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Caucasus Report: February 20, 2004

20 February 2004, Volume 7, Number 8

GEORGIAN PARLIAMENT APPROVES 'SOROS' CABINET. Meeting in emergency session on 17 February, deputies approved the composition of the new cabinet by a vote of 165 to five, Caucasus Press reported. Its members are Zurab Zhvania (prime minister); former Deputy Foreign Minister Tamar Beruchashvili, Goga Khaindrava, Djambul Bakuradze, and Guram Absandze (deputy prime ministers responsible for relations with the EU, conflict resolution, small business and investments, and national reconciliation, respectively); Tedo Djaparidze (foreign affairs); Gela Bezhuashvili (defense); Giorgi Baramidze (internal affairs); Zurab Nogaideli (finance); Irakli Rekhviashvili (economy); Eteri Astemirova (refugee affairs); former acting Justice Minister Zurab Adeishvili (state security); Giorgi Papuashvili (justice); David Shervashidze (agriculture and food); Giga Tsereteli (health); Tamar Sulukhia (infrastructure and development); Nikoloz Gilauri (fuel and energy); Kakha Lomaya (education); Giorgi Gabashvili (culture, protection of monuments, and sport); and Tamar Lebanidze (environment and natural resources). Reuters on 17 February quoted Zvania as describing his cabinet as "a united team of professionals who think alike."

The new cabinet does not contain a single minister who served under the administration of former President Eduard Shevardnadze. (That did not, however, prevent President Mikheil Saakashvili from describing it as "unique in terms of its decency and professional experience," according to "Novye izvestiya" on 17 February.) Even outgoing State Security Minister Valeri Khaburzania, whom Shevardnadze's successor Saakashvili lauded on 10 February, has been shunted aside to serve as deputy prosecutor-general. (Caucasus Press noted on 18 February that Khaburzania served as intermediary between Shevardnadze and then then opposition leaders during standoff in mid-November that culminated in Shevardnadze's forced resignation. It was reportedly Khaburzania who dissuaded the former president from resorting to the use of force against the opposition protesters.)

The new cabinet members have two characteristics in common: their relative youth -- "Nezavisimaya gazeta" commented on 18 February that the cabinet is the youngest in Europe, with an average age of 35 -- and either a period of graduate study abroad, or experience working with international organizations. "Vremya novostei" on 17 February termed it a "revolutionary government," while "Novye izvestiya" on 12 February dubbed it the "Soros government," alluding to the fact that the U.S. financier and the United Nations Development Program have agreed to provide several million dollars to raise the salaries of senior government officials.

Moreover, the credentials of at least some of the new ministers have been called into question. "Vremya novostei" on 17 February quoted opposition Labor Party Chairman Shalva Natelashvili as alleging that at least two of them are CIA agents. And Georgian displaced persons from Abkhazia have voiced concern that the appointment of former film-maker Khaindrava as deputy prime minister responsible for conflict resolution could hinder a settlement of the Abkhaz conflict, according to "Kommersant-Daily" on 17 February. They point out that during the 1992-1993 war Khaindrava, then deputy prime minister under Shevardnadze, simultaneously fought on the Georgian side and oversaw the making of a documentary film about the conflict. Those fears seem misplaced, however, insofar as Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba on 16 February hailed Khaindrava's candidacy. Shamba recalled Khaindrava's intervention during the fighting to protect the civilian population of Sukhum. (Liz Fuller)

GEORGIA HOPES REVAMPING OF DEFENSE MINISTRY WILL EXPEDITE NATO MEMBERSHIP. Under the constitutional amendments approved by the Georgian parliament on 6 February, it is the president of Georgia who selects candidates for the posts of defense, foreign, and interior minister. President Mikheil Saakashvili accordingly proposed for the post of defense minister Gela Bezhuashvili, who is 37 and, like Saakashvili, a U.S.-trained lawyer. Bezhuashvili served from 1993-1996 as ambassador to Kazakhstan, and from 1997-2000 as head of the Department for International Law within the Georgian Foreign Ministry. In 2000, he was named deputy defense minister responsible for international contacts, but resigned from that post last fall to embark on a one-year course of graduate study at Harvard. Bezhuashvili told journalists on 12 February that after discussions with then Minister of State Zurab Zhvania, he agreed to abandon his studies and return to Tbilisi to take over the defense portfolio (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 February 2004).

Commentators were swift to point out that the choice of Bezhuashvili as minister fills one of the key preconditions set by NATO for all prospective candidates for membership of the alliance -- that the defense minister be a civilian. (On 13 February, Saakashvili named outgoing Defense Minister Lieutenant General David Tevzadze as Georgia's ambassador to NATO, stressing the "huge role" Tevzadze played in building up Georgia's relations with NATO, ITAR-TASS reported.) Caucasus Press quoted Bezhuashvili as saying that his twin priorities will be to step up military cooperation with Russia and promote Georgia's integration into NATO. But he warned at the same time that NATO membership is not an end in itself, but part of the process of enhancing the efficiency of Georgia's armed forces.

Critics would say that doing so is a daunting task. Nika Djandjgava, former commander of the elite Kodjori battalion, was quoted by the daily "Rezonansi" on 5 February as claiming that Tevzadze ran the Georgian army into the ground and turned a blind eye to widespread corruption. Djandjgava was stripped of his commission in September 2002, two months after he and some 100 other young officers resigned to protest inadequate financing and incompetent commanders (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 and 22 July 2002 and "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 26 July 2002). "Mtavari gazeti" on 28 January identified Djandjgava together with Bezhuashvili as a likely candidate for the post of defense minister.

Tevzadze himself warned last July that the army's efficiency was being jeopardized by inadequate funding which, he said, had resulted in shortages of "everything, including medications and fuel." But some observers have suggested that those shortages were the result less of a lack of funds than of embezzlement. In recent weeks, the Georgian media have predicted an imminent probe into widespread corruption within the Defense Ministry, but Tevzadze has dismissed such reports as "a misunderstanding."

On 25 January, the day of his inauguration, President Saakashvili said that the July NATO summit in Istanbul will mark the beginning of a new phase of cooperation between Georgia and NATO, Caucasus Press reported. And on 17 February, "Rezonansi" quoted National Security Council member David Sikharulidze as saying that a special inter-departmental group is currently drafting an individual Membership Action Plan to be submitted to NATO within one month. Sikharulidze predicted that Tbilisi could receive a formal invitation to join the alliance within the next 12 months.

The two most serious impediments to Georgia joining NATO are the continued presence on its territory of two Russian bases, and financial constraints. While the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty does not expressly forbid NATO member states from hosting military bases belonging to non-NATO members, the alliance does not encourage such arrangements. Moscow has, however, signaled in recent weeks its apparent willingness to compromise on the timeframe for closing its remaining bases in Batumi and Akhalkalaki. Whereas Russian officials previously insisted that a minimum of 11 years is needed to find funding for and build alternative facilities in the Russian Federation, recent pronouncements have mentioned a period of five to seven years.

As for financial constraints, Prime Minister Zhvania pledged during his 17 February address to parliament to raise defense spending to 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), Caucasus Press reported. That is the minimum required of states aspiring to NATO membership

Tbilisi can also derive encouragement from comments by new NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. ITAR-TASS quoted him as telling the Georgian independent television station Rustavi-2 last month that Georgia and its geographical position are of considerable importance to NATO in terms of regional security. (Liz Fuller)

NEW PARTY ADVOCATES NATO MEMBERSHIP FOR ARMENIA. A newly formed party led by a former pro-establishment lawmaker staked a claim on 16 February to the status of Armenia's most pro-Western political force, calling for the country's exit from a Russian-dominated military pact and accession to NATO. Meeting for their founding congress, Hovannes Hovannisian and members of his Liberal Progressive Party (AAK) deplored what they see as Armenia's excessive political, military, and economic dependence on Russia. They said that is one of the reasons why they will position themselves among political opponents of President Robert Kocharian.

"It is my belief that we must begin the process of joining NATO and at the same time quitting the Collective Security Treaty," Hovannisian told his supporters. He argued that the U.S.-led alliance is playing an increasingly large role in global security and that it is in Armenia's interests to become part of "the new security zone." "We are grateful that the Russian troops are deployed along our borders and protect us against the Turks. But those troops are [financially] supported by ourselves and their presence doesn't mean that we should give up our property in payment for a $92 million debt," he said, referring to the 2002 Russian-Armenian deal.

Hovannisian, who headed the foreign affairs committee in the previous Armenian parliament, complained that Yerevan "looks back at Russia" when making major foreign policy decisions instead of developing more "balanced relations" with its Soviet-era master. He also claimed that the Russians are disinterested in free and fair elections in Armenia for fear of losing their leverage against its rulers.

The AAK's foreign policy agenda, particularly its emphasis on closer ties with the United States, is highly unusual for an Armenian party. Only a handful of existing major political forces grouped around former President Levon Ter-Petrossian would subscribe to it. But like the AAK they are not represented in the country government or parliament. The mainstream opposition has likewise criticized the controversial equities-for-debt deal with Russia, but is unlikely to advocate a radical shift in Armenia's geopolitical priorities championed by Hovannisian.

Hovannisian said his party supports the year-long opposition efforts to oust Kocharian and hopes to see fresh presidential and parliamentary elections as early as this year. He claimed that even the pro-presidential parties making up the current coalition government are now discussing such possibility.

"There must be parliamentary and presidential elections this year," he said. "That would be our salvation, our solution to the Karabakh conflict. We must present ourselves to the world as a democratic country."

A former Communist, Hovannisian for years headed the Armenian delegation at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and was considered a loyal supporter of Kocharian until he lost his parliament seat in the May 2003 elections. The speech at the AAK congress marked his first direct attack on the head of state. (Ruzanna Stepanian)

EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT RAPPORTEUR UPBEAT OVER PROSPECTS FOR SOUTH CAUCASUS. The European Parliament's rapporteur for the Southern Caucasus, Per Gahrton of Sweden, has filed a report on the situation in the South Caucasus which the full parliament is expected to adopt either on 25-26 February or 8-11 March. RFE/RL recently spoke with Gahrton about his views on the future of the region.

RFE/RL: What are the major problems facing the Southern Caucasus republics, economically and politically?

Gahrton: Economically and socially, they are in a mess, more or less since the disruption of the Soviet Union. They have not recovered, they have not succeeded in changing over from a socialist planned economy into a functioning market economy. They have deteriorated into mafia and clan-ruled, corrupted economies, where major incomes come from nonproductive activities, like smuggling and taking bribes. So the vast majority of the population [has] suffered an enormous decrease in their living standards.

RFE/RL: Could you elaborate on the political situation?

Gahrton: There are also positive signs, like the fact that these countries are not dictatorships. They are not full-fledged democracies, but there is the possibility for opposition, most, of course, in Georgia, but also in the other countries. You have human rights organizations. You have some kind of debate. It is not the Soviet-type system any more at all, and it is not fascist, either. It is poorly working nascent democracy, I would say.

RFE/RL: Have the leadership changes in Georgia set the stage for improvements?

Gahrton: [The present leadership] came to their senses several years ago and realized it was not possible to simply go on, so they all quit the gang of [then-President Eduard] Shevardnadze and started real opposition. And by pursuing this real opposition for fair elections, and against corruption and really starting from the bottom up to restructure Georgian society in a modern and a democratic way, as we know from the presidential elections, they got an absolutely unique amount of confidence from the population. I mean, this was a purely fair and democratic election, when a president was elected with figures like we are used to seeing in dictatorships, but this was not a dictatorship. This was absolutely fair. I was there, and everybody agrees, it was a free election, and people wanted Mr. [Mikheil] Saakashvili -- 95 percent and more wanted him. So that is an enormous sign of hope and confidence and gives him an enormous responsibility to deliver pretty soon.

RFE/RL: And what of Azerbaijan, where the late President Heidar Aliyev was replaced by his son Ilham?

Gahrton: I had the opportunity to meet with the new president, Mr. Ilham Aliyev, and he had two faces at the meeting with me. First, with Azerbaijani journalists and aides present, he talked in Azerbaijani, and he was very, very tough, according to the translations. Then he sent them out, all of them, and then there was only me and my adviser, and him and an adviser, and then he talked in almost fluent English, and it was quite another approach. He was very conciliatory, and he really wanted to meet with [people], especially concerning the conflict with Armenia. I mean, if he was not bluffing all the time -- and I don't think he was -- I think there is a possibility for an opening up and reconciliation with Armenia.

And that is the basic prerequisite also for democracy in Azerbaijan, because when you have such conflicts, the country is occupied, several provinces are occupied, 1 million people are internal refugees, it creates enormous tension in the country. It is difficult to maintain a real working democracy. So I think there is a link, and there is a hope, but international society must act forcefully, to push them. They need to be pushed, both Aliyev in Azerbaijan and [President Robert] Kocharian in Armenia -- they need [us to push them] and they ask us to push them.

RFE/RL: So there are prospects for ending the long-running dispute between the two neighbors over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave?

Gahrton: I think there is a minimum compromise possible, and that would be that Nagorno-Karabakh would not become an internationally acknowledged state with a seat in the United Nations, etc. That's what the so-called president of the enclave [Arkady Gukasian] has told me -- that's not the most important thing for them. But they will never accept to be administratively subordinated to authorities in Baku. That is their bottom line. So they could be from a formal, legal point of view still a part of Azerbaijan, but they should have a complete autonomy on everything that is important in everyday life. But they do not demand to have a seat in the United Nations or the Council of Europe or whatever -- there, Azerbaijan could sit for them, or not for them, or whatever. They have stopped demanding that because they have understood it is not realistic, that the international community is not in favor of establishing more sovereign states.

And as for the Azerbaijanis, what do they want? They really don't want to rule the [Nagorno-Karabakh] Armenians any more. They have understood that that is out.

RFE/RL: You suggested earlier that the Southern Caucasus region needs more international support?

Gahrton: It needs international support, but it does not need a continuation of the so-called Great Game. That has done a lot of damage to that area, including the greater area with Afghanistan, and all these things, where great powers have fought for their own interests.

RFE/RL: Is it important that the European Union is considering incorporating the Southern Caucasus republics into its Wider Europe program, which allows for intensified relations with the EU?

Gahrton: We [in the EU] have one enormous advantage, and that is that these three states, they have a European ambition, they don't want to return to the Russian fold, and they neither want to nor are able to become states or dependencies of the U.S.

But they are already members of the Council of Europe, and they have ambitions -- difficult as that may seem -- to become full members of the European Union, and in order to make this more possible, they are ready to adapt.

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "The international community should lobby more actively for Georgia's territorial integrity, especially now when the Georgian people are striving to build a new future. As important political changes take place in Georgia, a solution to the Georgian-Ossetian and Georgian-Abkhaz conflicts will become increasingly urgent. It is very important that the approach to resolving [those conflicts] be holistic. It is imperative to take into consideration simultaneously questions and problems relating to security, economic rehabilitation, and the return of refugees and displaced persons. We are calling for a dialogue on that basis. The support of the world community would be exceptionally useful." -- Bulgarian Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairman in Office Solomon Passy, in a 17 February interview with "Vremya novostei."

"Most of the world is watching [the war in Chechnya] as though it were a sporting event and is amazed that it has lasted so long and that the Russians cannot finish off the Chechens." -- Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, quoted by on 16 February.

"The Chechens are victims of the Wahhabis as much as the Russians are, because in Chechnya too the Wahhabis organize explosions that take lives. I cannot understand why the Chechens alone are blamed for what is our common problem. I cannot understand why criminals who murder innocent people bear the holy name of shakhids, while peaceful Chechens are called criminals." -- Russian State Duma deputy Ruslan Yamadaev, interviewed in "Kommersant-Vlast" on 16 February.