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Caucasus Report: April 28, 2000

28 April 2000, Volume 3, Number 17

Is A Struggle Underway To Head Georgia's Next Government? The Georgian Constitution requires that the country's government resign and that the president name replacements after the 30 April inauguration of Eduard Shevardnadze for his second term. Two inter-linked issues above all are likely to influence Shevardnadze in determining his choice of new ministers: his renewed pledge to crack down on official corruption and inefficiency, and the outgoing government's chronic failure to ensure fulfillment of the state budget.

One aspect of that latter failure is the 100 million lari ($50 million) increase in wage and pensions arrears since the beginning of this year. Speaking on 19 April at the first government session following his reelection, Shevardnadze warned that those ministers who are unable or unwilling to perform their duties competently must be replaced before the disaffected population takes to the streets to demand radical change. One week later, Shevardnadze told ministers that the economic situation has become so alarming that an economic state of emergency may have to be imposed. He said that Georgia's future may well depend on overcoming the present "crisis."

The majority Union of Citizens of Georgia (SMK) parliament faction has expressed its unequivocal support for Shevardnadze's demand for greater economic efficiency. Indeed. parliamentary speaker Zurab Zhvania, currently viewed as a potential presidential candidate in 2005, called for the replacement of virtually all ministers in conjunction with sweeping reforms, affirming that "the country and society are in a critical situation." He added that the sole criteria for selecting new ministers should be professionalism and morality.

Zhvania's support for Shevardnadze's stated priorities is understandable, insofar as the present state of the economy reflects poorly on the ruling party and plays into the hands of opposition political figures. But some Russian commentators have suggested that Zhvania and the SMK are adducing the need to improve economic performance as the rationale for replacing the present Minister of State, Vazha Lortkipanidze, and that Zhvania himself aspires to head the new government. On 27 April, however, SMK parliament faction head Mikhail Saakashvili denied either that a confrontation is shaping up between the outgoing government and the SMK, or that Lortkipanidze and Zhvania are competing for the post of prime minister.

But an Interfax report of 24 April suggests that Zhvania may indeed have enemies in high places. That report quotes an article allegedly published in the daily newspaper "Akhali taoba" by presidential advisor Temur Mirianishvili. He is said to have accused Zhvania of exacerbating Georgian-Russian relations and of indiscriminately promoting western cultural values while denigrating the classics of Georgian literature. (Liz Fuller)

Georgian Opposition Figure Proposes Redivision Of Powers. Akaki Asatiani, leader of the Union of Traditionalists which is one of the five opposition parties that compose the so-called Batumi Alliance, has presented to parliament a bill on amending the Georgian Constitution to restore the cabinet of ministers, give the government the right of legislative initiative, and curtail the powers of the president, especially in the spheres of finance and personnel appointments.

Asatiani, who announced in 1998 that he considers himself a potential future presidential candidate, told parliament that those proposed changes are essential in order to create a government that is capable of running the country. He added that "soon President Shevardnadze will be unable to fulfill that task." Asatiani said a period of authoritarian rule had been necessary to "establish order" in the country, but that today such rule is "an anachronism," and demands by the president to augment his powers are unwarranted. Asatiani said his proposed new state model is based on that of Finland, a country comparable in size to Georgia and which accomplished a dramatic post-World War II transformation.

Former premier Niko Lekishvili, who heads the Batumi alliance parliamentary faction, has expressed support for Asatiani's proposed constitutional amendments. Lekishvili had argued last summer in favor of restoring the premiership on the grounds that the powers of the Minister of State are so limited that he cannot adequately direct the work of the government. Asatiani told Caucasus Press earlier this week that he believes it will be possible to muster the support of the required 90 parliament deputies to force a debate on his proposals.

But the SMK is likely to reject those proposals out of hand: SMK parliament faction leader Saakashvili told Caucasus Press on 28 April that the cabinet model has already been tried. He added that he does not consider it "a panacea" in present conditions. Saakahsvili nonetheless concurred with Shevardnadze's somber evaluation of the present economic situation, warning that ongoing failure to resolve the budget revenue problem could relegate Georgia to the status of "a second-rate country will a provincial policy." (Liz Fuller)

Has Moscow Written Off Maskhadov? Kremlin Chechnya spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembskii has on several occasions in recent months outlined the conditions under which Moscow would be prepared to embark on talks with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov on a peaceful solution to the war in Chechnya. Those conditions included an immediate cessation of hostilities and surrender of weaponry, distancing himself from field commanders Shamil Basaev and Khattab and ordering the release of all Russian servicemen held prisoner in Chechnya.

Over the past week, however, Moscow has given indications that it may finally have lost patience with the Chechen president. On 27 April, Yastrzhembskii said that Maskhadov clearly does not control the situation in Chechnya, and that far from reining in Basaev, the president has effectively become his accomplice. Yastrzhembskii added that Maskhadov would still be eligible for amnesty if he surrendered. But at the same time he stated categorically that "there is nothing to talk about with negotiators of this kind." Also on 27 April, Russian First Deputy Chief of Army General Staff Colonel General Valerii Manilov likewise ruled out peace talks with Maskhadov. "Maskhadov cannot act as a side in the talks today....he ranks with warlords Khattab, Basaev and Gelaev," Manilov said.

Two possible factors may have contributed to this apparent hardening of the Russian position. The first is Maskhadov's perceived inconsistency. One week ago, Maskhadov was quoted in an interview in "Kommersant-Daily" as saying that he had ordered a unilateral ceasefire and the release of all Russian prisoners. Two days later, however, Chechen fighters ambushed a Russian troop column near Serzhen-Yurt southeast of Grozny, killing 13 Russians and wounding six more. Maskhadov subsequently claimed that the Russian paper had misquoted him, and he denied having ordered a ceasefire. Yastrzhembskii on 27 April highlighted this apparent contradiction, arguing that "[Maskhadov's] statements over the past few days show just how confused this man is." (It is of course quite possible that "Kommersant-Daily" was ordered to attribute to Maskhadov statements that he never made in order to furnish Moscow with a pretest for renouncing any further contact with him.)

The second factor is the Russian military's insistence on continuing operations until it wipes out all Chechen resistance--or at least manages to lay hands of Basaev and Khattab--despite the ongoing cost. (A total of 345 Russian troops have been killed in Chechnya since 10 March.)

Meanwhile, pro-Moscow Chechen militia commander Beslan Gantemirov is clearly being groomed for a more prominent role in Chechnya. Gantemirov was promoted on 22 April to the army rank of lieutenant-colonel, and Yastrzhembskii predicted two days later that he "will play a significant role in the political process in Chechnya." (Liz Fuller)

Quotations Of The Week. "Holding negotiations with Maskhadov means going forward with one's head turned backwards....We will not sit at the negotiating table with the bandits responsible for thousands of ruined lives." -- Colonel-General Valerii Manilov, the first deputy chief of the Russian Army General Staff, quoted by Interfax, 25 April.

"Compromise is when the rebels accept our terms. We will not even consider their terms. to say nothing of accepting them." -- Unidentified Russian military official, quoted by Interfax, 26 April.

"With the methods of investigation used in Karabakh, you can prove that Shakespeare's Hamlet was written by [Karabakh premier] Anushavan Danielian in collaboration with [Karabakh prosecutor- general] Mavrik Ghukasian." -- Right and Accord bloc leader Aghasi Arshakian, quoted in "Hayastani Hanrapetuyun," 27 April.