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Caucasus Report: November 29, 2001

29 November 2001, Volume 4, Number 39

POLL DEMONSTRATES LIMITS OF POPULAR SUPPORT FOR ARMENIAN LEADERSHIP. Between 13-15 November, the Armenian Sociological Association conducted an opinion poll among 1,000 randomly selected residents of Yerevan and three other Armenian towns on behalf of RFE/RL's Armenian Service.

The poll results reflect widespread disenchantment with President Robert Kocharian and his policies, but at the same time indicate that if a presidential poll were to take place now, neither Kocharian nor any other politician could win in the first round.

Twenty-six percent of those questioned said they would vote for Kocharian; second in popularity was National Unity Party leader Artashes Geghamian (10.5 percent), followed by People's Party of Armenia chairman Stepan Demirchian and Law-Based State Party chairman Artur Baghdasarian (4.2 percent each). By the same token, almost half of those questioned rated Kocharian's policies as either bad (19.3 percent) or very bad (28.2 percent), compared with 38.6 percent who rated those policies satisfactory.

Kocharian was ranked by only 24.5 percent of respondents as the most influential politician in Armenia, followed by Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian (13.9 percent); no other political figure was considered influential by more than 5 percent of the sample, and 31.2 percent did not rank any politician as "most influential." Those findings are seemingly at odds, however, with the answers to the question: which of the politicians listed below has the best chance of becoming the next president of Armenia? Kocharian was named by 42.3 percent as the most likely victor, followed by Geghamian (9.3 percent) and Serzh Sarkisian and former Premier Aram Sargsian (both 6.7 percent).

The poll provided seeming confirmation of a phenomenon registered in an earlier survey, namely that respondents may not necessarily answer truthfully when asked for whom they voted in the most recent presidential ballot. According to the November 2001 findings, 31.4 percent of respondents voted in 1998 for Kocharian, 33.4 percent for his rival in the runoff, Karen Demirchian, and 28.6 percent either did not vote, or voted for neither candidate. Those findings could be construed as confirmation of some Armenians' suspicions that the outcome of the 1998 presidential election was falsified. But asked by RFE/RL to comment on the apparent discrepancy, Gevorg Poghosian, who organized the survey, explained that in a similar opinion poll he conducted in 1996, very few respondents admitted to having voted in the 1991 presidential elections for Levon Ter-Petrossian, even though Ter-Petrossian won that ballot with over 80 percent of the vote.

The poll results also show a widespread lack of confidence in any political party: one-third of those questioned said that either they would not participate in a parliamentary poll (13.2 percent) or that they would not vote for any of the eight parties listed (22.9 percent.) A further 14.6 percent of the sample were undecided. The most popular political party was the Communist Party of Armenia (14.5 percent), followed by the People's Party of Armenia, (7.8 percent) and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation--Dashnaktsutiun (7.1 percent). Observers in Yerevan have queried the high rating of the Communist Party, pointing out that only a few thousand mostly elderly people attended its most recent demonstration. Curiously, only 1.4 percent of respondents said they would vote for Communist Party leader Vladimir Darpinian in a presidential ballot. (Liz Fuller)

DEFEATED INCUMBENT FAILS TO REVERSE OUTCOME OF PRESIDENTIAL BALLOT IN SOUTH OSSETIA. In a presidential ballot on 18 November deemed illegal by Georgia, Russia, and the international community, the population of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia registered its frustration with the failure of incumbent President Lyudvig Chibirov to negotiate a solution to the dispute over the republic's status. Despite having pushed through constitutional amendments intended to exclude his putative most serious rivals (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 14, 10 April 2001), and despite the administrative levers at his disposal, Chibirov polled less than 20 percent of the vote, coming third in a field of five candidates. Eduard Kokoev, a 37-year-old Moscow-based businessman polled almost 48 percent, followed by local Communist Party chairman and parliament speaker Stanislav Kochiev with 25 percent. The remaining two candidates, Justice Minister Alan Parastaev and 73-year-old local agriculture official Georgii Gagiev, garnered under 10 percent. Kokoev and Kochiev will participate in a runoff ballot scheduled for 2 December.

The leadership of the former South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast unilaterally declared its independence from the Georgian SSR in September 1990, three months before Georgia's first post-Communist leadership abrogated the region's autonomy within the Georgian SSR in direct violation of a pre-election pledge. That Georgian move triggered two years of sporadic violence in which some 1,000 people lost their lives, and many of the region's 60,000 Ossetian population fled north to the North Ossetian Republic, which is part of the Russian Federation.

Since 1991, South Ossetia has survived first thanks to cash injections from the Russian federal budget and in recent years increasingly from the smuggling of gasoline, drugs, stolen cars, and other commodities from Russia to Georgia. Tbilisi has made economic aid for the reconstruction of the region contingent on the consent of the South Ossetian leadership that the region be an autonomous republic within a unitary Georgian state.

Russian press commentators agreed unanimously that Kokoev's strong showing (especially among the younger generation) in the first round of voting was wholly unexpected. Chibirov immediately sought to discredit Kokoev, claiming that he is backed by "unsavory individuals, some of them in Moscow," according to "Vremya novostei" on 20 November. Kokoev, for his part, dismissed Chibirov's insinuations as "rubbish," noting that he served for two years as the outgoing president's trade representative in Moscow without the latter seeking to link him to any Russian mafia.

Chibirov then resorted to a show of force, sending a detachment of special police headed by his son Aleksei to the parliament building on 21 November in a bid to pressure Kochiev to withdraw his candidacy and thus thwart the runoff, necessitating a repeat election. But Kochiev refused to yield to pressure, whereupon the police detachment withdrew. Following emergency discussions with the commander of the Russian peacekeeping detachment in South Ossetia, Chibirov subsequently announced his determination "to prevent any disorder."

Chibirov's bid to reverse his election defeat could be written off to pique but for the fact that he is reportedly a timid individual who in the past has obediently fulfilled whatever instructions he received from Moscow. The question thus arises whether on this occasion he was acting independently, and if not, whether he may have become the victim of a deliberate Russian attempt to discredit him. On 23 November, Caucasus Press reported that a group of Russian State Duma deputies addressed an open letter to Chibirov, Kochiev, and Kokoev, appealing to them to "avoid...extreme methods" and "act strictly within the framework of the constitution." The same day, Chibirov announced his readiness to hand over power to Prime Minister Dmitrii Sanakoev pending the outcome of the runoff.

Chibirov's dismal performance indicates that the Ossetian electorate no longer believes he is capable of delivering the hoped-for improvement in their lives. At the same time, the fact that Kokoev polled almost twice as many votes as Kochiev, who was regarded as Chibirov's most dangerous challenger, suggests that the propaganda campaign launched by Chibirov against Kochiev was effective. Chibirov had argued that a victory for Kochiev, who openly advocates the unification of the unrecognized republic with the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania as a subject of the Russian Federation, would inevitably lead to a new war with Tbilisi. But "Kommersant-Daily" on 20 November reported that Georgian officials believe that Kokoev, too, would seek unification with North Ossetia. Caucasus Press on 21 November quoted him as saying that he will sit at the negotiating table with Georgia only after the Georgian leadership admits to aggression and genocide against the Ossetians.

Speaking to journalists in Tbilisi on 19 November, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze affirmed his readiness to cooperate with whichever candidate wins the second round of voting. Some Georgian commentators have interpreted that pronouncement as heralding what they consider unwarranted concessions that may damage Georgia's chances of ever regaining control over the breakaway region. (Liz Fuller)

WHO WAS BEHIND THE GALI FIGHTING IN 1998? Georgian parliament deputy Boris Kakubava is a controversial figure whose Russian connections are regarded with suspicion by many Georgians. The leader of one of several organizations that claim to represent the interests of the Georgian displaced persons who fled Abkhazia during the 1992-1993 war, Kakubava left Georgia in the summer of 1999 after then Georgian Interior Minister Kakha Targamadze announced that he was wanted for questioning in connection with the plot to assassinate President Eduard Shevardnadze that was uncovered in May of that year. Kakubava was subsequently formally charged with involvement in the assassination bid and with "criminal contacts" with former Georgian National Security chief Igor Giorgadze, wanted for his alleged role in the failed bid to kill Shevardnadze in August 1995.

Kakubava's fellow parliament deputies voted in September 1999 to lift his immunity from prosecution. The following year, he made known his desire to return to Tbilisi and asked to be allowed to address parliament, after which, he said, he would surrender to police. Parliament rejected that request, but a group of Kakubava's supporters petitioned the Prosecutor-General's Office in June 2001 to drop the charges against him, albeit without success.

Kakubava returned to Tbilisi in early October and promptly predicted that an attempt would be made to kill Shevardnadze before the end of the month. Meanwhile the parliament's procedure committee ruled that the 1999 vote stripping Kakubava of his deputy's immunity was invalid, and annulled it on 26 October.

His immunity from prosecution restored, on 21 November Kakubava convened a press conference at which he stated that the charges brought against him by the Georgian Prosecutor General's Office were without foundation and were intended to "annihilate" him because he was aware of the true background to the resumption of fighting in Abkhazia's Gali Raion in May 1998 (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 1, No. 13, 26 May 1998).

Kakubava went on to claim that in late September 1997 he, parliament deputy Germane Patsatsia, and Abkhaz Supreme Council in exile chairman Tamaz Nadareishvili met with Shevardnadze, to whom they proposed creating a 1,500 strong Georgian guerrilla unit that was to attack Abkhazia with the aim of forcing the Abkhaz leadership to agree to peace talks. Kakubava said Shevardnadze approved that proposal and agreed to provide $12 million to fund it, but subsequently pegged his approval of the proposed attack to naming Interior Minister Targamadze to oversee the operation. Kakubava refused to participate in an undertaking coordinated by Targamadze who, he alleged, diverted most of the $12 million for his own use.

Kakubava claimed to have documentary proof to support his allegations, and demanded that parliament form a special commission to investigate the Gali fiasco. (One year earlier, Elguja Guledani, who heads another organization representing displaced persons from Abkhazia, similarly alleged that the Interior Ministry managed to divert $12 million raised by "a local sponsor" to finance a new attack on Abkhazia. Guledani, however, did not mention Shevardnadze in that connection.)

As indicated above, Kakubava's reliability is questionable: but his allegations are nonetheless plausible. And, if true, they would help explain the source of Targamadze's wealth and why Shevardnadze has consistently shielded the former minister against the allegations of corruption leveled against him. (Liz Fuller)

'MILITARY ANARCHY' REIGNS IN CHECHNYA. Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who last month fled to the West to escape reprisals for her reporting on the war in Chechnya (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 October 2001), told an RFE/RL audience on 20 November that "a state of total military anarchy" exists in Chechnya, where even "bits of territory inside a Russian military zone" are subject to ever-changing lines of authority among various Russian military units.

Politkovskaya, a special correspondent for Moscow's "Novaya Gazeta," described the Russian military campaign in Chechnya as a "war of the colonels," particularly in the mountains, where federal troops act on their own and define their role as "to avenge their fallen comrades." Under these conditions, prosecutors and courts in Chechnya allow the Russian military to engage in "ethnic cleansing" and the taking of hostages, Politkovskaya said. She estimates that there are 2,000 Chechen families searching for their detained relatives at this time, unable to pay Russian troops the required ransoms to obtain their release.

Politkovskaya said she sees no quick end to the conflict, because new armed formations have entered the war on both sides. Some Russian troops in Grozny have joined the Chechens, and a "civil war" exists among the Chechen field commanders, 90 percent of whom detest the presence of Arab mercenaries that are reportedly aiding some 10 percent of Chechen units. Politkovskaya said that in two years of covering the war she "has not seen a single Arab mercenary, dead, wounded or alive, among the Chechen fighters," although Russian military spokespersons consistently point to such a presence.

On the basis of her own reporting, Politkovskaya believes that controversial Chechen field commander Shamil Basaev is cooperating with the Russian Federal Security Bureau (FSB), which now directs the Russian campaign in Chechnya. Basaev is said to use Arab mercenaries among his troops. Politkovskaya said that when the Russian military seeks to publicly justify its war against radical Islamic bandits in Chechnya, Basaev's troops will enter a village to provoke an attack and then "escape" before Russian military units begin their "cleansing" operation. She gave two examples she witnessed of this pattern: the village of Mahketi in Vedeno district and the town of Gudermes in August. (RFE/RL)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "We will always be in power." -- Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliev's son Ilham, speaking at the second congress of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party on 21 November (quoted by Turan).

"One cannot but feel ill at ease knowing that one's neighbor is Azerbaijan, and next to him is Turkey, a friend of Azerbaijan, knowing that the 5th corps of Azerbaijan's army stationed in Nakhichevan is fully maintained at the expense of the 9th Turkish army." -- Vahan Hovhannissian, the head of the Armenian parliament's Standing Commission on Defense, National Security, and Internal Affairs, quoted by Noyan Tapan on 19 November.

"We do not need to win a war, we want others to be afraid of attacking us." -- Hovhannissian, ibid.

"Unfortunately, declaring wars and stopping them has been Russia's prerogative throughout the entire history of Russian-Chechen relations." -- Chechen presidential representative Akhmed Zakaev, in an interview with "Kommersant" on 20 November.