Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Chechnya to Acquire Federal Oil Industry Assets On Its Territory

Ramzan Kadyrov says he will push for the construction, either by Grozneft or other investors, of an oil refinery with an annual capacity of 1 million tons.

Liz Fuller

Russian President Vladimir Putin acceded late last month to a request by Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov to transfer to Chechen ownership the assets of Chechenneftekhimprom, the state-owned company that controls the republic's oil-refining and petrochemical industry infrastructure.

Kadyrov, however, is holding out for more, specifically the construction in his republic of an oil refinery that economists say is not economically viable, and that Kadyrov himself described five months ago as "unrealistic."

Some experts say the transfer of Chechenneftekhimprom to Chechnya is intended to compensate for the inevitable scaling back in 2016 in light of the continuing economic crisis of funding from the federal government. Mikhail Remizov, president of the National Strategy Institute think tank, suggests it shows that "the price of Kadyrov's loyalty to Moscow has risen" in light of the ongoing civil war in Syria and the tensions between Russia and Turkey.

Whether the Chechen population will benefit from the deal is a different question. Chechenneftekhimprom, which is currently owned by the State Property Agency and had been scheduled for privatization by the end of this year, yielded a profit in 2014 of just 44 million rubles ($600,000 at today's exchange rate).

What is more, Putin's decision to hand over Chechenneftekhimprom to the Chechen leadership may have set a precedent he could come to regret. Krasnoyarsk Krai deputy parliament speaker Aleksei Kleshko has publicly advocated that the vast Siberian region follow Kadyrov's example and demand the transfer of federal oil-industry infrastructure to local ownership.

Kadyrov's rationale for asking for Chechenneftekhimprom, as outlined in a letter he sent to Putin on December 3, was that the state oil company Rosneft, which leases Chechenneftekhimprom's facilities and with which Kadyrov has been at odds for years, was not making optimal use of its resources, in particular its land and infrastructure.

The company reportedly owns two oil refineries, oil storage facilities, and workshops for the repair of equipment. It does not engage in oil exploration or extraction, which are the preserve of Grozneftegaz, an affiliate of Rosneft. Grozneftegaz is jointly owned by Rosneft (51 percent) and the Chechen government (49 percent).

Kadyrov explained that the Chechen government wants to use Chechenneftekhimprom land to build a factory to manufacture lithium-ion batteries in line with an agreement signed in December 2014 with a South Korean company, Kokam.

But he subsequently changed tack, saying that if the handover of Chechenneftekhimprom takes place, Grozny will push for the construction, either by Grozneft or other investors, of an oil refinery with an annual capacity of 1 million tons.

Kadyrov has been trying to coerce Rosneft into funding such a refinery for the past eight years, even though it does not make economic sense. According to Igor Yushkov of the National Energy Security Fund think tank, Chechnya would need to produce a minimum of 5 million tons to supply a refinery with that capacity.

In 2014, however, Grozneft produced just 448,080 tons of crude, less than 10 percent of Yushkov's required minimum and 91 percent of the amount produced in 2013.

Chechnya has nonetheless been lobbying for construction of its own oil refinery since early 2008, the year after Putin put Kadyrov in charge of the region. It succeeded in nixing Rosneft's alternative plans for a refinery elsewhere in the North Caucasus, in the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic.

And in November 2009, an agreement that Rosneft would go ahead with building a refinery in Grozny was formally announced at a meeting between Kadyrov and Grozneftegaz director Musa Eskerkhanov.

Rosneft duly dispatched experts to Chechnya in January 2010 to select a site for the refinery, and two weeks later, then-Rosneft head Sergei Bogdanchikov assured Kadyrov that construction would start the following year and be completed in 2013. Kadyrov for his part called for more than doubling oil extraction to exceed 2 million tons.

In April 2011, it was reported that construction would begin by the end of the month, and be finished by October 2013. The cost of the refinery, which Bogdanchikov had said would be equipped with the most modern technology, was estimated at between $400 million and 17 billion rubles ($600 million at the time).

But a year later, Kadyrov complained that Rosneft kept postponing the start of construction for no good reason. It was only in November 2013 that Rosneft launched a tender for drafting a blueprint for construction of a new refinery with an annual capacity of 1 million tons.

Just two months later, however, Igor Sechin, who by then had replaced Bogdanchikov as Rosneft head, commented that given the economic advantages of exporting crude oil, the Grozny refinery was not viable. (At that juncture the price of Urals crude was $106.40 per barrel.)

And by mid-2015, when the ruble had fallen to 55 to the U.S. dollar, the original 17 billion-ruble estimated cost of the new Grozny refinery had risen by approximately 80 percent.

Meanwhile, the Vietnamese state oil company Petro Vietnam is reportedly ready to invest $150 million to $300 million in the Daghestan State Oil and Gas Company established in June 2014 at the behest of Republic of Daghestan head Ramazan Abdulatipov, including construction of a refinery with an annual capacity of 6 million tons. In light of Chechnya's steadily dwindling output, a refinery of that size would call into question the need for a much smaller one in Grozny.

New Threat Emerges To Daghestan's Independent Press

Federal Nationalities Minister Igor Barinov accused the newspapers of seeking to justify the shooting down by Turkey in late November of a Russian warplane.

Liz Fuller

Just days after Federal Nationalities Minister Igor Barinov apologized for branding three respected Daghestani weeklies as coming close to betraying Russia's national interests, a potential new threat has emerged to the publications in question.

One of the three, Chernovik, reported in its December 25 issue that Republic of Daghestan head Ramazan Abdulatipov has tasked one of the law enforcement agencies with compiling a list of media outlets, journalists, and bloggers whose writing qualifies as "subversive" and "supporting extremism."

That development is particularly disturbing insofar as Daghestan is one of the few federation subjects with independent media outlets whose reporters remain uncompromisingly committed to upholding a degree of media freedom absent elsewhere (especially in the North Caucasus), sometimes at the cost of their lives. No fewer than 15 Daghestani journalists, including former Chernovik editor Gadzhimurad Kamalov, have been killed over the past 20 years (although none since Abdulatipov was first named acting republic head three years ago). None of those killings has been solved.

What is more, some observers infer that Abdulatipov was behind Barinov's critical remarks. Addressing the Third Forum of North Caucasus Media in Pyatigorsk on December 10, Barinov claimed that three Daghestani newspapers -- Chernovik, Novoye Delo, and Svobodnaya Respublika -- had positioned themselves in opposition to the Daghestani and possibly even the federal authorities, and "overstepped the mark beyond which...this borders on the betrayal of national interests."

Barinov further said those papers make no distinction between the Russian pilots currently deployed in Syria and "terrorists," and accused them of seeking to justify the shooting down by Turkey in late November of a Russian warplane. He opined that in this situation "the state should use force and its authority" against the papers in question.

Abdulatipov, who was sitting next to Barinov, reportedly expressed approval of Barinov's allegations.

North Caucasus Federal District head Sergei Melikov, however, whose family hails from Daghestan and also attended the forum, immediately took issue with Barinov. Melikov denied the three papers are in any way subversive, and stressed the importance of the role of independent media in reporting on domestic political problems in such a turbulent region as Daghestan.

In a statement to the website the same day, Chernovik editor Mairbek Agayev categorically rejected the accusation of betraying national interests. He said that the three papers are the only sources in Daghestan of an alternative viewpoint, and that his paper's editorial line can be summarized as "don't steal and don't violate the rights of the people."

Agayev further suggested that Barinov had been induced by Abdulatipov to criticize the three papers publicly. Barinov himself acknowledged at the forum that he had just visited that republic and had traveled from there to Pyatigorsk in Abdulatipov's company.

Barinov had reportedly been displeased by the failure of some Daghestani students forced to attend an official function in Makhachkala to rise to their feet when the state hymns of Russia and Daghestan were played. The website suggested that Abdulatipov's aides had told Barinov that the three newspapers were directly responsible for the students' "lack of patriotism."

The day after the forum, the heads of various federal and Daghestani agencies received phone calls from Abdulatipov's office asking them to stop providing the three publications with information.

Novoye Delo editor in chief Gadzhimurad Sagitov similarly commented that Barinov's assessment was in all probability due to his taking at face value the information fed to him by Abdulatipov's entourage, given that anyone who read the paper regularly would know such criticism was groundless.

Novoye Delo wrote to Barinov seeking to clarify the reasons for what it termed "a stab in the back." In an editorial, it asked how long he had been reading the paper, and on the basis of which specific articles he had reached his conclusions.

Barinov has apparently not yet responded to those questions. His office did, however, contact Chernovik to offer apologies.

Like their Chernovik colleagues, the editorial staff of Novoye Delo denied ever taking up a position in opposition to the federal authorities and reaffirmed their readiness for "constructive cooperation" with the Federal Agency for Nationality Affairs that Barinov heads.

The paper then cited largely positive comments on its coverage from 10 republican officials and public figures and Caucasus experts, including journalist Maksim Shevchenko, who thought Barinov had been set up, and physician Magomed Abdulkhabirov, who suggested the three publications should take Barinov to court.

By contrast, Svobodnaya Respublika declined to respond to Barinov's accusations. Its political commentator, Zaur Gaziyev, was quoted by the news portal Caucasus Knot as saying simply that "we don't know" what they were based on.

Whether or not Barinov's criticism of the three newspapers was based on distorted information originating with Abdulatipov's entourage, Abdulatipov has good reason to resent their efforts to provide objective analysis of both political developments and economic affairs. Chernovik reported in detail on the two successive trials of former Makhachkala Mayor Said Amirov on charges of murder and terrorism that the prosecution struggled to substantiate.

More recently, Chernovik has relentlessly chronicled the republican authorities' disastrous handling of measures to renovate the ancient southern town of Derbent in the run-up to the September 2015 celebration of the 2,000th anniversary of its foundation. Moscow provided the lion's share of the funding for those measures, but neither Russian President Vladimir Putin nor Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev traveled to Derbent to take part in the festivities. Their absence was widely construed as a reflection of official displeasure.

Abdulatipov's apparent desire to muzzle such newspapers is understandable if he believes his standing vis-a-vis Putin is being eroded as a result of their reporting. Ironically, Putin himself is on record as having ordered investigators to work more intensively on solving the killings of Daghestani journalists.

In his annual address to the Daghestani parliament in January 2015, Abdulatipov gave the number of slain journalists as 12, adding that 11 of those killings had been solved.


De Facto President Proposes Renaming Republic Of South Ossetia

Leonid Tibilov, the de facto head of South Ossetia (file photo)

Liz Fuller

Two months after announcing plans to hold a referendum on the incorporation of Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia into the Russian Federation, the de facto president of the largely unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, has set a tentative timeframe for doing so. He told journalists on December 28 that the referendum should take place "long before" the presidential ballot due in April 2017.

Tibilov simultaneously proposed renaming the region the Republic of South Ossetia -- Alania, by analogy with the contiguous Republic of North Ossetia -- Alania, which is a Russian Federation subject. The Ossetians, an Indo-European people, consider themselves the direct descendants of the Alans. Approximately 65 percent of North Ossetia's population of 713,000 are Ossetians.

Changing the region's name, Tibilov argued, would underscore the predicament of an ethnic group divided between two polities, and thus pave the way for the eventual unification of the two Ossetian states within the Russian Federation, which Russian media quoted him as referring to as "the eternal dream of our entire people." 

Tibilov said he plans to task legal specialists with drafting the requisite changes to the republic's constitution, which currently describes South Ossetia as "a sovereign,democratic, law-based state formed as a result of the self-determination of the people of South Ossetia." 

Tibilov specifically referred to Article 10 of the constitution, which envisages South Ossetia entering into an alliance with other states and relinquishing part of its sovereignty.

Tibilov implied that his initiative to change the region's formal name was prompted at least in part by indignation at the recent formal opening in Magas, the capital of Ingushetia (North Ossetia's eastern neighbor) of a construction named "the Alan Gates." He construed the use of that name as a bid by the Ingush to appropriate part of the Ossetians' ethnic heritage. 

Relations between Ingushetia and North Ossetia remain strained as a result of their brief but bloody conflict in 1992 over Ingushetia's territorial claims on North Ossetia's Prigorodny Raion, which had been part of the Checheno-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic until that republic was abolished following the deportation of both Chechens and Ingush to Central Asia in 1944.

Moscow's Reticence

At first glance, Tibilov's intention to schedule a referendum on eventual unification with North Ossetia is difficult to reconcile with the emphasis he consistently places on strengthening South Ossetian statehood. To that end, he recently decreed the long-anticipated establishment of a Constitutional Court. 

On the other hand, if Tibilov intends to run for a second presidential term in April 2017, holding the referendum on unification will take the wind out of the sails of his most serious potential challenger, parliament speaker Anatoly Bibilov. 

Bibilov called two years ago for a referendum on unification with North Ossetia, but Moscow, which had recognized South Ossetia as an independent state in the aftermath of the August 2008 war with Georgia, declined to support the idea. Indeed, when Tibilov raised the issue two months ago during a visit to Tskhinvali by Russian presidential administration official Vladislav Surkov, President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov swiftly denied that a referendum on unification figured on the agenda of their talks. 

There has been no comment on Tibilov's most recent statements either from Moscow or from North Ossetia, whose new head, Tamerlan Aguzarov, visited Tskhinvali to meet with Tibilov even before he was formally confirmed in office. 

Just days before Tibilov proposed adding "Alania" to his republic's name, however, the Regnum news agency cited comments by a politician and a political commentator from North Ossetia, both of whom were less than enthusiastic at the prospect of South Ossetia becoming part of Russia. 

Georgy Zozrov, who heads the North Ossetian chapter of Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, opined that the proposed referendum should not take place for another 15-20 years. 

Political commentator Vladimir Kaloyev for his part argued that, while South Ossetia has the right to hold such a referendum, its results would not be binding for Russia.

Georgia's Ruling Party Selects New Prime Minister

Giorgi Kvirikashvili (right) is set to replace Irakli Garibashvili (left) as the country's prime minister. (file photo)

Liz Fuller

Zviad Kvachantiradze, who heads the Georgian parliament's majority Georgian Dream (GD) faction, announced at a meeting of faction members on December 25 that agreement was reached during talks the previous day on nominating current Foreign Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili as the country's new prime minister.Irakli Garibashvili announced his resignation from that post late on December 23 without specifying his reasons for doing so. 

In line with the Georgian constitution, President Giorgi Margvelashvili must ask the parliament to approve Kvirikashvili's candidacy, for which a minimum of 75 votes is necessary. The various parties aligned in the GD coalition control 87 seats.

Kvirikashvili, Garibashvili, and parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili arrived together for the faction meeting on December 25 and were met with a round of applause. 

Kvirikashvili, 48, was named foreign minister on September 1 despite his lack of any relevant experience. He holds degrees in medicine and economics and has spent most of his career in finance and banking. He was elected to parliament in 1999 on the ticket of the opposition New Rightists party, then from 2006 to 2011 he served as general director of billionaire philanthropist Bidzina Ivanishvili's Cartu Bank. Following the victory of Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition in the October 2012 parliamentary elections, Kvirikashvili was named economy minister. 

Asked by journalists to explain the choice of Kvirikashvili as Garibashvili's successor, senior GD law-maker Gia Volsky replied "he is a member of the Georgian Dream political family and has good data." 

Those opposition politicians, primarily but not exclusively from the former ruling United National Movement (ENM), who long regarded Garibashvili as little more than a puppet in Ivanishvili's hands, are likely to construe the choice of a former close Ivanishvili associate for prime minister as corroborating that conviction. 

According to speaker Usupashvili, the parliament will consider the composition of the new cabinet on December 28-29. Kvirikashvili said today there will be "no significant, dramatic changes." Finance Minister Nodar Khaduri, Health Minister David Sergienko, and Minister for Reconciliation and Civic Equality Paata Zakareishvili are reportedly at risk of losing their posts. 

Insofar as GD's failure to deliver on its pre-election promises to speed up economic growth and reduce unemployment is one of the main factors behind its loss of popular support over the past year, the choice of a competent economist to head the government is logical. Whether Kvirikashvili can deliver the hoped-for economic upswing in time to reverse that trend in the run-up to the parliamentary elections due in October remains to be seen, however.

Speaking at a press conference on December 23, just hours before Garibashvili announced his resignation, ENM parliamentarian Zurab Chiaberashvili said the current government "has no vision of how to improve the economy." Chiaberashvili specifically called for the abolition of the profit tax in order to lighten the burden on business and help create new jobs. 

A second ENM law-maker, Giorgi Gabashvili, opined that Garibashvili's resignation shows the current leadership is aware "what a catastrophe the country is facing." At the same time, he predicted that "nothing will change until Ivanishvili distances himself" from the workings of the government. 




Did Georgia's 'Informal Leader' Pressure Prime Minister To Resign?

One former official says no one believes the "fairy tale" that Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili resigned of his own volition.

Liz Fuller

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, 33, announced his resignation on December 23, without revealing his motives for doing so.

Commentators have suggested a variety of explanations, focusing primarily on the precipitous decline in value of the national currency over the past 13 months, the similarly steep decline in popular support for the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) coalition, and Garibashvili's tense and difficult relations with President Giorgi Margvelashvili.

Opposition politicians, however, are convinced that Garibashvili was coerced to step down by his predecessor, billionaire philanthropist and GD founder Bidzina Ivanishvili. Ivanishvili served as prime minister for just over a year after the October 2012 parliamentary elections, stepping down in November 2013, but many Georgians believe he continues to call the shots from behind the scenes.

David Darchiashvili of the former ruling United National Movement (ENM) commented that Garibashvili's resignation is further evidence that "the country has an informal leader."

Former parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze, who heads the extra-parliamentary democratic Movement-United Georgia, said no one believes the "fairy tale" that Garibashvili resigned of his own volition.

Certainly circumstantial evidence suggests that Garibashvili's decision may have been spontaneous. Just two days earlier he delivered a report on GD's achievements during its three years in office, noting in particular reforms of the Interior Ministry (which he headed from October 2012 to November 2013) and the prosecutor's office, and strengthening the independence of the judiciary. He pledged that "we shall work without respite to become the kind of government that our people deserves."

When rumors of Garibashvili's impending resignation surfaced earlier on December 23, his office denied them. Giorgi Volsky, deputy head of the GD parliament faction, admitted that "the issue is being discussed," adding, however, that "it's not the case to say it's a done deal."

Garibashvili's live TV announcement of his resignation was originally scheduled for 6 p.m. local time, but then postponed for two hours, suggesting either uncertainty on his part or possibly resistance to pressure. In his five-minute address, he said that during his tenure as prime minister, "peace and stability, legality and humaneness were established.... We gave back freedom and dignity to our citizens. Due to the large scale reforms and unprecedented governmental programs implemented by us, we laid a firm foundation for economic and social welfare."

He also recalled the signing in 2014 of an Association Agreement with the European Union and the European Commission's announcement last week that Georgia has fulfilled all the requirements for visa-free travel to most EU member states.

Possibly with a view to quashing speculation that he had been pressured to quit, Garibashvili affirmed that everything he has done in his life has been an expression of free will. He said Ivanishvili had set an example by choosing the most appropriate moment to resign. Stressing that it had been an honor to serve as prime minister, Garibashvili pledged to remain "a faithful soldier of the motherland."

As indicated above, GD's track record was somewhat less stellar than Garibashvili portrayed it, in particular with regard to the economy. GDP growth for the first 10 months of the year was just 2.8 percent, precisely half the figure for 2014 and in stark contrast to the government's projected 5 percent growth rate for 2015 as a whole. The national currency, the lari, lost 37.7 percent of its value vis-a-vis the U.S. dollar between September 2014 and September 2015.

 GD's failings, according to former Defense Minister Irakli Alasania, whose Free Democrats are now in opposition to the government, are primarily the result of appointing to leading posts persons without the intelligence and imagination to implement the coalition's preelection promises, such as stimulating economic growth and reducing unemployment.

That failure, Alasania argued, is the primary reason why much of the population has lost faith in GD, and in politicians in general. He predicted that "people will no longer vote lightly for anyone."

Georgian Development Fund executive director Vano Mzhavanadze similarly referred to GD's "profound lack of popular support" and said it urgently needed to improve its public image by implementing change.

Following the announcement of Garibashvili's resignation, parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili publicly explained that the constitution requires that the parliament majority name its new prime minister within seven days, which it will probably do on December 25. The president formally requests the full parliament to approve him.

GD parliament faction head Zviad Kvachantiradze was quoted on December 24 as identifying four possible candidates to succeed Garibashvili. They are Foreign Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili, who served from 2006-2012 as director-general of Ivanishvili's Cartu Bank; Economy Minister Dimitry Kumsishvili, a former Cartu Bank deputy general director; Minister of Health David Sergeenko, also a close associate of Ivanishvili; and Mamuka Bakhtadze, CEO of Georgian Railways.

Whoever is chosen will, however, be only a caretaker prime minister, given that parliamentary elections are due in October 2016. A recent opinion poll conducted by the U.S. National Democratic Institute suggests that the outcome of that ballot is wide open: just 18 percent of respondents said they would vote for GD if elections were held tomorrow; 12 percent named the ENM and 7 percent Alasania's Free Democrats.

Philosopher Zaza Piralishvili has predicted that GD and ENM will "very probably" not be the main two forces contesting the ballot.

Georgian Electoral Amendment Clears Early Hurdle, But Vote Concerns Persist

Georgia's parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili has admitted that his Republican Party reluctantly supported aspects of Georgian Dream's electoral reform plan in order to prevent the ruling coalition from collapsing.

Liz Fuller

As Georgia braces for an election year, its parliament has taken an early step toward remedying a perceived imbalance in political districting, but concerns about the fairness of the vote are likely to persist.

Ten months ahead of scheduled parliamentary elections, lawmakers began the process of amending the election law in line with the demands of international election monitors and the country's Constitutional Court.

Meanwhile, signs are emerging of tensions not only among the country's most senior politicians but also among the five parties aligned in the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) coalition, whose popularity has reportedly plummeted to around 15 percent.

On December 11, lawmakers passed in the first reading by a vote of 82 to eight an amendment to the Electoral Code intended to reduce existing size discrepancies among the country's 73 single-mandate constituencies. (The remaining 77 parliamentarians are elected under the proportional system.)

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) had repeatedly criticized those discrepancies as undermining the principle of equality of the vote, and in May, Georgia's Constitutional Court ruled that the boundaries between electoral districts should be changed to minimize that lack of equality and ensure that the number of voters in individual constituencies does not vary by more than 10-15 percent. 

The amendment envisages changes to the boundaries of 60 constituencies. Tbilisi, where almost one-third of the country's estimated 3.48 million voters live, will be redivided into 18 constituencies in place of the current 10. 

However, in 14 constituencies across the country, voter numbers still fail to meet the optimum percentage requirement, although constitutional expert Vakhtang Khmaladze noted that the electoral boundaries may undergo further changes during the second reading of the bill. 

Opposition parliamentarians nonetheless remain convinced that the changes will not guarantee a level playing field for the parliamentary ballot due in the fall of 2016 and are geared primarily to ensuring that the ruling GD coalition preserves its parliamentary majority.

Akaki Bobokhidze of the former ruling United National Movement (ENM) criticized the proposed redistricting as "illogical" and potentially damaging, insofar as in some cases two or more tiny electoral districts with little in common have been merged to create one larger one. Zurab Abashidze (Free Democrats) described the changes as "illogical" and "a step backwards." 

Call For Dialogue

Both parliamentary and extraparliamentary opposition parties have been campaigning for the past year for the total abolition of the majoritarian component -- a move favored also by President Giorgi Margvelashvili -- prior to the 2016 election, and its replacement with a regional-proportional system. GD argues that it is not possible to introduce the regional proportional-system in the time remaining but that it will be done before the 2020 parliamentary ballot. 

In late September, the extraparliamentary New Rightists, Liberty, Free Georgia, the Reformers, the Civic Union for Liberty, the European Democrats, the Union of Traditionalists, the United Democratic Movement, the Political Movement of Veterans and Patriots, and the National-Democratic, Labor and Christian-Democratic parties -- but not the ENM -- began collecting signatures in support of their demand that the 2016 elections be held under the regional-proportional system. 

They submitted more than 240,000 signatures (200,000 are required) to parliament on November 10. Two days later, the leaders of the 12 parties released a joint statement calling on GD to embark on a dialogue on all "problematic" aspects of the existing electoral system, including also the composition of electoral commissions, access to free airtime, and measures to preclude the use of "administrative resources" by the ruling coalition to ensure its candidates win. 

As several political commentators had predicted, GD ignored that call for dialogue. It did nonetheless solicit opposition proposals concerning a second planned amendment that would raise from 25 to 50 percent the proportion of votes required for victory in single-mandate constituencies. No such proposals have yet been made, parliament deputy speaker Zviad Dzidziguri (GD-Conservative Party) said last week. 

Former parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze, whose Democratic Movement-United Georgia party is not represented in the current parliament, has construed the proposed changes as an attempt by GD to mold the electoral system to its own advantage with the aim of clinging to power. 

Plummeting Popularity

But that argument is at odds with the most recent opinion poll conducted by the U.S. National Democratic Institute, according to which GD's support had plummeted by 10 percent between April and late August/early September, and stood at 14 percent.

If that figure is an accurate reflection of voter preferences, why then should GD court humiliation by raising the threshold for victory in single-mandate constituencies to 50 percent? Abashidze too expressed doubt that GD, or any other party, would garner half of the vote.

Similarly open to question is whether, as some opposition politicians assume, GD will indeed contest the 2016 ballot in its current composition, in light of the disagreements between its five members, in particular distrust of the Republican Party, which is the second-largest faction within GD with 10 lawmakers.

The Republicans had unequivocally backed switching from the present majoritarian-proportional to a regional-proportional electoral system, but as the party's former chairman, parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili, admitted in late September that, in order to prevent the coalition collapsing, they reluctantly supported GD's insistence on retaining the majoritarian component until after the 2016 ballot. 

Speaking at a Republican Party conference last week, parliamentarian Ivliane Khaindrava recalled speculation in the run-up to two by-elections on October 30 that some GD members were hoping that opposition Alliance of Patriots of Georgia candidate Irma Inashvili would defeat Republican Tamar Khidasheli and thus create a pretext for sidelining the Republicans within the coalition. 

The Alliance of Patriots was formed in December 2012, and within months then-Prime Minister and Georgian Dream founder Bidzina Ivanishvili was referring to it as a potential "third force" in Georgian politics, alongside GD and the ENM. It placed fourth in the local elections of June 2014. 

In the NDI opinion poll referred to above, just 5 percent of respondents said they would vote for the Alliance of Patriots if elections were held the next day, compared with 15 percent for the ENM, 14 percent for GD, and 31 percent undecided.

Belligerent Rhetoric

The perception that the Alliance of Patriots might prove a more congenial coalition partner for other GD members than the Republicans is difficult to reconcile with its demands for electoral reform and the belligerent rhetoric of some of its members. One of the alliance's leaders, Davit Tarkhan-Mouravi, was quoted in late November as warning that "If they want a fight, they'll get a fight, just like under [former President Mikheil] Saakashvili.... We won't let anyone usurp power." 

Addressing the Republican Party conference last week, Usupashvili sought to downplay the differences of opinion among GD's constituent members. He pointed out that "the coalition is composed of parties and of thousands of party members and activists, who naturally do not all hold the same opinions. Coalitions are formed not only on the basis of unity of ideas and visions, but also on the basis of tolerating each other. If we can't tolerate each other, we shall not be able to accomplish anything. I cannot recall any alliance or electoral bloc, any round or square table, with healthier relationships than exist in this coalition. The coalition has established an unexampled precedent of unity in this country."

He added, however, "[P]lease do not demand that [coalition members] should all love each other so dearly that they cannot envisage even breaking bread in each other's absence." 

At the same time, Usupashvili declined to either affirm unequivocally that the Republicans will remain part of the coalition until next year's election or say what conditions the party might set for doing so. 

One opposition politician who hopes to capitalize on the electorate's disillusion with GD is former Defense Minister and Free Democrats leader Irakli Alasania. In an extensive interview last week with InterPressNews, he attributed that disillusion to the incoming government's incompetence and inability to deliver on GD's campaign promises.

He said his party has launched a series of meetings with the population at large, and appeared confident that he could muster enough support to defeat GD at the polls.

Alasania said there is no political force with which he considers it possible to form an electoral alliance, but he did not rule out joining a coalition government. He did not, however, name possible coalition partners.

Georgian Parliamentarians Questioned In 'Pardons for Bribes' Investigation

Former State Pardons Commission chairman Aleksandre Elisashvili has caused a storm in Georgia after alleging that some parliamentary deputies took bribes to try and influence the early release of some prisoners.

Liz Fuller

With popular support for Georgia's ruling Georgian Dream (GD) coalition at an all-time low, two members of its parliament faction, first deputy parliament speaker Manana Kobakhidze and Human Rights Commission chair Eka Beselia , were summoned to the Chief Prosecutor's Office for questioning on December 14 in connection with damaging allegations made one week earlier by Aleksandre (Aleko) Elisashvili , who served as State Pardons Commission chairman from November 2013 until midsummer 2014.
That nine-person Pardons Commission makes recommendations to the country's president, who then takes the final decision whether or not a given prisoner merits clemency.
Elisashvili had publicly stated that during his tenure as its chairman, senior parliamentarians accepted bribes to use their influence with the commission to obtain the pre-term release of specific prisoners. 
Elisashvili, who is currently an independent member of the Tbilisi Municipal Council, told journalists on December 9 after himself being questioned by the chief prosecutor that, 18 months ago, he informed several top officials -- President Giorgi Margvelashvili; parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili; Usupashvili's wife, then GD lawmaker Tina Khidasheli; Giorgi Badashvili, then chief prosecutor; and Badashvili's deputy, Giorgi Gogadze -- that senior politicians from the GD ruling coalition had accepted a $200,000 bribe to intercede with members of the Pardons Commission on behalf of specific prisoners, and a further $500,000 after the prisoners in question were pardoned.
Elisashvili said an investigation should be launched to determine why Badashvili and Gogadze failed to take action earlier on the information he provided. Gogadze, however, has denied that when he met with Elisashvili the latter made any such concrete accusations. 
Elisashvili also said the president, the presidential administration head, the parliament speaker, Khidasheli, and the politicians he incriminated should be summoned for questioning. 
Elisashvili's successor as Pardons Commission chairman, Zviad Koridze, was questioned by the prosecutor's office on December 9 and 11. He told journalists that he too had informed the prosecutor of the identity of politicians and other public figures who "demonstrated an unhealthy interest" in securing pardons for individual prisoners. 
Koridze denied, however, that any pressure has been exerted on him personally. 
Elisashvili did not publicly identify the politicians he incriminated. At least two names were leaked to the media, however: those of Kobakhidze and Beselia. The two are said to have sought persistently to obtain a pardon for Anastasiya Zautashvili, one of a group of five people convicted in 2010 of large-scale cocaine trafficking, and for whom Kobakhidze acted as defense lawyer.
Those five prisoners remain in jail, having failed to meet the criteria for pardon, which suggests they were not the people on whose behalf Elisashvili claims the $700,000 changed hands. Elisashvili declined either to confirm or deny that he was talking about the cocaine-trafficking case.

'Political Adventurism'
On December 15, Zautashvili informed journalists by phone from the facility where she is serving her sentence that she never paid any sum to anyone. She dismissed Elisashvili's and Koridze's allegations as "a fairy-tale." 
Kobakhidze said on December 14 that she remains convinced the five were wrongly convicted. She admitted having asked the Pardons Commission chairman "not to shelve their pardon application," but denied resorting to pressure or threats. 
Beselia publicly accused Elisashvili of lying and demanded he be held criminally responsible for giving false testimony. 
Elisashvili responded by asking rhetorically how Beselia knows precisely what he told the chief prosecutor. 
Both Beselia and Kobakhidze described the allegations of influence peddling as "political adventurism" and "a dirty campaign" in the run-up to the parliamentary elections due in the fall of 2016. But Georgian analysts interviewed by the news site Caucasian Knot expressed doubt that the former ruling United National Movement (ENM), which was forced from power by GD in 2012, was behind them. 
Independent Experts' Club chairman Soso Tsiskarishvili commented that the ENM may well bear a grudge against Kobakhidze and Beselia in light of their role in securing in late 2012 an amnesty for 8,000 people jailed while the ENM was in power, including some 200 political prisoners. At the same time, he pointed out that neither Elisashvili nor Koridze is an ENM member, although he conceded they might have been fed rumors or disinformation that originated in an ENM office. Elisashvili said he went public with his allegations because the debate earlier this month over whether the Georgian Patriarch should also be empowered to pardon prisoners kindled hopes among some GD politicians that he too might prove amenable to pressure. He did not name the politicians in question.
Since Eliashvili's initial statement, up to 20 people have been formally questioned, Chief Prosecutor Irakli Shotadze, who succeeded Badashvili last month, told journalists on December 14. He said "detailed information" will be made available once the ongoing investigation is complete. 

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.