12 May 2006, Volume 9, Number 16
AZERBAIJAN TO HOLD REPEAT ELECTIONS. Voters in Azerbaijan will go to the polls on May 13 to elect parliament deputies in 10 constituencies (of a total 125) where the outcome of the November 6 parliamentary ballot was annulled.
As in the run-up to that ballot, many of the total 125 candidates have complained of harassment by local officials and restrictions on campaigning. But even though presidential administration officials affirm that the authorities will do all in their power to ensure that the vote is "democratic, transparent, and fair," few if any opposition politicians are inclined to believe them.
The November 6 ballot, which international observers characterized as flawed by ballot stuffing, multiple voting, vote rigging, and other violations, gave the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP) and independent candidates aligned with it an overwhelming majority in the new legislature.
Opposition parties and electoral blocs won only a handful of seats. Some opposition deputies declined to take up their parliament mandates as a way of protesting what they termed a rigged election, and some opposition parties, including the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP) progressive wing, declared a boycott of the repeat vote.
Others, including the Musavat party, nonetheless decided to participate in the new legislature (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," January 13 and February 3, 2006). Disagreement over whether or not to participate in the new parliament and the repeat ballot led to the split in February of the Azadliq election bloc that previously united two of the country's oldest and most influential opposition parties, Musavat and the AHCP ( see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 10, 2006).
A total of 154 candidates originally registered for the May 13 repeat vote, of whom 29 subsequently withdrew. Of the remaining 125 candidates, 60 are nominally independent (although some of those are YAP members), and a further 18 declined to state their party affiliation, according to echo-az.com on May 9. Musavat is fielding 10 candidates, YAP nine, and the opposition Azerbaijan National Independence Party (AMIP), five; other opposition parties, including the Communists, have between one and five candidates. The number of names on the ballot paper in individual constituencies ranges from seven to 19, day.az reported on April 24.
Presidential administration official Ali Hasanov pledged on May 2 that the Azerbaijani authorities will do all in their power to ensure that the ballot is "democratic, transparent, and fair," according to the online daily echo-az.com on May 3. And Central Election Commission head Mazahir Panahov warned local election officials on April 25 that they risk arrest and prosecution for any failure to comply strictly with election procedure, including the requirement first introduced last November to mark voters' fingers with indelible ink to prevent them voting more than once.
But opposition candidates have been complaining for weeks that local election and government officials are engaging in the same illegal and repressive measures that marred previous parliamentary elections.
Musavat party Deputy Chairman Arif Hacili was quoted on April 26 by echo-az.com as complaining that the local authorities in Zakatala, where he is registered as a candidate, are now "openly" interfering in the election campaign, whereas in the run-up to the November 6 vote they were more circumspect about doing so. In at least two constituencies -- Jalalabad and Sumgait -- opposition candidates have appealed to President Ilham Aliyev to intervene and create fair conditions for all candidates, according to echo-az.com on May 5 and zerkalo.az on May 11.
Anticipating foul play, thousands of Azerbaijanis have registered as observers, and NGOs will conduct exit polls. But few experts hold out much hope for a really clean ballot, and even if opposition candidates, rather than nominal independents who are YAP members, win all 10 seats, the opposition will still constitute only a tiny minority within parliament.
Perhaps a more serious threat to the democratic process are the feuds that have split one opposition party (AMIP) in the wake of the November election and which pose a threat to two other parties, the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan and Musavat. Musavat is scheduled to hold a congress in the near future at which according to the party's statutes, Isa Qambar, who has served as its leader for over a decade, should resign and make way for a new chairman.
Qambar, however, was quoted by day.az on April 28 as saying he intends to seek a third consecutive term as party leader. Qambar refused to acknowledge his apparent crushing defeat by then-acting President Aliyev in the October 2003 presidential election, claiming that the election returns were falsified and that he was the true winner with 60 percent of the vote.
Official returns gave Aliyev some 80 percent of the vote and Qambar 12.8 percent, while exit polls of 2,414 voters at 200 polling stations throughout Azerbaijan conducted by the independent ADAM Center and Turan gave Qambar 46.2 percent of the vote, followed by Aliyev with 24.1 percent (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," October 20, 2003).
In the wake of the November 2003 election, Azerbaijani commentators argued at length that the older generation of opposition leaders, including Qambar, were a "spent force," and they predicted that new leaders and alignments would emerge in the run-up to the 2006 parliamentary elections (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," January 2, 2004). But the one new alignment that did emerge, Yeni Siyaset (New Policy, YeS) which grouped together influential figures, garnered only a handful of parliament mandates, and its future remains unclear.
In an interview published on April 27 in echo-az.com, commentator Ilqar Mamedov affirmed "the so-called old opposition is totally demolished and has exhausted all its moral, physical, human, and ideological reserves." And he described the leaders of those established opposition parties as having failed to work on presenting a "modern" image. But such criticism is unlikely to impel either Qambar, or his younger former ally, Ali Kerimli of the AHCP, to retire from active politics, especially given the absence of popular and charismatic rivals. (Liz Fuller)
ABKHAZ LEADER UNVEILS NEW PEACE PLAN. Addressing the parliament of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia on May 4, President Sergei Bagapsh outlined new proposals for resolving the conflict between Abkhazia and Georgia. Most Abkhaz parliamentarians subsequently expressed support for those proposals, entitled "The Key to the Future," which envisage the coexistence of Georgia and Abkhazia as two independent states and broad cooperation between them. But Bagapsh's insistence that Abkhazia has a right to recognition as an independent sovereign state led to a sharp exchange between him and visiting members of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly on May 6.
According to regnum.ru on May 6, Bagapsh's peace initiative envisages: an official Georgian apology to Abkhazia for its "state policy of assimilation, war, and isolation"; an end to Georgian political and economic pressure on Abkhazia, and to the blockade imposed by the CIS in 1996; the signing of a peace treaty guaranteeing security in the air, on the ground, and on the Black Sea; guarantees by the international community and the UN Security Council to preclude the resumption of hostilities between Georgia and Abkhazia; consultations between Bagapsh and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili on peaceful coexistence; cooperation in the fight against organized crime; broad regional cooperation, including Abkhaz participation in multilateral cooperation within the parameters of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation Organization and the European Union's New Neighborhood Program.
Those steps are similar to measures for resolving the conflict that Bagapsh proposed in a January 20 letter to the UN Security Council in January. On that occasion, Bagapsh advocated signing a formal document abjuring the use of force and militant rhetoric; ending the international blockade of Abkhazia; implementing the confidence-building measures agreed upon during talks in Sochi three years ago, including the resumption of rail traffic via Abkhazia, the repatriation of Georgian displaced persons, and renovating the Inguri hydroelectric power station; and beginning "civilized negotiations" on all issues relevant to the conflict, with the exception of Abkhazia's status (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 23, 2006).
Similarly, in a March interview with Danish public radio, Bagapsh defined the first step toward resolving the conflict as signing a document on the nonresumption of hostilities -- of which Russia, the United States, and the UN would serve as guarantors, according to the independent Abkhaz "Nuzhnaya gazeta," as cited by apsny.ru.
Comments by Abkhaz legislators on Bagapsh's most recent peace proposals were mostly positive. Some lawmakers, however, suggested that some points -- including that on the repatriation of Georgian displaced persons -- are not sufficiently specific or could create loopholes that Georgia might seek to exploit.
Why Bagapsh chose to unveil his "Key to the Future" at this juncture is unclear. Was it intended as a belated response to the most recent version of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's draft plan for resolving the conflicts with both Abkhazia and South Ossetia (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," November 4, 2005)? The draft drew a swift response from Eduard Kokoity, president of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, who put forward a counterproposal that according to Georgian officials largely coincides with Saakashvili's plan.
Kokoity subsequently visited Sukhum (Sukhumi) on April 28 for the formal exchange of instruments of ratification of a bilateral treaty on friendship and cooperation he and Bagapsh signed last September under which each republic pledges to provide military assistance to the other in the event of attack (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 20, 2005). While reports didn't specifically say that Bagapsh and Kokoity compared notes on their respective approaches to talks with Georgia, it's reasonable to conclude that they did so.
Or, was "Key to the Future" inspired by the invitation extended to both Georgia and Abkhazia during talks in Geneva in February mediated by the Friends of the UN Secretary-General group of countries to put forward "additional ideas" for resolving the conflict? Any such "additional ideas" could help to resolve the impasse created by Abkhazia's consistent rejection of the UN-drafted "Basic Principles for the Distribution of Competencies between Tbilisi and Sukhumi." Alternatively, the Abkhaz leadership may have been biding its time and closely following the progress made in the international talks that got under way in Vienna last month on Kosova, and that are widely expected to culminate in that polity's formal recognition.
In late January, Russian President Vladimir Putin caused a furor by suggesting that the outcome of the Kosova talks could and should serve as a model for resolving ethno-territorial conflicts within the CIS, including those in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Georgian politicians were swift to reject that line of reasoning. Abkhaz leaders, for their part, did not rush to endorse it. Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba merely argued that Abkhazia's claims to independence are more convincing than Kosova's.
In an interview with the newspaper "Novaya politika" reposted on the website apsny.ru on May 6, Bagapsh highlighted what he considers the most crucial difference between the Kosova and Abkhaz conflicts, namely the number of displaced persons. He said out that only 8,000 Serb displaced persons have returned to Kosova, where even the presence of NATO peacekeepers cannot protect them (Kosova's population is 90 percent Albanian). The demographic situation is Abkhazia is very different: prior to the war, the Abkhaz constituted a minority, while the Georgian population was, according to Bagapsh, 240,000, of whom some 55,000 have already returned to the southernmost Gali Raion and a further 10,000-15,000 to other districts.
To date, neither Georgian officials nor international diplomats have responded to Bagapsh's initiative, but when they do, the response will almost certainly be negative, given that the UN, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and NATO all unequivocally advocate a solution to the conflict that preserves Georgia's territorial integrity. The most recent representative of the international community to reiterate that line was NATO Parliamentary Assembly President Pierre Lellouche, who visited South Ossetia on May 5 and Abkhazia the following day.
Meeting in Sukhum with Bagapsh, Shamba, and other top leaders, Lellouche cited Canada and Spain as examples of countries in which two different ethnic groups peacefully coexist, apsny.ru reported. But Bagapsh categorically rejected Lellouche's arguments in favor of a federation or confederation with Georgia, affirming that Abkhazia remains committed to building an "independent democratic state."
PARTY WITH LINKS TO ARMENIAN PROSECUTOR AIMS TO ENTER GOVERNMENT. The Association for Armenia, a new pro-establishment party that is reputedly sponsored by Armenia's influential Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian, revealed on May 11 far-reaching political ambitions, saying it will seek to win next year's parliamentary election and enter the new government. Leading Association for Armenia member Levon Khachatrian told RFE/RL that the party has managed to recruit 11,500 members in less than three weeks and plans to almost double its membership in the coming weeks.
The group was set up recently by Khachatrian and 15 other businessmen who comprise the People's Deputy group of nominally independent Armenian parliamentarians loyal to President Robert Kocharian. Hovsepian is widely believed to have played a major part in its creation despite his repeated claims to the contrary. Khachatrian, who is a close personal friend of Hovsepian, also insisted that the Association for Armenia has no links with the prosecutor and will not act as his political power base. He said it will simply strive to "win a majority" in the next National Assembly and "form the government."
The Prosperous Armenia Party (BH) launched in January by Gagik Tsarukian, one of Armenia's richest businessmen, harbors similar ambitions (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," January 20, 2006). BH has already enlisted thousands of public-sector employees and other people in Tsarukian's de facto fiefdom that encompasses the town of Abovian and surrounding villages. But Tsarukian is far less influential in other parts of Armenia.
By contrast, the members of the People's Deputy that lead the Association for Armenia represent and control in single-mandate constituencies covering a much bigger area. "The fast recruitment [of party members] is probably the result of the People's Deputy's reputation and a large circle of supporters which it has always had," Khachatrian said.
He stressed that the party has not yet begun to attract members in its stronghold -- the central Aragatsotn province that comprises Hovsepian's hometown of Aparan and nearby villages. Hovsepian is the top leader of the supposedly apolitical Nig-Aparan organization uniting prominent natives of the district. "I think the Aragatsotn region will make the right choice," Khachatrian said, referring to the 2007 election. He added that his party also expects to make a strong showing in two Yerevan districts run by senior Nig-Aparan members. (Ruzanna Stepanian)
QUOTATION OF THE WEEK. "Ten years of negotiations are better than one year of war." -- Croatian President Stipe Mesic, speaking on May 7 while on a visit to Tbilisi (quoted by Caucasus Press).