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Caucasus Report: February 16, 1999

16 February 1999, Volume 2, Number 7

Armenian President Sends Mixed Signals. Interviewed on 6 February by journalists from Armenian national television and three private TV companies, Armenian President Robert Kocharian warned that he will dissolve parliament if it rejects the second request by Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian to lift the immunity of former Interior Minister Vano Siradeghian, who is charged with incitement to murder. "That's final," Kocharian stressed, "No two ways about it."

Kocharian acknowledged that following President Levon Ter-Petrossian's resignation one year earlier, he had rejected calls for pre-term parliamentary elections, rather than risk setting a precedent that could serve as the basis for "negative traditions." But Kocharian characterized the current situation as totally different. He said that the National Assembly should not obstruct the course of justice, and that he as president had no right to demonstrate leniency if it attempted to do so. Failure on his part to intervene, Kocharian continued, could result in the election of criminal elements to the new parliament, and that, in turn, could have drastic consequences for the country.

Opposition parties, however, have repeatedly argued that the single most important factor that will determine the composition of the new parliament is the election law passed last month. They maintain that the high proportion of seats (75 of a total of 131) allocated in single-mandate constituencies as opposed to party lists is conducive to fraud, and intended to secure a safe majority for the Republican Party headed by Defense Minister Vazgen Sargsian.

On 11 February, Self-Determination Union chairman Paruyr Hairikian urged the president not to sign the bill into law, but to return it to parliament with the demand that the number of seats allocated under the proportional system be increased to 65/66. Hairikian told journalists the following day that his party will appeal to the Constitutional Court if Kocharian fails to comply with his request, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported.

But presidential spokesman Vahe Gabrielian told journalists, also on 12 February, that President Kocharian has no intention of vetoing the election law. Kocharian had told a session of the presidential political council on 10 February that the election law is the result of a "real compromise," adding that it is impossible to adopt a law that would meet with universal approval. The president added that the creation of "civilized conditions" is a more watertight guarantee of free and fair elections than the precise wording of the law, and that it is the shared responsibility of the authorities and the opposition to create such conditions.

On 13 February, "Hayots ashkhar," which is financed by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (HHD), quoted Central Electoral Commission chairman Khachatur Bezirjian as stating that he will relinquish that post before the parliamentary elections. Bezirjian, who incurred criticism for his handling of the presidential elections in 1996 and 1998, said that the job is a thankless one. But he added that the planned computerization of voter lists should make it impossible for one person to cast more than one ballot during the upcoming parliamentary elections. (Liz Fuller)

Right-Wing Georgian Opposition Parties To Form Election Bloc? Leading members of the National Democratic Party of Georgia (SEDP) and the Republican Party of Georgia have endorsed the announcement by the two parties' leaders, Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia and Ivliane Khaindrava, that they will begin talks on creating an electoral bloc to contend the parliamentary elections due this fall. If such a bloc does take shape, it could become a "third force" in Georgian politics, challenging the ruling Union of Citizens of Georgia and the so-called "Batumi alliance" comprising left-wing parties and the Union for Revival headed by Adjar Supreme Council chairman Aslan Abashidze. In that case, the two parties' leaders hope, the anticipated alliance could play a key role in the determining of "strategic decisions."

As part of the "11 October" electoral bloc, the Republicans gained six seats in the Georgian parliament elected in 1992, but failed in 1995 to poll the 5 percent minimum to gain parliamentary representation; the SEDP, by contrast, polled between 8-9 percent of the vote on both occasions, and won a total of 34 seats in the parliament elected in 1995. In addition, Sarishvili-Chanturia is one of the most popular political figures in Georgia after Eduard Shevardnadze. In terms of political intellect and organizational ability, the two parties complement each other; but both are short of finances, which could adversely affect their campaign chances.

The emergence of a powerful "third force" in Georgian politics could reduce the degree of alienation between the leadership and the population at large. It would minimize the possibility of a dangerous confrontation between the SMK and Abashidze. And it would also attract votes which might otherwise be cast in favor of parties that ultimately failed to gain representation in the new parliament. (Such parties accounted for a staggering 62 percent of all votes cast in the 1995 parliamentary elections.) But most important, the leaders of the planned new alliance are young enough to anticipate playing a key role in Georgian politics for the next 20-30 years. In that respect, their proposed cooperation may be intended not simply for this year's elections, but in the longer term for the post-Shevardnadze era in Georgian politics. (Davit Berdzenishvili, translated by Liz Fuller)

Georgian Opposition Politicians Discuss Ethnicity, Citizenship. Last month Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze signed into law a bill that would remove from Georgian passports, identity cards, and birth certificates any mention of the holder's nationality. That move gave rise to widespread protests, leading Shevardnadze to admit in his traditional Monday radio address on 8 February that perhaps he should have vetoed the legislation in question.

Ten days earlier, RFE/RL's Tbilisi bureau convened a round-table discussion of the issue between two senior opposition political figures, Liberal National Democratic Party chairman Mikheil Naneishvili and Nodar Natadze, one of the founders in the late 1980s of the Georgian Popular Front and currently chairman of the United Republican Party.

Natadze argues that it is premature to abolish the designation of the holder's nationality in Georgian passports, given that depriving an individual of the opportunity to identify himself voluntarily as a member of a specific ethnic group weakens his interaction with his social environment. Naneishvili, for his part, seeks to distinguish clearly between the concept of "Staatsnation" and "Kulturnation," affirming that anyone who was born and lives in Georgia is a citizen of Georgia, irrespective of his nationality. To differentiate between ethnicity and citizenship, Naneishvili continues, is to politicize the issue of ethnicity to an unacceptable and possibly dangerous degree. "If we insist on making the point that someone is a citizen of Georgia but an ethnic Armenian or Azerbaijani, then we shouldn't be surprised if the population of regions where non-Georgians account for the majority of the population make certain claims on the Georgian authorities for territorial autonomy."

Natadze, however, points to the "illegal" and "anti-constitutional" existence within Georgia of regions (such as Abkhazia) where passports do not designate the holder's nationality. He suggests that failure could lead within two or three generations to "the erosion of Georgian national consciousness," which would survive only in certain regions, but not throughout the Georgian state.

But Naneishvili downplays such fears. He suggests that in choosing not to designate ethnicity in personal documents, the Georgian authorities are sending a message to the Armenian and Azerbaijani population of Georgia that "your ethnicity is a matter to be agreed upon between yourselves and the neighboring state, and your self-identification as Armenians or Azerbaijanis is your own personal affair. From the Georgian point of view, you are citizens of Georgia." (Liz Fuller)

Is Moscow Losing Patience With Aushev? In an article published in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 12 February assessing the various levers available to Moscow in strengthening its weakening hold over the North Caucasus republics, Russia's First Deputy Nationalities Minister Vadim Pechenev argued that it is imperative that the Russian leadership demonstrate its determination to implement its North Caucasus policies. In that context, Pechenev stated that Moscow should not hesitate to replace local cadres "in accordance with the possibilities contained in the Russian Federation constitution."

Regardless of the fact that the constitution fails to clarify whether, and in what circumstances, an elected president or governor can be removed from office, Pechenev's formulation raises the question: who, among the various North Caucasus leaders, is considered such an irritant that Moscow might demand his dismissal? One name that springs to mind is that of Ingushetian President Ruslan Aushev. Not only did he preside over the abuse of millions of dollars generated by Ingushetia's short-lived status as an offshore zone; he has for the past year been demanding from the federal center the right to nominate local police chiefs -- a right which under the existing division of responsibilities between the federal center and the federation subjects belongs to the former (see Article 71 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation).

Most recently, Aushev has scheduled for 28 February a referendum on popular support for the nomination by the republic's leadership of local police chiefs and for legalizing specific local customs that under federal law are considered criminal offences. Those customs include carrying a dagger (which Aushev insists is an integral component of Ingush national costume), and the abduction of a young girl by her prospective bridegroom. Although Russian President Yeltsin has deemed the referendum unconstitutional, Aushev has declared his intention to hold it if a compromise agreement is not reached in talks with Russian government officials later this week.

Aushev has also, perhaps unwisely, suggested that Ingushetia might follow Chechnya's example in seeking to leave the Russian Federation unless Moscow abandons what he termed its imperialist divide-and-rule policy towards the North Caucasus (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 3 November 1998). (Liz Fuller)

Quotation Of The Week. "There will not be another war in the North Caucasus. [...] Whatever threats extremist ideologists in Chechnya may utter about 'a shariat revolution from the Black Sea to the Caspian,' even they understand that any attempt to ignite a war beyond the borders of the Chechen Republic will inevitably lead to the loss of the very idea of Chechnya's independence. [...] What the Chechens should be thinking about now is how to survive, not how to die under a green banner." Russian Security Council First Deputy Secretary Vyacheslav Mikhailov, interviewed in "Izvestiya," 11 February 1999.