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Caucasus Report: January 20, 1999

20 January 1999, Volume 2, Number 3

Georgia Seeks to Dictate Terms For Return of Displaced to Abkhazia. On 11 January, during talks in Sukhumi with UN special envoy Liviu Bota, Abkhaz President Vladislav Ardzinba offered to allow the Georgian displaced persons who fled Abkhazia's southernmost Gali raion either during the 1992-1993 war or during the renewed hostilities last May to return to their homes beginning 1 March. The Georgian leadership, however, reacted to that offer with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. Presidential advisor Levan Aleksidze dismissed it as sheer populism, while the Georgian Foreign Ministry issued a statement arguing that the repatriation process is impossible without "clear international guarantees" of the repatriants' safety -- a condition which, the ministry claimed, Abkhazia opposes.

In addition, Georgian politicians have said that Abkhazia is attaching unacceptable conditions or restrictions to the repatriation offer. Aleksidze said that the returning Georgians would not have the right to participate in the work of local councils or serve in the police force. Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, for his part, said in his weekly radio broadcast on 18 January that Abkhazia will permit ethnic Georgians to return to Gali only if they apply for Abkhaz citizenship and acknowledge the Abkhaz constitution, which he said violates Georgia's legislation.

The Abkhaz conditions apparently do not, however, include the demand that Georgia disband the two guerrilla formations currently operating in Abkhazia and bring their members to trial. Georgian sources suggest that that demand was one of the reasons for the postponement of the meeting anticipated last November between Shevardnadze and Ardzinba, at which the two leaders were to have signed a protocol on the repatriation of displaced persons.

The question thus arises: why, if Abkhazia is prepared to make concessions, has the Georgian side responded so coolly to Ardzinba's repatriation offer? One possible explanation hinges on the role of the Russian peacekeeping force deployed under the CIS aegis since mid-1994 along the internal border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia. The force's mandate expired on 31 July 1998 and must be renewed at the next CIS summit, which according to Caucasus Press is tentatively scheduled for 26 February.

Although any changes in the peacekeeepers' mandate must theoretically be approved by both Georgia and Abkhazia, Tbilisi has made it clear that it will oppose an extension of that mandate unless provided with cast-iron assurances that the peacekeepers will not allow Abkhaz forces to engage in reprisals against the returning Georgians or to destroy their homes. Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Bordyuzha has reportedly submitted to President Boris Yeltsin proposals for rendering the Russian peacekeepers' presence more effective. But there is little doubt that Tbilisi would prefer to see the Russian peacekeepers replaced by an international force under the aegis of the UN or NATO. (Ukraine has repeatedly offered to provide troops to serve in such a UN force.)

A second factor that may have influenced the Georgian response is the domestic political situation. Some Georgian observers have suggested that the country's leadership has no interest in allowing the displaced persons to return to Abkhazia prior to the parliamentary elections due this autumn, as a successful repatriation would then focus popular discontent on other problems that are less easy to resolve. The left-wing Labor Party garnered some 20 percent of the vote in last November's local elections on the strength of its promises to reintroduce free education and medical care. A repatriation drive that went badly wrong, resulting in fatalities and a new exodus from Gali, would inevitably lead to a loss of support for the ruling Union of Citizens of Georgia. Alternatively, or additionally, the Georgian leadership may wish to be perceived to control the agenda and dictate its own terms for the displaced persons' return, rather than simply respond to Sukhumi's at first glance magnanimous initiative. (Liz Fuller)

Armenian CEC Chairman Highlights Draft Election Law Shortcomings. Armenian Central Election Commission chairman Khachatur Bezirjian told RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau last week that the new electoral legislation which will in all likelihood be passed by parliament later this month is flawed and needs serious amendments. Specifically, Bezirjian argued that the draft law would hinder the work of election commissions.

"The [draft] election code has big flaws" in focusing only on the "political aspects" of handling the parliamentary elections due in May, Bezirjian said, adding that "I think that many amendments should be made in it." The bill is favored by the Yerkrapah union of veterans of the Karabakh war, which is currently the largest group within the National Assembly and is loyal to Defense Minister Vazgen Sarkisian. That bill was passed in the first reading in November (see "Armenia Report,"16 November 1998), and will most probably be approved in the second, final reading on 25 January.

Bezirjian said the bill does not spell out "mechanisms" for election officials to deal with what he called "technical issues" related to the voting and ballot count. He particularly deplored the fact that provincial commissions are charged with counting the so-called "coupons" attached to ballots, which are intended to expose possible discrepancies between the number of people who voted and the number of actual ballots cast.

Until now, the coupons were counted by communal commissions, and the actual ballots by lower-level precinct commissions. Provincial commissions would only check the numbers for discrepancies. Bezirjian argued that the provincial commissions will be unable to cope with the huge number of coupons unless the Yerkrapah draft is amended. If it is not, the vote count (notoriously slow in Armenia) would take much longer, he warned. "Coupons made sense under the former law, but they are meaningless under the new one," he said.

Bezirjian also objected to a clause in the Yerkrapah bill allowing political parties to change their representatives on electoral commissions as many times as they want.

Bezirjian has presided over two presidential elections in Armenia since 1996, both of which were criticized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Some representatives of the former Armenian authorities have admitted that the presidential poll in September 1996 was rigged in favor of the incumbent, Levon Ter-Petrossian (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 1, No. 44, 29 December 1998). (Anush Dashtents)

Whither Dagestan? For much of 1998, Russian media reported a seemingly endless series of bombings and assassinations in Dagestan, creating the impression of a republic rent by crime and Islamic fundamentalism and ready to emulate Chechnya in declaring its independence from the Russian Federation. In late summer, in what may well have been a last ditch attempt to reverse the descent into criminal chaos, the Russian Interior Ministry launched an unprecedented systematic crackdown on organized crime in Dagestan that has apparently proven successful. As "Nezavisimaya gazeta" observed in late November, "recent Russian history has never before witnessed such a large number of senior bureaucrats arrested for various crimes in the space of three months."

As a result of that crackdown, its organizer, First Deputy Interior Minister Vladimir Kolesnikov, has become one of the most respected Russian political figures in Dagestan, according to a recent opinion poll whose results "Nezavisimaya gazeta" summarized on 19 January. No less than 75 percent of the 600 respondents expressed their trust in Kolesnikov, compared with 60 percent who said they trust Russian Prime Minister Yevgenii Primakov. By contrast, only 2 percent expressed trust in Boris Yeltsin.

But for Moscow, perhaps the most reassuring trend registered was the almost unanimous conviction that Dagestan should remain a subject of the Russian Federation. That belief was shared by 98 percent of respondents. Only 1 percent advocated independent statehood for Dagestan, and less than one percent favored the idea of Dagestan forming a confederation with other North Caucasus republics. That finding, if indeed it reflects the thinking of the population at large, casts serious doubts on the prospects of implementing the union of Chechnya and Dagestan envisaged by Chechen field commander and former acting Premier Shamil Basaev. (Liz Fuller)

Quotation Of The Week. "I think that the economic reform process is probably more advanced in Armenia than elsewhere in the region. Armenia can build and play a critical role in the economic development of the wider region ... I am cautiously optimistic at the spirit of regional cooperation I have seen in recent months. There is a new atmosphere developing, a new sense of possibilities." -- U.S. Ambassador to Armenia Michael Lemmon, quoted by RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau, 14 January 1999.