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Caucasus Report: June 7, 2002

7 June 2002, Volume 5, Number 20

GEORGIAN LOCAL ELECTIONS COMPOUND INTERPARTY TENSIONS. The outcome of the 2 June Georgian local elections is certainly a public slap in the face for President Eduard Shevardnadze. But it is not necessarily a major defeat. True, the pro-Shevardnadze wing of the former ruling Union of Citizens of Georgia (SMK) garnered only 2.56 percent of the vote in Tbilisi, and therefore failed to win a single seat on the municipal council. And on the evening of 2 June, former Justice Minister Mikhail Saakashvili's National Movement-Democratic Forum (EMDP) and former parliament speaker Zurab Zhvania formally announced that they will join forces to push for Shevardnadze's resignation. In addition, a monitoring team from the Council of Europe criticized the ballot as badly organized and marred by "chaos" at polling stations and a "deplorable" failure to provide up-to-date lists of eligible voters. But those observers stopped short of alleging the kind of massive ballot-stuffing that has been the hallmark of elections in neighboring Azerbaijan and was noted during the 1999 Georgian parliamentary elections.

Saakashvili's allegations of massive falsification of the ballot in Tbilisi (where the EMDP was in second place on 6 June with 23.7 percent of the vote behind Shalva Natelashvili's Labor Party with 25.5 percent) are, however, unconvincing insofar as the question automatically arises: which party, other than the SMK, would have had both the motive and the "administrative resources" to engage in such falsification? As Shevardnadze himself commented on 4 June during his weekly radio broadcast, "If the government was involved in the fraud, the Union of Citizens of Georgia would at minimum have managed to pass the 4 percent threshold." Some observers have expressed concern that Saakashvili's charges of massive falsification are simply part of his ongoing campaign to discredit Shevardnadze by any possible means in order to compound popular demands for the president's resignation.

If systematic falsification of the ballot did take place, it is more likely to have occurred in the provinces, where governors appointed by Shevardnadze personally will have had both the incentive and the wherewithal to pressure voters to cast their ballot for the SMK. Last week it was reported that pensioners in the west Georgian district of Chkhorotsku, who had not received their pensions for four months, were being paid if they signed a pledge to vote for the SMK. The final results from the regions will be published only on 12 June.

In challenging the Tbilisi vote outcome, Saakashvili may have imperiled the functioning of the municipal council before its composition has even been finally decided. Late on 4 June, the Central Election Commission (CEC) acceded to the demand of Saakashvili and Zhvania and their allies in parliament for a recount. That decision outraged Labor Party leader Natelashvili, who accused Saakashvili first of trying to "steal" his victory and then of acting in collusion with the president. On 5 June, Natelashvili demanded that representatives of all parties that contested the ballot be present at the recount and that it should be televised live. On 6 June, the CEC reversed its decision to conduct a recount, a reversal which Saakashvili announced he will contest with Georgia's Supreme Court.

Perhaps the most significant long-term consequence of the ballot is that it impelled Zhvania to announce on 6 June that he will quit the floundering SMK and form both his own political party and his own parliament faction, provisionally named Democrats. Zhvania had sought unsuccessfully to register with his supporters to contest the ballot under the SMK name, and ended up running on the list of the Christian Conservative Party (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 5, No. 19, 31 May 2002). That group won a modest 7 percent of the vote in Tbilisi.

The Democrats parliament faction will reportedly have 20-25 members, which would make it the largest (the SMK faction had 36 members as of 29 May, according to Saakashvili's faction currently numbers 10 deputies, and the Union of Traditionalists, which Zhvania named as a potential ally, has 13. The "rump" SMK may now realign either with the center-left Alliance for a New Georgia, whose 18 deputies quit the SMK last fall but stressed at the time that they would continue to support the president, and/or with the Tanadgoma (Support), which also numbers 18 deputies and similarly supports Shevardnadze (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 33, 8 October 2001).

Besides the SMK, the second major loser in the ballot were the New Rightists, who placed third with some 11 percent in Tbilisi. That party, whose support base is the business community and the middle class, has 18 parliament deputies and could seek to forge an alliance with the Industrialists (14 deputies).

A situation therefore appears to be taking shape in which the president controls the central government and can rely on the loyalty of the regional governors whom he appointed. But the powers of some of the latter may be circumscribed if opposition parties win control of municipal councils in important towns in the regions, especially Rustavi and Zugdidi (where the elections failed to take place), and Kutaisi in western Georgia. At present, it is not clear whether any group will be able to cobble together an overall majority in the 225-seat parliament. (Liz Fuller)

HAS NEW IMPEACHMENT BID UNNERVED ARMENIAN PRESIDENT? The unanticipated bid by six opposition parliament deputies to make use of a loophole in the new parliament statutes to force a debate on impeaching President Robert Kocharian (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 and 31 May and 3 June 2002) has triggered widespread speculation in the Armenian press that support for Kocharian within the government and the Republican Party headed by Prime Minister Andranik Markarian may be crumbling.

"Haykakan zhamanak," which is sympathetic to former President Levon Ter-Petrossian and his supporters, suggested on 31 May that Markarian (who last month celebrated two years in office) anticipates an attempt by Kocharian to fire him this fall, and for that reason is prepared to acquiesce to the opposition's impeachment demand on the assumption that an embattled Kocharian would then be forced to solicit his support. The same paper reported the following day that the 28 May cabinet session took place in an "extremely tense atmosphere," and that Kocharian made "uncharacteristically harsh" comments about some ministers, but declined to name them. Assuming that report is true, however, it would not be the first time that Kocharian has engaged in such criticism.

Noyan Tapan's veteran commentator David Petrosian suggested on 3 June that Markarian may be to a certain degree irrelevant insofar as his duties are largely ceremonial, and the "key" ministries (Defense, Justice, Internal Affairs, National Security, Transport and Communications, and Foreign Affairs) are outside his control.

But "Iravunk" on 31 May suggested that tensions have emerged between Kocharian and at least one of those key ministers. It observed that the rapport between the president and Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, who is widely acknowledged to be the second most powerful man in Armenia (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, No. 27, 27 July 2000, Vol. 4, No. 32, 24 September 2001), and Vol. 5, No. 16, 10 May 2002), "is not exactly honeymoon-like at present." "Orran" on 4 June observes that Sarkisian's support could prove crucial to Kocharian's bid for re-election in the spring of 2003, in that he could order military personnel to cast their ballots for the incumbent -- or for a rival candidate. (Liz Fuller)

CHECHEN RECRUITS NOT WELCOME IN RUSSIAN ARMY. In February 2001, the presidential envoy to the South Russia Federal District, Viktor Kazantsev, ordered Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov to prepare the necessary paperwork to enable young Chechen males to be drafted into the Russian army where, Kazantsev specified, they were to serve as railway troops or in construction units. Draftees from the Muslim regions of the former USSR traditionally served not in combat units but in construction brigades: the outstanding military careers of Djokhar Dudaev and Aslan Maskhadov were very much the exception rather than the rule.

The first intake of 100 young Chechen men was duly inducted two months later, and a further 500 in the fall of 2001. But that exercise has reportedly not been a total success. "Gazeta" on 20 March reported that Russian Army Chief of General Staff General Anatolii Kvashnin had ordered the disbanding of a sports company consisting of 63 Chechen recruits attached to the 27th Motorized Infantry Brigade based near Moscow. The reason for that decision, according to the paper, was that Russian servicemen of the brigade who had served in Chechnya were hostile to the Chechen recruits, while officers' wives expressed concern for the safety and honor of their daughters.

But an article in "Izvestiya" on 29 May paints a more positive picture. That article quotes a colonel in the Railway troops as characterizing his 100 Chechen recruits as "good lads" who are "willing to serve." The article also provides interesting (if not 100 percent reliable) statistical data: only 49 of the Chechens had completed secondary school, and 83 of them had not learned any profession; 97 were said to have a "positive" attitude to military service (it does, after all, provide a roof over one's head and regular meals, a luxury that by no means all Chechens enjoy); 64 approved of the war in Chechnya, while the remainder were ambivalent; 49 said they were ready to fight against their fellow Chechens, while six said they would not, and the remainder were ambivalent.

Despite their stated willingness to serve in the Russian "antiterrorism" campaign, Chechen recruits are still regarded as untrustworthy and to be segregated from Russian servicemen.

On 6 May, Kadyrov announced on Chechen television that in future draftees from Chechnya will serve in their home republic. (Liz Fuller)

DO SOME AZERBAIJANI OFFICIALS SECRETLY SUPPORT THE PKK? Over the past month, Azerbaijani opposition newspapers, primarily the outspoken "Yeni Musavat," have repeatedly claimed that some senior Azerbaijani officials are sympathetic to, or even provide support for, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which, the paper claims, has bases on Azerbaijani territory. Among the officials named in this connection are senior members of the Sumgait municipal council and Baylar Eyyubov, who heads President Heidar Aliev's personal security service and is said to be of Kurdish origin.

Those press articles have prompted several opposition parties to demand that law enforcement agencies take action against the alleged PKK presence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 May 2002), and that the Azerbaijani parliament formally declare the PKK a terrorist organization. The parliament has addressed the issue twice (on 21 and 31 May ). On both occasions, deputies from the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan party accused the opposition of seeking to drive a wedge between Azerbaijan and its strategic ally, Turkey, by raising the issue. The opposition's objective is, however, presumably to try to convince Ankara that despite Baku's pledges of eternal friendship, it is the current Azerbaijani leadership that is acting counter to Turkish interests, and the opposition which can be counted on to function as Turkey's loyal ally and partner. Visiting Turkish officials, including Defense Minister Sabahattin Kivrikoglu, have publicly assured their Azerbaijani counterparts that Ankara does not give credence to such allegations of Azerbaijani support for the PKK.

On 5 June, Azerbaijan's National Security Ministry finally issued an official statement denying that there is a PKK presence in Azerbaijan. But at the same time that statement revealed that no less than 33 members of the PKK have been apprehended on Azerbaijani territory in recent years.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the ongoing controversy is that some Azerbaijani politicians have publicly claimed that President Aliyev is himself Kurdish. That belief is based partly on his physical appearance, and partly on newspaper reports from the 1930s identifying his elder brother Hasan as the first Kurd in Soviet Azerbaijan to embark on post-graduate study and defend his dissertation. (Liz Fuller)

STATISTICS OF THE WEEK. The minimum monthly wage in Azerbaijan is 27,500 manats ($5). Doctors earn on average approximately 100,000 manats ($20), teachers and police employees -- nearly 150,000 manats ($30). The minimum state pension is 55,000 manats ($11). ("Azerbaijan," a weekly analytical-information bulletin, No. 23 [325], 6 June 2002).

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "In my opinion, if Russia really wanted to destabilize the situation in Georgia, it would take no more than 15 minutes. If Georgia still exists as one undivided country, it is only thanks to the fact that it is not advantageous for Russia to have Georgia fall apart." -- Russian political analyst Vladimir Nikonov, in an interview published by "Parlamentskaya gazeta" on 1 June.

"For Chechens, the key to survival in not to stand out, to know when to look [Russian] soldiers in the eye and when to avoid their gaze." -- "Daily Telegraph" 1 June.