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Caucasus Report: February 6, 2004

6 February 2004, Volume 7, Number 6

WHAT DID GEORGIA HOPE TO GAIN FROM ANTI-SMUGGLING OPERATION? Over the past five years, the activities in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion of Georgian guerrilla bands based in western Georgia have constituted a major obstacle to serious negotiations between Tbilisi and Sukhum on overcoming the aftermath of the 1992-1993 war. In its bi-annual resolutions on Abkhazia, the UN Security Council has repeatedly called on the Georgian government to take decisive measures to neutralize the guerrillas.

This week, the Georgian Interior Ministry launched a large-scale operation reportedly intended to target criminal elements who engage in smuggling across the internal border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia under the guise of guerrilla operations. Some 35 men were detained in the course of that operation, including two whom Forest Brothers guerrilla formation leader Dato Shengelia claimed are his men.

Inexplicably, however, 17 of those detained were subsequently released, and Georgian Interior Minister Giorgi Baramidze said that his men will not attempt to pursue any suspected criminals who flee to Abkhaz territory. Moreover, the number of detainees represents only perhaps 10 percent of the estimated combined strength of the two guerrilla formations known to be active in the region.

The question therefore arises: what did the Georgian leadership hope to achieve by what appears to have been simply a public relations exercise? One possible explanation hinges on the timing of the operation. In late January, the UN Security Council extended for a further six months, until 31 July, the mandate of the UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG). The relevant resolution noted for the first time "the efforts taken by the Georgian side to put an end to the activities of illegal armed groups," and calls for such efforts to be continued. The 4 February operation may have been intended to demonstrate that Tbilisi is indeed serious about neutralizing the guerrillas. (The Georgian Prosecutor-General's Office this week summoned for questioning several members of the Tbilisi-based Abkhaz Council of Ministers and parliament in exile, including former parliament in exile chairman Tamaz Nadareishvili, whom many observers believe served as the guerrillas' patron in the upper echelons of the former Georgian leadership.)

Alternatively, the primary target of the operation may not have been either the guerrillas or the "criminal bands" who allegedly make common cause with them, but the Russian peacekeepers deployed in the Abkhaz conflict zone under the CIS aegis. On 29 January, the daily "Mtavari gazeti" quoted Georgian Interior Minister Baramidze as accusing the peacekeeping force of violating the terms of their mandate by, among other things, permitting Abkhaz criminals to cross the border into Georgian territory. Speaking at a press conference in Tbilisi on 4 February, Baramidze alleged that the Russian peacekeepers are themselves involved in cross-border smuggling operations. He also said they do nothing to protect those Georgian residents who have returned to Gali.

Baramidze's criticisms of the Russian peacekeepers are only the latest chapter in an ongoing Georgian campaign to have the Russian peacekeeping force replaced by an international one deployed under the UN aegis. (Ukraine has already pledged to provide a contingent for such a force.) Baramidze's allegations could, however, prove counterproductive. On the eve of the 31 January Security Council meeting at which UNOMIG's mandate was prolonged, a Western diplomat from one of the member states of the "Friends of the UN Secretary-General for Abkhazia" group (the U.S., France, Germany, the U.K., and Russia) told RFE/RL that in a preliminary Security Council discussion Georgian representatives openly accused Russia of trying to annex Abkhazia. The diplomat admitted that Georgia's concerns over Russian activities in Abkhazia are valid, but went on to point out that publicly antagonizing Russian diplomats in a Security Council meeting is unlikely to lead to an improvement in relations. "You won't find a resolution to the Abkhaz conflict when you have bad relations with Russia," he said.

Tbilisi's apparent disregard of the possible consequences of angering Moscow in turn raises a further question: is Georgia seeking to expedite the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeepers because it hopes to profit from the domestic political crisis that has erupted in Abkhazia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 and 30 January and 6 February 2004) to launch a new bid to restore its control over the breakaway region by force? (Liz Fuller and Robert McMahon)

AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITIONIST UNVEILS PROPOSED CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENTS. Both before and since the 15 October 2003 Azerbaijani presidential election, which resulted in a crushing defeat for the main opposition challenger, Musavat Party Chairman Isa Qambar, Ali Kerimli, chairman of the progressive wing of the Azerbaijani Popular Front Party (AHCP), has lobbied tirelessly to promote unity among the demoralized opposition. In the wake of the presidential ballot, Kerimli (at 38 one of the youngest opposition leaders) continued to call for opposition parties to close ranks in order to begin preparing for the upcoming municipal elections and the 2005 parliamentary ballot (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 2 January 2004). He has since unveiled a package of proposed constitutional amendments and political reforms, which he discussed in a lengthy interview published on 3 February in the online paper Kerimli told the paper that "all leading opposition parties" and politically active NGOs have already expressed support for his proposed amendments, which could be augmented with proposals forwarded by other parties.

Kerimli argued that the existing constitution needs to be changed to reverse many of the amendments adopted during a nationwide referendum in August 2002 (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 1 July 2002 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 August 2002). Those changes provided for deputies to future parliaments to be elected only in single-mandate constituencies and not according to the proportional system, a model which Kerimli said makes it impossible to hold more democratic elections in Azerbaijan. Kerimli argued that the previous mixed system under which 100 deputies were elected in single-mandate constituencies and 25 under the "party-list" system should be reinstated.

Kerimli further argued that the constitution should be amended to redistribute power among the executive, the legislature and the judiciary, reducing the disproportionate powers currently invested in the president and augmenting those of the parliament, which he said should be empowered to control the activities of the government. That provision, he observed, "is one of the basic conditions for contemporary management of the state."

Kerimli acknowledged that the opposition suffered a major setback in the October election, but added that its defeat was not unexpected. He argued that "even in democratic countries, forces that have been defeated in an election suffer a powerful blow to their political reputation and are simply doomed to serious changes." He went on, however, to point out that the pre-election campaign testified to the support that the opposition enjoys among the electorate, and that even in rural areas up to 10,000 people turned out to attend opposition campaign rallies. He estimated that the number of Azerbaijanis dissatisfied with new leadership is several times larger than those who are content, and said that number is growing as a result of basic problems, including a steep rise in bread prices and deterioration in energy supplies. On those grounds, Kerimli predicted that once the opposition launches its campaign for reform, support among the population will increase. He further pointed to growing pressure to implement democratic reforms being brought to bear on the Azerbaijani leadership by international human rights organizations, predicting that international pressure combined with the opposition's efforts would yield the desired results.

Kerimli admitted that the opposition "did not select the optimum course of action" in the wake of the 15 October ballot. He declined to comment on the fact that Musavat Party Chairman Qambar has steadfastly ignored his proposal that the leaders of the main opposition parties meet to analyze tactical mistakes. Qambar continues to deny that he made any tactical errors and to affirm that the blame for the post-election clashes lies entirely with the authorities who "stole" the election.

Kerimli also rejected the interviewer's suggestion that in the wake of the election fiasco the electorate now views the "traditional" opposition parties, including Kerimli's wing of the AHCP, as totally discredited. He claimed that considerable numbers of people are applying to join his party, an assertion that seems credible in the light of a recent opinion poll conducted by Turan that found that Kerimli's popularity is rising as that of other prominent politicians is falling. Kerimli also claimed that efforts to create a new, alternative opposition have failed. That statement, however, may prove to be premature in the light of the observation by economist Nazim Imanov, tipped as a possible leader of a new opposition force, that a protracted gestation period may be needed before any such force emerges (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 2 January 2004). (Liz Fuller)

ARMENIAN OPPOSITION MULLS FOLLOW-UP TO PARLIAMENT BOYCOTT. Three days after announcing that they will boycott future sessions of parliament, Armenia's leading opposition parties pledged on 5 February to continue their campaign for a referendum of confidence in President Robert Kocharian, but shed no light on their next joint steps.

"We will come back with the people and force them to fulfill the decision of the Constitutional Court," said Victor Dallakian of the Artarutiun bloc, which walked out of the National Assembly on 2 February along with deputies representing the opposition National Unity Party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 and 4 February 2004). "At any time and by any means the people may take back power," Dallakian added. "That is a constitutional path." The Constitutional Court suggested such a referendum of confidence in the president at the same time as it rejected, in April 2003, the opposition's claims that the results of the February-March presidential ballot in which Kocharian won a second term were falsified.

National Unity representatives also looked bullish about forcing the authorities to drop their opposition to the referendum. However, neither political group came up with a plan of specific actions for the coming weeks, suggesting that they have yet to agree on how to proceed.

"I assure you that our steps are calculated, actions coordinated. As for the timeframe, we will inform you as we promised in our statement," Dallakian told reporters.

Another Artarutiun parliamentarian, Albert Bazeyan, admitted that there are tactical differences both inside the bloc and with National Unity. Bazeyan confirmed that his Hanrapetutiun party favors "more rapid actions" that would set off a "powerful wave of popular protests" against the authorities.

"It is impossible to bring about a referendum of confidence without powerful popular pressure," he told RFE/RL. But National Unity leader Artashes Geghamian has spoken out against staging actions of "civil disobedience" for the time being. Artarutiun leader Stepan Demirchian is also believed to be more cautious than his more radical allies.

Hanrapetutiun leaders called late last year for a renewed campaign of anti-government demonstrations similar to the November 2003 revolution in Georgia that toppled the country's president, Eduard Shevardnadze. Some of them mentioned February as the likely time of the protests.

Hanrapetutiun tried unsuccessfully last month to build a new, more broad-based opposition alliance around the idea. "Perhaps it would have been possible to mobilize the people in February if our initiative had been accepted by other opposition forces," Bazeyan said.

At the same time, Bazeyan played down the differences inside the opposition, saying that the joint boycott of parliament sessions by Artarutiun and National Unity is a "very important step." "Assessments of the situation or actions that need be taken might be different at a certain point. But we can reach a common denominator during [further] discussions," he said.

Meanwhile, leaders of the pro-Kocharian majority in the National Assembly, which refuses to even discuss the referendum issue, appeared untroubled by the latest opposition offensive. As one of them, Levon Mkrtchian of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, put it, "There is no parliamentary crisis in Armenia for the simple reason that there is a [stable parliament] majority...and that majority continues its law-making activity." (Ruzanna Khachatrian and Emil Danielyan)

ARMENIAN TRANSPORT MINISTER ARGUES CASE FOR OPENING BORDER WITH TURKEY. Transport and Communications Minister Andranik Manukian made a strong case on 4 February for the reopening of the Turkish-Armenian border, saying that it would greatly reduce Armenia's dependence on Georgia for commercial communication with the outside world.

Manukian argued that an open frontier would restore the Turkish-Armenian rail link and give Armenia an attractive alternative to importing and exporting goods via the Georgian railway. "We would get rid of Georgia's monopolist status in railway communication," he said, underscoring the Armenian government's long-standing complaints that transit fees charged by Tbilisi are disproportionately high. Over 90 percent of Armenia's external trade is carried out through Georgian territory.

In a 30 November interview with Armenian Public Television, Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili promised to revise the tariffs downwards. But the new Georgian leadership has not yet responded to a formal request for a reduction in tariffs handed by Armenian Prime Minister Andranik Markarian to Georgian Minister of State Zurab Zhvania in late December 2003 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 December 2003).

Manukian said that if Turkey lifts its 11-year economic embargo, the Georgians will lower the transit fees to avoid an even bigger loss of revenues that could result from an Armenian switch to the Turkish railway and Black Sea ports. He also argued that Armenia could itself become a transit country.

"There is a lot of trade between Georgia and Turkey, but the two countries have no railway link," he said. "It is obvious that in order to spend less on transportation the Turkish and Georgian sides would be interested in using the [Armenian] railway."

Manukian's enthusiasm is at odds with the position of one of the three parties represented in the government, the nationalist Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutiun). While denouncing the Turkish blockade, Dashnaktsutiun leaders say that an open border with Turkey could leave Armenia economically dependent on its historic foe and open the floodgates to cheap Turkish imports.

President Robert Kocharian and the two remaining coalition partners do not share those concerns, however. Most of the country's leading businessmen have likewise spoken out in favor of cross-border commerce with Turkey. (Atom Markarian)

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK. "Today there are absolutely no problems between Russia and Azerbaijan, contentious [ones] that give rise to varying approaches. For us Russia is a strategic partner." -- Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in an interview published in "Izvestiya" on 4 February.