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Caucasus Report: July 3, 2003

3 July 2003, Volume 6, Number 24

GEORGIA, RUSSIA STILL AT ODDS OVER RUSSIAN PEACEKEEPING FORCE IN ABKHAZIA. Late last week, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze unilaterally prolonged the mandate, which was due to expire on 30 June, of the Russian peacekeeping force deployed under the CIS aegis in the Abkhaz conflict zone. That force will now remain in Abkhazia until either the Georgian or the Russian leadership requests its withdrawal. Both governments have drafted separate new agreements on the conditions for the peacekeepers' continued deployment, which is to be formally approved at the 19 September CIS summit. During a 27 June meeting at the State Chancellery with Georgian National Security Council Secretary Tedo Djaparidze, the U.S., British, and German ambassadors and UN special envoy Heidi Tagliavini approved the Georgian draft and hailed Shevardnadze's decision to prolong the peacekeepers' mandate, Caucasus Press reported.

There are, however, unspecified differences between the Georgian and Russian positions on the new mandate, according to Interfax on 30 June. In an interview published in "Krasnaya zvezda" on 27 June and summarized three days later by Interfax, Lieutenant General Aleksandr Yevteev, who is commander of the Russian peacekeeping force, argued that his men need air-defense systems and radar, given that they are required to monitor "80 kilometers of the Abkhaz coastline." How Yevteev arrived at that figure is, however, not clear: the original mandate of his force stipulates that they are deployed in a 14-kilometer zone on either side of the River Inguri that marks the internal border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia. On 30 June, Georgian intelligence-service head Lieutenant General Avtandil Ioseliani rejected as unfounded Yevteev's claim that his men need air-defense systems, Interfax reported. Ioseliani too pointed out that the peacekeepers' mandate does not extend to monitoring Abkhaz airspace or its coastline. He warned that if Russia installs such systems without consulting or informing the Georgian authorities, Tbilisi will demand the immediate withdrawal of the peacekeeping force.

On 1 July, an unspecified number of displaced Georgians who were forced to flee Abkhazia during the 1992-93 war staged a demonstration outside the State Chancellery building in Tbilisi to demand the Russian peacekeepers' immediate withdrawal. Meanwhile a poll of 2,060 Georgian citizens conducted by the TV station Mzera revealed that 74 percent believe Georgia can win back Abkhazia only by military force, while only 11 percent believe the conflict can be resolved peacefully, and 15 percent do not believe Abkhazia will ever return under Georgian jurisdiction, Caucasus Press reported on 27 June. (Liz Fuller)

ABKHAZ PARLIAMENT, PRESIDENT AT ODDS OVER CONSTITUTION. Less than two months after the appointment of a new prime minister and government, Abkhazia is facing a new internal political crisis that pits the parliament and the opposition movements Aitaira and Amtsakhara against ailing President Vladislav Ardzinba.

On 31 May, the parliament passed a law stipulating the circumstances and procedure for amending the unrecognized republic's constitution. The law bans such amendments when a state of emergency or martial law is in force, rules that the draft law must be published after its adoption in the first reading, rules that a minimum of three months must elapse between voting on the bill in the first and second reading, and specifies that if fewer than two-thirds of the 35 parliament deputies vote in favor of proposed amendments, those amendments must be submitted to a referendum.

President Ardzinba vetoed the law, prompting the parliament to form a committee -- chaired by deputy speaker Konstantin Ozgan -- to revise the law and propose amendments to it by 25 June. Ardzinba and the Abkhaz Supreme Court were both invited to name a representative to that committee. Ardzinba wrote to parliament speaker Nugzar Ashuba thanking him for that invitation, but apparently declined to appoint a representative to the committee. A subsequent meeting on 28 June between Ardzinba and parliament failed to resolve the dispute, which Ozgan told Caucasus Press should be resolved by the Supreme Court -- but only after the passage of a law on the procedure for resolving disputes over the constitution. Parliament adopted such a law in the first reading on 2 July.

Meanwhile the opposition movements Aitaira and Amtsakhara, which were instrumental in precipitating the resignation of Prime Minister Gennadii Gagulia in March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 March and 1 April 2003 and "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 18 April 2003), together with the People's Party and the Federation of Independent Trade Unions, issued a statement expressing support for the beleaguered parliament, Caucasus Press reported on 24 June. The statement further warned of the dangers of internal political confrontation at a time when Georgia may be preparing to take advantage of the acute economic crisis and spiraling crime in Abkhazia to launch a new offensive.

On 1 July, the Abkhaz presidential administration announced that Ardzinba has left Abkhazia to undergo further medical treatment, according to Caucasus Press. Vice President Valerii Arshba will discharge his duties until his return, for which no date was given. Ardzinba was hospitalized in Moscow for several months last year (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 31 January 2002 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 May 2002). The nature of his illness in not known. (Liz Fuller)

JAIL BREAKS MAY SPEED GEORGIAN JUSTICE MINISTER'S DISMISSAL. On 1 July, 12 prisoners overpowered a prison guard and escaped from Rustavi jail, raising to 47 the total number of inmates to have escaped from Georgian prisons and penal colonies over the past two months. Just three days earlier, on 28 June, eight prisoners escaped from the high-security Avchala prison in Tbilisi.

While such high-profile escapes are nothing new -- one triggered the resignation of Dzhoni Khetsuriani as justice minister three years ago (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 October 2000) -- Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze has attributed the recent jail breaks to the transfer last year of responsibility for the prison system from the Interior Ministry to the Justice Ministry. Shevardnadze admitted on 30 June in his regular weekly radio interview that it was a mistake to effect that transfer within the framework of the ongoing reform of the judiciary system, as the Justice Ministry does not have enough qualified personnel to maintain prison security. (That lack is apparently the result of a deliberate policy decision: the independent newspaper "Alia" on 15 April quoted Deputy Minister of Justice Kakha Koberidze as warning that "prisons may be left without guards" if the ministry complies with a demand to reduce its personnel by 20 percent.)

Some Georgian NGOs have suggested that Interior Ministry officials may have connived in facilitating the recent mass escapes in the hope that control over the prison system would be transferred back to that ministry, according to the independent newspaper "Rezonansi" on 13 June. There is, after all, a great deal of money to be made in accepting bribes from convicted criminal kingpins in return for supplying them with various comforts and commodities. A random search of cells at a Tbilisi prison reported by Caucasus Press on 5 February yielded knives, submachine guns, drugs, and mobile phones. Caucasus Press on 11 June, however, quoted National Security Council Secretary Tedo Djaparidze as ruling out transferring the prison system back to the Interior Ministry. But in what appears to be a compromise arrangement, Shevardnadze advocated at a National Security Council session on 14 June that Interior Ministry troops be deployed to guard the perimeter of prisons and penal colonies. Interior Ministry troops commander Major General Giorgi Shervashidze was quoted by "Akhali taoba" on 16 June as welcoming that ruling, which he said will improve prison security.

The recent escapes may expedite the dismissal, which has been predicted repeatedly in recent months, of Justice Minister Roland Giligashvili. Giligashvili, who is 50 and has spent his entire career in the judicial system, was appointed to that post in September 2001. He too has suggested that the recent jail breaks were organized by "outside forces" which did not identify. At a government session on 2 July, Shevardnadze reprimanded Giligashvili for not taking measures to strengthen prison security, and warned that he will fire the minister in the event of a further breakout.

Two recent press articles have suggested that Shevardnadze does not trust Giligashvili, and intends to name his parliamentary secretary Mariam Tsatsanashvili to replace him prior to the parliamentary elections scheduled for 2 November. Tsatsanashvili is said to be a favorite both of Shevardnadze's wife Nanuli and of Kakheti Governor Medea Mezvrishvili, whose ties to Shevardnadze date back to the late 1950s when they were both leading members of the Georgian Komsomol. (Liz Fuller)

ARMENIA'S CHANCES OF EU MEMBERSHIP ASSESSED. Galust Sahakian, who heads the parliament faction of Prime Minister Andranik Markarian's Republican Party of Armenia, has given an unusually positive assessment of Armenia's democratic credentials, predicting that the country will make a bid for membership of the European Union in a few years' time.

"We will lay the groundwork for entering the European Union in the next four years," Sahakian predicted. He claimed that Armenia can meet the strict political and economic criteria for EU membership because it is a "democratic oasis in the South Caucasus."

Sahakian's comments came at a 1 July roundtable discussion in Yerevan on the future of Armenia's relations with Europe. They contrasted sharply with the views expressed by other participants of the discussion, most of them opposition politicians who accused the authorities of thwarting the democratization process. The opposition pointed in particular to the most recent threats by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) to impose sanctions against the Armenian lawmakers attending its sessions in response to serious irregularities reported during the 25 May parliamentary elections. "In essence, this means that the Council of Europe does not recognize this National Assembly," said Hmayak Hovannisian, a parliament deputy from the opposition National Unity Party.

The disputed parliamentary elections and the presidential ballot, also held this year, provoked a storm of criticism of the Armenian authorities from Western states and organizations, including the EU and the Council of Europe. As recently as 27 June, the EU's Greek presidency expressed concern at "the reoccurrence of falsification of vote counts" and other instances of fraud reported by Western observers during the 25 May vote.

That criticism has dealt a serious blow to the Armenian leadership's declared efforts to speed up Armenia's integration into various European structures. Sahakian, however, downplayed its significance, saying that Armenians should not view the Council of Europe as the Soviet-era Politburo which had the final say on all major issues affecting their country. (Armen Zakarian)

IS KADYROV'S ELECTION A FOREGONE CONCLUSION? Russian State Duma Deputy Nikolai Gonchar told RFE/RL's Russian Service on 1 July that he does not think any alternative candidate stands a real chance of defeating Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov in the Chechen presidential poll expected to take place in October. Kadyrov for his part, as Andrei Shariy of RFE/RL's Russian Service pointed out, claims to have the Kremlin's backing.

But Gonchar also said that he believes the emphasis Kadyrov places on his support from Moscow may be intended to win the backing of other factions in Chechnya, given that Kadyrov cannot point to and claim credit for any concrete progress towards resolving the conflict. Gonchar also noted that if Kadyrov is indeed elected president, it will be more difficult for the Kremlin to exert any influence on him. "When he becomes the legitimate leader of Chechnya, the tenor of relations between Moscow and Kadyrov will change fundamentally" and become far more complex, Gonchar predicted.

Asked whether Moscow's choice of Kadyrov three years ago as interim Chechen leader has proven the right one, Gonchar said that it resolved the problems Moscow was confronted with at that time, but that it will only become clear after the presidential elections whether Kadyrov is the right man for that job.

Also on 1 July, "Vremya novostei" reported that Amin Osmaev, speaker of the pro-Moscow Chechen parliament elected in 1996 and dissolved the following year, has written to Russian President Vladimir Putin asking him to ensure that the Chechen presidential election campaign is democratic. Osmaev referred to statements in support of Kadyrov by unnamed officials of the South Russia Federal District, arguing that such officials are barred from endorsing specific candidates. Osmaev also expressed concern that rivalry between Kadyrov and other Moscow-based Chechen presidential candidates could turn violent. "We are facing the specter of a third war here," "Vremya novostei" quoted him as saying. (Liz Fuller)

ARE MINORITIES IN AZERBAIJAN MORE PRONE TO DRUG ABUSE? In an article published on 26 June in the independent Azerbaijani newspaper "Khalg Jebhesi," a journalist identified only as Fuad claimed that drug abuse in Azerbaijan is spreading faster among national minorities than among Azerbaijanis, RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service reported. He claimed that Russians, Lezgins, and Mountain Jews begin using drugs later than do Georgians, with Russians and Lezgins showing the highest rates of both drug and alcohol abuse.

According to official data, Azerbaijan has 16,000 registered drug addicts, but on 26 June estimated the true figure at between 160,000-200,000.

Azerbaijan's population is 8.28 million, of whom 9.4 percent are non-Azerbaijanis. The Russian population numbers 141,000, Armenians 120,000, and Georgians 14,000, according to MPA on 13 February. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK. "Neither I nor the Council of Europe have the patience to wait any longer for Azerbaijan to release all its political prisoners." Council of Europe Secretary-General Walter Schwimmer, speaking at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe summer session in Strasbourg. Quoted by Turan on 27 June.