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Caucasus Report: November 14, 2002

14 November 2002, Volume 5, Number 37

PRO-MOSCOW CHECHENS DISAGREE OVER OPTIMUM TIMING OF REFERENDUM. Meeting on 10 November in Moscow with Grozny administration officials and Chechen emigres and businessmen based in the Russian capital, Russian President Vladimir Putin floated the idea of bringing forward the date for holding a referendum on a new Chechen constitution and the elections of a new Chechen leadership that would (at least theoretically) enjoy broad-based popular support.

The process of drafting a new constitution that would unambiguously define Chechnya as a subject of the Russian Federation got under way more than a year ago. In the spring of 2002, the version drafted by a group of experts appointed by Grozny administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov was selected over four others, and the final version was endorsed in early August. Chechen officials said at that time that the constitution would be put to a referendum before the end of the year. But within weeks, both Kadyrov and Russian Central Election Commission Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov proposed postponing it. Veshnyakov suggested in September it be held no later than concurrently with the Russian State Duma elections in December 2003, while Kadyrov said he and Putin agreed that at least two years must elapse between the end of the "antiterrorist" campaign in Chechnya and the holding of presidential elections (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 13 September 2002).

Putin on 10 November proposed leaving the final decision on the time frame for the referendum to the Grozny leadership, following which Kadyrov suggested March or April 2003 as the optimum date. Retired Interior Ministry General Aslanbek Aslakhanov, who is Chechnya's deputy to the Russian State Duma, likewise approved holding the referendum in March or April 2003. Chechen businessman Malik Saidullaev similarly advocated holding both referendum and presidential elections as soon as possible, arguing that without them, peace and stability cannot be restored.

But Chechen Security Council Secretary Rudnik Dudaev questioned the wisdom of that approach. Interfax on 11 November quoted him as saying that it is too early to set a date for either the referendum or the elections. First, he argued, an all-out effort must be made to "normalize" the situation in Chechnya and, crucially, the Russian military must be constrained to toe the line and desist from any further gratuitous violence and plundering of the civilian population. "Before people are asked to vote, it is important to put an end to human rights violations. Otherwise, the population will remain passive and refuse to express its attitude" to the draft constitution, Dudaev reasoned.

Second, Dudaev continued, the deployment of Russian troops must be "streamlined," by which he presumably meant reduced -- a proposal that flies in the face of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov's recent statements that the planned troop reduction has been suspended in the wake of last month's hostage taking at a Moscow theater. Dudaev argued that the troop reduction is a necessary precondition for reviving the Chechen economy and "normalizing" political life. He predicted that under favorable conditions, it might be possible to achieve those objectives by the end of 2003, after which it will be possible to schedule both the referendum and then the presidential elections. (Liz Fuller)

GEORGIAN OPPOSITION POLITICIAN TAKES CONTROL OF TBILISI CITY COUNCIL. Exasperated by the Central Election Commission's foot-dragging in the recount of votes cast in Tbilisi during the 2 June local elections, on 4 November representatives of the National Movement-Democratic Front (EMDP) headed by former Justice Minister Mikhail Saakashvili convened in the Georgian parliament and elected Saakashvili to head the Tbilisi municipal council.

According to official returns, the EMDP polled a close second in Tbilisi, garnering 23.7 percent of the vote and 14 of the 49 seats on the municipal council, compared with 25.4 percent and 15 seats for the Labor Party. The Labor Party nonetheless backed Saakashvili's candidacy for municipal-council chairman in the hope that his popularity would rapidly erode when it became clear that he could not deliver on preelection promises.

But other parliamentary deputies denounced Saakashvili's election as municipal-council chairman as illegal and unethical. Giorgi Targamadze, who heads the Revival Union-21st Century three-person faction within the city council, demanded that all parliamentary deputies who participated in the ballot be suspended. On 5 November, Socialist Party Chairman Vakhtang Rcheulishvili criticized the Georgian authorities for failing to prevent Saakashvili's election and publicly branded the former minister "a madman and a fascist," thereby provoking a mass brawl in which some 60 deputies were involved. On 6 November, responding to a suit filed by the Socialist Party, the Tbilisi City Court suspended the functioning of the city council.

In addition, Saakashvili's election may have sabotaged earlier efforts to create an opposition front against Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze that would unite the EMDP, former parliamentary speaker Zurab Zhvania's United Democrats (whose city-council deputies voted for Saakashvili), and the "New Rightists," whose candidate, Levan Gachechiladze, was the only alternative candidate for municipal-council chairman, according to a "Eurasia View" analysis of 13 November.

In mid-June, Saakashvili told Caucasus Press that if elected municipal-council chairman he would quit parliament to devote himself full-time to municipal politics. If he now makes good on that pledge, he will find himself, as "Nezavisimaya gazeta" pointed out on 6 November, in permanent confrontation with Tbilisi Mayor Vano Zodelava, who is a longtime Shevardnadze associate. (The EMDP campaigned in Tbilisi for the June ballot under the slogan "Tbilisi without Shevardnadze.")

Recent opinion polls suggest that if mayoral elections were held this month, Zodelava would retain his post. In one such poll, 24.6 percent of respondents said they would vote for him, compared with only 14.1 percent for Saakashvili, while a second poll gave the two men 18.3 percent and 4.6 percent of the vote, respectively. (Liz Fuller)

WILL FORMER ARMENIAN PRESIDENT MAKE COMEBACK BID? Former Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrossian is inching toward a long-awaited decision to run as a candidate in the 19 February presidential elections, according to some members of his inner circle.

A longtime, close Ter-Petrossian associate who held a senior post in the Armenian leadership in the 1990s claimed on 9 November that Ter-Petrossian has already decided to join the unfolding presidential race. Speaking to RFE/RL, the former official, who asked not to be identified, could not, however, say when the reclusive ex-president will make public his political plans. But another member of Ter-Petrossian's entourage, Yerjanik Abgarian, declared, "I can state that Levon Ter-Petrossian will put forward his candidacy."

A leading member of the Armat faction of the former ruling Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh), Ara Sahakian, confirmed press reports that the former president discussed the matter with his closest allies last week. He said such consultations are "constant and continuous." "The public increasingly regards Levon Ter-Petrossian as a reasonable alternative to the current regime," Sahakian told RFE/RL. "This means that he must correctly assess this phenomenon and react adequately."

Ter-Petrossian, who has avoided contacts with the media since his resignation in February 1998, is expected to announce his decision officially before the preelection congress of his HHSh. But the gathering, originally slated for 15-16 November, has been postponed indefinitely, suggesting that Ter-Petrossian's intentions will be clarified at the end of this month.

The deadline for the nomination of presidential candidates, set by the Central Election Commission on 8 November, is 6 December. Hopefuls must submit at least 40,000 supporting signatures by 31 December for official registration.

Sources said the HHSh will field a candidate even if Ter-Petrossian refuses to contest the polls. Among its potential nominees are former parliamentary speaker Babken Ararktsian, former national-security minister David Shahnazarian, and even the fugitive former interior minister Vano Siradeghian.

The 57-year-old ex-president's participation in the elections would rekindle debate on what concessions the Armenian side should make to Azerbaijan for the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Ter-Petrossian was forced to quit by his key ministers after advocating a softer line on the dispute and maintaining that Armenia's quick economic recovery is impossible without its peaceful settlement. Last week, his allies reprinted Ter-Petrossian's famous 1997 article on Karabakh, saying that the past five years have vindicated him. (Armen Zakarian)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "What Putin calls international terrorism is actually a very specific form of Chechen national terrorism. Any comparison with September 11 is artificial. Chechen resistance is quite different in demands, style and performance." -- Yevgenii Volk of the Heritage Foundation in Moscow, quoted by the "Financial Times" on 13 November.

"These people [citizens of Azerbaijan working in the Russian Federation] provide bread to half of the population of Azerbaijan." -- Yurddash (Compatriot) Party Chairman Mais Seferli, quoted in "RFE/RL Azerbaijan Report" on 11 November.

"I have always played sports, [and] I play sports even now, which is why I'm standing in front of you in such good shape." -- Azerbaijan's 79-year-old president, Heidar Aliev, visiting Sheki on 9 November (quoted by Turan).