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Transcaucasus: Political Developments Dependent On Elections

Prague, 8 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- In all three Transcaucasus states, and in at least one of Russia's North Caucasus republics, political developments in 1999 are likely to revolve around upcoming elections.

Armenia must elect a new parliament in early summer. Georgia faces parliamentary elections in the autumn, followed by presidential elections in 2000. Azerbaijan continues to struggle with the fallout from last October's disputed presidential poll, and must prepare for parliamentary elections in 2000.

This April, voters in Karachaevo-Cherkassia will have the chance to end President Vladimir Khubiev's 18-year tenure as unelected head of that Russian republic. The poll could also provide Moscow with an opportunity to strengthen its position in the North Caucasus.

In Armenia, many political observers and opposition politicians believe the outcome of the parliamentary elections is a foregone conclusion. They note that the Yerkrapah Union of veterans of the Karabakh war, currently the largest group within parliament, is prepared to make only minor compromises over its draft election law. The law was passed in the first reading last November. Under the draft, 80 of the 131 deputies in the new parliament will be elected from single-mandate constituencies. Fearing that arrangement is conducive to vote-rigging, given that Yerkrapah will have a majority on electoral commissions at all levels, most opposition parties argue the majority of deputies should be elected according to a proportional "party list" system.

But the widely held perception that Yerkrapah will enter the election campaign with an unfair advantage over other parties has not prevented a wave of speculation about possible tactical electoral alliances. Much of that speculation focuses less on ideology than on individual political actors.

In both Georgia and Azerbaijan, by contrast, the authority and standing of the ruling party is crumbling. The Union of Citizens of Georgia (SMK) is accused by many of being corrupt and either unable or unwilling to push through systemic reform.

Disillusion with the SMK was one of the reasons for the unexpectedly strong showing in last November's local elections by the Labor Party, which deprived the SMK of the chairmanship of the Tbilisi and Kutaisi municipal councils. The Union for Democratic Revival, headed by Adjar Supreme Council chairman Aslan Abashidze, also demonstrated its ability to garner support nationwide, and not simply in its leader's native region. As yet, however, it is not clear whether the most influential left- and right-wing parties will form electoral alliances. If not, and if the election develops as in 1990, 1992, and 1995, up to 50 separate parties and blocs may field candidates.

The outcome of the poll will depend largely on the present Georgian leadership's success, or lack of it, in reversing last year's economic downturn.

Under normal circumstances, elections in a republic of a Russian Federation with a population of less than half a million, few strategic resources, and no simmering territorial conflicts would not seem to warrant much attention. But the upcoming presidential campaign in Karachaevo-Cherkessia is unique in a number of ways.

First, the 66-year-old Khubiev is the only remaining president of a federation subject to have been appointed to his post by Russian President Boris Yeltsin, rather than elected. The enacting of a law on the presidential elections in September was preceded by mass demonstrations in the republic's capital, Cherkassk. Second, the republic's ethnic composition will inevitably effect the election campaign. Karachaevo-Cherkessia is one of several hybrid North Caucasus territorial formations that arbitrarily lumps together a Turkic and a Caucasian titular nationality. The largest ethnic group at some 42 percent of the total population are the Russians, many of whom are Cossacks. They are followed by the Turkic Karachais, some 31 percent. The Cherkess account for less than 10 percent of the population.

To date, only two candidates have formally announced their intention to run. One is the incumbent, Khubiev, a Cherkess whose popularity has fallen in tandem with the republic's economy. The other is 51-year-old businessman Stanislav Derev, the mayor of Cherkessk.

Another possible candidate is the former commander of the Russian army's land forces, Vladimir Semenov, who is currently an advisor to the Russian Ministry of Defense. Semenov's father was Karachai and his mother Russian, and his presidential candidacy has been endorsed by the republic's Council of Elders.

Semenov has recently argued that the peoples of the North Caucasus and Transcaucasus should consolidate in the face of a perceived threat from expanding Western influence in the region.

For that reason, his candidacy would almost certainly receive Moscow's approval and support.