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Caucasus Report: November 18, 2004

18 November 2004, Volume 7, Number 44

ARMENIAN COALITION DIVIDED OVER ELECTORAL REFORM. Risking a potentially irreversible rift, the three parties making up President Robert Kocharian's government and his other major allies have failed to reach agreement on reforming Armenia's electoral system. Prime Minister Andranik Markarian's Republican Party (HHK) and its junior coalition partners, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD) and Orinats Yerkir party, remain divided over how to elect the Armenian parliament -- a key issue that could affect the outcome of future elections.

The two smaller coalition partners have been demanding that more parliament seats be contested under the system of proportional representation of political parties at the expense of individual constituencies that each elect one parliamentarian. The Republicans, backed by the People's Deputy group of nonpartisan lawmakers, are opposed to any major change in the existing system that distributes 75 parliament seats on the party-list basis and the remaining 56 seats in the single-mandate districts across Armenia.

Details emerged on 16 November of a meeting of the leaders of the pro-Kocharian parliamentary majority that was chaired by parliamentary speaker Artur Baghdasarian the previous day. Participants said each side stuck to its guns.

"The HHK faction has decided unanimously that the seat proportions that have existed until now must be preserved for the next elections," a senior Republican deputy, Gagik Melikian told RFE/RL. That statement mirrored Markarian's personal opinion, which he expressed publicly last week.

The Republicans, who have the largest parliamentary faction, are refusing to give in despite Dashnaktsutiun's threats to quit the coalition. HHD leaders warned earlier this month that failure to shore up the proportional representation system would constitute a "blatant violation" of the June 2003 three-party agreement to set up the coalition government.

The majority leaders are expected to meet again next week in another attempt to break the impasse. Their failure to reach common ground could require Kocharian's intervention in the dispute. Kocharian has not publicly expressed his position on the issue so far.

"I don't think that the opinion of the president of the republic will differ," Melikian said. "I think he will defend our opinion. In any case, the opinion of the president is decisive and acceptable for us."

Armenia's leading opposition groups also stand for a greater share of party-list seats, saying that the proportional system makes electoral fraud more difficult. Like the HHD, they fare poorly in the single-mandate constituencies where government connections and money play an increasingly large role. However, the opposition minority has avoided any involvement in the election-law discussions due to its continuing boycott of parliament sessions. (Ruzanna Khachatrian)

NEW SOLUTION PROPOSED FOR ABKHAZ ELECTION DEADLOCK. Former Abkhaz Prime Minister Raul Khadjimba, who refuses to accept the 11 October ruling by Abkhazia's Central Election Commission that his rival, Chernomorenergo head Sergei Bagapsh, won the 3 October presidential ballot with 50.08 percent of the vote, proposed to Bagapsh on 17 November that they should agree not to run in the repeat presidential ballot that outgoing President Vladislav Ardzinba called for on 29 October. But Bagapsh, who has already scheduled his inauguration for 6 December, immediately rejected that proposal as "unacceptable for us," Caucasus Press reported.

Khadjimba's proposal may well have been intended to clear the way for a presidential bid by former Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba, who polled third in the 3 October ballot. Shamba has since founded the Social Democratic Party, which he claims numbers 6,000 members (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 November 2004), and which has aligned itself behind Khadjimba and Ardzinba. If Shamba won the repeat ballot, he would then presumably offer Khadjimba his former post as prime minister.

Also on 17 November, Bagapsh and Khadjimba met separately with Prime Minister Nodar Khashba, who on 15 November had told ITAR-TASS that he hoped to bring the two rival challengers together to reach a "a mutual decision that will make possible a way out of the crisis." But Khadjimba indicated in an interview published in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 16 November that he sees no point in any further meetings with Bagapsh as the latter is unwilling to make any concessions.

Khadjimba's offer to pull out of the repeat ballot if Bagapsh agreed to do likewise was made prior to the opening of a session of Council of Elders, a body that traditionally enjoys great authority but no real power. The council endorsed Khadjimba's proposal, according to Caucasus Press. But ITAR-TASS on 17 November quoted Nugzar Ashuba, speaker of the Abkhaz parliament (almost all of whose 35 deputies support Bagapsh), as saying that a repeat election would not solve the ongoing crisis. Speaking to journalists in Sukhum, Ashuba further endorsed Bagapsh as the "legally elected president of the republic."

Since the storming by Bagapsh's supporters on 12 November of the building in Sukhum that houses the government and presidential offices, the political landscape has become even more polarized. Predictably, ailing President Ardzinba condemned the violent action, in which an elderly academic was fatally injured, as a bid to overthrow himself and Prime Minister Khashba. Two months before the 3 October vote, Ardzinba had publicly expressed his support for then Prime Minister Khadjimba, whom Ardzinba described as the most worthy candidate to succeed him.

Eight political parties and public organizations, including the pro-government Apsny party, the People's Party, and Shamba's Social Democratic Party, announced on 15 November their alignment in an Anticrisis Council. That body issued an appeal on 16 November to both Bagapsh and Khadjimba to embark on dialogue; it also called for a bipartisan committee to take over control of national television, and for the withdrawal of all armed men from government buildings.

Also on 16 November, the Abkhaz Federation of Trade Unions and three political parties that support Bagapsh released a statement rejecting Ardzinba's 13 November allegation that Bagapsh intended to stage a coup and accusing Ardzinba of seeking to offload on to others responsibility for the present crisis. The four organizations also addressed the Russian presidential administration and both chambers of the Russian parliament, criticizing the Russian media and individual Russian politicians for misrepresenting the situation in Abkhazia, and stressing that "the Abkhaz people consider Russia to be their true friend and the guarantor of their security."

They further accused Khashba of having asked Moscow on 12 November to dispatch troops to Sukhum to restore order -- an accusation that Khashba rejected, according to ITAR-TASS on 17 November. Khashba, a former senior official in the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry, explained that he supports Moscow's stance vis-a-vis the situation in Abkhazia. But at the same time he stressed that as Ardzinba's appointee "I am first and foremost a pro-Abkhaz politician."

Then on 17 November, some 50 senior Abkhaz Interior Ministry officials issued a statement saying they will no longer take orders from Khashba, whom the statement accused of misinforming the mass media and the Russian leadership, Interfax reported. They further called for the disarming of a new (pro-Khadjimba?) police force and of other security bodies. Also on 17 November, Ardzinba suspended his deputy, Vice President Valerii Arshba, on the grounds that "all his actions since 12 November...violated the law and run counter to the republic's constitution."

Both camps, however, are on shaky ground in accusing each other of unconstitutional and/or illegal actions. Ardzinba himself rode roughshod over the constitution in instructing the Central Election Commission on 29 October to schedule new elections, which is prerogative of the parliament. Bagapsh too was on dubious legal grounds in seeking to have a "pan-national assembly" endorse his presidential victory (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 5 and 11 November 2004 ). It was the participants in such an informal assembly on 12 November who led the march on the government building in what was intended to be an affirmation of the legality of Bagapsh's election victory.

Even before the 12 November violence, Moscow had made clear its preference for Khadjimba over Bagapsh. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko on 12 November condemned the temporary occupation of the central government building as an attempt to oust the incumbent president and prime minister. Yakovenko warned that if such "illegal" actions continued, Russia would be compelled "to take steps to protect its interests," but did not explain what those interests are. Most Abkhaz, whether they support Bagapsh or Khadjimba, have acquired Russian passports.

"Novaya gazeta" on 15 November quoted Aleksei Malashenko of the Moscow Carnegie Center as suggesting that Yakovenko's statement was meant as a warning to both Bagapsh and Khadjimba to bridge their differences. Malashenko argued that Moscow does not want to be constrained to intervene in Abkhazia, as doing so would impact negatively on Russian-Georgian relations and thus, by extension, create tensions in Russia's relations with the EU and the United States. (Liz Fuller)

CRISIS IN KARACHAEVO-CHERKESSIA AVERTED -- FOR NOW. Decisive intervention last week by Russian presidential envoy to the South Russia federal district Dmitrii Kozak won what might prove to be only a temporary respite for embattled Republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia President Mustafa Batdyev. On 9 November, hundreds of angry protesters led by relatives of seven young men believed murdered in mid-October at a dacha belonging to Batdyev's son-in-law Ali Kaitov stormed the government building in the republican capital Cherkessk and ransacked Batdyev's office, demanding his resignation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 and 25 October and 9, 10, and 12 November 2004). Arguing that anger over the murders should not be parlayed into political demands, Kozak persuaded the protesters to await the findings of an investigation into the killings, for which Kaitov and a dozen other suspects have already been arrested. But the killings were apparently only the most recent of a string of grievances that the republic's residents harbor against Batdyev -- including the charge that his apparent victory in the presidential runoff last summer was bought, rather than reflecting voters' real preferences, and that he rigged the subsequent elections to the republic's parliament to ensure a majority of seats for the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party.

The recent standoff marked a first for local politics insofar as, unlike the protracted crisis resulting from the 1999 republican presidential election, it does not have overt ethnic overtones. The 1999 election pitted the republic's two titular nationalities against each other: retired General Vladimir Semenov, who is half Karachai, defeated Cherkess Stanislav Derev in a runoff ballot in mid-May, but Semenov's failure to deliver on a subsequent pledge to appoint a Cherkess as prime minister led to repeated protests, and even to proposals that the republic be split into two constituent parts (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 5 January, 20 May, 8 and 30 July, 2 and 17 September, and 7 October 1999 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 and 18 May and 22 June 1999 and 18 and 27 July 2000).

By contrast, all five candidates in the 2003 presidential ballot, in which National Bank head Batdyev narrowly defeated Semenov in the second round (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 August and 2 September 2003), represented the Karachais, who in recent years have emerged as the republic's largest ethnic group. They now account for 43 percent of the total half-million population, while the Russians, the second-largest ethnic group, account for 37 percent, according to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 1 November. (The Russians previously accounted for 42 percent of the total population and the Karachais 37 percent. It is unclear whether the Cherkess share of the population, less than 10 percent, has grown or shrunk.)

Russian observers have construed the dispute that precipitated the October killings simply as one between rival Karachai clans over economic assets (a formerly state-owned cement factory of which Kaitov was the director), and consequently devoid of any ethnic overtones. (All the seven victims were Karachais.) The attack on the government building, too, was undertaken by people whose overriding grievance against Batdyev was that he presides over a leadership that condoned blatant corruption and even murder, rather than that he is a Karachai. That is not to rule out a political aspect to the attack on the government building: "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 10 November quoted an unnamed official within Batdyev's administration as accusing "the opposition" in the person of Semenov's supporters of being behind the anti-Batdyev demonstrations. Semenov himself, however, was quoted by the same paper on 12 November as affirming that there is no "opposition" as such in Karachaevo-Cherkessia. On the contrary, Semenov said, the entire population is against "criminal anarchy" and the corruption that, he claimed, permeates the entire power vertical.

The fact that at present, the standoff in Cherkessk is devoid of any overt interethnic component (in contrast to the situation in North Ossetia and Ingushetia in the wake of the Beslan tragedy) might be one reason why Moscow is playing for time on the assumption that passions will abate once the accused murderers go on trial. Other factors too make it unlikely that President Vladimir Putin would endorse calls for Batdyev's resignation and a repeat ballot. On 1 November, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" made the point that Batdyev has launched a vigorous crackdown on radical Islam, one of the Kremlin's pet hates; he also, as noted above, reportedly engineered the election of a parliament in which the majority of the 73 deputies represent Unified Russia.

The danger exists, however, that if the Russian leadership chooses to ignore the intensity of popular animosity in Cherkessk, and if the sentences finally passed on Kaitov and his accomplices are considered derisorily mild, then popular anger could take on an anti-Karachai tinge and unite the republic's other ethnic groups against the Karachais. One of the demonstrators outside the government building told "Kommersant-Daily": "Send us a Russian from Moscow! Send us a Cherkess, an Abazin, a Jew, anyone, even a monkey, but put an end to these abuses!" "The Moscow Times" reported on 11 November. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "At that time there was, or seemed to be, or else [the two sides] pretended there was, a balance of power." -- Fazil Iskander, "Sandro of Chegem."

"We are saying: 'Here is what we are losing. What are you going to give us in exchange?'" -- Fazil Iskander, introduction to ibid.