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Caucasus Report: April 21, 2000

21 April 2000, Volume 3, Number 16

Tbilisi Moves To Define Relations With Autonomies. On 18 April the Georgian parliament in a disputed vote approved in the first reading a draft bill on the political status of the Republic of Adjaria. (Official Georgian media stated that the draft bill had passed by a vote of 171-1, but Caucasus Press quoted journalists who attended the parliament session as saying that only 140 parliament deputies were actually present during that session--and that 150 are needed for a quorum.) That draft envisages amending the Georgian Constitution to stipulate that Adjaria is a constituent part of Georgia and establishing a special parliamentary committee to draft a further bill on the division of power between the Adjar Autonomous Republic and the central Georgian government in Tbilisi.

When the Georgian Constitution was adopted in 1995, a decision was made to omit any reference to the status of the autonomous republics pending a formal solution to the Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflicts. The 18 April parliament vote is thus the first move towards resolving the ensuing ambiguity. But it also signals an apparent accommodation between the central Georgian leadership and Adjaria's controversial leader, Aslan Abashidze.

One of the leaders of the opposition Batumi alliance (which is the second-largest parliament faction), Abashidze has since 1991 ruled Adjaria as his personal fiefdom, with backing from Moscow which maintains a large military base in Batumi.

Observers have interpreted Abashidze's last-minute decision to withdraw his candidacy for the 9 April Georgian presidential election as part of a clandestine deal cut between him and Tbilisi during visits to Batumi on 5 and 6 April by Georgian parliamentary speaker Zurab Zhvania and President Eduard Shevardnadze. In return, they suggest, Abashidze may have extracted from Tbilisi concessions on the amount of taxes his republic must pay to the central government. Zhvania has, predictably, denied that any formal agreement was reached with Abashidze, although he said that unspecified issues were resolved during their talks.

The process of defining relations between Tbilisi and Batumi may, however, run into obstacles. The Abkhazeti parliament faction representing the ethnic Georgian displaced persons who fled Abkhazia during the 1992-1993 war abstained from the 18 April vote, arguing that the formal status of Adjaria and of Abkhazia vis-a-vis the central Georgian government should be addressed and resolved simultaneously. Zhvania said on 17 April that a special parliament committee will be created to determine how Abkhazia's status will be defined in the Georgian Constitution.

The putative agreement with Adjaria may, in addition, rebound on its apparent godfather, Zhvania. (Majority Union of Citizens of Georgia faction leader Mikhail Saakashvili hailed the passage of the bill in its first reading as a personal "triumph" for Zhvania.) Widely regarded as not only Shevardnadze's personal protege but also his potential successor, Zhvania has reportedly made bitter enemies as a result of questionable business deals. Whether those adversaries are responsible for the rumors ITAR-Tass claims are currently circulating in Tbilisi that Zhvania plans to oust Shevardnadze in order to prevent the latter from sidelining the Union of Citizens of Georgia, however, remains unclear. (Liz Fuller)

Energy Disputes May Mar Russian-Armenian Partnership. A dispute over energy issues is threatening to jeopardize the generally cordial relationship between Armenia and Russia. Russia's Gazprom monopoly is threatening to halt natural gas deliveries to Armenia if Yerevan fails to repay debts it has accumulated over the last few years. The threats coincided with the exclusion of a Gazprom-controlled company from the ongoing international bidding for Armenia's electricity distribution network, a move that Russian diplomats have warned may adversely affect bilateral economic cooperation.

Armenian Energy Minister David Zadoyan flew to Moscow on 21 April to try to win a reprieve for his country, which would face a crippling energy crisis should the Russians shut the tap on the pipeline running through Georgia. Thermal power stations, which primarily use Russian gas, account for a large part of power generated in Armenia. Gazprom has already cut its supplies from the usual 3.5 million to 1.3 million cubic meters a day. It gave the Armenian government until 24 April to clear $16 million in unpaid bills.

That debt was re-scheduled last August, but officials in the Armrosgaz venture, which handles gas imports, complain that Armenian consumers still fail to pay up. Gazprom, together with its subsidiary, ITERA, effectively controls Armenia's natural gas infrastructure through a 55 percent stake in Armrosgaz.

The prospect of a gas cut-off rekindles Armenians' memories of the dark days of the early 1990s when they had just a few hours of electricity a day amid severe energy shortages.

Gazprom's deadline set for Armenia raises a number of questions among local observers. The size of the debt, they say, is fairly large but other former Soviet republics owe much more to the Russians. And Armenia is not the worst defaulter. As gas-rich Turkmenistan's ambassador in Yerevan noted on 20 April, Armenia (which still owes his country $14 million for earlier fuel deliveries) meets its payment obligations far better than other ex-Soviet states. Toyli Kurbanov told reporters: "It is important to note that of all our debtor-states the Republic of Armenia was and is the most diligent and punctual payer."

The Gazprom demands came as ITERA was left out of a short-list of foreign companies participating in an international tender for four Armenian electricity companies. Deputy Energy Minister Karen Galustian announced on 18 April that ITERA does not qualify because it failed to submit findings of an internationally certified audit that would show its financial situation. A government commission handling the tender left four bidders in the race: the Electricite de France giant, Swiss-Swedish group ABB, Spain's Union Feroza and the US operator AES Silk Road.

Earlier this year, Armenian press reports said Yerevan was under Russian pressure to declare a consortium of the Gazprom subsidiary and the Rosenergoatom concern winner of the tender. Although Armenian officials denied those claims, the World Bank urged them last February to ensure the fairness and transparency of the process. Furthermore, senior World Bank executives argued strongly against giving ITERA, which is registered in the U.S., ownership rights, citing its financial inadequacy. ITERA has never been engaged in energy distribution and was repeatedly accused by some Russian media of serving as a tool for Gazprom to channel its huge revenues to offshore accounts.

Pressure from the World Bank, Armenia's leading creditor, and from other Western agencies may have been instrumental in ITERA's exclusion from the tender, which Russia's Ambassador to Armenia, Anatoly Dryukov, promptly deplored. Dryukov was quoted by local news agencies as saying on 20 April that the decision to reject the Russian bid runs counter to Russian-Armenian agreements on deepening economic cooperation.

In a statement released on Friday, Rosenergoatom accused the Armenian government of taking a discriminatory approach toward the Russian firms. It said the US government is lobbying hard the interests of America's AES that already owns the power grid in Georgia's capital Tbilisi.

With ITERA officials unavailable for comment, it is not clear whether the drastic reduction of Russian gas supplies is related to the Armenian energy sector privatization. But it appears that the latest development in the bidding will complicate Yerevan's efforts to keep the vital fuel streaming in. Meanwhile "Kommersant-Daily" on 19 April noted that Yerevan may be subject to new pressure from Rosenergoatom, which is the sole supplier of fuel for Armenia's nuclear power station. (Emil Danielyan)

Armenian Communists Push To Join Russia-Belarus Union. Since the election in mid-January of a former Armenian SSR interior minister, Vladimir Darpinian, as Armenian Communist Party first secretary, that party has launched a new campaign for Armenia's accession to the Russia-Belarus Union. Less than two weeks after his election to that post, Darpinian traveled to Moscow in late January for talks with members of the Russia State Duma on the conditions under which Armenia would consider becoming a member of that union.

The Armenian CP subsequently established a parliamentary group that has begun lobbying aggressively for Armenia's accession to the union. Membership of that group has grown from the initial 24 to 38, including 12 deputies from the majority Miasnutiun faction, 10 from Kayunutiun, seven from the Armenian Communist Party, three from "Right and Accord," and six independent deputies.

Three years ago, the Armenian Communist Party collected several hundred thousand signatures in support of Armenia's accession to the Russia-Belarus Union. But that foreign policy option was rejected out of hand by successive Armenian leaderships. Earlier this week, Darpinian announced that he plans to raise both in parliament and with President Robert Kocharian the possibility of conducting a nation-wide referendum on the issue. He argued that joining the union is the only way to overcome the crisis situation in which Armenia finds itself, and that it is for the Armenian people, rather than the leadership to determine the country's fate.

Darpinian also suggested that the population of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic approves the prospect of Armenian accession to the Russia-Belarus Union. "Zhamanak" on 20 April quoted the NKR Permanent Representative in Yerevan, Karen Mirzoyan, as saying that a proposal has been made to the unrecognized enclave's leadership, although not by the leaders of either Russia or Belarus, to request membership of the union. The enclave's prime minister, Anushavan Danielian, reportedly supports that course of action.

But Darpinian's zeal has met with alarm and protest from other quarters of the Armenian political spectrum. And some members of the recently formed parliament group are already considering quitting it, according to "Zhamanak." Nor is it clear whether the Armenian population still looks as favorably on the possibility of accession to the union as it did three years ago. (Liz Fuller)

What Can Russia's New Chechen Commission Hope To Achieve? Duma Legislation Committee chairman and former Justice Minister Pavel Krasheninnikov on 17 April announced the creation of an independent Russian public commission on Chechnya to be headed by himself and by former presidential candidate Ella Pamfilova, who leads the movement "For Civic Dignity." Krasheninnikov told journalists that the new body will "assess the situation in Chechnya impartially," siding "neither with the military nor with those who are branded as 'bandits,'" and draw up "new recommendations for our society and our state."

Krasheninnikov said on 17 April that it is clear that the situation in Chechnya is deadlocked, and that a military solution to the conflict is unrealistic. Three days later, he told Interfax that he sees no obstacles to contacts with Chechen leaders, including President Aslan Maskhadov. Maskhadov for his part has already signaled his willingness to meet with the commission's members, according to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 19 April. But Pamfilova said on 19 April that the commission will do its best to prevent "a political betrayal of the army" in Chechnya by advocating "a temporary truce which will be used by the bandits for regrouping and the accumulation of new forces." Instead, she said, the commission will work for "long-term peace and stability in the North Caucasus."

The logical assumption is that, despite its proclaimed independence, the commission will seek to mobilize support for the Russian leadership's commitment to total destruction of the Chechen military capacity and to selecting the most appropriate figure to head the planned temporary administration that will govern Chechnya until elections for a new leadership in 1-2 years time. It is not clear whether any contacts have taken place, or are planned, between Krasheninnikov's commission and the recently formed public commission for the North Caucasus headed by former Duma speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 and 14 April 2000). (Liz Fuller)

Quotations Of The Week. "Martial law [which has been in force since 1992] requires certain restrictions. There can be no absolute democracy and freedom of speech in conditions of martial law." -- Vardges Baghrian, a member of Nagorno-Karabakh President Arkadii Ghukasian's staff, commenting to RFE/RL on the trial of Karabakh journalist Vahram Aghajanian (17 April).

"District newspapers will be distrusted for free." -- ITAR-TASS report of 17 April on plans to distribute local newspapers in the "liberated" areas of Chechnya.

"I can and must lead the Chechen people out of this situation." -- Chechen Mufti Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, speaking in the eastern Chechen village of Tsentoroi on 17 April. (Quoted by Interfax)

"They didn't even see any kangaroos." -- Editorial comment in the 19 April edition of the Dashnak newspaper "Yerkir" on the recent Armenian parliamentary delegation visit to Australia (see "Quotations Of The Week," "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, No. 14, 7 April 2000).