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Caucasus Report: August 4, 1998

4 August 1998, Volume 1, Number 23

Azerbaijan Pledges To Abolish Political Censorship. Meeting with representatives of human rights watchdogs in Washington last week, Shahin Aliev, a legal advisor to Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliev, announced that within 7 -10 days an official decree will be passed abolishing political censorship in Azerbaijan. Shahin Aliyev subsequently told the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists that the Azerbaijani president had already drafted the relevant decree "because it is necessary to guarantee 100 percent transparency during the presidential elections" scheduled for 11 October. He added that the decree would result in the abolition of the Main Administration for the Protection of State Secrets, to which all print media must submit materials prior to publication.

Censorship was technically abolished in Azerbaijan with the passage of the Law on the Mass Media in July, 1992, following the advent to power two months earlier of the Azerbaijan Popular Front. But in May, 1993, then President Abulfaz Elchibey reimposed military censorship of the media after a series of defeats in the ongoing Karabakh conflict. Heidar Aliyev in turn reintroduced political censorship in October, 1994, after what he termed an abortive coup attempt by Prime Minister Suret Huseinov. Since then, blank sentences or entire blank paragraphs in opposition or would-be politically neutral publications have attested to the diligence of the two complementary censorship agencies. Last September, President Aliyev issued a decree annulling his predecessor's imposition of military censorship on the media, but that decree was to be implemented only after the Milli Mejlis (parliament) enacts a law on state secrets, according to the head of the department for the Protection of State Secrets, Jahangir Ildrym-zade (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 September 1997).

Contacted by Turan on 1 August, Ali Hasanov, head of the social and political department of the presidential staff, said that the president had instructed his office in April to draft a state program on improving the material conditions of the mass media and on additional measures to ensure freedom of information, speech and opinion. This suggests that President Aliyev had taken the decision to alleviate the conditions under which the media operate before the visit to Baku in late June of a European Parliament delegation that openly called for the abolition of censorship in Azerbaijan. Meeting with members of that delegation, President Aliyev had denied the existence of political censorship as such, arguing that "hooligan" newspapers needed to be restrained. (Liz Fuller)

Can The Systemic Crisis In Georgia be Overcome? Public discussion of the political situation in Georgia entered a new phase last week following the resignation of Minister of State Niko Lekishvili and virtually all government ministers. Initially, debate had focussed on constitutional changes as the optimum solution to the perceived crisis within the executive branch. The existing Georgian constitution offers minimal scope for the president to exert leverage over either the government or the parliament (he may not fire the former, and no provision is made for the dissolution of the latter.) Moreover, as Parliament Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee chairman Mikhail Saakashvili had pointed out, under the present system the country is administered by a bureaucratic apparatus that is virtually immune to any outside influence. The laws enacted by parliament are not implemented, and the parliament has no leverage over the executive.

Saakashvili therefore proposed amending the constitution to reintroduce the post of prime minister and to broaden his duties and those of the government ministers, who "should not be simply economic functionaries." This would alleviate the burden on the president by shifting responsibility for day-to-day affairs on to the premier, thus enabling the president to concentrate on "strategic tasks." In addition, the president would be empowered to dissolve parliament and to dismiss individual ministers, with the consent of the prime minister. The parliament would likewise be empowered to monitor the performance of individual ministers and the cabinet as a whole, and to raise the question of their individual or collective dismissal. This, Saakashvili reasoned, would facilitate the appointment of a "more responsive, saddle-ridden and bridle-wise" government. The appointment to the executive branch of 200 - 250 ""honest and competent individuals," Saakashvili concluded, would fundamentally change the face of the country.

But during a roundtable discussion last week moderated by RFE/RL's Tbilisi bureau, both Saakashvili and philosophy professor Kakha Katsitadze acknowledged that the crisis that has arisen in recent months was not solely the result of shortcomings in the system -- Saakashvili affirmed that he still believes that the "half-presidential model" is the most appropriate system for Georgia -- and cannot be overcome simply by amending the constitution. Katsitadze pointed out that other factors had contributed to the crisis, above all corruption, for which the government that resigned last week had become a byword, but also the Georgia leadership's handling of the renewed hostilities in Abkhazia in May, and the fact that relations between the central government in Tbilisi and the periphery are not clearly defined in the constitution.

Both roundtable participants agreed that the existing division of powers is conducive to abuse. Saakashvili admitted that over the past three-four years, corruption has attained previously unheard-of dimensions, and that the Georgian people have never had a competent and honest government whom they could trust. He cited the example of Communications Minister Pridon Indjia, who, Saakashvili claims, owns radio stations, TV channels, and newspapers, and succeeded in accumulating a fortune at a time when the rest of the population was struggling to survive. But Saakashvili noted with relief that despite the perceived symbiosis between "mafia clans" and political parties, the former have not yet gained such a strong foothold in the political system that they are impervious to structural changes.

What is needed, both interlocutors agree, is structural changes plus sweeping cadre changes, in order to preclude an endless cycle of replacing one corrupt minister with another who proves to be equally corrupt. Saakashvili proposed restricting the functions of specific ministries and transferring part of their duties to the private sector. In this context he singled out education, where he said the survival of soviet-style curricula and soviet-style teaching staff continue to yield soviet-style results. Katsitadze also noted the urgent need for a reform of the system of local administration to curb the virtually unlimited powers of provincial administrators.

But Saakashvili made it clear he does not consider the present situation hopeless. If, he reasoned, we retain the competent cadres from the old government and bring in new faces, and work hard in the year that remains before the 1999 parliamentary election, then we may succeed in winning back popular trust. If not, Saakashvili predicted that he and his closest associates within the present parliament, including speaker Zurab Zhvania, would assume the role of "constructive opposition" -- an option that Zhvania had raised in his address on the final day of the spring parliament session. The composition and future performance of the new government are thus key factors in deciding the future course of the country -- but in Katsitadze's words, " "the formation of a new government is a weapon that can only be fired once." (Liz Fuller)

Quotation of the Week: "There is no Karabakh problem, we have solved it." (Armenian Minister of Finance and Economy Eduard Sandoyan, who made it clear that he did not mean only the economic side of the problem.) Sandoyan added that legislative shortcomings are the most serious deterrent to foreign investors, who are consequently uncertain whether their interests in Armenia will be protected. "That we still do not have have an efficiently-functioning court and legal system costs investors one Karabakh plus ten Ichkeriyas [Chechnya]," Sandoyan stated. (Noyan Tapan, 3 August 1998)