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Caucasus Report: March 13, 2003

13 March 2003, Volume 6, Number 11

GEORGIA, RUSSIA AGREE ON MEASURES TO RESOLVE ABKHAZ CONFLICT. Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze has presented the agreements reached during his talks in Sochi on 6-7 March with Russian President Vladimir Putin as a hopeful indication that a settlement of the Abkhaz conflict may be attainable. But the Georgian parliament was initially skeptical, demanding on 11 March that either Shevardnadze or one of his ministers explain in detail to deputies precisely what those agreements entail. Nor did the Sochi agreements deter representatives of the Tbilisi-based Abkhaz government in exile from traveling on 11 March to The Hague in order to present to the International War Crimes Tribunal a 200-volume compilation of alleged war crimes committed by the Abkhaz during the 1992-1993 war.

The key tenets of the agreement, as outlined by Putin at a joint press conference with Shevardnadze on 7 March, by Russian journalists who accompanied Putin to Sochi, and by Shevardnadze himself in his 10 March radio interview, are as follows. The Georgian displaced persons who fled Abkhazia in 1992-1993 will return to their abandoned homes, first in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion (the prewar population of which was 90 percent Georgian) and then to other districts. Either "parallel to" or following the repatriation process, rail communication will resume between Sochi and Tbilisi via Abkhazia. (Abkhaz Premier Gennadii Gagulia, who also attended the talks, said on 11 March he believes the rail link could be restored "within one year," suggesting that the repatriation process must be successfully completed first.)

To protect the returning Georgians from reprisals, a Georgian-Abkhaz-Russian police force will be deployed in Gali, and the region will have a similar multinational local administration. The Russian peacekeeping force currently deployed under the CIS aegis in the Abkhaz conflict zone will remain until either the Georgian or the Abkhaz government requests their withdrawal (the peacekeepers' duties will presumably then devolve to the multinational police force). Efforts will be undertaken to solicit international investment to fund repairs to the Inguri Hydroelectric Power Station in Abkhazia, which, once functioning at its full capacity, could supply power to Abkhazia, western Georgia, and parts of southern Russia.

Those agreements constitute a retreat by Georgia on two key points. First, as recently as December, Georgian officials were insisting that economic restoration should not begin until some progress had been registered toward a political settlement of the conflict that would include an acknowledgement by Abkhazia of Georgian sovereignty (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 12 December 2002). Second, in late January, the Georgian National Security Council demanded that the renewal of the CIS peacekeepers' mandate be made contingent on Russia's suspending the commuter-train service between Sochi and Sukhum that resumed in late December and the granting of Russian citizenship to any Abkhaz who applied for it.

The misgivings of Georgian parliamentary deputies presumably spring from the fact that it is not immediately clear what Georgia stands to gain from the agreement besides the repatriation of the displaced persons. Putin stressed in Sochi that any solution to the Abkhaz conflict must be based on respect for Georgia's territorial integrity, and Shevardnadze said that Russia would act as the guarantor of a political settlement that would transform Georgia into a federation in which Abkhazia would enjoy "the most extensive rights." But both Abkhaz Prime Minister Gagulia, who was present at the Putin-Shevardnadze talks, and other top Abkhaz officials have since repeated that the Abkhaz leadership is not prepared to discuss the unrecognized republic's status within a federal state. Gagulia told Interfax on 10 March that Tbilisi rejected that option when the Abkhaz first proposed it in 1992. Gagulia also denied that the issue of a multinational administration in Gali was discussed at the Sochi talks.

In the absence of further details, it is not clear how the Sochi agreement differs either from the settlement model proposed last year by Adjar State Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze, who is Shevardnadze's special envoy for the Abkhaz conflict, or the new proposals formulated during a "brain-storming session" in Geneva in late February by the five member states of the Friends of the UN Secretary-General group (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24, 27 and 28 February and 5 March 2003). Ambassador Heidi Tagliavini, who is United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special envoy for the Abkhaz conflict, has not yet publicly commented on the Sochi talks.

From Shevardnadze's point of view, however, the Sochi agreements serve simultaneously to undercut three threats to his authority. They are Abashidze, whose Revival Union may emerge as a dangerous challenger to Shevardnadze's embattled Union of Citizens of Georgia in the parliamentary elections due in November; the opposition United Democrats and National Movement, which in January expressed support for the Georgian guerrilla formations operating in Gali (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 31 January 2003); and Abkhaz parliament-in-exile Chairman Tamaz Nadareishvili, who advocates a UN "peace-enforcement" operation to restore Tbilisi's jurisdiction over Abkhazia. The daily "Alia" on 11 March quoted Nadareishvili as describing the Sochi agreement as "interesting." But at the same time, he argued that the displaced persons should not return to Abkhazia until after Georgia reestablishes control over the breakaway republic. (Liz Fuller)

ARMENIAN OPPOSITION TO FORM PARLIAMENTARY-ELECTION ALLIANCE, PRO-PRESIDENTIAL PARTIES STILL UNDECIDED. The leading Armenian opposition parties grouped around defeated presidential candidate Stepan Demirchian have agreed to form an alliance for the 25 May parliamentary elections, opposition sources said on 13 March.

Demirchian's People's Party of Armenia (HZhK) and more than a dozen other groups, fresh from the dramatic electoral battle with President Robert Kocharian, will come up with a single list of candidates in a bid to win a majority in the National Assembly. Sources told RFE/RL that topping the electoral slate will be Demirchian, Hanrapetutiun party leader Aram Sargsian, and two former presidential candidates defeated in the 19 February first round of voting: Vazgen Manukian and Aram Karapetian.

"That the opposition will act in a united front is already clear," said Stepan Zakarian, a senior member of the HZhK. He said the opposition leaders have already agreed on "95 percent of the list."

The name and final makeup of the alliance will be announced before the 16 March deadline for the nomination of candidates for 75 parliament seats contested on the party-list basis and 56 seats distributed in individual constituencies. Opposition leaders are expected to run under both systems.

Zakarian made it clear at the same time that the opposition will continue to fight for the invalidation of the official results of the disputed presidential election that gave victory to Kocharian. He said the Demirchian camp may still decide to boycott the parliamentary elections if it feels that they will not be more democratic than the presidential race.

Hanrapetutiun leader Albert Bazeyan made a similar point in separate comments to journalists. He said the opposition will contest the polls only if Kocharian steps down or is "too weak to falsify them." "We are convinced that there will be a serious change of political situation in Armenia before the parliamentary elections," Bazeyan said. "Only in that case will we take part in the elections."

President Kocharian said on 12 March the three main groups supporting him -- the Republican Party (HHK), the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutiun), and Orinats Yerkir -- are unlikely to form an electoral bloc. "I don't think that there will be a certain [pro-presidential] alliance, because there already exist established parties with their own history and support base," he told reporters. Kocharian indicated that his top loyalists are discussing other ways of cooperating in the unfolding parliamentary race. He also pledged on 12 March to prevent violations during the May ballot. (Ruzanna Khachatrian and Karine Kalantarian)

KREMLIN SEEKS TO TIGHTEN CONTROL OVER CHECHEN MEDIA. At the behest of Russian presidential envoy to the South Russia Federal District Viktor Kazantsev, a new Coordinating Council for Information Policy has been established in Chechnya, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" and "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 13 March. The council is headed by deputy Chechen administration head Tauz Dzhabrailov and also includes Chechen Deputy Prime Minister and Press Minister Beslan Gantemirov and Russian Deputy Media Minister Vladimir Kozlov. According to "Nezavisimaya gazeta," the primary task of the new council is to ensure more positive media coverage, both within Chechnya and in the Russian media in general, of developments in Chechnya, first and foremost the planned 23 March referendum on a new draft constitution.

Maksim Fedorenko, who heads the directorate for information and analysis within Kazantsev's staff, told the council's first session on 12 March that the Chechen media are still being revived and that they "make mistakes." It is not clear whether this criticism was directed primarily at Gantemirov, who over the past three years has on two occasions crossed swords with Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 20 July and 15 September 2000).

Kadyrov has made no secret of his aspiration to the Chechen presidency. But in an interview published last December in the weekly official Chechen paper "Vesti respubliki," Gantemirov affirmed that he and no one else will determine the outcome of the presidential and parliamentary elections that will take place once the new constitution has been adopted. The question thus arises: Is the coordinating council intended partly to ensure that Gantemirov does not manipulate the Chechen media to that end? (Liz Fuller)

AZERBAIJANI JOURNALISTS PLAN TO FORM INDEPENDENT PRESS COUNCIL. On 15 March, Azerbaijani journalists will hold a congress at which they plan to establish a press council that, in turn, will draft a code of professional ethics and generally function as a self-regulatory body for the print media. More than 100 journalists' organizations and print-media outlets have expressed an interest in attending the congress, but some prominent newspapers do not plan to do so. According to the daily "Hurriyet" on 12 March, "Hurriyet," "Uch nogte," "Politika," and "Novoe vremya" doubt that such a press council could function independently and effectively in the present conditions.

Arif Aliev, head of the independent journalists' union Yeni Nasil and one of the initiators of the proposed council, thinks such doubts are misplaced. In an interview with Turan on 21 February, Aliyev said he does not believed state-controlled print publications will constitute a majority of the council's members and that even if they do, the council will have no power either to shut down media outlets or to dictate to journalists what they should or should not write. He also argued that it is not in the interests of "a smart government" to seek to dominate the council, because in that case, independent media outlets would simply terminate their membership in it. "Mass media can be owned by the authorities, but they cannot own the voices and souls of journalists," Aliyev reasoned.

Aliyev further explained that the press council will not undertake to defend the rights of journalists subjected to official pressure, nor will it duplicate the work of other independent organizations such as the Editors' Union or the Baku Press Club. Its primary focus will be to seek to raise professional standards and to ensure that journalists are not co-opted to defend "dangerous" trends such as blackmail and racketeering. It will also try to resolve disputes that may arise between media outlets and the authorities. (Liz Fuller)

CORRECTION: Quoting Noyan Tapan commentator David Petrosian, "RFE/RL Caucasus Report" wrote on 3 March that the 19 February Armenian presidential election marked the first time that the incumbent president of a CIS state failed to win re-election outright in the first round. This is in fact not the case. Incumbent Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk lost to Leonid Kuchma in a runoff in 1994, and Russian President Boris Yeltsin was forced into a runoff against Communist Party leader Gennadii Zyuganov in June 1996.

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "The Azerbaijani people can be completely sure that there is no problem with the president's health." -- Presidential administration official Novruz Memmedov commenting on widespread media speculation about Heidar Aliev's recent surgery (quoted by "525-gazeti" on 11 March).

"Everyone steals!" -- Title of an article published by "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 13 March on the embezzlement of funds earmarked for Chechnya.

"There are so many controlling organizations that not a single ruble will be misused." -- Russian State Construction Committee Chairman Nikolai Koshman ruling out the possibility that money allocated for reconstruction in Chechnya could be stolen (quoted by ITAR-TASS on 12 March).