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Caucasus Report: July 13, 2000

13 July 2000, Volume 3, Number 28

How Unstable Is Western Georgia? In his regular Monday radio address on 3 July, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze said he is aware of plans to try to destabilize the domestic policial situation. But he added that the Georgian leadership has the situation under control. Shevardnadze did not elaborate, but recent developments suggest that western Georgia might prove more vulnerable than other regions of the country to attempts at subversion.

Several factors contribute to that vulnerability. The north-western region of Mingrelia, bordering on the breakaway republic of Abkhazia, was traditionally a stronghold of support for former president Zviad Gamsakhurdia. As such, its inhabitants were subjected to reprisals by paramilitary groups supporting Shevardnadze, including Djaba Ioseliani's Mkhedrioni, after Gamsakhurdia's ouster and flight into exile in early 1992. Those reprisals in turn engendered alienation on the part of the Mingrelians, which is matched by suspicion on the part of the Georgian authorities. An estimated 100,000 displaced persons who fled Abkhazia during the 1992-1993 war and are now settled in temporary accomodation in Zugdidi, Mingrelia's historic capital, are likewise mostly Mingrelians.

Those displaced persons have repeatedly staged protest actions against their impoverished living conditions and the Georgian government's failure to reach an agreement with the Abkhaz authorities that would enable them to return home. But that failure to resolve the conflict and the inability of either the Georgian or the Abkhaz government or the CIS peacekeeping force deployed since 1994 along the internal border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia to control that border create fertile grounds for those groups engaged in large-scale smuggling of contraband cigarettes, gasoline and liquor into Georgia. Tengiz Jgushia, a parliament deputy from Mingrelia, last month accused the leaders of Georgian guerrilla formations operating in Abkhazia and Tamaz Nadareishvili, the chairman of the so-called Abkhaz parliament in exile (which is composed of the Georgian deputies to the Abkhaz parliament elected in 1991) of condoning such smuggling. Nadareishvili denied any involvement in such activities, which he blamed on the CIS peacekeepers.

More recently, Zugdidi local council chairman Vakhtang Antia told the daily newspaper "Rezonansi" that drugs, too, are regularly smuggled across the internal Abkhaz-Georgian border with the connivance of senior officials whom he declined to name. Antia predicted that any attempt to crack down on smuggling could exacerbate tensions between the permanent residents of Zugdidi and the displaced persons, who, he implied, may engage in such activities to supplement the meager allowances they receive from the Georgian authorities.

In late June, Shevardnadze turned down an offer by the governor of Mingrelia, Bondo Djikia, to resign if his departure would serve to assuage mounting tensions in the region. One week later, parliament speaker Zurab Zhvania met behind closed doors with MPs from Mingrelia to discuss the situation there.

In an obvious attempt to defuse tensions between the present Georgian authorities and Gamsakhurdia's supporters, President Shevardnadze had announced an amnesty for 279 prisoners, many of whom are Gamsakhurdia sympathizers, after his 9 April reelection. A parliamentary commission was also created charged with assessing the violence in Tbilisi in December 1991 that culminated in Gamsakhurdia's ouster. In early July, the Prosecutor-General's office terminated criminal proceedings against 11 people who took part in that fighting, and suspended proceedings against a further 129 who are currently not resident in Georgia.

But the 9 July shooting of Lieutenant Colonel Akaki Eliava, one of Gamsakhurdia's most devoted and charismatic henchmen, by Georgian security forces in the west Georgian town of Zestafoni, may cancel out those earlier gestures towards reconciliation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 July 2000). Eliava, who participated in Gamsakhurdia's ill-fated bid to return to power in the fall of 1993, was subsequently pardoned and entered the Georgian army. In October, 1998, he launched a abortive insurrection in western Georgia (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 1, No. 34, 20 October 1998), but the Georgian leadership again showed magnanimity rather than risk making him a martyr by arresting him and bringing him to trial.

Leading Georgian officials, including the Interior and National Security Ministers, parliament speaker Zurab Zhvania and Shevardnadze have all insisted that Eliava's killing was legally justified given that he had taken several police officers hostage. Interior Minister Kakha Targamadze has also insisted that Eliava's detention by road police was purely routine, and not part of a carefully planned operation to neutralize him. But few Georgians believe Eliava's detention was coincidental. "Segodnya" suggests that Eliava may have been eliminated to prevent him aligning with former Georgian Defense Minister Tengiz Kitovani, who shared his antipathy to the present leadership and also advocates the use of force to restore Georgian control over Abkhazia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 January 2000). "Izvestiya" for its part claimed, without citing its sources, that the official report that Eliava was killed in a shootout when leaving the Zestafoni police station is untrue, and that he was shot by Georgian snipers. Observers also point to the bizarre concidence whereby a cameraman from the TV station Rustavi-2 just happened to be in Zestafoni on 9 July and filmed much of the standoff.

Whatever the underlying circumstances, press commentators fear that Eliava's supporters may resort to reprisals or even launch a new armed uprising, to avenge his death. Whether such actions could pose a serious threat to stability in western Georgia would depend on the number of armed men involved, who assumes the role of their leader and, crucially, whether, as former Georgian intelligence chief Irakli Batiashvili surmised in October 1998, other actors in Georgia or abroad, had promised the insurgents support. The Georgian authorities are reportedly not taking any chances: they have placed local police and security forces in western Georgia at alert, with all leave cancelled.

But even if Eliava's men do not undertake any military action, his death is likely to impact on Georgian politics. Five parliament deputies announced on 11 July their resignation from the Parliament Commission for National Reconciliation on the grounds that they cannot be certain that the Georgian "power" bodies will respect any guarantees of immunity that they may extend to persons still wanted by the authorities. Deputy Anzor Abralava (who to judge by his name is a Mingrelian) said that Eliava's death "has put an end to the national reconciliation process." (Liz Fuller)

Nadareishvili Denounces Georgian-Abkhaz Protocol On Stabilization. In a move that Abkhaz President Vladislav Ardzinba described as a victory of pragmatism over politics, Georgian Minister of State Gia Arsenishvili and Abkhaz Prime Minister Vyacheslav Tsugba, together with UN Special Representative Dieter Boden and the commander of the CIS peacekeeping contingent in Georgia, Lieutenant Colonel Sergei Korobko, signed on 11 July a protocol on measures intended to stabilize the situation on both sides of the administrative border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia. Those measures including reducing to 600 men the number of police and other forces each side may deploy in the conflict zone and creating joint special groups to crack down on crime and smuggling in the region. The two sides also vowed to refrain from calling for the use of violence to resolve the conflict. In addition, they pledged to finalize within one month two further draft protocols, one "On the Non-renewal of Hostilities" and a second on the repatriation of Georgian displaced persons to Abkhazia's southernmost Gali raion.

Arsenishvili too expressed satisfaction that the participants in the meeting had agreed to focus primarily on economic issues, adding that it is for the two presidents, Shevardnadze and Ardzinba, to address the political aspects of resolving the conflict. In that context, Arsenishvili noted Ardzinba's clear regard for Shevardnadze.

But Abkhaz parliament in exile chairman Tamaz Nadareishvili rejected the 11 July protocol as "nothing short of absurd" and "aimed against Georgian statehood." As he has consistently done in the past, Nadareishvili again argued that Chapter VII of the UN Charter, on the circumstances in which peace enforcement is appropriate, is relevant and applicable to the situation in Abkhazia. (Liz Fuller)

Georgia Sequesters Budget... Meeting in emergency session on 12 July, Georgian parliament deputies approved in the first reading by a vote of 128-40 the sequestered budget unveiled by Finance Minister Zurab Nogaideli four days earlier. Rather than draft an entirely new budget for the second half of the year to take into account serious revenue shortfalls during the first six months, the Georgian government decided during a closed meeting on 7 July to sequester expenditures for this year by 300 million lari ($160 million), or almost 25 percent of the original total of 1.25 billion lari. (The parliamentary budget committee in May had advocated a 100 million lari sequester.) The government also ruled that revenues should be revised downwards from the original 976 million lari ($498 million) to 679.9 million lari.

Nogaideli's slimmed-down budget, which he described as "the first step towards rehabilitating the Georgian economy," in fact envisages a cut in expenditures of 290 million lari. Of that sum, however, only some 170 million lari was earmarked for real expenditures, while the remainder was intended for repayment of foreign debts. Nogaideli also explained that the sequester will not affect pensions, allowances for internally displaced persons, or teachers' salaries.

But Nogaideli's new figures are predicated on a cut of 50 percent in spending by all government ministries. While Transport and Communications Minister Merab Adeishvili announced that his ministry can cope with that cut, Deputy Defense Minister Grigol Katamadze protested that it would "paralyze" the armed forces. He explained that so far this year the ministry has received only 43 million lari, and will get only another 21.5 million. Of that figure, 18 million lari is needed for salaries alone, leaving very little towards the cost of feeding servicemen. "Commanders will have to allow their men to go home to eat, which will hardly contribute to strengthening discipline in the armed forces," he commented.

The judiciary, too, is not happy with the budget cuts. Georgian Supreme Court chairman Lado Chanturia told "Rezonansi" that the reductions in funding will effectively put an end to the process of legal reform, and result in judges forfeiting the equivalent of two months' salary. He also queried the legality of the sequester, pointing out that the law on the courts forbids allocating less budget funds in any given year than were granted in the previous year.

A further collective victim of the cuts are those citizens of Georgia who have lost savings as a result of the collapse of pyramid funds or the liquidation of banks. The original budget envisaged some state compensation for such losses. (Liz Fuller)

...As Prominent Businessman Questions Economic Policy. The budget sequester was one of the preconditions set by an IMF delegation which visited Georgia last month to consider the possibility of new loans (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 June 2000). But Gogi Topadze, who is one of Georgia's most successful businessmen and heads the 15-deputy "Industry Will Save Georgia" parliament faction, believes that the policies imposed by the IMF, particularly as regards taxation, are crippling Georgian industry and preventing economic revival. In an interview published in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 7 July, Topadze complained that the present high tax and interest rates discourage investment in the industrial sector and favor the illegal import of cheap low-quality products.

Topadze told journalists in Tbilisi in late June that he has written to President Eduard Shevardnadze, Minister of State Gia Arsenishvili and parliamentary speaker Zurab Zhvania asking them to expedite a parliament debate on draft amendments to the tax code which his faction submitted to the parliament over three months earlier. The IMF, however, categorically opposes any liberalization of Georgia's tax policy. On 13 July, Topadze's faction walked out of parliament to protest that body's decision not to debate their draft tax code. (Liz Fuller)

Armenian Foreign Minister Says Karabakh Peace Proposal May Be Amended. Speaking at a press conference in Yerevan on 11 July, Vartan Oskanian again said that the three co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group did not bring with them any new proposals for resolving the Karabakh conflict when they visited Baku, Stepanakert and Yerevan last week, nor are any such proposals expected in the near future (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, No, 27, 7 July 2000). But Oskanian also said that the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Robert Kocharian and Heidar Aliev, will meet in Yalta in mid-August and in New York the following month to continue their search for an acceptable solution. Oskanian said the co-chairmen hope that the two presidents will come up with new ideas which will provide a fresh impetus to the Minsk Group's engagement in the peace process.

Noyan Tapan quoted Oskanian as saying that Armenia continues to adhere to the proposal advanced by the co-chairs in late 1998 on the creation by Azerbaijan and the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic of a "common state." At the same time, he conceded that Azerbaijan (which has rejected that model) may favor proposals that Armenia has already rejected. Oskanian reportedly did not exclude the possibility that an attempt may be made to select elements of various past proposals in order to bring about a rapprochement between the positions of the conflict parties. (Russian Minsk Group co-chairman Nikolai Gribkov told journalists in Yerevan last week that all three draft proposals made by the co-chairmen in 1997-1998 are still on the table.)

Oskanian said that selective approach would be acceptable to Armenia provided that no other conditions are set that Armenia considers unacceptable, such as pre-conditions regarding Nagorno-Karabakh's status. Oskanian also made clear that Armenia will insist on a so-called "package" solution to the conflict in which all contentious issues are addresssed simultaneously, rather than the "step-by-step" approach, Noyan Tapan reported. (Liz Fuller)

Nagorno-Karabakh Foreign Minister Meets With OSCE Officials In Vienna. Speaking by phone from Vienna on 13 July, the foreign minister of unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, Naira Melkumian, told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that the OSCE Minsk Group wants to overcome the deadlock in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process, and that her visit to Vienna serves that purpose. The OSCE Minsk Group is holding a three-day extended session to evaluate the results of last week's visit by the OSCE co-chairmen to Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Naira Melkumian said she disagrees with the view that the work done by OSCE Minsk Group is no longer necessary because it has no new ideas and the previous proposals have not been accepted by all sides.

Melkumian said that the Kocharian-Aliyev bilateral meetings and the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairmen's peace efforts are both important and should proceed in parallel. It is impermissible to stop the Minsk Group negotiating process, she said.

According to Melkumian, the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is a very complex issue and it couldn't be solved this year. "I don't think that it can be solved in half a year," she said.

Commenting on the possibility of a resumption of hostilities, Naira Melkumian said that almost every politician in Azerbaijan, except for Heidar Aliyev is threatening to use force against Karabakh.

"President Heidar Aliyev is perhaps the only politician in Azerbaijan who understands that it is impossible to solve the conflict by using force. I don't want a war, but if war breaks out then it will be fought on the Azeri Territory, considering the strength of Nagorno-Karabakh armed forces," said Naira Melkumian.

According to Melkumian, a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in many respects depends on the Azerbaijani position, which has changed recently. The Azeris are now making some corrections taking into account the current realities, Naira Melkumian said, adding that there is an element of unpredictability in the Azerbaijani position.

No one knows what will happen in Azerbaijan after Aliev. The biggest challenge of the Azerbaijani political elite is to deal with the issue of uncertainty, which will arise after Aliyev leaves the political scene, said Melkumian. (Armen Doulian)

Fifteen Candidates Register To Contest Duma Elections In Chechnya. Fifteen candidates have registered for the 20 August elections of a deputy to represent Chechnya in the Russian State Duma, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 5 July. They include former pro-Moscow Chechen militia head Beslan Gantemirov; former Russian Supreme Court judge Aslanbek Aslakhanov, who heads the recently founded Moscow-based Union of Peoples of Chechnya; Adam Deniev, leader of the "Adamalla" movement; Chechen parliament deputy Rizvan Lorsanov; Republican Party of Chechnya leader Lecha Magomadov (a former Checheno-Ingush Obkom second secretary, who served in 1995-6 in the government of Doku Zavgaev); and Ruslan Khasbulatov's brother Bekkhan, who is the rector of the Grozny Pedagogical Institute.

Following his appointment on 11 July as first deputy to interim Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, Gantemirov said that if elected, he will refuse his mandate, but that it is important for him to gauge the degree of support he can count upon among the Chechen electorate as he intends in futue to run for the post of Chechen president.

The outcome of the 20 August by-election is likely to be determined not by Chechen voters' sympathies, however, but by the Russian military contingent currently deployed in Chechnya, who are also entitled to cast their ballots. Meeting on 4 July with Russian Central Electoral Commission official Sergei Danilenko and Chechen Central Electoral Commission chairman Abdul-Kerim Artskhanov, Deniev proposed waiving the right of Russian servicemen to vote. Only the Russian CEC, however, is empowered to rule on that issue. (Liz Fuller)

Quotations Of The Week. "We should get out of here before it is too late."-- A 19-year-old Russian sergeant serving in Chechnya, quoted by AP on 10 July.

"We have scheduled the last and decisive attack of the Islamic forces against Russian soldiers for early August." -- Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, quoted in "Kommersant-Daily," 12 July.

"Our political landscape is paralyzed. Biting and destroying each other are considered normal political behavior. We don't have a constructive opposition, because there is no ruling party, which rules the country." -- Former Armenian Prime Minister Khosrov Harutiunian, in an interview published in "Hayastani Hanrapetutiun" on 11 July.

"Working out the anti-graft programme will be the last step on the road of achieving the most important goal of my life -- defeating corruption in Georgia forever." -- Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, speaking on Georgian television on 11 July (quoted by Reuters.)