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Transcaucasus: Politicians Find Lessons At Democratic Convention

Three leading opposition politicians from Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia were among the hundreds of international figures invited to observe this week's Democratic National Convention in Boston. The three told RFE/RL's Robert McMahon that in spite of the convention's frequently stage-managed appearance, it offers some useful lessons in their own struggles to bring democracy to the South Caucasus.

Boston, 30 July 2004 -- They represent some of the major opposition voices in the sometimes turbulent world of transitional politics in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia.

But for this week, at least, Stepan Demirchian, Ali Kerimli, and Davit Gamkrelidze were content to sit on the sidelines and observe the opposition party convention in Boston.

Demirchian, Kerimli, and Gamkrelidze were among hundreds of diplomats, politicians, and political activists attending the convention as guests of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs.

In separate interviews with RFE/RL, the three politicians said the convention held useful lessons for their own countries' difficult reform paths. They also gained insight into the foreign policy priorities of key advisers to Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.

Kerimli is chairman of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party's (AHCP) reformist wing and is a lead figure in attempts to reunite the fragmented Azerbaijani opposition. He said beyond the stagecraft on view in Boston, he saw the convention as an important confidence-boosting exercise for the opposition Democratic Party.

"The convention is orchestrated as a big show, [there are] a large number of participants, they use the stage for propaganda," Kerimli said. "The convention itself does not decide anything because all decisions have already been taken. The convention simply illustrates the will of the candidate to win, the presentation of his team, of his program -- this was of particular interest to me."

Gamkrelidze is chairman of the New Conservative Party (formerly the New Rightists Party) of Georgia -- the only opposition party in that country's parliament. He said the convention provided a useful model for organizing an effective campaign. He said it highlighted the importance of well-trained activists and volunteers, who are the foot soldiers of major U.S. parties.
Davit Gamkrelidze said the convention demonstrated some of the strengths of multiparty democracy, which he said Georgia lacks.

Gamkrelidze said the convention demonstrated some of the strengths of multiparty democracy, which he said Georgia lacks.

"This balance -- balance between the Republicans and Democrats -- is first of all a huge benefit for the citizens of the United States and when you [don't have] this balance it means that the government and ruling party, they lose control over themselves and it's very dangerous, and we already [have found] out in Georgia that the government and the new leaders in the Georgian state, they somehow lost control over themselves," Gamkrelidze said.

For Demirchian, leader of the Justice Faction in the National Assembly of Armenia (HZhK), the U.S. convention has helped illustrate how far his country must travel on its path to democracy.

"We have to learn a lot. So, democracy needs consistent work. Hard work," Demirchian said.

Demirchian lost to President Robert Kocharian in a 2003 presidential runoff. He and other opposition leaders have alleged that Kocharian falsified that vote and led protests this spring demanding the president either organize a national referendum of confidence on his rule or step down.

Demirchian, Kerimli, and Gamkrelidze were eager to hear any mention of Democratic Party policy on issues such as Nagorno-Karabakh and Russia's role in the South Caucasus. But most speeches and panel discussions focused on Iraq, the Middle East, and the Democrats' strategy for waging the war against international terrorism.

Kerimli said after a briefing given by top Kerry foreign-policy advisers that the Democrats favor greater engagement with allies and multilateral institutions.

"America has now to make a very important choice -- how it will continue to be the leader in the world," Kerimli said. "Of course, America does have a leadership role, but the question is how this role will be [put to use] and how this role will be implemented -- together with the world or alone. The Democratic Convention shows an inclination toward solving the problems in participation with all international organizations."

Gamkrelidze sensed little difference in the main foreign policy goals of U.S. Democrats and Republicans.

"It's my impression [there are] not big differences between the two parties, first of all about the security, about the war against terror, also such things as values and spreading of the values. It's good for me because it's always dangerous when there is a big shift," Gamkrelidze said.

The three politicians were among participants from more than 120 countries who came to Boston under the sponsorship of the National Democratic Institute. It was believed to be the largest group of foreign observers ever to attend a U.S. electoral convention.

The institute, a nonprofit organization, aims to establish political and civic organizations, safeguard elections and promote accountability in government.

(RFE/RL's Nikola Krastev contributed to this report.)

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