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Caucasus Report: July 29, 2005

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29 July 2005, Volume  8, Number  25

IS GEORGIA GEARING UP FOR ARMED INTERVENTION IN SOUTH OSSETIA? The authorities of the unrecognized breakaway Republic of South Ossetia have rejected three times, most recently earlier this month, successive offers by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to grant the region "the broadest autonomy" within a unitary Georgian state. On 25 and 26 July, Georgian officials accused South Ossetians acting under orders from Russian military intelligence of staging a car bombing in central Georgia in February that killed three people, and they alleged that the same group of saboteurs has missiles capable of shooting down aircraft. Could those allegations herald an imminent military operation to bring South Ossetia back under Tbilisi's control?

Taking the oath of office in January 2004, Saakashvili pledged to restore Georgia's territorial integrity by bringing its three former autonomies back under the control of the central government.

Saakashvili succeeded within months in triggering the ouster of Aslan Abashidze, the authoritarian leader of the Republic of Adjara (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 11 May 2004). Following last August's spectacular failure to repeat that scenario on the first attempt in the South Ossetia, Saakashvili unveiled in his 21 September 2004 address to the UN General Assembly a plan for resolving peacefully Tbilisi's decade-old conflicts with South Ossetia and Abkhazia by offering the two regions "the broadest conceivable autonomy" within a unitary Georgian state. But the leaders of both unrecognized republics rejected that offer out of hand (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 24 September 2004).

Saakashvili repeated that offer on two subsequent occasions. In a speech to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in January he again offered "the broadest autonomy" to both South Ossetia and Abkhazia (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 28 January 2005). Saakashvili stressed that under the model he proposed, South Ossetia would enjoy a greater degree of autonomy within Georgia than does its neighbor, the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania, within the Russian Federation.

Saakashvili explained in his address to PACE that Tbilisi's proposal comprises "a constitutional guarantee of autonomy, that includes the right to freely and directly elected local self-governance -- including an executive branch and a parliament for South Ossetia. South Ossetia's parliament will...control...issues such as culture, education, social policy, economic policy, public order, the organization of local self-governance and environmental protection." South Ossetia would also, Saakashvili said, have representatives in the national government, parliament, and judiciary. He further said Tbilisi is ready to discuss with the South Ossetian leadership "innovative ideas" including free economic zones, and to permit that leadership to tailor its economic policies to local needs.

Saakashvili proposed a three-year transition period during which a mixed Georgian-Ossetian police force would be set up under the guidance of international organizations, and the South Ossetian army would be absorbed into the Georgian armed forces. He appealed to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Council of Europe, the EU, the United States, and Russia to support and facilitate the peace process.

But South Ossetia's President Eduard Kokoity again rejected Saakashvili's offer, arguing that South Ossetia is an independent state, if not recognized as such. When Saakashvili convened an international conference in Batumi earlier this month to discuss his South Ossetian peace initiative, both South Ossetia and Russia, which commands the three-nation peacekeeping force deployed in the South Ossetian conflict zone since 1992, failed to send representatives. (Kokoity's personal representative Vazha Khachapuridze was quoted by the Georgian newspaper "Rezonansi" on 15 July as saying Kokoity has his own proposals for ending the conflict. Those proposals have not yet been made public, however, although Kokoity may have discussed them with Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh during their talks in Gagra on 26 July.)

Addressing the Batumi conference on 10 July, Saakashvili said he is prepared to have South Ossetia's autonomous status formally written into the Georgian Constitution. He also offered South Ossetia 15 minutes of airtime on Georgian public television and radio, and to pay pension arrears that have accrued since the conflict was effectively frozen in 1992, rustavi2.com reported. International participants at the Batumi conference lauded Saakashvili's offer, as did OSCE Chairman In Office Dmitrij Rupel, according to Caucasus Press on 14 July. But that international endorsement may have been prompted at least in part by relief that Saakashvili had stopped trying to portray the standoff over South Ossetia as one between Georgia and Moscow, and thus play the international community off against Moscow in his favor.

Moreover, the very term "autonomy" is so totally discredited across the former Soviet Union that any conflict-settlement proposal based on it is bound to be rejected, as Akhmed Zakaev, European envoy of slain Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, pointed out in an analysis posted on chechenpress.com in August 2004. Zakaev noted that within the Soviet Union, the so-called autonomous republics and oblasts, including the Chechen-Ingush ASSR (and the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast), provided minimal concessions to the specific needs of the titular nationality or ignored those needs totally, a policy that instilled in the Chechens and Georgia's Ossetians the impression that they were "second-class citizens."

Nor are residents of South Ossetia unlikely to have been swayed by Saakashvili's pledge to formalize the region's autonomy within the Georgian Constitution. Many of them will remember how the Georgian parliament in late 1990 abolished with one stroke of the pen South Ossetia's status as an autonomous oblast within Georgia, in direct violation of a pre-election pledge by then Georgian leader Zviad Gamsakhurdia.

In addition, South Ossetian leaders have on several recent occasions expressed concern at the measures taken by Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili since his appointment to that post late last year to strengthen the Georgian armed forces (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 22 July 2005). Okruashvili was born in Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, and as interior minister played a prominent role in the abortive assault on South Ossetia in August (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 and 27 August 2004). He has consistently taken a more hawkish stance on South Ossetia than has Saakashvili.

Tensions in the South Ossetian conflict zone have worsened in the past two months as the result of the shooting by Georgian police of several alleged Ossetian criminals and the abduction in retaliation of four Georgians in early June. Those events have fuelled the perception, both among outside observers and within the Georgian Army, that Tbilisi will launch a new military offensive once it is convinced that the South Ossetian leadership has rejected all possibilities for resolving the conflict peacefully. Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili's allegations on 25 July that Ossetians perpetrated a series of terrorist atrocities in Georgia, and on 26 July that they have weaponry capable of downing civilian aircraft, could be intended to provide the rationale for such an operation. (Liz Fuller)


YES VS. YESTERDAY'S MEN? As in 2000 and 2003, Azerbaijan's various opposition forces appear reluctant, if not unable, to close ranks in a single bloc to participate in the 6 November parliamentary elections. Both the "traditional" opposition parties and the more recent "liberal" forces have made their insistence that the election process and vote be free and fair a key tenet of their respective election platforms.

In the run-up to the 1998 Azerbaijani presidential election, five of the country's most respected opposition leaders demonstrated their anger at the authorities' refusal to create equal conditions for all candidates by collectively refusing to compete. But in two subsequent national elections (parliamentary in 2000 and presidential in 2003), the opposition proved unable to align in a single bloc, or behind a single candidate. And observers are predicting that up to 20 candidates might register to contest each of the 125 seats in the new parliament to be elected on 6 November.

The formal process of registering parties and blocs, and the individual candidates they will field, is still under way and ends only on 7 September. But it already seems probable that the number of blocs and parties will exceed that registered in 2000, when then President Heidar Aliyev intervened just weeks before the ballot to overturn the initial refusal by the Central Election Commission (MSK) to register eight of the 13 parties that hoped to participate (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 13 October 2000).

To date, the MSK has registered five blocs, according to its website (http://www.cec.gov.az) and day.az on 28 July. They are the pro-government Islahat; the Azadlyg and Yeni Siyaset (aka YeS) opposition blocs; Democratic Azerbaijan; For the Sake of Azerbaijan; and the Alliance for the Flourishing of Azerbaijan, comprising the eponymous party and the Rebirth party. The MSK rejected on 24 July the initial registration application submitted by the bloc Pro-Azerbaijani Forces due to a minor infringement, echo-az.com reported on 26 July. Further opposition blocs seeking registration are Public Leaders; Alliance in the Name of Azerbaijan; Building a Civic Society; National Unity; and the Union for Democratic Reforms.

Several opposition parties and blocs have affirmed their hypothetical readiness to expand to include new members and/or have concluded agreements among themselves to coordinate the nomination of candidates to ensure they do not end up competing against each other in individual constituencies. For example, Liberal Party leader Avez Temirkhan dropped his plans to contest one Baku constituency in favor of Eldar Namazov of YeS, day.az reported on 27 July.

But on the other hand, Azadlyg rejected the overtures of Umid party Chairman Igbal Agazade, for reasons that the latter declined to disclose, according to day.az on 8 July. Two former leading members of one party have registered from the same constituency: Etibar Mamedov, former chairman of the Azerbaijan National Independence Party and now a member of YeS, and his former Deputy Chairman Nazim Imanov will compete against each other in Baku's Yasamal Raion, day.az and echo-az.com reported on 11 and 13 July, respectively. And YeS plans to register former President Ayaz Mutalibov to contest Constituency No. 17 in Baku, where National Unity leader Lala-Shovket Gadjieva, who quit YeS due to a disagreement over election tactics, also plans to register, according to day.az on 23 July. (Those plans may fall flat, however, if the Azerbaijani authorities refuse to permit Mutalibov to return to Baku from his 13-year exile in Moscow.)

A further factor that militates against greater cooperation and coordination among opposition forces, according to Namazov, is widespread mutual suspicion. The Azerbaijani media have for months, if not years, engaged in unsubstantiated rumors and speculation about possible clandestine deals being cut between opposition forces and "oligarchs" from within the ruling elite. Such speculation means, Namazov told day.az on 28 June, that "there is no clear-cut mechanism for determining whether you are dealing with a real oppositionist or a politician who is playing at being part of the opposition."

The anticipated fierce competition between rival parties and blocs is all the more difficult to explain in light of the absence of any fundamental policy differences among the opposition parties. True, the opposition can be broadly divided, as the independent daily zerkalo.az noted on 28 June, into the "traditional" opposition parties (of which the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party [AHCP], Musavat, the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, and the Azerbaijan National Independence Party are the most prominent) and the new "liberal" parties and blocs, including YeS and the Party of Democratic Reforms recently founded by Assim Mollazade, a former leading AHCP member. Some observers consider the "traditional" opposition, especially the three parties aligned in Azadlyg, discredited as a result of the humiliating defeat of their candidate, Musavat party Chairman Isa Qambar, in the 2003 presidential ballot, and the "liberals" apparently hope to capitalize on that perception.

But even so, as in 2000 and 2003, the overriding issue is the demand by all opposition parties that this time around the ballot be free, fair, democratic, and transparent, and the authorities should not be permitted to retain power by resorting to what Gerard Stoudmann, then director of the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, referred to in the wake of the November 2000 parliamentary ballot as "a crash course in manipulation" of the outcome. Demands for free and fair elections have figured prominently at all opposition demonstrations so far this summer and have largely overshadowed other issues such as approaches to democratization, economic and social policy, Azerbaijan's foreign-policy orientation, and how to resolve the Karabakh conflict. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Paula Dobriansky touched on that ideological vacuum during a speech in Baku on 27 July, stressing that "all political parties carry responsibility to participate fully in the election process through nonviolent campaigns that explain issue-specific messages and platforms to voters. The people of Azerbaijan must have real choices," Turan reported. (Liz Fuller)


ARMENIAN OPPOSITIONIST STILL UPBEAT ON NEW PRO-WESTERN ALLIANCE. Several Armenian opposition parties increasingly oriented to the West are still planning to form an alliance by the end of next month, one of their leaders claimed on 25 July. Hovannes Hovannisian, a former senior member of the Armenian parliament, said his Liberal Progressive Party (AAK) and other opposition groups will join forces with the aim of sparking a "revolution" in Armenia. "At the end of August there will be formed a grouping or alliance of political forces that will have clear-cut views on the challenges facing the country," he told RFE/RL.

Hovannisian refused to name any of the parties other than the AAK, saying that negotiations between them remain confidential. The new bloc, if it is formed, will presumably include Armenia's most radical opposition party, Hanrapetutiun. Another potential participant is the Zharangutiun (Heritage) party of former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian (no relation to Hovannes). Talks between the three parties began late last year, and Hovannes Hovannisian claimed at the time that they would end in agreement by the end of January. But they subsequently stalled for unknown reasons (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 17 December 2004 and 17 February 2005).

Hanrapetutiun, which is headed by former Prime Minister Aram Sargsian, is already an important member of Armenia's largest current opposition alliance, Artarutiun (Justice). Sargsian and his associates have grown disaffected with Artarutiun's perceived "indecision" in the opposition's stand-off with the government.

Relations between Hanrapetutiun and the eight other parties aligned in the bloc have further deteriorated this month due to their differing positions on constitutional reform planned by the Armenian authorities and supported by the Council of Europe. Artarutiun says it will endorse the reform if the authorities put more significant amendments to a referendum expected this November.

Hanrapetutiun, on the other hand, refuses to cooperate with President Robert Kocharian in any case. Sargsian has said his party will leave Artarutiun if the latter chooses to support Kocharian's constitutional amendments. The bloc's governing board is expected to meet and formulate its final stance on the issue on 18 August.

Hovannisian endorsed the Hanrapetutiun leaders' arguments that "cosmetic" constitutional changes will not make Armenia's political system more democratic. "Armenia needs a serious shake-up, a real revolution," he said. (Ruzanna Khachatrian)


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