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Caucasus Report: February 8, 2001

8 February 2001, Volume 4, Number 6

GEORGIAN PRESIDENT HINTS AT CONCESSIONS TO RUSSIA. On consecutive days earlier this week, Eduard Shevardnadze signaled an apparent readiness to make concessions on two issues that have poisoned Georgian-Russian relations for the past two-three years.

During his weekly press briefing on 5 February, Shevardnadze suggested that, depending on how the international situation develops, Georgia may opt for neutrality in 2005 rather than seek NATO membership. In 1997-1998, Georgian politicians said repeatedly that any talk of Georgia joining the Atlantic alliance was premature. In April 1999, however, shortly after the first three former East bloc countries were accepted into NATO, Shevardnadze announced that Georgia too aspires to join NATO at some unspecified point in the future. In October 1999, days before the Georgian parliamentary elections, he told the "Financial Times" that Georgia "will knock vigorously on NATO's door" in 2005.

Repeated complaints by Georgian defense officials of chronic underfunding suggest, however, that irrespective of any geo-political constraints, and despite generous grants from the U.S. and Turkey, the Georgian armed forces are unlikely to attain NATO standards in the near future. It is not clear what kind of pan-European security structure Shevardnadze felt would allow Georgia to opt for neutrality instead of NATO membership.

Then on 6 February, Shevardnadze told journalists that Georgia "would welcome" the construction of an oil export pipeline from the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiisk to the Turkish Mediterranean terminal at Ceyhan if that project would expedite a settlement of the Abkhaz conflict. Building such a pipeline was first proposed in early 1998 as an incentive to the Abkhaz leadership to agree to Georgia's offer of autonomous status within a unitary Georgian state (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 1, No. 1, 3 March 1998).

A senior official from British Petroleum commented that he considered Shevardnadze's statement inappropriate in the light of the Georgian government's previous commitment -- which Shevardnadze underscored during his state visit to Turkey late last month -- to the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline project that bypasses Russian territory completely. Some experts have suggested that the Baku-Ceyhan route would be economically viable only if it were extended to the Kazakh port of Aktau to transport quantities of Kazakh crude. But Kazakhstan is unlikely to produce enough oil to need both the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and the Tengiz-Novorossiissk-Ceyhan route.

It remains unclear whether the timing of Shevardnadze's two statements was purely fortuitous, or if not, what prompted them, and how seriously they were intended. (Liz Fuller)

EMBATTLED GEORGIAN PROSECUTOR-GENERAL RESIGNS. Prosecutor-General Djamlet Babilashvili submitted his resignation on 8 February, one day before he was due to testify to a parliament commission charged with investigating corruption. His resignation is a victory for Koba Davitashvili, a member of the majority Union of Citizens of Georgia (SMK) parliament faction, who began campaigning for Babilashvili's dismissal last November. Davitashvili accused Babilashvili of having overstepped his official powers, inter alia by appointing as local prosecutors judges who had failed the legal examinations introduced as part of the reform of the country's legal system. He argued that the prosecutor-general should be impeached, or at the very least not be reappointed to that post for a third term when his current term expires on 5 March.

Acting on Davitashvili's urging, deputies charged the parliament's inquiry commission charged with investigation of official corruption to determine whether Babilashvili's professional conduct constitutes ground for impeachment. Last month, the independent TV station Rustavi-2 aired a program accusing Babilashvili of bribery.

The concerted criticism of the prosecutor-general triggered press speculation that if President Shevardnadze did propose Babilashvili for a further term, the parliament would reject his candidacy. Commentators identified several alternative candidates for the post, including Deputy Interior Minister Koba Narchemaishvili, Military Prosecutor Badri Bitsadze, State Security Service head Sulkhan Papashvili, Control Chamber Chairman Sulkhan Molashvili, and parliament deputies Roland Giligashvili, Gia Meparishvili and Mikhail Osadze. (The latter three are all members of the SMK faction.) But at a press briefing last month, Shevardnadze affirmed his support for the embattled prosecutor-general. "I know this man is an honest officer and one who cannot be bribed," Shevardnadze said.

Some commentators suggested, however, that Shevardnadze's defense of Babilashvili may have been prompted by personal considerations. They point out that if the parliament rejected Babilashvili's candidacy, the SMK would be free to push its own candidate. Those observers further noted that the procurator-general is immensely powerful, having jurisdiction over the Interior and National Security Ministries and other "power" bodies without whose support Shevardnadze would become only "a shadow president."

Possibly in order to undercut speculation that he was out to oust and replace Shevardnadze, parliament speaker Zurab Zhvania ostentatiously withheld his support for his faction's campaign against Babilashvili, which he has described as directed against the president.

It is possible, however, that a parallel, but more sophisticated, effort was undertaken to discredit Babilashvili. Babilashvili complained on 17 January that his agency cannot function effectively because it is understaffed (with some 120 positions vacant) and underfunded. Two weeks later, however, one of Babilashvili's deputies said that the staff of the prosecutor-general's office is to be cut by 25-30 percent. Any future failings on the part of the prosecutor-general's office as a result of those staff reductions could have been adduced as grounds for replacing Babilashvili. In the event, his voluntary resignation renders that scenario unnecessary.

Later on 8 February, parliament deputies greeted Shevardnadze's nomination of Gia Meparishvili to succeed Babilashvili -- a choice that Zhvania said he and Shevardnadze had jointly made. Shevardnadze described Meparishvili as "extremely erudite," while parliament speaker Zurab Zhvania termed him "a decent candidate and a true reformer." (Liz Fuller)

YERKRAPAH SET TO REEMERGE AS AUTONOMOUS POLITICAL FORCE? On 6 February, former Premier Aram Sargsian, former Yerevan Mayor Albert Bazeyan and several parliament deputies issued a statement announcing their collective decision to quit the Republican Party of Armenia (HHK). That party was founded in 1998 by Sargsian's brother and predecessor as premier, Vazgen Sargsian, on the basis of the "political elite" of the Yerkrapah Union of veterans of the Karabakh War. In 1999, it aligned with former Communist leader Karen Demirchian's People's Party of Armenia in the Miasnutiun bloc that won a majority of seats in the parliament elected in May 1999.

In their 6 February statement, Aram Sargsian and Bazeyan criticized the HHK and its chairman, Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, for becoming "an appendage of the vicious government system" and accused it of diverging from the party's original goals as formulated by the late Vazgen Sargsian. They disclaimed any responsibility for the HHK's policies, and pledged to work for the establishment of "justice and a law-based state." An aide to Bazeyan, Suren Sureniants, told RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau on 6 February that the ex-mayor and ex-premier plan to found a new conservative opposition party.

While the catalyst for the six men's defection from the HHK appears to have been Markarian's failure to protest President Robert Kocharian's dismissal of Bazeyan last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 and 12 January 2001), tensions have been evident within Miasnutiun ever since Kocharian fired Aram Sargsian as prime minister last May and named Markarian in his place (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, No. 20, 19 May 2000). That appointment had impelled a dozen HHK members affiliated with Yerkrapah to quit the Miasnutiun bloc and found their own parliament faction, Hayastan. Indeed, from the time of its creation, observers commented that the disparate political credos of the leaders of Miasnutiun's two components provided grounds for considering the bloc a marriage of convenience that was intended -- and succeeded -- in propelling Vazgen Sargsian and Demirchian to positions of power, or rather to enable Sargsian to take advantage of Demirchian's popularity.

The six defectors from the HHK are all associated with Yerkrapah, the veterans' organization which formed its own parliament faction in 1997. It was defections to that faction by members of the then-ruling Armenian Pan-National Movement in February 1998 that precipitated the resignation of President Levon Ter-Petrossian.

Ghukas Ulikhanian, one of the parliament deputies who quit the HHK together with Sargsian and Bazeyan, told RFE/RL on 7 February that Yerkrapah members of the HHK are ready to follow suit "en masse" -- a development that would seriously weaken Markarian. It is unclear, however, whether the proposed new organization of Sargsian and Bazeyan will prove able to recruit a majority of the rank-and-file Yerkrapah members outside parliament. Galust Sahakian, a leading HHK member and close associate of Prime Minister Markarian, told RFE/RL on 3 February that the HHK still claims to be executor and guardian of Vazgen Sargsian's political legacy. Moreover, the current chairman of Yerkrapah, Major-General Manvel Grigorian, is believed to be loyal to President Kocharian, to whom he owes his promotion last March to the post of deputy defense minister (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 March 2000). (Liz Fuller)

MOSCOW STILL HASN'T ORGANIZED A CHECHEN GOVERNMENT. Federal Minister for Chechnya Vladimir Yelagin and Russian presidential representative to the South Russia federal district Viktor Kazantsev were due to arrive in Gudermes on 8 February to discuss the composition of Chechnya's new government with administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov and Prime Minister Stanislav Ilyasov.

Shortly after the latter was finally named as premier on 19 January after weeks of speculation, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported that he planned to have a new government formed within two weeks. But as of 7 February, the only cabinet appointments to have been made public were those of Khamzat Idrisov as first deputy premier and of Ilyasov's former chief of staff from his years as head of the Stavropol Krai government, Viktor Aksentsev, as deputy government chairman and chief of staff.

The reasons for the delay are not clear. According to Ilyasov, the choice of personnel was to be made jointly by himself and Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov. Ilyasov said on 19 January that "we will do our best to employ only local personnel." But on 1 February, Interfax reported that Kadyrov had named Idrisov to head a commission on personnel issues that would select candidates for top government posts. That report quoted Idrisov as saying that there are nine or ten candidates for each position, most of whom held prominent posts either in the (pre-1991) Checheno-Ingush ASSR Council of Ministers or elsewhere in Russia or the CIS. In other words, contrary to Ilyasov's stated preference, they are not residents of Chechnya, and cannot be presumed to be familiar with the current situation there. (Liz Fuller)

REPUBLIC OF KARACHAEVO-CHERKESSIA'S PRESIDENT UNDER PRESSURE TO RESIGN. Less than two years after his disputed election, Vladimir Semenov is again under growing pressure to step down as president of the Republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia, according to "Kommersant-Daily" on 2 February. But in contrast to the summer and fall of 1999, when the republic's Cherkess and Abazin minorities staged repeated pickets in the republic's capital, Cherkassk, to demand that defeated rival candidate Stanislav Derev be acknowledged the winner of the poll (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 2, No. 20, 20 May 1999, No, 30, 30 July 1999, No. 35, 2 September 1999 and No. 37, 17 September 1999), it is now members of Semenov's own camp who want him out. They argue that Semenov has failed to deliver on his pre-election pledges to revive the republic's economy, improve social conditions, especially in rural areas, crack down on crime and rein in a bureaucracy that functions as a law unto itself. Members of the Karachai movement "Resurrection of the Republic" have decided to convene a meeting of Semenov's election campaign staff on 16 February at which they demand his resignation.

Karachaevo-Cherkessia Security Council secretary Boris Batchaev has sought to play down those plans, saying that the Semenov supporters in question are aggrieved at not having received plum posts in Semenov's administration. But his attempt to talk them out of holding the planned 16 February meeting failed. Cherkess spokesmen have declined to comment on the tensions within Semenov's camp. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "Can we regard as a potential candidate [for EU membership] a state whose annual budget is equal to that of Manchester United football club?" -- Unnamed EU official commenting on Georgia's chances of joining the EU, quoted by "Izvestiya" on 7 February.

"[Karabakh President] Arkadii Ghukasian's participation in the negotiating process is inevitable. Only talks between the three presidents are able fully to tackle the heart of the issue. The Nagorno-Karabakh problem is an issue of self-determination not of territorial debate." -- Naira Melkumian, foreign minister of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, quoted by Snark, 6 February.