OSCE Concerned By Armenian Election Campaign
International observers expressed concern on February 7 about Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian's heavy reliance on government levers in the campaign for the February 19 presidential ballot and pledged to investigate a violent incident that nearly disrupted a campaign rally by opposition candidate and former President Levon Ter-Petrossian.
Ambassador Geert-Hinrich Ahrens, the Dutch diplomat who heads the international vote-monitoring mission deployed in Armenia by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), said Sarkisian's "use of the position of prime minister in the election campaign" could obstruct the proper conduct of the vote. "There is no international rule that would prevent a prime minister from participating as a candidate in a presidential race," Ahrens told RFE/RL in an interview. "But such a situation, of course, puts a heavy responsibility on the shoulders of the prime minister not to use his office to promote his candidacy." "Of course, it is a matter of concern when the line that should not be overstepped is being overstepped," he said.
Sarkisian has come under opposition fire for capitalizing on his personal control -- and that of the Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) which he heads -- over many government bodies to gain extensive coverage by leading television stations and ensure high turnout at his campaign rallies across the country. Speaking in parliament on February 6, Sarkisian argued that the Armenian Electoral Code does not explicitly bar him from combining his prime-ministerial duties with election-related activities.
"As you know, elections in Armenia are monitored by numerous observers," Sarkisian said in response to a question from an opposition parliamentarian. "And if the observers say that I, as you claim, have blatantly violated the law and inflicted great damage on the country, I will think about this issue."
Sarkisian went on to deny local media reports that schoolteachers, students, and other public-sector employees are forced to attend his campaign rallies. "You can try and meet those people [attending Sarkisian's rallies] and ask whether they are kept there by police or army cordons," he said. "The reputation of Armenia's future president is very dear to me and I will do everything in my power to ensure that Armenia's future president has a good reputation," a statement that seemingly reflects supreme confidence in his election chances. Addressing a cabinet session on February 7, Sarkisian warned the heads of local HHK branches local government officials to be scrupulously careful to comply with election-related legislation, Noyan Tapan reported.
Sarkisian's campaign spending is another source of controversy. According to the Central Election Commission, it totaled 26.3 million drams ($85,000) as of January 31, well below the 70 million-dram limit set by the Electoral Code. Opposition politicians dismiss the figure as fraudulent, saying that such a modest sum could not have enabled Sarkisian to flood Yerevan and just about every Armenian town and village with his campaign billboards and posters.
Ter-Petrossian's camp has also cried foul over Sarkisian's December 4 decision to form a special government commission to address citizens' grievances, saying that its activities amount to vote buying. They claim that voters needing financial and other assistance are being referred to the commission by Sarkisian's campaign offices.
Ter-Petrossian on February 5 accused the OSCE observers of turning a blind eye to this and other alleged violations. "They don't see or don't want to see that," he said. "At least, there have been no preventive steps, no statements on their part." Ahrens, however, said the observer mission is looking into Ter-Petrossian's claims. "If this is the case, then this would of course be a way of using administrative resources that would not be acceptable," he said.
Ahrens also expressed concern about violence that marred a Ter-Petrossian election rally on February 6 in Artashat, 30 kilometers south of Yerevan. A group of pro-government youths there scuffled with Ter-Petrossian's loyalists and pelted them with stones in an apparent attempt to disrupt the gathering. Ter-Petrossian condemned the incident, which was witnessed by two OSCE observers, as a government "provocation" aimed at derailing his campaign. Law-enforcement authorities claimed, however, that Ter-Petrossian and his allies themselves provoked it by making "offensive" remarks about Deputy Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian, Sarkisian's Artashat-based campaign manager.
"We will certainly investigate this incident," Ahrens said. "We have long-term observers everywhere in the country. They will talk to all those involved and then submit a report to us. Then on that basis we can form our judgment on this incident." "Whoever is to blame, any such incident is deplorable," he added.
EU Official Calls On Georgia To Address Election Shortcomings
Three top EU officials -- Slovenian Foreign Minister Dmitrij Rupel, whose country currently holds the rotating EU Presidency, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, and Special Ambassador for the South Caucasus Peter Semneby -- traveled this week to Azerbaijan, Georgia, and then Armenia. RFE/RL Georgian Service's Nino Gelashvili interviewed Ferrero-Waldner in Tbilisi on February 5.
You personally and also several international leaders congratulated Georgian people on the fact that the [January 5 preterm presidential] election passed off "peacefully." Why was that? Benita Ferrero-Waldner:
Well, because we of course could have feared that there might be violence, because there was a great competition going on, and the most important [thing] is indeed that elections take place in a free and fair way, but also without any violence, and this is what I think we have clearly said. RFE/RL:
You also called on the authorities to investigate all complaints and appeals concerning the January elections. In the OSCE interim report it is said that a considerable number of appeals was not investigated fully or adequately. What would be your recommendation? Ferrero-Waldner:
My advice would be that exactly those issues have to be tackled now for the parliamentary elections [tentatively scheduled for May]. It would be very important that there is a body that really goes and checks the complaints. Because this is the normal thing in an election. RFE/RL:
What's the main challenge for Georgia now? Ferrero-Waldner:
The main challenge should be that indeed all the parties that will participate in these elections will accept those standards that we hold up as the European standards. And here, I think, the OSCE/ODIHR has really established very good rules and norms and they should be followed through. RFE/RL:
The European Neighborhood Policy -- people have heard about that in Georgia. We know how it is financed, we know you care about that. But where could an ordinary citizen of Georgia touch it, this "neighborhoodness?" Ferrero-Waldner:
I think the normal citizen can touch it already. Because if there is more economic development, if there is a [more open] business climate, if there is a better chance for Georgians to export to the European Union, this is all because of the European Neighborhood Policy. If there is less corruption, if there is a better judiciary, if there is more democracy and human rights, for instance, better election laws, in the end all that comes together and is part of the modernization and reform program of the government, but of course highly supported by us. RFE/RL:
How optimistic are you about resolution of the conflicts, about moving the process from the "frozen" point? Ferrero-Waldner:
I think we have to go on. We have to continue trying to help you finding solutions, and the Neighborhood Policy should create the right environment for that. That means we are ready to doing confidence-building measures in South Ossetia, in Abkhazia. But of course, always in accordance what the government wants. But it's most important that the people understand that also those regions are not far away. These are regions in Georgia and of course, they should benefit from all the possibilities that we can offer. So, that's what we are doing. RFE/RL:
One question pertaining to energy. The Nabucco, South Stream, and White Stream [gas-export pipelines]: what is the correlation of these projects and what is the EU's attitude toward each of them? Could all of them exist and operate in the future? Ferrero-Waldner:
The most important, I think, is what do we want. We want diversification of resources and diversification of routings, of pipelines. So, these different pipelines -- they are complementary with each other. Of course, Nabucco is a priority project of the European Union. So, we are working with Azerbaijan and with other countries, also with the Mashriq countries, in order to get the resources and the sources there, but at the same time, if there are more pipelines, we can only say this is complementary to each other. RFE/RL:
Some of your [EU] member states cooperate with Gazprom, and some experts deduce from that cooperation that the EU does not have a common energy policy and that there is a problem within [the EU]. Is that true? What would be your comment? Ferrero-Waldner:
My comment would be the more we can be united on our international energy policy as well, the better. But of course there are existing contracts and of course this also has to be honored by the member countries. But, you know, this is a policy that will be taken forward in the direction of more and more unity.
Georgian Opposition, Parliament Majority Embark On Talks
On January 29, 12 Georgian opposition parties unveiled a memorandum addressed to parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze affirming their shared belief that the outcome of the January 5 preterm presidential election was totally falsified and rejecting the legitimacy of Mikheil Saakashvili's reelection, Caucasus Press and civil.ge reported.
The memorandum further listed 17 measures it considers essential to overcome the current "political crisis" and ensure that the parliamentary elections to be held in early summer are free and fair. Opposition representatives have since met twice with Burjanadze and once with other members of the parliament majority to discuss those demands. Meanwhile, on January 31, Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze outlined to parliament his government's program for the next five years, the primary focus of which is eradicating the poverty that has alienated tens of thousands of Georgians who three years ago hoped Mikheil Saakashvili's election as president would herald a significant approval in their material circumstances.
The opposition demands focus largely on the shortcomings that marred the January 5 pre-term ballot in which, according to official returns, Saakashvili was reelected for a second term with over 53 percent of the vote. The nine-party opposition National Council remains convinced that the outcome was rigged to preclude a second round runoff between Saakashvili and their candidate, businessman Levan Gachechiladze.
The demands include a recount in the presence of international observers of the votes cast in the January 5 ballot and the investigation of procedural violations committed during the vote; the release of all persons arrested fin the wake of the November 7 police crackdown on demonstrators in Tbilisi; the resignation of controversial Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili; measures to guarantee media freedom, including the inclusion on a parity basis of opposition nominees in the new supervisory board of Georgian Public Television; scheduling parliamentary elections before the current parliament's mandate expires in April, and elections for a new parliament in the Adjar Republic in July; a ban on participation by the president in the parliamentary election campaign; and drafting a new election law and measures to preclude manipulation of the findings of exit polls.
The memorandum was signed by three defeated presidential candidates: Gachechiladze; New Rightists leader David Gamkrelidze; and Party of the Future Chairman Gia Maisashvili; the heads of the other parties aligned in the National Council; and Industry Will Save Georgia. The Labor Party, whose chairman Shalva Natelashvili ran separately in the presidential election, declined to sign the memorandum on the grounds that it has its own "independent strategy," civil.ge reported. The signatories set a deadline of February 14, after which, if those demands are not met, the opposition will stage "permanent protest rallies," Gachechiladze warned on January 28. President Saakashvili commented on January 30 that some of the opposition's demands were unacceptable, while others were negotiable; he did not say which demands fell into which category.
Opposition representatives met for between three and four hours with Burjanadze on February 1 and reportedly discussed all 17 points listed in the memorandum. Caucasus Press quoted opposition representative Giorgi Tsagareishvili as saying "today's meeting showed that the authorities have learned to talk to the opposition. That was a pleasant surprise for us." Parliament deputy speaker Mikheil Machavariani similarly said that "this meeting demonstrated that agreement can be achieved on many issues with the opposition." "The Messenger" on February 4 quoted parliamentarian Kakha Kukava (Conservative party) as saying that the government did not agree to any "serious concessions." But Zurab Tqemaladze of the Industrialists' parliament faction said that the two sides agreed to form two working groups; one will probe the circumstances of the November 7 police crackdown, while the second will draft new election legislation, Rustavi-2 reported.
Even before the follow-up meeting, scheduled for February 5, opposition parliamentarian Zviad Dzidziguri (Conservative party) announced on February 4 the launch of an opposition action to collect signatures from voters prepared to affirm that they did not cast their ballots for Saakashvili on January 5. And in apparent violation of the proposed moratorium on opposition demonstrations, he also announced a protest meeting to be held on February 7. Burjanadze told journalists on February 4 that she considers a resumption of protests both incomprehensible and an attempt to pressure the authorities, and she appealed to the opposition to "continue working constructively" instead. But "The Messenger" on February 6 quoted David Zurabishvili of the Republican Party as vowing that the protests will continue. He argued that demonstrations show that the population at large shares and supports the opposition's demands and thus strengthen the opposition's position in the ongoing dialogue with the authorities.
Also on February 4, opposition leaders met to prepare for the resumption on February 5 of discussions with Burjanadze and decide which of the 17 demands should be addressed, Black Sea Press reported. The independent television channel Mze quoted National Council member Giorgi Tsagareishvili as explaining that "this does not concern all the demands. During the talks tomorrow we will focus on several crucial demands and if these demands are not satisfied, the opposition may even take a certain hiatus in the negotiating process."
As it turned out, the February 5 talks apparently brought the two sides' positions closer on some issues, but failed to yield "tangible results." Among the issues on which tentative agreement was reached, according to civil.ge on February 5 quoting Tina Khidasheli of the Republican party, were abolishing the first-past-the-post, winner-takes-all system for electing majoritarian MPs, and amending the constitution to require that the cabinet resign automatically after parliamentary elections. Koba Davitashvili (People's Party) complained that the talks were being "artificially prolonged." He explained that compliance those demands will require amendments to existing legislation, which will take time, while the authorities declined to agree to issues that could be resolved immediately, such as the dismissal of Georgian Public Television General Director Tamar Kintsurashvili and of Central Election Commission Chairman Levan Tarkhnishvili, and the release of all those arrested in the wake of the November 7 police intervention. Kukava was similarly quoted by civil.ge as saying "there are promises, but no concrete steps are being taken;" Rustavi-2 on February 5 screened footage of Kukava predicting that "I think it will be very difficult to continue the dialogue within this format, when no concrete results are in sight." The next round of talks is scheduled for February 11.
Ingushetian Opposition Claims President Has Predetermined Election Outcome
The independent website ingushetiya.ru posted on February 3 the lists of candidates for the March 2 elections to a new republican parliament registered by the four political parties participating. The website further claims that President Murat Zyazikov has decided in advance how many candidates from each party will be elected. Meanwhile, one of the republic's largest teyps (clans), the Aushevs, convened a meeting on February 2 of some 1,500 of its members who selected one of their number to represent them in the new legislature. Other clans propose doing the same, according to ingushetiya.ru, and, if the outcome of the March 2 election proves to be rigged, establishing an alternative legislature.
The four parties participating in the election are the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia, with a list of 39 candidates of whom Zyazikov has allegedly decreed that 21 should win mandates: and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, the Communist Party, and the A Just Russia/Rodina/Party of Life bloc with 10, six and 22 candidates, respectively, of which two from each party will allegedly be elected. The Unified Russia list is headed by Makhmud Sakalov, speaker of the outgoing parliament. Ingushetiya.ru also posted on February 3 what it claims is a letter sent by the republic's Interior Ministry to the Election Commission identifying registered candidates who have fallen foul of the law. Five Unified Russia candidates fall into that category (four of them among the 21 allegedly guaranteed election), as do four from A Just Russia, and two from the LDPR. None of those latter six candidates is among those reportedly singled out for inclusion in the new parliament.
As noted above, the Aushev clan reacted with outrage to the revelation that President Zyazikov has apparently handpicked the deputies to be "elected" to the new parliament. The website ingushetiya.ru on February 2 quoted an unnamed clan representative as saying that the clan meeting chose as its proposed parliamentarian Magomed-Sali Aushev, a deputy in the outgoing parliament. The clan representative acknowledged that that decision has no legal force, but at the same time he argued that it is up to the authorities to decide how to facilitate their representative's inclusion in the new legislature. If they fail to do so, he warned, the entire clan will boycott both the parliamentary ballot and the Russian presidential election to be held the same day. He said other influential clans should follow the Aushevs' example. But although ingushetiya.ru claimed on February 3 that the Yevloyev, Kartoyev, and Ozdoyev clans plan to do so, there have been no reports to date of any comparable clan decisions.
Late on February 1, the organizers of the mass protest rescheduled from January 26 (when police intervened violently to prevent would-be participants congregating in Nazran) to February 23 decided after discussions with, among other agencies, the Russian presidential apparatus and the Russian Central Election Commission, to postpone it until after the Russian presidential election.
Meanwhile, writing in "Ekspert," Nikolai Silayev made the point that despite their concerted campaign of criticism of President Zyazikov, the opposition in Ingushetia has not proposed any political figure as a viable and acceptable alternative. And Musa Muradov, writing in "Kommersant-Vlast," disclosed that the Russian Interior Ministry has a vested financial interest in the indefinite continuation of the current low-level violence and reprisals in Ingushetia as its personnel receive fat bonuses for their participation in "counter-terrorism" operations there.