24 October 2003, Volume 6, Number 37
FROM GOLDEN GIRL TO BETE NOIRE. Against the background of mutual accusations that is one of the hallmarks of the ongoing Georgian parliamentary election campaign, the Georgian leadership appears to have identified parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze as its most dangerous opponent. Burdjanadze has for months been identified by opinion polls not only as Georgia's most popular political figure but also as the most "balanced and constructive." Since mid-August, Burdjanadze has repeatedly been the target of smear allegations by senior members of the pro-presidential For a New Georgia (AS) election bloc.
Burdjanadze, the daughter of one of President Eduard Shevardnadze's oldest and closest friends, is a 39-year-old lawyer who began her political career as a member of the Union of Citizens of Georgia (SMK), which Shevardnadze founded in 1993 as his personal power base. According to "Moskovskie novosti" on 4 December 2001, it was the elder of her two sons who, dressed in Georgian national costume, was the first to welcome Shevardnadze back to Georgia when he stepped off the plane in Tbilisi in March 1992. Burdjanadze was elected to parliament on the SMK ticket in 1995 and 1999, and headed the parliament Foreign Relations Committee from 1999-2001. In November 2001, she was elected parliament speaker following Zurab Zhvania's resignation from that post (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 November 2001). Bespectacled and patrician, she lists as her hobbies classical music, going to the theater, and gardening, "Obshchaya gazeta" reported on 18 April 2002.
Following her election as speaker, Burdjanadze pledged not to promote the interests of any political faction. But, at the same time, she said that despite her "respect and loyalty" for Shevardnadze she would not agree to any "compromises that are not acceptable to the country." Over the next 18 months, Burdjanadze aligned herself ever more closely with Zhvania and other former SMK parliament deputies now in opposition. She repeatedly criticized government corruption and incompetence and aspects of Shevardnadze's policies, especially with regard to the Abkhaz conflict, relations with Russia, and combating corruption, that she considered ineffective or morally questionable.
During the early summer of 2003, Burdjanadze hinted that she was planning to create her own political party, a move that suggested to some observers that she was already looking ahead to the presidential election in 2005, in which Shevardnadze is barred by the constitution from seeking a third term, even if he wished to do so. In August, Burdjanadze aligned with Zhvania to form the opposition Burdjanadze-Democrats election bloc (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 11 July and 19 September 2003 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 August 2003).
Within days, she was subjected to a barrage of abusive and damaging accusations. First, both she and her father Anzor -- a bread magnate and long-time friend of President Shevardnadze -- were accused of having acquired four hydroelectric power plants in a questionable privatization scam (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 August 2003). Burdjanadze denied those allegations, which she termed "a provocation by pro-government forces" intended to force her to resign, Caucasus Press reported on 15 August. Several weeks later she convened a press conference at which she claimed that the allegations leveled against her were fabricated at a special session of AS, Caucasus Press reported on 22 September. She asked rhetorically why, if she were suspected of illegal financial machinations, no legal action was brought against her.
On 8 October, AS spokeswoman and National Democratic Party of Georgia Chairwoman Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia told journalists that Burdjanadze had consulted with top Russian politicians, including presidential administration head Aleksandr Voloshin, and received from them large sums of money with which to finance her bloc's election campaign, Caucasus Press reported. (The SMK was similarly accused of accepting $1 million from unnamed Russian political figures in 1999 to finance its parliamentary election campaign; Zhvania denied those allegations [see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 February 2001]). Sarishvili-Chanturia also accused Burdjanadze of having established contact with former State Security Minister Igor Giorgadze, who fled Georgia in September 1995 after a botched car-bomb attack on Shevardnadze for which Giorgadze was held responsible. Sarishvili-Chanturia said she would present documentation substantiating those allegations to the State Security Ministry.
Burdjanadze rejected those accusations as "absurd," and challenged State Security Minister Valeri Khaburzania to make the materials public, after which, she said, she would bring libel proceedings against those guilty of "calumny," Caucasus Press reported on 13 October. Three files were subsequently posted on the ministry's website (http://www.sus.ge), one of which contains what appears to be an account of a meeting in June at which Burdjanadze discussed "cooperation" with unidentified persons.
Burdjanadze then accused Shevardnadze of being behind Sarishvili-Chanturia's allegations, a charge Shevardnadze emphatically denied on 13 October in his weekly radio broadcast. Shevardnadze went on to criticize Burdjanadze for what he termed her "unacceptable tone" and for blaming him personally for all of Georgia's unresolved problems. The following day, one of the leaders of the Burdjanadze-Democrats bloc, Goka Gabashvili, again accused Shevardnadze of masterminding what he termed a "black PR campaign" against Burdjanadze in particular and the bloc in general, according to the webpage of the independent television station Rustavi-2.
The independent daily "Akhali taoba" on 17 October observed that if the Georgian authorities had hoped to discredit Burdjanadze they miscalculated badly, as her popularity rating has risen. Meanwhile, Burdjanadze has given the Georgian leadership a further reason to want to undercut her influence. On two occasions -- addressing journalists in Tbilisi on 11 October and meeting with voters in Kutaisi on 18 October -- she advocated a wholesale restructuring of the state apparatus that would entail reintroducing a Cabinet of Ministers and drastically reducing the powers of the president. Burdjanadze said that if opposition parties succeed in forming a majority in the new parliament they will proceed with that "radical restructuring" which, she added, is the only way to ensure the "normal functioning" of the state.
In his 20 October radio interview, Shevardnadze retaliated by criticizing Burdjanadze's alleged neglect of her duties as parliament speaker, enumerating several key bills drafted by the government that the outgoing legislature has failed to debate. He further sought to deflect her anticipated response by describing their ongoing war of words as part of "the normal democratic process." (Liz Fuller)
UN POLICE TO BE DEPLOYED IN ABKHAZ CONFLICT ZONE. Acting on recommendations from UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the UN Security Council incorporated into its half-yearly resolution on the Abkhaz conflict in late July a provision for the deployment in Abkhazia's Gali Raion of 20 civilian UN police (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 25 July 2003 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 July 2003). Those officers are to arrive in Abkhazia by the end of October and will work in coordination with the existing UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) and the CIS peacekeeping force deployed in the Abkhaz conflict zone to promote confidence-building measures and help train local police (both Georgian and Abkhaz).
The presence of the civilian police is considered crucial to expediting the return to Gali of tens of thousands of displaced Georgians who fled the district during the 1992-1993 war. The repatriation was designated a key priority both by the presidents of Russia and Georgia during their talks in Sochi in March and during talks in Geneva in July by the members of the so-called "Friends of the Secretary-General" group of five countries (the U.S., the U.K., Russian, France, and Germany) engaged in mediating a solution to the Abkhaz conflict.
If the deployment proves successful, the contingent will be augmented, according to a UNOMIG press release. But it is not clear whether at this stage there are any contingency plans for extending the UN civilian police presence from Gali to other districts of Abkhazia.
In preparation for the deployment of the UN officers, a team of three Georgian and three Abkhaz government officials together with Ambassador Heidi Tagliavini (UN Secretary-General Annan's special envoy for the Abkhaz conflict), and the commander of the CIS peacekeepers, traveled to Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosova on 12-18 October to familiarize themselves with the results of UN policing efforts there. According to UNOMIG, in both Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosova the deployment of the UN police contingent resulted in "a significant decrease in violence and in overall criminal incidents." There have been numerous violent incidents in Gali, many of them involving attacks by Georgian guerrillas on Abkhaz police and customs officials.
The delegation visited locations to which significant numbers of displaced persons have returned and discussed how to address at the local level the security issues involved, including anticipated friction between the two ethnic groups. They also met in Prishtina with UN Special Representative and UNMIK head Harri Holkeri.
On his return to Tbilisi, Georgian Minister for Special Assignments Malkhaz Kakabadze, who is the Georgian government's point man for Abkhazia and who was one of the three Georgians to travel to the Balkans, gave a positive assessment of the fact-finding trip to the daily "Tribuna" on 22 October. He added that he believes that unspecified conflict resolution models implemented in the Balkans could be successfully applied to the Abkhaz conflict. (Liz Fuller)
AZERBAIJANI JOURNALISTS ASSESS THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION CAMPAIGN. The heads of two organizations representing Azerbaijani journalists, Yeni Nesil chairman Arif Aliyev and Press Council head Aflatun Amashov, have both offered subdued assessments of how Azerbaijan's media covered the recent presidential election campaign and the crackdown that followed.
Aliyev told the Russian-language paper "Zerkalo" on 18 October that the level of coverage of the preelection campaign was noticeably lower than during previous elections. But, at the same time, he made the point that journalists' access to information was more restricted and that never before have journalists been subjected to such violence as during the recent ballot. He added that whereas in the past journalists have regularly been assaulted by police and representatives of local authorities, now they are frequently targeted by men in civilian clothes whose official status is unclear.
On 23 October, Amashov chaired a session of the Press Council that focused on two issues: how the media are coping with their obligation to keep society informed of developments, and how the authorities respect freedom of the media, Turan reported. Participants concluded that neither group performed adequately. Amashov admitted that journalists were divided into rival camps (pro-government and opposition), each of which promoted its own candidate while vilifying those of the opposing camp. At the same time, he said, the authorities did not create the necessary conditions to guarantee media freedom but, on the contrary, resorted to violence and repression against journalists. (Liz Fuller)
ARMENIAN OPPOSITION MOVES TO BLOCK EARLY RELEASE OF PARLIAMENT GUNMEN. The opposition Artarutiun alliance put forward on 23 October legal amendments that would deny the five perpetrators of the 1999 massacre in the Armenian parliament, widely expected to get life imprisonment, the right to eventual parole. Meanwhile, the protracted trial of the gunmen entered its final phase, with state prosecutors beginning their concluding speeches in court.
Artarutiun's initiative comes after its leaders' failure to leave a loophole in Armenia's new criminal code that would allow death sentences against ringleader Nairi Hunanian and his four henchmen. The code fully and unconditionally abolished the death penalty in times of peace. It also stipulates that all prisoners serving life sentences will be eligible for parole after spending at least 20 years in jail.
The opposition bloc wants to make sure that those who assassinated Prime Minister Vazgen Sargsian, parliament speaker Karen Demirchian, and six other officials in the shock October 1999 raid spend the rest of their lives in prison. One of its top lawmakers, Victor Dallakian, called for an emergency session of the National Assembly to debate and pass corresponding amendments to the code. "The 27 October criminals must be subjected to strict punishment," Dallakian said. "Those political forces that will not support this initiative will be considered to be sponsoring the terrorists."
The opposition led by Demirchian's son, Stepan, has already leveled similar accusations against President Robert Kocharian. In a statement read out to thousands of opposition supporters last week, Artarutiun charged that Kocharian had a role in the parliament killings and held on to power thanks to them.
The statement was triggered by the course of the Hunanian gang's ongoing trial, the presiding judge of which has rejected many petitions made by lawyers of the Sargsian and Demirchian families in recent months. They were particularly furious with his decision last August not to question more than 100 witnesses of the massacre.
One of the trial prosecutors, Gagik Avetisian, insisted on 23 October that the pretrial investigation and court proceedings, which began in February 2001, have followed the due process of law. Avetisian said the investigators have done their best to clear up all circumstances of the unprecedented crime as he started making the prosecution's case.
He assured the victims' relatives that law-enforcement authorities continue to believe that the armed group acted on the orders of more powerful forces. He pointed to a separate ongoing inquiry aimed at identifying and tracking down the presumed masterminds. But that probe has not yet yielded any results, prompting allegations that it is a smokescreen for covering up the crime.
Those claims were reiterated by Ashot Sarkisian, the Demirchian family's attorney who walked out of the trial last month in protest. But he was back in the courtroom on 23 October, telling RFE/RL that he will attend the trial's concluding stage, which involves speeches by prosecutors and other parties.
Hunanian, who insists that he acted alone, is expected to deliver a lengthy monologue. At the previous court session on 21 October, Hunanian publicized a 20 September letter to Kocharian in which he demanded that the Armenian president ensure his acquittal, claiming that the parliament shootings helped the latter stay in power and that most Armenians approve of the gunmen's actions.
"On the one hand, you were my and others' guarantor before the people," he wrote. "On the other hand, you had my support and protection." Hunanian went on to warn that failure to protect him against "false accusations" could lead to Kocharian's downfall. "That foundation may crumble at any moment," he said ambiguously. "And you may find yourself under the rubble." Hunanian further demanded that Kocharian, Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, and the former chief of the presidential staff, Aleksan Harutiunian, be summoned to the court for questioning. That request was rejected by Judge Samvel Uzunian.
Kocharian's political opponents are bound to seize on Hunanian's claims. The Demirchian and Sargsian lawyers have long demanded that the authorities publicize details of Kocharian's late night tete-a-tete negotiations with Hunanian in 1999 which resulted in the gunmen's surrender the next morning. Kocharian only briefly mentioned them in his pretrial written testimony. (Armen Zakarian and Karine Kalantarian)
EX-MAYOR CALLS FOR ELECTED ADMINISTRATION IN YEREVAN. Robert Nazarian, the former mayor of Yerevan, made a strong case on 21 October for an elected municipality in the Armenian capital, saying that its presidentially appointed heads are too weak to enforce good governance. "As long as Yerevan has no elected mayors, I'm afraid that achieving serious successes in its dynamic developments will not be possible," he said at his first news conference since his sacking in July.
Nazarian claimed that he himself asked President Kocharian to relieve him of his duties after realizing that he is unable to run the city properly. "Looking back at those two and a half years, I made a firm decision not to continue to work as mayor of Yerevan," he said. Nazarian's dismissal was widely attributed to the results of the May parliamentary elections in which a pro-Kocharian bloc headed by him fared poorly, failing to win any seats in the National Assembly. Shortly afterwards he was named to head a state body regulating public utilities and other "natural monopolies" such as the ArmenTel operator.
The ex-mayor was widely criticized for the dramatic spread of street cafes that now occupy most public parks in the city center. The process has been accompanied by the shrinkage of environmentally important green areas, with some cafe owners chopping down old trees to make room for their businesses. Many of those businesses are owned by ministers and other influential government officials who are believed to have used their position to clinch lucrative land allocations from the municipality. Nazarian implied that he was powerless to resist orders from above. He also said that almost all cafe owners flouted their license terms by occupying more land than was allocated to them and constructing illegal premises on it. "I can be blamed for not fighting against those illegalities," he admitted. "Yes, I failed to do that."
Under the constitution adopted in 1995 under former President Levon Ter-Petrossian, Yerevan is the only urban community in the country that has no elected mayor. Some analysts believe that Ter-Petrossian feared that an official elected by at least one-third of the country's population could be in a strong position to challenge his rule.
There have been numerous calls for the abolition of that anomaly in recent years, but Kocharian opposes doing so. His package of draft amendments to the constitution put on a referendum in May did not envisage any changes in the formation of the Yerevan municipal administration. (Shakeh Avoyan)
QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "Azerbaijan is going through its most serious human rights crisis of the past decade.... If this crackdown continues, there won't be an opposition left in Azerbaijan by the end of the month." -- Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch's senior emergencies researcher, in a HRW press release on 22 October.
"The democratic West is ready to shut its eyes to much of what happens in countries like Azerbaijan. But freedom of speech for the West today is something akin to a sacred cow in India. It can't be touched. This is the one thing [the West] will not forgive." -- Online Azerbaijani newspaper zerkalo.az on 22 October.
"The most recent developments have shown that the level of hostility in society is very high. This cannot lead to anything good." -- Opposition Azerbaijan National Independence Party Chairman and defeated presidential candidate Etibar Mammedov, quoted by zerkalo.az on 23 October.
"I don't understand why Kadyrov's election as [Chechen] president is considered a step towards a political solution of the conflict. What does it change?" -- Former Ingush President Ruslan Aushev, in an interview published in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 23 October.
"I think [terrorism] should be fought in utero, before it gets out. When it does get out, it gets out with its wings unfolded and with horns. That's when we begin fighting it. It's better to fight it in utero." -- Chechen President Akhmad-hadji Kadyrov, quoted in "Izvestiya" on 21 October.