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Caucasus Report: March 26, 2004

26 March 2004, Volume 7, Number 13

PARLIAMENTARY BALLOT SET TO SEAL NEW GEORGIAN LEADERSHIP'S PREEMINENCE. On 28 March, Georgian voters will go to the polls for the third time within five months, this time to elect 150 parliament deputies under the party-list system. The ballot will mark the culmination of a transfer of power triggered by popular protests -- exploited by leading opposition politicians -- against the rigging of the outcome of the 2 November parliamentary poll to engineer a parliamentary majority for the For a New Georgia (AS) bloc that supported then President Eduard Shevardnadze (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 12 November 2003). Following Shevardnadze's forced resignation on 23 November, opposition National Movement (EM) leader Mikheil Saakashvili was elected president in a landslide victory on 4 January with 96 percent of the vote (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 and 16 January 2004).

The National Movement is now poised to sweep the board in the parliamentary ballot. But the wave of popular exultation that ensured Saakashvili's January triumph has somewhat abated. And differences have emerged between the three members of the troika that led the protests that culminated in Shevardnadze's ouster. Parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze, who in line with the Georgian Constitution served as acting president after Shevardnadze stepped down, implied that Saakashvili reneged on an informal agreement that his National Movement and the Burdjanadze-Democrats bloc co-headed by Burdjanadze and Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania should be equally represented on the joint list of candidates. Burdjanadze's supporters, however, account for only some 20 percent of the 130 names on that list and only two of the top 10 candidates (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 27 February 2004).

Moreover, Saakashvili and Zhvania both dismissed a request by the Council of Europe to convene an emergency session of the outgoing parliament to amend the election law by lowering from 7 percent to 4 or 5 percent the threshold for parliamentary representation under the proportional system (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20, 26 and 27 February 2004). Central Election Commission Chairman Zurab Chiaberashvili had said on 15 January that he favors such a reduction, Caucasus Press reported. The leadership's refusal impelled a visiting Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe delegation to express concern that "with the current 7 percent threshold to enter parliament, combined with a fragmented opposition, there is a real risk that the upcoming elections will result in a one-party parliament." The same delegation also deplored the new leadership's reluctance to amend the composition of election commissions at all levels to exclude bias, after which Saakashvili decreed that opposition party representative should have two addition representatives on district-level election commissions, giving them a total of nine of the 15 seats.

Most observers attribute the Georgian leadership's reluctance to lower the election threshold for parliamentary representation to a desire to prevent the Union for Democratic Revival headed by Adjar Supreme Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze from winning representation in the new legislature. The Union for Democratic Revival (DAK) was the second-largest faction in the parliament elected in 1999, with 58 deputies. Given that the results of the 2 November voting in the 75 single-candidate constituencies were not annulled, the DAK is among several opposition parties or blocs that will be represented in the new legislature at least by a handful of deputies. The DAK has six deputies; the Labor Party two; the New Rightists three; and their bloc partner, Industry Will Save Georgia, two. Sixteen deputies were elected on the ticket of the now defunct pro-Shevardnadze For a New Georgia.

A total of five blocs and 14 individual parties succeeded in registering to contest the 28 March ballot (compared with nine blocs and 12 individual parties in November). The Union of Citizens of Georgia (SMK) -- the party Shevardnadze formed as his power base 10 years ago and which constituted the nucleus of For a New Georgia -- did not register for the ballot. Some former SMK members were included in the list of the Party for the Protection of Constitutional Rights, but that party pulled out of the ballot on 25 March, terming the election "a farce," Caucasus Press reported. Only a few parties or blocs can realistically expect to surmount the 7 percent barrier. The Labor Party, which polled over 12 percent of the vote last November, hopes to win 20-25 percent this time around, press secretary Gela Danelia told Caucasus Press on 17 March. An opinion poll conducted by the weekly "Kviris palitra" in early March estimated support for Labor at 14.7 percent, while a second poll of some 6,600 respondents conducted at around the same time by the MGM research agency gave the National Movement-United Democrats 40.32 percent, but suggested that no other party would poll over 7 percent. That later poll gave the Industrialists-New Rightists alliance 5 percent support; the DAK 4.7 percent; the Tavisupleba (Liberty) party headed by Konstantine Gamsakhurdia, son of deceased President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, 3.3 percent; and the Labor Party 2.9 percent.

While no one doubts that deputies from the National Movement/Democrats combined list will constitute an overall majority in the new parliament, it is not a foregone conclusion that they will garner the two-thirds majority needed to amend the country's constitution, for example to abolish the presidency, as Saakashvili told journalists in Bratislava last week that he ultimately intends to do.

The other remaining open question is how voting will proceed in Adjaria, where Abashidze is fighting to retain the political and economic control of which Saakashvili is determined to divest him (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 19 March 2004). Abashidze, who heads the DAK list, has pledged not to hinder the vote. But Georgian newspapers report that activists from the Adjar opposition movement Our Adjara are being systematically harassed, to the point that normal electioneering is impossible. And on 24 March, Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Gogi Khaindrava admitted that voting could not take place in Adjaria if Abashidze refuses to lift the state of emergency he imposed on 14 March. (Liz Fuller)

AZERBAIJAN OPTS OUT OF KEY KARABAKH TALKS. Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Vilayat Guliev has canceled a meeting with his Armenian counterpart Vartan Oskanian scheduled for 28 March in Prague, which Yerevan hoped would give some indication whether the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict can be resolved in the foreseeable future. Guliev said that he will not travel to Prague to meet with Oskanian because the agenda for the talks has not been specified.

That decision was announced late on 24 March amid renewed Azerbaijani criticism of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Minsk Group, whose American, French and Russian co-chairmen seek to mediate a settlement of the conflict. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev again accused the Minsk Group co-chairs of doing little to resolve the conflict peacefully. Aliyev also warned ally Turkey against reopening its border with Armenia.

There was no immediate reaction from the Minsk Group. The Russian co-chairman, Yurii Merzlyakov, was quoted only as telling an Azerbaijani television channel that the talks initiated by the mediators will not take place because "one of the parties" decided so. The information was confirmed by the Czech Foreign Ministry on 25 March. The Foreign Ministry in Yerevan declined to comment. Its spokesman, Hamlet Gasparian, told RFE/RL that the ministry has received no written notification from the mediators that the meeting will not take place as planned.

Oskanian said last week that the Prague meeting should clarify whether Baku is ready to revive Karabakh agreements reached by the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents in Paris and the Florida island of Key West three years ago. He said Aliyev will have to negotiate with the Karabakh Armenians if he finally backpedals from those agreements.

Aliyev, however, reiterated Baku's vehement denial that his late father and predecessor Heidar Aliyev reached any agreement in Paris and Key West. "There was and there is no agreement," he told journalists in Baku. "And this is just another lie circulated by the Armenian side." Aliyev went on to criticize the Minsk Group, which, he said, has done "nothing positive" since it was established in 1992. "When we are told that the presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia should reach agreement themselves and the co-chairs will support whatever they decide, that is not mediation," he said.

The Azerbaijani leaders have repeatedly complained that peace proposals put forward by the mediators in recent years would not return Karabakh under Azerbaijani rule. Aliyev declared recently that Azerbaijan is not in a hurry to agree to a compromise deal because he believes it is the Armenians who suffer more from the unresolved conflict.

Aliyev was also reported to warn that a reopening of the Turkish-Armenian border, which the current government in Ankara does not rule out, would further complicate the Karabakh peace process because "Azerbaijan would lose in that case an important lever." "It is no secret that the European Union and other influential countries are putting pressure on Turkey to open its border with Armenia," he said. "But I have said many times that if that happens then the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict will never be resolved." President Aliyev added: "But I am sure that Turkey will not give in to that pressure. Turkey is a strong country and Azeri-Turkish friendship will be stronger than these factors."

Reacting to those remarks, the Armenian Foreign Ministry said the lifting of the Turkish blockade would on the contrary facilitate a Karabakh settlement. "Turkey could really be an important factor in political and economic developments in our region if it abandons its one-sided approaches favoring Azerbaijan," a ministry statement said. (Emil Danielyan)

ARMENIAN OPPOSITION READY TO CLOSE RANKS? Artashes Geghamian, the popular leader of the opposition National Unity Party (AMK), signaled on 24 March that he is ready to throw his weight behind the upcoming attempt to force the resignation of President Robert Kocharian to be staged by the hitherto rival Artarutiun (Justice) alliance. In an interview with RFE/RL, Geghamian said he and other parliament deputies from National Unity "will hold a meeting with residents of Yerevan during which there will most probably be an announcement about joint actions to be taken by National Unity Party and the Artarutiun bloc soon." He specified that those would be "joint rallies." The decision was made by the party's leadership earlier in the day, he added.

Geghamian's participation would boost Artarutiun's chances of gathering big crowds in central Yerevan that the opposition hopes will force Kocharian to step down. Geghamian, who finished third in last year's disputed presidential election after Kocharian and Artarutiun leader Stepan Demirchian, has reportedly been courted by Artarutiun for the past two weeks. The hoped-for alliance was discussed by the bloc's governing board at a meeting on 24 March. "That is being dealt with, and I think we will soon find out about a positive outcome," one of its members, Vazgen Manukian, told journalists. Manukian said the Artarutiun leaders are still "clarifying the date" for the launch of street protests. They had earlier set a 12 April deadline for the campaign.

Artarutiun and the AMK have had an uneasy relationship since the 2003 poll, accusing each other of secret collaboration with the regime. A bitter war of words earlier this year between Geghamian and Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian has paved the way for their rapprochement.

Kocharian, meanwhile, discussed the situation with Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian and other leaders of the three pro-presidential parties represented in his government. The president, according to his press service, was briefed on the recent visits by senior government officials to the mainly rural regions outside Yerevan. The trips are believed to have been aimed at alleviating public disaffection with persisting social hardship -- a key source of popular support for the opposition.

In a separate effort to neutralize the opposition onslaught, Kocharian ordered last week a sweeping reshuffle of his security agencies. The opposition alleges that he wants to make sure that the law-enforcement authorities counter the planned opposition rallies by force and mass arrests. One of its senior members, Victor Dallakian, claimed to have been attacked and beaten by three unknown men in Yerevan on late on 22 March.

Dallakian appeared on 24 March before reporters with a visible injury to his right cheek. He said the attackers punched him "without uttering a word." "It is beyond doubt for me that what happened had political motives," he said, blaming the alleged attack on the authorities. A parliament spokeswoman said speaker Baghdasarian "condemned the violence" in a phone conversation with the opposition lawmaker. Police in Yerevan pledged to investigate the incident. (Ruzanna Stepanian)