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Caucasus Report: June 26, 2003

26 June 2003, Volume 6, Number 23

AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION CAMPAIGN GETS UNDER WAY. Campaigning for the 15 October Azerbaijani presidential election kicked off on 17 June, but whether the ballot will in fact take place on that date remains an open question. Nor is there complete certainty about which candidates either from the opposition or from the present authorities will contest the election. On the other hand, the one thing many opposition politicians and political commentators are firmly convinced of is that the authorities will resort to falsification to ensure that their preferred candidate wins, and that there is little if anything the international community can do to prevent that happening.

The uncertainty over the timing of the ballot stems from the addition to the draft election law between the second and the third reading of an article stipulating that in the event that incumbent President Heidar Aliyev steps down after the beginning of the presidential election campaign, new elections must be scheduled. Aliev, who is 80 and in poor health, has said repeatedly that he intends to run for a third presidential term. Opposition politicians have argued that the inclusion of this article at such a late stage in the legislative procedure constitutes a violation of the constitution. Even presidential administration official Shahin Aliyev admitted in a lengthy interview with the independent Russian-language newspaper "Zerkalo" on 12 June that due to time constraints, it was not possible to draw to deputies' attention all the amendments proposed during the second reading, and that when voting in the third and final reading many of them may not have been aware of the additional article in question. Aliyev rejected, however, claims that the stipulation that new presidential elections should be called in the event of the incumbent's resignation during an election campaign is itself unconstitutional. He pointed out that according to Article 105.1 of the constitution, in that eventuality preterm elections must be scheduled within three months.

Observers in Baku are inclined to attribute that addition to the Election Code to ongoing concern within the upper echelons of the country's leadership over the president's health. Aliyev collapsed twice within the space of one hour two months ago while delivering a televised address, and was subsequently hospitalized in Ankara for treatment of a kidney problem and possibly unspecified other ailments from which he has visibly not completely recovered. Those observers suspect that should Aliev's health deteriorate sharply between now and 15 October, the 15 October elections will be cancelled and a new election campaign will begin, in which the present elite will nominate another candidate, in all likelihood Heidar Aliev's son Ilham, who is vice president of the state oil company SOCAR. (Were the new elections to be scheduled concurrently with the elections to the Russian State Duma on 7 December, international organizations such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE, and the Council of Europe would be hard put to round up enough experienced observers to monitor both ballots.)

Ilham Aliyev has in fact already been nominated as a presidential candidate -- by the tiny Ana-Veten party, of which he is not even a member (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 June 2003). To date, the total number of presidential hopefuls is 18, five of whom have already formally notified the Central Election Commission of their intentions. In addition to Ilham and Heidar Aliev, they are Islamic Party of Azerbaijan Chairman Alikram Aliyev (no relation to the presidential family); opposition Vahdat Party Chairman Tahir Kerimli; opposition Social Democratic Party Chairman Araz Alizade; former president and opposition Civic Unity Party Chairman Ayaz Mutalibov; opposition Adalet (Justice) Party Chairman Ilyas Ismailov; opposition Civic Solidarity Party Chairman Sabir Rustamkhanli; Yunus Oguz, proprietor of the tabloid newspaper "Olaylar"; Ali Kerimli (no relation to Tahir Kerimli), who is chairman of the progressive wing of the divided Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP); opposition Azerbaijan National Independence Party Chairman Etibar Mamedov; Azerbaijan Democratic Party Chairman Rasul Guliev; opposition Musavat Party Chairman Isa Gambar; Lala Shovket Gadjieva, who resigned as chairwoman of the Liberal Party to run as an independent candidate; Communist Party leader Ramiz Ahmedov; rival United Communist Party leader Sayad Sayadov; political scientist and former presidential adviser Eldar Namazov; and Gudrat Gasankuliev, leader of a splinter group that split from Ali Kerimli's wing of the AHCP last year.

And there is every chance that more candidates may emerge. On 21 June, reported that a group of voters from the settlement of Mardakan on the outskirts of Baku intend to propose Rufat Agaev, a former Soviet-era trade union boss and mayor of Baku who now heads a union of Azerbaijani businessmen in Russia, as a presidential candidate. Three days earlier, the same Internet publication reported that the opposition National Democratic Party (the former "Gray Wolves") will nominate as its presidential candidate party Chairman and former Defense Minister Iskender Hamidov. Hamidov was sentenced in 1995 to 14 years imprisonment on charges of embezzlement and abuse of his official position; at the insistence of the Council of Europe, which considers that sentence politically motivated, he is currently being tried on the same charges a second time. For that reason, it is doubtful whether the Central Election Commission will agree to register him as a candidate.

Two of the 18 candidates listed above may similarly be denied registration on the grounds that they face criminal charges in Azerbaijan. They are former parliament speaker Rasul Guliev and former President Ayaz Mutalibov, who are currently living in exile in the U.S. and Russia, respectively.

Guliev is nonetheless one of the four opposition candidates whom observers in Baku consider pose the most serious threat to the incumbent or an alternative candidate backed by the present authorities. The other three are Ali Kerimli, Gambar, and Mamedov. Those four have repeatedly discussed the hypothetical possibility of three of them withdrawing their candidacies to back the fourth (in all likelihood either Mamedov or Gambar); but it is by no means certain that they will agree to do so.

Some Azerbaijanis, however, argue that all four possible candidates for the opposition's joint nomination are "yesterday's men," and that new blood is needed to address the problems Azerbaijan faces. In a statement released on 18 June, AMAL, the movement representing the country's intelligentsia, argues that that both the present leadership and those opposition forces that aspire to replace it have demonstrated their ideological bankruptcy and inability to formulate a program of measures that would reverse the country's descent into anarchy and chaos. An earlier AMAL statement had argued that only a candidate who is not aligned with any existing political force would be able to unify society and pose a credible challenge to the current president.

Gadjieva too has argued that only an independent candidate can hope to succeed in overcoming what she termed the "colossal fragmentation of our society into regions, clans, and even families, not to mention [political] parties" and become a symbol of "national unity." Recalling that as state secretary in 1993 she insisted that former Presidents Mutalibov and Abulfaz Elchibey be invited to Heidar Aliev's inauguration, Gadjieva further implied that she considers she has the "moral right" to be selected as that candidate, but stressed at the same time that she will not publicly lay claim to it.

Pessimists, however, counter that evaluating the comparative merits of the various opposition candidates is irrelevant. Pointing to the blatant falsification and fraud that marred the parliamentary elections of 1995 and 2000 and the presidential ballot in 1998, they predict that this time, too, the authorities will resort to every means to possible to ensure that their candidate wins and they retain power. They adduce the last-minute amendments made to the draft election code, and the authorities' rejection of proposals made by the OSCE and the Council of Europe's Venice Commission on the optimum distribution on seats on election commissions at all levels as substantiating that imputed intention. Under the original proposals made by those two organizations, the authorities would not have had the required two-thirds majority on commissions at all levels; the amended proposals secure them such a majority provided that the Communist Party of Azerbaijan representatives can be persuaded to support the present authorities, as they generally do in parliament.

Nor are opposition politicians and political commentators alone in anticipating that the outcome of the presidential ballot has already been determined in favor of whichever candidate will represent the present leadership. A recent street poll conducted by journalists from the independent newspaper "Zerkalo" suggested that few voters believe the ballot will be democratic. That poll also established that most respondents were not even aware that the date of the election has already been announced. (Liz Fuller)

ARMENIA'S NEW PARLIAMENT FAILS TO INSPIRE CONFIDENCE. The general consensus among independent and opposition commentators is that the intellectual and moral level of the parliament elected on 25 May is lower than that of any of its predecessors. That perception is based primarily on the preponderance of multimillionaire businessmen, many of them representing either the majority Republican Party of Armenia, which has a total of 39 seats in the 131-member parliament, or to the 37 nonaligned deputies elected in single-mandate constituencies, most of whom have close ties to members of the ruling elite (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 2 June 2003).

Perhaps the most colorful description of the businessman-deputy genus was published by "Golos Armenii" on 17 June. The paper alleged that the average Armenian parliamentarian has "a neck as thick as an oak tree," a "can-sell-and-buy-anyone" attitude, and expensive but tasteless clothing that "sometimes covers tattoos on their bodies." "Their wealth is counted in tens of millions. They are the ones who decide the fate of hundreds of thousands of other, ordinary human beings; they are the masters of life," the paper says. "For them, a parliamentary mandate is simply a certificate of their belonging to high society."

Even parliament deputy speaker Vahan Hovannisian of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation--Dashnaktsutiun was forced to concede in an 14 June interview with "Haykakan zhamanak" that he has not tested the "educational achievements" of his fellow deputies, but doubts that they are "very great." But the deputies themselves apparently have every confidence in their professional qualifications: only five of them turned up on 25 June to attend the first day of a USAID-funded training course aimed at improving their professional knowledge, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported.

Hovannisian also offered advice to those sartorially challenged deputies who, according to "Haykakan zhamanak," have a penchant for striped suits: "If a suit is striped, there is no problem. But it is not right to wear a striped shirt with a striped suit. To wear white socks with a suit is not right either. I would like to say that if your shirt is striped, in that case your tie should be one color."

At the same time, no less than 60 deputies to the new legislature served in the outgoing parliament, including nine members of the opposition Artarutiun bloc (three of whom were previously elected in 1995), eight from Artashes Geghamian's National Unity Party (AMK), and five from the Armenian Revolutionary Federation--Dashnaktsutiun. But between them Artarutiun and the opposition AMK have only 23 candidates and will thus be powerless to challenge, let alone vote down draft bills they consider further the interests of the "oligarch" legislators, rather than the electorate those legislators claim to represent. (Liz Fuller)

SHOULD FORMER CHECHEN FIGHTERS BE ALLOWED TO JOIN POLICE? Since the idea of a new amnesty for Chechen fighters was first proposed in late March, Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov has argued on several occasions that those militants who apply for and are granted amnesty should be allowed to join the Chechen police force. Kadyrov reasoned that former guerrillas know all the paths used by resistance fighters and all their "ringleaders." Kadyrov's logic is, however, difficult to reconcile with allegations made by other pro-Moscow Chechen officials that fighters loyal to President Aslan Maskhadov or other Chechen field commanders have already infiltrated the Chechen police in large numbers, casting doubts on the force's reliability.

Ever since the decision was made in 2000 to create a Chechen police force, there have been differences of opinion among both Chechen and Russian officials over whether Chechen policemen could be trusted. Even Grozny Mayor Beslan Gantemirov, whose loyalists formed the nucleus of the force, claimed in the fall of 2000 that many raion police divisions had been infiltrated by Maskhadov's men (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 22 December 2000). At a government session in February 2001, Gantemirov again alleged that Chechnya did not at that time have a single reliable local police unit.

Efforts to recruit Chechens to serve in the police force continued throughout 2001-02. By May 2001, some 5,000 men had been recruited, and in November of that year a Federal Security Service (FSB) colonel, Said-Selim Peshkhoev, was named to head the Chechen police. In early 2001, then-Chechen Prime Minister Stanislav Ilyasov announced that it was planned to replace the police units brought in from other parts of Russia by Chechen units by the end of the year. Ilyasov said the final strength of the Chechen police would be in the region of 10,700 men.

But as more and more Chechens were recruited, so the claims that Maskhadov's men were infiltrating the police became more frequent. In July 2002, Interfax reported that an attempt by fighters loyal to radical field commander Shamil Basaev to penetrate the special police unit headed by Musa Gazimagomadov had been thwarted. Days later, however, an officer from the Russian Interior Ministry Directorate in Chechnya told Interfax that of 400 police officers vetted for reliability the previous month, only six were considered unsuitable.

Then in October 2002, more than 20 people were killed by a bomb that largely destroyed the police station in Grozny's Zavod Raion. The investigation suggested that the bomb was planted by renegade police officers, prompting Chechen National Security Council Secretary Rudnik Dudaev and presidential envoy for human rights in Chechnya Abdul-Khakim Sultygov to demand more stringent vetting of recruits to the police force.

In December 2002, the Russian Interior Ministry finally created a Chechen Interior Ministry, and a career Chechen police officer, Ruslan Tsakaev, was named Chechen interior minister. Tsakaev too immediately announced that all 11,000 members of the police force should undergo new security screening to weed out possible unreliable elements. In April 2003, Dudaev said that the screening process had improved since the Zavod bombing. But although all information about potential candidates is now thoroughly evaluated, the selection process still needs to be improved, Dudaev said. He also pinpointed two major problems that negatively affect the ministry's work: the shortage of qualified senior specialists and a chronic shortage of equipment.

Tsakaev resigned in early April for reasons that remain unclear, and died of a heart attack shortly afterwards. Kadyrov, Dudaev, and Chechen Prime Minister Anatolii Popov were unanimous in praising Ali Alkhanov, who was selected in mid-April as Tsakaev's successor. But at the same time, both Dudaev and Popov criticized the police force for allegedly failing to provide security for the population and prevent the nocturnal abductions of Chechen civilians by Russian troops. At a Security Council session on 24 April, some local administration heads even accused police of being behind some of those abductions.

Criticism of the police force's imputed ineffectiveness to protect the population serves to highlight the tensions that exist between the Chechen police and the Russian forces in Chechnya. There have been several reports -- denied by both Russian and Chechen officials -- of shootouts between the two sides, including one in the center of Grozny last September.

Nor is it only the Russian troops that have doubts about the loyalty and reliability of the Chechen police. On 16 June, Russian Deputy Prosecutor-General Vladimir Kolesnikov said at a Moscow roundtable that local Chechen police forces "are often manned on family or clan principles, without adequate checks of recruits' former involvement in illegal armed formations." Kolesnikov claimed that 60 percent of men now serving at police stations in Grozny are present or former resistance fighters, while in other districts of Chechnya the figure is closer to 80 percent. (In late 2001, the police detachment formed in Nadterechnyi Raion in northern Chechnya numbered 341 men, of whom 245 were former militants.) Kadyrov in an interview published in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 18 June rejected Kolesnikov's figures as a gross exaggeration. He said Alkhanov has been working since his appointment to purge the police of unreliable persons.

In March 2003, Aslanbek Aslakhanov, a former Russian Interior Ministry general who is Chechnya's deputy to the Russian State Duma, suggested an alternative approach to ensuring that Chechen police remain loyal. He proposed that candidates for the police force be selected at village meetings, and that prospective recruits should swear an oath on the Koran to discharge their duties honestly and to remain loyal to their service. Whether the Chechen leadership is prepared to implement that proposal, and whether it would serve to allay Russian suspicions, remains an open question. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "There exists in Iran a government elected by the people. I think this government is capable of solving the problems that exist in Iran." -- Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Vilayat Guliev, in an interview with (21 June 2003).

"We shall have a better Armenia in 2007 than we have now." -- Orinats Yerkir party Chairman and parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian, quoted by Noyan Tapan on 20 June.

"By the hand of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, God has brought [Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji] Kadyrov to power; and God will bring him down by the same hand. Kadyrov is a political corpse, in every sense of the term." -- Moscow-based Chechen State Council Chairman and potential presidential challenger Malik Saidullaev (quoted by "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 16 June).