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Caucasus Report: September 1, 2006

September 1, 2006, Volume 9, Number 30

SCHEDULING OF GEORGIAN LOCAL ELECTIONS TRIGGERS FUROR. President Mikheil Saakashvili's August 26 decision to bring forward the date of elections for local and municipal councils and mayors of major towns and cities has triggered a storm of protest from Georgian opposition parties, including those that earlier announced their intention to boycott that ballot. And the apparent willingness of the ruling National Movement to "bend the rules" to permit parliament deputies to participate in mayoral elections has only made things worse.

On August 7, presidential-administration head Giorgi Arveladze said the local elections would be held in early December, Caucasus Press reported. But on August 28 -- a public holiday in Georgia -- it was announced that President Saakashvili signed a decree two days earlier scheduling the elections for October 5. Those opposition parties that had not yet done so were constrained to scramble to submit applications to register for the ballot before the formal deadline for doing so expired at 6 p.m. local time on August 28.

Earlier this summer, the major opposition parties -- the Republican party headed by Davit Usupashvili, the New Conservatives (aka New Rightists) headed by Davit Gamkrelidze, the Conservatives (co-chaired by Koba Davitashvili and Zviad Dzidziguri), the Industrialists (Zurab Tkemaladze), the Labor party (Chairman Shota Natelashvili), Tavisupleba (Liberty, chaired by Konstantine Gamsakhurdia, son of the late President Zviad Gamsakhurdia), and the People's Forum (headed by Akaki Asatiani) -- mulled a collective boycott of the ballot, but were advised against it on the grounds that the minimum voter participation for the ballot to be valid is so low that a boycott could not affect the outcome, according to "The Messenger" on July 17.

Following further consultations on August 5, the Republicans, Conservatives, and Industrialists decided to field candidates in the ballot, while the remaining four parties held fast to the idea of a boycott, Caucasus Press reported. Labor's Natelashvili was nonetheless quoted on August 7 as saying he might reconsider that decision. On August 22, Republican party parliament deputy Davit Berdzenishvili was quoted by the daily "Rezonansi" as saying that the Republicans, Conservatives, and Industrialists would resume talks at the end of the month on forming an election bloc, and hoped they could persuade the Labor party to align with them, Civil Georgia reported. On August 31, Natelashvili announced that Labor will indeed participate in the vote, adding that he believes it has "the best chance" of winning, Caucasus Press reported. Labor made a strong showing in the 2002 municipal elections, garnering the largest percentage of the vote (25.5 percent) in Tbilisi.

But Tavisupleba reaffirmed its intention to boycott the election, Caucasus Press reported on August 28. The Greens and the movement We Ourselves issued comparable statements on August 30 saying they will not participate in the ballot, while Samartlianoba (Justice) did likewise on August 31.

Prior to Saakashvili's August 28 announcement, the only opposition formation to have registered for the local elections was Georgia's Path, the movement established by Salome Zourabichvili following her dismissal as foreign minister last fall. On August 28, seven other parties also applied for registration: the Republican party, Industry Will Save Georgia, and the smaller and less influential National Ideology Party, Merab Kostava Society, and Mother Georgia. The two latter parties were refused registration, however, on the grounds that they failed to submit the required 50,000 signatures in their support, according to Caucasus Press on August 31. The Conservatives and Labor were exempt from registration, having fielded candidates independently in previous elections, according to Caucasus Press on August 28.

A total of nine parties finally succeeded in registering, according to Caucasus Press on August 31: Industry Will Save Georgia, the Republican Party, the Conservative Party, the National Ideology Party, Georgia's Way, the New Conservatives, the ruling United National Movement, the National-Democratic Party, and the Labor Party.

Meanwhile, the Central Election Commission sought to address a further problem resulting from the timing of the local election. The election law stipulates that parliament deputies must temporarily relinquish their mandates before registering as mayoral candidates. But the deadline for registration is September 11, while parliament reconvenes after its summer recess only on September 12. That restriction affects Conservative party leader Koba Davitashvili and the Republicans' Berdzenishvili, who sought to run for mayor in Tbilisi and Batumi, respectively. Both men accused the Georgian authorities on August 29 of sabotaging their chances of participating in the election, the pro-government television station Rustavi-2 reported.

Giga Bokeria, a prominent member of the parliament faction of the majority National Movement, suggested on August 28 that Davitashvili and Berdzenishvili should appeal to the parliament's bureau to convene an emergency session at which they could surrender their mandates, Caucasus Press reported. Central Election Commission Chairman Guram Chalagashvili for his part reasoned that the parliament bureau will convene one week before the opening of the fall session and that body strip the two deputies of their mandates, Civil Georgia reported on August 29. But Tina Khidasheli of the Republican party countered on August 29 that Bokeria's suggestion violates not only the law on parliament deputies but also the Georgian Constitution. Parliament deputy Kakha Kukava (Conservative) similarly said it would be "absolutely illegal" for the parliament bureau to do so.

The Tbilisi mayoral election may, moreover, prove an obstacle to the creation of an opposition bloc to challenge the ruling National Movement in voting across the country. Four parties -- the New Conservatives, the Republicans, the Conservatives, and Industry Will Save Georgia -- are currently mulling such an alignment, according to Civil Georgia on August 30.

But as indicated above, Conservative leader Davitashvili hopes to run for Tbilisi mayor, while the New Conservatives are reportedly considering making their participation in a putative opposition bloc contingent on that bloc nominating wealthy businessman Badri Patarkatsishvili as its candidate for that post. New Conservatives leader Gamkrelidze explained to journalists on August 29 that there is little point in participating in the elections unless the bloc has a real chance of success, and that Patarkatsishvili is undoubtedly their best bet. (An opinion poll of 447 people conducted in June by the weekly "Kviris palitra" found that Patarkatsishvili was the most popular prospective candidate, with 27 percent support, followed by Zourabichvili [18 percent], Davitashvili [16 percent] and incumbent Gigi Ugulava and beer magnate Gogi Topadze, founder of Industry Will Save Georgia, both with 14 percent.)

But Tkemaladze was quoted on August 30 as saying the Industrialists plan to nominate Topadze as their candidate for Tbilisi mayor, while Republican party leader Usupashvili told Civil Georgia on August 22 that his party has "never considered" nominating Patarkatsishvili.

In light of those two parties' reservations about Patarkatsishvili's candidacy, the prospective opposition alliance could be confined to the Conservatives and Republicans. Those two parties are now considering the possibility of nominating former Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava as their candidate for mayor of Tbilisi, Caucasus Press reported on August 31. Khaindrava, who was dismissed in July following disagreements with hawkish Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, has not yet commented publicly on that possibility. Nor is it clear whether Davitashvili would shelve his own ambitions to back Khaindrava.

Zourabichvili, who plans to run in the Tbilisi mayoral election, stands to gain if the other opposition parties fail to unite behind a single candidate. Speaking on August 29 at a press conference in Tbilisi, she described herself as "the real opposition candidate," according to Civil Georgia. She also branded the authorities' decision to bring the election date forward by two months "a sign of weakness." (Liz Fuller)

THIRD AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITION PARTY FALLS VICTIM TO INFIGHTING. The failure of exiled former parliament speaker Rasul Quliyev to make good on his pledge to return to Baku last October to participate in the November 6 parliamentary ballot served to undermine both Quliyev's credibility and that of the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan (DPA) of which he is chairman. The ensuing struggle for influence within the party between its first deputy chairman, Sardar Calaloglu, and Quliyev's close associate Aydin Quliyev has triggered the defection of dozens of DPA supporters to the political movement Azerbaijan's Path, which is led by Ilgar Gasymov, a former senior official in the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office. The DPA is the third opposition party -- after the Azerbaijan National Independence Party and Musavat -- to be rent by infighting in the aftermath of the November ballot.

In late March, almost five months after the ill-fated parliamentary ballot, Rasul Quliyev promoted to the party's leadership two of his supporters, Yagub Abbasov and Magomed Aliyarov, without first informing Calaloglu, reported on March 25. Abbasov was quoted by on March 29 as explaining that those appointments were intended to "overcome pessimism" among the party's rank and file, but Aliyarov resigned from his new post almost immediately, allegedly for health reasons, saying Quliyev did not consult him before appointing him. Calaloglu for his part publicly alleged on April 5 that Rasul Quliyev "has lost hope," something that Calaloglu stressed a true politician should never do, according to Zamina Dunyamaliyeva, a member of the DPA governing board, construed Calaloglu's accusation as part of a broader plan to oust Rasul Quliyev from the post of party chairman, according to on April 10.

By mid-July, the extent of the pessimism within the DPA became crystal clear: calculated on July 15 that 38 members had recently quit the party to join Gasymov's movement, one of the stated aims of which is to force a solution on terms favorable to Azerbaijan of the Karabakh conflict and to achieve the status of autonomy for Azerbaijanis forcibly deported from Armenia. Calaloglu retaliated by accusing Gasymov, first, of collaborating with Russian military intelligence, according to on July 20, and then of "seeking to demolish a pro-Western political party," the same agency reported on August 2. (The signing of a cooperation agreement between Gasymov and the Georgian opposition organization Samartlianoba [Justice], one of whose leading members is fugitive former National Security Minister Igor Giorgadze, may well have contributed to speculation about Gasymov's ties with Russian security bodies.) Responding to those allegations, which he dismissed as "ridiculous," Gasymov nonetheless admitted to on August 2 that at least 60 former DPA members have joined Azerbaijan's Path.

The most serious blow to the DPA's prestige came just days later, when its local branch in Agjabed Raion was dissolved and 112 former branch members joined Azerbaijan's Way en masse, reported on August 11. Former branch head Tofiq Cafarov explained his and his fellow members' motivation to that paper, arguing that rivalries among the various opposition parties preclude their aligning to form a realistic alternative to Azerbaijan's present leadership. "We are tired of hearing 'Next time around we shall come to power.' How long can they continue trying to dupe people?" he asked rhetorically. But Aydyn Quliyev gave a different interpretation to the exodus of members from the DPA, telling on August 22 that "people are running away not from the Democratic Party but from Calaloglu and his entourage, who have created an intolerable situation within the party."

Meanwhile, Calaloglu continued to downplay the defections of DPA members to Gasymov, accusing the latter of "lies," reported on August 8. But Quliyev seems to have given up completely on the DPA and is now channeling his energy into founding a new International Democratic Movement, the founding conference of which is scheduled for October, Dunyamaliyeva told on August 21. (Liz Fuller)

EU EXTERNAL RELATIONS COMMISSIONER COMMENTS ON DEVELOPMENTS IN SOUTH CAUCASUS. European Commission officials on August 29 confirmed that EU neighborhood policy "action plans" have been successfully negotiated with Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia and now await member state approval. But one day earlier, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner warned at a conference in Bled, Slovenia of the dangers inherent in spiraling military spending (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 30, 2006). Azerbaijan's Defense Minister, Colonel General Safar Abiyev, shrugged off that expression of concern on August 31, saying that "if some EU commissioner is concerned by the rise in Azerbaijani military spending, that's his problem," reported. Ferrero-Waldner discussed various aspects of EU policy towards the South Caucasus, with an RFE/RL correspondent in Brussels on August 30.

RFE/RL: You issued an unusually blunt warning to Georgia and the rest of the South Caucasus in a speech [on August 28 in Bled] to check the rise of their defense budgets. What is the message the European Union is sending the region? The strong interest of the United States in Georgia, for example, appears unaffected by recent developments.

Benita Ferrero-Waldner: Well, let me first say it was not only on Georgia. It was on all the countries [in the South Caucasus], and I also wanted to make this message to Azeris and Armenians. Because a sort of hate speech is also there, and we have to go against that, because a war would be a disaster. And of course, very often conflict and armed conflicts start with hate speech. But I also include Georgia, because I think [that] if you want to achieve something -- and here [there is] the [demand for] full sovereignty on South Ossetia, and also Abkhazia -- then I think you have to start to dialogue with the partner. And this goes for both sides, this goes for both sides -- also for the neighbor.

RFE/RL: So you see hate speech coming out of all three capitals?

Ferrero-Waldner: Well, hate speech and very tough rhetoric.

RFE/RL: In your speech you said you will visit the region in early October to deliver the completed EU neighborhood policy "action plans." Are the action plans in any way conditional on compliance with the warning you've just given?

Ferrero-Waldner: I think it is very similar to what we said [at an earlier press conference on development aid]. Good governance is coming in there and therefore I mentioned strongly the [EU] neighborhood policy, because it's the best policy that already has shown that we are working on good governance. Good governance means also that governments are behaving. And we are having a permanent, a constant dialogue with them. And of course in each and every dialogue we mention those things we feel they should not be [continuing]. And this is one of them.

RFE/RL: So the action plans are safe at this stage, no matter what?

Ferrero-Waldner: I do think so, absolutely. I think with the action plans we can also start working with them more closely, with TAIEX [the European Commission's Technical Assistance and Information Exchange program], with twinning. Also, for instance, with the reform of the judicial system -- highly important. With administrative reform. All of that is necessary and I think it's indispensable to do it. (Ahto Lobjakas)

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK. "I am ready to announce a jihad to liberate the Azerbaijani territories occupied [by Armenian forces] when the time comes." -- Sheikh-ul-Islam Allakhshukur Pashazade, chairman of the Spiritual Board of Muslims of the Caucasus, speaking to journalists in Baku on August 23 (quoted by Trend news agency).