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Caucasus Report: August 17, 2000

17 August 2000, Volume 3, Number 33

Azerbaijan Refutes Non-Existent Iranian Allegations. Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Vilayat Guliev on 15 August denied that Baku supports or aids separatists in Iran, or that such separatists enter Iranian territory from Azerbaijan. The same day, Major-General Abbasali Novruzov, the commander of Azerbaijan's Border Guards, similarly said that his service has received no reports or claims of illegal crossings by Iranian separatists into Iran from Azerbaijani territory. But Novruzov admitted that due to the dilapidated state of border installations, it would not be difficult to cross undetected.

Reporting those two official statements, Azerbaijani media said they were made in response to recent accusations by Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that Azerbaijan supports separatists and interferes in Iran's internal affairs. Iranian reports of Khamenei's recent speeches contain no such references, however.

In mid-July, Azerbaijani media reported that three Iranian ships had entered Azerbaijan's territorial waters and removed a navigation marker buoy that designates the border between Azerbaijani and Iranian territorial waters. Two days later, an Iranian helicopter violated Azerbaijani airspace to check whether the buoy had been returned to its original position. The Azerbaijani National Security Ministry formally protested those actions.

Azerbaijani media interpreted the Iranian action as signaling displeasure with Baku's broad support for proposals by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister and presidential envoy for Caspian issues Viktor Kalyuzhnyi intended to expedite an agreement by all five Caspian littoral states on the sea's status and division into national sectors. They also quoted Ayatollah Khamenei as accusing Azerbaijan of harboring unsubstantiated claims to part of Iran's sector of the Caspian.

The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry's defensive stance vis-a-vis accusations that were never made may presage a further postponement of President Heidar Aliev's long-anticipated visit to Tehran. Originally scheduled for last year, it is now planned for next month. (Liz Fuller)

Azerbaijan Gives Green Light For Resumption Of Privatization. On 12 August, the Azerbaijani press published new legislation intended to kickstart the country's stalled privatization program. That legislation, passed by the Azerbaijani parliament in mid-May and recently signed into law by President Heidar Aliev, comprises a program for the so-called "second stage" of privatization of state property over the period 2000-2002, together with a presidential decree extending until 1 January 2002 the validity of the privatization vouchers distributed to the Azerbaijani population between March and August 1997. Those vouchers were originally valid only until 15 August 2000.

The "first stage" of privatization was originally intended to be completed between late 1995 and 1998, and encompassed only small and medium enterprises, defined in the relevant legislation as those employing between 10-50 and between 50-300 people. Between March 1996-1999, some 22,000 of a total 30,000 small enterprises, most of them in the agricultural or trade and services sector, were sold, mostly to labor collectives.

In 1998, the State Property Committee set about drafting additional legislation on privatizing large enterprises, including the tea, tobacco and viticulture sectors, four metallurgical plants, the joint stock companies Azerigaz and Azenergy and Aztelecom and a stake in the state oil company SOCAR. The prospect of acquiring a stake in Azerbaijan's blue-chip companies had prompted foreign investors such as maverick Czech businessman Martin Kozeny to buy up privatization vouchers from the population at large: as of early March 1998, $200 million of the total $12 billion worth of such vouchers issued had been sold to foreigners.

But in early 1999, the wording of the anticipated new legislation was still being finalized. Prime Minister Artur Rasi-zade predicted on 1 April that it would be presented to parliament by the middle of that month; in December 1999 he told Reuters it would be enacted by parliament "within the next few months." The protracted delay, according to Rasi-zade, was caused partly by infighting between ministries, and partly by disagreement over whether to privatize the oil sector. Meanwhile the price of privatization vouchers had fallen from a high of $100 to under $10. Delay in proceeding with the second stage of privatization was one of the reasons behind the IMF decision in February of this year to suspend the release of the final $21 million tranche of an ESAF loan.

The adoption of the new legislation was further delayed by the dismissal in early December 1999 of the first deputy chairman of the State Property Committee, Barat Nuriev, a mathematician who in his book "The Market Economy in Azerbaijan" had incautiously criticized several influential political figures for their alleged opposition to the privatization process. Nuriev is also suspected of complicity with Kozeny's schemes. Following Nuriev's dismissal, the State Property Committee was upgraded to a ministry and former Trade Minister Farkhad Aliyev appointed to head it.

The new legislation excludes Azerbaijan's state oil company SOCAR from the privatization process, and leaves it to the discretion of President Aliyev to decide what approach is adopted in privatizing the Baku port, the electric power sector, chemical and metallurgical enterprises, and the transport and communications sector. Aliyev will determine the exact amount of shares to be sold, the proportion of cash sales, and the timetable for the sell-off of individual enterprises, according to Reuters. (Liz Fuller)

Chechnya Prepares To Elect A State Duma Deputy. Russian Central Electoral Commission chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov predicted on 16 August that at least 60 percent of Chechnya's 495,000 registered voters will cast their ballots in the 20 August State Duma by-election. (No more than 5 percent of those voters are Russian troops permanently stationed in Chechnya.) Veshnyakov expressed confidence that thanks in part to strict security and close cooperation between police and election officials, anticipated attempts by Chechen fighters to prevent the ballot, either by staging diversions or by bribing members of local election commissions, will fail. Veshnyakov said on 14 August that international observers, including the OSCE, had been invited to monitor the poll, but had declined.

Thirteen candidates are contending the Duma mandate, but as "The Moscow Times" point out on 17 August, the ballot is to all intents and purposes a two-horse race between the candidates backed by interim Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov and his deputy and rival, former Grozny Mayor Beslan Gantemirov. Kadyrov supports Gudermes Mayor Malika Gezimieva, who reportedly is so disillusioned with the situation in Chechnya that she wishes to leave for Moscow. Gantemirov, who had originally stated his intention of running himself in order to determine what degree of public support he could muster for a future bid for the Chechen presidency, withdrew his candidacy in favor of the former second secretary of the Checheno-Ingush Oblast Committee of the CPSU, Lecha Magomadov. Magomadov now heads the Chechen branch of the pro-Kremlin "Unity" party. (Liz Fuller)

Is Georgia Heading For A Demographic Crisis? Over the past week, two Georgian demographers have sounded the alarm over what they term "critical" and even "catastrophic" long- and short-term demographic trends.

Speaking at a press conference in Tbilisi on 10 August, Avtandil Sulaberidze, who is president of the Georgian Demographic Society, noted that in 1926, Georgians were the most numerous of the three titular nationalities of the Transcaucasus (Georgians then numbered 1.81 million, compared with 1.7 million Azerbaijanis and 1.56 million Armenians). And at 2.67 million, the population of Georgia in 1926 was greater than that of either Azerbaijan (2.315 million) or Armenia (0.88 million). Now, Sulaberidze continued, Azerbaijan has a population of 8 million, compared with Georgia's 4.5 million. (Some specialists have suggested, however, that Azerbaijani official estimates of the country's present population are exaggerated -- see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 2, No. 50, 17 December 1999).

At the time of the 1979 Soviet census, Georgia's population was 4.93 million, of whom 3.43 million, or 68.8 percent, were Georgians. Those figures represented increases of 6.6 percent and 9.6 percent respectively since the previous (1970) census. Ten years later, in 1989, Georgia's population had grown by a further 9 percent, to 5.449 million.

Sulaberidze and Anzor Totadze, who heads the Georgian Ministry of Employment, Health and Social Security's Demography Department, both identify as the main reasons for the population decline the deterioration in economic conditions since 1990. Falling living standards, in turn, have occasioned mass out-migration and steep drop in the birthrate (from 17 births per thousand population in 1990 to 9 per thousand in 1999). The mortality rate in Georgia, according to Sulaberidze, currently stands at 8-9 per thousand, but in some rural areas (Guria, Ratcha, Mingrelia, Imereti, Kakheti) it is far higher.

A major cause of the fall in the birthrate is an increase in abortions, which parliament recently legalized over the objections of the Georgian Orthodox Church. A survey of 6,000 families conducted between November 1999 and March of this year by the Women's Reproductive Center of Georgia revealed that one third of the women polled have never been married, and 40 percent are childless. Fifteen percent had one child, and 31 percent -- two children, and only 12 percent three or more children. Women in Georgia give birth on average to 1.1-1.6 children; an average of 2.1-2.15 is the minimum required to prevent population decline. The survey also established that abortion is the most prevalent means of birth control, and the older a woman is, the greater the number of abortions she is likely to have undergone.

Totadze announced last week that as part of a campaign to reverse the fall in the birthrate, his ministry will set up a special fund that will pay a premium of 1,000 laris ($515) to families on the birth of a third child. But that measure will not alleviate the plight of those families which already have several children, but which receive state allowances for them of only 12 lari per child per month.

Moreover, Totadze's proposed premium induces a sense of deja vu: in the early 1980s, while he was still Georgian CP first secretary, Eduard Shevardnadze repeatedly repeatedly advocated such measures in the hope of raising the Georgian birthrate, which even then was lower than that of either Armenia or Azerbaijan, (Liz Fuller)

Armenia Perceives Turkey As Obstacle To Cooperation With NATO. Turkey's continuing refusal to normalize relations with Armenia is a serious obstacle to the development of the latter's cooperation with NATO, Vahram Gabrielian, head of the Department of Arms Control and International Security at the Armenian Foreign Ministry told RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau on 12 August. He added Yerevan expects the Alliance's help in getting Ankara to change what it sees as a hostile line on Armenia.

"Turkey's non-constructive and biased attitude toward and economic blockade of Armenia adversely affects the Armenian public opinion on NATO, which in turn does not contribute to the establishment of a real partnership between Armenia and NATO," Gabrielian told RFE/RL in an interview. "Our neighbor and NATO-member Turkey continues to be regarded by Armenia as a country posing threat to our security," he said.

Successive Turkish governments have linked the establishment of diplomatic relations and re-opening of the border with Armenia to the recognition of Azerbaijani sovereignty over Nagorno-Karabakh. Ever since the start of the Karabakh conflict in the late 1980s Turkey has lent its full support to Azerbaijan, with which it has close ethnic and cultural affinity.

Relations between the two neighboring states are further complicated by differing interpretations of the 1915 killings of more than one million ethnic Armenian subjects of the Ottoman Empire. Official Ankara consistently denies that the mass killings and deportations constituted a genocide.

Gabrielian argued that Turkey's stance on Karabakh and other regional issues runs counter to NATO's goals and priorities in the South Caucasus. NATO's impartiality in the Karabakh conflict contrasts with Ankara's tough pro-Azerbaijani line, the foreign ministry official said. In his words, the Armenian government hopes that the leadership of the Alliance "will bring the policy of its member-state into conformity with the policy to which it is committed." NATO should try to influence the Turks because normalization of the Turkish-Armenian relationship is vital for regional security, Gabrielian said. Without such normalization, he went on, Turkey will continue to be perceived as a serious threat in Yerevan. "The example of northern Cyprus (occupied by Turkish troops in 1974) makes us think about security guarantees."

The United States is known to have made several attempts to mediate an improvement in Turkish-Armenian relations but has achieved few concrete results so far. In October 1999 the U.S. proposed the two countries to open unofficial "information centers" in each other's capital as a first step toward normalization. The idea, backed by Yerevan, did not get off the ground.

Gabrielian reiterated the official Armenian position that the perceived Turkish threat is the main reason for the presence of Russian troops in Armenia. Still, he claimed, "Armenia's military-strategic relationships are not confined to Russia, and we are seriously intent on complementing and deepening our partnership with NATO." Armenia's participation in NATO's Partnership for Peace program is expected to figure prominently during NATO Secretary-General George Robertson's official visit to Yerevan scheduled for late September.

Gabrielian cited the example of Greece, another NATO member and Turkey's traditional rival, to substantiate his argument. "In terms of the scale of its military cooperation with Armenia, Greece comes second after Russia." Also, Armenia's cooperation with the United States on weapons of mass destruction and emergency situations "has become more active" in recent months. During his recent visit to Washington, Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian received $300,000 worth of special equipment designed for detecting weapons of mass destruction in the event of their clandestine passage through Armenian territory.

Gabrielian also noted that since Armenia seeks to maintain simultaneous good relations with Russia and NATO it finds any further "confrontation" between them "undesirable." "We believe that a rapprochement between Russia and NATO is in the interests of Armenia and every other state," he said. (Emil Danielyan, Armen Zakarian)

Correction. "RFE/RL Caucasus Report" No. 31 estimated at 280,000 the number of Georgian displaced persons wishing to return to Abkhazia. That figure is incorrect: given that the total Georgian population of Abkhazia in 1989 was only 240,000, a figure of 200,000 potential Georgian returnees would be a closer estimate.

Quotations Of The Week. "Azerbaijan has chosen the democratic, western way of development and we don't need revolutions, including Islamic ones." -- Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Vilayat Guliev, quoted by ANS, 15 August.

"Doesn't [Armenian President Robert Kocharian] realize that we are sick and tired of disliking the authorities?" -- Armenian writer Perj Zeytuntsian, writing in "Golos Armenii" (12 August).

"How can the defense minister not have good mutual relations with the head of state?" -- Armenian Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, asked to comment on allegations that relations between him and President Kocharian are strained (quoted by Snark on 10 August, courtesy of Groong).

"The fact that our minister receives a salary of 75 lari (about $40) is not so much his problem as the state's." -- National Democratic Alliance of Georgia leader David Berdzenishvili, in an interview published in "Akhali taoba" on 11 August.

"Even a surrender on the most favorable terms would be a disgrace for [Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov]. He will never consent to surrender." -- Maskhadov's wife Kusama, in an interview with "Komsomolskaya pravda" on 16 August.