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Caucasus Report: November 12, 2003

12 November 2003, Volume 6, Number 40

CHESS, POKER, OR ROULETTE? In the wake of the disputed 2 November parliamentary elections, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze is struggling to prevent control of the legislature passing into the hands of the Georgian opposition who, he alleges, will "devastate and destroy everything." Whether he succeeds in doing so will depend primarily on the tactical and strategic skills of both parties, and the cohesion of the various interest groups currently backing them.

As during the 1999 parliamentary election, the 2 November ballot was marred by widespread reports of ballot-box stuffing and multiple voting, and by the omission, whether deliberate or as the result of incompetence, from electoral rolls of up to10 percent of eligible voters, while the names of numerous persons who are deceased remained on the rolls. In addition, two separate sets of exit polls differed significantly from the initial results made public by the Central Election Commission on 3 November.

With some 12 percent of the vote counted, the pro-presidential For a New Georgia (AS) bloc had polled 27.8 percent of the vote, followed by Mikhail Saakashvili's National Movement (23.1 percent), the Labor Party (16.1 percent), the Burdjanadze-Democrats bloc (9.5 percent), and the New Rightists (8 percent), Caucasus Press and ITAR-TASS reported on 3 November. But according to exit polls conducted at the request of the independent television station Rustavi-2, Saakashvili's National Movement (EM) won the election with 20.8 percent of the vote, followed by AS (12.9 percent), Labor (12.8 percent), the Burdjanadze-Democrats bloc (7.6 percent), Adjar Supreme Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze's Democratic Revival Union (6.2 percent), the New Rightists (6 percent), and Industry will Save Georgia (2 percent). A second set of exit polls conducted at 400 polling stations by the NGO Fair Elections showed the EM-Saakashvili in the lead with 26.6 percent, followed by AS (20 percent), Labor (17.37 percent), Burdjanadze-Democrats (10.15 percent), the Democratic Revival Union (8.13 percent) the New Rightists (7.99 percent), and Industry Will Save Georgia (5.20 percent).

The discrepancy between the exit polls and the preliminary data released by the Central Election Commission impelled the opposition EM-Saakashvili bloc to demand that the Georgian authorities acknowledge it as the winner of the ballot. On 4 November, the EM-Saakashvili bloc, the Burdjanadze-Democrats bloc and the opposition Ertoba bloc headed by Djumber Patiashvili (who succeeded Shevardnadze in 1985 as first secretary of the Communist Party of Georgia and ran unsuccessfully against him in the 1995 and 2000 presidential elections) announced the formation of a Resistance Front, the stated aim of which was to mobilize popular protest against the alleged falsification of the election results and to force the resignation of Shevardnadze and the government.

Within days, however, Patiashvili, whose bloc apparently failed to surmount the 7 percent minimum required to win parliamentary representation under the proportional system, withdrew from the front, accusing the Burdjanadze-Democrats bloc on 6 November of engaging in secret talks with the authorities on how to divide up parliament mandates. And on 7 November, Patiashvili filed a lawsuit calling for the annulment of the election results.

As of 7 November, the three main protagonists were pursuing widely diverging objectives. Shevardnadze and his supporters are seeking to persuade the opposition, the Georgian population, and the international community that the 2 November ballot was, as Shevardnadze claimed on 3 November, the most fair and transparent since Georgia became independent in late 1991. Acceptance of that argument, and of the updated official results that would give the AS and the Democratic Revival Union (DAK) together over 40 percent of the 150 mandates distributed under the party-list system, would enable those two parties to claim the right of selecting the parliament speaker, on to whom the presidential duties devolve should Shevardnadze, who is 75, die in office or become incapacitated.

Both main opposition formations -- Saakashvili's EM and the Burdjanadze-Democrats bloc -- insist that Shevardnadze and the government must resign. But in one further key respect their objectives differ. While Saakashvili continues to insist that the authorities recognize his bloc as the winner of the ballot, the Burdjanadze-Democrats bloc on 7 November announced that it does not acknowledge the official preliminary election results and wants the election returns invalidated and a new ballot scheduled.

Just as the protagonists' objectives diverge, so the approach they have adopted to achieving those objective also differs. Shevardnadze, whose mastery of both tactics and strategy derives from decades of experience at various levels of the Soviet Communist Party apparatus, has apparently opted for the strategy of insisting that the election returns were democratic, and that to cede power to the opposition would be to risk plunging the country into a repeat of the civil confrontations that precipitated the ouster of President Zviad Gamsakhurdia in December 1991, and followed Georgia's retreat from Abkhazia in the fall of 1993.

At the same time, Shevardnadze continues to affirm his readiness for talks with the opposition on their grievances, even after the first such meeting with Nino Burdjanadze, Zurab Zhvania, and Saakashvili on the evening of 9 November reportedly degenerated into a heated exchange between the latter and the president. (During those talks, Shevardnadze incurred the anger of his interlocutors by disclaiming any knowledge of falsification of the ballot and by rejecting demands that he pronounce the election results invalid. He argued that doing so does not lie within his powers, but is the prerogative of the Central Election Commission and the Constitutional Court.)

According to the daily "24 saati" on 11 November, the Georgian leadership is banking on being able to contain the level of popular protest, if necessary by preventing demonstrators converging on Tbilisi, in the hope that sooner or later, the population will decide that further protests are futile. That assumption may have been prompted by the relatively modest attendance -- under 10,000 -- at the first post-election protests last week.

In addition, Shevardnadze strengthened his position by securing the support of Adjar leader Aslan Abashidze, who on 10 November echoed Shevardnadze's warnings that "one cannot allow political intriguers to plunge the country into chaos and anarchy," according to ITAR-TASS. And the presidential press service released on 10 November a summary of a telephone conversation the previous day between Shevardnadze and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, during which Putin reportedly expressed concern at the standoff in Georgia and praised Shevardnadze's "courageous and just" attempts to defuse tensions.

Shevardnadze has, in short, demonstrated both the strategic vision of a chess player and the steel nerve of a poker player waiting for his opponent to blink first. Saakashvili, by contrast, is a tactician. Emotional, volatile, and inconsistent, he asserts one minute that he will use exclusively peaceful means to pressure Shevardnadze and his government to quit, and the next that he will call on his supporters to storm the state chancellery, and that Shevardnadze risks the same fate as befell Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu (who was summarily executed without a trial on 25 December 1989). "If Shevardnadze wants a revolution, he will get one," dpa quoted Saakashvili as saying on 5 November. And on 9 November, Saakashvili warned that "if Shevardnadze leaves Tbilisi, we shall see to it that he never returns," the same German agency reported.

Such populist rhetoric may play well with impoverished citizens of Tbilisi who blame Shevardnadze and his clique for the country's economic collapse, but it risks undercutting support among the international community for the opposition's collective complaints that the outcome of the ballot was massively rigged to ensure a victory for AS. So, too, does Saakashvili's 10 November call for mass civil disobedience.

Burdjanadze and Zhvania have been consistently more circumspect in their public pronouncements than has Saakashvili. Burdjanadze has repeatedly stressed over the past 10 days that her supporters will act within the framework of the law, using "only legal and peaceful means" to defend their rights. But her bloc's alignment with Saakashvili may prove a liability, especially if the standoff between the opposition supporters and security forces turns violent. And if Shevardnadze were to step down, the conflicting agendas of the two blocs could trigger a power struggle between them, a possibility of which the international community cannot fail to be aware.

Moreover, the two main opposition factions now seem to be divided over tactics as well as objectives. Saakashvili said after walking out of the 9 November talks with Shevardnadze that he has "burned all bridges." Interfax quoted him as saying that "there is no point" in further talks with the president. Burdjanadze on the other hand affirmed on 10 November that "we are ready for the continuation of dialogue.... I still believe that we can maintain the form of dialogue and exchange of opinions because we have to find a way out of this crisis," RFE/RL's Georgian Service reported. But all three opposition leaders appear to be adapting their tactics as the situation develops, and thus to be dependent on factors that they do not, or do not completely, control. Those factors range from Shevardnadze's own moves, to the reaction of the international community to the opposition demand for new elections, to the level of determination of their supporters to remain encamped outside the parliament building in rain and cold. In that respect, the opposition tactics are closer to poker, or even to roulette, than to chess.

There remain, however, other imponderable factors that may influence the course of events in favor of either Shevardnadze or his opposition opponents. The opposition Labor Party, which according to both official results and exit polls garnered some 12 percent-15 percent of the vote, has declined to join the Resistance Front, whose leaders Labor Chairman Shalva Natelashvili accused on 8 November of conniving with the government to redistribute parliament mandates. On 10 November, Labor, the Tbilisi branch of the DAK, and the Industry Will Save Georgia bloc announced that they plan to form a second opposition alignment as a counterweight to the Saakashvili-Burdjanadze-Zhvania alignment. Whether DAK Chairman Abashidze's 10 November expression of support for Shevardnadze has torpedoed that plan, or whether Tsotne Bakuria, head of the DAK Tbilisi branch, is acting independently and in defiance of Abashidze, is not yet clear. Bakuria also said on 10 November that the government should not under any circumstances either agree to allocate votes cast for DAK to the Resistance Front parties, or make any other concessions to the opposition, Caucasus Press reported. That statement raises the question whether a commitment by Shevardnadze not to make such concessions was the price that Abashidze exacted for his backing of AS.

Finally, there are indications of a possible split within the pro-Shevardnadze AS bloc. AS spokeswoman Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia accused unnamed fellow AS members on 6 November of seeking to cut a clandestine deal with the Burdjanadze-Democrats bloc, and threatened to quit her post in protest. The following day, AS deputy head and Socialist Party leader Vakhtang Rcheulishvili confirmed to the independent television station Rustavi-2 that a rift has emerged within AS and that some of its members were negotiating with the opposition. (Liz Fuller)

ARMENIAN, GEORGIAN PRESIDENTS DISCUSS POST-ELECTION TURMOIL. President Robert Kocharian telephoned his embattled Georgian counterpart Eduard Shevardnadze on 11 November to discuss mounting tensions in Georgia in the wake of the 2 November parliamentary elections. Kocharian assured Shevardnadze that Armenia is keenly interested in political stability in its sole Christian neighbor and expressed the hope that the situation "will stabilize as soon as possible."

Street protests continued in Tbilisi on 11 November against the official results of the parliamentary elections which the Georgian opposition claims were rigged in favor of Shevardnadze's loyalists. Shevardnadze, for his part, accused his radical opponents the previous day of plotting a coup following his defense minister's warning that the political situation in the country is "practically out of control."

Landlocked Armenia has always closely watched internal political developments in Georgia, a country that has served as its main conduit to the outside world since the collapse of the USSR and the onset of the Nagorno-Karabakh war. Secessionist conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia coupled with political turmoil in Tbilisi in the early 1990s had aggravated the crippling effects of the Azerbaijani and Turkish blockades imposed on Armenia.

Georgia is also home to a substantial ethnic Armenian minority which makes up at least 10 percent of its population. A large part of it lives in the restive Djavakheti region bordering on Armenia and Turkey. Djavakheti has long been seen as another potential source of internal strife given its predominantly Armenian and impoverished population's long-standing grievances against the government in Tbilisi. The pro-Shevardnadze For a New Georgia bloc made its strongest showing in Djavakheti's Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda districts and the Kvemo-Kartli region in eastern Georgian mainly populated by ethnic Azerbaijanis. Official figures showed it grabbing almost 54 percent of the vote in Akhalkalaki and as much as 82 percent in Ninotsminda.

Mikhail Saakashvili, leader of the opposition National Movement that claims to have won the ballot, has charged that vote rigging in Djavakheti and Kvemo-Kartli was even more widespread and systematic than in most other parts of the country. Some local Armenian activists agree with this assertion. David Restakian, leader of the Akhalkalaki-based Virk party, which stands for greater autonomy for the region, said that although the 2 November vote was cleaner than the previous ones, local authorities again heavily relied on state resources and overt fraud to ensure the Shevardnadze bloc's victory. A-Info, a local news agency, reported this week that an Armenian villager was briefly detained by local police for publicly insulting Shevardnadze on polling day.

Speaking to RFE/RL from Akhalkalaki, Restakian claimed that widespread cynicism and apathy among local Armenians facilitated vote manipulation. "People don't expect anything from the main Georgian parties," he said. "These elections have once again showed that Georgia needs an officially registered party representing its ethnic minorities. It would definitely get 20 to 25 percent of votes."

Virk has for years been denied registration by the central Georgian government on the grounds that Georgian law does not provide for the existence of regional parties. But its leaders say that they also have many followers in Tbilisi and other Armenian-populated areas.

In the run-up to the elections, Virk and a number of other Armenian groups in Akhalkalaki, Ninotsminda, and the neighboring Tsalka district urged their supporters to vote for the opposition Ertoba bloc led by former Communist Party First Secretary Djumber Patiashvili. They say that of all Tbilisi-based politicians, only Patiashvili pays sufficient attention to the Armenians' socioeconomic woes and cultural needs.

Still, Ertoba got only 9 percent in Djavakheti and failed to clear the 7 percent nationwide threshold for entering the parliament under the system of proportional representation which covers roughly two-thirds of all legislative seats. The remaining seats were contested in individual single-mandate constituencies. Three Armenian candidates were elected to the parliament on that basis from Akhalkalaki, Ninotsminda, and Tsalka.

"I consider myself a sincere friend of the Armenian people and am against any comment, opinion, or statement that can be deemed anti-Armenian," Patiashvili told A-Info on 8 November.

He was responding to claims by Socialist Party leader Vakhtang Rcheulishvili, one of the co-leaders of the For a New Georgia bloc, that Saakashvili, together with parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze and her predecessor Zurab Zhvania, are trying to engineer an "Armenian revolution" through their anti-Shevardnadze demonstrations. Rcheulishvili apparently alluded to the opposition trio's reported ethnic Armenian roots which their rivals often present as a big disadvantage.

"I don't see anything Armenian in them," Restakian said, for his part. "As far as our problems are concerned, they are no different from other Georgian leaders." (Emil Danielyan)

ARMENIAN PARLIAMENT SPEAKER SLAMS GOVERNMENT POLICIES. Parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian risked fresh accusations of demagoguery and populism over the weekend as he subjected to scathing criticism the economic policies of the government in which his Orinats Yerkir Party is a junior coalition partner. Baghdasarian claimed that official macroeconomic statistics are not credible and accused the authorities of tolerating widespread corruption. The allegations, which could stoke tensions within the ruling coalition, were immediately rebutted by Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, who questioned the Orinats Yerkir leader's knowledge of economics.

"The Orinats Yerkir Party's view is that the economic policy pursued by the government of the Republic of Armenia over the past decade was declared reformist, but in terms of practical results has not followed the logic of reforms," Baghdasarian told a congress of his party on 8 November that was apparently timed to coincide with his 35th birthday. "It is obvious that in certain cases government levers were used for establishing clan monopolies on lucrative sectors [of the economy]," he said.

"Orinats Yerkir also believes that the macroeconomic stability shown by official statistics does not correspond to reality because the plight of the vast majority of the population remains dire," he added, referring to record-high rates of economic growth cited by the authorities in recent years.

Official figures for the first nine months of this year, personally cited by President Robert Kocharian, show the Armenian economy growing by a staggering 15 percent on the back of an almost 13 percent surge registered last year. Together with low inflation and budget deficit also achieved in Armenia, the growth rates fit into the definition of macroeconomic stability.

Markarian, whose Republican Party (HHK) is the senior partner in the coalition of three pro-Kocharian parties, defended the credibility of those figures. "Our macroeconomic indicators do correspond to reality," he told reporters after hearing the speaker's speech. He said Baghdasarian's complaints relate to the country's "microeconomic" environment which still leaves much to be desired.

Markarian also dismissed Baghdasarian's claims that the government is taking "no practical steps" to combat corruption and boost the rule of law. "He did not say anything new," the prime minister said. "The Republican Party and the government have long talked about that. We are the ones who initiated the anticorruption program two years ago."

That program was formally adopted by the cabinet last week after being endorsed by all three governing parties, including Orinats Yerkir. That party's two ministers are also not known to have voiced any objections to the government's recently unveiled poverty-reduction program which calls for the continuation of economic policies pursued so far.

Baghdasarian has long been accused of using populist rhetoric to further his political agenda. Those accusations intensified after his party formed the second-largest faction in the Armenian parliament as a result of the disputed 25 May elections. Many observers attributed Orinats Yerkir's strong showing to its harsh verbal attacks on the Republicans, who have been in government for the past four years. The HHK reportedly agreed to elect Baghdasarian parliament speaker and admit his party into the cabinet only after strong pressure from Kocharian (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 9 June 2003).

Baghdasarian's high-profile activities in his new capacity have been one of the sources of persisting friction within the coalition. Markarian, however, claimed that he is untroubled by them and wants to continue to cooperate with Orinats Yerkir. "If they had not been in government, they would have criticized us even more strongly," he said.

Markarian went on to make six more deputy ministerial appointments on 10 November resulting from a power-sharing deal agreed by the three parties last month. Three of the new deputy ministers represent Dashnaktsutiun and will deal with transport, the environment, and education. Two others, including a 27-year-old woman, are affiliated with the HHK. Only one appointee is a member of Orinats Yerkir.

Baghdasarian on 8 November dismissed speculation that he is already positioning himself for the next presidential election scheduled for 2008. "We have no such ambitions, we should first of all reinforce our positions in government," he said. "That said, any party must always be prepared for an election." (Karine Kalantarian)