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Caucasus Report: April 7, 2000

7 April 2000, Volume 3, Number 14

Unanswered Questions. There is little doubt that incumbent President Eduard Shevardnadze will be reelected for a second term in the 9 April Georgian presidential poll. But many of those who vote for Shevardnadze will do so less because they approve of his policies than because they fear that a victory by any one of the six alternative candidates would result in even greater economic hardship and a return to instability.

Moreover, the conduct of the election campaign has highlighted numerous problems and weaknesses in the Georgian political system that Shevardnadze has so far proved unable to solve. They include tensions between the central government and the regions (including Georgia's three autonomous formations); corruption, which Shevardnadze has been vowing for years to eradicate; and the marginalization of all but a handful of political parties, partly as a result of the law under which last October's parliamentary elections were conducted. Equally serious are the economic problems which the country faces: an external debt of $2.39 billion, which is equal to 85 percent of last year's GDP, pensions and wage arrears amounting to millions of dollars (Shevardnadze said last month that paying pensions arrears would raise his share of the vote by 20 percent), and massive unemployment (despite Shevardnadze's 1995 presidential election campaign pledge to create a million new jobs).

But that is not to say that the election program of any of Shevardnadze's six rival candidates offers convincing solutions to those problems. Indeed, only two of those rivals stands even a remote chance of polling over 10 percent of the vote. Those two are Shevardnadze's successor as Georgian Communist Party First Secretary, Djumber Patiashvili, and Adjar Supreme Council chairman Aslan Abashidze. Both men are leaders of the so-called Batumi Alliance of five disparate opposition parties which currently form the second largest parliament faction.

Patiashvili is still compromised in the view of many Georgians, as he himself admits, for his still unclarified role in the attack by Russian troops on demonstrators in Tbilisi on 9 April 1989. Under the rubric "We can and will give people back a better, dignified life," his election program focuses on reducing budget spending to fund social programs and on abolishing what he terms the "anti-constitutional" institution of regional governors appointed by the president. His foreign policy program combines continued cooperation with the West and improved ties with Russia.

The authoritarian Abashidze, widely regarded as Russia's stalking horse, has not campaigned beyond his native turf, and was rumored on 6 April to have decided to withdraw his candidacy. Of the remaining four candidates, one, Tengiz Asanidze, is in jail in Batumi, Abashidze having refused to release him despite an amnesty from Shevardnadze. National Political Union of Georgia "Mdzleveli" leader Avtandil Djoglidze is a political unknown. So too is Vazha Zhghenti, chairman of the obscure Progressive Party, who believes Georgia should turn its back on imported economic and political models and create a new "national" ideology and laws. The seventh candidate, chairman of the Corporation of Lawyers of Georgia Kartlos Gharibashvili, is by contrast a presidential election veteran: in 1991 he failed to collect the requisite number of signatures to run against Zviad Gamsakhurdia, and in the 1995 election he placed joint fourth of a field of six candidates with less than 1 percent of the vote. Gharibashvili told RFE/RL on 3 April that his program has nothing in common with those of the other candidates, being "that of a lawyer, not of a Communist Party official," and devoted primarily on human rights, which he described as "as alien to a Communist Party leader as the kiwi fruit is to Georgia."

The election campaign has been marred by voter apathy and by resentment on the part of several would-be candidates who were rejected by the Central Electoral Commission. (One of those rejected, former Security chief Igor Giorgadze who is accused of masterminding the failed 1995 attempt to assassinate Shevardnadze, may represent the real "wild card" in Georgian politics. He claims to enjoy the secret support of 60-70 percent of the army and of the interior and security ministries.)

Neither does there appear to be much support for calls by an alliance of some 25 extra-parliamentary parties for a boycott of the poll if the authorities refuse to comply with their demand that it be postponed until after a census that would determine the exact number of potential voters and thus remove the potential for falsification of the outcome.

Some segments of society nonetheless have signaled that they will not vote for Shevardnadze unless he delivers on earlier promises: those groups include the 500,000 strong population of the west Georgian region of Mingrelia (a stronghold of sympathy for Gamsakhurdia), and the ethnic Georgian displaced persons from Abkhazia who are demanding payment of their monthly $12 susbsistence allowances.

The key question left unanswered by the 9 April poll is what he can realistically do in his second term to galvanize the economy, crack down on the most egregious manifestations of corruption, restore Georgia's control over its breakaway autonomous formations, and prepare a new leadership team in which the population has at least some degree of trust. (Liz Fuller)

Shevardnadze Election Victory Could Speed Solution to South Ossetian Conflict. Lyudvig Chibirov, president of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, told journalists in Tskhinvali on 2 April that he hopes incumbent Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze will be reelected in the 9 April poll, Interfax reported. Chibirov described Shevardnadze as "a man who keeps his word, [and who is] sincerely interested in settling the Georgian-Ossetian conflict by political means without military interference." Chibirov added that he hopes negotiations on defining South Ossetia's status with Georgia could resume immediately after the Georgian presidential poll. Those talks will take place in Vienna under the aegis of the OSCE, according to the Georgian government daily "Svobodnaya Gruziya" on 4 April.

Chibirov also said that he intends to seek a meeting with Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin, whom he will ask to intensify Russia's input in seeking a solution to the conflict. "Svobodnaya Gruziya" reported that Chibirov has advocated examining several alternatives models for future relations between the central Georgian government and South Ossetia, but did not give any details. The paper added that Chibirov undertook to take a "pragmatic and realistic" approach to assessing those alternatives.

Discussion of South Ossetia's status was suspended last fall after the head of the breakaway republic's government accused Tbilisi of "sabotage" by cutting power supplies to the republic. Since then, Georgian and Russian government delegations have jointly drafted a program of economic rehabilitation for the region. (Liz Fuller)

Armenian Parliament Speaker Subjected To Increasing Attacks. On the sidelines of the ongoing tensions between Armenian President Robert Kocharian and Premier Aram Sargsian, opposition media and parliament deputies are increasingly questioning the competence -- and integrity -- of a third prominent politician, parliament speaker Armen Khachatrian.

A 42-year-old philologist, former Komsomol activist and university lecturer, Khachatrian earlier managed the 1998 presidential election campaign of former Armenian Communist Party first secretary Karen Demirchian and was one of the co-founders, with Demirchian, of the People's Party of Armenia (HZhK). After Demirchian's death in the 27 October parliament shootings, Khachatrian, who had been wounded in that attack, was proposed to succeed him as parliament speaker. He was reportedly initially reluctant to do so, but eventually agreed.

But after only five months in that post, some observers are increasingly questioning Khachatrian's suitability for it. The newspaper "Aravot" on 1 April published Khachatrian's responses to questions posed by its journalists concerning a series of compromising incidents. Khachatrian admitted that his bodyguards had opened fire on a car that had followed his own, but he disclaimed any responsibility their actions, arguing that they are employees of the National Security Ministry, not of the parliament. He denied outright rumors that he had purloined a bathrobe from a Moscow hotel, and been asked to remit the value. Khachatrian also rejected the suggestion that his April visit to Australia is an extravagance, given that country is hardly a foreign policy priority (see "Quotations Of The Week," below). "Azg" was even more categorical in its comments on Khachatrian, affirming that "we cannot be represented to the world by a clown, even if he can pronounce eloquent toasts."

Just days before that negative press coverage, on 29 March, HZhK deputies met with Khachatrian to assure him of their continued support. Deputy speaker Gagik Aslanian denied that some HZhK deputies and members of the Miasnutiun parliament majority faction, in which the HZhK is the junior partner, were so disillusioned with Khachatrian that they intended to demand that he step down. "Such speculations are absolutely baseless and are part of attempts to drive a wedge between the speaker and his party," Aslanian told RFE/RL the same day. Aslanian similarly denied that he is the obvious choice of successor should Khachatrian quit his post. (Liz Fuller)

Zhirinovskii Second Guesses Putin. In an interview with Turan on 3 April, Liberal Democratic Party of Russia chairman Vladimir Zhirinovskii predicted that following Vladmir Putin's presidential election victory, Moscow will toughen its stance towards the states of the South Caucasus. One manifestation of this policy, Zhirinovskii suggested, will be the introduction of a visa regime with Georgia and Azerbaijan. Putin suggested that measure five months ago, as part of Moscow's attempt to intimidate Georgia and Azerbaijan in retaliation for their alleged aid to Chechnya, but it has not yet been implemented.

Asked how that visa regime would benefit Russia, Zhirinovskii explained that the "hundreds of thousands" of Georgian and Azerbaijani emigres currently working in the Russian Federation transfer $3 billion each year to their homelands. If those emigres returned home, that money would remain in circulation in Russia. In addition, "prices at the markets would fall, there will be fewer crimes, the Azeris who left Russia would return to Azerbaijan, and a social upheaval in Azerbaijan would become inevitable. As a result of the crisis, Heidar Aliev's leadership would be overthrown," Zhirinovskii concluded. (Liz Fuller)

Quotations Of The Week. "There are plans to remove those who want peace. The next assassination attempt will be on [Armenian President] Robert Kocharian." Former Azerbaijani state policy adviser Vafa Guluzade, interviewed in "Zaman," 1 April.

"Is seeing kangaroos a state interest?" -- Possibly apocryphal question by HZhK chairman Stepan Demirchian to Armenian parliament speaker Armen Khachatrian, cited by "Haykakan zhamanak" on 6 April.

"Even dog and cat food has a balance of vitamins. Many of our people can afford only bread." -- Georgian presidential candidate Djumber Patiashvili, quoted by Reuters on 4 April.

"We cannot see why talks cannot be held with [Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic and can be held with [Chechen President Aslan] Maskhadov." Daghestan parliament chairman Mukhu Aliev, who is a member of the Russian delegation to the current PACE session, speaking in Strasbourg on 5 April (quoted by Interfax).