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Caucasus Report: September 19, 2003

19 September 2003, Volume 6, Number 32

PARLIAMENTARY BALLOT CATALYZES SHIFTS IN GEORGIAN POLITICAL LANDSCAPE. Two of Georgia's most prominent opposition political figures have joined forces in the run-up to the 2 November parliamentary election in a move that threatens to sideline a third. Meanwhile the largest parties aligned in the pro-presidential For a New Georgia (AS) bloc are reportedly at odds over the proposed division of party-list mandates (of the 225 seats in the legislature, 75 are elected in single-mandate constituencies and the remaining 150 according to the proportional system among those parties that poll a minimum 7 percent of the vote). But even assuming that bloc does not collapse, few observers envisage it emerging as the victor -- despite President Eduard Shevardnadze's recent prediction that it will garner 85 percent of the vote. Instead, the new parliament is likely to resemble the present configuration of the outgoing legislature, with no single party or bloc commanding a clear majority.

Possibly the most significant development of the election campaign so far was the announcement last month of the new alignment concluded between parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze and the opposition United Democrats, headed by her predecessor Zurab Zhvania (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 11 July 2003 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 August 2003). The alignment is clearly in the interests of both politicians. Burdjanadze, who is 39, has for weeks been polled the most popular Georgian politician; Zhvania, by contrast, ranks far lower in the popularity stakes, but over the past 18 months has succeeded in establishing his own party with a network of local branches across the country. And according to the results of an opinion poll conducted by the newspaper "Kviris palitra" and summarized by Caucasus Press on 15 September, the new Burdjanadze-Democrats bloc has moved into third place with 16.4 percent, compared with the 4.4 percent support the United Democrats enjoyed in July before joining forces with Burdjanadze.

The new Burdjanadze-Democrats alignment has apparently finally demolished the hypothetical possibility of an alignment between Zhvania's United Democrats and the National Movement led by Zhvania's former close associate and protege, Mikhail Saakashvili. Caucasus Press on 8 September quoted Saakashvili as implying that it is Zhvania who calls the shots within the new alliance which, Saakashvili said, precludes his joining it. Saakashvili reportedly went on to imply that Zhvania would respond positively to any overture from Shevardnadze.

The Union of Traditionalists headed by Akaki Asatiani (who served as parliament speaker under President Zviad Gamsakhurdia in 1991) is reportedly about to become the third member of the Burdjanadze-Democrats alignment, according to "Akhali taoba" on 8 September. The Traditionalists contested the 1999 elections as part of the opposition Revival Union bloc, but subsequently formed a separate 13-person faction in the outgoing parliament. In addition, the Burdjanadze-Democrats bloc has concluded a gentlemen's agreement with the New Rightists that the two formations will not compete by fielding candidates in the same single-mandate constituency. The New Rightists for their part aligned earlier this month with the Liberal Party founded in November 2002 and headed by former Control Chamber head Revaz Shavishvili.

Meanwhile the pro-Shevardnadze For a New Georgia (AS) bloc has acquired two influential supporters: former Minister of State Vazha Lortkipanidze and self-exiled Russian oligarch Badri Patarkatsishvili. The two men are reported to be close associates. Lortkipanidze, who was elected to parliament as an independent candidate from his native Bagdadi in western Georgia in 2001 (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 11 July 2001 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 October 2001), has been selected to top the AS election list. (Socialist Party Chairman Vakhtang Rcheulishvili is in second place, followed by National Democratic Party leader Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia.) Patarkatsishvili has reportedly offered to co-finance the AS campaign. That offer did not stop Mikhail Machavariani, a leading member of the Burdjanadze-Democrats bloc, from accusing AS on 15 September of siphoning off 41 million laris ($19.5 million) in budget funds to cover campaign expenses.

Campaign financing is simply one aspect of the election campaign that opposition parties want subjected to greater scrutiny. The Anticorruption Monitoring Council has proposed annulling the election returns of any party that is shown to have exceeded the legally permitted limits, which forbid accepting donations in excess of 100,000 laris from a legally registered organization or 30,000 laris from an individual. In response to Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) criticisms that during the 1999 parliamentary election ballots were cast on behalf of persons who were deceased or no longer resident in Georgia, the new Election Law stipulates that lists of voters be updated and posted on the Internet -- a procedure that may prove of dubious benefit, given that in February 2003 the total number of Internet users in Georgia was only 70,000 (of a total population of 4.37 million). And in order to preclude the possibility of voters casting ballots several times over -- a second complaint registered by the OSCE in 1999 -- voters are to have their hands marked with indelible ink, according to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 15 September.

While opposition parties have repeatedly accused the authorities of preparing to falsify the outcome of the election, the parliament recently rejected a draft bill proposed by Shevardnadze that would have designated election fraud a criminal offense. In a further move intended to ensure the maximum transparency, Lortkipanidze proposed at a 15 September meeting with opposition representatives that pro-government and opposition parties jointly monitor the voting to prevent falsification. (Liz Fuller)

OSCE MINSK GROUP TO UNVEIL REVISED KARABAKH PEACE PROPOSAL. In the early months of this year, the foreign ministers of both Armenia and Azerbaijan acknowledged that little progress was likely in the search for a solution of the Karabakh conflict until after the presidential elections to take place in Armenia (in February) and Azerbaijan (in October). And in tacit confirmation, the co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group, which since 1992 has been engaged in mediating such a settlement, have not paid a joint visit to the region since last year. But in early September, the new Russian co-chairman, Yurii Merzlyakov, traveled to both Baku and Yerevan, and announced that he and his French and U.S. colleagues will visit Baku, Stepanakert, and Yerevan either in late October or early November. Merzlyakov added that they will bring with them a "new or modified" plan for resolving the conflict, but declined to divulge any details (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 September 2003).

Both prior to Merzlyakov's arrival in Baku and during talks with him, Azerbaijani Prime Minister Ilham Aliyev and parliament speaker Murtuz Alesqerov expressed dissatisfaction with the past efforts of the Minsk Group and warned that if it proves impossible to find a peaceful solution to the conflict, Baku will resort to armed force to restore its hegemony over the breakaway region. Then on 15 September, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Vilayat Guliev stated that Azerbaijan would agree to discuss a settlement on the conflict with the leadership of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic only if Armenia formally acknowledged that the dispute was an internal Azerbaijani affair and bowed out of future talks. But as long as talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan continue, Guliev continued, there is no need for the Karabakh leadership to participate in the negotiating process.

The Azerbaijani statements seem to reflect a perceptible hardening of Baku's position, conditioned by the ongoing presidential election campaign and uncertainty over the future role of ailing octogenarian President Heidar Aliev, who has been hospitalized for cardiac and kidney ailments since early May. In addition, Azerbaijani officials have on several occasions accused Armenia of seeking to "destabilize" the situation in Azerbaijan. Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, however, told Armnews TV on 26 August that the Armenian leadership hopes that the situation in Azerbaijan will remain stable, as that is in Armenia's best interest, and instability would delay a solution to the Karabakh conflict (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 August 2003).

Speaking at a press conference in Yerevan on 16 September, Oskanian too said that he anticipates that following the 15 October Azerbaijani presidential election, the three co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group will intensify their efforts to mediate a solution to the conflict. But he said it is not clear whether those efforts will bear fruit. Oskanian said that the new peace proposal will be "a new version of the old proposals" with "new emphases." He did not elaborate. He also said that the Minsk Group co-chairmen, who met behind closed doors in Vienna on 15 September, will meet separately very soon with himself and Guliev.

Oskanian stressed that there have been no changes in either the format or the content of Armenia's strategy with regard to resolving the Karabakh conflict. He criticized as counterproductive the criticisms leveled at the Minsk Group during Merzlyakov's visit to Baku, saying that "it is obvious that it is Azerbaijan that is creating real problems in achieving a settlement" of the conflict, according to Mediamax on 16 September as cited by Groong. (Liz Fuller)

MORE RUSSIAN MILITARY PERSONNEL THAN CHECHEN MILITANTS BENEFIT FROM AMNESTY. Even allowing for minor discrepancies in the statistics cited by various Russian officials, it appears that as of the first week in September, more Russian military personnel and civilians than Chechen militants had benefited from the amnesty declared by the Russian State Duma in early June for participants in the war in Chechnya (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 June 2003). Interfax on 8 September quoted an unnamed official from the Military Prosecutor's Office of the combined federal forces serving in the North Caucasus as saying that 214 Russian servicemen have been acquitted or released from prison under the amnesty, including 47 officers, seven contract servicemen, and 121 conscripts. Two days later, the same agency quoted Russian Deputy Prosecutor-General Sergei Fridinskii as giving the total number of Interior Ministry troops and civilians amnestied as 226.

On 1 September, Fridinskii said that 171 Chechen fighters have surrendered of whom 143 have been granted amnesty. The previous day, Chechen Prosecutor-General Vladimir Kravchenko said 145 Chechens have been granted amnesty. A source in the pro-Moscow Chechen administration told ITAR-TASS on 2 September that those who surrendered included two prominent field commanders and the former head of security in Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov's government. Some 500 Chechen fighters laid down their arms under an amnesty declared in 1999.

Between 40-50 Chechen fighters reportedly surrendered during the first week after the amnesty took effect, and on 20 June, Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov predicted that "any day now, more than 200 militants will give themselves up," according to ITAR-TASS. One week later, on 27 June, Kadyrov said that "a large group, some 250 people, have expressed the desire to lay down their arms." On 8 July, Kravchenko said that Chechen law enforcement agencies were conducting talks with 200 Chechen fighters on their possible surrender.

The deadline for Chechen fighters to lay down their arms expired on 31 August, but Kadyrov wrote to Duma Speaker Gennadii Seleznev on 29 August asking for it to be extended by three months. Kadyrov said that at least 300 more Chechen fighters are ready to surrender. (Liz Fuller)

SENIOR ARMENIAN BUREAUCRATS 'LESS COMPETENT' THAN THEIR SUBORDINATES. Many senior Armenian bureaucrats do not meet required professional standards and are often less competent than their subordinates, according to a government body that supervises the country's civil service.

"Our impression is that we have a fairly weak cadre contingent especially in the high-ranking positions," the head of the State Council on Civil Service, Manvel Badalian, told reporters on 3 September. "There are a lot more sound, flexible, informed, and competent people in the lower echelons. We can be proud of some of them."

Badalian said 27 top civil servants have failed to pass qualification tests conducted by his agency and have been dismissed as a result. He said he was "appalled" by the professional level of some of them. However, he refused to name any names, saying only that those officials headed departments at various government ministries.

A total of 73 government employees are said to have failed the "attestations" held by Badalian's council in accordance with Armenia's controversial law on civil service which took effect in 2002. The Armenian Ministry of Health has had the largest number of fired officials: 14. Ten others worked for the Finance Ministry.

The attestations involve written examinations and verbal interviews. A similar procedure is used in the selection of new civil servants, which is also administered by the seven-member State Council appointed by President Robert Kocharian.

According to Badalian, it has organized in the last 18 months 426 job contests and chosen 845 people to fill various government vacancies. He said no one has yet applied for over 70 other vacant posts, most of them in the lower and middle ranks of the state bureaucracy. The sector's modest average salary of 22,000 drams ($38) seems largely responsible for the lack of interest.

Kocharian and other Armenian leaders say that the law in question will make the civil service more efficient and independent by protecting its members against arbitrary dismissal and regulating their selection and promotion. Critics, however, argue that the verbal interviews make the process discretionary and can therefore be abused. They also say that the civil service body itself is not independent because it is single-handedly formed by Kocharian.

But Badalian insisted that none of its decisions has been dictated or affected by the executive. He said he only feels "moral pressure" from his friends or relatives keen to get lucrative government jobs, but will not cave in. (Karine Kalantarian)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "The Chechen Republic will not survive any more experiments." Chechen deputy military commandant Colonel Said-Selim Tsuev (quoted by ITAR-TASS on 17 September).

"My assistant had all the fingers of one hand broken. He was tortured for four days. It was [Chechen administration head and presidential candidate] Akhmed Kadyrov's son Ramzan who did it, right in the yard of Kadyrov's home." -- Chechen businessman Malik Saidullaev, whose registration as a candidate in the 5 October presidential election was annulled on 11 September, quoted by "Novye izvestiya" on 9 September.

"Kadyrov cannot win in a fair election. Twelve percent of votes is all he could poll. I would have come in first even despite his administrative resources." -- Saidullaev, in an interview published in "Novaya gazeta," No 68, 15-17 September.

"There are a lot of people in Georgia, including politicians, who openly defend Russia's interests." -- Georgian State Security Minister Valeri Khaburzania, in an interview published in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 1 September.

"I would like very much for our armed love their country the way the Turkish military do." -- Azerbaijani Defense Ministry spokesman Colonel Ramiz Melikov, quoted by on 3 September.

"I wish the Armenian authorities were strong, clever, and honest. But unfortunately, they're neither clever, nor honest, nor powerful." -- Former Prime Minister and opposition Hanrapetutiun party leader Aram Sargsian (quoted by Noyan Tapan on 4 September).