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Caucasus Report: April 26, 2001

26 April 2001, Volume 4, Number 16

PAPERING OVER THE CRACKS IN GEORGIA. Events in Tbilisi over the past week have confirmed the existence of tensions both between cabinet ministers and within the ruling Union of Citizens of Georgia (SMK). But the measures proposed thus far to address those problems do not appear likely to be effective as rival politicians continue to hone their strategies for the post-Shevardnadze era.

Ever since Eduard Shevardnadze's re-election in April 2000, political commentators in Tbilisi have been looking ahead to the transition of power due in 2005. At least some possible presidential candidates in 2005 have already been identified. But at the same time, many observers in Tbilisi believe that major shifts in the political landscape will occur well before that date. Some of the most intense speculation has focused on the SMK, which Shevardnadze himself created in late 1993 as his personal power base, and on a possible fundamental restructuring of the existing balance of power between the president, the parliament, and the executive branch.

At a behind-closed-doors meeting in Tbilisi on 20 April of the SMK board, which Shevardnadze attended in his capacity as chairman of that party, it was agreed that the constitution should be amended to reintroduce the post of prime minister which was abolished when the present constitution was adopted in 1995, and to amend the balance of power between the president, the executive, and the legislature. (At present, the president functions as head of the government.) Several prominent opposition politicians, including Union of Traditionalists' Chairman Akaki Asatiani, Shevardnadze's successor as Georgian Communist Party First Secretary Djumber Patiashvili, and Liberal Economic Party Chairman Beso Djugheli, have long argued in favor of the restoration of the post of premier (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, No. 17, 28 April 2000).

Shevardnadze proposed on 23 April during his weekly radio broadcast that the upgraded government should have "broad authorities and considerable responsibilities." The parliament will acquire the right to propose a no-confidence vote in the government, and the president will be empowered to dissolve parliament, Shevardnadze added. But he rejected as unsuited to Georgia both the Russian and Polish models, arguing instead for a uniquely Georgian variant. (Both the Russian and Polish constitutions stipulate the circumstances and procedure according to which parliament may impeach the president.) And in a hint that further amendments to the constitution to define the role of the autonomies may be made at the same time, he added that a number of cabinet posts may be reserved for officials from Georgia's autonomous republics. That statement led the newspaper "Akhali taoba" to suggest on 24 April that Shevardnadze may offer the post of premier to his erstwhile rival, Adjar Supreme Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze.

But Koba Davitashvili, the informal leader of the "liberals" within the SMK, argued after the 20 April session structural changes fail to address the very real challenges the party faces. Those challenges derive, first, from the "liberals'" frustration that reforms have ground to a halt because the majority has lost any interest in continuing with them (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, No. 26, 28 June 2000 and No. 34, 24 August 2000); second, from repeated conflicts between cabinet ministers who at times appear to be pursuing diametrically opposed interests; and third, from the widely held perception that corruption has permeated both the government apparatus and the SMK, and that despite his repeated vows to eradicate it, Shevardnadze is either actively protecting corrupt officials or is powerless to axe them.

Liberal members of the SMK may be profoundly upset by the extent of corruption, but until last week none had publicly questioned Shevardnadze's commitment to fighting it. Then on 16 April, the "Washington Post" quoted Vano Merabishvili, chairman of the parliament's Committee for Economic Policy, as implying that Shevardnadze condones corruption and protectionism, including by his relatives and close associates. "He's tired now.... He doesn't even want to hear the word reform now. If he says he's fighting corruption and wants reform, it's only to keep the West supporting him. As a member of his party, I feel he doesn't have the political will to change anything," the paper quoted Merabishvili as saying.

Observers in Tbilisi believe that Merabishvili's statements, in conjunction with the prospect of a top-level personnel reshuffle, could serve to deepen incipient tensions between two young SMK politicians who are both seen as possible future presidential candidates, parliament speaker Zurab Zhvania and Justice Minister Mikhail Saakashvili. Zhvania, who was visiting Tehran last week, immediately issued a statement castigating Merabishvili for unethical behavior. Zhvania thus demonstratively aligned himself with Shevardnadze, at least for the time being. (Observers do not exclude the possibility that he could challenge Shevardnadze at some later date.) As for Saakashvili, even if Merabishvili were not his protege, he cannot, by virtue of his office, afford to dismiss Merabishvili's allegations out of hand.

Commentators therefore identify Zhvania as the politician most likely to benefit from any personnel reshuffle in the near future. Former Georgian intelligence chief Irakli Batiashvili claimed that Zhvania sees Georgia as a parliamentary republic in which he would occupy the post of premier, while Reuters on 20 April quoted Shevardnadze as naming Zhvania, together with Foreign Minister Irakli Menagharishvili and former Minister of State Niko Lekishvili, as a potential candidate for that post. But whether Zhvania, who lacks economic and administrative experience, is the most appropriate candidate is another question. Lekishvili, for his part, went on record last week as saying that given the personal animosities between cabinet members, the entire government should resign before those differences precipitate "total collapse," according to "Akhali taoba" on 20 April.

Others believe that both Zhvania and Saakashvili have aspirations to succeed Shevardnadze as president, despite Saakashvili's protestations to the contrary. (Saakashvili is not in fact eligible to contest the presidency: he will not turn 35, the minimum age for registering as a presidential candidate, until December 2002.) But Elene Tevdoradze, a parliament deputy from the "liberal" minority within the SMK who knows Saakashvili well, has predicted that, if asked by supporters to launch a bid for national leadership, Saakashvili would find it difficult to refuse. She noted that it was Saakashvili's name that the demonstrators who took to the streets to protest power cuts in Tbilisi last fall were chanting.

But any personnel changes may still be months away. Shevardnadze's representative to the parliament, Djoni Khetsuriani, said the process of forming a new cabinet may not get under way before the fall, while Interfax on 23 April quoted Shevardnadze as saying, first that the cabinet should not be changed "at the initial stage," and second, that pre-term parliamentary elections could be held, after which representatives of the party that win a majority in the new legislature will form the new cabinet. Such a delay would alienate the opposition, but give potential candidates for the post of premier more time to muster support. It would not, however, augur well for the holding of free, fair, and transparent elections. (Liz Fuller)

NEW BAKU MAYOR'S CLEANUP CAMPAIGN SPARKS PROTESTS. Meeting on 31 January with Baku city officials, Azerbaijan's President Heidar Aliyev named former Deputy Prime Minister Hadjibala Abutalibov as the city's new mayor. An astrophysicist by training, the 57-year-old Abutalibov had served prior to transferring to the government as mayor of Baku's Surakhany district, where he had made a name for himself by cracking down on illegal street trading and by creating several parks named after Aliev.

Aliyev made it clear that he expected Abutalibov to take immediate action to resolve chronic socioeconomic problems plaguing the capital and to crack down on illegal activities that had, according to the president, flourished unpunished under Abutalibov's predecessor, Rafael Allakhverdiev. A longtime associate of Aliyev and one of the founding members of his Yeni Azerbaycan Party, Allakhverdiev had quit his post last October, having by his own account fallen foul of influential figures within the government and the presidential administration (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, No. 42, 27 October 2000).

At the 31 January meeting, Aliyev singled out as problems that he expressly wished Abutalibov to tackle the removal of illegally constructed kiosks and other buildings which "grossly mar the architectural beauty" of the capital. This Abutalibov immediately set about doing: already on 7 February, "Zerkalo" reported that numerous kiosks, cafes, and tea-rooms in the city center had already been dismantled, and that the streets not only in the center but on the outskirts of Baku were being cleared of trash, as a result of which "the city really is becoming more beautiful." The paper also reported that Abutalibov had fired several senior municipal officials and was requiring those who remained to work up to 12 hours a day.

But at the same time, the first signs of resentment at Abutalibov's cleanup campaign had already manifested themselves: on 6 February hundreds of displaced persons forced to flee the Armenian occupation in 1993 of the territories where they had lived congregated outside the town hall to protest the new crackdown on street trading, which constituted their sole source of income. Meeting with the protesters, Abutalibov accused the Azerbaijani opposition of having encouraged them to launch the protest in order to embarrass the country's leadership.

Nor were the petty traders the only ones to harbor a grievance against the new mayor: "Yeni Azerbaycan," the newspaper of the eponymous ruling party, reported in mid-March that unidentified criminal bosses were also discomforted by Abutalibov's activities and were seeking to blackmail him.

By mid-April, the number of illegally constructed buildings demolished had reached 25,000, and Abutalibov had also locked horns with the press. First, his office brought libel suits against five opposition or independent newspapers, including "Yeni Zaman," which had alleged in articles published on 30 March and 5 April that Abutalibov was systematically appointing to influential positions persons who, like himself, hailed from Nakhichevan. Then Abutalibov gave orders to demolish an independent chain of newspaper kiosks that constituted competition to the state-owned newspaper distribution system.

But the earlier expressions of dissatisfaction with Abutalibov's cleanup campaign pale in comparison with the reactions to the demolition in mid-April of a sanitary complex close to the mosque located near the cemetery in Baku where victims of the Soviet army attack of 19 January 1990 and Karabakh war dead are buried. The destruction of those buildings sparked protests not only from Azerbaijan's leading Muslim cleric, Sheikh-ul-Islam Allakhshukur Pashazade, who argued that he should have been notified before any such action was undertaken, but also from the Turkish Embassy in Baku. (Ankara had financed construction of both the mosque and the adjacent complex in 1996.) Turkey's first deputy ambassador in Baku, Gursel Evren, questioned the rationale cited by Abutalibov for demolishing the complex, namely that water mains which run beneath the complex were in need of repairs.

The nature of the hierarchy of political power in Azerbaijan is such that it would be unthinkable for Abutalibov to risk precipitating an international incident unless he believed he had the backing of the head of state. By the same token, Ankara's momentary displeasure at the gesture of disrespect which the destruction of the complex symbolized is certain not to impact on the two countries' closest shared interests, specifically the export to or via Turkey of hydrocarbons from Azerbaijan's sector of the Caspian. Pro-Aliyev Azerbaijan parliament deputies on 24 April rejected the Turkish protest as inappropriate and expressed their support for Abutalibov.

But one additional factor sheds a new light both on the rationale for Abutalibov's cleanup campaign and on the possible repercussions of the destruction of the mosque facilities. Shortly before the destruction of the mosque sanitary complex, the independent newspaper "Sharq" reported that an unidentified group of individuals have selected the mayor as their proposed candidate to succeed Aliyev as president. (Aliev's term of office expires in late 2003.) And a second opposition newspaper, "Hurriyet," identified Abutalibov as close to Ramiz Mehtiev, the influential head of the presidential administration, who has emerged as a possible challenger to President Aliev's son and putative preferred successor Ilham.

A small wealthy minority of Baku residents may approve of Abutalibov's campaign to beautify the city, but the radical opposition paper "Yeni Musavat" has pointed out that the cleanup campaign has alienated tens of thousands of displaced persons, long-term unemployed engaged in casual trading, and owners of small kiosks, who have been deprived of their livelihood, and would therefore be unlikely to cast their votes for Abutalibov in a presidential ballot. Assuming that Abutalibov's imputed presidential aspirations really exist, the question thus arises: did Aliyev identify Abutalibov as a potential threat to Ilham's presidential chances months ago, and was his appointment as mayor, which surprised many political observers in Baku, a poisoned chalice intended to neutralize that threat? (Liz Fuller)

MORE COUNTRIES SUPPORT ARMENIA ON GENOCIDE. 24 April is a day that Armenians throughout the world remember all too well, a day that evokes painful memories and keeps alive their resolve to have the rest of the world recognize the tragedy they were subjected to in 1915.

This year's remembrance of the estimated 1.5 million victims of that horrible event, the defining moment in the nation's long history, has an important difference from previous ones. For it follows ground-breaking developments that have raised the long-running campaign for international condemnation of the mass killings and deportations to new heights.

"We are definitely closer [to recognition]," said Lucig Danielian, a political science professor at the American University of Armenia (AUA). "There can be no doubt that there has been tremendous progress over the last twenty years and that Armenians have been able to achieve the goals that they have set for themselves. And there is no doubt that we will continue to achieve them and that were are getting closer and closer to the point where recognition will be considered the normal state of affairs and we will no longer have to be proving that the genocide took place."

Rouben Adalian, director of the New York-based Armenian National Institution (ANI) agreed: "The breakthrough has been achieved, the barriers have been crossed and the struggle for universal affirmation is now on a very different plane."

Few observers could predict what a snowball effect the appearance of a pro-Armenian resolution on the Congress floor last October would have. A last-minute intervention from former President Bill Clinton, whose extraordinary warning about danger facing "American lives" in Turkey led Speaker Dennis Hastert to block a vote in the House of Representatives, may have killed the non-binding legislation. But it was to become a catalyst for more successful Armenian lobbying efforts in major European countries.

The Turkish government's consistent policy of opposing such resolutions suffered its greatest setback in November when both houses of the French parliament unanimously approved a bill officially recognizing the Armenian genocide. President Jacques Chirac signed it into law in January, ignoring Turkish threats of economic sanctions against France.

A similar initiative was, in the meantime, approved by the parliament of Italy. And the European Parliament further infuriated Ankara by referring to the genocide in a statement setting out requirements for Turkey's membership of the European Union. The word "genocide" was also mentioned in a joint statement late last year by the heads of the Roman Catholic and Armenian Apostolic Churches, in what amounted to the Vatican's affirmation of the tragedy.

Meanwhile, the recognition effort appears to be again gathering momentum in the U.S., with President George W. Bush facing mounting pressure to reaffirm his pre-election statement that Armenians had been victims of a "genocidal campaign." Armenian-American groups, which now boast one of the most influential ethnic lobbies on Capitol Hill, now say that passage of an appropriate congressional resolution is just a matter of time.

This could indeed be tantamount to international recognition of the genocide that Armenia seeks. But most Armenians will not consider "historical justice" restored as long as Turkey remains unrepentant about its past. There is, however, no reason to expect that Turkey's present political and military elite will reconsider its stance that the events of 1915 are a matter of history and not something for which it is responsible.

The official Turkish version of the tragic events has it that the Armenian death toll is grossly exaggerated and that most of those deaths resulted from internal strife, disease, and hunger that had plagued the crumbling Ottoman Empire. The death marches to the Syrian desert by hundreds of thousands of children, women, and the elderly are described as the evacuation of a population sympathetic to enemy troops fighting the Ottoman Turks in the First World War.

For the vast majority of Turks, this is the essence of what their leaders call "Armenian incidents." Not surprisingly, their dominant reaction to the recent wave of genocide resolutions was shock and anger. But perhaps more importantly, the international resonance has also meant that the issue is being for the first time openly discussed in Turkey. And although the dominant view continues to be one of denial of any wrongdoing, there are growing calls for the nation to confront its troubled past.

"I think that we must get rid of the taboos that surround the events of 1915," Halil Berktay, a history professor at Istanbul's Sabanci University, wrote in the French weekly "L'Express" last November. "For decades, Turkish public opinion is being lulled to sleep by the same lullaby. And yet there are tons of documents proving the sad reality," Berktay said. "Turkish society is going through a crisis of negation," his colleague from Galatasaray University, Ahmet Insel, noted in a February article for the Turkish daily "Radikal."

This is the kind of change which AUA's Danielian finds "extremely important." She says: "I think it is one of the expected by-products of all of this activity. Really, what we are talking about is dialogue with not only the Turkish state but with its people as well."

One of the proposed ways of such dialogue is for the matter to be discussed by Armenian and Turkish historians. Armenian scholars say such discussions are welcome as long as they do not question the very fact of a genocide. As ANI's Adalian puts it: "There should be parity, there should be an understanding that the subject is not questionable but rather an open discussion is being held on the historic effects of the Armenian genocide and not on whether it occurred or didn't occur."

One thing that makes official Ankara so opposed to the recognition is the fear of Armenian territorial claims on parts of eastern Turkey that had once made up part of ancient and medieval Armenian kingdoms. While there is consensus in Armenia and the diaspora over the need for international recognition, Armenians have still to agree on what its ultimate aim should be. Nationalist groups such as the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutyun still have the creation of a "united Armenia" on their political agenda.

Successive governments in Yerevan, however, have ruled out making any territorial demands on Turkey. President Robert Kocharian reiterated this stance in a recent interview with the CNN-Turk news channel. Kocharian said that even if Ankara were to "ask forgiveness for what has happened," Yerevan would not be able to lay claim to its territory because "today's Republic of Armenia is not the heir to those lands."

A research and analysis group of the Armenian News Network, a California-based online news service, concluded in an article on 15 April that the diaspora Armenians, the main driving force behind the recognition campaign, must submit a specific "list of reparations" to the Turkish authorities. "The issue of reparations cannot be disentangled from the issue of recognition. Turkey will not take the final step until it knows what it will encounter next," the analysts said.

"The publication of such a reparation list can also be used during the gradual process of rapprochement, which is needed if the Turkish state starts shifting its attitude towards the genocide legacy. In return for Turkey taking some steps towards implementing some of the provisions mentioned in this list (for example, returning abandoned Armenian Church property to its rightful owner, the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul), the diaspora Armenians may agree to temporarily slow down their international campaign for genocide recognition to allow the Turkish elite time to prepare the public for the coming shift in position." (Emil Danielyan)