7 September claimed that the Charter also incurred harsh criticism from the OSCE Minsk Group engaged in trying to mediate a peaceful settlement of the Karabakh conflict. The paper claims that the Minsk Group co-chairmen are "up in arms" (an unfortunately ambiguous metaphor in the context), and have protested that the Charter could at best perpetuate the status quo and at worst precipitate a new conflict.

But for one group at least, the charter's provision for achieving its goals by means of peaceful negotiations is unacceptable. The Karabakh Liberation Organization, established in the spring of 2000, has prepared an alternative document, entitled "Theses on Eliminating Armenian Aggression Against Azerbaijan," which unequivocally advocates a new war of liberation. In May 2000 that group called on President Heidar Aliyev to resign after he affirmed that it would be "insane" to begin a new war over Karabakh (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 May 2000).

The Karabakh Liberation Organization's draft manifesto also consists of three points, of which the third, according to "525-gazeti" on 25 September, is to reject any further talks with Armenia on resolving the conflict peacefully and to start "purging [Azerbaijani] lands of any invader." The head of the Karabakh Liberation Organization, Akif Nagy, said that the "theses" will be submitted to the country's parliament and also to international organizations and foreign embassies.

Some members of the Azerbaijani leadership are, however, arguing since 11 September that Armenia was not so much guilty of "aggression" against Azerbaijani as of "terrorism," and that therefore Baku would be fully justified in launching an "antiterrorist strike" against Nagorno-Karabakh within the framework of the international coalition against terrorism. Advocates of that argument include Defense Minister Colonel General Safar Abiev, who visited Turkey last week to discuss a new draft agreement on bilateral military cooperation which, according to ANS TV on 1 October, is to be signed before the end of this year. Reports of Abiev's talks with Turkish Army Chief of General Staff General Huseyn Kvirikoglu and with President Ahmet Necdet Sezer stressed that the two sides' views on the need to combat terrorism coincide. Sezer also reportedly assured Abiev that Ankara will support Baku "in all spheres" and will do all in its power to help resolve the Karabakh conflict.

Foreign Minister Vilayat Quliev similarly argued that while the Azerbaijani leadership continues to seek to resolve the Karabakh conflict peacefully, if the country were ultimately constrained to resort to force to liberate its lands from "terrorists," then the international community would have no right to condemn that move as aggression. But while not excluding the use of military force, ruling Yeni Azerbaycan deputy secretary Mubariz Gurbanly told "525-gazeti" that a military operation against Nagorno-Karabakh should not be categorized as an antiterrorist campaign but rather as a "war of liberation." Gurbanly added that "this time Turkish soldiers will fight" alongside the Azerbaijan armed forces. (Liz Fuller)

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