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Caucasus Report: February 11, 2000

11 February 2000, Volume 3, Number 6

Why Musavat? On 7 February, a group of some 100 armed men attacked the Baku headquarters of the opposition Musavat Party and the newspaper, "Yeni Musavat," breaking down the main door, smashing windows, and forcibly abducting "Yeni Musavat" journalist Elbey Hasanli. Police summoned to the building failed to intervene. The attackers were identified as inhabitants of the village of Nehram in Nakhichevan's Djulfa Raion, who were reportedly incensed by articles in which Hasanli criticized conditions in the exclave. Hasanli was taken to Nakhichevan to face court charges, but released late on 9 February.

The incident was widely condemned by other Azerbaijani opposition parties and by human rights groups. Presidential administration official Ali Hasanov, while implying that he considered the villagers' indignation justified, nonetheless conceded that the form in which they expressed that protest was unacceptable. Baku police have opened a criminal case on charges of hooliganism.

Musavat Party chairman Isa Gambar on 7 February blamed the attack on the Azerbaijani authorities, claiming that they had known in advance that it was planned but taken no steps to prevent it. Other opposition parties, meeting in Baku the following day, condemned the violence as "political terrorism" aimed at creating artificial tensions and destabilizing the political situation.

On a superficial level, the attack on Musavat could be regarded as merely the continuation of a pattern of seemingly arbitrary reprisals in recent years against opposition political parties and publications. Moreover, Musavat has previously been subject to harassment in Nakhichevan: party secretary Sulkhaddin Akper was detained last summer in Djulfa Raion and fined for insulting the police, and the party's Djulfa branch was evicted from its office in November. Three officials from the Musavat Party's Nakhichevan branch were arrested in early February on charges of slander. On 5 February, a group of 70 people attacked Musavat Party headquarters in the town of Nakhichevan, destroying documents and office equipment.

But more fundamentally, both the timing of the Baku violence and the fact that Musavat, rather than another prominent opposition party, was the target may be significant. Last month, Gambar proposed that opposition parties should join forces and field a combined list of candidates in the parliamentary elections due this November. True, other opposition parties reacted coolly to that proposal, which some political observers have claimed is unrealistic. But in making it, Gambar may also have been making a tacit bid for the status of "primus inter pares" within the ranks of opposition party leaders. The previous claimant to that role, Azerbaijan Popular Front chairman Abulfaz Elchibey, is regarded by many as a spent political force, and some commentators have predicted that tensions between him and that party's charismatic young first deputy chairman, Ali Kerimov could ultimately split the party.

In addition, Mahir Samedov, a former member of the Popular Front's Supreme Council has recently quit the party's ranks to found a rival party, and he has subjected Kerimov to blistering criticism in the press. The fact that it was Musavat, not the Popular Front, that was subject to attack, may serve as grist to the mill of those observers who believe that Kerimov has been secretly co-opted by the current Azerbaijani leadership.

The Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, too, is reportedly rent by tensions between its two co-chairmen, Ilyas Ismailov and exiled former parliament speaker Rasul Guliev.

Musavat's Gambar thus has grounds to contest a leading role in the runup to the November poll. Musavat and the Popular Front have each drafted a new election law, while the Akhrar Party and the presidential apparatus have prepared amendments to the existing law. Akhrar chairman Vagif Gadjibeyli told "Zerkalo" in early January that the main points of the two alternative draft laws and of his party's amendments largely coincide, and that a single opposition version is likely to be drawn up and submitted for approval to the dozen opposition parties aligned in the Democratic Congress.

But Gambar, too, has a potential Achilles' heel, in the form of "Yeni Musavat," the main target of this week's reprisals. Although it was originally founded by the Musavat Party, that paper is now a privately-funded publication, whose objective editor Rauf Arifogly has defined as "working against the existing regime" in the hope of expediting democratization. The paper's approach is, moreover, uncompromising: Arifogly told RFE/RL in October 1998 that "we write everything we want." "Yeni Musavat's" outspokenness, and its connections with the Musavat Party could continue to prove a liability for the latter.

A systematic campaign of reprisals against either "Yeni Musavat" or other opposition publications could, however, have a negative impact on Azerbaijan's chances of being accepted into full membership of the Council of Europe. The Council's decision on whether Azerbaijan qualifies for full membership will depend primarily on the conduct of the parliamentary elections. (Liz Fuller)

Giorgadze Throws Down The Gauntlet. While most observers have no doubts that incumbent Eduard Shevardnadze will be re-elected president of Georgia on 9 April, the possible nomination of former Georgian security chief Igor Giorgadze as a rival candidate may make the campaign less predictable in many of its details.

Whether Giorgadze will succeed in formally registering as a candidate remains an open question: the election law stipulates that presidential candidates must have been resident in Georgia for two years prior to the poll. Giorgadze's whereabouts have been a mystery since he left Georgia in September 1995 amid accusations that he was the mastermind behind the failed car bomb attempt against Shevardnadze the previous month. In a series of interviews given to the Russian press, Giorgadze has denied any responsibility for that assassination attempt.

Georgian officials have repeatedly claimed that Giorgadze was hiding in Russia, and criticized Moscow for its failure to take measures to locate him and extradite him to Tbilisi. Giorgadze's father Panteleimon, who is one of the leaders of the United Georgian Communist Party, told Caucasus Press that Igor has been living undercover in Georgia for years. But a Central Electoral Commission official claimed to have proof that Igor Giorgadze has lived outside Georgia for the past two years, which, if true, would make him ineligible to contend the poll.

If Igor Giorgadze's supporters succeed in collecting the 50,000 signatures needed for formal registration as a presidential candidate, it remains an open question whether the CEC could prove beyond all doubt that he does not meet the residency requirement -- or whether it would feel compelled to do so. If they don't register him, both Giorgadze and other opposition parties could then argue on the basis of a refusal to register Giorgadze that the poll is unfair.

But Giorgadze has pronounced himself confident that he enjoys far greater popular support in Georgia than does Shevardnadze. He claimed in a December interview that 85 percent of the Georgian population rejects the Shevardnadze leadership, and that he can count on the support of 60 percent of the army and 60-70 percent of Interior and Security Ministry personnel. He also claimed that his supporters are not only more numerous, but more organized than are Shevardnadze's. But he denied that he would undertake any violent action against the existing regime, predicting that "the Georgian people will find the courage to say a loud 'No' to the regime and to rid themselves of it." (Liz Fuller)

Does Georgia Need A Concordat? On 2 February, RFE/RL's Tbilisi bureau moderated a discussion between Giorgi Andriadze, a member of the Georgian patriarchate secretariat, and Georgian Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development Executive Director Avto Djokhadze on the expediency and specific provisions of the draft agreement intended to formalize and regulate relations between the Republic of Georgia and the Georgian Orthodox Church.

Beginning the debate, Andriadze said that a concordat is a customary way of defining relations between church and state, and therefore appropriate for a civilized and European-oriented country such as Georgia.

Djokhadze, however, disagreed, saying that he does not believe such an agreement will be beneficial for Georgian statehood. He pointed out that, while precedents for concluding a concordat undoubtedly exist, there are also examples in which legislation relating to NGOs is simply extended to the church. Furthermore, Georgia is unique in being a country of religious diversity, and creating a privileged status for a specific religious group will, Djokhadze argued, only exacerbate the tensions that already exist among Georgia's various religious and ethnic communities. Indeed, since the entire Caucasus is a region of many different religious faiths, such tensions in Georgia will inevitably have repercussions in neighboring states. This, in turn, could destabilize the entire region and negatively affected Georgia's state security, Djokhadze said.

A further objection expressed by Djokhadze was that Georgian Orthodox Christianity is the faith of the majority of Georgia's population, and in a democracy, it is the position of the minorities, not that of the majority, that should be afforded special protection and privileges. That calls into question the motivation of those who drafted the concordat, he said.

Responding to that objection by Djokhadze, RFE/RL's moderator Davit Paichadze asked Andriadze whether he thought it appropriate for other religious communities in Georgia to conclude similar agreements with the state. Andriadze said that at a meeting in late December between the Georgian patriarchate and representatives of all confessions represented in Georgia, including the Vatican Nuncio, the heads of Georgia's Baptist, Azerbaijani Muslim and Armenian Apostolic communities, participants drafted and signed a joint statement in which they acknowledged that in any state, the established traditional religion has priority, which in turn serves to guarantee peaceful coexistence in that specific country and the region as a whole. In that context, Andriadze referred to the article of the existing Georgian Constitution that notes the "special role" played by the Georgian Orthodox Church in the country's history.

Asked to define the term "priority," Andriadze said that the very fact that the concordat is to be concluded between the state and the Georgian Orthodox church reflects the latter's privileged position. He went on to explain that all other faiths represented in Georgia are subsidiary to, and receive funding from, a parent organization in another country, whereas the Georgian Orthodox Church can only look to the Georgian state for protection and financial help.

Djokhadze objected that if the state does provide funding for the Georgian Orthodox Church, then this means that Georgian orthodoxy is in fact the state religion, even if it is nowhere formally designated as such. Moreover, that financial help constitutes a violation of the principle of the separation of church and state, Djokhadze continued.

Andriadze explained that the church takes a different view, and considers financial assistance from the state, for example to restore church buildings, as not essentially different from state funding for other architectural monuments.

Paichadze singled out for comment the provision in the draft concordat that empowers the Georgian Orthodox Church to seek financial reparation for the damage inflicted on it between 1921-1991, noting that the present Georgian state is not the legal successor to the state which inflicted that damage.

Andriadze responded that the article in question was included in the draft concordat at the suggestion of the Georgian authorities, not the church -- a proposal that he considers laudable. He explains that the church's demands for the return of property and land confiscated from it during the Soviet period extend only to property that has been restored to Georgia by Russia in the latter's capacity as the successor state to the USSR.

The sole point on which Andriadze and Djokhadze agreed was that the process of handing back church property should be conducted with the maximum degree of transparency, and the conditions for doing so very strictly defined, in order to preclude fraud. (Liz Fuller)

Quotations Of The Week. "I can say with full responsibility that the Georgian side is not preparing any operation against Abkhazia." -- Georgian Minister of State Vazha Lortkipanidze, quoted by Caucasus Press, 3 February 2000.

"Is there any water in the Caspian, or is it only oil?" -- Armenian President Robert Kocharian, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, in response to estimates by his Azerbaijani counterpart Heidar Aliyev of the size of Azerbaijan's Caspian oil reserves (Snark, 29 January, cited by Groong).

"I have performed surgery on 20 Russian servicemen in the last month. I have provided medical aid to both sides. Many civilians also arrived for treatment...Wahhabites threaten to shoot me for operating on Russians, Russians threaten to shoot me for operating on militants.... At one time field commander Arbi Baraev held me prisoner for a few days for providing medical aid to Russian soldiers. Baraev is the man whom I operated on in 1996 when he had a bullet wound in his jaw. I only perform my duty. I am outside politics. When a wounded man is brought to me, I see only the wound to be treated. No doctors are persecuted anywhere in the world for helping the wounded." -- Chechen surgeon Khasan Baiev, quoted by Interfax, 8 February.