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Caucasus Report: February 14, 2003

14 February 2003, Volume 6, Number 7

HE AIN'T MISBEHAVIN'. Hardly a day goes by without one or other of the eight rival candidates to incumbent President Robert Kocharian accusing him of making unfair and illegal use of his official position to further his bid for re-election in the 19 February presidential ballot. They point, for example, to ministers and local officials who have appealed to the population to vote for Kocharian, to the fact that local committees that support his re-election are frequently located in local government offices, and to the extensive positive coverage of his activities by the main national television channel, compared with its disparaging and damaging comments about his rivals.

Such allegations are all the more sensitive given that the international community has signaled that it expects the upcoming vote to be significantly freer, fairer, and more democratic than the presidential elections of 1996 and 1998. Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) criticized both those ballots as failing to meet international standards, citing such violations as the military voting to order for the incumbent, out-of-date voter lists, manipulation in tallying data from individual constituencies, and ballot-box stuffing (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 and 14 April 1998). In a bid to exclude the latter practice, 2,000 transparent plastic ballot boxes were delivered to Armenia earlier this week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 February 2003).

Both Kocharian and his campaign manager, Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, have repeatedly pledged that this time the vote will be truly free and democratic. But both rival candidates and the population at large are treating such statements with skepticism. An RFE/RL correspondent quoted one middle-aged woman in the village of Gargar as complaining last month that "we have never seen honest elections...they always steal our votes in Yerevan."

As in 1998, this election is less about policy than about personality, with the key question today being whether, given a further five years in office, Kocharian is capable of delivering on his promises to sustain economic growth and improve living standards, or whether one of his challengers would be more successful in doing so, and if so, which one of them. On paper, the most capable, experienced, and intelligent of Kocharian's rivals is undoubtedly former Prime Minister Vazgen Manukian. But most opinion polls, whether conducted by pro-Kocharian or independent agencies, suggest that Manukian is trailing in fourth place, behind the left-wing, populist, former career Komsomol activist Artashes Geghamian and People's Party of Armenia Chairman Stepan Demirchian. The latter's popularity rests largely on the affection and respect many older voters still feel for his slain father Karen, who served as first secretary of the Communist Party of Armenia from 1974 to May 1988, an era recalled by many as one of stability and modest prosperity.

The ideological component of the ballot has been further eclipsed by bizarre political alliances: One faction of the divided Communist Party of Armenia has thrown its weight behind Kocharian, while the other is backing Geghamian. Geghamian, who advocates Armenia's accession to the Russia-Belarus Union, similarly enjoys the support of Soviet-era dissident Paruyr Hairikian.

While most observers predict a Kocharian victory, some hesitate to rule out a runoff vote as in 1998. Manukian, for example, told RFE/RL on 12 February that his campaign rallies in rural areas have convinced him that support for Kocharian in the countryside is very low. Consequently, he believes a second round of voting is inevitable. But, while five years ago it was clear on the eve of the first round of voting that Kocharian and Karen Demirchian were neck and neck, and no other candidate realistically stood a chance, today it is not easy to predict whom Kocharian would be most likely to face in a runoff, assuming that all calculations of the aggregate vote against him prove wrong. (Liz Fuller)

TRIAL BALLOON OR LEAD BALLOON? Last week, two rival Georgian opposition factions claimed separately that a handful of senior government officials were scheming to oust President Eduard Shevardnadze in a "velvet coup." But, although the details they adduced to substantiate those allegations were less than convincing, such a move is entirely plausible in the light of Shevardnadze's declining popularity, his inability to expedite a solution to the Abkhaz conflict, and the growing undercurrent of violence that pervades the Georgian political scene.

The first announcement of the alleged coup was made by opposition National Movement leader Mikhail Saakashvili to the independent television station Rustavi-2 late on 4 February. Saakashvili named several senior officials who, he claimed, were involved in the alleged plot. The men in question include Minister of State Avtandil Djorbenadze, Interior Minister Koba Narchemashvili, State Security Minister Valeri Khaburzania, Finance Minister Mirian Gogiashvili, Control Chamber head Sulkhan Mosashvili, and Vitalii Khazaradze, who heads the former majority Union of Citizens of Georgia (SMK) parliamentary faction -- the party that Shevardnadze created as his personal power base. Saakashvili said they met at Djorbanadze's apartment several days earlier to discuss their plans. The alleged plotters, according to "Vremya MN" on 6 February, hoped to pressure Shevardnadze to step down before the parliamentary elections due in November 2003 to avert a massive defeat for the SMK and then to take power themselves. The paper claimed they were in contact with Moscow and had proposed unspecified "concessions" in return for a Russian promise not to intervene to thwart their plans.

On 5 February, several leading members of the moderate opposition New Rightists party convened a press conference in Tbilisi at which they too claimed to be aware of the alleged plot. They added that the plotters were hoping to secure parliamentary approval of a proposal to transfer authority over the Interior, Security, and Defense ministries from the president to the minister of state, according to a Eurasia View analysis of 11 February. New Rightist Pikria Chikhradze said that Djorbenadze was to replace Shevardnadze as president, while Narchemashvili was to succeed Djorbenadze as minister of state. But the Georgian Constitution stipulates that it is the parliamentary speaker who assumes the president's duties should he die in office, resign, or become incapacitated.

For all the circumstantial details, the allegations of a coup in the making remain less than convincing. Neither Saakashvili nor the New Rightists revealed the source of their information. And -- unlike their accusers -- most of the ministers in question are old enough to remember the Stalin era and would thus be aware of the need for absolute secrecy if they were seriously considering a bid to seize power in violation of the constitution. Shevardnadze himself shrugged off the coup allegations, giving Prosecutor-General Nugzar Gabrichidze two weeks to investigate and report on them. Khazaradze for his part offered to divest himself of his immunity from prosecution in order to assist the investigation.

That is not to say, however, that the prospect of an attempt to oust Shevardnadze is implausible. On the contrary, as "RFE/RL Caucasus Report" observed two weeks ago, the circumstances of the 26 January Georgian National Security Council session suggest that at least some top officials disagree with Shevardnadze over the optimum approach to resolving the Abkhaz conflict and the advisability of triggering a new standoff with Russia.

Other, albeit isolated, incidents suggest a general nervousness and an increased readiness to resort to violence. On 11 February, parliamentary speaker Nino Burdjanadze warned deputies that they are not permitted to bring weapons into the parliamentary chamber. The following day, opposition Revival faction leader Djemal Gogitidze claimed that four people were seen with machine guns in the parliamentary chamber on 11 February. On 13 February, it was announced that journalists will have to apply for special passes authorizing them to enter the state chancellery. Previously, all journalists accredited with the presidential press service could enter the building freely to attend biweekly press conferences.

In what appears to be an attempt to defuse rising tensions, Interior Minister Narchemashvili proposed on 13 February that parliament and government conclude a political memorandum abjuring unfounded and "unreasonable" mutual allegations. (Liz Fuller)

RUSSIAN LIBERALS QUESTION WISDOM OF HOLDING CHECHEN REFERENDUM... Over the past two weeks, the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) and Yabloko leader Grigorii Yavlinskii have both come out against the planned 23 March referendum on a new draft Chechen constitution and election legislation. In a 4 February statement summarized by Interfax, the SPS expressed concern that holding the referendum without adequate preparations might prove a costly political mistake. The statement argued that a referendum will not of itself solve the Chechen conflict, especially if held while a "large-scale antiterrorist operation" is continuing.

As an alternative, the SPS proposed its own plan for a settlement of the Chechen conflict, which in many respects resembles that put forward by SPS leader Boris Nemtsov two years ago (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 29 December 2000). The new plan envisages cutting off all sources of financing for extremist groups in Chechnya, appointing a Russian "governor-general" to administer the republic, and gradually reducing the number of Russian troops in Chechnya, who would be replaced by a smaller contingent of police.

In addition, the governor-general would initiate a roundtable discussion with Chechen public and political leaders and with those field commanders who are known not to have targeted civilians, with the aim of reaching consensus on how to end the conflict peacefully. That consensus would in turn pave the way for parliamentary elections and the appointment of a "government of national trust."

In an article published in "Novaya gazeta" on 10 February, Yavlinskii similarly argued that the planned Chechen referendum should be postponed. Yavlinskii pointed out that half of Chechnya's population still regards Aslan Maskhadov as the legitimate president, and most people are not familiar with the content of the new draft basic law. Yavlinskii also expressed concern that European bodies are being excluded from the search for a settlement of the Chechen conflict, as the mandate of the OSCE mission in Chechnya will not be renewed, and PACE (Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe) rapporteur for Chechnya Lord Frank Judd's threat to resign should the referendum go ahead as scheduled was used as the rationale for disbanding the PACE-Duma working group on Chechnya.

Yavlinskii argued that holding the referendum could exacerbate the situation in Chechnya and could trigger new terrorist attacks elsewhere in Russia. He called for ending reprisals by the Russian military in Chechnya, Russian-mediated talks between all warring factions in Chechnya, and for a Chechen peace conference to be chaired by the Russian president. He argued that only "war criminals" should be excluded from that search for a settlement. (Liz Fuller)

...WHILE TWO HUMAN RIGHTS ADVISERS APPROVE. Meanwhile, two Russian officials have assessed the merits and shortcomings of the proposed draft constitution and concluded that going ahead with the referendum as planned will contribute to stabilizing the situation in Chechnya.

Ella Pamfilova, who heads the presidential human rights commission, argued in an interview published in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 13 February that "we have to start somewhere. We have to take advantage of any opportunity to launch the peace process." Human Rights ombudsman Oleg Mironov for his part argued in a 4 February interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service that holding the referendum "is a political approach to a peaceful solution of the situation in Chechnya. A constitution is needed, and a parliament that is elected in accordance with the constitution and the law in order to pass legislation [is needed], and a government and president to ensure normal life [are needed]."

Both Pamfilova and Mironov listed what they considered internal contradictions and shortcomings in the draft basic law, in particular its ambiguous definition of Chechnya's status within the Russian Federation. Article 1 defines Chechnya as "a democratic social state based on the rule of law, with a republican form of government" and goes on to refer to "the sovereignty of the Chechen Republic." Mironov, who is a trained constitutional lawyer, pointed out that the use of the term "sovereign" is ambiguous insofar as it does not stipulate whether popular, national, or state sovereignty is meant. He also rejected the use of the term "a citizen of the Chechen Republic," given that anyone who fits that description is simultaneously a citizen of the Russian Federation. Finally, Mironov objected that in his view, the draft constitution gives too broad powers to the president at the expense of the legislature.

Pamfilova in turn noted that "some provisions [of the constitution] could encourage separatism, while others enable the federal authorities to exert pressure." She added that some Chechens have reservations about Article 72 (d), which empowers the Russian president to dismiss the Chechen president.

Both Mironov and Pamfilova express concern about the plight of Chechen displaced persons still living in camps in neighboring Ingushetia. Pamfilova said that many of those displaced persons are reluctant to return to Chechnya to cast their ballot in the referendum, fearing for their own safety or that of their children. At the same time, Chechen displaced persons have only the vaguest idea of the provisions of the constitution: Pamfilova said that in one Ingush camp housing 5,000 displaced persons there was only one copy of the constitution for reference, and other camps housing a total of 17,000 people did not even have a single copy. Of those Chechens who were familiar with the draft constitution, some expressed concern that it appeared tailor-made to ensure the subsequent election of Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov as president.

But on balance, Pamfilova concluded that the referendum should go ahead and that the constitution should be adopted, and if need be it could be amended at a later date. But at the same time, she stressed that "it is important that the adoption of the constitution should not of itself enable any group or clan in Chechnya to obtain a monopoly on power, either at the presidential or the parliamentary elections." (Liz Fuller)