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Caucasus Report: April 18, 2003

18 April 2003, Volume 6, Number 16

GEORGIA'S NEW PRO-PRESIDENTIAL BLOC SEEKS ADDITIONAL MEMBERS. Claims by Minister of State Avtandil Djorbenadze, who is also chairman of the pro-presidential Union of Citizens of Georgia (SMK), that several other political parties were planning to join the pro-presidential For a New Georgia movement have proved premature. For a New Georgia was established earlier this month on the basis of an earlier alignment between the SMK and Vakhtang Rcheulishvili's Socialist Party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 March and 7 April 2003).

"Mtavari gazeti," which is owned by fugitive oligarch Badri Patarkatsishvili, quoted Djorbenadze on 11 April as predicting that that public-political movement Lemi, which represents Georgia's Svan minority, and the Georgian League headed by former Defense Minister Gia Karkarashvili would join For a New Georgia. But Karkarashvili immediately denied that, telling the paper that his NGO will decide only this fall whether to become politically active. At the time of its foundation in January 2003, Karkarashvili said the league would not field candidates in the parliamentary elections subsequently scheduled for 2 November.

Parliament deputy Iveri Chelidze, who heads Lemi, similarly told "Akhali taoba" that his organization, which has some 25,000 members, will never collaborate with the SMK. A similar denial came from the Party of Georgian Industrialists on 11 April. Imereti Governor Temur Shashiashvili told "Alia" that he too has turned down an invitation to join For a New Georgia. He predicted, however, that in a manifestation of "large-scale political prostitution," people with "a criminal past and big money" will flock to join the new bloc.

To date, there has been only one new recruit to For a New Georgia from among Georgia's established political parties: the National Democratic Party of Georgia (SEDP) headed by Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia, who termed the decision to join "difficult," but the only correct course of action in the circumstances. She explained that no single political party can hope to win a majority in the new parliament. A further potential member is the Union of Azerbaijanis of Georgia, whose leader Kamal Muradkhanov has expressed approval of Shevardnadze's democratic policies and his "exceptional tolerance" towards ethnic minorities. The Azerbaijani minority numbers up to half-a-million people, and is represented in the present parliament by several deputies elected on the SMK ticket.

In his traditional weekly radio interview, Shevardnadze on 14 April hailed the SEDP decision to join For a New Georgia. He predicted that the bloc will not disintegrate after the elections, but will be transformed into a new coalition uniting those who espouse the principles of Georgia's independence, its pro-European orientation, integration into the Euro-Atlantic space, and the restoration of the country's territorial integrity.

But according to the newspaper "Akhali taoba" on 18 April, there is already friction between the bloc's members. The paper cites unnamed sources as claiming that Rcheulishvili and Sarishvili-Chanturia are at odds over what percentage of nominations each party may make to the bloc's list of candidates to contest those seats allocated under the party-list system. (Liz Fuller)

ABKHAZIA STILL WITHOUT A PREMIER. Abkhazia is still without a prime minister, 10 days after President Vladislav Ardzinba reluctantly accepted the resignation of the cabinet headed by Gennadii Gagulia under pressure from two opposition groups. But on 12 April, Ardzinba categorically dismissed opposition criticism of Gagulia's cabinet and criticized "irresponsible conduct" by "unnamed forces" which, he said, could jeopardize the stability of the unrecognized republic. The Georgian leadership, meanwhile, has publicly announced it will refrain from interfering in Abkhazia's domestic political crisis.

The crisis was precipitated by a statement released last month by Amtsakhara, the union of veterans of the 1992-93 war with Georgia, calling for Gagulia's government to resign on the grounds that it was incapable of improving social and economic conditions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 March and 1 April 2003). Gagulia initially vowed that he would not resign, but submitted his cabinet's resignation to Ardzinba on 7 April after Amtsakhara threatened to mobilize the population in a mass popular protest. The opposition party Aitaira, most of whose prospective candidates were barred from contesting the parliamentary election last year, affirmed its support for Amtsakhara's demands, which the two parties then expanded to include amendments to the constitution and election legislation apparently intended to lessen the presidential powers.

The Abkhaz parliament, which is dominated by Ardzinba's supporters, countered by proposing the creation of a Forum of National Reconciliation on which all political parties and movements would be represented, Caucasus Press reported on 10 April. The forum would draft a short-term plan for improving the political and economic situation, together with amendments to the constitution and to the existing legislation on parliamentary and presidential elections.

And on 12 April, Ardzinba himself hit back. In a statement carried by Apsnypress, he rejected Amtsakhara's criticism that Gagulia's cabinet had proven unable to improve the economic situation. "Only a blind person could fail to notice that the economic situation is improving year by year," Ardzinba said (Gagulia's cabinet, however, can take little credit for that alleged long-term improvement as it took office only in December 2002). At the same time, Ardzinba admitted that "many members of the government turned out to be unable to cope with the situation and preferred to avoid trying to resolve complex problems." Ardzinba further alleged that unnamed "political forces that have failed to enlist the public's support" (by which he presumably meant Aitaira) were seeking to make use of the war veterans "to elbow their way to power."

How the standoff is likely to end is difficult to predict. The man initially seen as Ardzinba's first choice to head the new cabinet, Defense Minister Raul Khadjimba, has publicly rejected the post, according to the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, as has Sergei Bagapsh, a former Abkhaz Komsomol first secretary who served as prime minister from 1997 to December 1999 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 April 1997 and "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 6 January 2000). Some observers have suggested that Ardzinba may ask Gagulia to head the new cabinet.

Also unclear is the role played in the ongoing standoff by former Premier Anri Djergenia, whom Ardzinba fired late last year. Djergenia reportedly returned recently from his self-exile in Moscow and threw his weight behind the opposition to Ardzinba. (Liz Fuller)

ARMENIAN PRO-PRESIDENTIAL PARTIES TO AVOID ELECTION RIVALRY. The two largest and most influential political parties supporting President Robert Kocharian said on 16 April that they will try to minimize their competition in the 25 May parliamentary elections. Spokesmen for the Republican Party (HHK) and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD) told RFE/RL that they will not cross swords in virtually all of the single-mandate electoral districts where 56 of the 131 parliament seats will be distributed. The Republicans and Dashnaktsutiun have each fielded more than 20 candidates in such constituencies. The remaining 75 seats in parliament will be contested on the party-list basis.

According to HHK lawmaker Vazgen Khachikian, individual candidates from the two parties will not face each other in the great majority of cases. In addition, Khachikian said, Dashnaktsutyun members are among the candidates officially endorsed by the HHK leadership late on 15 April. But he could not give the exact number of such endorsements.

The Dashnaktsutiun spokesman, Gegham Manukian, said his party has not yet made a final decision on endorsements but is also in a mood to avoid a direct fight with the Republicans. "One should not rule out the possibility of Republican Party members endorsed by Dashnaktsutiun," he said.

The HHD and the HHK are the only political groups represented in the current Armenian government headed by Andranik Markarian. But although there have been reports of growing friction between the two parties in the run-up to the elections, they have denied serious disagreements between them.

The HHK, which has the largest faction in the outgoing National Assembly, has made it clear that it will seek to retain its dominant positions in the legislative and executive branches. The party's electoral chances have been boosted by the surprise inclusion of powerful Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian on its electoral slate (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 7 April 2003).

The HHD, for its part, hopes to win greater representation in government after teaming up with the chief of Kocharian's presidential staff, Artashes Tumanian, and several wealthy businessmen. Manukian declined to comment on speculation that the party regards Tumanian as its potential candidate for the post of prime minister. (Ruzanna Khachatrian)