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Caucasus Report: July 18, 2002

18 July 2002, Volume 5, Number 25

WHO IS PROTECTING GEORGIA'S MAVERICK PRIEST? Over the past three years, international human rights groups have repeatedly expressed concern at the series of violent assaults on Jehovah's Witnesses and other non-Orthodox denominations by unfrocked Georgian priest Father Basil Mkalavishvili and his followers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 and 18 August 2000, 1 and 19 March, 13 and 26 July, and 25 September 2001, and 4 February 2002). That breakaway religious community, known as the Gldani eparchy after the district of Tbilisi where it is based, is convinced that representatives of other denominations are intent on undermining and destroying the Georgian Orthodox Church, and must at all costs be prevented from doing so.

In March 2001, newly appointed Prosecutor-General Gia Meparishvili gave orders for eight separate criminal cases brought against Mkalavishvili and his followers on charges of violence to be merged into one and investigated by the Tbilisi city prosecutor's office. That investigation was finally completed in October, but the opening of the trial was repeatedly postponed. In the interim, Mkalavishvili perpetrated several more attacks, culminating in the burning in early February of thousands of copies of the Bible and the New Testament stored in a Tbilisi warehouse belonging to the Evangelical Baptist Church.

Mkalavishvili's trial finally opened on 14 February but has since been repeatedly adjourned. In March, he accused the Georgian authorities of planning to assassinate him after his supporters assaulted and took hostage several police officers. But on 1 April, the Tbilisi court trying his case rejected a request by the prosecution to take him into custody for the duration of the trial.

Meanwhile, repeated international appeals to Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, the most recent in March by Human Rights Watch and the second in May by 15 U.S. senators and congressmen, to initiate decisive intervention to prevent further acts of violence by Mkalavishvili and his followers against members of other religious denominations have had only a marginal impact.

There are at least three possible explanations for the Georgian authorities' conspicuous failure to restrain and punish Mkalavishvili and his followers: at a lower level, fear of reprisals (his followers, armed with massive iron crosses, filled the courtroom on the opening day of his trial in February, creating "chaos" and intimidating witnesses). A second factor may be the lack of concrete instructions from the upper echelons of the Georgian leadership, which suggests a third factor; namely that, as some Georgian observers have claimed, individual parliament deputies and state chancellery staff sympathize with Mkalavishvili and may even share his views. Parliament deputy Revaz Mishveladze, for example, was quoted in March as arguing that "there is nothing wrong in his actions, as far as he tries to protect the Orthodox faith from the people that plan to destroy it." Even a senior member of the Georgian Orthodox Church hierarchy is on record as advocating that "sectarians ought to be shot," according to Keston News Service on 13 February.

There are clear parallels between Mkalavishvili's inflated and distorted perception of the threat that other denominations pose to the Georgian Orthodox Church and the brand of defensive national chauvinism bordering on paranoia that became one of the hallmarks of Georgian politics in 1990-91 under the late Zviad Gamsakhurdia. In Gamsakhurdia's case, however, that chauvinism was directed in the first instance against minority ethnic groups.

The danger is that the psychological mindset that Mkalavishvili and Gamsakhurdia epitomize is so widespread that even the long-anticipated passage of a law on religion will prove powerless to contain it. (Liz Fuller)

...AND WHO STANDS TO GAIN FROM POLITICALLY MOTIVATED VIOLENCE? The repeated attacks on non-Orthodox religious groups in Georgia, and the Georgian authorities' seeming impotence in the face of that violence, constitute only one aspect of an erosion of law and order that, together with endemic corruption, has prompted some observers to designate Georgia a "failed state." Within the past month, a British banking consultant has been abducted in broad daylight in Tbilisi by armed men posing as police; a German businessman has vanished without a trace from his bloodstained Tbilisi apartment; security officials have intercepted a mystery consignment of state-of-the-art weaponry; and unidentified perpetrators on 11 July stormed the Liberty Institute in Tbilisi, a nongovernmental organization that focuses on human rights issues, destroyed computer equipment, and beat up several institute personnel.

President Shevardnadze has, predictably, expressed outrage at such incidents and called on law-enforcement agencies to take swift and effective action to identify and apprehend those responsible -- but with negligible results. The question thus arises: Are the Georgian law-enforcement agencies incompetent, or themselves riddled with corruption, or both? If so, why does Shevardnadze not move to render them more effective? (His early career as Georgian SSR minister of public order and then interior minister in the 1960s should have provided him with the expertise to do so.) Are some senior police officials engaged in criminal activities, such as drug trafficking and abductions for ransom, as some have suggested? On 25 June, National Security Minister Valeri Khaburzania accused unnamed Interior Ministry officials of involvement in the abduction of the British banking consultant Peter Shaw.

"Eurasia View" on 11 July quoted a Georgian criminologist as commenting, "Shevardnadze has enough control of the police to stay in power but not enough to really fight against crime." That observation implies either that the police have become a law unto themselves, using their powers primarily if not exclusively to pursue their own illicit economic interests, and/or that some highly placed officials may have evidence incriminating either Shevardnadze himself or members of his family in corruption, which would render him vulnerable to blackmail. Despite his repeated public pledges to crack down on corruption, Shevardnadze has been selective in the measures he has condoned to that end. For example, he sanctioned the creation of a high-profile anticorruption commission, but in the summer of 2001 criticized a draft bill proposed by then-Justice Minister Mikhail Saakashvili that would have required senior officials suspected of corruption to prove that they acquired their luxurious mansions legally (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 and 14 August 2001).

Possibly even more pernicious in its long-term effect on the Georgian body politic is a culture of violence that is fast becoming accepted by the perpetrators as a valid means to an end, and by the victims as an unfortunate fact of life against which individuals are powerless. That phenomenon manifests itself not merely in violent robbery and murder, including the failed attempts to assassinate Shevardnadze himself in August 1995 and February 1998, but in the use of force for purely political ends, whether to intimidate (as in the case of the attack on the Liberty Institute staff) or to thwart the functioning of normal political procedures. For example, during the 2 June local elections, armed men intercepted the car transporting ballot papers to the town of Rustavi southeast of Tbilisi and stole the ballot papers. And during repeat elections in Zugdidi on 14 July, armed men robbed and beat up three election monitors (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 July 2002).

Who in Georgia stands to gain from such actions? Some opposition figures blame Shevardnadze for the reprisals against the Liberty Institute. But why should he further blacken the country's already-tarnished image by endorsing a crackdown on civic institutions -- especially since 20 years ago it was he who pioneered such innovations as public-opinion polling? And however much Shevardnadze may resent objective reporting of internal developments that reflects poorly on himself, he must realize that the existence of the Internet renders futile any attempt to silence individual critics.

Insofar as lawlessness highlights the inability of the present leadership to restore and maintain basic order, it could be adduced by opposition parties to substantiate their arguments for a change of regime -- even if they were not the instigators of the crimes in question. But press reports such as an article in "Rezonansi" on 16 July claiming that opposition politicians Zurab Zhvania and Mikhail Saakashvili sought (albeit unsuccessfully) to co-opt the Georgian war veterans' association with an offer of 5 million laris ($2.26 million), subsequently upped to 10 million, raise the specter that the threat, if not the actual use, of force may play a role in deciding the outcome if not of the parliamentary elections due in November 2003, then of the succession to Shevardnadze. (Liz Fuller)

EFFORTS TO REUNITE DIVIDED AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITION PARTY PROVE COUNTERPRODUCTIVE. Since early this year, the leaders of the two rival wings of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP) have tentatively explored the possibility of realigning in a single organization (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 5, No. 11, 21 March and No. 12, 4 April 2002). But efforts by Gudrat Gasankuliev, who was expelled in April from the AHCP "reformist" wing, to expedite the reunification of the party's two wings appear to have only deepened the rift between them.

Following his expulsion from the AHCP, Gasankuliev and a handful of supporters formed a committee to promote reunification and entered into talks with the "conservative" AHCP wing led by Mirmahmud Fattaev. But initial reports of a tentative agreement between the two proved premature: Instead, the leaders of the "conservative" AHCP wing announced that it would create its own commission to promote unification and invite both Gasankuliev and the "reformist" AHCP wing to designate representatives to that commission. The deadline set for doing so was 24 June, the anniversary of the birth of the late Abulfaz Elchibey, the first AHCP chairman.

Some rank-and-file members of the AHCP "conservative" wing, however, rejected that initiative as a covert attempt to thwart reunification and warned that both Fattaev and Kerimli risk being ousted from the leadership once the two wings of the party realign.

At a session in Baku on 28 June, members of Gasankuliev's "steering committee" reaffirmed their intention to convene a congress to reunite the two rival wings of the party. Gasankuliev argued at that session that Azerbaijan needs "a new national force" because the present, divided opposition is not strong enough to influence the decisions taken by the country's leadership. He also criticized calls by some opposition parties for a boycott of the 24 August referendum on proposed changes to the country's constitution, arguing that it would be more effective to urge the electorate to vote against those amendments, according to "Zerkalo" on 29 June. Finally, Gasankuliev denounced the opposition for allegedly caving in to Western pressure in the spring of 2001 by agreeing not to stage protests against what he termed the "defeatist" peace agreement then under discussion between the presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia.

But Ali Kerimli, chairman of the AHCP "reformist" wing, on 10 July denounced Gasankuliev's calls for reunification as part of an attempt by the Azerbaijani authorities to tarnish the party's image, according to "Zerkalo" on 11 July as cited by Groong. (Already in late May, Kerimli had said he does not recognize Gasankuliev's authority and is prepared to discuss the issue of reunification only with representatives of Fattaev's "conservatives.") Kerimli added that Gasankuliev's actions have only resulted in an unequivocal refusal by the "conservative" wing of the AHCP to begin any talks with Gasankuliev's supporters on reunification.

Meanwhile, at a press conference on 10 July, a group that includes members of both the "conservative" and "reformist" AHCP wings announced the creation of yet another initiative group to work for the reunification of the AHCP. Faradj Guliev, a former member of the AHCP executive committee (i.e., Kerimli's wing), told journalists his group will hold talks with both AHCP wings and with Gasankuliev and his supporters and propose establishing within one week a steering committee that is to convene a "reunification congress." Anyone who rejects that proposal, Guliev said, will be held responsible for the failure to restore unity. Kerimli, however, is quoted by "Zerkalo" on 18 July as saying once again that he needs no intermediaries in his efforts to find common ground with Fattaev. (Liz Fuller)

CHECHEN PRESIDENT COMMENTS ON RIVAL'S PEACE PLAN. In an interview published in "Moskovskie novosti" on 16 July, former Russian State Duma speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov summarized comments by President Aslan Maskhadov on his latest proposal for ending the war in Chechnya -- a proposal which, Khasbulatov claims, almost the entire population of Chechnya supports. That proposal entails bestowing on Chechnya the status of an international autonomous formation, an arrangement that would preserve Russia's territorial integrity by not giving Chechnya complete sovereignty (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 5, No. 6, 15 February 2002). In his interview, Khasbulatov explained that despite that status, Chechnya would remain subject to Russian legislation on the most important issues.

Khasbulatov revealed in the interview that he met in Istanbul with Maskhadov's representative, Akhmed Zakaev, to discuss his peace proposal and that he has since received a videocassette from Maskhadov in which the latter comments on that plan, which Maskhadov considers an acceptable "basis for negotiations." But although Maskhadov is prepared to agree to Chechnya's borders remaining administrative ones and to retaining the Russian ruble as Chechnya's currency, he rejected Khasbulatov's proposal that Chechnya be demilitarized: Maskhadov expressed concern that if Chechnya does not have its own army, Russia might renege on any peace agreement.

Maskhadov also objected to Khasbulatov's proposal that the Chechen population should play a key role in peace talks between Maskhadov and Moscow: He construed that proposal as a bid by Khasbulatov to drive a wedge between Maskhadov and the Chechen people, or even to "squeeze him out." And Maskhadov was not happy with the provision that persons who had actively fought against the Russian federal forces should be excluded from holding any government position, although he said he personally "is not clinging to power, and is prepared to cede it to [newly elected] legitimate organs." But he agreed with Khasbulatov's proposal that Chechnya should be defined as a secular republic, and that he should break with the most notorious of his field commanders.

Khasbulatov said that the Russian leadership has not yet reacted to his peace proposal. And he admitted that the biggest obstacle to ending the war is those members of the Russian military who have profited from the "imitation war" in terms of promotions and earning considerable fortunes from the illicit sale of Chechen oil. He warned, however, that if the war continues, many unemployed young men from other North Caucasus republics, such as Karachaevo-Cherkessia, may seek to join the Chechen fighters. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK: "During the Karabakh movement, our priority was a united Armenia. Today we regard as more important the idea of freedom and...a socially just state. Because today the absence of justice has become an obstacle to the development of Armenia." -- Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun bureau member Vahan Hovannisian, in an interview with "Hayots ashkhar" (16 July).