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Caucasus Report: December 8, 2000

8 December 2000, Volume 3, Number 47

CAN AZERBAIJAN'S OPPOSITION CONTINUE TO COOPERATE? One month after the 5 November parliamentary election, Azerbaijan's leading opposition parties on 4 December jointly applied for permission to convene a second mass demonstration in Baku on 9 December to protest the official returns that gave the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan party almost all the 125 mandates in the new legislature. Thousands of people attended such protest rallies in Baku and other cities on 18 November. But differences are already emerging between the opposition parties over what tactics to adopt in their ongoing confrontation with the ruling authorities.

Nine days after the 5 November election, which the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights criticized as falling short of international standards, six opposition parties that had contested the 25 seats allocated under the proportional system signed a pledge to campaign to have the outcome of the poll annulled, to boycott the work of the new legislature, and to refrain from mutual accusations in the press. Those parties all later declared that they will not participate in repeat elections in 11 constituencies where the Central Electoral Commission invalidated the results of the 5 November ballot.

At the 9 November meeting, Liberal Party chairwoman Lala Shovket proposed convening an alternative parliament composed of those opposition deputies who, on the basis of vote count protocols tabulated by the opposition, appear to have won election in single mandate constituencies in which the official returns awarded victory to candidates from the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party. Most other opposition leaders approved that proposal in principle, but have since failed to set about implementing it.

But despite a solid consensus that the outcome of the poll is invalid, disagreements are already emerging within the opposition over the advisability of boycotting the work of the new legislature and of participating in the repeat elections on 4 January.

For example, Gudrat Hasankuliev of the reformist wing of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP) reasoned that although falsifications of the vote count deprived most opposition parties of any parliamentary representation, that did not warrant the AHCP reformers forfeiting their own four mandates. The reformist wing of the AHCP also appears to favor participation in the 4 January repeat elections, although it has not yet taken a firm decision on whether to do so.

Moreover, the six-party agreement signed on 9 November appears to have been superceded by one signed two weeks later by the leader of the AHCP reformist wing, Ali Kerimov, and Azerbaijan National Independence Party chairman Etibar Mamedov. Those two leaders again vowed to work for the annulment of the 5 November poll and the holding of a new ballot, but their stated shared intention to coordinate opposition efforts to that end implies that they hope to play a leading role in doing so.

But the likelihood that they will succeed is small. On 6 December, Mirmahmud Fattaev, who heads the "conservative" wing of the AHCP, announced that his organization will not, after all, participate in the 9 December mass demonstration. He said that decision was prompted by other opposition parties' recognition of the rival reformist AHCP wing, which, he implied, had conspired with the authorities in falsifying the outcome of the poll.

As indicated above, thousands of people participated in the first, 18 November protest across the country. But it is debatable how many of those took to the streets specifically to protest falsification of the election results, and how many were motivated by desperation at economic collapse, unemployment, and the infrastructure breakdown that has left many rural areas without light, heat, gas or running water.

In an interview published in "Zerkalo" on 17 November, former Azerbaijani presidential adviser Eldar Namazov identified the AHCP reformist wing-AMIP alliance as one of two poles that have emerged within the opposition, the other being headed by Musavat Party chairman Isa Gambar. Namazov notes that while Etibar Mamedov emerged as the main opposition challenger to the incumbent during the 1998 presidential poll (which the AHCP and Musavat boycotted), it was Gambar who played that role during the recent parliamentary election. (Gambar had claimed on 6 November that his party was the real winner of the ballot, garnering some 60 percent of the vote.)

Namazov also highlighted one flaw in the opposition's argument that the officially promulgated election outcome does not reflect the will of the Azerbaijani people. Opposition leaders have challenged the official turnout figure of 68 percent, claiming that only between 30 and 40 percent of the electorate actually cast their ballots. But Namazov reasons that if that figure is accurate and that if, as Gambar claims, Musavat won 60 percent of the vote, then that party still won the support of no more than 20-25 percent of the electorate.

To date, post-election developments have developed more-or-less along the same lines as in the aftermath of the contested presidential poll two years ago. Then, the wave of indignation and protest abated within three-four months. True, the current situation differs insofar as the opposition has announced its intention to boycott what it considers an illegitimate parliament. But according to "Azadlyg" on 6 December, Western ambassadors in Baku are trying to persuade the opposition to abandon that planned boycott, and to agree to contest the 4 January repeat elections. They say that a parliament without an opposition could prove an obstacle to Azerbaijan's final acceptance into full membership of the Council of Europe.

Meanwhile, there are indications that the Azerbaijani leadership is hedging its bets. Contrary to observers' predictions, President Heidar Aliev's son Ilham was not elected speaker of the new parliament. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" construed that development as reflecting the presidential administration's tacit acknowledgment that assuming the post of speaker of a legislature widely regarded as illegitimate could adversely affect Ilham's future political career. (Liz Fuller)

GEORGIAN DEFENSE MINISTRY LOBBIES FOR GREATER FUNDING. On 8 December, the Georgian parliament will at last debate in the first reading the government's second amended draft budget for next year. The original draft, which was submitted to parliament committees in August, was rejected by the state chancellery. An amended version proposed by Finance Minister Zurab Nogaideli in late September was endorsed by President Eduard Shevardnadze, who termed it "realizable" and "Georgia's first post-crisis budget." Shevardnadze added that it would also make it possible for Georgia to pay wages and pensions on time, and to pay off some of its debts. (Nogaideli had said in August that the original draft provided for the payment in 2001 of one third of the total 300 million lari ($151.9 million) wage and pension arrears.) But the "power" ministries slammed the revised version as failing to allocate sufficient funds for defense, the police and border guards. The parliament then postponed further discussion of the bill for two months to allow for fine-tuning.

The most recent draft, submitted to the parliament's Committee for Defense and Security in mid-November, allocated 33.05 million lari for the Ministry of Defense, 8.8 million lari for the Ministry of State Security, and 9.03 million for the State Border Guard Service (marginally less than the 10 million lari allocated this year). But the committee rejected those allocations as insufficient, and asked that they be increased at the expense of the amounts earmarked for culture and education. Caucasus Press quoted army chief of staff Djoni Pirtskhalaishvili as arguing that funding for the army needed to be increased by at least 10 million lari. (Total budget expenditures were set at 919.3 million lari and revenues at 641.7 million lari.) Parliament speaker Zurab Zhvania said on 4 December that some additional funding for the military will be found, but did not specify either the precise amount or the source of that funding. (Liz Fuller)

RAVAGED ARMENIAN VILLAGES MARK EARTHQUAKE ANNIVERSARY. On 7 December official ceremonies were held to commemorate the twelfth anniversary of the devastating earthquake in northern Armenia which killed more than 25,000 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless. Senior government officials laid wreaths at a memorial in the city of Gyumri, in an annual remembrance of victims of the tragedy. A religious service was held at the main cathedral of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Echmiadzin.

Hundreds of buildings and houses across the area hit by the quake on December 7, 1988 still bear traces of the tragedy. A massive effort to rebuild local towns and village came to an end with the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Reconstruction work has been extremely sluggish since then with only 55 percent of homes rebuilt to date. Some 26,000 families in Gyumri and surrounding regions still have no adequate housing. Most of them huddle in makeshift shelters that often lack basic utilities. The mood of local people is one of desperation and apathy.

Robert Kocharian's 1998 presidential program promised the full reconstruction of the affected region by the end of 2001. But that objective seems impossible to achieve with only 20 percent of an $250 million government program on the earthquake zone implemented so far. The authorities plan $60 million worth of construction projects for next year. Most of the money is due to come from non-budgetary outside sources.

Construction in villages is mainly funded by a $2.5 million loan program of the World Bank. But local villagers complain that the loans, which are repayable, are extremely difficult to obtain because of bureaucratic red tape and corruption in local authorities. The twelfth anniversary of the tragedy was marked amid growing calls for a package of government measures that would stimulate economic activity in the area which suffers from the highest unemployment rate in Armenia. A growing number of parliament deputies are calling on the government to provide tax incentives for foreign and domestic companies deciding to do business there. (Hrach Melkumian in Gyumri, Atom Markarian)

MOSCOW SETS NEW DEADLINE FOR ENDING CHECHEN WAR. Over the past two weeks, Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev and presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembskii have both said that Russia plans to end the war in Chechnya before March 2001. Interfax on 23 November quoted Sergeev as saying that the Defense Ministry should be able to "complete operations" by that time and hand over to the Interior Ministry the task of "reestablishing constitutional order" in Chechnya.

Yastrzhembskii told journalists on 7 December that it will be easier to carry out reconnaissance and combat operations in winter conditions. He said federal forces' primary objective is "to find rebel leaders, neutralize them, discover bases and caches as well as destroy the infrastructure remaining from [Chechen President Aslan] Maskhadov's regime."

The new timeframe suggest that the Russian leadership may have decided to wait until Maskhadov's four-year term as president expires in late January, and then act decisively to kill both him and other field commanders. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "Experience shows that dealing with Russia one-on-one is simply dangerous." -- Georgia presidential foreign policy adviser Shalva Pichkhadze, quoted by Interfax on 30 November.

"It takes two sides to make strategic compromises." -- Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, quoted by Interfax on 4 December.

"There is hardly anyone except us who will be able to find a fundamental solution [to the Karabakh conflict]." -- Armenian President Robert Kocharian, a propos of his ongoing talks with his Azerbaijani counterpart Heidar Aliev, quoted by Caucasus Press on 5 December.