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Caucasus Report: November 19, 2001

19 November 2001, Volume 4, Number 38

PLAYING FOR TIME. In the small hours of 10 November, in a runoff vote, Georgian parliamentary deputies elected parliament Foreign Relations Committee chair Nino Burdjanadze to succeed Zurab Zhvania as parliament speaker rather than President Eduard Shevardnadze's preferred candidate, former Minister of State Vazha Lortkipanidze. Five days later, Shevardnadze submitted to the legislature his proposed candidates for a new government in which the majority of the outgoing ministers retain their posts.

While both moves represent a retreat from confrontation to day-to-day politics, they by no means herald a return to the status quo before the crisis that erupted in early November following the security ministry's raid on the independent TV station Rustavi-2 (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 37, 7 November 2001). On the contrary, they may presage the beginning of a protracted battle of "all against all" that may culminate in preterm parliamentary and presidential elections and possibly the abolition of the presidency.

Burdjanadze, a 37-year-old qualified lawyer and self-confessed admirer of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, is the daughter of one of Shevardnadze's oldest cronies who currently has a near-monopoly on the bread trade in Georgia. She is nonetheless a close associate of Zhvania, an affiliation that places her among the ranks of the opposition to Shevardnadze. But Burdjanadze has said that she will seek to prevent a further standoff between the Zhvania and Shevardnadze factions and to create a "non-confrontational atmosphere" within the legislature. She told Interfax on 14 November that "a political party, and the parliament chair in particular, should not aim at posing any kind of opposition, especially to the president." She added, however, that "if someone takes on such an important post as chair of the parliament, he or she must try to defend his or her opinion." She said that she would do so even if her views diverged with Shevardnadze's.

Similarly, in an interview published in "Gazeta" on 15 November, Burdjanadze sought to play down the nature of the recent crisis, which she attributed exclusively to popular outrage at the extent of official corruption. That problem, she continued, can easily be solved provided Shevardnadze is ready to take "decisive steps" which, she continued, to judge by his firing of the whole government seems to be the case.

Zhvania and former Justice Minister Mikhail Saakashvili, however, have made it clear that their agenda encompasses more than just corruption, and that they intend to continue their efforts to bring about sweeping changes in both the present leadership and the political system. But they have apparently realized that they do not yet have the necessary support either inside parliament or on the streets to achieve that objective. An attempt in early November by Saakashvili to muster support in the west Georgian town of Zugdidi, a stronghold of sympathy for deceased President Zviad Gamsakhurdia and thus a potential support base for any move against Shevardnadze, was quashed by national security officials.

Given that failure, and perhaps also in the light of numerous international declarations of support for Shevardnadze personally, Zhvania and Saakashvili now intend to create a new national opposition movement, which some parliament deputies have already agreed to join. That movement, Saakashvili said in an interview published in the daily "Akhali taoba" on 15 November, will push for preterm parliamentary and presidential elections and a debate on whether Georgia should become a parliamentary republic. Its founding congress is to be held by the end of this month.

Zhvania has openly hailed Burdjanadze's election as a "victory." By contrast, Adjar Supreme Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze, whom Shevardnadze has offered the post of prime minister, made it clear in an interview published in the daily "Alia" on 13 November that he believes that Djemal Gogitidze would have been a more appropriate choice, and one who could have contributed to resolving the long-running conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Gogitidze heads the Georgian parliament faction of Abashidze's Revival Union, which with 60 deputies is now the largest faction in the fragmented legislature.

Abashidze also hinted that none of the conditions he set for accepting Shevardnadze's request to make use of his contacts in Moscow to induce Russia to pressure Abkhazia into accepting a solution to the conflict on Georgia's terms has been met. (One Armenian commentator suggested that Abashidze may have demanded that the Georgian parliament finally approve the creation, for which he has long been lobbying, of a free economic zone in Adjaria.) "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 14 November commented that Burdjanadze's appointment seriously damages Abashidze's chances of becoming prime minister.

The loss of Abashidze's support, coming in the wake of Burdjanadze's election as parliament speaker, would be a double blow to Shevardnadze. (Under the present constitution, it is the parliament speaker who assumes the duties of president should the latter die or become incapacitated.) But Shevardnadze nonetheless retains the advantage of being able to select ministerial candidates. His choice of former Minister of State Property Management Levan Dzneladze, a man whose expertise and past experience is exclusively in the economic sphere, to replace the more experienced Gia Arsenishvili as minister of state suggests that Dzneladze is envisaged as only a temporary figure.

In that Arsenishvili's most prominent duty was to serve as point man for talks with the Abkhaz leadership, one could argue that in fact the duties of minister of state will now be shared by Dzneladze and Abashidze.

The majority of the proposed ministerial candidates whose names Shevardnadze has submitted to parliament are experienced and trusted survivors from the previous government. The one notable exception is Shevardnadze's personal parliamentary secretary, Valeri Khaburzania, whom Shevardnadze proposed to the key post of minister of national security. Khaburzania is the son of a former head of the Economic Department of the Central Committee of the Georgian Communist Party in the early 1980s, when Shevardnadze was still Georgian Communist Party first secretary. Burdjanadze on 16 November expressed regret that the proposed new government contained so few new faces and so many ministers who had failed to help solve the problems Georgia faces.

Some observers in Tbilisi predict that the new government will be short-lived, and will be replaced within two to three months once the legislature endorses Shevardnadze's proposed constitutional amendments and reintroduces the post of premier. Others doubt whether those factions within the parliament opposed to Zhvania will agree to the reintroduction of the post of premier with broad powers, given that Zhvania made no secret of his aspiration to that post when its reintroduction was proposed earlier this year. He has since stated on several occasions that he no longer aspires to the premiership. But Burdjanadze remarked at her 16 November press conference that she considers Zhvania the optimum candidate for the post of prime minister.

At this juncture, it is not clear whether those factions within parliament that are opposed to both Shevardnadze and Zhvania might align to form a majority that could block both the introduction of the cabinet of ministers model and possibly also reject Shevardnadze's 10 November proposal to introduce a bicameral parliament with a maximum of 80-90 deputies in place of the present 235. Nor is it clear whether Lortkipanizde might succeed in uniting some members of the former majority Union of Citizens of Georgia faction with other groups hitherto in opposition to Shevardnadze, but which equally do not trust Zhvania. Such an alignment could count on financing from former Russian oligarch Badri Patarkatsishvili, to whom Lortkipanidze is close.

In addition, disagreements may emerge either among Zhvania's supporters, or between the Zhvania camp and other opposition political factions, over the crucial issue of Georgia's relations with Russia. Zhvania and Burdjanadze have both recently come out with conciliatory statements stressing the need to improve relations with Moscow. But other members of Zhvania's team, in the first instance parliament Defense and Security Committee Chairman Giorgi Baramidze, take a more hawkish stance. (Liz Fuller)

ARMENIAN FOREIGN MINISTER SAYS KARABAKH'S INDEPENDENCE CONSTITUTES KEY BARGAINING CHIP. Yerevan's insistence that "firm legal grounds" exist for the full independence of the currently unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic or its re-unification with Armenia is an important bargaining chip in the internationally sponsored peace talks with Azerbaijan, Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian said on 16 November.

"In terms of strengthening of our negotiating position, it is extremely important for us to substantiate the extreme. Namely, the legal grounds for Nagorno-Karabakh's independence or re-unification with Armenia," Oskanian told RFE/RL in an extensive telephone interview from New York. He argued that in order to reach a mutually acceptable compromise agreement with Azerbaijan, the Armenians should "show that we are giving up something, because Karabakh deserves to have a status which is higher than the one proposed by the international community."

Oskanian claimed that the case for Karabakh becoming an internationally recognized part of Armenia is "much stronger" than Azerbaijan's insistence on the preservation of its territorial integrity. He said the Armenian argument that the disputed enclave has never been part of an independent Azerbaijan and that the Soviet Azerbaijani leadership denied the Karabakh people the right to live according to their own rules and values carries weight with the international community.

Oskanian reiterated that argument in a speech at the UN General Assembly on 15 November. His Azerbaijani counterpart, Vilayat Guliev, argued in his address to the UN body that "the right of self-determination cannot be regarded as a right for forcible separation of a part of a territory of a state."

Asked whether Karabakh's full secession from Azerbaijan is currently being discussed by the conflict parties and international mediators, Oskanian replied: "When you are in talks you should not rule out any option.... The final variant [of the peace accord] will be decided during the negotiations."

Commenting on the impact of the 11 September terrorist attacks on U.S. policy in the South Caucasus, Oskanian admitted that as "moderate Muslim countries," Armenia's arch-rival neighbors, Turkey and Azerbaijan, now have greater significance for Washington. He said Armenia "should come to terms with that fact" and try to "minimize its possible negative effects."

At the same time, Oskanian stressed that the recent rapprochement between the U.S. and Russia has positive implications for Armenia and the entire region. (Harry Tamrazian)

IS THE ARMENIAN ANTI-PRESIDENTIAL ALLIANCE ABOUT TO LOSE, OR GAIN, A MEMBER? On 26 October, the three opposition parties which announced in September their intention to align to campaign for the impeachment of President Robert Kocharian convened one of the best-attended political demonstrations the capital has witnessed this year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 October 2001). Between 7,000 (the police estimate) and 20,000 people registered their support for the leaders of that alliance: People's Party (HZhk) Chairman Stepan Demirchian, Hanrapetutiun party leaders Aram Sargsian and Albert Bazeyan, and National Unity Party leader Artashes Geghamian. A Communist-sponsored rally in May in support of Armenia's accession to the Russia-Belarus Union mobilized over 10,000 people.

But within days, Geghamian announced that he will not take part in any further anti-government rallies, arguing that they play into the hands of the authorities by providing the latter with a pretext for "provocations," and that popular energy should be harnessed for "creative purposes." That statement was met with undisguised Schadenfreude on the part of newspapers representing varying political views, none of which had a good word to say about Geghamian, and some of which have long suspected him of being "a Trojan horse" in the opposition camp. "Zhamanak," for example in its 1 November issue predicted the imminent collapse of an alignment formed solely for the purpose of ousting the president but whose members have yet to agree on a common position on the most pressing problems facing the country. "Haykakan zhamanak" for its part claimed that Geghamian's pronouncement, which it interpreted as evidence that he was not committed to the opposition cause, had given rise to "serious panic" within the HZhK and Hanrapetutiun.

"Yerkir" on 15 November branded Geghamian as dishonest and "the most volatile figure in the Armenian political arena." Consequently, the paper said, he is distrusted by both the government and the opposition.

"Iravunk" was equally scathing in its criticism of Geghamian, branding him "a former Komsomol cadre who can scent what steps will contribute most to his career." That paper claimed that the majority of those who attended the 29 October rally were supporters of either Hanrapetutiun or the HZhK, while Geghamian was represented only by a handful of "people carrying posters glorifying him." It further construed Geghamian's statement as intended to send a message to the authorities that he is prepared to change sides. ("Haykakan zhamanak" had suggested that Geghamian has been induced to turn his back on the opposition alignment by the promise that he will be named prime minister.)

Both Sargsian and Bazeyan have, however, rejected as misplaced all speculation that the three-party alignment is about to unravel. In fact, it may instead gain a member, and one who might prove a strategic asset.

On 6 November, "Haykakan zhamanak" published an interview with Arkadii Vartanian, a Russian businessman of Armenian origin who was held in detention for four months for allegedly calling for the overthrow of the Armenian leadership (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, No. 44, 10 November 2000 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 February 2001). In that interview, Vartanian expresses confidence that the leaders of Hanrapetutiun and the HZhK can "lead the nation and take back what was usurped from the people." But he adds that it is impossible to overthrow the current Armenian leadership by using the commonly accepted norms of opposition politics. The only way that can be achieved constitutionally, Vartanian said, is by empowering the people to manifest their free will.

Commenting on Vartanian's statements in an interview published in "Haykakan zhamanak" on 7 November, Aram Sargsian said he would welcome Vartanian's return to Armenia, in which case he is ready to discuss the possibility of joint cooperation. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "If the serpent had tried to tempt Eve using the language of present-day journalists, we should still be living in paradise." -- Azerbaijani writer Yusif Samedoglu, quoted in "Zerkalo," 3 November 2001.

"We shall never agree to the offer of a confederation [between Georgia and Abkhazia], because a confederation is a temporary union of two independent states, and not a single state." -- Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, in an interview published in "Novoe vremya" on 4 November.

"Leaving Chechnya again, the way we did it in the wake of Khasavyurt, is no longer an option. We have no right to pull out. Otherwise we would betray all those who have already died in the war and, more importantly, we would betray Russia's future. The criminals are not going to remain in their Ichkeria. They will come to us in our own cities. We know they will do. They've already done it. Suffice it to recall the invasion of Daghestan..." -- Colonel General Gennadii Troshev, Commander of the North Caucasus Military District, interviewed in "Zavtra," No. 46, November 2001.