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Caucasus Report: January 30, 2004

30 January 2004, Volume 7, Number 5

AZERBAIJANI AUTHORITIES TARGET RELIGIOUS COMMUNITY. On 15 January, the Azerbaijani body responsible for historic buildings issued a written demand that the parishioners of the Djuma Mosque in Baku's Old Town vacate the building by 30 January on the grounds that the authorization issued 10 years ago to use the building for religious purposes was illegal.

But observers believe that the authorities' primary target is that mosque's popular young imam, Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, who was arrested on 1 December for his alleged role in the clashes in Baku between police and opposition supporters in the wake of the 15 October presidential election.

Ibrahimoglu is not a member of the Muslim clergy subordinate to the "official" Spiritual Administration of Muslims of the Caucasus. He swiftly acquired a devoted following among young and educated Azerbaijani Muslims for his Friday sermons criticizing the "Aliyev regime," according to on 6 December. The news website characterized him as a talented, charismatic, and witty orator who speaks simply and straightforwardly. The website stressed that his followers are by no means "religious fanatics," but "intelligent people who have studied the philosophy and history of both eastern and western countries and who are fluent in several foreign languages."

In addition to his religious activity, Ibrahimoglu also worked on behalf of the Center for the Defense of Religious Freedom and served as general secretary of the Azerbaijani chapter of the International Association of Religious Freedoms.

Immediately following his arrest, Ibrahimoglu was remanded in pretrial custody for three months, despite evidence that he played no role in the 16 October clashes. (On that day he was engaged in "monitoring the postelection situation" together with Azerbaijan and international human-rights experts, according to Turan on 18 December.) Within days, a committee was formed to defend Ibrahimoglu's rights; its members were immediately summoned by police for questioning. Meanwhile, several international human-rights organizations expressed concern at Ibrahimoglu's detention. But Rafik Aliyev, chairman of Azerbaijan's State Committee for Relations with Religious Organizations, told Turan on 5 December that Ibrahimoglu was arrested for his "political activities." "One cannot be a religious leader and a politician at the same time," Aliyev reportedly said.

On 23 January, Turan reported that U.S. and Norwegian diplomats and a Council of Europe representative visited the Djuma Mosque and concluded that its clergy and worshippers were not engaged in any illegal activities. (Liz Fuller)

GEORGIAN LEADERSHIP MULLS CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM. In the wake of President Eduard Shevardnadze's forced resignation on 23 November, several members of the new Georgian leadership spoke in favor of amending the Georgian Constitution to reintroduce the post of premier and the institution of the cabinet of ministers. That possibility, which could entail a reduction of presidential powers, was already under discussion in 2000-2001 (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 21 May 2001). But since Mikheil Saakashvili's 4 January presidential election victory, he has come out in favor of strengthening the powers of the president, while parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze has embarked on a campaign to strengthen the legislature.

At a 10 January conference in Tbilisi, representatives of Georgian NGOs were skeptical about the advisability of reintroducing the post of prime minister, arguing that the U.S. model of a strong president and strong parliament is more suited to Georgian conditions. Some speakers expressed concern that the introduction of the post of prime minister could lead to conflict between the president and the premier. Ghia Nodia of the Caucasian Institute for Peace, Democracy, and Development reasoned that "there is only one politician who currently enjoys enormous popularity among people and people empower him to govern the state. The current presidential system meets today's challenges, but this system needs to be strengthened and improved."

On 20 January, Caucasus Press quoted Mikheil Machavariani, the head of the Burdjanadze-Democrats parliament faction, as saying that a bill has been drafted on the redistribution of competencies among the president, the executive, and the parliament. That draft, he said, would empower the president to dissolve parliament if it blocks the adoption of key legislation, such as the state budget, but impose restrictions on the legislature's powers to call for the impeachment of the president. Then acting Parliament Speaker Giga Tsereteli was quoted by Interfax on 19 january as dismissing objections that the draft could "paralyze" the parliament. He argued that a standoff between president and parliament is unlikely as "national interests are the primary concern of both branches." But Zakharia Kutsnashvili, who is deputy chairman of the parliament's Committee on Judicial Issues and a member of the opposition Socialist faction, told Caucasus Press on 28 January that the proposed amendments will "castrate" the legislature. He said his faction will fight to prevent their passage.

President-elect Saakashvili told journalists on 9 January that the presidential powers should not be curtailed, ITAR-TASS reported. "The people of Georgia have entrusted me with the presidential powers. I think the country should have a strong presidency and I will not raise with parliament the question of limiting or reducing the presidential powers," he said. On 10 January, Saakashvili rejected the idea of introducing the post of vice president, saying "We don't need a vice president who thinks 24-hours about how to become president." Instead, Saakashvili continued, "We need more effective institutes, such as a prime minister, to make the power more flexible and allow us to work as a team," Caucasus Press reported.

Speaking in Berlin on 29 January, Saakashvili said that Georgia's prime minister will not be invested with powers as extensive as those of Germany's federal chancellor, Caucasus Press reported. He also said Georgia should not have a strong prime minister.

Burdjanadze, for her part, has raised during recent meetings with foreign diplomats the question of foreign financial aid for the legislature to render it more professional and effective. Caucasus Press on 27 January reported that a draft plan for achieving this is to be unveiled within one month. But Irakli Tughushi, the chairman of Georgia's Trade Unions, told a press conference the same day that his members advocate a reduction in the size of the legislature from 235 to 150 deputies. A referendum on doing so was held concurrently with the disputed 2 November parliamentary election and a majority of respondents voted in favor. (Liz Fuller)

EU TO RECONSIDER EXCLUSION OF SOUTH CAUCASUS STATES FROM 'WIDER EUROPE' PROGRAM. In a remarkable turnaround, largely brought about by the recent events in Georgia, European Union member states indicated on 26 January they are prepared to reverse an earlier decision to leave Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan out of the "Wider Europe" initiative unveiled last year. Meeting in Brussels, EU foreign ministers adopted a statement instructing the bloc's executive arm, the European Commission, together with the EU's foreign-policy coordinator, Javier Solana, to examine how the three countries could be included in the program. The time frame provided for the analysis is also remarkably short. EU diplomats say they expect a report -- and possibly a decision -- by May.

Announcing the turnaround at a 26 January press conference, EU's external relations commissioner, Chris Patten, said "The situation is pretty straightforward. [The] commissioner [in charge of 'Wider Europe,' Guenter] Verheugen will be reporting to the council [of EU member states] in the summer, in the early summer, on the progress that we've made in drawing up action plans for a number of countries under the 'Wider Europe' neighborhood policy. And at that time, I think that he and we in the [European] commission will want to make a recommendation on whether we should include in 'Wider Europe' and in that policy the countries of the southern Caucasus. I think there are good arguments for doing that, and we will want to ensure that they are properly considered."

Neither Patten nor other EU officials were willing to venture into more detailed analysis of the implications of the decision. One diplomat told RFE/RL the bloc is purposely pursuing a strategy of "deliberate ambiguity." He said the EU will not be drawn on how far the three countries could move on the path toward integration with the EU or, indeed, whether eventual membership is a possibility.

Outside the remaining three candidate countries, two distinct groups currently mark the opposite ends of the spectrum populated by EU hopefuls. One -- the countries of the western Balkans -- have been told they are guaranteed membership as soon as their preparations are deemed sufficient. They were deliberately left out of the "Wider Europe" framework last summer.

The other comprises the countries of the southern Mediterranean, for which membership has been explicitly ruled out. They are, however, covered by "Wider Europe."

The rest of the countries in the "Wider Europe" program have been offered the prospect of full participation in the EU's internal market and its so-called four shared freedoms -- those pertaining to the movement of goods, capital, services, and, eventually, people. The president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, has dubbed this strategy "everything but institutions," meaning that participation in EU decision-making is not a currently envisaged goal of the "Wider Europe" project.

Some of these countries, like Ukraine and Moldova, have received certain indications that the door to membership is not closed. However, their membership -- if the idea were to receive explicit support from EU member states -- would be a long-term possibility and decades away.

These countries must await the completion of the current enlargement process, and an ensuing debate on what constitutes "Europe" and where its borders lie. This debate will be of seminal importance. Article 49 of the current Treaty of the European Union says "no European country" can be denied membership. In the meantime, the EU will use the "Wider Europe" framework to promote its laws and standards, and channel substantial aid grants to the countries involved.

Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan are now likely to be elevated to the status of participants in "Wider Europe." Much will depend on their ability to benefit from what is on offer. EU officials have in recent months expressed grave doubts in this regard, and Patten was keen to discourage excessive ambition. He said on 26 January the three countries must begin by creating the conditions for handling basic aid funds: "There are a number of implications of such a change. One of them is clearly budgetary. We will want to be able to spend rather more than we are in the Southern Caucasus, which would involve some readjustment of funds. But obviously we want to see in the first place the new [and] very welcome administration in Georgia starting to get on top of its problems, and we will hold out a hand of support as they do that."

There is little doubt the southern Caucasus has Georgia and its "Rose Revolution" to thank for the breakthrough. Until the recent events in Tbilisi, EU officials routinely suggested the region was too remote to merit closer EU attention and would have to await Turkey's membership before inclusion in the "Wider Europe" framework could be seriously considered.

Hence, at least in the short term, the entire region's EU-related ambitions stand and fall with Georgia's success. Should the country's parliamentary elections later this spring disappoint, or the promised reforms fail to take effect, they could easily take the EU's fledgling enthusiasm for the southern Caucasus with them. (Ahto Lobjakas)

ARMENIA POSTS DOUBLE-DIGIT GROWTH IN 2003. The Armenian government has tabulated the country's basic economic indicators for last year that show a record-high growth rate of 13.9 percent and higher-than-expected inflation, Central Bank Chairman Tigran Sarkisian said on 28 January. The figure falls short of the 15 percent rate forecast by some government officials, including President Robert Kocharian, late last year. Nonetheless, it marked a second consecutive of year of double-digit economic growth in Armenia which is still reeling from the post-Soviet slump of the early 1990s. The performance was described as "very good" by a senior World Bank official earlier this month.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Sarkisian was cautious in assessing implications of the latest official statistics, saying that the robust growth needs to continue for several more years if it is to have a tangible impact on living standards. "It is extremely important for us to ensure that recent years' economic growth is sustainable," he said. "That will inevitably mean a rise in the population's incomes, a solution to social problems, and a decrease in social polarization."

Sarkisian added that sustained growth is contingent on the Armenian government completing "the formation of market infrastructures." That should involve a radical reform of the country's banking and insurance sectors, the pension system, and bankruptcy procedures, he said.

"It is necessary to give a new impetus and new pace to the reforms. That is the main prerequisite for our future success. If we fail to carry out those reforms, we will have certain problems related to the GDP growth."

The government expects GDP to increase by at least 7 percent this year. It will count on a higher growth rate in case of securing additional multimillion-dollar funding from the Lincy Foundation of Armenian-American billionaire Kirk Kerkorian. The charity has spent some $150 million on various construction projects in Armenia over the past two years. Kocharian has admitted that the money added several percentage points to the Armenian growth.

The record-high growth was accompanied by a surge in consumer price inflation that was supposed to be below 3 percent but hit 8.6 percent in 2003. Sarkisian blamed that on last summer's sharp rise in the price of bread which was followed by other food price hikes. He said the Central Bank will cope with the continuing inflationary pressure by "slightly" reducing the money base -- the amount of cash handled by local commercial banks --- in the first quarter of 2004. (Emil Danielyan)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "We need to survive in a very complicated geopolitical environment and we don't want to turn this country into a battlefield between the different superpowers. I'll do whatever it takes not to alienate any of the countries, especially our neighbors. We want good relations with Russia. I'm not pro-American or pro-Russian. I am pro-Georgian." -- Georgian President-elect Mikheil Saakashvili, speaking in Tbilisi on 24 January (quoted by RFE/RL).

"Peace in Chechnya can be restored only through a political process. There can be no lasting solution based on the use of forcible methods." -- French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, speaking in Moscow on 23 January (quoted by ITAR-TASS).

"The [Karabakh] war hasn't ended yet." -- Armenian Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, in a statement pegged to the 12th anniversary of the founding of the Armenian army (quoted by Noyan Tapan on 27 January).