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Caucasus Report: February 21, 2003

21 February 2003, Volume 6, Number 8

HISTORY REPEATS ITSELF IN ARMENIA. Armenian Central Election Commission (CEC) Chairman Artak Sahradian announced on National Television in the early evening of 20 February that none of the nine candidates in the previous day's presidential election garnered the required 50 percent plus one vote required for a first-round victory. Incumbent President Robert Kocharian, who polled 49.8 percent of the vote, will therefore face his closest challenger, People's Party of Armenia Chairman Stepan Demirchian, who polled 27.7 percent, in a runoff on 5 March.

That outcome parallels the March 1998 preterm presidential ballot in which Kocharian polled 38.82 percent in the first round compared with 30.62 percent for former Armenian Communist Party first secretary Karen Demirchian, Stepan's father, whom Kocharian then narrowly defeated in a disputed runoff two weeks later.

But the similarities between the two elections do not end with the need for a runoff. On both occasions, opposition candidates accused the incumbent of using his official position to further his election campaign. In addition, the state-controlled Armenian media showed clear bias in their favorable coverage of the incumbent, while making subtly disparaging comments about, and showing cartoons ridiculing, opposition candidates. Both times, one or more activists campaigning for an opposition candidate were seriously injured in a scuffle with local officials (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 March 1998 and 5 February 2003). Both in 1998 and in 2003, several opposition candidates issued a formal protest before the polls closed on election day, alleging widespread violations and ballot stuffing on the basis of which they claimed the vote could not be considered free and fair (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 March 1998 and 20 February 2003).

And both times, the preliminary assessment by international observers of the first-round vote registered violations in the voting procedure and the subsequent vote count, but did not go so far as to claim that those violations determined the final outcome. In the 1998 vote, the international monitors registered "significant" violations at 15 percent of the 800 polling stations they visited (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 March 1998), while in February 2003 a preliminary statement issued jointly by the OSCE and the Council of Europe said that while the voting process was in general "well-conducted," there were instances of ballot-box stuffing and "serious irregularities" during the vote count. On 20 February, OSCE Observation Mission head Peter Eicher noted a "striking disparity" between voter turnout and official results at some polling stations but declined to say whether such irregularities could have affected the outcome of the vote. The "Economist," however, on 21 February quoted an unnamed veteran OSCE observer as describing the vote as "a disaster."

Demirchian's supporters, however, thought otherwise, and gathered in the thousands outside the CEC building in Yerevan on 20 February to protest the perceived falsifications. Demirchian's campaign manager, Grigol Harutunian, told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on 19 February that "I have never seen such a disgraceful can't even compare it with the 1998 presidential election."

In both elections, large numbers of voters demonstrated their clear rejection of an incumbent whom they blamed for the appalling economic hardship in which they live, and whom they were convinced tolerates mediocrity and blatant corruption among his subordinates. Karen Demirchian, by contrast, was remembered and revered as a symbol of a more prosperous and peaceful era that voters hoped he could restore, and his son's popularity derives largely from that legacy of affection and hope. (In addition, as veteran commentator David Petrosian points out, Stepan Demirchian has the advantage of never having held public office and being forced into a dubious compromise, and his campaign was meticulously organized and well-financed.)

Finally, both in 1998 and in 2003 Kocharian entered the race the clear favorite only to see support for a rival candidate snowball to the point that a week or so before election day observers began to predict that a runoff would be necessary. Whether history will continue to repeat itself and Kocharian will win a narrow second-round victory amid more allegations of foul play will not be clear until 6 March. But this time around, in contrast to 1998, there is more at stake: U.S. Ambassador to Yerevan John Ordway warned on 24 January that any "significant" irregularities in the vote will cast doubt on the legitimacy of the outcome. It is not clear whether blatant irregularities in the runoff might also jeopardize Armenia's membership in the Council of Europe. (Liz Fuller)

OPINION POLL SHOWS MINIMAL SUPPORT FOR CHECHEN ADMINISTRATION HEAD. A poll of some 1,000 people throughout Chechnya conducted by the Chechen government and summarized by Interfax on 18 February showed that if presidential elections were held now, 36.3 percent of respondents would vote for a representative of the Chechen community in Moscow, 19.5 percent for an ethnic Russian proposed by the Russian government, and just 16.5 percent for a representative of the present pro-Moscow Chechen administration. Those findings, if they indeed mirror the opinion of the entire electorate, do not bode well for current Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, who has made no secret of his aspirations to the presidency.

Kadyrov's chances of realizing that ambition have already been seriously undercut by the removal from the final version of the draft constitution of the restriction included in Article 72 of the original draft (which was drawn up by a team of advisers appointed by Kadyrov) that only persons who have lived uninterruptedly in Chechnya for 10 years prior to the ballot are eligible to run for president. Several observers have suggested that that restriction was included specifically to ensure a Kadyrov victory by excluding the participation in the election of Chechens from Moscow. By contrast, Article 72 of the final version of the draft states that any Russian citizen over the age of 30 may be elected president of Chechnya, regardless of his place of residence. That provision opens the field to representatives of the Chechen diaspora currently living in Moscow and elsewhere in the Russian Federation, including former Russian parliament speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov.

Some Russian commentators have construed the appointment of Anatolii Popov as Chechen prime minister as a further blow for Kadyrov, on the assumption that Popov was Putin's choice to succeed Mikhail Babich (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 February 2003). The most recent issues of both "Profil" and "Yezhenedelnyi zhurnal" recall the letter reportedly sent by the Interior and Defense Ministers to Russian President Vladimir Putin last fall demanding Kadyrov's replacement. But the Chechen Constitution also empowers the Chechen president to name the prime minister. Russian presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembskii said in Moscow on 18 February that the Chechen presidential elections could take place as soon as a few months after the 23 March referendum. If Popov is Putin's candidate, appointed to rein in Kadyrov, why risk having him replaced within six months by a candidate more palatable to Kadyrov? Or was Popov in fact Kadyrov's choice, as Kadyrov himself has claimed, but the Kremlin is already preparing to engineer Kadyrov's defeat in the presidential ballot?

If that latter hypothesis is correct, who might prove the most acceptable candidate to the Russian leadership? One possibility is Colonel General Gennadii Troshev, who served from May 2000 to December 2002 as commander of the joint federal forces in Chechnya. The announcement of Troshev's imminent dismissal from that post triggered an acrimonious exchange between him and Chief of General Staff General Anatolii Kvashnin, following which it was announced that Troshev would be appointed to a new, civilian post no later than 31 January (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 3 January 2003). On 18 February, Colonel General Nikolai Kormiltsev, who is commander in chief of Ground Forces, told Interfax that a new civilian post has indeed been found for Troshev, who will thus leave the ministry. But Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov claimed the same day to be unaware of any such appointment.

Troshev's name has been mentioned repeatedly in connection with proposals by various Russian politicians, including Union of Rightist Forces Chairman Boris Nemtsov and former Prime Minister Yevgeni Primakov, that Moscow should appoint a "governor-general" in Chechnya, to whom both the local administration and the Russian military would be subordinate. Supporters of that model note that Troshev was born in Grozny and is thus familiar with the Chechen mentality.

"Nezavisimaya gazeta" suggested in its 20 February issue that Moscow indeed plans to send Troshev back to Chechnya -- but not as president. The paper quoted an unnamed source in the administration of the South Russia Federal District as saying that Troshev will be named to coordinate the work of all security structures in Chechnya. In that position, he would effectively function as a counterweight first to Kadyrov, and then to whoever is elected president. The same source reportedly explained that "both the Kremlin and the office of the presidential envoy are adamant that the next president should be a Chechen. It does not really matter whether [that Chechen] is Kadyrov or someone else. It is understandable that a president elected by the people will be more independent than a Chechen administration head appointed by the Kremlin. That means that Moscow will need someone in Chechnya to serve as a counterweight to that president. This is where the respect that man commands is more important than his title. Troshev is a perfect choice from this point of view." (Liz Fuller)

A NEW CRITERION FOR POLITICAL UNRELIABILITY IN GEORGIA. On 18 February, Georgia's State Security Ministry unveiled for discussion a draft law "On the Suspension of the Activities, Liquidation, and Banning of Extremist Organizations and Organizations Under Foreign Control." That bill empowers the authorities to suspend or ban organizations financed indirectly or directly from abroad and whose activities "are aimed at damaging the interests of Georgia."

An initial evaluation of the law by the Georgian Young Lawyers Association posted on 19 February on expressed concern that if passed as is the bill could post a threat to basic civil liberties. The Georgian Young Lawyers Association points out that while the bill empowers the authorities to suspend or ban organizations whose activities "are aimed at damaging the interests of Georgia," it does not define Georgia's national interests. Many law-abiding nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) do in fact receive subsidies from abroad, hence their concern. Interfax on 20 February quoted an unnamed NGO activist as saying that "approval of this bill will give the authorities the right to do away with political parties and organizations they do not like, because any statements or actions [directed] against the authorities can be viewed as extremism, with all the ensuing consequences."

But State Security Ministry Spokesman Nika Laliashvili told Interfax that such fears are unfounded. He said that the bill is still at the draft stage and that it is directed first and foremost at unnamed "extremist religious organizations" and at illegal armed groups created under the guise of security firms or private detective agencies.

Two prominent political figures have been accused in parliament in recent weeks of maintaining such private armies. The first is Tamaz Nadareishvili, chairman of the Tbilisi-based Abkhaz parliament-in-exile, who has denied allegations that he has a private armed formation codenamed Jupiter. The second is former Justice Minister and opposition National Movement leader Mikhail Saakashvili, whom Lower Kartli Governor Levan Mamaladze accused of maintaining illegal armed formations masquerading as private detective agencies (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 and 18 February 2003). (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "There is no doubt that the deportations were a genocidal act comparable in some respects to the crimes committed by the Nazis in the course of World War II. The deportations were designed to destroy the Chechen nation. If one keeps that in mind, one also understands more clearly why the Chechens are so anxious to have political self-determination and why from a moral, political, as well as historical perspective a peaceful settlement to this conflict is absolutely imperative." -- Zbigniew Brzezinski, former U.S. national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, speaking on 21 February to RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service on the occasion of the 59th anniversary of the start of Josef Stalin's mass deportations of Chechens to Central Asia.

"The people yesterday took to the streets and showed who is the master of this country. The people took to the streets and showed that their patience has a limit. The people took to the streets to demonstrate that they, only they, have the right to decide who is to hold the presidential post in this country." -- Commentary in "Haykakan Zhamanak" on 21 February on the previous day's demonstrations to protest perceived falsifications during the 19 February presidential election.

"A state which is unable to ensure law and order and defend the constitutional order is no good for anything." -- Armenian Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, quoted by ITAR-TASS on 20 February.

"The domestic and foreign policy of [President] Eduard Shevardnadze is targeted at preserving his stay in office, and not at the prosperity of Georgia." -- Opposition Labor Party Chairman Shalva Natelashvili (quoted by Interfax on 20 February).

"We maintain that we have no political prisoners." -- Azerbaijani presidential administration head Ramiz Mekhtiev, quoted by Interfax on 20 February.