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Caucasus Report: December 20, 2001

20 December 2001, Volume 4, Number 42

The next issue of "RFE/RL Caucasus Report" will appear on 3 January 2002.

ARMENIAN OPPOSITION PLEDGES TO CONTINUE FIGHT FOR CONSTITUTIONAL CHANGE. In late November, an ad hoc parliamentary commission began reviewing a package of constitutional amendments proposed by a presidential commission established three years earlier by newly elected President Robert Kocharian, together with two alternative draft constitutions, one of which was prepared by a group of five opposition parties and the other by the Communist Party of Armenia.

The commission was to decide by late March which draft(s) should be put to a nation-wide referendum next spring. But on 14 December, Kocharian affirmed unequivocally at a press conference in Yerevan that only the package of amendments proposed by the presidential commission will be offered for public approval. Kocharian referred to the present constitution which empowers him to veto the parliamentary decision, should deputies decide that one of the alternative variants should also be put top a popular vote. The legislature would need a two-thirds majority vote (94 of 131 deputies) to override a presidential veto on an issue related to the constitution.

That presidential prerogative is only one of many to which critics of the current constitution object. They argue the amendments proposed by the presidential commission do not go far enough toward reducing the president's sweeping powers, and that the present semi-presidential model should be abolished and Armenia should become a parliamentary republic.

The present Armenian Constitution was adopted in a nation-wide referendum in July 1995, the outcome of which is widely believed to have been manipulated, and many opposition parties have long considered it undemocratic. Shortly after his election in March 1998, Kocharian formed a special multi-party commission charged with drafting constitutional amendments, but one year later he replaced the commission's members with lawyers who occupy senior government posts. That new team finally unveiled its recommendations in July 2001. They reflect Kocharian's basic argument that, while he is prepared to give up some of his powers, the semi-presidential system as such should be preserved as Armenia needs a powerful head of state to complete its decade-long transition to democracy and the free market.

The package of amendments goes some way toward curbing the president's powers. The president would need the parliament's consent to appoint a prime minister, would no longer be able to approve or veto government decisions, and would be allowed to dissolve parliament only in six specific cases. If his candidates for premier are twice rejected by the legislature, then he must accept for that post the person nominated by the parliament speaker. The president would also forfeit the right to dismiss Constitutional Court judges.

Lawyers from the Council of Europe's Venice Commission have largely endorsed the proposed amendments. But some domestic critics argue that they should be more far-reaching and are in some cases ambiguous. Others note that in some respects the changes enhance the president's powers, for example by allowing him to dismiss the foreign and defense ministers without the prime minister's prior consent. He would also acquire greater freedom in naming senior military and Interior Ministry commanders, and in declaring martial law or a state of emergency (see "End Note," "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 July 2001).

On 18 December, six opposition parties, including the Communists, the National Democratic Union, and "Hanrapetutiun," issued a statement accusing Kocharian of "jeopardizing the constitutional process" by insisting that alternative draft constitutions should not be put to a referendum. They said they will continue to campaign in parliament for a referendum on all three alternatives. (Liz Fuller/Emil Danielyan)

WHO IN GEORGIA CAN GUARANTEE POLITICAL STABILITY? During a roundtable discussion on 28 November moderated by RFE/RL's Tbilisi bureau, parliament Deputy Vano Merabishvili and "Greens" leader Gia Gachechiladze both expressed their profound concern that the totally corrupt system presided over by President Eduard Shevardnadze has plunged the country into poverty and alienated the population from the leadership. But their perceptions of how the current systemic crisis evolved diverged widely, as did their views and expectations of the new opposition "national movement" that former Justice Minister Mikhail Saakashvili intends to create.

Opening the discussion, RFE/RL moderator Giorgi Kakabadze observed that old political allegiances appear to be crumbling, and that during the process of discussing Shevardnadze's proposed new ministers, some supporters of outgoing ministers opposed their renomination to their previous positions, while some deputies who had earlier attacked the ministers in question now approve their renomination.

Gachechiladze attributed that lack of consistency to what he termed a scenario drafted by present leadership that is being "very effectively implemented" with the aim of destroying the entire political spectrum. If we look at the political process unfolding within parliament, Gachechiladze said, we see that not a single political party still has an ideological foundation, and that "politics has turned into nothing more than deals, confrontation, and trade-offs." And the reaction of the population at large to this deterioration is reflected in the findings of polls conducted both by the Greens and by other organizations, which reveal that almost 80 percent of the population no longer wants anything to do with any existing political party.

This rejection of existing political parties has engendered a mood of nihilism and is reflected in the low turnout in recent elections. If the process continues, Gachechiladze predicted, the political will both of individual members of the population and of collective political formations will evaporate, and politics will come to be shaped by the will of one single individual, meaning President Shevardnadze.

Merabishvili, however, categorically disagreed with Gachechiladze's diagnosis and rejected his theory of a "universal conspiracy," a scenario that is currently being implemented by upper echelons of power. He said that, in his view, "unfortunately [he repeated that adverb to lend emphasis] everything that is happening at present happens spontaneously and is dictated by the personal private interests of the individuals involved who react to circumstances as they develop." He concurred, however, with Gachechiladze's use of the term "trade-offs," which, he suggested, is a reflection of the absence in Georgia of any political grouping with a long-term political or ideological program. "What is currently happening in Georgia is an indication that today the leadership is clearly destroying society."

Merabishvili also took issue with Gachechiladze's assertion that the population has become nihilistic or indifferent. He argued that, on the contrary, "society has never been as active as it has become today, when the majority of the population is engaged in an open struggle to overthrow the present leadership." He cited the October by-elections in the Tbilisi district of Vake, in which Saakashvili won by a 76 percent majority, and predicted that there will be a similar large turnout at the next elections.

Gachechiladze responded in a somewhat condescending tone that he has been observing processes in Georgian politics since 1991, whereas Merabishvili entered politics only comparatively recently. The first truly democratic elections in Georgia, according to Gachechiladze, took place in 1992, when it was in Shevardnadze's interest to ensure a broad political spectrum within parliament and between 10 and 15 parties won election to the legislature. Since then, Gachechiladze continued, elections have become progressively less democratic, the culmination being the introduction in 1999 of a 7 percent threshold for parliamentary representation (as a result of which only three electoral blocs won representation under the proportional system). Gachechiladze further rejected Merabishvili's claim that the Vake by-election was marked by high voter activity: He pointed out that only some 29,000 of 86,000 registered voters cast their ballots.

Asked by RFE/RL's Kakabadze to evaluate Shevardnadze's role in preserving political stability and to comment on how rational the president's policies are, Merabishvili answered that "the president's entire policy is based on his desire to retain his own political position even though this directly contradicts national interests. Instead of the leadership taking a step towards the people or trying to understand people's problems, the opposite is happening: the country's entire resources are monopolized by and used for the benefit of some 20 families or oligarchic groups which between them govern the country." Since Shevardnadze dismissed the government in early November and the center of political power shifted from the president to the parliament and the process of horse-trading in parliament got underway, the balance between society and leadership has been destroyed and there is now "open confrontation" between them, Merabishvili said.

Gachechiladze for his part suggested that all guarantees of state stability currently depend on one single principle -- "the artificially created corrupt system that exists in Georgia in which every civil servant depends on bribes and on money from the shadow economy without which he cannot feed his family." This, Gachechiladze continued, is a very tenuous stability which has no connection at all with the stability of society as a whole. In any normal society, stability is based on social well-being and economic strength. He agreed with Merabishvili that "when the entire system is geared towards the power of a handful of families which monopolize both domestic and foreign policy, stability cannot last for long because society will not tolerate it, and what happened recently [the calls for pre-term presidential and parliamentary elections] is an example of that."

Kakabadze then asked both discussants whether they think the new "national movement" which Saakashvili plans to found can contribute to restoring domestic political stability.

Gachechiladze immediately zeroed in on the term "national" (natsionaluri) movement, asking with some irritation what need existed to introduce this "alien" term into Georgian political discourse and why Saakashvili did not use the accepted term "people's" [erovnuli] movement.

Merabishvili countered that, in this case, what is important is not what the movement is called, as "everyone can see clearly what this movement is about." He added that the leadership is doing everything in its power to discredit this movement but that "this is practically impossible." He claimed that the most recent opinion polls show that 30 percent of the electorate actively supports a movement that is still in the stage of being formed. That is a higher percentage than support for any other political party. Moreover, Saakashvili's new movement is just about the only party in Georgia that does not represent the interests of either some oligarch, some member of the current leadership, or some regional group or leader. On the contrary, "it is a universal people's movement which is oriented towards bringing representatives of the people into the leadership."

Kakabadze referred to a statement by parliament Defense and Security Committee Chairman Giorgi Baramidze, who is equally dissatisfied with the president's policy and who has said that new movement aims to unite people of all ages and political views, both left- or right-wing political parties. Will this not create confusion and make the situation worse? Kakabadze asked.

Merabishvili said he does not think so, because the Georgian leadership has left people no other choice than to join forces against it. When the monthly pension is only 14 laris ($6.40), when 89 percent of the population is living in utter poverty and the leadership cannot create elementary conditions for survival, cannot even ensure safety in the streets -- "in these circumstances it is imperative that the entire political spectrum unite around a single powerful movement which should overcome the regime that exists in Georgia today."

Gachechiladze then recalled the creation in 1993 (as Shevardnadze's personal power base) of the Union of Citizens of Georgia (SMK), which at that time was intended as exactly the same kind of supra-party organization, with the same philosophy and the same terminology -- and "everyone knows what it turned into." He said he has serious doubts about the planned new national movement, especially as those people who are setting about creating it used to occupy leading positions within the SMK. In a defiant but utopian proposal, he argued that members of Georgian intelligentsia, rather than professional politicians, should head the new movement.

[Merabishvili was one of nine parliament deputies, most of them originally elected on the SMK ticket, who joined the new "For Democratic Reforms" faction launched by Saakashvili on 17 December.] (Liz Fuller)

AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITION PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES MULL NEW JOINT INITIATIVE. Liberal Party of Azerbaijan leader Lala-Shovket Gadjieva has proposed that candidates who intend to challenge incumbent President Heidar Aliyev in the presidential ballot due in October 2003 should create a "strategy center," "Zerkalo" reported on 1 December. The center will lobby for amendments to the Law on the Presidential Elections and for the creation of "a truly democratic atmosphere" in which to hold those elections. Gadjieva has discussed her proposal with four opposition party leaders: Isa Gambar (Musavat), Etibar Mamedov (Azerbaijan National Independence Party), Sabir Rustamkhanli (Civic Solidarity Party), and Rasul Guliev, the self-exiled head of the Azerbaijan Democratic Party. Gambar and Guliev were among the five opposition leaders who, together with Gadjieva, boycotted the1998 presidential poll to protest at the shortcomings of the legislative framework for that ballot which, they argued, failed to guarantee that the poll would be free and fair (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 1, No. 27, 1 September 1998).

The strategy center will also address such issues as the deteriorating socio-political situation (the government announced last month the abolition of a range of subsidies to the population) and the optimum approach to resolving the Karabakh conflict, on which Gadjieva takes a maximalist position. She argues that President Heidar Aliyev should not make any concessions to Armenia, and that the status of the Karabakh Armenians under any settlement should be the same as that of Armenia's former Azerbaijani minority, who should be enabled to return to the homes they fled in 1988.

In an earlier interview this summer, Gadjieva said that if elected president, she would personally direct military operations in a new war for Karabakh, and that she would insist that her son serve in the ranks of the Azerbaijani army. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK: "Those people who say I destroyed the Soviet Union, that I look only toward the West, are mistaken." Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, in an interview published in "Moskovskie novosti" on 4 December 2001.

"It is difficult to have any confidence in a person who has reorganized the medical system with the result that 90 percent of the population can no longer afford medical treatment." -- Unidentified resident of Tbilisi commenting on Shevardnadze's nomination of Labor, Health, and Social Welfare Minister Avtandil Djorbenadze to the post of minister of state (quoted in "Rezonansi," 18 December).