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Caucasus Report: April 25, 2003

25 April 2003, Volume 6, Number 17

The next issue of "RFE/RL Caucasus Report" will appear on 15 May 2003.

INTIMATIONS OF MORTALITY. On 21 April, Azerbaijan's 79-year-old President Heidar Aliyev collapsed -- not once but twice within the space of half an hour -- while delivering a televised address in Baku (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 April 2003). Although he managed to return to the podium to take leave of his audience, and to walk unassisted afterwards to his car, the episode has highlighted both Aliev's physical fragility and the risks inherent in the constitutional procedures intended to ensure an orderly transition of power.

Among the constitutional amendments approved in a controversial referendum in August 2002 was one that stipulates that in the event of the president's untimely demise or incapacitation, his duties devolve on the prime minister, rather than the parliamentary speaker as had hitherto been the case. If Aliyev had not recovered from his temporary incapacitation, his powers would thus have devolved on 67-year-old Artur Rasi-zade, who has served as prime minister since November 1996 despite repeated rumors of his imminent sacking. A classic Soviet-era faceless bureaucrat, Rasi-zade is not considered a serious candidate for the presidential office.

Some observers speculated at the time of last year's referendum that Aliyev would appoint his son Ilham to the post of prime minister, on the widely held assumption that Aliyev wanted Ilham to succeed him. But to have done so prematurely would have been to corroborate the perception of Ilham as "heir apparent," and to expose him to the risk that rivals might attempt either to compromise or even to physically liquidate him. And some observers in Baku question whether Ilham, who is currently first vice president of the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan (SOCAR), is either willing to or capable of shouldering the burden of the presidency. Speaking to journalists earlier this month, Ilham rejected as groundless the rumors that he may be named prime minister.

"RFE/RL Caucasus Report" focused attention on a further constitutional amendment abolishing the article that stipulated that the prime minister must be a citizen of Azerbaijan. That innovation could theoretically pave the way for Lukoil President Vagit Alekperov, reputedly a close associate of Ilham Aliev, to assume the premiership as the latter's mentor and support figure. But some factions within the upper echelons of the Azerbaijani leadership reportedly oppose the prospect of Ilham succeeding his father, and are engaging in clandestine talks with potential opposition presidential candidates, including self-exiled former parliamentary speaker Rasul Guliev, according to a 23 April "Eurasia View" commentary.

Two other figures have been identified as possible alternative presidential candidates from within the present leadership: 65-year-old presidential administration head Ramiz Mekhtiev, who served under Aliyev in the 1970s as head of the Organizational-Party Work Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan, and Lieutenant General Namig Abbasov, who heads the National Security Ministry. Although neither is believed to enjoy unqualified support, both possess the necessary intellectual and inter-personnel skills to have both survived and prospered for decades in the ruthless cut-and-thrust of first Soviet and then post-Soviet political intrigue. Moreover, Abbasov is said to have purged his ministry of Aliyev loyalists, replacing them with his own cadres, a move that in effect places a private armed force at his disposal. (There is, of course, no way of independently verifying that report.)

While Aliyev appeared on 22 April to have made a remarkable recovery, meeting with U.S. Ambassador Ross Wilson, he failed to show up for work the following day, and his temporary weakness has again focused attention on the key question whether he is capable of ruling the country for a further five years. (Few doubt that, if he runs in the presidential elections due in October 2003, he will be reelected for a third term.) It is not beyond the realm of possibility that either the United States, or Turkey, both of which have considerable vested interests in the South Caucasus, might try to persuade Aliyev to resort to the "Yeltsin variant," voluntarily ceding power now to a chosen successor, for whom the international community would then pledge support. But given his obsession with the exercise of power, it is unlikely that Aliyev would agree to any such proposal at this juncture. What is less clear is whether Moscow might try to forestall such a peaceful transition and cut a deal with one of the disaffected members of Aliev's team who are reportedly eager to sideline Ilham Aliyev at all costs. President Aliev's 18 April statement that Azerbaijan intends to join NATO may play into the hands of any faction in Moscow that favors the intervention scenario. (Liz Fuller)

CHECHNYA ON HOLD? Speaking in Moscow on 27 March, four days after the referendum on a new Chechen constitution and election laws, Russian President Vladimir Putin listed three key priorities for "normalizing" the situation in Chechnya. They were embarking on drafting a power-sharing treaty between the federal authorities and Chechnya; drafting a law on an amnesty for Chechen fighters who wish to return to civilian life; and preparing to hold presidential elections (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 31 March 2003). Yet four weeks later, the time frame for all three projects has been extended, fuelling both speculation over the level of Kremlin support for Chechen administration head and acting President Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, and doubt as to the sincerity of Putin's pre-referendum address in which he acknowledged the injustices the Chechens have suffered in the past and offered them the chance of a peaceful and prosperous future (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 March 2003).

"Izvestiya" on 25 March reported that work on drafting the power-sharing treaty between Chechnya and the federal center would get underway immediately, although that treaty would be signed only after the election of a Chechen president. Both in the run-up to and in the immediate aftermath of the referendum, Russian officials suggested that the Chechen presidential election could be scheduled concurrently with either the elections to the Russian State Duma in December 2003 or the Russian presidential ballot in early 2004.

But last week, both Chechen Prime Minister Anatolii Popov and his predecessor in that post, Stanislav Ilyasov, suggested that the Chechen presidential election should be held only in 12 months time at the very earliest. Popov argued on 14 April that the presidential election is too important to be held concurrently with the Duma elections, while Ilyasov suggested that a postponement would give the authorities more time to prepare for the ballot and to ensure that equal conditions are created for all candidates. Kadyrov, who is regarded as the strongest candidate, acquiesced to that proposal, according to "Vremya novostei" on 15 April -- possibly because he anticipates a delay in the payment of the official compensation recently announced for those Chechens whose homes were destroyed. Requests for such compensation may be submitted between August and November 2003, which means that the first such payments, which theoretically will be made in two installments, in 2003 and 2004, are unlikely to find their way to those entitled to them by mid-December.

As for the proposed amnesty for those Chechen fighters who are not suspected of major crimes such as terrorism, murder, and hostage-taking, Interfax on 28 March quoted Pavel Krasheninnikov, the chairman of the Duma Committee on Legislation, as saying that two draft documents have already been prepared: "On Declaring an Amnesty Due to the Adoption of the Constitution of the Chechen Republic," and "On the Procedure for Applying the Amnesty." Krasheninnikov said President Putin would submit the final versions of both documents to the Duma in April, and they will be adopted in line with normal procedure, in two consecutive readings. The drafts do not then go to the Federation Council. In a subsequent interview published on 3 April in "Rossiiskaya gazeta," Krasheninnikov said it would be unconstitutional for the amnesty to apply only to one ethnic group. (Russian human-rights ombudsman Oleg Mironov also argued that it should extend to Russian servicemen convicted of crimes in Chechnya as well as to Chechen fighters.) But Krasheninnikov also expressed concern that some fighters would never learn of the proposed amnesty, or that federal forces might give in to the temptation to square accounts with groups of fighters who announced that they would lay down their arms under the provisions of the amnesty.

On 15 April, Duma speaker Gennadii Seleznev said the Duma could begin considering the amnesty resolution in mid-May. Krasheninnikov said the same day that the resolution could be passed to the Duma that day. On 17 April, Deputy Prosecutor-General Sergei Fridinskii said the draft has already been sent to the Duma, while Russian presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembskii said that work on the draft was still continuing, and might last one more week. On 22 April, Lyubov Sliska, the deputy speaker, said deputies have still not received the draft documents, and that work is continuing to coordinate "legal nuances." She said the Duma will discuss the final draft after the May break.

While the time frame for drafting the power-sharing treaty, and even the scheduling of the Chechen presidential election, are of little direct concern to most Chechens, the continued confusion over the amnesty bill could well fuel many Chechens' skepticism over the depth of the Russian leadership's professed desire to end the violence in Chechnya. (Liz Fuller)

ARMENIAN PARLIAMENTARY ELECTION CAMPAIGN GETS UNDER WAY. Campaigning officially started in Armenia on 21 April for the 25 May parliamentary elections which will again pit President Robert Kocharian against his political foes less than three months after his controversial reelection.

The Central Election Commission (CEC) on 20 April registered 21 political parties and blocs and about 500 individual candidates vying for 131 seats in parliament. Most of those groups, though disparate, support Kocharian in one way or another and will be seeking to win a majority in the next Armenian parliament.

The biggest pro-presidential contender, the Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), has already made it clear that it expects to make a strong showing in the polls. One of its leaders, Galust Sahakian, predicted on 21April that the Republicans will win more than the 33 seats they currently hold in the outgoing National Assembly -- which would enable them to keep their dominant positions in the government.

Retaining control of the parliament will be vital for Kocharian given that the increasingly hostile opposition still refuses to recognize his victory in last month's election. Stepan Demirchian, who lost to Kocharian in the 5 March runoff, now leads the Artarutiun (Justice) bloc, the largest opposition force.

Artarutiun leaders, among them prominent opposition figures like Aram Sargsian, Vazgen Manukian, and Aram Karapetian, view the elections as a new front in their ongoing campaign for Kocharian's resignation. They say they will win the vote if it is free and fair. Artarutiun's campaign manager, Grigor Harutiunian, told RFE/RL that the abundance of pro-presidential forces should make it easier for the opposition to prevent vote rigging.

"There are now conflicting interests in the government camp and we hope that the elections will be more democratic," Harutiunian said, adding that the Demirchian-led alliance is already taking anti-fraud measures. He said Manukian's National Democratic Union (AZhM), the only Artarutiun party to hold a seat in all electoral commissions, is now replacing many of its commissioners with "people who will fight to the end." Also contesting the ballot independently is another major opposition group, the National Unity Party (AMK) headed by Artashes Geghamian, who placed third in the first round of the presidential ballot (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 February 2003). Geghamian has also sounded confident of his electoral chances. But he is suspected by the Demirchian camp of secretly cooperating with Kocharian in the 5 March presidential runoff. "They worked for Robert Kocharian during the second round," Harutiunian said, adding that he no longer regards National Unity as an opposition party. Geghamian shrugged off the charge. "Our ideas of being in opposition are markedly different," he told RFE/RL, underscoring his deepening rift with Demirchian.

The Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD), with the HHK the only pro-Kocharian party represented in the government, stressed that it is important that the parliamentary election be perceived as free and fair. HHD leader Vahan Hovannisian told reporters that it will be "very difficult" for anyone to manipulate the outcome of the ballot. Hovannisian also downplayed the extent of his party's differences with the HHK, denying reports that some Dashnaktsutiun leaders made offensive remarks about the Republicans at a recent party meeting. According to Hovannisian, HHD members expressed "only criticism, not defamatory statements, directed at various political forces."

The opposition, meanwhile, already cried foul on 21 April after the CEC or lower-level election commissions denied registration to several prominent opposition figures on the grounds that they submitted "false documents." Among those would-be candidates were at least four members of the current parliament: Hayk Babukhanian, whose Union for Constitutional Rights party is affiliated with Demirchian's bloc; Aghasi Arshakian (AMK), Vartan Mkrtchian (Artarutiun), and Arshak Sadoyan (National Democratic Bloc). Babukhanian blamed the decisions on the Republicans, saying that they want to "clear the field" for their candidates running in single-mandate constituencies. The CEC on 21 April reversed the decision taken by a district electoral commission in Yerevan not to register Sadoyan.

The 25 May polls will be held concurrently with a referendum on a package of amendments to the Armenian constitution suggested by Kocharian, who says those amendments would curtail his sweeping constitutional powers and strengthen the parliament. His political opponents, however, claim they will have the opposite effect.

The forthcoming vote will again be closely watched by the international community. The Council of Europe has already warned that a repeat of the serious vote irregularities reported during the presidential ballot could endanger Armenia's membership of that organization. (Ruzanna Khachatrian, Armen Zakarian, and Karine Kalantarian)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "The Karabakh issue is an important issue that needs to be resolved not only for the sake of Turkish-Armenian relations but also for the region as a whole." -- Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Alev Kilic, speaking at the Black Sea Economic Cooperation foreign ministers' meeting in Yerevan on 18 April (quoted by RFE/RL).

"Georgia has already established values that make it impossible to introduce a dictatorship." -- President Eduard Shevardnadze, speaking in Kyiv on 23 April (quoted by Interfax).