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Caucasus Report: October 24, 2002

24 October 2002, Volume 5, Number 35

The next issue of "RFE/RL Caucasus Report" will appear on 7 November.

GEORGIAN PRESIDENT REVISES FOREIGN POLICY CONCEPT. In his 11 October annual address to the nation, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze reformulated the fundamentals of Georgia's foreign policy, referring to Russia as one of Tbilisi's two "strategic partners" together with the United States. But it remains unclear whether that statement reflects a genuine sea change; or was simply intended either to preempt further militant statements from Russian politicians or to substantiate Shevardnadze's claim of one week earlier that his 6 October meeting in Chisinau with Russian President Vladimir Putin constituted the beginning of a new, less tense chapter in Russian-Georgian relations; or both.

Nor was Shevardnadze's use of the term "strategic partnership" his only concession to Russia: He also affirmed that Russia has "legitimate interests" in the South Caucasus and that Tbilisi must takes those interests into account.

Shevardnadze named two foreign policy priorities that, he said, remain constant: "partner-like, friendly relations with neighboring countries, Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as [with] Ukraine, the Balkan states, and Central Asia; and equal, mutually beneficial cooperation built on 'complementarity' principles with our country's two biggest strategic partners, the U.S.A. and the Russian Federation." He continued: "I categorically disagree with the view that we have to make a choice one way or another here. In reality, Georgia should become and will become -- please pay attention to this -- an arena for partnership, rather than rivalry, between these two big countries."

Shevardnadze went on to define "complementarity" as "the development of a model for good-neighborly relations with Russia that ensures that Russia's legitimate interests in Georgia and the South Caucasus are taken into account. But that should happen on the basis of Russia respecting our country's interests, which are equally legitimate." To that extent, he clearly sees Georgia's relations with Russia as the obverse of its relations with the West. In that respect, the Georgian definition of "complementarity" is narrower than the Armenian one, which seeks to augment Armenia's close economic and military partnership with Russia not only with close ties to the United States and Europe but by establishing cordial and mutually beneficial relations with any interested states -- including Iran and Iraq. (Liz Fuller)

PRESSURE ON GEORGIAN LEADERSHIP INTENSIFIES. The 80 Georgian parliamentary deputies who demonstratively walked out of the parliamentary chamber to demonstrate their disgust with the proposals for socioeconomic revival outlined in President Shevardnadze's 11 October annual state-of-the-nation address (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 October 2002) are now mulling new initiatives aimed at compounding the pressure on Georgia's embattled leadership. At the same time, the media rumor mill has shifted into top gear, spawning unconfirmed reports of putative rifts within the Georgian leadership and possible new anti-Shevardnadze alliances.

First, deputies from the New Rightists faction announced on 19 October that they plan to demand the impeachment of Minister of State Avtandil Djorbenadze for his failure to fulfill his responsibilities, most notably in ensuring budget-revenue targets are met. Faction leader David Gamkrelidze said the faction will also raise the question whether Djorbenadze has channeled state funds to the former ruling Union of Citizens of Georgia (SMK), of which he was elected chairman four months ago (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 July 2002). Basil Maghlaperidze, a parliamentary deputy from former speaker Zurab Zhvania's Democrats (who have indicated they would support a motion for Djorbenadze's impeachment), explained on 21 October that the parliament only approved Djorbenadze as minister of state in late 2001 because he had no party affiliation.

Then on 21 October, four of the five parliamentary factions that staged the 11 October walkout (the New Rightists, the Union of Traditionalists (STK), the Democrats, and the Movement for Democratic Reforms) held a first round of talks in Tbilisi to discuss coordinating future political moves. But they stressed that at present they do not envisage forming a coalition. STK Chairman Akaki Asatiani told journalists they intend to compel Shevardnadze to define clearly his position on the closure of the two remaining Russian military bases in Georgia -- an issue that he failed to mention in his state-of-the-nation address.

A far more serious threat to Shevardnadze is the possibility -- which he himself has discounted -- of a grand alliance uniting virtually all other opposition factions against him. "Akhali versiya" on 21 October suggested that such an alliance, uniting such unlikely bedfellows as fugitive oligarch Badri Patarkatsishvili, former Georgian Minister of State Vazha Lortkipanidze, Zhvania, and former Justice Minister Mikhail Saakashvili, is in the works.

Meanwhile "Rezonansi" reported on 21 October that parliamentary speaker Nino Burdjanadze has definitively aligned herself with Zhvania against Shevardnadze. And on 17 October, "Akhali taoba" claimed the SMK has split into two factions, one of which supports Minister of State Djorbenadze and the second Tbilisi Mayor Vano Zodelava. SMK parliament faction Chairman Vitali Khazaradze immediately dismissed that report as wishful thinking on the part of the opposition; in his weekly press briefing, Shevardnadze similarly said on 21 October he is unaware of any rift between Djorbenadze and Zodelava. "I believe they work together very fruitfully," Shevardnadze said.

But such assurances ring increasingly hollow. Shevardnadze's popularity rating is believed to be numbered in single figures; and 41.5 percent of respondents polled in Tbilisi after his state-of-the-union address expressed approval for the opposition-protest walkout, according to Caucasus Press on 21 October. (Liz Fuller)

ARMENIAN PRIME MINISTER'S PARTY DOWNPLAYS LOCAL ELECTION VICTORY. Prime Minister Andranik Markarian and other leaders of his Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) sought on 23 October to downplay the implications of the HHK's landslide victory in the 20 October local elections. They said the center-right party remains committed to a close alliance with President Robert Kocharian and does not harbor greater political ambitions after its electoral triumph.

"I wouldn't say that this was a victory only for the Republican Party, because whatever our candidates said of government policies at the local level was equally applicable to the president," Markarian told reporters. "So I can say that this victory is, in fact, shared by the president." He added that their 2 1/2-year joint governance of the country has led to "political stability and economic progress" which cannot be disrupted by "any successful election."

Markarian was responding to media speculation that he and his strengthening party could now make greater demands on the Armenian leadership, including control of several key ministries. Some commentators have even suggested that the Republicans may feel confident enough to withdraw their support for Kocharian's re-election and themselves contest the February presidential elections.

But as another HHK leader, deputy parliament speaker Tigran Torosian, cautioned on 23 October, the scale of its victory in the local elections does not reflect the party's true popularity among Armenians. Torosian effectively admitted that the HHK's approval rating is considerably lower than the percentage of its candidates elected to the top executive posts in Yerevan districts, cities, and villages across Armenia. He argued that most people who went to the polls on 20 October voted primarily for individuals, not parties. Party officials say that at least 170 of 220 Republican candidates have become community heads. The Republicans and their allies won in 30 of 37 major municipal communities. The elections, largely ignored by the opposition, were held in more than 650 communities.

Speaking at a news conference, Torosian also urged journalists and political observers not to describe the HHK victory as a "landslide." "This is causing unnecessary jealousy," he said, referring to other pro-presidential and opposition parties.

One of those parties, Orinats Yerkir, on 22 October accused the HHK of abusing its governing status in the run-up to and during the local polls. Orinats Yerkir came in a distant second in the vote, followed by another major pro-Kocharian party, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun.

Political observers believe that Kocharian, who directly controls the military and security agencies, was until now trying to offset the growing HHK influence in other spheres by bringing other pro-presidential forces into government. Some have even speculated that Markarian's dismissal is just a matter of time. However, the prime minister's positions now seem much stronger as the president is expected to rely primarily rely on the HHK in his re-election campaign. (Ruzanna Khachatrian and Armen Zakarian)

EXPERTS QUERY ACCURACY OF CENSUS RESULTS FOR CHECHNYA. The census conducted in Chechnya on 12-13 October has established that the republic's present population is 1,088,816, Chechen Premier Stanislav Ilyasov announced in Grozny on 14 October. Ilyasov acknowledged that that figure is higher than anticipated, and not much lower than the population of the then Checheno-Ingush ASSR at the time of the last Soviet census in 1989, which was 1,277,000. The permanent population of the Republic of Ingushetia as of 1 January 2001, not counting displaced persons from Chechnya, was 460,100, according to Preliminary census data for Ingushetia are not yet available.

Russian and Chechen human rights activists have, however, expressed doubts over the accuracy and reliability of the figures that Ilyasov cited, according to on 17 October. Memorial's Aleksandr Cherkasov estimated on 16 October that Chechnya's present population is no higher than 700,000. He listed three possible explanations for that discrepancy. First, he suggested that some residents of Chechnya might have moved from one village to another to avoid reprisals by Russian troops and have been counted twice. But, Cherkasov added, that alone could not account for the fact that the census data exceed his estimates by between 400,000 and 500,000 people.

More likely, Cherkasov said, are deliberate falsifications on the part of either local or Russian government officials. Both would stand to benefit from overstating the actual population figures: The local authorities could then ask for more funds from Moscow, while the central government could adduce the figure of over 1 million residents as proof that the situation in Chechnya is "stabilizing."

Between the Soviet censuses of 1979 and 1989, the Checheno-Ingush ASR experienced 11 percent population growth. If that rate of increase had been maintained, one could anticipate that the combined population of the two separate republics would now be in the region of 1.42 million. Subtract the current Ingush population and the figure is less than 1 million. But that end figure does not take into account either the casualty figures for the 1994-96 war (estimated at between 80,000 and 100,000) and the current war (estimated at 20,000-40,000), or the fact that most of Chechnya's Russian community has already fled to other regions of Russia.

Ilyasov told Interfax on 22 October, however: first, that Western estimates of war dead are far too high, and that no more than 10,000 people have died; and second, that one cannot estimate Chechnya's current population on the basis of the 1989 census results, as many people have left the republic, while others have come there. (Liz Fuller).

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK: "The genocide of the Armenian people is an international shame. It cannot and will not be forgiven. This has been recognized by Russia and many countries of the world. It is high time Turkey repented too." -- Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, signing the guest book at Armenia's genocide museum (quoted by ITAR-TASS on 12 October).

"The great majority of leaders of the bloc of 16 [Armenian opposition parties that have united in a bid to defeat the present Armenian leadership in next year's elections] have only one aim: to secure at least one seat for themselves in the future parliament." -- Former Armenian National Security Minister David Shahnazarian, who now heads the election staff of the former ruling Armenian Pan-National Movement (from an interview published in "Haykakan zhamanak" on 19 October, courtesy of Groong).

"If Heidar Aliyev fails to solve the Karabakh problem, no one in the world will solve it." -- Azerbaijan's President Heidar Aliev, quoted by Interfax on 17 October.

"It's a beautiful climate for vintage grapes." -- Optimistic Chechen viticulturalist Turpal Yakhyaev, quoted by "The New York Times" on 23 October.