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Caucasus Report: December 6, 2001

6 December 2001, Volume 4, Number 40

AZERBAIJAN'S RULING PARTY SEEKS TO PRESERVE ITS HOLD ON POWER... On 21 November, the ninth anniversary of its foundation, some 2,000 of the estimated 230,000 members of the Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP) attended the party's second congress in Baku. The single most crucial issue on the agenda, even if nowhere spelled out explicitly, was to rally the party behind President Heidar Aliev's son, Ilham, whom YAP Executive Secretary Ali Akhmedov referred to in a 10 November interview with the independent daily "Zerkalo" as Aliev's "political successor."

The congress duly voted in favor of creating the new position of first deputy party chairman, and unanimously elected Ilham Aliyev to that post, giving him a standing ovation and acclaiming him as "Azerbaijan's Future!" and "the only successor to Heidar Aliev!" Ilham had been elected one of YAP's five deputy chairmen at the party's first congress in December 1999 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 December 1999). But at the same time, delegates selected the 78-year-old Heidar as the party's candidate to contest the presidential election due in October 2003.

In his "Zerkalo" interview, Akhmedov explained the decision to elect Ilham as YAP first deputy chairman in terms of the prominent role he has played in national politics over the past two years. In addition to his duties as first deputy president of the state oil company SOCAR, Ilham has assumed those of chairman of the country's national Olympic Committee. He also heads Azerbaijan's delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

In the same interview, Akhmedov categorically denied that even a single member of YAP opposed Ilham's promotion or failed to acknowledge him as his father's "only worthy successor." Some political observers, however, have long suspected that other members of the Azerbaijani leadership may aspire to the presidency, among them the 63-year-old former Azerbaijan CP Central Committee secretary for ideology, Ramiz Mekhtiev, who currently heads the presidential administration. Akhmedov also dismissed as calumny claims that YAP is split along generational lines into the "old guard" and the younger generation. (Up to one-third of the party's members are said to be between 18 and 35 years of age.)

Assuming that rival factions do exist within YAP, there are at least two compelling reasons why their members should choose not to make their views known. First, any demonstration of less than 100 percent support for the heir-designate is likely to be punished by demotion, disgrace, and loss of political influence. And second, insofar as Ilham Aliyev has at present no alternative power base to YAP, his political future and that of its members are, at least for the near future, inextricably linked: Once Heidar Aliyev leaves the political scene, Ilham will at least initially need YAP's support, and thus the two will sink or swim together.

That awareness may have contributed to the harshness with which speakers castigated the still-divided Azerbaijani opposition. In his two-hour speech to the congress (which he admitted was intended to dispel speculation about his failing health), Heidar Aliyev criticized YAP members for failing to respond adequately to the incessant criticism leveled at himself and his son by the "aggressive" and "radical" opposition. Ilham Aliev, for his part, accused opposition parties of unspecified "anti-state activities" and of "bending over backwards" to please pro-Armenian forces abroad. He dismissed the opposition's political concepts as on the level of elementary school students. Delegates subsequently adopted an appeal to the Azerbaijani people accusing the opposition of accepting funds from abroad to finance the publication of articles "contrary to our national self-respect, mentality, and morals, and resort[ing] to lies, slander, and other dirty tricks in order to discredit the authorities' comprehensive state policy." The appeal characterized those "anti-national" and "anti-state" actions as treason.

Some opposition figures and political commentators interpreted that rhetoric as heralding a new crackdown on opposition parties and the independent press. On 3 December, Rauf Arifoglu, radical editor of the newspaper "Yeni Musavat," told journalists in Baku that the authorities are planning to close that newspaper, together with "Hurriyet," which is aligned with the opposition Azerbaijan Democratic Party, and the independent "Azadlyq."

But other political figures, including Musavat Party Chairman Isa Gambar, argued that the congress showed that YAP is nothing more than a "relic of the Soviet era," and that its members neither trust each other nor have any faith in Ilham Aliev's ability to lead the country. Ali Kerimli, head of the reformist wing of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, predicted to Turan that YAP will not survive the first democratic elections to be held in Azerbaijan. (Liz Fuller)

...WHILE OPPOSITION REMAINS AT ODDS. The recent predictions of YAP's imminent disintegration have been as much a perennial feature of political life in Azerbaijan as the periodic talks among opposition party leaders on the terms on which they might theoretically form a united front against the party of power. Over the past two months, two new attempts have been launched to unite opposition parties in the run-up to the presidential elections in 2003 and the parliamentary ballot two years later.

Such calls for unity are nothing new, but such alignments as have actually materialized have generally proved either ineffective or short-lived. The most prominent, the Democratic Congress comprising 10 opposition parties, split into a reformist and a conservative faction in August 2000 following the death of the former president and Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP) chairman, Abulfaz Elchibey, duplicating a similar schism within the AHCP.

In mid-October 2001, Musavat Party Chairman Isa Gambar, who heads the conservative Democratic Congress, appealed to opposition parties to align on the basis of four principles: holding a summit of party leaders; concluding an agreement on cooperation; creating a permanent opposition alignment; and agreeing to field a single candidate, to be chosen through U.S.-style "primaries," in the presidential poll in 2003. But while several of his fellow opposition leaders agreed to the first three of those points, they were not happy with the fourth. Liberal Party leader Lala Shovket Gadjieva, one of the five who boycotted the 1998 presidential ballot, rejected the idea of selecting a single opposition candidate as reflecting "a totalitarian mindset." She added that she would feel "ashamed" to compete for that nomination.

Two weeks after Gambar's initiative, Ali Kerimli, leader of the progressive wing of the AHCP, signed a cooperation agreement with Azerbaijan National Independence Party Chairman Etibar Mamedov. (Mamedov claimed to have polled 24 percent of the vote in the 1998 presidential ballot compared with Heidar Aliev's 59 percent; official returns gave Aliyev 76 percent and Mamedov only 11.6 percent.) That agreement, which was also signed by the tiny Taraggi Party, envisages the following:

coordinating activities and specific measures on all issues;

discussing the most pressing issues with a view to arriving at a single position;

adopting a unified policy with regard to other political forces;

refraining from mutual criticism;

endorsing the idea of proposing a single candidate for the 2003 presidential poll, and joint lists of candidates for the next parliamentary election; and

cooperating to ensure that those elections are free and fair.

Gambar immediately lauded the three-party agreement as a step toward clarifying the political landscape. He added that, while Musavat hopes for an alignment of all opposition parties, his party would consider joining the new bloc if its members endorse his proposal for selecting a single opposition presidential candidate by means of primaries. Mamedov then met with Gambar in early November but failed in his bid to effect a rapprochement between Musavat and Kerimli's wing of the AHCP.

Kerimli is on record as saying that he would withdraw his own candidacy in the next presidential ballot if he believed an alternative candidate stood better chances than he did. But it is difficult to envisage either Mamedov or Gambar stepping down in favor of the other. (Liz Fuller)

HOW SHOULD GEORGIA'S POLITICAL CRISIS BE RESOLVED? The constraints imposed by the Georgian Constitution, on the one hand, and the collapse in September of the parliamentary majority, on the other, constitute major obstacles to resolving the current political crisis in Georgia. In a roundtable discussion on 14 November moderated by RFE/RL's Tbilisi bureau, parliament deputies Koba Davitashvili, who quit the ruling Union of Citizens of Georgia (SMK) faction in September, and Vakhtang Khmaladze, who was elected on the ticket of the opposition "Industry Will Save Georgia" bloc, expressed widely diverging opinions on how the existing political system should be changed in order to expedite a solution to the crisis.

The only issue on which the two men agreed was that the election on 10 November of Nino Burdjanadze as parliament speaker is unlikely to impact on the campaign for preterm presidential and parliamentary elections spearheaded by former prominent SMK members now in open opposition to President Eduard Shevardnadze. Khmaladze pointed out that the existing constitution does not provide for preterm presidential or parliamentary elections, and that amending the constitution requires a vote by 157 or two-thirds of all deputies, which would be difficult if not impossible to achieve. Davitashvili stressed that one of the fundamental demands put forward by the protesters who took to the streets of Tbilisi in early November was new presidential and parliamentary elections, and that it is therefore imperative to amend the constitution to "perfect" the existing system to provide for such elections.

Asked by RFE/RL moderator David Kakabadze whether it would not make more sense to set about curbing the president's powers and introducing the cabinet of ministers model as Shevardnadze proposed doing earlier this year (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 4, No. 19, 21 May 2001), Davitashvili said that in his view the problem is not that the president enjoys sweeping powers, especially if one compares the powers of the Georgian president with his U.S. counterpart (the Georgian presidential system is closer to those of Russia, France or the Central Asian states). Neither is Shevardnadze "a dictatorial nature" with "a large appetite" [for power], he said. The problem is that, on the contrary, Shevardnadze frequently proves unable to exercise the powers that he does have, Davitashvili said. At the same time, he argued that it would be appropriate to amend the constitution to strip the Georgian president of the right of legislative initiative and of the right to veto amendments to the budget.

Khmaladze, too, advocated reducing the president's powers, but he added that doing so would not of itself enable the political system to function more smoothly or offer a way out of crises such as the present one. He argued that if the constitution is amended to allow for the president to be removed from power by a two-thirds majority vote even if he has not violated the law or the constitution, then as a counterbalance the president should be empowered to dissolve parliament. Khmaladze also rejected calls for amending the constitution to allow for holding a referendum on whether preterm elections should be held, pointing out that such a possibility would deprive the leadership of the freedom to adopt and then implement measures that are imperative for the country's long-term interests but highly unpopular with the electorate in the short term -- such the economic "shock therapy" program implemented by Polish Finance Minister Leszek Balcerowicz.

Khmaladze therefore proposed first amending the constitution to create a parliamentary republic in which the presidential powers are greatly reduced and executive power is vested in the government. Only then, Khmaladze said, should new elections be held.

Davitashvili objected, however, saying he considers it unacceptable that the parliament should be empowered to vote no-confidence in the government and that the president should be empowered to dissolve parliament, but that the electorate should not have any similar right.

He went on to argue that while the current leadership is unpopular, the next leadership will enjoy popular support. When the leadership enjoys popular trust, he asked, which is the more dangerous: a model which concentrates all power in the hands of the parliament which then forms the government, or a presidential system in which there are effective checks on the power of the president?

Khmaladze replied that it is far simpler to protect against abuse of power in a parliamentary republic than under a presidential system because it is far easier to replace the leadership. (Liz Fuller)

TURKISH-ARMENIAN COMMISSION REQUESTS 'INDEPENDENT' JUDGMENT ON 1915 GENOCIDE. During a four-day session in New York last month, the controversial Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC) created this summer asked experts on international law to conduct a study to determine whether the1915 mass killings and deportations of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire constituted a genocide, RFE/RL learned on 28 November.

American scholar David Phillips, who played a major role in the TARC's creation and chaired the four-day meeting, said in a 26 November statement that the 10 prominent Turkish and Armenian members of the panel requested that the New York-based International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) "facilitate the provision of an independent third party analysis of the applicability of the 1948 [UN] Genocide Convention to events at the beginning of the 20th century." Phillips said that analysis "will be made available on a confidential basis."

Differing interpretations of the massacres of 1915 are at the heart of a deep divide between Armenia and Turkey. Successive Turkish governments have consistently denied that 1.5 million people died as a result of a systematic effort to exterminate the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire. Ankara insists that Armenians were targeted by the Ottoman regime because of their collaboration with advancing Russian troops.

The TARC, set up in July with the behind-the-scenes backing of the U.S. State Department, has the stated aim of facilitating a normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations. Its members, which include two former foreign ministers, have insisted until now they will not debate the validity of the two sides' positions on the Armenian genocide. But Phillips' statement, revealed to RFE/RL by a source close to the commission, says they "will consider the result of ICTJ's independent analysis" of the issue at further gatherings.

Many Armenian leaders and diaspora activists view the TARC's creation as part of a Turkish ploy to prevent international recognition of the genocide. In particular, they point to the fact that the European Parliament in October refused to mention the Armenian genocide in a resolution on Turkey, citing the TARC's existence.

Tension ran high on the first day of the New York meeting on 18 November, with the commission's four Armenian members threatening to suspend their participation in the reconciliation initiative if it harms the genocide recognition process. One of them, Moscow-based political analyst Andranik Migranian, told RFE/RL that the Turkish commission members were also warned against making more statements to the effect that Turkey will never condemn the 1915 killings as a genocide. Migranian said subsequent discussions proceeded in a more relaxed atmosphere.

But the two sides failed to agree on the wording of a joint statement summarizing the results of the four-day session, which is why Phillips was asked to do so. The Turkish side reportedly objected strongly to any mention in that statement of the UN Genocide Convention, arguing that such a reference would create problems for them on their return to Turkey.

Phillips' 26 November statement says the Turkish and Armenian participants agreed at the end of the meeting that "the existence of TARC should not be used to influence the attitudes of the international community towards its relations with Armenia and Turkey." Phillips also said the Turkish and Armenian TARC members also acknowledged that their dialogue is "not a substitute" for diplomatic relations between the two neighboring states -- a key point made by the Armenian government, which is skeptical about the success of the U.S.-backed initiative.

In a telephone interview with RFE/RL on 29 November, Migranian said that it would be "a great political and military victory" for Armenia if the ICTJ experts conclude that the killings of 1915 did indeed constitute a genocide. But former Armenian Foreign Minister Alezander Arzoumanian sounded a note of caution, warning that there is no guarantee that the ICTJ's findings will result in a substantive change in the Turkish position.

Migranian and Arzoumanian also disclosed that the six Turkish TARC members, including former Foreign Minister Ilter Turkmen, believe that Ankara should unconditionally raise its blockade of Armenia, as normalizing trade and transportation between Armenia and Turkey would contribute to reconciliation. Successive Turkish governments have linked the lifting of the blockade to Armenia's acceptance of Azerbaijani sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh. But Migranian added that the Turkish TARC members refused to affirm that position in a joint statement for fearing of provoking an outraged reaction from Azerbaijan. (Emil Danielyan and Harry Tamrazian)

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK. "Fifteen-thousand convicts for a country with a population of 8 million people is too much. This figure must be reduced. " -- Ambassador Gerard Stoudmann, director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutes and Human Rights, speaking at a press conference in Baku on 29 November (quoted by Turan).