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Caucasus Report: March 3, 1999

3 March 1999, Volume 2, Number 9

Georgian Displaced Persons Begin Returning To Abkhazia. Meeting with UN special representative Liviu Bota in early January, Abkhaz President Vladislav Ardzinba offered to allow those Georgian displaced persons who fled their homes in Abkhazia during either the 1992-1993 war or the renewed hostilities in May 1998 to return home beginning on 1 March. He subsequently created a commission charged with ensuring the returnees' safety and helping to meet their material needs.

The Georgian leadership, however, responded that Ardzinba had no right to act unilaterally and that the repatriation process must be jointly coordinated by Tbilisi and Sukhumi under the auspices of the UN (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol.2, No. 3, 20 January 1999). Bota himself, and senior Russian diplomats engaged in the stalled Abkhaz peace process, concurred with the Georgian objections. Senior Georgian officials, including President Eduard Shevardnadze, repeatedly warned that the Abkhaz authorities are incapable of ensuring the safety of Georgians who return to Abkhazia.

On 1 March, however, disregarding such warnings, Georgians began crossing the bridge over the river Inguri that marks the internal border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia. Some Georgians chose to try to ford the river in other places rather than run the gauntlet of some 300 militant displaced persons who had gathered on the bridge in mid-February to protest Ardzinba's initiative and prevent any attempt by individual Georgians to cross into Abkhazia.

Georgian and Abkhaz officials have offered widely diverging estimates of the number of Georgians who have succeeded in doing so. Ruslan Kishmaria, chief administrator of Abkhazia's southernmost Gali raion, the prewar population of which was 90 percent ethnic Georgian, told Caucasus Press on 2 March that over 100 Georgians had crossed the Inguri, whereas Georgian officials said that only seven did so on 1 March. The returnees are being registered by the Abkhaz commission responsible for their safety, and are being transported by bus to their former homes.

At this juncture it is impossible to predict what percentage of the estimated 200,000 Georgian displaced persons will take up Ardzinba's invitation to return to Abkhazia. (Speaking on 1 March, the Abkhaz leader had said that 25,000 Georgians have expressed the wish to do so.) Certainly there is a hardcore of fugitives who oppose the idea of returning, but at least some of these are deterred not by security considerations but because their future political careers are contingent on preserving the status quo until they themselves are in a position to change it to their advantage. The leader of this faction is Tamaz Nadareishvili, chairman of the Abkhaz parliament in exile, which comprises the ethnic Georgian deputies to the Abkhaz parliament elected in the fall of 1990, the mandate of which has since expired. The Abkhaz Foreign Ministry has accused the parliament in exile of organizing the picket on the Inguri bridge, with the backing of the Georgian government.

Georgian Minister of State Vazha Lortkipanidze, who as ambassador to Moscow played a key role in the peace process in 1997-98, rejected Ardzinba's initiative in terms far harsher than other senior members of the Georgian leadership, terming it "a farce." Both Lortkipanidze and Nadareishvili are believed to harbor presidential ambitions, should Shevardnadze not run for a second term in 2000. (Liz Fuller)

Former Armenian CP Boss Launches New Political Party. The center-left Armenian People's Party (HZhK), created last summer by former Armenian Communist Party First Secretary and defeated presidential candidate Karen Demirchian, convened its founding congress in Yerevan on 27-28 February. Some 700 delegates out of the party's estimated 25,000 members attended.

The HZhK's leadership hopes to parlay Demirchian's personal charisma and popularity into a strong showing in the parliamentary elections scheduled for 30 May. Many working-class Armenians badly hit by the country's economic collapse in the early 1990s are hoping for Demirchian's return to power.

It was to those potential voters that Demirchian aimed his 90-minute speech to the congress on 27 February, promising an economic revival and new jobs, and vowing to establish "popular and democratic socialism."

Demirchian subjected successive post-Communist Armenian governments to blistering criticism, accusing them of the systematic "distortion of classical liberalism" and of rejecting everything positive inherited from the Soviet system while substituting nothing of value to replace it. "There has been no area where progress is discernible," he said. "This formerly industrial country has been de-industrialized and looted over the past ten years. What we need is a comprehensive state program to revive our industry and agriculture."

Demirchian said the HZhK stands for a socially oriented and state-regulated market economy. He said that one facet of the government's involvement in the economy would be to help both private and state-owned enterprises find cheap credits and markets for their production.

Looking ahead to the May poll, Demirchian warned that the HZhK will not allow "falsification and irregularities." "Any encroachment on free and fair elections will be considered a grave crime," he added. The following day, Demirchian told journalists that he is ready to cooperate with all political parties that seek to ensure that the elections are free and fair. Many of Demirchian's supporters are convinced that he was deprived of victory in the second round of the March 1998 presidential poll only through ballot stuffing and other irregularities. Demirchian himself, however, refrained from openly disputing Robert Kocharian's election victory.

Congress delegates greeted Demirchian's speech with a standing ovation, but subsequent press commentaries were less enthusiastic. They noted that his promises were short on specifics, and that his criticism of corruption within the bureaucracy and of the lack of a strategic program of the country's development could equally be applied to the leadership Demirchian headed from 1974-1988.

Nor is it yet clear who precisely will run on the HZhK's list in the upcoming parliamentary poll, as journalists were barred from attending the announcement of the outcome of elections to the party's ruling board. Some observers have speculated that the party's leadership will be dominated by former leading Communist officials. (Emil Danielyan/Anna Saghabalian)

Dagestan Gears Up For Referendum, Parliamentary Elections. On 7 March Dagestan's electorate will vote for the third time within seven years on whether it approves the introduction of the post of popularly-elected president. That option was rejected in previous referenda in 1992 and 1993. At present, the head of state in Dagestan is the chairman of the 14-man State Council. Under the terms of a constitution which some observers have charged was tailored specifically to ensure the political longevity of the incumbent leadership, the State Council chairman is elected by the 242 members of the Constitutional Assembly, on which all of Dagestan's 34 ethnic groups are represented. In March1998, the People's Assembly (parliament) amended the constitution, abolishing the article that stipulated that a member of one and the same ethnic group may not be elected chairman of the State Council in two consecutive polls. That decision paved the way for 68-year-old incumbent Magomedali Magomedov's reelection three months later for a further term.

Visiting Makhachkala last week, Russian Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin expressed satisfaction that the energetic crackdown on crime in Dagestan launched last fall by his first deputy, Vladimir Kolesnikov, has resulted in admittedly tenuous political stability which, Stepashin predicted, is unlikely to be endangered in the runup to the 7 March parliamentary poll. That is not to say that the crime situation has not impacted on the election campaign: "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 27 February quoted State Council press secretary Eduard Urazaev as saying that 33 of the 480 registered parliamentary candidates are either the subject of a criminal investigation or wanted by police, and 17 have a previous criminal conviction. The republic's police have recommended that the media should publicize the criminal past of would-be deputies in an attempt to prevent the election of dubious elements to the new parliament. That preventive publicity may, however, have little effect, given the clout wielded by some senior economic officials with political ambitions.

"Nezavisimaya gazeta" has drawn attention to the campaign activity of Russian, as opposed to local, political parties, in particular the Communist Party of the Russian Federation and the National-Patriotic Union of Russia. (The paper also notes that local political forces have been competing for affiliation with the local branch of Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov's Otechestvo.) Finally, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" suggests that the eclipse of the Union of Muslims of Russia, for whose leader Nadirshakh Khachilaev an arrest warrant has been issued, has created an opportunity for the pan-Russian Muslim movement "Nur" to carve out a niche for itself in Dagestan's political landscape, possibly with the backing of Dagestan's Muslim clergy. (Liz Fuller)

Quotations Of The Week. "I think the practice of using [the Karabakh] conflict to manipulate the situation in the region has shown itself to be completely bankrupt." -- Azerbaijani presidential advisor Vafa Guluzade, quoted in "Nezavisimaya gazeta," 27 February 1999.

"What we need from Moscow is understanding." -- North Ossetia's President Aleksandr Dzasokhov, interviewed by "Vremya MN," 24 February 1999.

"Ingushetia should not be compared with other federation subjects." Deputy Interior Minister Khasan Yandiev, quoted in "Izvestiya," 23 February 1999.