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Caucasus Report: December 11, 2003

11 December 2003, Volume 6, Number 43

WHITHER GEORGIA? The three Georgian opposition leaders who spearheaded the mass protests that culminated in the forced resignation of President Eduard Shevardnadze on 23 November have demonstrated laudable cohesion, aligning within days behind a single candidate -- National Movement Chairman Mikhail Saakashvili -- for the 4 January preterm presidential ballot. "The New York Times" quoted Saakashvili on 27 November as saying that "the era of government dominated by one individual is over." But while most observers both in Tbilisi and abroad are inclined to concur with Saakashvili's confident assumption that he will be elected president, the magnitude and complexity of the problems Georgia now faces raise the question of whether Shevardnadze's departure indeed heralds the beginning of an era of political stability and desperately needed economic growth, or whether the country will fall victim to political and territorial fragmentation.

The willingness shown by outgoing parliament speaker and currently acting President Nino Burdjanadze and former parliament speaker Zurab Zhvania to relinquish their own presidential ambitions in order to work together with Saakashvili to rebuild and transform their country is unprecedented in post-Soviet Georgian history. (It is also in marked contrast to developments in Azerbaijan in the runup to the 15 October presidential ballot there.) But it is not altogether surprising if one bears in mind that as successive parliament speakers, first Zhvania and then Burdjanadze had to cope with a fractious parliament that delayed the adoption of important legislation, and by extension the implementation of badly needed reform, through interminable inter-factional bickering.

The initial agreement reached by the "troika" appears to be based on the assumption that Saakashvili will win the pre-term presidential ballot and that the Burdjanadze-Democrats bloc and the Saakashvili-National Movement bloc will between them win a majority in the repeat parliamentary elections, which are tentatively scheduled for 25 January. Such a double victory would enable Zhvania to retain the position of state minister to which Burdjanadze named him on 27 November, while Burdjanadze herself would return to her former post as parliament speaker.

Some would argue that Burdjanadze is temperamentally more suited to the post of president than is the mercurial and inconsistent Saakashvili. "The Guardian" on 26 November quoted an unnamed Georgian official as admitting that Burdjanadze is "calmer" and "more experienced" than the sometimes "hotheaded" Saakashvili. But at the same time, that official pointed out that "the revolution was Saakashvili's and he would accept no compromises. He's what the people want for a president.... Hopefully [Burdjanadze] can maintain a little influence over him."

Even Saakashvili's detractors concede that he is talented and intelligent. Dubbed "Smoothie" by Wendell Steavenson in her stellar "Stories I Stole," Saakashvili is adept at presenting the image that will most appeal to his interlocutor(s) in any given situation. Meeting with foreign diplomats or journalists, he presents his reasonable face as a U.S.-trained lawyer, whereas he adopts a totally different approach when addressing his Georgian supporters. At a 25 November press conference in Tbilisi, Saakashvili admitted he adopts different approaches, arguing that "you cannot speak to a crowd of 75,000 people with the same voice that I'm speaking to you now at a press conference," the "Los Angeles Times" reported on 26 November. But at the same time he rejected charges of populism and demagogy, saying "that I've never ever used either offensive or insulting or in any way menacing language toward anybody."

"Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 25 November observed that while some of Saakashvili's statements and actions over the past year in his capacity as head of the Tbilisi City Council "smacked of cheap populism," he nonetheless delivered on at least some of his promises, raising pensions, distributing free school textbooks, and arranging for the long overdue repair of leaking roofs.

But some of Saakashvili's statements over the past two weeks -- such as his assertion that his most dangerous rivals in the upcoming presidential ballot are "time and those who want to destroy Georgia" -- nonetheless tend to substantiate the (possibly mistaken) impression that he seeks confrontation rather than consensus, and that his credo is "he who is not with us is against us," rather than "he who is not against us is with us." Saakashvili seems, in short, to be a man for whom politics is above all a personal challenge to win popular support and channel that support into defeating the enemy of the moment. The name of the movement launched on 8 December to back his presidential candidacy -- Definitive Struggle for Georgia -- reflects that approach.

Similarly disturbing is Saakashvili's inconsistency. Just days after vowing in September 2001 that despite Shevardnadze's rejection of his draft law on confiscating illegally acquired wealth, he would not quit as justice minister, Saakashvili stepped down from that post following a burglary in which thieves stole computer discs from his apartment, but left cash and other valuables behind (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 8 October 2001). He then successfully contested a parliament by-election. "The Economist" on 28 November suggested that Saakashvili is someone "who quickly gets bored."

Two prominent Georgian political figures -- Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia, former spokeswoman of the pro-Shevardnadze For A New Georgia election bloc, and former State Security Minister Igor Giorgadze, who hopes to register to run against Saakashvili in the upcoming presidential ballot -- have separately suggested that the other two members of the troika are aware that Saakashvili could prove a wild card at best and at worst a liability, and that they might arrange to have him physically liquidated. Zhvania has, predictably, rejected such suggestions as "absurd," Caucasus Press reported on 6 December.

Barring a political assassination or similar attempt at major destabilization (a scenario that security officials have declined to rule out), the cohesion of the new leadership will depend in the short term on the outcome of the presidential ballot. Assuming that Giorgadze is barred from registering because of his imputed involvement in the August 1995 car bomb attack on Shevardnadze, the only serious challenger to Saakashvili is former Imereti governor Temur Shashiashvili. It is not yet clear whether Shashiashvili is seeking, or would accept, the backing of any of the political groupings that oppose the new leadership.

Nor is it clear whether those politicians, including Adjar State Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze and Labor Party leader Shalva Natelashvili, who have said they will boycott the presidential election might call upon their supporters throughout Georgia not to cast their ballots. While Saakashvili needs only 50 percent plus one of all votes cast for a first-round victory, low voter turnout, and/or an unusually large percentage of ballots marked "Against All," could cast doubts on his claim to enjoy mass popular support. (It should be remembered that exit polls gave Saakashvili's bloc between 20-28 percent of the vote on 2 November, while the Burdjanadze-Democrats garnered between 8-16 percent.) Acknowledging the possibility that voter turnout may be low, acting parliament speaker Gigi Tsereteli has proposed holding a lottery for voters, in which the prize would either be an autographed photo of Saakashvili or possibly a sum of money, according to "Alia" on 9 December.

The second major hurdle for the new leadership will be the repeat parliamentary elections, the date of which remains unclear. Meeting on 2 December, the parliament elected in 1999 scheduled the vote for 25 January, but at the same time granted Burdjanadze the option of postponing it. A delay, however, especially if Russia cuts electricity supplies to Georgia in mid-winter, could undercut the popular support on which the three leaders currently believe they can count. It would also give the disparate forces that oppose the new leadership more time to regroup; whether they will emulate the troika and form a single election bloc remains an open question, however. The parliamentary elections will entail only voting for the 150 parliament mandates distributed according to the party-list vote; the Constitutional Court validated the results in the majority of the 75 single-mandate districts; repeat voting will be held in the others on 4 January.

The final date of the parliamentary elections may depend on whether and what kind of compromise the new leadership can strike with Adjar leader Abashidze. The official results of the 2 November parliamentary ballot placed Abashidze's Democratic Revival Union in second place after the pro-Shevardnadze For A New Georgia bloc, with 18.84 percent, a figure that international monitors said was based on massive falsification. Abashidze on 24 November condemned Shevardnadze's forced resignation and denounced the new leadership as illegitimate. He has since said voting in the 4 January ballot will not take place in Adjaria, and called for both the presidential and parliamentary ballots to be postponed for six months. Burdjanadze was scheduled to travel to Batumi on 10 December for talks with Abashidze, who announced on 9 December that if Saakashvili is elected president, a referendum of confidence in him will be held in Adjaria.

Meanwhile, the new leaders have to contend with low-level destabilization (bomb scares in Tbilisi several times a day), and with the huge budget deficit bequeathed by the outgoing government. (Liz Fuller)

ARMENIA'S MINORITIES EXPRESS THEIR DISCONTENT. In the frankest public expression of their grievances to date, leaders of Armenia's small ethnic minorities recently deplored their status, saying that they are not represented in the country's government, which they accused of neglecting their interests. Representatives of organizations uniting Yezidi Kurds, Greeks, Russians, Jews, and other ethnic groups vented their frustration on a pro-government parliamentarian who stated that non-Armenians should not expect "greenhouse conditions" in Armenia.

That remark, made at a 27 November Yerevan seminar on problems facing the minorities, angered the participants. "We don't need to live in a greenhouse," said a leader of the Yezidi community. "This is a humiliating and offensive attitude toward us," charged Rimma Varzhapetian of the tiny Jewish community. "We are not asking for anything and have no expectations."

The seminar, sponsored by the Council of Europe, proceeded with little debate until a parliament deputy from the governing Republican Party (HHK), Vazgen Khachikian, said that the Armenian authorities should not reserve any legislative seats for the ethnic minorities that make up less than 3 percent of the country's population. The idea has been advocated in the past by some of their leaders. "Let them get elected like Armenians under the proportional and majoritarian systems," Khachikian said.

Hasan Hasanian, a Yezidi leader, countered angrily that Armenia's electoral system is deeply flawed. "We know that we will never get any seats in the National Assembly because such elections [take place] and such presidents are being elected," he said, hinting at Armenia's political culture of electoral fraud.

Khachikian's remarks prompted Hasanian and other minority leaders to express their broader unhappiness with the protection of cultural and religious rights of their nationalities in Armenia. Varzhapetian, for example, complained that the authorities are refusing to return to the Jewish community two plots of land in Yerevan and the town of Sevan that were the site of synagogues torn down by the Soviet authorities in the 1930s. She said the Jewish community, which numbers several hundred people, would like to rebuild those synagogues on the original sites.

A representative of Armenia's Greek minority cited similar problems, saying that the authorities have reneged on their promise to allocate land for the construction of a Greek Orthodox church in Yerevan.

Armenia is believed to be the most ethnically homogenous of the former Soviet republics. Armenians already accounted for almost 90 percent of the population in 1980, before the 1988 outbreak of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict triggered the forced out-migration of its ethnic Azerbaijanis (5 percent of the total population) and an even more massive influx of Armenians from Azerbaijan.

While the remaining minorities rarely report instances of overt discrimination, they often complain about difficulties with receiving education in their native languages. This problem was highlighted in a May 2002 report by a Council of Europe body that monitors protection of national minorities in member countries.

The Armenian cabinet, meanwhile, discussed on 27 November the possibility of creating a department that would deal with minority issues. Some participants of the heated seminar sounded skeptical about the idea. "Who knows what kind of a body that will be?" said Olha Parkhomenko of the Ukrainian community. "Did they consult with us? Did they take our opinion into consideration? We don't know [what their intention is]." (Shakeh Avoyan)

'A GENEROUS SPIRIT AND A FOCUS OF HOPE FOR HIS PEOPLE THROUGH TERRIBLE TIMES.' The Avar poet Rasul Gamzatov died on 3 November, aged 80, in Moscow. He is buried in Tarki, which looks down on the Caspian, beside his beloved wife Patimat Saidovna, founding director of the Museum of Fine Arts of Daghestan, who died two years earlier. They are survived by three daughters, Zarema, Patimat, and Salikhat, and Rasul's brother, Academician Gadji Gamzatov.

Rasul Gamzatov was born on 8 September 1923 in Daghestan's Khunzakh district. His father, Gamzat Tsadasa, whose statue gazes over the center of Makhachkala, was also the national poet of Daghestan, and Rasul grew up in his mountain village, Tsada, at a time when mountaineers being forcibly relocated down to the Caspian coast (or to gulags if they were less fortunate), and literature was strictly controlled. For example, in 1949, when Rasul was studying at the Gorkii Literary Institute in Moscow, the Daghestan State Publishing House was preparing a bizarre volume entitled "Pesni o Staline," Songs about Stalin, in which the national poets of the different ethnic groups of Daghestan, including Rasul's father, were required to undergo the humiliation of vying with each other to hack out metaphors to extol Stalin's greatness in terms of the sun, stars, and so on. Yet then, as today, mountain boys still learnt to sing, play the pandur (guitar), baraban (drums), zurna (horn), to dance on point without blocks, and to wrestle, make puns, and recite non-Russian poetry.

Rasul's early writings included Communist Party work that mocked the mountaineers' traditional life, but he soon disowned the errors of his youthful ways and became a champion of the mountaineers. According to a tribute published by the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting, he similarly expressed regret for criticizing prominent Russian literary figures who had fallen into disfavor with Stalin. "I regret the fact that I let myself be misled," he once said. "I made hasty judgments about things I knew nothing about. I was 23 in 1947, and I did speak at the meeting denouncing [writers Anna] Akhmatova and [Mikhail] Zoshchenko. My father asked me if I had read them. I said no."

His output of more than 15 books included "My Daghestan"; his best loved song was "Cranes" about the souls of dead young soldiers; and his theatre-ballet "Goryanka" (mountain girl) was a Soviet hit. He made several TV documentaries such as "Caucasian from Tsada." He also translated Pushkin, Lermontov, Nekrasov, and Shevchenko, and many others into Avar poetry.

The importance of the survival of Caucasian languages and literature both to local people and world cultural diversity cannot be overestimated. Yet few non-Avars have ever explored the subtleties of Avar poetry. Avar is one of the widest spoken of the dozens of autochthonous Caucasian languages. The Avars are the largest of Daghestan's 31 ethnic groups, accounting for some 600,000 of a total population of 2 million. With 45 consonants including a challenging range of clicks from sweet to guttural and some 23 forms of the gerundive, Avar is a language hewn for poetry. Rasul Gamzatov forever acknowledged his heaven-sent good fortune to have had gifted poet translators -- Yakov Kozlovskii, Naum Grebnev, Robert Rozhdestvenskii, Andrei Voznesenskii, and others -- mainly Jewish, who transformed his work into some of the most-loved Russian poetry of the Soviet era. He recited his work in Avar and Russian. He never found an equally gifted English translator.

With his generous spirit, Rasul was a larger-than-life character always ready to laugh, and to regale his friends, whom he revered, with the customary ample hospitality of Daghestan, accompanied by his masterly witty toasts. I remember his late wife Patimat's twinkling eyes rolling heavenward, as he declaimed his popular couplet, "I love a hundred girls, it's true/ But every one of them is you."

In addition, Gamzatov was an extraordinary high-profile survivor. For many years he was a deputy of the Supreme Soviet of Daghestan, and member of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of USSR and the USSR Council for Peace, complete with Moscow residences. When I first met him some 20 years ago, I wrongly wrote him off as an apparatchik, a professional court jester to the Kremlin, and some one who had accumulated extraordinary, by Soviet standards, material advantages, such as his palatial four story house in Makhachkala. I gradually realized that he was far more clever, and that he doggedly used his political influence to do what he could for his people (not only the Avars but also the other ethnic groups in Daghestan and the Caucasus) in impossible conditions. His house was a show-case for his local Lak architect Abdullayev and the riches of Daghestan material culture within. It became a museum of hope for Daghestan, and I noticed no envy on the part of Rasul's fellow citizens, but rather a popular pride in the visible manifestations of his success.

Gamzatov won an amazing range of literary prizes that included four Lenin prizes and the Imam Shamil medal in 1998. He was widely loved in the USSR and throughout the Soviet sphere of influence, in distant places such as Cuba and Vietnam. His final award, the Orden Andreya Pervozvannogo (St Andrew's Order, founded after Peter the Great's victory at Poltava in 1709 and only ever awarded to 10 others) was presented on his 80th birthday, two months before his death, by President Vladimir Putin. It was a gold enameled chain weighing almost a kilogram. Gamzatov's sense of fun had not deserted him. As a typical Caucasian gesture, he brought Putin a present of eight volumes of his works, and when Putin commented on how beautifully produced they were, Rasul quipped that they were printed in Germany. When I rang him next day I said that I had not noticed before that Putin was a lover of poetry. In fact, as a former leading member of the Union of Soviet Writers, Gamzatov had become an outspoken critic of the literary and other cultural voids that have descended on the Russian Federation over the last decade.

After 1991, Gamzatov retired from active politics and reinvented himself as a television personality with his own regular show. His greatest non-literary legacy is that his influence, good humor, and wisdom likely contributed to Daghestan being the sole Caucasian republic to have avoided an interethnic or civil war. He demonstrated that retired (though not retiring) poets make for a happier place than retired generals. (Robert Chenciner)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "Today the U.S. and Russia are not political opponents. But U.S. policy in the Transcaucasus is of a blatantly anti-Russian character, while America considers any Russian influence in the post-Soviet space as hostile." -- Institute of Political Research Director Sergei Markov, quoted by "Novye izvestiya" on 4 December.

"The Russian leadership increasingly perceives the Western community not as a 'common home' in which Russia could find an appropriate place, but as a source of resources for modernization on the one hand and of geopolitical challenges on the other." -- Dmitrii Trenin, writing in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 8 December.

"Moscow has made it transparently clear that it will not yield up Georgia in its entirety into Washington's embrace, and that no attempt at solving internal Georgian political problems can be undertaken without Russia." -- Georgian politologist Ivliane Khaindrava, quoted by "Vremya novostei" on 10 December.