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Caucasus Report: May 26, 1998

26 May 1998, Volume 1, Number 13

"The Blood-Dimmed Tide Is Loosed ..." Localized clashes last week between Georgian guerrillas and Abkhaz interior ministry forces in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali raion have precipitated a major offensive that has cost up to one hundred lives and destroyed the tenuous equilibrium between the major players in the region.

On 18 May, Georgian guerrillas killed some 20 Abkhaz police officers in a surprise attack. Two days later, Abkhaz forces armed with heavy weaponry launched a counter-offensive against several Gali villages. Estimates of casualty figures differ widely, but it appears that several dozen Georgian civilians have been killed, as well as a similar number of Abkhaz and Georgian combatants. In addition, 30,000 ethnic Georgian repatriants who had returned to the homes in Gali whence they had fled during the 1992-1993 war were again constrained to seek refuge on the other side of the border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia.

After seven hours of talks on 24 May, Georgia's ambassador to Russia Vazha Lortkipanidze and Abkhaz President Vladislav Ardzinba agreed on the wording of a protocol on a cease-fire, the withdrawal from Gali of Abkhaz reinforcements sent there over the past few days, and the return of the Georgian fugitives. Meeting in Gagra on 25 May, Georgian Foreign Minister Irakli Menagharishvili and his Abkhaz counterpart Sergei Shamba signed that protocol, to which the UN special envoy to Georgia and the commander of the Russian peacekeeping forces also appended their signatures.

Georgian agencies reported on 26 May, however, that the cease-fire had failed to take effect on schedule at 6 a.m. local time. Indeed, given that the Georgian leadership has repeatedly disclaimed any connection with or jurisdiction over the Georgian White Legion and other guerrilla forces in Abkhazia, it is unclear how the former intended to ensure the latter would comply. The fact that fighting is continuing suggests that Abkhaz Interior Ministry claims to have effectively neutralized the Georgian guerrillas are exaggerated.

Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and Defense Minister Davit Tevzadze have insisted over the past three days that the regular Georgian army will not be drawn into the fray. This represents a retreat from Shevardnadze's threat on 21 May that Tbilisi will use "both diplomatic talks and any other methods" to defend its territorial integrity -- and raises the appalling question of whether the skirmishes last week were an exercise in sabre-rattling that went dreadfully wrong.

The events of the past week have, moreover, fundamentally changed the prospects for a settlement of the conflict, and not to Georgia's advantage. The issue of repatriation has been aggravated by the flight, for the second time, of much of the ethnic Georgian population of the Gali raion. Those displaced persons will constitute a powerful pressure group on the Georgian leadership. But their repatriation for the second time is contingent on fail-safe measures to prevent reprisals against them by the Abkhaz. The sole body currently on the ground and capable of doing so is the CIS peacekeeping force, but those troops are now irrevocably compromised in the eyes of the Georgian public following allegations that they either supplied the Abkhaz with heavy artillery or failed to intervene to protect Georgian civilians. The Georgian opposition is therefore likely to redouble its demands for the Russian peacekeepers' withdrawal. The Abkhaz parliament has already raised this issue, and the "Additional Measures on Resolving the Conflict in Abkhazia" adopted at the Moscow CIS summit in late April contain a clause empowering one or other conflict side to demand the withdrawal of that force. But the international community, preoccupied with Kosova, is unlikely to relish the prospect of stepping into the breach and mounting a further peacekeeping mission, this time on Russia's southern border.

The Abkhaz leadership, for its part, now has even less incentive than before to agree to a compromise with Tbilisi on the issue of its future status. (Liz Fuller)

Is Armenia Heading For Pre-Term Parliamentary Elections? Less than two months after Robert Kocharian's election as president, the new Armenian leadership is under fire from several fronts simultaneously. The disparate forces that aligned in support of Kocharian's presidential candidacy are impatient at the perceived slow pace of political change, and specifically at the leadership's reluctance to bring to account discredited members of the former ruling elite. They are also increasingly at odds over the allocation of senior political posts and the draft election law that will determine the alignment of forces within the next parliament. And the present National Assembly is picking holes in the new government's program just one week after approving it.

The two most influential groups within the Justice and Unity coalition created to back Kocharian's presidential bid are the Dashnaktsutiun, suspended in 1994 by former President Levon Ter-Petrossian and relegalized by Kocharian within days of the latter's resignation, and the Yerkrapah veterans of the war in Karabakh (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report", Vol. 1, No. 11). The Dashnaktsutiun, understandably, bear a collective grudge against the Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh), the senior member of the former majority Hanrapetutiun parliament coalition, and newspapers funded by the Dashnaktsutiun reflect that party's resentment that many prominent HHSh members continue to profit with impunity from the wealth and influence they accumulated while in power. (It is thanks to the defection of some 40 Hanrapetutiun deputies that Yerkrapah is now the largest group within parliament with 72 deputies.) The Dashnaktsutiun, by contrast, have only one parliament deputy, and are therefore pushing for early elections under an electoral law that would allocate the majority of parliament seats (100 of a total of 131) on the basis of proportional representation.

The Yerkrapah were initially lukewarm over the prospect of dissolving the present parliament before its term expires in July 1999. In an interview with "Iravunk" on 22 May, however, a Yerkrapah deputy indicated that the group might condone the dissolution of the National Assembly rather than risk being branded as scapegoats for legislative deadlock. But the Yerkrapah nonetheless insist that the new electoral law should provide for a minimum of 40 seats allocated in single-member constituencies. Parliament speaker Khosrov Harutiunian, appointed to that post by Kocharian in early February, has consistently argued against pre-term parliamentary elections (in order not to jeopardize his own position? Or because the country's leaders were still licking their wounds following the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's harsh criticism of intimidation and fraud during the March presidential poll, and did not wish to risk a repeat of that savaging?) But a commentator for "Iravunk" suggested in the same (22 May) issue that Kocharian and Prime Minister Armen Darpinian may no longer oppose pre-term elections in the light of the parliament's increasing defiance.

That defiance found expression last week in a confrontation with the government over tax policy: parliament voted down a law reducing VAT from 20 to 15 percent after Darpinian threatened to peg it to a vote of confidence in his government. The Socialist-oriented Dashnaktsutiun are similarly unhappy with the government's economic program, which they have termed a retreat from the policies outlined in Kocharian's election manifesto to the monetarist approach of former Premier Hrant Bagratian. A Dashnaktsutiun-dominated parliament would be even more inimical to Darpinian's cabinet. For that reason, Kocharian may prefer to let the present parliament serve its full term, in the hope that economic growth can be sustained and parlayed into a tangible improvement in living standards. (Liz Fuller)