Daghestan: Resettlement Of Laks Behind Schedule
On December 24, the Daghestan government's commission on rehabilitation and resettlement convened to review the progress to date in implementing a 1992 Russian government directive on reversing the forced resettlement in 1944 of thousands of Laks from villages in mountainous central Daghestan to a raion that at the time was part of the Checheno-Ingush ASSR, but was subsequently subsumed into Daghestan.
The entire Chechen and Ingush population was deported to Central Asia in February 1944 on orders from Soviet leader Joseph Stalin on suspicion of collaborating with advancing German forces. They were exonerated in 1956 of the charges of collaboration and allowed to return to their homes, since when Laks and Chechens have cohabited uneasily to what is now known as Novolak Raion.
On December 24, the Daghestan government's commission on rehabilitation and resettlement convened to review the progress to date in implementing a 1992 Russian government directive on reversing the forced resettlement in 1944 of thousands of Laks from villages in mountainous central Daghestan to a raion that at the time was part of the Checheno-Ingush ASSR, but was subsequently subsumed into Daghestan. The entire Chechen and Ingush population was deported to Central Asia in February 1944 on orders from Soviet leader Joseph Stalin on suspicion of collaborating with advancing German forces. They were exonerated in 1956 of the charges of collaboration and allowed to return to their homes, since when Laks and Chechens have cohabited uneasily to what is now known as Novolak Raion.
At the time of the 2002 Russian census, the Laks were Daghestan's fifth largest ethnic group, numbering 139,732, or 5.4 percent of the republic's total population; the planned resettlement was to encompass some 13,000 of them living in nine villages in Novolak Raion. Reviewing the situation in late 2005, the Russian State Duma's Commission for North Caucasus Problems ascertained that only some 2,100 Laks had indeed left Novolak Raion, partly because of delays in the construction of new homes for them (the plan envisages building nine separate villages to replace the villages they are to leave, together with highways, water, gas, and electricity supplies and related infrastructure), and partly because the area to which the Laks were to be resettled is not suitable for agricultural purposes (in contrast to Novolak Raion), and there is no alternative employment. Over the past two years, only 400 more Laks have moved, according to kavkaz-uzel.ru.
Deputy Prime Minister Rizvan Gazimagomedov, who heads the Daghestan government commission, told the December 24 session that a list has been compiled of a further 558 families, and that he envisages the resettlement being completed over the next four years. But in early 2006, Daghestan Supreme Council speaker Mukhu Aliyev, who was elected president in late February of that year, warned that "populists" could trigger " violence" if the resettlement was not completed within two years. The latent potential for interethnic clashes was underscored in May 2007, when according to the Russian daily "Kommersant," police were called in to disperse a mass brawl in the town of Khasavyurt between young Chechen and Lak men. Khasavyurt is the administrative center of the eponymous raion that borders on Novolak Raion.
Armenia: Former President Unveils Election Manifesto
Former President Levon Ter-Petrossian made public on January 7 his election campaign manifesto for the presidential ballot on February 19, pledging to turn Armenia into a "normal" state where governments are formed as a result of free elections and respect laws, human rights, and free enterprise. The 16-page document also reaffirms his earlier bitter criticism of the country's current leadership, affirming that an election victory for Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian's would be "tantamount to a national disaster."
One week earlier, Ter-Petrossian's national campaign headquarters, to be managed by former Foreign Minister Aleksandr Arzoumanian, opened in Yerevan. Its coordinating council, which comprises representatives of some of the opposition parties allied with Ter-Petrossian, held its first meeting and appointed the heads of its territorial branches in Yerevan on December 29. As of January 8, Ter-Petrossian has opened local election headquarters in each of Armenia's 11 marzes (provinces), Noyan Tapan reported.
It was decided that the Ter-Petrossian campaign in Yerevan will be run by Khachatur Sukiasian, a wealthy parliamentarian who has been facing a government crackdown on his businesses ever since expressing support last September for Ter-Petrossian's comeback bid. Sukiasian will oversee the work of Ter-Petrossian campaign offices in each of the city's 10 administrative districts. Among the heads of those offices are former Interior Minister Suren Abrahamian and Pargev Ohanian, a prominent judge who was controversially dismissed by President Robert Kocharian last fall after acquitting two businessmen who accused the State Customs Committee of corruption and extortion.
Ter-Petrosian's preelection speeches so far have analyzed in depth controversial episodes from his 1991-98 presidency as well as the current Armenian government's track record. Those evaluations, coupled with a retrospective look at the last few decades of Armenian history, make up a large part of the published manifesto. Ter-Petrossian, who turned 63 on January 9, again denounces the Kocharian administration as a corrupt and criminal regime that tolerates no dissent and is motivated by self-enrichment at the expense of a downtrodden population.
The document also lays out his vision for Armenia's future. It says that, if elected, Ter-Petrossian will strive for the "dismantling of the existing kleptrocratic system" and the establishment of "full-fledged democracy" anchored in free elections, protection of human rights, and judicial independence. In addition, law-enforcement bodies and the military would no longer be used as tools for government repression.
Ter-Petrossian's longtime critics, however, see few fundamental differences between him and Armenia's leaders. They point, among other things, to the Ter-Petrossian administration's failure to hold a single election recognized as free and fair by the international community.
Ter-Petrossian's socioeconomic agenda is based on three key principles of market-based economics that he believes are absent in Armenia: a level playing field for all businesspeople; fair economic competition; and absolute protection of private property. While pledging to retrieve what he says are huge amounts of money "stolen from the people" by wealthy businessmen with ties to the government, Ter-Petrossian says that if elected, he would not seek a massive "redistribution of property."
Ter-Petrossian further commits himself to launching a crackdown on widespread tax evasion that he says should primarily target large corporate taxpayers that are believed to grossly underreport their earnings thanks to government patronage. "According to foreign experts, only 22 percent of the state budget's tax revenues is currently paid by large entrepreneurs, whereas [that proportion] should have stood at 75 percent," his campaign platform claims.
In that regard, the document reaffirms Ter-Petrossian's pledge to help abolish a government-drafted law that took effect on January 1 and that will make it much harder for small Armenian firms to qualify for so-called "simplified tax." Payment of that tax has exempted them from other, heftier duties.
According to Ter-Petrossian, these and other economic measures contained in his platform would double Armenia's gross domestic product and triple its state budget in the next five years. "Needless to say that in the event of the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the lifting of the economic blockades [of Armenia,] and the opening of the Turkish-Armenian border, much more impressive results could be expected," reads the platform. During the 1996 presidential election campaign, members of the Ter-Petrossian leadership poured scorn on rival candidate Vazgen Manukian's pledge to raise GDP by a similar amount.
Responding to Ter-Petrossian's grave allegations, Kocharian and Sarkisian have been particularly scathing about his handling of the first years of Armenia's painful transition to the free market. The Armenian economy shrunk by half in 1992-93 following the breakup of the Soviet Union and the outbreak of wars in Karabakh and elsewhere in the South Caucasus. Kocharian has charged that the Ter-Petrossian administration was primarily responsible for turning Armenia into "one of the poorest countries" in the world.
In his manifesto, Ter-Petrossian reaffirms his belief that the collapse of the Soviet economy was inevitable and that it was more drastic in Armenia than in other former Soviet republics because of the Karabakh war and the crippling blockades imposed by Azerbaijan and Turkey, as well as turmoil in Georgia. But he admits that many Armenians do not and will not accept this explanation. "When a person is worse off today than he was yesterday, no logical explanation can satisfy him," he says.
The document is far less specific on foreign-policy matters, with Ter-Petrossian saying only that he would strengthen Armenia's relations with Russia, Georgia and Iran and promising "constructive efforts" to normalize ties with Azerbaijan and Turkey.
On the Karabakh conflict, the manifesto says Ter-Petrossian would display the "political will" to achieve a compromise peace deal with Azerbaijan that would enable the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh to exercise their "right to self-determination." It does not specify Ter-Petrossian's position on international mediators' existing peace proposals.
Georgia: Presidential Election Leaves Bitter Aftertaste
Mikheil Saakashvili exits a polling booth on January 5
The preterm Georgian presidential election on January 5, intended to provide a ringing endorsement of incumbent Mikheil Saakashvili's track record, has instead underscored the extent to which his support has plummeted since his election in January 2004.
In that respect, Saakashvili's decision to call a preterm election may have been a major strategic error. Moreover, Saakashvili's moralizing tone during the election campaign and the handling of controversial exit polls have further alienated the opposition and fuelled suspicions that the authorities rigged the outcome of the ballot to preclude a second round runoff between Saakashvili and his closest rival, businessman Levan Gachechiladze, representing the nine-party opposition National Council. In short, at every stage of the election campaign, Saakashvili has acted in such a way as to compound the opposition's fears that his team was out to secure his reelection at all cost.
In the weeks preceding the ballot, the opposition repeatedly complained that Saakashvili was unfairly using state resources to promote his candidacy. Ambassador Dieter Boden, who headed the OSCE long-term monitoring mission, admitted in mid- December that some of the opposition's complaints were justified, and the OSCE's initial assessment of the election released late on January 6 made the point that "the implementation of social-welfare programs was frequently combined with campaigning for the former President."
The actual voting on January 5 was marred by procedural violations and allegations of flagrant malpractice.
Tina Khidasheli of the opposition Republican Party, one of the members of the National Council, claimed that Saakashvili supporters were being transported in buses from one polling station to another to enable them to vote more than once, as did Labor Party candidate Shalva Natelashvili's campaign manager Giorgi Gugava. A spokesman for Saakashvili's United National Movement admitted the party hired buses to transport voters to polling stations.
Despite a formal pledge on January 5 to make available preliminary returns from all polling stations by 9 p.m. local time on January 6, 24 hours after the polls closed, the Central Election Commission was still processing protocols from the remaining 500 polling stations early on January 8. That delay in making public preliminary results recalled the protracted efforts in November 2003 to finagle the results of the parliamentary elections to secure a victory for then President Eduard Shevardnadze's For a New Georgia bloc. Interim returns consistently showed Saakashvili with marginally over the 50 percent plus one vote needed to preclude a second round. In those circumstances, assurances by international monitors that there were "no major violations" miss the point: if Saakashvili's true share of the vote was 48-49 percent (Gachechiladze on January 6 claimed Saakashvili polled 44 percent), it would not have taken "major violations" to adjust Saakashvili's share of the vote by just a few percentage points to preclude a run-off, as Gachechiladze's supporters have alleged on the basis of documentation suggesting glaring discrepancies between protocols signed by individual precinct commission heads and the results subsequently posted on the Central Election Commission's website (http://www.cec.gov.ge).
The fact that early on January 6, before any results from polling stations had been announced, Minister for Conflict Resolution Davit Bakradze, who headed Saakashvili's campaign, predicted, and hailed, Saakashvili's reelection on the basis of election polls conducted by four media outlets sympathetic to the ruling regime similarly recalled then Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrossian's post-election television appearance on September 1996. Raising a glass of champagne, Ter-Petrossian thanked all his supporters for ensuring his reelection -- before the official results of the ballot were announced. Two years later, one of Ter-Petrossian's henchmen admitted to RFE/RL's Armenian Service that the outcome was rigged to preclude a run-off between Ter-Petrossian and his closest rival, National Democratic Union Chairman Vazgen Manukian. The National Council argued in the run-up to the January 5 vote that in light of the four media outlets' shared sympathy for Saakashvili, the results of the exit polls were unlikely to be accurate and objective and, on the contrary, could be tampered with to ensure they more or less corresponded to whatever percentage of the vote the Central Election Commission decided to allot to Saakashvili.
The actual returns are at odds with Saakashvili's euphoric January 6 characterization of the vote as "brilliant." Voter turnout on January 5 was 56 percent, of whom just over half purportedly voted for Saakashvili -- a figure equal to 26-27 percent of the electorate. In 2004, by contrast, voter turnout was between 80-90 percent and Saakashvili garnered 96 percent of the vote.
International reactions too have been less than unequivocally positive. The EU Presidency in a January 8 statement underscored the need for Georgia to investigate the procedural violations registered during the voting, and to "reinforce the independence of state institutions in a political campaign environment and to strengthen the freedom and pluralism of the media, as well as the independence of the judiciary." In a separate statement the same day, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner similarly noted "important irregularities" during the vote that "need to be addressed," and she too concluded that "a strong and sustained commitment by the Georgian authorities to foster a more pluralistic and participative society is essential."
Possibly in response to that latter exhortation, Saakashvili offered in a live interview late on January 8 on one of the pro-government television channels that conducted the exit polls to bring into a reshuffled cabinet "a broader circle of people," "calm...honorable patriots and professionals." But parliamentarian Kakha Kukava of the nine-party opposition National Council that backed Gachechiladze's candidacy told the same television station on January 9 that if Saakashvili truly wants to "take a step toward his people and the opposition," he should agree to a recount to demonstrate beyond all doubts that the published results of the ballot are accurate, civil.ge reported.
If, as appears likely, the Central Election Commission rejects the opposition's demands for a recount of the vote, the political climate will remain poisoned and polarized in the run-up to the preterm parliamentary elections that Saakashvili said on January 8 will probably be held in April or May.