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Caucasus Report: October 6, 1998

6 October 1998, Volume 1, Number 32

Is Georgia Heading For Confrontation? Interviewed last week by a correspondent from RFE/RL's Tbilisi bureau, Davit Berdzenishvili, executive secretary of the Republican Party of Georgia, offered an alarmist prognosis of how the political situation in Georgia may develop over the next two years.

Asked to comment on the possibility that the predominantly-Armenian-populated south Georgian district of Djavakheti will become a part of the autonomous Republic of Adjaria, Berdzenishvili (who, like most leading members of the Republican Party, was born in Batumi) said that proposal had surfaced periodically in the Adjar capital during the late 1980s and early 1990s, but found no support with the then-Communist Adjar leadership. "The revival and promotion of this idea today," Berdzenishvili said, "does not proceed from the interests of the Georgian state, but is the latest stage in the escalation of the standoff between Tbilisi and Batumi at the leadership level" -- a reference to the ongoing confrontation between Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and Adjar Supreme Council chairman Aslan Abashidze (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 1, Nos. 5, 19 and 31).

Berdzenishvili characterized the autarkic policies Abashidze has pursued over the past 5-6 years as "regime separatism," as distinct from "regional separatism." But, Berdzenishvili continued, having created an "alternative political center," Abashidze is now trying to broaden his power base by crafting a political coalition with which to contest first the15 November local elections throughout Georgia, and then next year's parliamentary elections. Berdzenishvili suggested that in fact there is already "duality of power" in Georgia, given that Shevardnadze's authority does not extend to Adjaria.

Berdzenishvili then focused on a second, geopolitical aspect of the proposed incorporation of the Armenian-populated regions into Adjaria, proceeding from his perception of Armenia as Russia's loyal and dependent ally in the Caucasus. He explained that "the creation of a political, economic, and military union from Yerevan to Batumi, bypassing Tbilisi, when Yerevan is receiving arms illegally from Russia, serves Russia's interests, given that it is a means of exerting terrible pressure on the Georgian leadership and is directed against Georgia's integration into the Euro-Atlantic space."

Berdzenishvili said it is too early to say whether Abashidze will be a candidate for the Georgian presidential elections in 2000. But he predicts an "all-out struggle" in the runup to next year's parliamentary elections, in which Abashizde's All-Georgian Union for Revival, already the second largest faction in the present parliament, can count on the backing of such disparate political forces as the supporters of deceased President Zviad Gamsakhurdia and Panteleimon Giorgadze's United Communist Party of Georgia, which are united by their rejection of Shevardnadze and what Berdzenishvili terms their "anti-democratic and anti-Georgian orientation."

Berdzenishvili commented that "I think the parliamentary elections will be a particularly interesting milestone," where Abashidze's coalition will either achieve an absolute majority in parliament or emerge with a large enough minority to exert a strong influence on the legislature. This in turn, Berdzenishvili continued, will indicate "in which direction Georgia is headed: to the West, to the northwest, or towards total chaos." Berdzenishvili did not exclude some kind de facto dual leadership in the aftermath of the parliamentary elections, in which Shevardnadze would informally share power either with Communist leader Giorgadze or with Abashidze. (He observed that for a three-year period from 1992-95, Shevardnadze was in fact sharing power with Mkhedrioni leader Djaba Ioseliani.) But the latter scenario, he suggested, is likely to result in "political cannibalism -- either Abashidze will devour Shevardnadze or vice versa."

As for next month's local elections, Berdzenishvili predicted "a replay of Lagodekhi on the national scale." In by-elections in that east Georgian district in June, the Socialist Party candidate's majority was overturned by the Central Electoral Commission in favor of the defeated candidate from Shevardnadze's party, the majority Union of Citizens of Georgia. The outcome of those local elections, Berdzenishvili concluded pessimistically, will be the creation of the appearance of local self-rule, with the result that relations between Tbilisi and the periphery are likely to remain strained into the next millennium. (Liz Fuller)

How To Rationalize The North Caucasus ... Discussion of the proposal floated in mid-September by Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov to reduce the number of subjects of the Russian Federation from the present 89 to 10-12 has not yet addressed the thorny problem of how to apply that process to the North Caucasus. True, there is no agreement yet over how drastic that streamlining process should be. Kemerovo Governor Aman Tuleev has suggested that the optimum number of federation subjects is between 25 and 35 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21, 22, and 25 September 1998).

One indication of how the process might be applied, and which of the present regional governors would retain their clout as heads of enlarged territorial units, is provided by the composition of the new Russian government presidium, which includes eight heads of inter-regional associations, among them Rostov Governor Vladimir Chub representing the North Caucasus. (Liz Fuller)

... And What Role Will Devolve On Chechnya? Any attempt to merge the North Caucasus republics and krais to create a single territorial unit under Moscow's control would, however, inevitably encounter resistance from Chechnya, whose president, Aslan Maskhadov, is again under pressure from a trio of radical field commanders to resign. Chechen Deputy Premier Yusup Soslambekov, however, downplayed the seriousness of that challenge to Maskhadov, which he termed "a temporary alliance." In an interview published in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 30 September, Soslambekov also enlarged on the argument he outlined in an earlier interview with the newspaper that Chechnya and Russia have common interests that they could jointly defend, and that consequently "it is better for Russia to have the Chechen Republic and the Chechens as allies rather than adversaries." Specifically, Soslambekov pointed out that Georgia is pursuing an unequivocally Western-oriented policy that runs counter to the interests of both Russia as a whole and the North Caucasus in particular. He said that "at the present time there are no doubts that in the event of a solution to the Abkhaz problem, NATO military bases will appear on Georgian territory." That, Soslambekov said, "we will not permit," without specifying whether he was speaking in his capacity as a member of the Chechen government or as chairman of the Confederation of Peoples of the Caucasus. But at the same time, he reasoned, the fact that Georgia is intent at resolving the Abkhaz problem at any cost gives Grozny a certain leverage over Tbilisi, which he claimed is "ready to [agree] to any kind of union with Chechnya." (Liz Fuller)

Quote Of The Week "There is no winner in the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict." -- Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, commenting on the planned celebrations in Sukhumi to mark the fifth anniversary of Georgia's retreat from Sukhumi (Caucasus Press, 29 September 1998).