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Caucasus Report: August 26, 2002

26 August 2002, Volume 5, Number 28

FIGHTING BACK. Many observers perceived the outcome of the 2 June Georgian local elections as a watershed and, more specifically, of the beginning of the end of the "Shevardnadze era." The Union of Citizens of Georgia (SMK), which then-parliamentary Chairman Eduard Shevardnadze founded as his personal power base in 1993, suffered a major defeat. It failed to win a single seat in the Tbilisi municipal council, although its candidates fared better in the provinces and provincial towns where Shevardnadze's appointed governors were in a position to adjust the outcome of the ballot at their discretion. The strongest factions in the Tbilisi city council will be the opposition New Rightists, established in May 2001 on the basis of a splinter group that split from the SMK the previous year; the National Movement of former Justice Minister Mikhail Saakashvili; and the Labor Party, which performed impressively in the 1998 local elections.

In the wake of the election fiasco, residents of several districts in western Georgia staged protests to demand the resignation of local administrators appointed by Shevardnadze (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 June 2002). But over the last two months, Shevardnadze has set about consolidating his crumbling support base and ensuring that, once he leaves office in April 2005, his personal position and that of his family will be inviolable.

On 29 June, the SMK held a congress in Tbilisi at which it adopted a new program and elected Minister of State Avtandil Djorbenadze as its new chairman, along with six government ministers to its ruling council. Six other ministers who had not previously been members joined the party, which will function as a bloc in parliament together with the Tanadgoma and Alliance for a New Georgia factions that split from it last fall.

Shevardnadze had announced earlier in June not only that Djorbenadze would be elected SMK chairman, but that he would remain minister of state until the end of Shevardnadze's presidential term. And in his address to the congress, Shevardnadze hinted that the SMK "may" select Djorbenadze as its presidential candidate in 2005, by which time he predicted the party will again be "one of the strongest forces in the country." "Vremya novostei" commented on 1 July that -- by contrast with Saakashvili, whom 43 percent of the respondents in a recent poll conducted by the newspaper "Kviris palitra" regard as a populist, and with former parliamentary speaker Zurab Zhvania -- Djorbenadze gives the impression of a balanced, if conservative, politician who can be relied on to avoid political extremes. In a poll of 15,000 people conducted by Georgian journalists in July, Djorbenadze ranked among the five Georgian political figures perceived as least corrupt.

Addressing the SMK congress, Djorbenadze listed as the party's most important objectives over the next three years streamlining the government; raising the minimum wage; reforming law-enforcement agencies; intensifying the struggle against corruption and the shadow economy; and encouraging small and medium-sized businesses. He stressed that galvanizing Georgia's economy is not an end in itself but the key to reducing poverty. He also reaffirmed Tbilisi's commitment to integration into European structures, meaning NATO and the EU.

Given that those objectives also figure in the programs of most major opposition parties, the opposition has opted to target Shevardnadze's Achilles' heel and the issue on which Western governments and international financial organizations are increasingly focusing -- namely, his tolerance of, or impotence to eradicate, endemic corruption within the upper echelons of power. Echoing Shevardnadze's own warning (in a speech in February 1995 at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London) of an international trend toward "the criminalization of politics and the politicization of the the criminal world," on 12 July the leaders of nine Georgian political parties signed a statement condemning Shevardnadze's decision to pardon three men jailed on charges of involvement in the August 1995 car-bomb attempt on his life (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 July 2002). The nine parties -- the National Democratic Party of Georgia (SEDP), the New Right Wing, the United Democrats, the National Movement-Democratic Front, the "Greens," the Union of Traditionalists (STK), the Christian-Democratic Alliance, the People's Party, and the Labor Party -- argued that such actions are tantamount to "the criminalization of state policy."

The leaders of those nine parties also agreed to continue consultations on key political issues. And five weeks later, on 19 August, three of them -- SEDP, the STK, and Zhvania's United Democrats -- signed an agreement affirming their shared determination to protect Georgia's state interests, to prevent the further criminalization of political life, and to promote Georgia's integration into European structures, including NATO. Saakashvili, however, refrained from joining that new alignment, although he told Caucasus Press that he shares its views "completely."

In mid-July, "Akhali taoba" had reported that Saakashvili was consulting with Tamaz Nadareishvili, the hawkish head of the Tbilisi-based Abkhaz parliament-in-exile, with the shared aim of mobilizing the population to participate in large-scale antigovernment demonstrations this autumn. Whether because of that imputed intention to seek to destabilize the political situation or for some other reason, both Nadareishvili and Saakashvili are currently under pressure. Parliamentary deputy Djemal Gamakharia (21st Century faction) demanded that Nadareishvili resign as head of the parliament-in-exile and accused him of creating his own private armed formation (code-named "Jupiter"), one of whose members Gamakharia claims physically assaulted him during a recent session of the exiled legislature. On 16 August, the Prosecutor-General's Office opened a criminal investigation into the assault on Gamakharia. Two weeks earlier, a student movement that unites young Georgian displaced persons from Abkhazia warned it will launch a series of demonstrations unless Nadareishvili quits by 1 September as chairman of the parliament-in-exile and proposed Gamakharia as the optimum candidate to succeed him.

As for Saakashvili, at a government session on 21 August Audit Chamber Chairman Sulkhan Molashvili (whose ties to Shevardnadze date back at least to the 1980s) accused him of appropriating state funds to build houses that, according to Molashvili, Saakashvili then placed at the disposal of various religious sects. Molashvili expressed his readiness to resign if Saakashvili succeeded in disproving those allegations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 August 2002).

Meanwhile, the Georgian government has drafted a bill on the privileges to be extended to former presidents that is apparently designed to secure Shevardnadze's exemption from investigation on corruption charges after his retirement. The bill stipulates that former presidents may be detained, arrested, and prosecuted only with the sanction of the Supreme Court. It also earmarks 139,132 laris ($64,000) annually for the upkeep of a former president and any members of his family who are unable to work. (Liz Fuller)

HAS THE FOCUS OF THE KARABAKH TALKS SHIFTED? With a couple of notable exceptions, the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaderships have generally abided by the agreement that the content of talks on how to resolve the Karabakh conflict -- whether between the two countries' presidents, between lower-level officials, or mediated by the OSCE Minsk Group -- should remain confidential. (The most spectacular breach of that agreement was Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliev's disclosure in August 1997 of the details of a proposal made by the Minsk Group several weeks earlier.)

But comments made by senior officials from both countries have given some indication of what issues may have been discussed in the past and how the focus of the talks has changed. Thus, Azerbaijan refused to consider the "common state" model proposed by the OSCE Minsk Group in late 1998. The possibility of an exchange of territories whereby Armenia would cede its southern region of Meghri in return for the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic and the Lachin corridor was apparently raised at some point in early 1999 but abandoned when the Armenian side rejected it out of hand. In early 2001, a variant on that exchange was reportedly discussed whereby Lachin would become an internationally recognized part of Armenia while Azerbaijan would have only unrestricted access to its exclave of Nakhichevan via Meghri, which would remain Armenian territory (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 5, No. 23, 1 July 2002).

Recent statements suggest, however, that the focus of the talks has shifted yet again and that what is now under discussion are the comparative merits of the "package" and "phased" approaches to resolving the conflict. According to former Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrossian's chief negotiator for Karabakh, Gerard Libaridian, who recently visited Baku, Azerbaijan has offered a new "phased" plan under which Armenian forces would withdraw from four of the seven Azerbaijani districts adjacent to Karabakh that they currently control (Fizuli, Djebrail, Zangelan, and Gubatly) in exchange for Azerbaijan opening its borders with Armenia. Talks on Karabakh's future status would be postponed indefinitely, and Armenian forces would continue to occupy three other Azerbaijani districts (Agdam, Lachin, and Kelbadjar) until a final settlement is reached, according to Groong on 24 July.

In recent weeks, Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev and Foreign Minister Vilayat Quliev have both repeatedly expressed their preference for a "phased" setttlement, while Armenian Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian has made clear that Armenia continues to insist on a "package" solution, which would preclude the Baku proposal by Libaridian. Russia, for its part, appears to favor the "phased" approach. In a series of articles published over the last year, former Russian Minsk Group co-chair Vladimir Kazimirov has repeatedly lobbied in its favor (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 22, 15 June 2001), while Turan on 18 July quoted Russian Ambassador to Baku Nikolai Ryabov as likewise affirming that a stage-by-stage settlement of the conflict must begin with the withdrawal of Armenian forces from occupied Azerbaijani districts. The likelihood that President Robert Kocharian would agree to such a withdrawal in the runup to the February 2003 presidential election is, however, so remote as to be virtually nonexistent. (Liz Fuller)

THIRD AZERBAIJANI POPULAR FRONT PARTY HOLDS FOUNDING CONGRESS. Some 400 former members of both the "conservative" and the "reformist" wings of the divided Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP) gathered in Baku on 18 August to found what they hope will prove to be a new party of that name that will subsume those two factions, which parted company acrimoniously two years ago (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, No. 43, 3 November 2000; Vol. 5, No. 11, 21 March 2002; and No. 14, 25 April 2002). Delegates to the congress adopted a new party program and statutes, and elected a chairman and governing council. The new party formally applied to register with the Ministry of Justice, and has nominated Gudrat Gasankuliev, the leading force behind its emergence, as its candidate for the presidential elections due in October 2003. Gasankuliev has for months been trying to promote the reunification of the "progressive" and "conservative" wings of the AHCP, but the leaders of those two groups have consistently rejected his overtures, although Gasankuliev himself claimed that rank-and-file members of both wings support reunification. Gasankuliev was finally expelled from the "reformist" AHCP wing in April on suspicion of collaboration with the Azerbaijani authorities.

On 21 August, quoted Gasankuliev as claiming that between 80 and 90 percent of the AHCP's total membership supports his new party. But other opposition parties continue to regard what they refer to as the Gudrat Gasankuliev group with profound suspicion and hostility. On 9 August, the leaders of 15 political parties, including both AHCP wings, Musavat, the Azerbaijan National Independence Party, the Democratic Party, and the Civic Unity Party, signed a statement affirming that the so-called "reunification congress" has nothing in common with the AHCP. They further accused the authorities of using Gasankuliev and his supporters in a bid to further divide the opposition camp.

The AHCP reformist wing tried unsuccessfully to picket the Baku mayor's office on 14 and 15 August to protest an official decision to make premises available for the founding congress, but police prevented them from doing so. That intervention, together with reports that the new party has been given the use of a four-story building in Baku for its headquarters, have only fueled suspicions that Gasankuliev is being funded by the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party. Some observers have suggested that the authorities may go so far as to revoke the registration of the AHCP "reformist" wing and allow Gasankuliev's party to register in the name of the country's first major opposition party and appropriate its legacy. (Liz Fuller)

CHECHEN PREMIER WANTS OUT. Moscow's most recent scheme intended to preclude the embezzlement of funds earmarked for reconstruction of Chechnya's war-shattered infrastructure has proven counterproductive, Chechen Deputy Prime Minister Usman Masaev claimed in an interview published in "Novaya gazeta" on 22 August. Masaev explained that the Russian government this year ruled that rather than transfer the money directly to the pro-Moscow Chechen administration, those funds are being distributed among 25 federal ministries and departments, each of which is responsible for specific sectors.

Part of the problem, according to Masaev, is that those Moscow-based bodies have little if any idea of what type of equipment is actually needed: He cited the shipment to Grozny of milking equipment for dairies, even though virtually all Chechnya's dairy cattle have perished. In addition, Masaev claims, the federal government does not make available all the promised funding, and what is disbursed is late. In May, Deputy Minister of Economic Development and Trade Mukhamed Tsikanov said that at least 70 percent of the 4.5 billion rubles ($142.45 million) earmarked for Chechnya this year will actually be made available. But according to Masaev, during the first seven months of 2002, only 14 percent of the total that should have been made available was actually released, and none of it reached Grozny.

Such delays facilitate theft and embezzlement in Moscow, Masaev continued: As the year draws to a close, government officials come under increasing pressure to demonstrate that the money has been spent and so, for example, the cost of raw materials, equipment, or services is overstated by 100-200 percent. He described such "financial machinations" on the part of Russian government officials as inflicting more serious damage on the Chechen economy than do the Chechen guerrillas opposing the federal troops, and he predicted that at least 700 million rubles will disappear in such fashion this year.

Although Masaev did not admit as such, some of his government colleagues in Grozny have also been implicated in the theft of budget money intended for reconstruction (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 5, No. 11, 21 March 2002).

The unfortunate individual tasked with trying to coordinate specific offers from Moscow of materials and equipment with what is most urgently needed in Chechnya is Prime Minister Stanislav Ilyasov, who, Masaev told "Novaya gazeta," is reluctant to get into "quarrels" with federal ministries in Moscow for fear of jeopardizing his own future. Masaev said Ilyasov "was assigned to Chechnya for a year and promised a senior position in Moscow afterwards. When the year elapsed, he was asked to remain in his post for six months longer." That six months is now up, and Ilyasov, who is reported to be at odds with Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 36, 29 October 2001), is waiting to be recalled to Moscow. Ilyasov himself was quoted by Interfax on 18 August as pointing out that he has now been in Chechnya for 20 months and that "the strain is taking its toll." He added, however, that "so far I have no plans to leave." (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK: "I have held the post of the president of Azerbaijan for nine years, and God willing, I will hold it for a long time." -- Heidar Aliev, speaking in Nakhichevan on 11 August (quoted by ITAR-TASS).

"It's time for Georgia to decide whether it regards Russia as a strategic partner or our relationship is of a formal character." -- Russian State Duma speaker Gennadii Seleznev (Caucasus Press, 10 August).

"I cannot see any problems in the relations with Russia. We should develop the historical friendship established by our ancestors." -- Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze (Caucasus Press, 12 August).