4 November 2005, Volume 8, Number 39
ELEVENTH HOUR CONCESSIONS UNLIKELY TO INFLUENCE OUTCOME OF AZERBAIJANI VOTE. Even before the polls open for Azerbaijan's 6 November parliamentary election, anyone who genuinely believed that Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's 11 May decree instructing government officials at all levels to ensure that the ballot is free, fair, and transparent -- marking a clean break with the electoral malpractice of the past decade -- must be disappointed.
True, the international community has registered some notable improvements over previous elections, specifically the lifting of restrictions of opposition parties seeking to participate, and greater access to the media for opposition candidates. Over 2,000 candidates succeeded in registering, of whom some 450-500 have either withdrawn or, in a handful of instances, had their registration cancelled for violations.
But the overall pattern, familiar from the elections of 1995, 2000, and 2003, of blatant intervention by local officials to support the government-backed candidate(s) in conjunction with harassment of opposition candidates -- still persists -- and has been documented in detail in preliminary assessments of the election campaign released in recent weeks by Human Rights Watch and the OSCE'S Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. The general assessment is that the changes to electoral law endorsed by the Azerbaijani parliament at the behest of President Ilham Aliyev and in response to persistent pressure from the U.S. and the Council of Europe, are too little, too late, or, as "RFE/RL Caucasus Report" suggested on 2 September, a mixture of showmanship and brinkmanship. The Azerbaijani authorities did not, after all, yield on the opposition's most pressing demand, supported by the Council of Europe, for additional representation on election commissions.
The U.S. and the Council of Europe have greeted the most recent concessions, including the lifting of restrictions on local NGOs wishing to monitor the ballot and the use of indelible ink to mark voters' fingers to preclude multiple voting. Over 500 candidates had called for the latter innovation in an appeal addressed to President Aliyev, the Azerbaijani parliament, the Central Election Commission (MSK), and the OSCE in early October, according to zerkalo.az on 22 October. But some observers have queried whether it can be successfully implemented. Georgia and Denmark have provided Azerbaijan with indelible ink and the ultraviolet light bulbs needed to detect it, but it is questionable whether local officials at over 4,500 polling stations could be trained in how to use that apparatus in less than two weeks. The website echo-az.com on 1 November quoted Central Election Commission (MSK) Secretary Natig Mamedov as saying that those technical preparations are "almost complete." It is also possible that President Aliyev's 25 October instruction that voters need not, after all, produce a voter identification document in order to obtain a ballot sheet may compound confusion at polling stations or create loopholes for malpractice.
And one innovation -- the planned conduct, funded by USAID, of exit polls in 65 of the 125 constituencies -- has already become the subject of suspicion and speculation. (Two further companies have been contracted to conduct parallel exit polls by clients whose identity has not been disclosed, according to a Eurasia View analysis of 5 October.) The 65 constituencies in question were reportedly chosen at random, but they do not include those where five leading members of the three major opposition parties aligned in the Azadliq bloc -- Ali Kerimli and Fuad Mustafaev of the progressive wing of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP), Isa Qambar of the Musavat party, and Rasul Quliyev and Sardar Calaloglu of the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan (ADP) -- are candidates, according to zerkalo.az on 3 November. Nor is the Baku constituency where President Aliyev's wife, Mehriban, is running as a candidate for the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party among those where exit polls will be conducted. It is, moreover, by no means certain how reliable the exit polls will prove to be. It was suggested by zerkalo.az on 19 July that many Azerbaijanis are either too conservative, or may be afraid, to admit publicly to having voted for an opposition candidate.
Meanwhile two recent opinion polls have yielded very different prognoses concerning the composition of the new legislature. The first, conducted by the ADAM Sociological Center, was conducted from 17 September-16 October in 10 cities and districts, including Baku and Gyanja. Its findings were summarized by Turan on 28 October. Of 1,000 respondents, 31.2 percent said they intend to vote on 6 November for Azadlyq, 22.7 percent for the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP), 6.3 percent for the Yeni Siyaset (YeS) bloc that unites a number of prominent former officials and opposition political figures, 2.5 percent for the Liberal Party of Azerbaijan, and 16.7 percent for independent candidates.
The second poll was conducted by the Rey Sociological Center among 500 residents of Baku and Sumgait and a further 1,000 residents of unspecified regions of the country on 26-27 October, and its findings were posted on 28 October by day.az, which appears sympathetic to the country's leadership. That second poll registered more than double the support for YAP -- 59.1 percent, while support for independent candidates was almost the same as in the first poll (17.4 percent). Azadlyq received 6.3 percent support, Yeni Siyaset 1.2 percent, and the Liberal Party 0.4 percent. A similar poll conducted by Rey several weeks earlier registered only 39.4 percent support for YAP, with 27.3 percent of respondents undecided, according to echo-az.com on 7 October.
Speaking at a press conference in Baku on 3 November, AHCP leader Kerimli predicted that if the voting on 6 November is truly free and fair, Azadlyq will garner no less than 75 percent of the 125 parliament mandates, Turan and day.az reported. The previous day, YAP Executive Secretary Ali Ahmedov similarly told ITAR-TASS his party hopes at a minimum to retain the 74 seats it currently holds in the legislature. (Liz Fuller)
GEORGIA LAUNCHES NEW PEACE INITIATIVE FOR SOUTH OSSETIA. On 27 October, Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli presented to the OSCE's Permanent Council in Vienna the most recent version of President Mikheil Saakashvili's proposals for resolving the South Ossetian conflict. The United States endorsed those proposals in a written statement on 28 October, but Russian officials have since dismissed them as unworkable and a departure from Saakashvili's original peace proposal, which he outlined to the UN General Assembly in September 2004. Saakshivili unveiled revised versions of his peace plan at the spring session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in January 2005, and at an international conference in Adjara in July 2005 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 September 2004 and 27 January and 11 July 2005).
Like the earlier versions, the most recent Georgian peace proposal envisages granting South Ossetia "broad autonomy" within Georgia. But it contains new proposals regarding the actual peace process, specifically, drawing the United States, the EU and the OSCE into the search for a political settlement to the conflict alongside Russia. It also advocates the immediate demilitarization of the conflict zone and imposing strict border controls at the Roki tunnel linking South Ossetia with the Russian Federation, both moves that would undercut Russia's ability to channel support to the South Ossetian leadership and thus use the conflict as leverage against Georgia. And while Saakashvili's January peace plan provided for a three-year transition period, the updated version envisages resolving the conflict by 2007.
For the past 13 years, since the presidents of Russia and Georgia -- Boris Yeltsin and Eduard Shevardnadze, respectively -- signed an agreement in Dagomys in July 1992 on ending sporadic fighting between Georgian and South Ossetian irregular troops, Russia has played a key role both in maintaining a tenuous peace in the conflict zone and in promoting the search for a political settlement. The primary vehicle for doing so is the so-called Joint Control Commission (JCC) on which Russia, Georgia, and the governments of both North Ossetia and South Ossetia are represented, and which regularly monitors the situation in the conflict zone, where Russia, Georgia, and South Ossetia have each deployed 500 peacekeeping troops.
Georgia has, however, repeatedly accused Moscow of abusing its internationally recognized role as peacekeeper and of obstructing a political solution to the conflict in a bid to preserve its rapidly dwindling influence in the South Caucasus. Specifically, Georgian officials have accused Russia of channeling financial and military aid to the South Ossetian leadership and of abetting large-scale smuggling that helped keep the unrecognized republic afloat; they also condemn the practice of distributing Russian passports to any Ossetians who apply for them.
Latent Georgian anger over the Russian peacekeepers' failure to comply strictly with their mandate erupted in late September after the South Ossetian leadership displayed tanks and other armored vehicles during a parade on 20 September to mark the 15th anniversary of a referendum in which the region's Ossetian residents voted to secede from Georgia. Tbilisi branded the presence of that heavy armor a clear violation of earlier demilitarization agreements. (Several mortar rounds were fired on the 20 September parade from Georgian-populated villages, injuring 10 people; the perpetrators have not yet been identified or brought to justice.) Then, on 11 October, the Georgian parliament adopted a resolution criticizing the perceived failure of the Russian peacekeeping forces in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia to comply with their respective mandates. That resolution accused the Russian peacekeepers in both conflict zones of turning a blind eye to abductions of and violent attacks on local civilians, smuggling, illicit arms sales and other crimes, and, in the case of South Ossetia, of providing military assistance to the breakaway republic's leadership. It set deadlines of 10 February 2006 and 1 July 2006, respectively, for the Russian peacekeepers deployed in the South Ossetian and Abkhaz conflict zones to demonstrate they are complying with the terms of their respective mandates and that their continued presence in the conflict zones is essential. In the event that they fail to do so, the Georgian parliament will insist on their withdrawal within two weeks and their replacement by an international peacekeeping force.
The Russian Foreign Ministry responded on 12 October to that ultimatum with a harshly worded statement decrying the Georgian resolution as "provocative," "irresponsible," aimed at undermining peaceful negotiations, and as an attempt to offload responsibility for the existing tensions. It stressed that over the past two years Russia, together with its foreign partners, has made a considerable effort to preserve a "fragile balance" that, it alleged, has been constantly endangered by both militant statements on the part of unnamed Georgian politicians and "direct attempts to resolve the problems of Abkhazia and South Ossetia with the help of military force" -- an allusion to the ill-fated Georgian military action in South Ossetia last August. In that context, the Russian Foreign Ministry stressed that the international community considers the recourse to use the military to be unacceptable.
At a meeting of the JCC in Moscow last week, Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava argued that the JCC is ineffective, as the measures on which it agrees are rarely implemented. He therefore advocated expanding the format of talks on resolving the conflict to give a greater role to the OSCE and the EU, but Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Valerii Loshchinin and Ambassador Valerii Kenyaikin, who heads Russia's delegation to the talks, argued against any such changes. Both Kenyaikin and South Ossetian delegation head Boris Chochiev termed the JCC and the Russian-Georgian-Ossetian peacekeeping force currently deployed in the conflict zone "the only effective and promising mechanisms" for resolving the conflict. In an apparent softening of Moscow's position, Russian Ambassador to Tbilisi Vladimir Chkhikvishvili told Interfax on 1 November after talks in Tbilisi with Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Merab Antadze that he thinks it "possible" and "viable" for the United States to play a role in resolving the conflict, but only provided the current JCC format for talks is preserved.
At one level Saakashvili's revised peace plan for South Ossetia is simply the latest chapter in an ongoing effort to persuade the international community to take Georgia's side against Russia in expediting a solution to the conflict that would restore Georgia's control over its breakaway former autonomies. But it can also be seen as an attempt to preempt either further pressure on the government on the part of the Georgian parliament, or a deterioration of relations with Russia. True, the 11 October Georgian parliament resolution is not legally binding on the executive; but in the wake of the muscle-flexing by the parliament that precipitated the resignation two weeks ago of Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili, the government may well wish to avoid another standoff with the legislature. And a demand by parliament that the Georgian government insist on the Russian peacekeepers' withdrawal by mid-2006 would inevitably trigger a further crisis in relations with Moscow. On 31 October, Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili told journalists that if an agreement is reached on amending the format of the peace process then the Georgian government will ask the parliament to revise its ultimatum on the terms for the Russian peacekeepers' withdrawal, Caucasus Press reported.
There is one further factor that may be of relevance to the new Georgian campaign to expedite a solution to the South Ossetian conflict, and that is the risk that a military engagement in South Ossetia -- whether planned or spontaneous -- could, if it ended in humiliation for Georgia, jeopardize the Georgian leadership's hopes of admission to NATO by 2009. Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili was born in Tskhinvali and is believed to have been the moving force behind the botched incursion into South Ossetia in August 2004. (Reports that he personally gave the orders for the 20 September mortar attack on Tskhinvali have not been confirmed.) Okruashvili has been subjected to criticism over allegations that he has personally authorized the spending of huge sums from the ministry's budget for purposes that remain unclear (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 22 July 2005). Summoned to parliament last week to respond to those accusations, he insisted that all defense spending is "transparent" and that legislators can obtain details on request, Caucasus Press reported on 27 October.
The authority of the Defense Ministry has been damaged by two other recent developments. Some 200 servicemen from the elite commandos battalion resigned their commissions last month. And Saakashvili's chief military adviser (the former chief of General Staff), General Vakhtang Kapanadze, stepped down last week in the wake of a scandal over the procurement from Ukraine of 40 armored personnel carriers that proved to be nonoperational when first deployed during maneuvers. Three Defense Ministry officials have been arrested in connection with that incident.
Russia has already signaled that it plans to do all in its power to delay, if not prevent, a swift solution to the South Ossetian conflict. Russian ambassador to Tbilisi Chkhikvishvili told journalists on 31 October that it is "impossible" to resolve the conflict by 2007 as Saakashvili apparently hopes to do; Chkhikvishvili adduced the problem of Cyprus, which has lasted for three decades. Three days earlier, on 28 October, a so-called congress of Russian citizens of South Ossetia -- presumably those 90 percent of the republic's population who have availed themselves of the offer for Russian passports -- adopted an appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin to take "active measures" to prevent a new military aggression by Georgia against South Ossetia and to consider granting formal recognition to the Republic of South Ossetia as a preliminary to incorporating it into the Russian Federation and uniting it with North Ossetia, Caucasus Press reported. (Liz Fuller)
POLL REVEALS HIGH LEVEL OF DISCONTENT IN INGUSHETIA. The "Caucasus Times" has published the findings of an opinion poll conducted in Nazran, home to an estimated 25 percent of Ingushetia's population, during the last week of October. The 200 persons polled were aged between 16-65 and from of various nationalities and social groups. The findings were summarized on 1 November by the opposition website ingushetiya.ru.
They reflected a high level of discontent with the policies of both the central and the republic's leadership, but also only limited readiness to demonstrate that discontent openly by participating in antigovernment protests.
Asked to identify the most acute problems facing the republic, 60 percent named social and economic issues, which would include unemployment, and 53 percent the dangers posed by organized crime and terrorism. Those perceptions, ingushetiya.ru observed, are shared by the population of other federation entities in the North Caucasus. But in third place, 45 percent of the Nazran residents polled named persistent tensions between Ingushetia and the neighboring Republic of North Ossetia over Prigorodnyi Raion. That district --until World War II part of the Checheno-Ingush ASSR -- was incorporated into North Ossetia following the mass deportation of the Chechens and Ingush to Central Asia on Stalin's orders in 1944. The spontaneous return of Ingush families in the early 1990s triggered fierce fighting in November 1992 in which several hundred people died.
Curiously, only 2 percent of those polled named corruption as a serious problem.
Fewer than 50 percent of those polled were optimistic that the situation in Ingushetia will improve in the near future: 36 percent anticipated that it will deteriorate, and a further 26 percent predicted it will remain more or less the same. Only 22 percent did not expect things to get much worse.
Respondents were overwhelmingly negative in their assessment of the Russian leadership's decision to abolish elections for the heads of federation subjects. Thirty-two percent of those polled predicted that the abolition of direct elections will lead to new problems, and 28 percent predicted that it will exacerbate existing problems. Only 20 percent thought it could help to stabilize the region.
Yet despite the high level of discontent and pessimism, only 13 percent of respondents were unequivocally prepared to participate in antigovernment protests, while a further 17 percent said they would "probably" do so. By contrast, 47 percent categorically ruled out any participation in antigovernment protests.
The website ingushetiya.ru also approached the republic's two most prominent oppositionists last week to ask why the wave of protest demonstrations launched in the spring of this year has subsided (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 1 April 2005 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 May 2005). Shortly before Russian President Putin renominated incumbent Ingushetian President Murat Zyazikov for a second term in June, the opposition declared a three-month moratorium on public protests to give Zyazikov a chance to fulfill his recent pledge to return Prigorodnyi Raion to Ingushetian control. Zyazikov had earlier complained that the opposition was hindering him in his attempts to do so (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 May and 6 and 8 June 2005).
Echoing his reply to a similar question from ingushetiya.ru in mid-September, shortly after the three-month moratorium on protests expired, Rustam Archakov, one of the leaders of the Youth Movement of Ingushetia, said that the Ingushetian leadership has done all in its power to destroy the legal and constitutional foundations for legitimate protest against corruption and mismanagement, but has succeeded only in impelling ever-larger numbers of young men to join the armed resistance, according to ingushetiya.ru on 24 October. Archakov suggested that the current tense and unstable situation is advantageous for Zyazikov in that it furnishes him with a pretext for demanding additional funding from Moscow, which he can then distribute as he thinks appropriate. He said that following Zyazikov's renomination many young men have lost all confidence in the leadership and sooner or later will attempt to "restore order" by force. In mid-September, Archakov told ingushetiya.ru that Zyazikov's popularity has hit an all-time low and that "things will soon be resolved one way or the other. This corrupt leadership cannot remain in power for much longer."
Republic of Ingushetia parliament deputy Musa Ozdoev, for his part, referred to the authorities' deployment of police, tanks, and armored personnel carriers to forestall planned protests in April. He said that for the time being the opposition will not stage further protests, but wait to see whether the republic's leadership manages to make good on Zyazikov's pledge to resolve the deadlock over Prigorodnyi Raion, rather than risk accusations that they are sabotaging attempts to resolve that problem. (Liz Fuller)
QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "[International] recognition of Kosovo [as an independent state] would be a politically positive sign for the Armenians of Karabakh." -- Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, in an interview with the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" on 27 October.
"I am not more radical than Islam, and I aspire to peace no less than Islam demands." -- Chechen resistance leader Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev, quoted by chechenpress.org on 30 October.
"We have repeated so often that in the North Caucasus we are waging a war against international terrorism that it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy." -- Russian analyst Andrei Piontkovskii, quoted by ingushetiya.ru on 29 October.
"Corruption is not a bunch of potatoes that you can measure and say whether it has increased or decreased. Corruption is a phenomenon which is impossible to measure, just as it is impossible to measure love." -- Armenian presidential adviser Bagrat Yesayan, quoted by RFE/RL's Armenian Service on 2 November.