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Caucasus Report: June 2, 2003

2 June 2003, Volume 6, Number 20

BIG BUSINESS REPRESENTATION IN ARMENIAN PARLIAMENT GROWS. Armenia's tiny class of millionaires, long dependent on government connections, has emerged as one of the main beneficiaries of the 25 May parliamentary elections, winning a record-high number of seats in the new legislature. Preliminary official results of the vote show that about half of the 131 members of the National Assembly will be wealthy businesspeople who have capitalized on the increasingly important factor in Armenian politics: money. For the first time, many of them entered the parliament through the proportional representation lists of pro-establishment parties -- a new trend indicating the growing influence of big business in Armenia.

The governing Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), the official winner of the vote, had the most business-dominated list of candidates. It is topped by about a dozen government ministers, most of whom are likely to keep their jobs and cede their parliament mandates to the so-called middle echelon of HHK candidates.

The latter category includes the owners of large businesses such as the Djermuk Group mineral water firm, Kilikia brewery, and the Great Valley liquor group. Also likely to become a deputy is Areg Ghukasian, who runs lucrative salt mines in Yerevan. Ghukasian's brother Arkadii is president of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.

Wealthy entrepreneurs were also high on the list of candidates fielded by another major party supporting President Robert Kocharian, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun. The party teamed up with tobacco tycoon Hrant Vartanian as well as the owners of the Avshar liquor company and the Ashtarak Kat dairy in the run-up to the elections. At least six businessmen are expected to enter the parliament through Orinats Yerkir (Law-based State), a pro-Kocharian party that will likely have the second-largest parliamentary faction with at least 20 seats.

Petrol and cigarette importer Gurgen Arsenian delivered the biggest election surprise when his hitherto unknown United Labor Party was declared by the Central Election Commission to have cleared the 5 percent vote threshold for winning seats under the proportional system. Arsenian, who also staunchly supports Kocharian, is accused by the Armenian opposition of buying his party's way into the legislature.

Allegations of vote buying have also dogged wealthy candidates who, as was the case in the previous elections, dominated in the 56 single-seat constituencies contested on the first-past-the-post basis. Money appears to have been the decisive factor in their victories. The government-connected candidates rarely held campaign rallies or delivered public speeches. Instead, they routinely distributed computers and other equipment to schools, paved battered streets, repaired buildings, and even distributed fertilizers in their constituencies.

More importantly, many of them are widely believed to have bought votes for an average of 5,000 drams ($9) on election day. That practice was reportedly widespread in impoverished rural areas.

The support of the several dozen businessmen not affiliated with any party will be vital for Prime Minister Andranik Markarian's HHK, which lacks an absolute majority in the parliament. The wealthy lawmakers, for their part, are expected to seek government protection and privileges that have always been vital for conducting business in Armenia. (Atom Markarian)

UN HOPES FOR REPATRIATION OF GEORGIAN DISPLACED PERSONS TO ABKHAZIA... While a political settlement to the conflict between Georgia and the breakaway Republic of Abkhazia remains far off, officials involved in the latest UN efforts to advance the peace process say a project to return tens of thousands of internally displaced Georgians to the province could be crucial to reviving peace talks. With political talks at a standstill between the two sides, diplomats involved in the UN efforts to broker a settlement say there is support from key Security Council members to expedite the resettlement of Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion.

Gali was once home to about 80,000 ethnic Georgians who fled after civil war broke out. Nearly half of them return each year under precarious conditions to farm their land. UN experts conducted a study of security conditions in the region last autumn and have proposed a series of steps to safeguard the return of Georgians. But UN envoy Heidi Tagliavini told RFE/RL in a recent interview that it is still up to Georgian and Abkhaz authorities to agree on the practical arrangements.

"We should not start to think in terms that tomorrow we open the bridge [over the Inguri River that marks the internal border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia] and then the people come back. It needs to be a relatively orderly return and we need really to get also the commitment of both sides that now this can start," Tagliavini said.

Tagliavini acknowledged such a commitment could be difficult to reach given the stance of Abkhaz leaders. They have refused any discussions that include the political status of the province, which the UN says should remain an autonomous part of Georgia. Further complicating matters is recent infighting among the Abkhaz leadership.

Last month, the de facto prime minister of Abkhazia, Gennadii Gagulia, resigned under pressure from opposition groups upset at economic conditions in the province. Succeeding him is Raul Khadjimba, who had been defense minister. Taglivania said Khadjimba is the third prime minister she will work with in her eight months as UN envoy. The inter-Abkhaz dispute, she said, has interfered with efforts to build momentum in the peace process.

"Before, the Abkhaz were relatively united in all their fights, at least against non-reunification. Now they have such a concern with their internal situation that they were very much concentrating on that," Tagliavini said.

The new focus on resettling the internally displaced Georgians emerged from discussions held in February in Geneva by a sub-group of the Security Council, known as the Friends of the Secretary-General for Georgia. High-level envoys from Russia, the United States, and Britain were among those who met in Geneva. They agreed that the Georgian and Abkhaz sides should work in parallel on economic issues, the return of displaced persons and security matters, as well as the overriding status issue.

The Russian and Georgian presidents -- Vladimir Putin and Eduard Shevardnadze -- met in Sochi in early March and agreed to a similar approach bilaterally to boost the peace process. There is due to be a follow-up to the Friends group's Geneva meeting this summer.

Georgia's ambassador to the UN, Revaz Adamia, told RFE/RL that he welcomes the new efforts. But he said resolving the problem of internally displaced persons is likely to become mired in longstanding political disputes between the two sides.

"As soon as you will try to dig [into] the details of the mechanisms or security guarantees for the returning IDPs, you will immediately touch the political problems -- who are the authorities in Gali region? What is the governance? [Are] there any international bodies involved? What is the legislation? What is this legislative area? Whose laws are working down there? These are certainly political problems and political questions," Adamia said.

Adamia is more hopeful about the prospects for greater U.S. involvement in prodding the peace process. He said that in his recent talks with U.S. State Department officials, they have indicated a willingness to become more engaged in resolving the Abkhaz dispute.

"I feel that there is some more, let's say readiness for more active involvement in the solution of the Abkhaz problem. I don't know how and when it will have some outcome but this readiness one can feel," Adamia said

The United States is eager to see the dispute settled for the stability of the South Caucasus region, according to Richard Williamson, a deputy U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a participant in the Geneva talks earlier this year. He said there is a realization that smaller steps, like dealing with displaced persons, are necessary before the larger political questions can be settled. But Williamson told RFE/RL that the Friends group, including Russia, has agreed it will continue to press for a political settlement.

"Our view is, as long as we understand that that's something that has to be addressed, the U.S. supports the Friends and the UN working on the IDP return and the economic side because inevitably, as we make progress there, it will force some activity and engagement in the larger political question."

Williamson said Washington supports the recommendations from the UN mission on improving security in Gali Raion ahead of possible population returns. Those recommendations include increasing the number of ethnic Georgians in local police forces in the Gali region, increasing cooperation between police forces in Gali and the neighboring Georgian region around Zugdidi and deploying a UN civilian police to train and advise the security forces in Gali.

On 29 May, the Georgian newspaper "Tribuna" quoted Abkhaz Deputy Foreign Minister Daur Arshba as saying that the Abkhaz authorities are already discussing with the UN representation in Sukhum proposals stemming from the Putin-Shevardnadze agreement reached in Sochi with regard to the repatriation process. In a hint that Abkhazia may reject the UN recommendations that Georgian police play a role in protecting the repatriates, Arshba said that the Abkhaz and the Russian peacekeepers deployed under the CIS aegis in the Abkhaz conflict zone are capable of ensuring security without any additional outside help. (Robert McMahon/Liz Fuller)

...AS ABKHAZ, GEORGIANS AFFIRM READINESS TO RESUME TALKS. On her return from New York, where she briefed UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and UN Undersecretary for Peacekeeping Operations Jean Marie Guehenno, Tagliavini met in Tbilisi on 27 May with Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and with Minister for Special Assignments Malkhaz Kakabadze, who is the Georgian government's point man for the Abkhaz conflict. Kakabadze told Caucasus Press after that meeting that he considers the UN consultations in New York a positive development. Tagliavini then travelled to Sukhum to meet with Abkhaz Prime Minister Khadjimba.

On 29 May, Astamur Tania, who is an adviser to Abkhaz President Vladislav Ardzinba, again said it is "vital" that Abkhaz-Georgian talks under the aegis of the UN-sponsored Coordinating Council be resumed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 May 2003). Abkhazia suspended its participation in such talks last year to protest the deployment of Georgian troops in the divided Kodori Gorge. Tania also called for the signing of an agreement under which both Abkhazia and Georgia renounce any further attempt to resolve the conflict militarily.

Kakabadze for his part told Caucasus Press on 20 May that Georgia is willing to continue talks within the Coordinating Council. But he added that there had been no official Abkhaz statement of willingness to resume such talks, adding that "as far as I know, the foreign minister of the self-proclaimed Republic of Abkhazia is categorically against" such talks.

Meanwhile, experts from the Russian and Georgian Transport Ministries met in Moscow on 29 May to discuss the planned resumption of railway traffic from Russia's Black Sea coast via Abkhazia to Georgia. During their talks in Sochi in March, Shevardnadze and Putin reached an agreement that in principle rail traffic should recommence once the process of repatriation of displaced Georgians to Abkhazia is underway. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK: "Russian troops and Chechen rebels are still engaged in a bitter guerilla war, with civilians the primary victims. Recently released statistics on murders and so-called disappearances show that Chechnya is among the most dangerous places on earth.... The [world] leaders visiting St. Petersburg should confront the reality that Chechens live in misery, wondering from one day to the next whether masked men will come in the middle of the night and take their loved ones away. The assembled heads of state should demand that Russian forces conduct operations in a way that will protect, not alienate, Chechens." -- Diederik Lohmann, Human Rights Watch senior Russia researcher, (from an editorial in the "International Herald Tribune" on 30 May).

"They rigged, bribed, intimidated and partied." -- Editorial comment in the Armenian opposition newspaper "Orran" on 27 May on the outcome of the 25 May parliamentary election.

"Why do we await the conclusions of election observers so impatiently, if they don't make any difference?" -- Comment from the independent Armenian "Aravot" on 27 May.

"We live in a society where lies and bribery are encouraged, [and] honesty and fair struggle are punished. Such a society cannot develop." -- Opposition National Democratic Union Chairman Vazgen Manukian, quoted by "Noyan Tapan" on 27 May.

"Wherever they held recounts, they found ballots marked for Artarutiun in the stacks of votes given to pro-government parties.... We have compelling evidence of disgraceful irregularities." -- Defeated opposition Artarutiun bloc campaign manager Stepan Zakarian (quoted by RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau on 29 May).