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Caucasus Report: April 2, 2004

2 April 2004, Volume 7, Number 14

The next "Caucasus Report" will appear on 16 April.

GEORGIAN PARLIAMENTARY BALLOT LEAVES SOUR AFTERTASTE. As widely anticipated, Georgia's new leadership has cemented its control of the levers of power, garnering some 76 percent of the vote in the 28 March election for the 150 parliamentary mandates distributed under the proportional system. With all but a few thousand votes counted late on 31 March, the National Movement-Democrats, whose leaders are President Mikheil Saakashvili, Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania, and Nino Burdjanadze, speaker of the outgoing parliament, had won 67.2 percent of the vote. The only other political party to win representation under proportional system was the Industrialists-New Rightists alignment, which polled 7.62 percent.

The big loser was the Union for Democratic Revival (DAK) headed by Adjar Supreme Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze, which polled 6.2 percent, less than the 7 percent minimum required for parliamentary representation under the proportional system. Abashidze accused the central Georgian authorities on 30 March of deliberately minimizing the number of votes cast in his favor by supplying his autonomous republic with less than half the required number of forms for voter registration. Georgian Central Election Commission Chairman Zurab Chiaberashvili, however, said on 29 March that additional ballots were dispatched to Adjaria on 28 March when the initial number proved insufficient, but only a few hundred of them were in fact used. Initial returns showed that Abashidze's party in fact polled the highest number of votes in Adjaria -- some 58,000 compared with 55,000 for the National Movement/Democrats. But nationwide the DAK failed to garner the required 7 percent minimum, or a total of some 120,000 votes. On 31 March, Abashidze said he will appeal the election outcome to the Constitutional Court.

Tamaz Diasamidze, one of the leaders of the opposition movement Our Adjara that seeks Abashidze's ouster, told Caucasus Press on 28 March that in his opinion the voting in Adjaria was "quite democratic," in marked contrast to previous ballots. But two days later, CEC Chairman Chiaberashvili warned that the results in some Adjar constituencies could be annulled due to "serious violations," including the threat or use of violence against voters or precinct officials.

The opposition Labor Party also questioned the accuracy of official returns that gave it only 5.8 percent of the vote. Labor Party activists said after polls closed on 28 March that according to their exit polls, they won some 32 percent. Labor had similarly claimed that the number of ballots cast for it in the 2 November parliamentary election was revised downward. And at a press conference on 30 March, the leaders of the Industrialists/New Rightists, Gogi Topadze and David Gamkrelidze, expressed apprehension that in the course of counting the remaining ballot papers the CEC would falsify the results from several constituencies where that bloc polled a particularly large number of votes.

Fears that the officially promulgated outcome of the ballot would not correspond to reality were expressed even before the election. Two parties -- the Communist Party of Georgia and the newly created Party for the Protection of Constitutional Rights, which includes some former members of erstwhile President Eduard Shevardnadze's Union of Citizens of Georgia -- pulled out of the ballot on 26 March. The Justice Party headed by former National Security Minister Igor Giorgadze called the same day for a boycott of the vote. Party secretary Revaz Bulia told journalists that "there is no sense in participating in the elections. Everything has been decided. This parliament will be not elected, it will be appointed," Caucasus Press reported.

Voter turnout on 28 March was estimated at 65 percent, which is 10 percent less than in the 4 January presidential ballot in which Saakashvili won a staggering 96 percent of the vote. Whether the lower turnout is to be attributed to voter fatigue is a matter for conjecture, as is the reason for the lower level of support for the National Movement/Democrats list. Do voters have less trust in Zhvania and Burdjanadze than they do in the president? Alternatively, has the euphoria of Saakashvili's so-called Rose Revolution dissipated to the point that voters have begun to ponder the inconsistency of his public pronouncements?

Among those inconsistencies were statements made on 24 March and 28 March regarding the composition of the new parliament. Addressing journalists in Tbilisi prior to the ballot, Saakashvili said there is no need for an opposition presence in the parliament. A 25 March press release circulated by the opposition New Rightists quoted Saakashvili as saying that he does not need people in parliament who would "stab him in the back" by opposing his planned reforms. Saakashvili said he wished the Supreme Court had also annulled the outcome of the 2 November parliamentary election in the 75 single-mandate constituencies. (Caucasus Press calculated on 29 March that there will be a minimum of 13 opposition and independent deputies elected from single-mandate constituencies, with secondary elections still pending in at least four constituencies.)

On 29 March, however, when initial returns suggested that no opposition party would succeed in surmounting the 7 percent threshold, Saakashvili professed himself disappointed that the opposition had not made a stronger showing. "But that is what fair elections are all about," he said. "We cannot engineer the results of elections in our own favor." (Liz Fuller)

ARMENIAN AUTHORITIES THREATEN OPPOSITION LEADERS WITH ARREST. The Armenian authorities raised late on 31 March the possibility of arresting opposition leaders ahead of their promised push for regime change, announcing criminal proceedings into their alleged calls for a "violent overthrow" of President Robert Kocharian. The office of Armenia's prosecutor-general said in a statement that it had opened a criminal case the previous day in connection with "the mainly unsanctioned" rallies held by the opposition Artarutiun (Justice) bloc across the country over the past month. It said that during those rallies, leaders of the bloc "publicly insulted representatives of government" and threatened to "seize state power with violence and change the constitutional order of the Republic of Armenia."

A spokesman for the law-enforcement agency told RFE/RL that no charges have yet been brought against any individuals. He said that will be determined during the investigation. Stepan Demirchian and other Artarutiun leaders contacted by RFE/RL said they are unaware of the development, which will further up the stakes in the unfolding standoff between Kocharian and his political foes. They rejected the accusations that they plan to resort to violence in a bid to seize power.

"These steps show that the regime has lost its ability to think rationally and is resorting to overt provocations, illegalities, and repressions," Demirchian said. "We will be consistent in acting on public demands for restoration of constitutional order in our country. The opposition has never advocated violence."

"They are the ones who usurped power with vote falsifications and other illegalities," said Artarutiun's Albert Bazeyan. "We want to return that power to the people and that will happen very soon. We want to restore, not to breach constitutional order." "Regardless of whether or not yet open criminal cases we will not diverge from our path," Bazeyan added.

The prosecutors' statement mentioned violence at a 28 March Artarutiun rally in Gyumri, accusing the organizers of assaulting plainclothes police and "dissident citizens." Nine Artarutiun activists were arrested after their clash with law-enforcement officers which the opposition blamed on the local authorities. The latter deny any responsibility for the violence, saying that the oppositionists will be tried for "hooliganism."

Speaking at a news conference earlier in the day, Artashes Geghamian, the leader of the National Unity Party, Artarutiun's opposition ally, accused the Armenian authorities of planning "provocations" to disrupt the upcoming opposition demonstrations in Yerevan. "They are planning provocations so that developments unfold in a chaotic way and can be suppressed with brutal force," he said. Geghamian claimed that police in the capital have already formed special squads tasked with carrying out "provocative" actions" among National Unity activists ahead of the party's 5 April rally in Yerevan. He is expected to announce at the gathering the precise date for the start of "decisive" street protests to be jointly staged by his party and Artarutiun.

Geghamian, who has until now avoided any participation in the Artarutiun rallies, ruled out any separate deals with Kocharian and said a dialogue with the government could only center on ways of ensuring a "regime change without upheavals." He urged the Armenian leader to hold democratic presidential and parliamentary elections and resign. "This would be a unique opportunity for Mr. Kocharian to redeem himself," Geghamian told a news conference.

Kocharian has repeatedly shrugged off such calls and warned that any attempt to "unconstitutionally" topple will meet with a tough government response. His most powerful associate, Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, said on 31 March that the authorities have "no desire" to use force against the opposition. "But we are obliged to maintain law and order and will do just that," Sarkisian told reporters, accusing the opposition of planning to "shed blood." The political situation in Armenia is "quite tense," he added.

Prime Minster Andranik Markarian, however, sounded less concerned by the opposition actions, saying that he sees "no danger to Armenia's constitutional order." He also said: "We refuse to hold any discussions on regime change with them. They are making demands that can not be met." (Karine Kalantarian, Ruzanna Stepanian, and Shakeh Avoyan)

AUDIT CHAMBER BACKS CHECHEN LEADER'S BID FOR GREATER FINANCIAL CONTROL. Ever since the March 2003 referendum that approved Chechnya's new draft constitution, pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov has repeatedly sought to persuade the Russian government to agree to special economic privileges for Chechnya that would provide badly needed funds for reconstruction and improving social conditions.

Speaking to journalists on 28 March 2003, Kadyrov said he envisaged the broad autonomy granted to Chechnya under the new constitution in terms of "special economic status" that would encompass economic privileges not extended to other federation subjects, including a soft tax regime and other unspecified measures to help rebuild infrastructure destroyed during the fighting of the past decade. Six months later, shortly after the 5 October presidential election, Kadyrov again argued that "if we do not have economic privileges, we shall not be able to rebuild Chechnya with the money allocated for that purpose [from the federal budget]. We are requesting that all taxes and proceeds [from the sale of Chechen oil] be kept for use within Chechnya until 2010," Interfax reported on 10 October. One week later, he similarly affirmed that "we shall work to secure the status of an economically autonomous region," according to Interfax on 19 October.

Initially, Kadyrov apparently hoped to have economic concessions, including the right for Chechnya to retain a larger percentage of the profits from the oil it extracts, written into the power-sharing treaty to be signed between Grozny and Moscow (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 31 March and 9 October 2003). Work on drafting that treaty got underway one year ago, immediately after the 23 March referendum. But whether because the Kremlin considers Kadyrov's demands exorbitant or because some top Russian officials still view him with suspicion and distaste, the text is reportedly still being negotiated. (Kadyrov told Interfax on 17 December 2003 that the treaty would be signed before the end of March; on 14 March, he said that it was largely completed.)

Speaking in Moscow on 23 December, Kadyrov complained that although Chechnya now produces some 2 million tons of crude annually, "we receive only a tiny part of the profit," Interfax reported. And on 22 March, Kadyrov suggested that the Chechen oil sector should be managed by an "independent" (meaning wholly Chechen-controlled) company. Oil and gas extraction in Chechnya is currently the preserve of Grozneftegaz, in which Russia's Rosneft and the Chechen government have a 51 percent and 49 percent stake respectively. Kadyrov pointed that because Rosneft is registered in Moscow, 70 percent of the taxes on the sale of Chechen oil are transferred there. He argued that Chechnya should not only retain a bigger share of those taxes, but that instead of selling all its crude it should retain and refine locally enough for domestic consumption. Rebuilding the refining capacity, Kadyrov continued, would contribute to increasing employment and possibly also luring Russian oil specialists back to Grozny. On 23 March, Kadyrov again raised the issue of "special economic status" for Chechnya, but added that "I am not talking about what form that status should take, a tax haven, a free economic development zone, a special economic zone or whatever," according to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 25 March.

In order to lend more weight to his demands for special economic status, Kadyrov enlisted the support of Russia's Audit Chamber. At his request, that body has drafted and submitted to the Chechen state council (the interim legislature, pending elections that could take place later this year), proposals to be incorporated into a concept for Chechnya's social and economic development until 2007, "Izvestiya" reported on 24 March. Those proposals include designating Chechnya a special economic zone, a possibility which Audit Chamber Chairman Sergei Stepashin raised during talks in Grozny last April.

Whether such a zone would prove to be the desired panacea for Chechnya's problems remains debatable, however. "Russkii kurer" on 24 March quoted Shamil Beno, a former Chechen foreign minister who now heads the expert council of the Support for Democracy and Social Progress Foundation, as commenting that neither the Audit Chamber nor Kadyrov's administration has thought through the proposal. Beno questioned whether such a free economic zone is compatible with the Russian budget and tax codes, and pointed out that comparable zones elsewhere in the Russian Federation are currently being abolished. (Liz Fuller)