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Caucasus Report: February 23, 1999

23 February 1999, Volume 2, Number 8

Armenia Embarks On Countdown To Elections. On 18 February, President Robert Kocharian signed into law the controversial election bill passed by the National Assembly in the final reading two weeks earlier. The following day, Kocharian set 30 May as the date for the poll. On 20 February, "Hayots ashkhar" quoted Central Electoral Commission chairman Khachatur Bezirjian as expressing concern that the president did not opt for 13 June -- the latest date allowed by the constitution -- claiming that under the new law, the process of organizing the poll must begin "from scratch," which, Bezirjian said, will be difficult to complete within the 99 days remaining. The CEC has already created a working group to divide the territory of the country into 75 single-mandate constituencies. But that division may have to be redrawn at short notice, if those political parties concerned lest the preponderance of seats allocated in single-mandate constituencies facilitate vote-rigging succeed in pushing through amendments to the law that would reduce the ratio of seats allocated under the majoritarian and proportional systems to 66:65.

The Republican Party, whose nucleus is the former Yerkrapah union of veterans of the Karabakh war, has repeatedly rejected insinuations that its members intend to secure the election of their own candidates to the next National Assembly at any cost. Delegates to the Party's constituent congress in January adopted a statement pledging their commitment to ensuring that the parliamentary elections are free and fair, and inviting cooperation from other political parties to that end.

That statement failed, however, to dispel the widespread pessimistic assumption that the elections will inevitably be rigged, and that the only open question is how serious that manipulation will prove to be. Two influential opposition political figures, Karen Demirchian and Vazgen Manukian (both defeated presidential candidates) have urged the electorate to seize the initiative in order to ensure that the voting process is "clean." (Liz Fuller)

Demirchian Party Confident Of Election Victory. Interviewed by RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau on 20 February, a leading member of Demirchian's People's Party of Armenia (HZhK) forecast victory for that party in the May poll, providing that the vote is fair. He warned that the authorities must rule out major irregularities or face hundreds of thousands of protesters in the streets.

"If irregularities do not exceed 5 percent of the vote, we will win a majority in the next parliament," said Hmayak Hovannisian, the HZhK's deputy chairman. "If what happened in 1998 is repeated this time, even Karen Demirchian with all his authority will be unable to prevent the people from standing up. If we stand up we will not gather 40,000 people. We will mobilize 400,000 and even one million people," he said.

Demirchian, who served as First Secretary of the Armenian Communist Party Central Committee from 1974-1988, emerged last year from political oblivion to grab second place in the preterm presidential election. But he has refused to recognize the official results of the poll which gave victory to Robert Kocharian, then prime minister. Demirchian set up the center-left HZhK last May, two months after the election.

According to an opinion poll conducted by the Sociology Institute of the National Academy of Sciences, the findings of which were summarized by "Azg" on 20 February, Demirchian is the most popular politician in Armenia. Of 1200 respondents interviewed across Armenia, 24.3 percent said they want Demirchian to be president. Only 7.5 percent favored Robert Kocharian.

Hovannisian described as "alarming" upbeat statements by leaders of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) about its anticipated performance in the 30 May elections. Citing "various opinion polls," he said the popularity rating of powerful Defense Minister Vazgen Sarkisian's loyalists does not exceed 10 percent.

Hovannisian rejected the argument that the lack of prominent figures in the HZhK will not allow it to fare well in single-mandate constituencies. "The party has many brilliant individuals in its territorial branches," he said.

"During the ten months of its existence, the HZhK has increased its membership from 40 to 25,000 to become the largest party in Armenia," Hovannisian claimed. On 27 February the embryonic party will convene its founding congress, at which its election tactics will be discussed. (Armen Zakarian)

Georgian Communist Party Chairman on Legal Challenge to Shevardnadze. Retired General Panteleimon Giorgadze, who ran unsuccessfully against Eduard Shevardnadze in the 1995 Georgian presidential elections, intends to bring legal proceedings against the latter in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg for condoning human rights violations in Georgia. Giorgadze told RFE/RL's Tbilisi bureau in early February that he is pleased that Georgia has been accepted conditionally into full membership of the Council of Europe, since that body will now find out "what is really happening in Georgia." Giorgadze claimed that human rights are being violated in Georgia on a daily, if not hourly, basis, and that it is the responsibility of the Council of Europe to ascertain who is responsible for those violations. He conceded that although President Shevardnadze should be aware of developments in Georgia, "I am convinced that there are many things he does not know."

Giorgadze further expressed his agreement with the negative evaluation by Georgian Foreign Minister Irakli Menagharishvili at last month's UN Security Council meeting of the role of the Russian peacekeeping force deployed on the border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia. But Giorgadze attributed the peacekeepers' inability to fulfill their responsibilities to Moscow's neglect of their needs and to lack of cooperation from the Georgian leadership. Recalling his own experience in 1992-93 as commander of the Georgian peacekeeping force in South Ossetia, Giorgadze said the Georgian authorities did nothing to help and everything to hinder its activities. He added that the Abkhaz conflict cannot be resolved by force, but only by both sides sitting down together at the negotiating table.

Giorgadze then explained the United Communist Party of Georgia's opposition to the recent law permitting the sale of non-agricultural land. Giorgadze reasoned that more than 80 percent of the population of Georgia is experiencing acute financial difficulties. When people are desperate, he continued, they are prepared to sell their land as a last resort, just as they are prepared to sell their own internal organs. Thus, theoretically large tracts of land could be sold to foreigners. Giorgadze claimed that opposition to the law, which he said was passed "without asking the people's opinion," is not confined to his party, "the whole of Georgia is against it."

Finally, Giorgadze dismissed as "premature" the proposal made by some members of his party to nominate his son Igor, the former National Security Minister who left Georgia in 1995 after being accused of masterminding the failed car-bomb attack on Shevardnadze, as a candidate for either the parliamentary elections due this fall or the presidential poll next year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 January 1999). Describing Igor Giorgadze's political views as "liberal, contemporary, and close to social-democracy," Giorgadze pere did not exclude the possibility that his son might still be named as a parliamentary candidate. (Liz Fuller)

Chechnya To Elect New Head Of State. Former Chechen Foreign Minister Movladi Udugov, one of the members of the state Shura (council) created by opposition field commanders on 9 February, told Ekho Moskvy on 21 February that elections will soon be held for a new head of state. He predicted that the present President, Aslan Maskhadov, will fill that post. (Two possible influential contenders, former acting president Zelimkhan Yandarbiev and Vakha Arsanov, whom Maskhadov fired two weeks ago as his deputy, have declined to run.) But the position will apparently be largely decorative, as the Shura, not the head of state, will in future take political decisions. This suggests that the most powerful individual in Chechnya will be former acting Premier Shamil Basaev, who was elected leader of the Shura on 19 February.

In a seeming contradiction, Udugov denied the existence of diarchy in Chechnya, observing that "power is very weak." But he went on to charcterize the present situation as preserving the old political center in the person of Maskhadov, which is balanced by the emergent Shura. Udugov said that "heated debates and mutual accusations" continue between the Shura and Maskhadov -- an indication that the latter does not intend to cede what power he still has without a fight. (Liz Fuller)

Quotation Of The Week. "People seem to have come to terms with a belief that force takes precedence over the law, and prefer a strong leader to a democratic society where it is unclear who gets things done." Armenian Sociological Association President Gevorg Poghosian, quoted in "Azg," 23 February 1999.