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Caucasus Report: March 12, 2004

12 March 2004, Volume 7, Number 11

ARMENIAN GOVERNMENT OUTREACH PROGRAM FAILS TO YIELD DESIRED RESULTS. The Armenian government's weeklong provincial outreach campaign remained dogged by popular apathy and cynicism on 12 March as its high-ranking representatives toured the northwestern region of Shirak. The ministers, instructed to make the government's case in economically depressed areas, appear to be losing interest in the public-relations stunt that has forced them to hear embarrassing criticism from ordinary people. Only two of them were in a delegation of senior officials touring Shirak and promising to address grievances voiced by local residents.

The reception the delegation received in Shirak was again less than enthusiastic. "We have no intention to quarrel, we are tired," said an elderly man in the village of Lanjik. "We don't see anything done here." That sentiment was echoed by other villagers who claimed that they turned up for the meeting out of boredom. "This is just a formality," said one man. "These guys don't do anything good for the people. Look at our school. It's going to collapse on pupils' heads, but nobody cares."

Village schoolteachers, who claimed to have not been paid for the past three months, deplored the absence of Education Minister Sergo Yeritsian. "As a minister, he must enter these small villages to look at their schools," one of them told RFE/RL.

The officials faced less tension as they held an indoor meeting in the nearby town of Artik. Many in the audience were village heads and other local government officials. But there, too, the cynicism ran high, with participants starting to leave the cold and dark conference hall midway through the meeting.

"This is more of a show than something concrete, nothing will change," said one disgruntled young man. "They have brought together all village chiefs along with their staffers."

Gagik Aslanian, the deputy minister for local government, denied that the ministers have grown frustrated with the lack of sympathy in the regions and are now reluctant to leave their Yerevan offices. "Those who hold senior posts must meet people," he said. "I believe this is necessary."

The government launched the campaign of regional trips last week in an apparent bid to offset the ongoing opposition rallies around the country that are seen as a prelude to street protests in Yerevan. The opposition Artarutiun (Justice) alliance of Stepan Demirchian on 10 March campaigned in the neighboring Lori province, reiterating its plans to try to oust President Robert Kocharian with a wave of mass demonstrations. "The resignation of this regime is imperative," Demirchian told a rally in the industrial town of Alaverdi.

Demirchian and other opposition speakers claimed that only regime change could alleviate economic hardships in Armenia. Union of Constitutional Rights leader Hrant Khachatrian said the Armenian leadership has already realized that its downfall is inevitable and is now "thinking about an exit strategy." (Gevorg Stamboltsian and Armen Zakarian)

CHECHEN DISPLACED PERSONS UNDER PRESSURE TO RETURN. Over the past two months, Russian officials in Moscow, Grozny, and the Ingush capital Magas have issued conflicting and contradictory statements about the status of the tent camps in Ingushetia that at the turn of the year still housed an estimated 4,000-7,000 displaced persons from Chechnya. Despite repeated official reassurances that none of those displaced persons will be constrained to return to Chechnya against his or her will, one of the three camps in Ingushetia has already been closed, and the remaining two could also be shut down by the end of this month.

The impetus for expediting the return from Ingushetia to Chechnya of the displaced Chechens currently housed in tent camps appears to have come from the pro-Moscow Chechen government, which argues that the apparently voluntary return of the displaced persons testifies to the "normalization" of living conditions in Chechnya. On 12 January, Interfax quoted the Chechen government as saying that "after March 1 there must not be a single tent on the territory of Ingushetia." ITAR-TASS the same day quoted acting Chechen Prime Minister Eli Isaev as explaining the rationale for the closure in terms of the appalling conditions at the camps. He said the Chechen authorities will provide alternative accommodation in Grozny with electricity, heating, mains gas and water, and nearby schools.

But on 16 January, Ingush presidential press secretary Isa Mezhoev told Interfax the repatriation process will be "exclusively voluntary," and that the Ingush authorities would not set any deadline for shutting down the camps. Ingushetia's President Murat Zyazikov similarly told Interfax on 21 February that it is for the displaced persons to decide themselves whether to return to Chechnya and that "we are not trying to accelerate this process. We do not set any deadlines." On 4 March, Ingush Deputy Prime Minister Magomed Markhiev implicitly rejected Isaev's criticism of conditions at the camps. Markhiev told Interfax that the camp residents "have heating, food, gas, and electricity. Returning fugitives are given free transportation.... There are no specific problems."

A senior UN official who visited Chechnya and Ingushetia in late January subsequently said he considered the 1 March deadline for closing the tent camps in Ingushetia unrealistic. Jan Egeland, who is UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, told Reuters on 27 January that there is not enough accommodation available in Chechnya to house all the Chechens from the camps in Ingushetia. He added that the security situation in Chechnya is "still very difficult." Two days later, on 29 January, Egeland announced that the Russian authorities had rescinded the 1 March deadline. He said he pointed out to the Russian authorities that to impose such a deadline while insisting that the repatriation process will be purely voluntary is a contradiction in terms. But Reuters on 29 January quoted Ruslan Badalov of the Chechen Committee for National Salvation as implying that Egeland was naive to take at face value Russian officials' assurances that the 1 March deadline had been shelved. Badalov said that representatives of the pro-Moscow Chechen government were visiting the camps in Ingushetia to warn the inhabitants of the impending 1 March closure. On 13 February, reported that water supplies to the three tent camps in Ingushetia had been cut off in a bid to force the inhabitants to leave.

On 27 January, Stanislav Ilyasov, who is the Russian minister for Chechen affairs, said the 1 March date for closing the tent camps was only "a working deadline," the purpose of which was to pressure those engaged in building temporary accommodation in Chechnya for the prospective returnees to speed up that process. Ilyasov also suggested that the Ingush authorities should do more to make alternative accommodation available in that republic to those Chechens who do not want under any circumstances to return to Chechnya. (An estimated 45,000 displaced persons from Chechnya now live in rented private accommodation in Ingushetia.)

Meeting with Egeland on 26 January, Ilyasov assured him that the Russian government will provide funds to house the Chechen displaced persons who choose to remain in Ingushetia rather than return to Chechnya. Ilyasov estimated that of the total 49,000 displaced persons currently in Ingushetia, half would opt not to return to Chechnya. By 14 February, however, Ilyasov was affirming that "all necessary conditions have been created in Chechnya" for those who do not want to remain in temporary accommodation in Chechnya, Interfax reported. Ilyasov claimed that "hundreds" of displaced persons had applied for permission to return to Chechnya. On 1 March, a Chechen government representatives in Ingushetia told Interfax that 170-180 displaced persons were leaving the tent camps each day to return to Chechnya.

It was this reported exodus that served as the rationale for the 1 March closure of the Bart camp in Ingushetia, which as of 29 February still had 67 inhabitants. On 4 March, Mompash Machuev, first deputy chairman for the Chechen Committee for Refugees, said the Sputnik camp, one of the two remaining camps in Ingushetia, will be closed by mid-March. Machuev too stressed that displaced persons are not being pressured to return to Chechnya and that the reason for closing the camps is the unsatisfactory living conditions there.

Russian human rights activists, however, contend that at least some of the displaced persons evicted from Bart have no alternative accommodation to go to. Svetlana Gannushkina of the Moscow-based human rights group memorial told Interfax on 3 March that "neither Chechnya nor Ingushetia can offer accommodation to the people who are leaving the tent camps," and that consequently "scores of people will become homeless."

On 6 March, Russian presidential human rights commission Chairwoman Ella Pamfilova traveled to Ingushetia to inspect conditions at the two remaining tent camps and to discuss the displaced persons' plight with Zyazikov and Merzhoev. Pamfilova told Interfax that she resolutely opposes setting any deadline for the closure of the Sputnik and Satsita camps, which still house an estimated 3,000 displaced persons, and that to insist that those displaced persons leave the two camps by the end of March would constitute a violation of their basic rights. She said those two camps could remain open until May. Pamfilova also praised the measures undertaken by the administration of Ingushetia to assist those displaced persons who choose to return to Chechnya. But at the same time, she admitted that unnamed officials are pressuring the displaced persons to leave the tent camps. And on 10 March, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported that four days earlier Chechen Interior Ministry troops descended on the Satsita camp in Ingushetia and conducted a search of several tents. In what the camp residents termed a clear attempt at intimidation, the Chechen forces tried to detain eight men, but were prevented from doing so. (Liz Fuller)

GEORGIA 'SUSPENDS' PRIVATIZATION. Economy Minister Irakli Rekhviashvili told journalists in Tbilisi on 27 February that the country's privatization program will be "suspended" to allow for a new audit of all enterprises still wholly or partially owned by the state, Caucasus Press reported. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 2 March quoted Rekhviashvili as explaining that a new privatization policy will be drafted on the basis of that audit, taking into account the true worth of the enterprises in question and the prospects for their future restructuring.

Rekhviashvili stressed that privatization will resume as soon as the new program is ready, and Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania told journalists the same day that "the process will be transparent. It will promote economic development and bring maximum profits," Caucasus Press reported. But "Nezavisimaya gazeta" said Rekhviashvili's announcement had generated unease among both Georgian businessmen and their Russian counterparts who have invested in Georgia. Both groups fear that the suspension could herald the renationalization of some major enterprises.

In early August, Mikheil Saakashvili, then leader of the opposition National Movement, announced that his party's lawyers were preparing a draft bill on renationalization in order to bring back under state control the Chiatura Ferrous Alloys plant and the Poti seaport, together with other major enterprises he claimed were sold at knock-down prices to persons close to then President Eduard Shevardnadze (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 August 2003). He argued that renationalization does not mean confiscating privately owned property by force, but "giving back to the people the property created by their own hands." Saakashvili threatened that if the parliament votes down the bill, "we shall dismiss the parliament and make the new parliament adopt the law." It is therefore possible that such a bill could figure among the first to be addressed by the legislature to be elected on 28 March, in which members of Saakashvili's National Movement are expected to win an overall majority.

"Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 2 March quoted Sergo Toprakashvili, who is first deputy head of Georgia's Agency for Managing State Property, as predicting that the review of privatization to date will focus only on major enterprises, and that people who acquired small and medium-sized businesses have nothing to fear. But he also focused on one specific enterprise, the Azot chemical plant in Rustavi, the sale of which he claimed was marred by serious violations. According to Toprakashvili, first the Azot Joint Stock Company, the only producer of mineral fertilizers in the South Caucasus, was declared bankrupt; then a program for saving the plant was drafted, but at the same time shares in it were sold. The Russian gas-pipeline operator Itera purchased Azot in late 2002 for $500,000 and a pledge to repay over a three-year period Azot's 100 million-lari ($49 million) debt to the Georgian state budget. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "The Chechens survived the tsars, survived Stalin, survived Yeltsin and will survive Putin. This is not because they want to fight but because we have no option." -- Chechen Deputy Prime Minister Akhmed Zakaev (quoted by Reuters on 9 March).

"Pretending to be witty and worrying about election innovations while the independent press is being destroyed in this country is like worrying about the temperature of the tea in a train that is going off the rails." -- Former Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko, leader of the eponymous opposition bloc (quoted in "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report" on 9 March).