July 28, 2006, Volume 9, Number 27
GEORGIA: DUAL POWER OR ROUTINE CONTRADICTIONS? Some Georgian opposition politicians, and several Russian observers interpreted the July 21 dismissal of Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava as a victory for the so-called "party of war" personalized by Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili. They expressed fears that Okruashvili would soon launch a military offensive against either South Ossetia or Abkhazia, fears that have been were fueled by the deployment of Georgian forces to the Kodori Gorge in western Georgia on July 24-25 to quash an apparent insurrection led former Kodori Gorge Governor Emzar Kvitsiani. But both Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli and parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze insist that Georgia remains committed to resolving its conflicts with those two breakaway regions by exclusively peaceful means.
Khaindrava's dismissal came at a point when tensions between Russia and Georgia had reached an all-time high in the wake of the Georgian parliament's demand for the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeeping forces deployed in the South Ossetian and Abkhaz conflict zones, a demand that officials in both unrecognized republics fear may herald a new aggression by Georgian forces. South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity commented on July 21 that Khaindrava's dismissal "will have a big impact" on efforts to resolve the conflict, while Deputy Prime Minister Boris Chochiyev interpreted it as a clear indication that "Georgia plans a military incursion," the independent television channel Rustavi-2 reported. By contrast, in Sukhum, Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba and President Sergei Bagapsh both downplayed Khaindrava's dismissal.
Moreover, Khaindrava was widely perceived as the last remaining "dove" within the Georgian leadership following the unexpected appointment in early June of Irakli Alasania, President Mikheil Saakashvili's special representative for the Abkhaz conflict, as Georgian ambassador to the UN (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," June 30, 2006). Alasania's flexibility and moderate stance resonated well with the Abkhaz side, and it was largely thanks to the good working relations he established with leading Abkhaz officials, Shamba in particular, that the two sides agreed earlier this year to resume sessions, suspended in January 2002, of the Coordinating Council established under the aegis of the UN.
Senior Georgian officials were quick to reject speculation that Khaindrava's departure was intended to remove the last remaining obstacle to a military solution to the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Prime Minister Noghaideli told Rustavi-2 on July 22 that the Georgian leadership's commitment to resolving those conflicts peacefully is unchanged, and parliament speaker Burdjanadze conveyed the same message on July 24 to the ambassadors in Tbilisi of Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) member states.
Meanwhile, some commentators have suggested alternative, and less alarming, explanations for Khaindrava's dismissal. One such explanation centers on Khaindrava's recent criticisms of his two most powerful cabinet colleagues, Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili and Okruashvili. Khaindrava made clear his displeasure at the Tbilisi court verdict handed down on July 6 to four Interior Ministry staffers found guilty of the January murder of banker Sandro Girgvliani. Several other senior ministry personnel and Merabishvili's wife Tako Salakaya quarreled publicly in a Tbilisi bar with Girgvliani hours before he was found on the outskirts of the city with his throat cut. Khaindrava commented publicly on July 6 that in Merabishvili's place, he would have resigned. Two weeks later, Khaindrava clashed publicly with Okruashvili after the latter praised a military police official who detained a senior Russian officer traveling through the South Ossetian conflict zone in a vehicle with diplomatic license plates -- a clear violation of the Vienna Convention.
Georgian political commentator Paata Zakareishvili offered a third possible explanation, telling the Russian daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" of July 24 that he believes Khaindrava's dismissal was intended as a warning to the Georgian leadership to demonstrate a united front in the run-up to local elections scheduled for October 6. Zakareishvili further made the point that the Georgian military cannot risk an ignominious defeat in either South Ossetia or Abkhazia in the run-up to the NATO summit in Riga in November at which Tbilisi hopes to be invited to proceed to an Intensified Dialogue with NATO, even if no firm invitation to join the alliance is forthcoming at that event.
There is, however, a fourth, more ominous explanation, namely that Okruashvili's long-term goals are not confined to restoring Georgian control over the two breakaway former autonomous regions. Khaindrava's own assessment of the situation lends credence to that hypothesis: he was quoted by the "Georgian Times" on July 22 as saying that his dismissal was part of an attempt "by some figures who...are undermining the president's power and his foreign policy to usurp government." He added that that Okruashvili and his supporters are "trying to seize power" by any means and "want to get rid of the president in the long run." Saakashvili's failure to intervene to prevent the operation mounted by Okruashvili and Merabishvili against Kvitsiani raises the question whether he is reluctant, for whatever reason, to challenge the two "power" ministers. (Liz Fuller)
FORMER AZERBAIJANI POLICE OFFICIAL CONFESSES TO JOURNALIST'S MURDER. Haci Mammadov, former head of the Criminal Investigation Department of the Azerbaijani Interior Ministry, confessed on July 25 to having killed opposition journalist Elmar Huseynov last year at the behest of then Economic Development Minister Farhad Aliyev. Huseynov, editor of the journal "Monitor" that systematically investigated alleged corruption, was gunned down outside his apartment on March 2, 2005. Days later, police arrested some 20 members of a gang reportedly led by Mammadov whose members are currently on trial for several high-profile killings and abductions committed over a period of 10 years.
Aliyev was dismissed from his post in October 2005 and arrested on charges of embezzlement and plotting a coup against the Azerbaijani leadership, charges he has steadfastly denied.
On July 26, Aliyev issued a statement to the Azerbaijani people, posted on day.az, in which he again asserted his innocence. Aliyev also said in that statement that he was recently warned that he would be charged with Huseynov's murder unless he agreed to plead guilty to the coup charge.
The preliminary hearings in the trial of Mammadov and 26 others accused with him opened in Baku's Court for Grave Crimes in early July. Lawyers for several of the accused demanded that the pretrial investigations be reopened, claiming that in some cases no evidence was available to substantiate charges.
For example, Nishad Ismailov is charged with having committed a murder in Azerbaijan, although he can prove he was in Moscow at the time of the killing, according to the online daily zerkalo.az on July 7. Requests by several defendants to summon senior officials to give evidence, including Prosecutor-General Zakir Garalov and Interior Minister Colonel General Ramil Usubov, were denied.
Testifying on July 25, Mammadov admitted to six murders, including those of a fellow Interior Ministry official, Azer Ismaylov, and of Huseynov. He added that then Economic Development Minister Aliyev ordered Huseynov's murder, but did not provide any further details, and the presiding judge adjourned the session immediately after that revelation. During his pretrial testimony, Mammadov said he was approached with a contract to kill Huseynov, but that he personally did not commit the murder.
In an analysis of the implications of Mammadov's claim of responsibility for Huseynov's murder published on July 26, the online daily zerkalo.az recalled that Turkish investigators asked by the Azerbaijani authorities last year to assist in the investigation of that killing raised the possibility that Mammadov was responsible, but the Azerbaijani authorities discounted that possibility.
Several suspects in Huseynov's killing have been named, but none apprehended. Zerkalo.az further suggested that Mammadov in fact had nothing to do with Huseynov's killing, but for reasons unclear agreed to shoulder responsibility for it.
Elton Guliyev, Aliyev's lawyer, dismissed Mammadov's allegation outright, and reaffirmed that during the nine months Aliyev has been held in pretrial detention, investigators have failed to produce a shred of evidence to substantiate the charges against him.
Shahbaz Hudoglu, a close friend of Huseynov, commented to day.az on July 26 that there was no ill-feeling between Huseynov and Aliyev. He said Huseynov considered Aliyev corrupt, although less so than many other government ministers. Hudoglu added that Huseynov gave Aliyev credit for being one of very few senior government officials to invest in the Azerbaijani economy.
Mammadov's sensational claim of responsibility for Huseynov's murder is likely to revive speculation, first expressed in January this year by a former police colonel dismissed from the Interior Ministry in 2001, about how his gang could have operated undetected over a period of 10 years without his superiors, including Usubov, suspecting anything. (Liz Fuller)
ARMENIAN JUDICIAL REFORM UNVEILED. Justice Minister David Harutiunian outlined on July 25 an impending reform of Armenia's judicial and law enforcement systems that he said is aimed at making them more independent and less corrupt. Harutiunian presented a package of relevant legislative amendments that have been drafted by an ad hoc working group headed by him. The group was tasked by the government with proposing changes stemming from the recent reform of the Armenian Constitution.
The most controversial and significant of its proposals would strip the Prosecutor-General's Office of its sweeping investigative powers and pass them on to the Police Service and the National Security Service. According to reports in the Armenian press, Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian and other top prosecutors have fiercely resisted the proposed change, fearing that their agency would become far less powerful as a result.
The disagreement reportedly prompted President Robert Kocharian to call a special meeting on the issue of top Justice Ministry officials and prosecutors last May. Kocharian appears to have eventually sided with Harutiunian. The latter insisted that only the Armenian police and the former KGB will have the power to conduct pretrial criminal investigations.
Harutiunian also unveiled a new draft Judicial Code that envisages structural changes in the Armenian judiciary. The code calls in particular for the introduction of new "courts of magistrates" that will deal only with civil lawsuits and minor criminal offenses. The other Armenian courts of first instance will deal with more serious crimes such as murders and armed robberies.
The proposed legislation would also curtail the powers of the Armenian Court of Appeals. It would be able to accept appeals only in the event of "judicial mistakes" committed by lower courts or "new circumstances" emerging after original litigations.
According to Harutiunian, these changes will render Armenia's courts more independent and objective. "This is essential for the country's continued development," he told reporters. "Without solving this issue we won't have the kind of development that we deserve."
The Armenian judiciary already underwent a sweeping structural reform more than a decade ago but hardly became more independent as a result. Local courts rarely acquit criminal suspects, investigate widespread torture allegations, or hand down rulings going against the government's wishes. Corruption among Armenian judges is also a serious problem.
Harutiunian, who has paid a key role in the selection and appointment of judges, himself has been accused of exercising considerable influence on their decisions. He admitted on July 25 that many judges "very often abuse their powers." "We are out to conclude that the situation is not good and that effective measures are need to rectify this situation," he said.
Some of the recently enacted amendments to the Armenian Constitution are supposed to boost judicial independence by seriously curbing Kocharian's hitherto unrestricted powers to appoint and sack judges. But independent lawyers say it will take years before the amendments can make a difference. (Anna Saghabalian)