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Caucasus Report: June 30, 2000

30 June 2000, Volume 3, Number 26

Azerbaijan Opposition, Ruling Party Seek Election Legislation Compromise. Since the beginning of this year, opposition parties in Azerbaijan have been debating whether it is possible, and if so, how, to ensure that the parliamentary elections due in November are free and fair--in contrast to those of 1995 and the October 1998 presidential poll, which the OSCE concluded had fallen short of international standards.

In January, a group of small political parties aligned in the Bloc for Constitutional Elections proposed that the parliamentary elections be held under the aegis of the United Nations. They argued that doing so was the only way to ensure that the poll outcome would not be falsified in favor of the present leadership. Other opposition politicians, including the left-wing parties aligned in the Socialist Azerbaijan bloc, endorsed that suggestion, as did Azerbaijan Popular Front First Deputy Chairman Ali Kerimov--although he expressed doubts about its feasibility. In April, however, the UN issued a statement explaining that it cannot perform that function unless requested to do so by the government of the state involved.

Meanwhile during the early months of the year, several opposition parties drafted their own election-related legislation. The Azerbaijan Popular Front, Musavat, and Akhrar parties and the Bloc for Constitutional Elections all prepared alternatives to the "official" draft prepared by the presidential administration, while the Yurddash party prepared a bill on the Central Electoral Commission. In late February, the Democratic Congress comprising 10 opposition parties (including the AzPF, Musavat, Akhrar and Yurddash) established a working group charged with producing a unified opposition draft bill. The Liberal Party of Azerbaijan similarly drafted three bills "On Parliamentary Elections," "On the Central Electoral Commission," and "On Political Parties," but some provisions of those drafts evoked such a negative reaction that the party decided not to offer them for debate in parliament.

On 11 May, the Azerbaijani parliament passed in the first reading by a vote of 90 for to seven against the amendments to the existing law on elections proposed by the government. Both before and after that debate, opposition politicians sharply criticized the amendments, arguing that they made existing legislation even less democratic than it had been. They objected, specifically, to the relatively small number of deputies (125 representing a population of 8 million, compared with Armenia's 131 deputies representing a population less than half that size, and Georgia's 235 deputies representing a population of some 5 million). Azerbaijan National Independence Party (AMIP) member Fuad Agaev, a former member of the Central Electoral Commission, criticized the authorities' failure to alter the ratio of deputies elected by the majoritarian and proportional systems from the present 100:25, which, he argued, violates the Azerbaijani Constitution. His party had tabled alternative amendments calling for the number of deputies elected under those two systems to be altered to 63:62. (After the 11 May vote, parliamentary speaker Murtuz Alesqerov announced that while some changes could still be made to the draft amendments in the second and third readings, the ratio of deputies chosen under the majoritarian and proportional systems would not be revised.)

But Agaev identified as the most serious change the abolishment of the minimum turnout of 50 percent and the establishment of the rule that the candidate who polls the greatest number of votes in a single-mandate constituency in the first round will be declared the winner even if far fewer voters participate. As a result, Agaev said, a candidate could win even if only 3 percent of the voters in a given constituency cast their ballots in his favor.

Agaev also criticized the new provision raising the number of signatures a parliamentary candidate must gather in his support in order to register from 2,000 to 4,000. Political parties in future must collect 80,000 signatures, compared with the previous 50,000, of which a minimum of 500 signatures must be collected from each individual electoral district. He further condemned as discriminatory, given that the average monthly income in Azerbaijan does not exceed $45, the requirement that individual candidates registering to contend the poll in single mandate constituencies pay a deposit of $620, while parties competing under the proportional system must pay a deposit of $25,000.

In mid-June, the parliamentary committee for legislation reviewed the draft prior to the second reading which began on 20 June, and dropped the mandatory deposit from parties competing under the proportional basis. The committee also lowered the number of signatures required for the registration of individual candidates from 4,000 to 2,000 and for political parties from 80,000 to 50,000. But it failed to adopt any of the changes to the law proposed by opposition parties, including AMIP.

Discussion of the new draft law on the Central Electoral Commission proved, if anything, even more contentious than the proposed amendments to the election law. That draft was submitted to the parliament by the presidential administration in late April. It envisaged reducing the membership of the commission from 24 to 18, of whom six members each would be nominated by the majority party in parliament, the minority parties, and independent deputies. But opposition representatives objected that while apparently democratic, that model effectively gives the current authorities an overall majority, given that almost all nominally independent parliament deputies support the Azerbaijani leadership. Opposition parties accordingly demanded that half the Commission members be nominated by the authorities and the remaining half by the opposition.

The OSCE also found fault with the draft amendments. Nikolai Vulchanov, an election advisor with the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights who headed the OSCE observer mission to the 1998 Azerbaijani presidential poll, held talks in Baku from 18-22 May with representatives of both the opposition and the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan party. Following those talks, ODIHR issued a press release on 24 May recommending that the law on the Central Electoral Commission "should be amended to ensure that the main political interests are able to share responsibilities in the administration of the election process." Visiting Baku one week later, Helle Degn, chairwoman of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, similarly said she considered that the draft law should be improved.

Vulchanov returned to Baku in early June for a second round of talks in which he effectively acted as mediator between the opposition and the Azerbaijani leadership. The OSCE approved the proposed model for constituting the CEC, but suggested the following four changes: the chairman of the Central Electoral Commission represents the government, while the secretary represents the opposition; documents on the elections come into force after being signed by both the chairman and the secretary of the Commission; the independent members of the Commission are appointed in consultation with the opposition (four of them would be non-party deputies, one deputy would represent the opposition and one the authorities); and decisions by CEC are adopted by a two thirds vote.

Those proposals did not, however, satisfy the opposition, which initially stuck to its demand for 50:50 representation on the CEC. AMIP deputy chairman Ilgar Mamedov said on 7 June that as a final concession, the opposition would agree to the authorities nominating 10 CEC members and the opposition--eight, providing that decisions within the commission were taken by a two-thirds vote. Neither Vulchanov nor ODIHR director Gerard Stoudmann, who also traveled to Baku in early June, succeeded in persuading the opposition to endorse the ODIHR proposals. Moreover, some parliament deputies from Yeni Azerbaycan took exception to what they termed pressure and interference by the OSCE. The chairman of the parliamentary commission for human rights, Kerim Kerimov, accused that organization of acting in tandem with the opposition to "drive Azerbaijan into crisis."

The draft bill was finally amended to stipulate that the parliament majority and the opposition will each nominate six members of the CEC, four members will be non-partisan, and the remaining two will be chosen on the basis of consultations between the authorities and the opposition. The CEC chairman will be from the majority party, while the opposition and the non-aligned deputies will each propose one of that body's two secretaries. Decisions by the CEC will be taken by a two-thirds vote. That draft was passed in the third and final reading on 9 June by a vote of 86 to three with six abstentions, and signed into law by President Heidar Aliyev the following day. Aliyev subsequently called on the opposition to nominate their candidates to the CEC by 1 July.

The opposition continues to condemn the law on the CEC as fundamentally undemocratic--even though by allowing the opposition to nominate seven commission members and simultaneously requiring that all decisions be taken by a two-thirds majority, the law as it now stands would enable the opposition to veto any decisions it considers unacceptable. Meanwhile the AMIP and the AzPF have both signaled their willingness to cede one or more of the CEC seats to which they are entitled to opposition parties not represented in the present parliament.

The opposition and authorities appear unlikely to succeed in reaching agreement on the two candidacies--one proposed by each--whom they must jointly endorse. Moreover, many observers are concerned that President Aliyev will play on the rivalries among the various opposition parties, seeking to coopt some and buy off others.

Vulchanov returned to Baku earlier this week for talks on 16 further amendments to the law on elections, only half of which the authorities appear to consider palatable. One of those amendments focuses on the controversial article barring political parties that were not officially registered by the Ministry of Justice 12 months prior to the beginning of the election campaign from contesting the party list seats. That proviso effectively excludes the Azerbaijan Democratic Party co-chaired by Ilyas Ismailov and former parliamentary speaker Rasul Guliev, which was formally registered only in February. (Liz Fuller)

Georgian Reformers Mourn Crucial Defeat. On 16 June, the Georgian parliament approved by a vote of 196 to two the candidacy of Nana Devdariani, a member of the Socialist party which is one of several parties aligned in the minority Union of Revival opposition faction, for the newly-created post of public ombudsman. That vote sparked protest in Tbilisi, not so much because Devdariani appears to be less qualified for that position than other candidates, but because the leader of the majority Union of Citizens of Georgia (SMK) faction), which at first opposed Devdariani's candidacy, finally endorsed it and called on faction members to vote in her favor.

Elene Tevdoradze, who chairs the Georgian parliament committee for human rights, and lawyer Giga Bokeria assessed the implications of the SMK parliament faction's volte face at a roundtable discussion convened by RFE/RL's Tbilisi bureau and broadcast on 21 June.

Tevdoradze, a parliamentarian whose engagement on behalf of prisoners has earned her the unofficial title of Georgia's Florence Nightingale, said the SMK's approval of Devdariani was the direct consequence, first, of the composition of the SMK faction, most of whom she identified as former procuracy, police or Communist Party officials whose priority is to lobby the interests of their former colleagues, and second, of the inability of that larger group and the small group of "true reformers" within the SMK faction to reach agreement on the optimum candidate for the post of ombudsman. (Tevdoradze had been considered the ideal candidate for that post but declined nomination. The alternative candidates were Vakhtang Dzabiradze of the opposition Industrialists parliament faction and Sozar Subeliani, who is editor of the daily newspaper "Kavkasioni" and a staff member at RFE/RL's Tbilisi bureau.) She expressed regret that the progressive reformers did not succeed in persuading the SMK faction as a whole of the need to appoint to the post someone who was above narrow party politics and would be acceptable to the public at large.

Lawyer Giga Bokeria rejected Tevdoradze's assertion that the two groups within the SMK faction could not reach agreement among themselves. On the contrary, he argued, Devdariani's confirmation with only two dissenting votes (one of which was cast by Tevdoradze) demonstrates that such agreement is possible. He termed the failure to block Devdariani's confirmation "a tragedy" and "a clear defeat" not only for the small group of reformers. One aspect of that tragedy, he continues, is that the one branch of power which hitherto has been oriented towards reform opted for what he termed "a pragmatic and morally unjustifiable compromise." Moreover, that compromise was made not in response to pressure from public opinion but in the course of behind-the-scenes deals cut within the parliament, and in response to pressure from persons close to President Eduard Shevardnadze. And, Bokeria said, that compromise does not reflect well on SMK faction leader Mikhail Saakashvili, who until now had been considered one of the progressive reformers.

Tevdoradze, an SMK deputy, termed that willingness to cut a deal "political prostitution," adding that "you cannot change your position every half-hour." Both she and Bokeria implied that they consider the present SMK faction within parliament not only less progressive, but also less principled than its predecessor. Tevdoradze confessed that she "lives in fear," and constantly asks herself whether she wishes to remain a parliament deputy. While expressing concern that, to judge by the Devdariani vote, former prominent reformers, including parliament speaker Zurab Zhvania, are no longer interested in cooperating with the small pro-reform wing within the SMK faction, Bokeria reasons that "Georgia's history has not come to an end and is not about to do so." But he suggests that "we have probably lost several years," and that the absence of cohesion within the SMK will make it more difficult for the reformers to continue with, and carry to its logical conclusion, the task they set themselves five years ago.

Bokeria noted that the Devdariani episode has shown that neither the reformist wing within the SMK parliament faction nor any other group is influential enough to block retrograde legislation. That is all the more regrettable, he said, because the parliament is due to consider shortly two highly controversial draft bills, one on reforming the procuracy and one that would reintroduce the designation in Georgian passports of the holder's ethnicity. (Liz Fuller)

Murdered Armenian Premier's Feats Belittled. "Zhamanak," the newspaper of the Republican Party of Armenia, on 28 June expressed concern over an ongoing press campaign to denigrate the party's founder, former Defense Minister and Premier Vazgen Sargsian, one of the eight victims of the 27 October Armenian parliament shootings. Such articles cast aspersions on Sargsian's status as one of the architects of Armenia's victory in the Karabakh war and focus on his allegedly suspicious connections with army officers involved in criminal cases. The paper concludes that the aim of such publications is to undermine Sargsian's image. It fears that other "heroes" will be created to whom Vazgen Sargsian's achievements will be ascribed. (Vache Sarkisian)

Quotations Of The Week. "This fairy tale about tens of millions of dollars stolen from the state has nothing to do with reality." -- Former Armenian Prime Minister Hrant Bagratian, rejecting the findings of an ad hoc parliament commission on embezzlement in the energy sector (in an interview with RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau on 24 June)

"How do you tell a wife from a sniper?" -- Lieutenant-General Vladimir Shamanov, rejecting claims that the Russian army deliberately targeted non-combatants in Chechnya (in an interview published in "Novaya gazeta," 19-25 June 2000).

"If 2-3 percent of the [Azerbaijani] army had a religious education, this would serve to raise combat readiness and the desire for revenge." -- Azerbaijani historian Altay Goyushov, speaking at a roundtable organized by the Azerbaijani Karabakh Liberation Movement. (Quoted by "525-gazeti," 28 June.)