27 January 2003, Volume 6, Number 4
ARMENIAN PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN KICKS OFF. Campaigning for the 19 February Armenian presidential election officially began on 21 January. Eleven candidates are participating in the race, including the leaders of six of the 16 opposition parties that aligned in late August 2002 with the stated aim of coordinating election tactics and fielding a single candidate to challenge incumbent President Robert Kocharian, who is seeking a second term (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 4 September 2002).
Yet, while the opposition is unanimous in its condemnation of the present leadership, which it accuses of corruption, cronyism, and economic mismanagement, the 16 parties are seemingly no closer now to agreeing on a single candidate than they were five months ago. The three men perceived as posing the greatest challenge to Kocharian are People's Party of Armenia (HZhK) Chairman Stepan Demirchian, Hanrapetutiun (Republic) Party leader Aram Sargsian, and Artashes Geghamian, chairman of the nationalist National Unity Party. Demirchian's father Karen, one of the victims of the October 1999 parliament shootings, narrowly failed to defeat Kocharian in the 1998 presidential runoff. Sargsian succeeded his brother Vazgen, also a parliament-shootings victim, as prime minister in the fall of 1999 but was fired by Kocharian six months later (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 5 May 2000). Although Geghamian's party is aligned with the Communist Party of Armenia (HKK), HKK Chairman Vladimir Darpinian has said he will not pull out of the race in Geghamian's favor. Nor are Sargsian and Demirchian likely to withdraw in favor of Geghamian, although some observers believe Sargsian may withdraw and endorse Demirchian's candidacy.
National Democratic Union Chairman Vazgen Manukian, who, with the backing of several other opposition parties, came close to defeating incumbent President Levon Ter-Petrossian in the September 1996 presidential election, considers opinion polls that rank other opposition candidates ahead of him to be wrong. "Golos Armenii" on 25 January quoted him as predicting that he and Kocharian would face off in a second round of voting. Manukian is also unlikely to withdraw his candidacy.
As in the run-up to the preterm presidential ballot in March 1998, opposition candidates are already accusing the authorities of intimidating voters as part of a broader plan -- overseen now as then by the minister of defense -- to falsify the outcome of the ballot. And, as in 1998, Kocharian has engaged in a bitter exchange of taunts with a rival candidate.
Even prior to the official start of the campaign, the 10 opposition candidates had, collectively and individually, accused the Armenian authorities of resorting to dubious and even illegal acts to ensure Kocharian's re-election for a second term. Specifically, they pointed to the decision to bar from the ballot popular U.S.-born former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian and the appointment of Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian as Kocharian's campaign manager. In recent days, there have also been complaints over the tariffs for, and regulations governing, the use of the free airtime allocated to presidential candidates on national television and radio and what appear to be attempts by representatives of the Armenian authorities to sabotage campaigning by at least one opposition candidate.
The Central Election Commission rejected Hovannisian's application for registration on the grounds that the election law stipulates that candidates must already have been citizens of the Republic of Armenia for a minimum of 10 years. Hovannisian applied for Armenian citizenship in 1991 but was granted it only 10 years later; his appeal against the ruling that served as the rationale for excluding him from the ballot was rejected. Several opposition candidates reasoned, as they had done in 1998, that Kocharian, who was born in the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast when it was still part of the Azerbaijan Socialist Soviet Republic and moved to Yerevan only in March 1997, should also be barred from the ballot on the grounds that he also did not meet the citizenship requirement or the related requirement that candidates should have lived in the republic of Armenia for 10 years prior to the election (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 3 March 1998). But the Central Election Commission rejected on 21 January an appeal by six opposition candidates to strip Kocharian of his registration. Commission Chairman Artak Sahradian said he believed the commission demonstrated "a clear and correct approach" in registering the incumbent, Noyan Tapan reported.
Some opposition candidates have complained that the commission's ruling on apportioning free television and radio airtime to presidential candidates is unfair. Each candidate is entitled to 60 minutes of airtime free of charge; in addition, candidates may purchase a maximum of 120 minutes of television airtime and 180 minutes of radio airtime at a cost of 70,800 drams ($120) and 17,700 drams per minute, respectively. In 1996, candidates were entitled to 120 minutes' free airtime on television and 180 minutes' paid airtime at a cost of $20 per minute. In 1998, free television airtime was set at 90 minutes, with the option of purchasing 180 additional minutes at $20 per minute.
Moreover, there are strict limits to the number of minutes of television airtime a candidate may use on any given day (up to six minutes daily from 21 January to 8 February and up to 10 minutes daily from 9 to 17 February). A spokesman for Geghamian objected to that restriction, explaining that Geghamian had spent most of his election-campaign funds on a 45-minute documentary that cannot be shown in its entirety on public television, Noyan Tapan reported on 20 January. Commission Chairman Sahradian suggested that Geghamian get a private television channel to screen the documentary. But that suggestion ignores the fact that not all such channels are available nationwide. And, as parliamentary deputy Ruben Torosian pointed out on 22 January, private channels charge differing rates for airing election-campaign footage.
In a related complaint, the daily "Haykakan zhamanak" noted on 25 January that Armenian National Television is not airing all campaign footage on its satellite broadcasts to the Armenian diaspora. The paper quoted former Kocharian aide Aleksan Harutiunian, who was named two weeks ago to head Armenian National TV and Radio (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 January 2003), as saying that much of that footage is of such poor audiovisual quality that it is not suitable for satellite broadcasting.
In addition to the problems candidates face with access to the electronic media, Demirchian has encountered problems campaigning in rural areas. On 23 January, a microphone set up for him to address an open-air rally in the northern town of Stepanavan was stolen minutes before his speech was to begin, an RFE/RL correspondent reported. And, two days later, residents of the villages of Tairov and Parakar just outside Yerevan told RFE/RL correspondents that a group of men led by a Defense Ministry official loyal to Kocharian intimidated villagers who had gathered to meet with Demirchian and tore down Demirchian's campaign posters.
Such incidents are likely to fuel the opposition's claims that Defense Minister Sarkisian, who is managing Kocharian's campaign, has been ordered to ensure that the president is re-elected in the first round. Following widespread doubts about the fairness of the 1996 and 1998 presidential elections, the international community has made it clear that it will monitor the 19 February ballot closely for possible signs of violations. Noyan Tapan on 22 January quoted U.S. Ambassador in Yerevan John Ordway as saying during a private meeting with Democratic Party of Armenia Chairman Aram Sarkisian that if even 5 percent of the vote turns out to be falsified, the United States will not recognize the outcome as legal. Speaking at RFE/RL headquarters in Prague last November, Kocharian pledged that the ballot will be free and fair (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 28 November 2002). But a woman who attended a Demirchian campaign rally on 23 January in the village of Gargar was skeptical. "We have never seen honest elections," an RFE/RL corespondent quoted her as saying. "They always steal our votes in Yerevan."
Opinion polls conducted by government-linked pollsters and reported in the pro-presidential press claim Kocharian's popularity is steadily increasing and stands at over 50 percent, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported on 20 January. Kocharian himself said the same day that he considers an outright first-round victory realistic. But polls commissioned by the opposition and summarized by the pro-opposition daily "Haykakan zhamanak" give Kocharian between 22 and 25 percent popular support, which is considerably less than the 50 percent plus one of all votes cast he needs for a first-round win. Demirchian is reportedly in second place with 11 percent, followed by Geghamian with 9 percent.
Aleksandr Avetisian of the private Center for Pre-Election Techniques told RFE/RL on 20 January that he believes Kocharian has a fifty-fifty chance of an outright first-round victory. Avetisian noted that, although the aggregate rating of several opposition candidates is slightly higher in Yerevan than Kocharian's, rural areas traditionally tend to vote for the incumbent. (Liz Fuller)
GEORGIAN SECURITY MINISTRY DECLASSIFIES MATERIALS ON PANKISI GORGE. The Georgian National Security Ministry has made public certain materials, including videotapes relating to the ongoing controversy over the presence in the Pankisi Gorge in northeastern Georgia of Chechen fighters and Arab terrorists with links to Al-Qaeda. Those materials, posted on the Civil Georgia website (http://www.civil.ge/pankisi.shtml) identify the Chechen field commanders who used the gorge as a base. And they reveal that Georgian, Russian, and U.S. intelligence and security officials cooperated closely throughout 2002 in determining the identity of fighters based in Pankisi and their movements. But the documentation sheds no light on persistent rumors of possible complicity between senior Georgian officials and the Chechen fighters or on the current whereabouts of the fighters who used Pankisi as a base but are said to have left the region last fall shortly before the Georgian police launched their much-publicized cleanup operation. Nor does it provide any data that would substantiate suspicions that the four North Africans arrested in London on 5 January on suspicion of manufacturing ricin underwent training in manufacturing toxins in Pankisi (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 January 2003)
The Chechen field commanders who used Pankisi are named as Ruslan Gelaev, Doku Umarov, Husein Esebaev, and "Batia." In addition, there was a fifth field commander named Amjet (Abu Hapsi), presumably an Arab, who was said to be close to Osama bin Laden. Georgian National Security Ministry spokesman Nika Laliashvili told Civil Georgia that it may have been Amjet who had a telephone conversation with bin Laden from the Pankisi Gorge on 11 September 2001. When the first media reports of that telephone conversation surfaced in September 2002, Laliashvili cast doubts on their veracity (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 September 2002).
Laliashvili said that Amjet, together with "most" of the Chechen fighters, left Pankisi in August 2002. Beginning in mid-August, Georgian officials repeatedly announced that a sweep of the Pankisi Gorge to locate and apprehend criminal elements would be launched in the immediate future. Those announcements inclined analysts both in Russia and the West to hypothesize that some highly placed Georgian officials who had earlier colluded with the Chechens might have decided to give them advance warning to enable them to leave the gorge before the crackdown (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 23 September 2002). On 17 January, the "Financial Times" quoted Georgian National Security Minister Valeri Khaburzania as saying that up to 800 Arabs and Chechens were allowed to leave the gorge "without bloodshed" during that operation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 January 2003). Khaburzania made a similar statement in Tokyo on 24 January. But a spokesman for the Russian forces in the North Caucasus denied on 25 January that Gelaev and his fighters are currently in Russia.
Laliashvili also provided details of how Arab religious emissaries who established Islamic schools and guerrilla training in the gorge were financed. He said that during last fall's cleanup operation, Georgian security operatives recovered from training camps run by the Arabs textbooks on how to build bombs and blow up residential buildings. He added that he does not exclude a possible connection between the London ricin find and Pankisi. "Time" magazine in its 22 October European edition quoted unidentified Georgian officials as saying that Arabs in Pankisi were preparing at least two terrorist attacks that were thwarted with U.S. assistance. One of those, according to the magazine's Georgian informants, involved a six-man team of chemists "engaged in brewing poisons to be used on Westerners in Central Asia." "Time" also quoted Georgian officials as saying that they cannot account for as many as 30 of the Arabs formerly based in Pankisi, including a man named Abu Iyad.
Over the past two months, Georgian officials, including President Eduard Shevardnadze and National Security Minister Khaburzania, have repeatedly said that either no, or only a handful of, Chechen fighters remain in Pankisi. But in the wake of the recent Western press speculation about a secret laboratory in the Pankisi Gorge for manufacturing toxins, Russian officials have renewed their media offensive, again accusing Georgia of being unable to contain the terrorist threat that, they claim, still emanates from Pankisi. Russian presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembskii told journalists in Moscow on 16 January that the Pankisi Gorge "remains an international problem that requires permanent attention," despite the large-scale Georgian police operation conducted there last fall.
Lieutenant General Valerii Putov, acting chief of the North Caucasus regional border-guard department, told Interfax on 24 January that: "We have information indicating that there are still Chechen rebels and foreign mercenaries in the Pankisi Gorge.... Some terrorists in the Pankisi Gorge pose as refugees, others hide their weapons and blend in with civilians, and the rest are hiding at disguised bases in the mountains, waiting for the spring to start their activities." On 23 January, Russian Federal Border Service Director-General Konstantin Totskii likewise said that not all Chechen fighters left Pankisi last summer. He claimed that some have moved to bases higher in the mountains close to the Russian-Georgian border and that his service anticipates that those Chechens will attempt to cross the border into Russia as soon as the mountain passes are clear of snow. (Liz Fuller)
ARE GEORGIA AND SOUTH OSSETIA HEADING FOR PEACE OR A NEW WAR? Vakhtang Rcheulishvili, who is Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze's special envoy for the unresolved conflict between the Georgian government and the breakaway unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, met for five hours in Tskhinvali on 18 January with South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoyty to discuss possible approaches to resolving the decade-old conflict, Caucasus Press reported. The two men drafted confidence-building measures between the two sides and agreed to establish a joint committee to monitor implementation of those measures. The first session of the committee will take place in Tskhinvali in late January. Kokoyty and Rcheulishvili were quoted as saying after the 18 January talks that "the year 2003 has been designated the year of confidence building between the Georgian and Ossetian peoples."
An article published in the Georgian paper "Tribuna" on 23 January suggests, however, that their optimism may be misplaced. The paper reported that several tanks and 17 armored personnel carriers had been observed near the Ossetian village of Dodoeti. It claimed the convoy is commanded by a Russian officer. The paper quoted South Ossetian officials as explaining that the heavy armor is to participate in a training exercise under the aegis of the peacekeeping force deployed in South Ossetia. But unidentified Georgian experts suggested that the move may presage a new upsurge of hostilities. Parliamentary deputy Mamuka Areshidze suggested that Russian special services may be seeking to destabilize the situation in South Ossetia.
It is not clear whether there are grounds for such alarmist statements from the Georgian side. But the mere fact that such articles appear in the Georgian press testifies to the need for the confidence-building measures that Kokoyty and Rcheulishvili hope to implement. (Liz Fuller)
AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITION BOYCOTTS EFFORT TO OVERCOME ELECTION-LAW IMPASSE. Backtracking on a previous agreement, seven of the nine Azerbaijani opposition parties aligned in the Opposition Coordinating Center (MKM) announced on 22 January that they would not participate in a 23 January discussion to be hosted by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) Baku office. The discussion was intended to contribute to the establishment of a conciliation commission, on which both opposition and authorities would be represented, that would seek to reach consensus on disputed articles of the new 160-page draft election law (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 10 January 2003).
RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service reported on 21 January that the opposition had agreed to attend the 23 January discussion. And Peter Burkhard, the Swiss diplomat who heads the OSCE Baku office, was quoted by echo-az.com on 24 January as saying that he had reached an agreement with opposition Musavat Party Chairman Isa Gambar and Ali Akhmedov of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP) that representatives of opposition and pro-government parties would participate in the 23 January talks. But on 22 January, the MKM issued a statement saying it would not, after all, participate unless the authorities were represented not by members of the YAP but by a personal representative of President Heidar Aliev.
RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service quoted YAP Deputy Executive Chairman Mubariz Gurbanli as criticizing the opposition ultimatum as "an attempt to prevent the upcoming presidential elections." He also rejected the MKM demand that President Aliyev name a special representative to negotiate with them. The election law, Gurbanli commented, "is neither the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict nor the question of the legal status of the Caspian sea."
Burkhard, for his part, made clear in his interview with "Ekho" that there are limits to what the OSCE can do in support of the opposition if the latter continues to play hard to get. Acknowledging that "from the very beginning we played the role of mediator [between the Azerbaijani authorities and the opposition]," he went on to say that he does not see any need to schedule further talks. "We kept making proposals. We represented [the opposition in talks with the authorities]. We invited them more than once. And they didn't show up. What more am I supposed to do?" the online publication quoted him as saying.
In the six months prior to the Azerbaijani parliamentary elections in November 2000, the OSCE played a similar role mediating between opposition and leadership over amendments to the election law and a new draft law on the Central Election Commission and was instrumental in securing some, but not all, of the changes the opposition demanded (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 30 June 2000 and 20 July 2000). But the Council of Europe, which Azerbaijan joined in early 2001, wants the new election law to be passed in March, six months prior to the ballot, which leaves less than two months to reach a consensus.
If the OSCE office in Baku gives up on its mediation efforts, or if the opposition continues to set conditions for a dialogue that the Azerbaijani leadership rejects, it will be up to the latter, together with the OSCE and the Council of Europe's Venice Commission, to address the flaws in the current draft bill. Meeting with opposition party leaders in Baku on 21 January, visiting Parliamentary Assembly of the Council or Europe rapporteur Martinez Cassan said that if the draft election law is adopted in its present form, the Council of Europe will not recognize the October 2003 presidential election as valid. (Liz Fuller)
CHECHEN PRESIDENTIAL ENVOY CALLS FOR INTERNATIONAL MEDIATION. In an interview published in the 14 January issue of the independent Azerbaijani daily "Zerkalo," Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov's envoy Akhmed Zakaev said that: "We are firmly convinced that Russia and Chechnya are not in a position to find a way out of this vicious circle on their own. The intervention of international structures is essential." At the same time, Zakaev expressed regret that no European organization has yet offered its services as mediator between the two warring sides, although a precedent for doing so exists (in the case of Kosova).
Zakaev recalled former Russian Security Council Secretary Ivan Rybkin's suggestion that either Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze or his Azerbaijani counterpart Heidar Aliyev should also serve as a mediator between Moscow and Maskhadov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 September 2002). Zakaev characterized the two presidents as eminently qualified to act as mediators given their familiarity with the Caucasus. He also noted that both men "have very good and friendly relations" with Maskhadov. (In a subsequent interview with Caucasus Press on 20 January, Zakaev denied rumors that Chechen suicide bombers plan to sabotage oil and gas pipelines through Georgia. "The Chechen government regards Georgia as a friendly country, and we will not take any armed measures against this country," he was quoted as saying.) But elsewhere in the "Zerkalo" interview, Zakaev nonetheless conceded that the belief that Moscow is interested in negotiations to end the war in Chechnya is "somewhat exaggerated."
Zakaev again denied any links between the Chechen resistance and Osama bin Laden. He warned again that every new reprisal or "sweep" operation carried out by Russian forces in Chechnya risks augmenting the ranks of suicide bombers, a reference to the young Chechens led by Movsar Baraev who staged the theater hostage taking in Moscow last October. Zakaev explained that neither Maskhadov, who is "underground," nor other Chechen field commanders are in a position to exercise any control or restraint over such fighters and that when Maskhadov claims to control the Chechen resistance, he is referring to "military structures" and not "individual desperate people." But at the same time, Zakaev said that "when Russian politicians declare that Maskhadov does not control the situation, that is propaganda. On the contrary, Maskhadov has far greater control over the situation in Chechnya than [Russian President Vladimir] Putin."
On 22 January, the "Financial Times" quoted Zakaev as repeating Maskhadov's offer (first made in an extensive interview published by the Institute for War and Peace's Caucasus Reporting Service in June 2002) to reconsider the original Chechen demands for independence from Russia. In June, Maskhadov had made dropping the demand for Chechen independence contingent on a Russian pledge never to embark on another war in Chechnya; Zakaev said that offer is contingent on guarantees of a halt to human rights violations in Chechnya. "We are open to discussions. The important thing is international guarantees for the Chechen people," the paper quoted him as saying. (Liz Fuller)
QUOTATION OF THE WEEK: "We are ready to cooperate with international organizations, including the United Nations, the OSCE, the Council of Europe, the European Union, and the International Committee of the Red Cross, with everyone who can make a realistic contribution to a political settlement in Chechnya." -- Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, quoted by Interfax on 24 January.