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Caucasus Report: June 13, 2002

13 June 2002, Volume 5, Number 21

WILL ARMENIAN PRESIDENT CALL PRE-TERM PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS? The Armenian parliament adjourned for its three-month summer recess on 12 June after three days of turmoil. In protest against speaker Armen Khachatrian's decision not to include in the agenda the demand by six opposition deputies for a debate on impeaching President Robert Kocharian (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 May and 3 and 7 June 2002), opposition deputies occupied the podium and prevented any debate. On 11 June, the standoff threatened to degenerate into a mass fistfight after one deputy punched another in the head.

Commenting on the chaos, President Kocharian on 12 June described the opposition as "undisciplined, to put it mildly," and implied that they were in need of psychiatric help. Asked whether he might dissolve parliament, Kocharian said, "It seems to be the easiest decision, but I don't think the image of the parliament should be compromised" because of the behavior of a handful of deputies. But at the same time he threatened to take unspecified measures to restore order if the standoff continued.

Rejecting the opposition demand for an impeachment debate as illegal, Kocharian went on to make the point that if the speaker were to set a precedent by allowing such a debate once, even if the motion failed to pass, further such debates might be called for on a monthly basis beginning in September, when parliament resumes. Kocharian apparently failed, however, to highlight one key point, which was made on 10 June by Noyan Tapan's veteran political commentator, David Petrosyan: Once a debate on the president's impeachment gets under way, the president forfeits his constitutional right to dissolve parliament. A strong argument for a preemptive move therefore exists; but "Haykakan zhamanak" predicted on 13 June that no party will gain a clear majority in the next parliament, and therefore it would be risky for Kocharian to call new elections before he has succeeded in "restoring unity among his allies."

Opposition deputies on 12 June pledged to continue their campaign to oust Kocharian. Former Premier and Hanrapetutiun party leader Aram Sargsian warned that the 13 opposition parties that joined forces earlier this year to campaign for Kocharian's impeachment will seek to take advantage of all available legal loopholes to force an impeachment debate. "We have many new things to do. We will make them study the laws and [parliament] statutes seriously," he said.

A second leading member of Hanrapetutiun, former Yerevan Mayor Albert Bazeyan, said on 12 June that the 13 opposition parties plan to bring legal proceedings against parliament speaker Khachatrian for violating the parliament statutes by refusing to schedule a debate on Kocharian's impeachment. Referring to Kocharian's veiled threat to restore order within the parliament, Bazeyan noted that deputies enjoy immunity. "If [Kocharian] violates the law, then we can do it too," Bazeyan warned. (Liz Fuller)

WHAT SIGNALS IS TURKEY SENDING TO ARMENIA, AZERBAIJAN? Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Devlet Bahceli's visit to Baku last month was his insistence on spending an entire morning meeting one-on-one behind closed doors with the leaders of no less than six center-right opposition parties: Isa Gambar (Musavat), Etibar Mamedov (Azerbaijan National Independence Party), Serdar Djalaloglu (Democratic Party), Sabir Rustamkhanli (Civic Solidarity), and Ali Kerimov and Mirmahmud Fattaev, who head the "reformist" and "conservative" wings of the divided Azerbaijan Popular Front Party. Bahceli refused to meet with representatives of the Communist Party, supporters of former President Ayaz Mutalibov, or Liberal Party leader Lala Shovket Gadjieva.

"Zerkalo" on 11 May and both pointed out that although Bahceli stressed repeatedly that Ankara has no desire to interfere in Azerbaijan's domestic political affairs, he nonetheless urged the country's leaders to embark on a dialogue with the pro-Western and center-right opposition in the run-up to the presidential elections due in 2003 in order to prevent further political polarization and an aggravation of the tensions between the two camps. He said that should such a dialogue begin, Turkey would try to restrain the Azerbaijani opposition from exploiting it to aggravate the domestic political situation. Bahceli reportedly also warned his hosts to stop resorting to violence to quash street demonstrations, and that the international community will not turn a blind eye to "yet another rigged election" and might respond to a manifestly unfree and unfair ballot by imposing political or economic sanctions.

Finally, he noted that the U.S. is concerned at the recent strengthening of pro-Russian and pro-Islamic sentiments in Azerbaijan, and wants to be certain that a change of regime will not result in either political instability or major changes in the country's foreign policy, either of which could jeopardize construction of the Baku-Ceyhan and Baku-Erzerum pipelines.

"Zerkalo" quoted an unnamed Turkish official as saying that Bahceli's plea received a cool reception from President Heidar Aliev, who promised only to give it due consideration. And on 26 May, police in Baku intervened for the third time this year to break up an unsanctioned opposition rally, injuring several participants and arresting several dozen more.

Just days after Bahceli's talks in Baku, Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem and his Armenian counterpart, Vartan Oskanian, met in Reykjavik on 15 May on the sidelines of a Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council session. Oskanian described that meeting as "very constructive and useful," saying that he and Cem focussed on the "normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations, the problems hindering that normalization, and ways to eliminate them." But he declined to say whether the possibility of opening the border between the two countries was discussed.

There are, however, contradictory reports as to whether Cem set any preconditions for establishing diplomatic relations with Armenia, as Turkish officials have repeatedly done in the past. Interfax on 18 May quoted Oskanian as saying he did not; Turkish and Azerbaijani newspapers say that he did, and list them. Those preconditions, according to those sources, are: that Yerevan stop "politicizing" the issue of the Armenian genocide and leave it to historians; that Armenia amend its constitution to remove any references to territorial claims on Turkey; that Armenia withdraw its troops from "occupied Azerbaijani territories"; and that it create a "security corridor" between Azerbaijan and its exclave of Nakhichevan.

On 10 June, Armenian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Dziunik Aghadjanian confirmed a report in that day's "Turkish Daily News" that senior Armenian and Turkish officials will hold confidential talks next week to prepare for a further meeting between Cem and Oskanian in Istanbul on 25 June. The paper claimed that Turkish observers see "a golden opportunity for the two states to break the barriers between them." Aghadjanian similarly said, "There is now a real opportunity to have Armenia's arguments that the two neighboring states should normalize their relations high on the agenda of the talks."

The question thus arises: Is Ankara indeed ready to soften its position with regard to establishing diplomatic relations with Armenia? If so, is that shift in policy the result of U.S. pressure? Or is Turkey's apparent willingness to seek rapprochement with Yerevan intended as a signal of discontent with the Azerbaijani leadership's reaction to Bahceli's bid to promote a dialogue between the Azerbaijani leadership and opposition? Finally, how seriously is Ankara taking repeated allegations by the Azerbaijani opposition that some senior Azerbaijani officials sympathize with, or even support, the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party? (See "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 5, No. 20, 7 June 2002.) (Liz Fuller)

GEORGIA SOUNDS ALARM OVER ABKHAZ PRIVATIZATION. Recent statements by Abkhaz Prime Minister Anri Djergenia calling for speeding up the privatization process in the unrecognized republic have met with a storm of protest in Tbilisi, where officials fear Russian capital may buy up most of Abkhazia's potentially lucrative tourist facilities. Over the past week, Georgian parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze and Foreign Ministry spokesman Kakha Sikharulidze have both condemned all privatization deals concluded in Abkhazia to date as illegal. The Georgian Embassy in Moscow similarly issued a statement condemning the invitation Djergenia extended to Russian companies during his visit to Moscow late last month to participate in the tenders for tourist facilities in Abkhazia, and warning the Russian government and individual Russian firms that such tenders are illegal.

To date, no Georgian official has openly accused the Russian government of supporting the economic colonization of Abkhazia. But Roman Gotsiridze, the chairman of the Georgian parliament's Budget Office, noted in an interview published in "Akhali epokha" on 4 June that the inroads made by Russian oligarchs are paralleled by a strengthening of the Russian military in the breakaway republic. The recent amendment to the Russian citizenship law that will facilitate the acquisition by Abkhaz citizens of Russian passports will further strengthen Russia's hold over Abkhazia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 June 2002).

Nor is Russia the only country taking advantage of the bargain investment opportunities that Abkhazia has to offer. Late last year, the Turkish company Kara-Elmas signed an agreement with the Abkhaz government to exploit a coal mine in Tkvarcheli with estimated reserves of 3.8 million tons of high-quality coal. Under that agreement, the Turkish firm has installed new equipment at the mine and is building a road linking two deposits; in late May, it began recruiting 1,500 miners in Tkvarcheli with a view to beginning coal extraction by the end of the summer. Kara-Elmas will pay Abkhazia $6 for each ton of coal extracted, $4 of which will go to the Tkvarcheli city budget and the remainder to the Abkhaz state budget.

Other Turkish entrepreneurs are engaged in trade with Abkhazia, importing food and fuel and exporting timber, nonferrous metals and marble gravestones removed from graves in formerly Georgian-populated villages. Visiting Tbilisi in April, Turkish State Minister Mehmed Kececiler promised Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze that Ankara will crack down on such illegal trade. (Liz Fuller)

RUSSIA SEEKS TO EXPEDITE RETURN OF DISPLACED PERSONS TO CHECHNYA. The Russian government and the leaders of Ingushetia and the pro-Russian Chechen administration have reached agreement on the need to expedite the return to Chechnya of the displaced persons currently living in tent camps in Ingushetia. Ingushetia's newly elected President Murat Zyazikov and Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov signed an agreement to that effect in Grozny on 29 May (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 May 2002).

Interfax quoted an unnamed member of Kadyrov's entourage as describing the repatriation agreement as "purely declarative." But Kadyrov himself appears to have construed it as a firm commitment. He said in an interview published in "Kommersant-Vlast" on 28 May that he hopes all the displaced persons will be back in Chechnya by October, as elections for a new Chechen president cannot take place while a large proportion of the Chechen population is outside the republic. Kadyrov himself has every intention of winning that election when it finally takes place.

Estimates of the number of Chechens currently living in Ingushetia range from 170,000-200,000. Of those, only some 32,000 -- 50,000 are living in tent camps, Chechen Prime Minister Stanislav Ilyasov told Interfax on 22 May. Ilyasov added that it is planned to repatriate only the latter category, while those Chechens billeted with Ingush families will remain in Ingushetia. But Ilyasov's affirmation is at odds with subsequent statements by both Kadyrov and Vladimir Yelagin, who is Russian minister for reconstruction in Chechnya, that it is hoped to return all displaced Chechens by September-October.

That time frame, however, appears to be totally unrealistic. Yelagin told journalists on 3 June that 8,000 of the Chechen displaced persons currently living in tent camps in Ingushetia have expressed their readiness to return to Chechnya, but that some 40,000 other Chechen displaced persons have indicated they do not want to leave Ingushetia. He said that although the Chechen government is doing all in its power to find accommodation and employment for returning displaced persons, many are deterred from doing so by fears for their personal safety. Yelagin estimated that the abandoned homes of 57 percent of the Chechen displaced persons now in Ingushetia are in a fit condition to live in.

Meeting with Kadyrov in Grozny on 27 May, UN official Bim Udas assured him that those Chechens who leave the Ingush camps and return to Chechnya will continue to receive UN humanitarian aid. But in early June, the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" reported that the distribution of bread in the tent camps in Ingushetia has already been terminated, and that the camp inmates are being constrained to pay to register afresh as displaced persons in order to qualify to begin receiving such humanitarian aid again. The paper further quoted a human rights activist in Nazran as saying that masked men have begun abducting people from the camps at night, while on 4 June referred to rumors of a mass "purge" of camp inmates.

Such rumors have given rise to concern both among the displaced persons themselves and among human rights activists in Moscow that the Chechens will be forcibly repatriated, a move that Russian ombudsman Oleg Mironov warned last month would precipitate "the worst violation of human rights in recent Russian history." "The Christian Science Monitor" on 12 June quoted Russian and Chechen government officials as saying that the repatriation process will be purely voluntary and that "nobody will be forced [to return]," but such assurances understandably carry little weight with those most directly affected. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK: "Our priority nowadays is to prevent criminal infiltration of the local power structures and local police. We do not want them to commit acts of sabotage and destroy what we are building in Chechnya with all these difficulties.... We understand all too well that without the locals it will be utterly impossible to solve the problem of restoration of constitutional order in Chechnya." -- Lieutenant General Vladimir Moltenskoi, commander of the combined federal forces in Chechnya, in an interview published in "Krasnaya zvezda" on 11 June.