29 April 2004, Volume 7, Number 17
IS GEORGIA PLANNING A POLICE OPERATION TO SNATCH ABASHIDZE? Georgian leaders' increasingly bellicose rhetoric, in conjunction with the deployment of Georgian heavy armor to the internal border between Adjaria and the rest of Georgia for military exercises (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 April 2004), have fuelled fears that the Georgian leadership is planning a military incursion to try to oust Adjar Supreme Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze. Any such military intervention could, however, encounter fierce resistance from Abashidze's armed supporters currently encamped on the Adjar side of the internal border. And the use of military force would reflect negatively on Tbilisi given repeated statements by the U.S., Russia, and international organizations calling for restraint and for the Georgian and Adjar leadership to resolve their differences by means of political dialogue.
Caucasus Press on 28 April estimated that the manpower at Abashidze's disposal does not exceed 2,000 Interior Ministry troops plus 8,000 armed civilian volunteers and a small rapid deployment brigade trained by a retired Russian general, whereas the Georgian armed forces number 18,000 men. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili claimed on 9 April that Abashidze also has two T-72 tanks, and several armored personnel carriers, helicopters, and long-range artillery systems. Over the past week, Georgian media have reported the defections to the central Georgian government of dozens, if not hundreds, of army, police, and security personnel based in Adjaria, including some members of the crack rapid reaction force.
While that erosion of support for Abashidze could facilitate a military intervention, remarks on 28 April by Georgian Interior Minister Giorgi Baramidze suggest that Tbilisi favors an entirely different scenario, and that the maneuvers on the internal border are intended to mislead and to divert attention from the true objective, which is to launch a commando raid and arrest Abashidze in Batumi. Georgian parliament deputy Givi Bokeria said in Tbilisi on 28 April that the Georgian leadership has no choice but to arrest Abashidze, Caucasus Press reported.
Also on 28 April, Russian agencies quoted as saying his ministry is capable of launching a police operation in Adjaria if all efforts to resolve the standoff peacefully fail. Indeed, the Georgian police have already demonstrated their ability to do so, when in mid-January they snatched former Georgian railways head Akaki Chkhaidze from a hospital in Batumi. And in late March, Georgian police and special-purpose troops launched a major operation to round up a crime gang in Svaneti (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 March 2004). Scheduling Abashidze's arrest for the first weekend in May would ensure that any negative publicity that could result from his accidental death while resisting arrest would be eclipsed by the euphoria surrounding EU expansion. (Liz Fuller)
THINK TANK PREDICTS POLITICAL UPHEAVAL IN AZERBAIJAN. On 27 April, the online daily zerkalo.az published a slightly abridged version of a study of the current political situation in Azerbaijan recently released by the analytical center Vostok-Zapad (East-West). That study corroborates analysts' earlier conclusions that the mainstream opposition parties have forfeited their political influence in the wake of their humiliating defeat in the 15 October presidential election, and that a "new force" will eventually emerge to fill the resulting political vacuum (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 2 January 2004). But it goes further than previous assessments of political situation, arguing that the eclipse of the opposition has removed all constraints on the ruling elite, which, it claims, is increasingly factionalized. Increasingly fierce infighting among those hostile factions, Vostok-Zapad warns, could result in major political upheaval.
As under deceased President Heidar Aliyev, the executive branch (or rather the presidential administration) continues to exercise supreme power in Azerbaijan, and the legislature and judiciary simply implement with the orders it hands down. (Vostok-Zapad comments that judges in Azerbaijan today are even more subservient to the authorities than during the Soviet era.) At the same time, a covert struggle is underway within the executive branch, as individual groups compete for the favor and trust of President Ilham Aliyev in order to be able to appoint the maximum number of their supporters to influential and lucrative posts. Aliyev, however, has reportedly not yet reached a decision as to which of the various groups would constitute the most reliable support base.
The Vostok-Zapad study names three rival groupings within the executive branch, all of them with a nucleus comprising persons from a specific region of Azerbaijan. (It is not clear whether there are more.) The first and most powerful of these groupings, and the one on which Aliyev appears to have relied at least initially, revolves around presidential administration head Ramiz Mekhtiev, reputed to be the eminence grise behind Ilham Aliyev. That grouping controls much of local government, some influential members of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party (YAP), and unnamed powerful business interests.
The second grouping, dubbed "radical" by Vostok-Zapad, comprises Azerbaijanis whose families settled in Azerbaijan from Armenia several decades ago. It is headed by Health Minister Ali Insanov and can count on support from within the health and education systems, the Ministry of State Security, the Constitutional Court, and, to a lesser degree, YAP and local government (on Insanov's role within YAP, see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 26 August 1999 and 8 June 2001). This second grouping is, however, fluid and subject to internal dissent, with parliament speaker Murtuz Alesqerov and his brother Fuad heading a faction within it that is more "loyal" to the president than are Insanov and his supporters. Azerbaijani opposition media have been predicting since January the imminent dismissal of both Insanov and Education Minister Misir Mardanov.
The third grouping identified by Vostok-Zapad unites persons whose families originate from Ordubad Raion (in the south of Nakhichevan, bordering on Iran). That grouping is reportedly headed by National Security Minister Namik Abbasov, Baku Mayor Hadjibala Abutalibov, and the head of Azerkhimiya, Fikret Sadykhov. (Abutalibov, too, has been identified in the opposition press as in grave danger of losing his job).
Vostok-Zapad's identification of mutually hostile factions and the prominent figures identified with them leaves one major question open, namely, where the armed forces' and Interior Ministry's loyalty lies, and whether there are fault lines within the top brass comparable to those Vostok-Zapad highlights within the State Security Ministry.
Vostok-Zapad sees the weakness of the Azerbaijani opposition as posing a serious danger to political stability insofar as the ruling elite is not constrained in its actions by fear of how the opposition might react, and therefore does not need to preserve inner unity. Instead, its members are free to pursue their own ambitions, with scant regard for the interests of the state. Nor does Vostok-Zapad exclude the possibility that unnamed foreign states that are averse to the emergence of a strong Azerbaijan might seek to coopt one or other rival faction within the leadership in order to trigger an inner political crisis and destabilize the country. (Liz Fuller)
ARMENIAN CURRENCY HITS THREE-YEAR HIGH AGAINST U.S. DOLLAR. Armenia's national currency, the dram, gained more ground against the U.S. dollar on 28 April, registering its highest exchange rate since October 2000 despite weeks of political turmoil in the country. The dram was trading at an average of 549 per dollar in Yerevan's currency exchange bureaus, making its value almost 3 percent higher than two months ago. Analysts found it hard to explain the phenomenon that bucked recent weeks' global currency rate trends. The Central Bank of Armenia (CBA) denies any role in the dram's strengthening, insisting that its floating rate is determined by the market factors of demand and supply.
According to Tigran Jrbashian of the Sed Marsed consulting firm, demand for the dram is being pushed up by payment of first-quarter profit taxes by businesses which began on 1 April. "The main reason for the dram's strengthening is the collection of quite a lot of taxes in the course of this year," he said.
The Armenian government reported a 30 percent jump in its profit tax revenues collected during the first three months of this year. That increase followed a toughening of penalties for the widespread evasion of the 20 percent corporate income tax.
The dram's gains against the euro have been twice as strong. One euro is currently worth 652 drams, down from 702 drams registered in late February. The difference seems to result from a recent rebound in the dollar's value in the international currency markets.
The dram thus remains effectively pegged to the dollar despite the European Union's status as Armenia's number one trading partner. The EU's common currency drained the greenback of nearly a fifth of its value last year. The dram similarly fell by almost 14 percent against the euro during the same period. (Emil Danielyan)
QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "The guillotine is not the best means of treating dandruff." -- Armenian parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian, condemning official reprisals against participants in the ongoing campaign to force President Robert Kocharian's resignation. Quoted by RFE/RL's Armenian Service on 23 April.
"If any instances of extortion by officials responsible for making the decisions about paying compensations or of uneven distribution of money are confirmed, I will personally put a rope around the necks of those officials and kick the chair out from underneath them." -- Pro-Moscow Chechen leader Akhmad-hadji Kadyrov, addressing a government session to review the payment of compensation to Chechen families whose homes and property were destroyed during the fighting of the past decade (quoted by Interfax on 26 April).