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Caucasus Report: January 25, 2004

25 January 2004, Volume 7, Number 4

INTERVIEW WITH FORMER GEORGIAN PRESIDENT EDUARD SHEVARDNADZE. The appended interview was conducted recently in Tbilisi by RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Andrei Babitsky.

RFE/RL: Do you consider the fact that you were forced to resign as a personal tragedy?

SHEVARDNADZE: A tragedy? No. I believe politicians should always remain realistic. I think my resignation was the only way to avoid bloodshed. You know that I assessed the storming of parliament and the State Chancellery [by opposition supporters] as a coup attempt, and that I decreed a state of emergency. You know what a state of emergency is -- troops, armored vehicles, tanks, etc. Naturally, should we have put all these forces into action, we would have dispersed the crowd within 20 or 30 minutes.

But on second thought, after I decreed the state of emergency, I came to the conclusion that that was impossible to achieve without bloodshed because the street protesters were full of anger and nearly out of control. This is why I thought we needed to find another way out.

I thought it over all night and came to the conclusion that the only hope left was for the president to resign. I couldn't stand the idea of bloodshed, casualties. That's why I told representatives of the opposition I had decided to resign. I cannot say they were particularly joyful, enthusiastic. Obviously, they did not expect I would make such a decision. They started thinking it over, considering what their next step should be.

They then announced my decision to the crowd. How many people were in the streets then? Twenty, thirty thousand? Forty thousand, maybe? I could, of course, have turned to supporters in Tbilisi and other parts of Georgia, and maybe I would have garnered 100,000 or 150,000 people. But that would have sparked civil confrontation, civil war. I thought we mustn't let that happen after what we had endured in the past 10 years, the civil war and the bloody [separatist] conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

I understood that mustn't happen again and made the only possible decision. I'm sure that was the right step, even though, formally speaking, it may seem disadvantageous for a president to resign. But, looking into what is happening today and what is going to happen in the future, I think history will show I made the right decision.

RFE/RL: What do you expect from Georgia's new leaders, many of whom are former allies of yours? Do you think they will succeed in reviving Georgia's economy?

SHEVARDNADZE: I believe that with the help of foreign countries -- and under that condition only, because they have no other source of financing -- the new government may temporarily extricate Georgia from the current situation. I know exactly what the country's financial resources are. It is absolutely impossible to settle the debts to pensioners, teachers, and others. The country hasn't got enough money to do so.

The Americans have promised to help us. U.S. President [George W.] Bush wrote me to tell that they will do their utmost to complete the reforms I started. But the Americans have no extra money. They have their own problems. They can provide financial assistance for two, three, four, or six months at most. But on the whole, we're in a very difficult situation. Some [economic] projects should start bringing profits by the next year-and-a-half or two years. I'm thinking of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan [oil pipeline]. I'm also thinking of the [Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum] natural-gas pipeline, whose planning stage is near completion.

These projects are Georgia's biggest achievements. They represent our security. But they will not be profitable before some time -- two or three years at the earliest. The situation is not as simple as [Georgia's new leaders] may think. You know, to address crowds and make promises does not require very much brains. I myself miscalculated in the past. Unfortunately, I [once] told the Georgian people I would ensure that 1 million new jobs are created. But I could not keep my promises. We were able to create only half-a-million or 600,000 new jobs. We didn't get enough investments to create the remaining 400,000.

I am comparatively more experienced than [Georgia's new leaders] and more careful than they are. I don't blame them because they need popular support. They think that after one or two months in power they will get new financial resources. That's one thing, if the Americans take it upon themselves to help Georgia. But I don't believe this is going to happen.

True, other countries are helping us. Germany is determined to provide substantial help. So are the Netherlands and other states. But a day will come when we have to count on our own resources.

RFE/RL: Critics say the new leadership will not stay in power very long, that they have no program. Do you think these accusations are reasonable?

SHEVARDNADZE: You know, there may be some truth here. One has to keep in mind that they were not prepared to accede to power so quickly and so easily. Ask any one of them where does he see [Georgia] in the coming years, he would not be able to answer. They say what is needed is to fight corruption, that they will imprison all corrupt officials, etc.

Basically, they're right. In principle, this is possible. But eradicating corruption is not enough to sustain a country. Corruption has its own motivations, and one has to thoroughly study that phenomenon and eliminate the foundations that allow corruption to exist. As for the rest, I don't know. I very seldom meet them. Of course, I would be interested to learn [from them] how they plan to revive the country, what do they think the primary tasks should be.

True, they have already achieved a few successes. They have freed a banker who had been kidnapped and whom I know very well. They're making a great fuss about that, but there is nothing so extraordinary here. They're making a song and dance because that serves their immediate interests. But what will happen tomorrow? They will have to pay salaries and pensions. The army is demanding money, a great deal of money. They will have to sustain the state administration. Even if they appoint their men to replace government ministers, they will have to pay them anyway. They will remain patient for one month, two months, three months, but eventually they will start shouting and making demands. As a result, the new appointees will turn out to be much worse than their predecessors.

I don't want to make pessimistic predictions, but really the situation is difficult. It is even more difficult than before I resigned.

RFE/RL: Do you think Georgia's foreign policy will undergo substantial changes under the new leadership?

SHEVARDNADZE: In the field of foreign policy, I think [Georgia's] new leaders have no other solution than to follow in our footsteps. To sum up, what has been our policy? We looked for and found friends all throughout the world.

When I came back to power [in 1992], Georgia was completely isolated on the international stage. Now, the entire world community recognizes Georgia. We are members of the United Nations and the Council of Europe. Everything is being prepared so that we will soon enter the European Union. That will be a great step forward, even though that may require some time -- maybe a year-and-a-half or two years. We also have a real opportunity to join NATO. Prospects of normalizing our relations with Russia look good. Our relations with the U.S. are good. The external world is committed to helping Georgia settle its problems. [Foreign] countries have helped us, spending billions [of dollars] for the reconstruction of Georgia, They are ready to continue to help our country.

But we cannot rely on foreign help indefinitely. The situation is difficult. I am not saying it is hopeless. As far as I can judge, [the new leadership] is putting the emphasis on corruption, on the eradication of corruption. This is a good thing. However, if you calculate to what extent the state budget could profit from this, this is not very much. You can always arrest such-and-such corrupt official, but you won't be able to draw up a national budget this way.

RFE/RL: Relations between the leadership of the autonomous Republic of Adjaria and Georgia's new leadership have deteriorated in recent weeks. Do you think the current standoff will have any consequences in Adjaria?

SHEVARDNADZE: This is an important issue. Before the [November] events, I went to Adjaria to meet [regional leader Aslan] Abashidze. Then, there was this poorly organized and surprising demonstration at Batumi stadium, when tens of thousands of people came to say they were for a united Georgia, for Adjaria within Georgia. We then finalized a few documents, and I thought all issues were settled. What happened after that, I don't know. Was everything carefully planned or were subsequent developments prompted by other factors?

Ahead of the [4 January preterm presidential] polls, Adjaria was the scene of a few election-related events that sparked public outcry. The current situation is delicate, but I have confidence in Abashidze, who is not a stupid man. He is a workaholic who has done a lot for the welfare of Batumi and other parts [of Adjaria].

I don't think he will secede from Georgia, as he used to say before I resigned. What could that possibly bring him? He would have to face even more serious problems. Most food products that are imported into Adjaria today enter from the east. An estimated 15 to 16 million tons of oil transit through [Batumi] each year, and this oil comes mainly from Georgia. Should Adjaria secede, the situation would look different.

"Aslan [Abashidze] is a man who watches the bottom line. He is a realist and he intends to remain a realist. I don't think he will take any radical steps. [Georgia] would not profit from such developments either. Some people hope to put together a protest movement against Abashidze. In theory, this is possible. But I don't think this will really happen. [Abashidze] is an influential man. He enjoys popular support. We'll see what will result from this standoff.

ARMENIAN PARLIAMENT TO DISCUSS PLANS FOR NEW CONSTITUTIONAL REFERENDUM. The Armenian Parliament will soon start discussing preparations for another referendum on amending the country's post-Soviet constitution that has long been criticized for giving disproportionate powers to the president, deputy speaker Tigran Torosian said on 20 January. The Armenian authorities have promised the Council of Europe to hold the referendum some time before June 2005 after failing to muster sufficient public support for President Robert Kocharian's package of draft amendments in a vote last May.

The official results of that plebiscite showed that only about 46 percent of some 1.2 million Armenians who took part in the referendum, held simultaneously with parliamentary elections, voted for the proposed changes. To pass, it was necessary for at least one-third of the 2.33 million eligible voters to participate, and for a majority to approve the proposed amendments. The Armenian opposition, which rejected Kocharian's draft amendments, alleged that popular support for them was even lower than the official figures indicated.

According to deputy speaker Torosian, the National Assembly will soon form a "working group" tasked with renewing debate on constitutional reform, one of the conditions for Armenia's admission into the Council of Europe three years ago. He indicated that the pro-presidential legislature is unlikely to seek significant changes in Kocharian's constitutional package.

"I don't think that those changes are particularly bad. We don't necessarily need to enact a new constitution because, after all, the existing constitution has played a substantial positive role," Torosian told RFE/RL during a conference in Yerevan co-sponsored by the Armenian Parliament and the Council of Europe's so-called Venice Commission monitoring legal reforms in Armenia.

Armenia's main opposition groups maintain that the amendments in question envisage largely symbolic curbs on the sweeping presidential powers, and would have, in fact, given Kocharian greater constitutional authority if he had secured a desired referendum outcome. Some opposition parties proposed last year an alternative basic law that would transform Armenia into a parliamentary republic and tried unsuccessfully to put it on the May referendum along with Kocharian's amendments. One of its authors, Shavarsh Kocharian (no relation to the president), said the opposition draft will be resubmitted to lawmakers when the issue is discussed this year.

It is not yet clear whether President Kocharian will personally propose or endorse any major changes in his constitutional package. His top constitutional lawyer, Armen Harutiunian, was vague on the subject as he spoke to RFE/RL on the sidelines of the conference. Some observers believe that Kocharian will try to bestow greater legitimacy on his draft amendments greater by having the three pro-presidential parties making up his coalition cabinet formally co-author it. (Ruzanna Khachatrian)

HAS RUSSIA PUT POWER-SHARING TREATY WITH CHECHNYA ON HOLD? Pro-Moscow Chechen leader Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov raised eyebrows on 19 January when he told a press conference that if it lay within his power to do so, he would designate Vladimir Putin as Russian president for life. But "Izvestiya" on 22 January attributed Kadyrov's proposal not so much to his admiration for the Russian president but to desire to secure the most favorable terms possible for Chechnya in the proposed power-sharing treaty between Chechnya and the federal center.

Speaking the day after the March referendum on a new Chechen constitution, President Putin singled out drafting that power-sharing treaty as one of the three most important tasks facing the Chechen leadership (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 31 March and 25 April 2003). But while the remaining two -- passing a law granting amnesty to Chechen fighters who lay down their arms, and preparing and holding elections for the office of Chechen president under the new constitution -- have long been accomplished, the status of the draft treaty remains unclear.

Both before and after the March 2003 referendum, Kadyrov said repeatedly that he envisages the proposed power-sharing treaty as bestowing economic advantages and privileges on Chechnya rather than a greater degree of political autonomy than enjoyed by other federation subjects. "The Chechen Republic and its population do not need any broad political powers beyond those that other regions have," Interfax quoted him as saying on 28 April. But subsequent reports suggest that Kadyrov is asking far more in terms of purely economic concessions than Moscow is prepared to grant. Specifically, he argues that Chechnya should retain all the taxes collected on its territory, and that the Chechen leadership should have total control over the exploitation and sale of all Chechnya's natural resources, meaning in the first instance oil, but also timber.

On 21 June, the Chechen press published a draft of the treaty which included both those provisions, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported, commenting that the draft virtually declares the priority of Chechen over federal law. (The draft described the Chechen Republic as a democratic, law-based, sovereign state within the composition of the Russian Federation.) on 23 June quoted Kadyrov as saying he authored the draft himself.

The first session of the working group set up at Putin's instigation to prepare the draft treaty took place on 30 June, according to "Izvestiya" on 1 July; at that session a deadline of 31 October was agreed on to submit the final draft to Putin. Also on 30 June, "Vremya novostei" published an interview with Kadyrov in which he affirmed that "not a single item in the draft [agreement he authored] contravenes the constitution of the Russian Federation." Kadyrov further claimed in that interview that the constitutions of other, unnamed federation subjects similarly designate those republics as sovereign states.

On 4 July, just days after the first session of the working group, Putin named 5 October as the date for the Chechen presidential ballot (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 July 2003). That election, as anticipated, consolidated Kadyrov's position as head of the republic. Speaking at a press conference in Moscow on 10 October, Kadyrov again said he wants the Kremlin to bestow special economic privileges on Chechnya, specifically allowing the republic to retain until 2010 all taxes and proceeds from the sale of oil (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 October 2003). But Russian Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin told journalists in Moscow on 30 October that all federal taxes collected in Chechnya must be transferred to the central budget, whence the appropriate amount will be channeled back to Grozny to finance reconstruction, ITAR-TASS reported "We cannot afford the luxury of making any legal exceptions" to Russia's unified tax system, Kudrin explained (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 October 2003).

On 6 October, Russian Minister for Chechen Affairs Stanislav Ilyasov told ITAR-TASS that work on the draft power-sharing treaty "has reached the final stage," and that it would be signed before the end of the year. But on 9 December, ITAR-TASS quoted Russian presidential aide Aslanbek Aslakhanov, a member of the working group who formerly represented Chechnya in the State Duma, as arguing that it would be preferable to postpone the signing until after the 14 March Russian presidential election. Kadyrov, however, took the opposite view, telling Interfax on 17 December that he is certain the agreement will be signed before the Russian presidential ballot. Kadyrov claimed that "the draft treaty has, in fact, been completed and is now lying on my desk. But this issue is so important that we are examining it over and over, comparing positions and working to defend Chechnya's interests...without harming those of the federal center."

It is not clear whether the delay in signing the treaty is in any way connected with Kadyrov's proposal that Chechnya and Ingushetiya should be reunited as a single federation subject -- a proposal that Ingush President Marat Zyazikov steadfastly rejects (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 October 2002 and 15 and 23 October, 3 November and 30 December 2003). A merger of the two regions would render the agreement currently being negotiated obsolete. (Liz Fuller)

STATISTIC OF THE WEEK. According to data released by the World Health Organization, Georgia annually spends $108 per capita on health care, ranking 150th in the world. Armenia spends $273, and Azerbaijan only $48. The United States is the world leader -- $4,887 per capita; Norway is in second place ($2,920), followed by Germany ($2,820). (Caucasus Press on 19 January)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "We have documents enough in the OSCE. We have visions. We have strategies. We have papers. We have agreements. We have strategies. And really what we need today is to implement these documents. Because producing new documents without implementation is not worth it." -- OSCE Chairman in Office and Bulgarian Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi, addressing a session of the OSCE Permanent Council (quoted by RFE/RL on 21 January).

"The OSCE must closely follow the developments in the South Caucasus, Central Asia, and Transdniestrian region and must make this its top priority task." -- Pasi, quoted by Caucasus Press on 22 January.

"How are [Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji] Kadyrov and his people supposed to protect human rights in Chechnya, when they themselves are the worst abusers?" -- Moscow Helsinki Group member Ludmila Alekseeva, commenting on President Putin's abolition of the post of presidential human rights commissioner for Chechnya (quoted by "Novye izvestiya" on 23 January).

"[The] territorial integrity of Georgia will soon be restored under the new national flag. We will soon enter Sukhumi and Tskhinvali under this flag. This flag will unite the whole Georgia." -- Catholicos Patriarch Ilya II, after a ceremony consecrating the new national flag for Georgia on 24 January (Caucasus Press).