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Caucasus Report: April 10, 2003

10 April 2003, Volume 6, Number 15

ARMENIA GEARS UP FOR ANOTHER ELECTION MARATHON. The dust had barely settled after the disputed two-round presidential ballot when political parties began to submit to the Central Election Commission their lists of candidates to contest the 75 seats to be allocated under the party-list system in the parliamentary election to be held on 25 May. The remaining 56 deputies will be elected from single-mandate constituencies.

A total of 18 political parties and six blocs applied to the Central Election Commission to register to contest the party-list seats. More than a dozen opposition parties that backed People's Party of Armenia Chairman Stepan Demirchian in the February-March presidential election have aligned to create the Artarutiun (Justice) bloc, which has registered 137 candidates. Demirchian, former Prime Minister Aram Sargsian, and defeated presidential candidate and National Democratic Union Chairman Vazgen Manukian are the first three names on that list.

The National Unity Party (AMK) of Artashes Geghamian, who placed third in the first round of the presidential election after incumbent Robert Kocharian and Demirchian, will run independently, as will the Zhangarutiun (Heritage) bloc of U.S.-born former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian, who was barred from contesting the presidential ballot on the grounds that he had not held Armenian citizenship for the required 10 years prior to the ballot. Also competing for the party-list seats are candidates from the former ruling Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh) and its sister organization, Armad. The HHSh did not field candidates in the May 1999 parliamentary election; but the chairman of the party's ruling board, Ararat Zurabian, said in an interview published on 15 March in the independent daily "Aravot," which has always been sympathetic to the HHSh, that he is confident that "if the elections are fair, we shall win a majority in the new parliament."

The failure of the most influential parties that backed incumbent President Kocharian in the recent presidential election to align to contest the parliamentary ballot has, inevitably, triggered speculation about rivalry and even tension among them. The Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) headed by Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, which is the largest faction in the outgoing parliament with a total of 38 deputies, has submitted a list of 120 candidates to contest the party-list seats. Markarian himself heads that list, followed by Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian. Sarkisian is widely regarded as the second most powerful politician in Armenia, and is credited with ensuring, by whatever means proved necessary, Kocharian's re-election for a second presidential term.

Some observers have construed Sarkisian's decision to run for parliament for the first time in his career as an indication that Kocharian intends to strengthen the HHK at the expense of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD) -- the party that backed Kocharian's presidential bid in 1998 and has remained loyal to him ever since. (The HHD has 10 deputies in the outgoing parliament and two ministerial portfolios.) Other commentators, however, including Noyan Tapan's David Petrosian, believe that Kocharian would prefer a "mosaic" parliament in which 10-15 parties are represented, none of them with an overall majority.

Several opposition publications have suggested that the HHK and HHD are "doomed to compete with each other" ("Aravot," 14 March) or even "at each other's throats," with both vying for the post of prime minister in the next government ("Orran," 20 March). The opposition "Aravot" on 22 March cited an opinion poll conducted in Yerevan that found that Artarutiun would poll 22.5 percent of the vote and Geghamian's AMK 17 percent if parliamentary elections were held at that juncture. Of the pro-presidential parties, Orinats Yerkir appeared to be the most popular with 13 percent, followed by the HHD (9.2 percent) and the HHK (7.4 percent). But Galust Sahakian, a leading HHK member, was quoted by "Haykakan Zhamanak" on 20 March as predicting that his party will increase its representation in parliament. He added, "We do not hide the fact that we again claim the post of the government's chief executive." The HHD for its part has recruited one of Armenia's wealthiest oligarchs, tobacco magnate Hrant Varanian, who is running on the HHD ticket, as is Kocharian's chief of staff, Artashes Tumanian.

The composition of new parliament might, however, be decided not by voters' preferences for specific parties or blocs but by the distribution of the 56 seats contested in single-mandate constituencies. In a 15 March interview with "Hayots ashkhar," HHD leader Vahan Hovannisian expressed concern that those seats will be monopolized by wealthy businessmen who support Kocharian and who, Hovannisian said, are already buying the votes of "whole villages."

Finally, there still exists the hypothetical possibility that the pro-Demirchian opposition might make good on its threat to boycott the ballot entirely if it considers that the Armenian authorities have not taken adequate measures to preclude a recurrence of the blatant fraud that marred both rounds of the recent presidential election. (Liz Fuller)

TBILISI BECOMES SECOND FOCUS OF GOVERNMENT-OPPOSITION CONFRONTATION. Over the past few months, a new struggle between Georgian authorities and the opposition has emerged within the opposition-dominated Tbilisi municipal council, complementing and at times overshadowing the permanent standoff within the legislature.

The opposition is attacking simultaneously on several fronts. First, it is campaigning for the dismissal, and/or impeachment for corruption, of Tbilisi Mayor Vano Zodelava, a longtime associate of President Eduard Shevardnadze. Second, it has proposed the introduction of a new category of local officials who would be subordinate to the council, rather than the mayor. Those officials would be responsible primarily for monitoring and coordinating implementation of local projects. Third, it plans to reintroduce the network of clinics offering first aid free of charge. (Zodelava recently abolished that network.) And fourth, it passed a resolution on the introduction of elections for the post of school directors.

Koba Davitashvili, one of the leading members of the National Movement headed by former Justice Minister Mikhail Saakashvili (who chairs the municipal council), told journalists on 31 March that the latter two initiatives are part of a drive to "establish dual power" in Tbilisi. President Shevardnadze has twice (on 26 and 31 March) condemned the proposed innovations as potentially destabilizing, illegal, and an obstacle to genuine self-government.

How successful these initiatives will prove to be is unclear. Education Minister Aleksandre Kartozia told journalists on 31 March that a Tbilisi district has suspended implementation of the decree of electing school directors until the Justice Ministry determines whether it violates existing legislation. And the reintroduction of free first aid might founder on financial grounds. Caucasus Press on 3 April quoted an NGO official as saying that the 2.5 million laris ($1.18 million) allocated annually for that purpose from the city budget is inadequate for a population of over 1 million.

But the greatest single obstacle to such initiatives might be the rivalry between separate factions within the municipal council, in particular Saakashvili's National Movement, the largest faction with 13 seats on the 49-member council, and Shalva Natelashvili's Labor Party, which controls 11 seats. A recent opinion poll summarized by the weekly "Kviris palitra" on 7 April suggested that if elections were held now, Labor would win with 32 percent of the vote, followed by the National Movement with 26.9 percent. Natelashvili might use his faction on the municipal council to block further Saakashvili initiatives in a bid to discredit Saakashvili in the run-up to the November parliamentary election. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK. "Putin's regime is deliberately turning Chechnya into a military-police enclave under a mini-Saddam Hussein." -- Former Russian parliament Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov in an interview with "Nezavisimaya gazeta" (10 April).