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Caucasus Report: August 24, 2000

24 August 2000, Volume 3, Number 34

Will The Azerbaijan Popular Front Survive Its Chairman's Death? The death from prostate cancer on 22 August of Azerbaijan Popular Front (AHCP) chairman and former President Abulfaz Elchibey removes the last obstacle to the split of the party into two rival factions. Since the beginning of the year, tensions within the party between conservative supporters of Elchibey and the party's reformist wing headed by AHCP first deputy chairman Ali Kerimov have become increasingly acrimonious. But whether out of respect for Elchibey's role as president during Azerbaijan's first year of independence, or for tactical reasons, Kerimov and his supporters first denied, then downplayed reports of an imminent rift within the party until it proved impossible to maintain a semblance of unity any longer (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, no. 30, 27 July 2000). Elchibey himself sought on several occasions from his hospital bed to prevent a final rift in the party's ranks.

From the beginning, it has been clear that the tensions within the AHCP derived from a covert struggle for influence, rather than from ideological differences. The catalyst for the most recent (and most serious) dissent was disagreement over how to set about selecting the party's candidates to contest the 25 mandates in the new parliament to be allocated under the proportional system.

On 23 July, two weeks after Elchibey had flown to Turkey for treatment for what was then described as a kidney ailment, the Supreme Council of the AHCP drew up its list of candidates, in which the first five places were occupied by Kerimov and his supporters. Four AHCP deputy chairmen aligned with Elchibey rejected the list, claiming it was drafted in the absence of a quorum and therefore invalid. They demanded the conduct of "primaries" within the AHCP to determine the relative popularity of prospective candidates.

Elchibey, however, intervened to restore some semblance of cohesion by submitting his own alternative list of 25 candidates. Elchibey himself headed that list, followed by Kerimov, Mirmahmoud Fattaev (one of the four AHCP deputy chairmen who supported Elchibey), Gulamhuseyn Aliyev (who supports Kerimov), and Ali Masimov (a second deputy chairman who supports Elchibey). Although one of Kerimov's supporters alleged that Elchibey's signature on that list was forged, Kerimov personally did not publicly dispute it.

At a meeting on 5 August of regional AHCP party leaders and those members of its Supreme Council who oppose Kerimov, one of the latter's bitterest critics, Fazil Gazanfaroglu, criticized Kerimov for violating the party's statutes. But after telephone consultations with Elchibey, the session shelved a proposed vote on dissolving the Supreme Council. Gazanfaroglu and AHCP deputy chairman Zalimkhan Mamedli told journalists four days later that the party's present Supreme Council would shortly be dissolved and a new one elected.

At that juncture, several prominent Azerbaijani opposition party leaders expressed concern that dissent within the AHCP could negatively impact on the domestic political situation in the runup to the 5 November parliamentary poll. That shared concern prompted the Union of Intellectuals to offer to mediate between the two rival factions, but two such rounds of talks (on 11 and 15 August) reportedly failed to narrow the rift between them, and on 19 August the "conservatives" convened an emergency session of the Supreme Council which elected Fattaev as that body's chairman and voted to dissolve the Council's presidium.

Elchibey's demise thus leaves his party with two rival ruling bodies. The only other political figures who might take upon themselves the unenviable task of trying to mediate a rapprochement between the two would seem to be Musavat party chairman Isa Gambar, who served as parliament chairman under Elchibey and was reportedly visibly distraught by the latter's death, and Azerbaijan National Independence Party (AMIP) chairman Etibar Mamedov, who met with Fattaev and Gazanfaroglu on 18 August to offer his services as mediator. Those talks may well have served an additional purpose, however, that of determining whether an election alliance between the AMIP and the Fattaev/Gazanfaroglu wing of the AHCP is on the cards. The participants subsequently issued a statement demanding the recall of one of the two Popular Front representatives (Gudrat Gasankuliev, who is close to Kerimov) on the Central Electoral Commission.

One powerful argument for seeking to avert, or at least postpone, a final split in the AHCP's ranks is the parliamentary poll, now less than three months away. Kerimov made the point two weeks ago that the ongoing dissent within the AHCP risks alienating voters who will, with reason, ask how that party intends to rule the country if it cannot reach agreement within its own ranks. Musavat and the AHCP signed an agreement on 4 August on creating a joint list of candidates to contest the 25 seats in the new legislature to be allocated under the proportional system. It is not clear, however, whether such a list has in fact been drawn up and submitted to the Central Electoral Commission, and if so, whether the Fattaev/ Gazanfaroglu faction will now distance itself from it. (That list was to be headed by Elchibey, followed by Gambar, with AHCP candidates taking the subsequent odd- and Musavat the even-numbered places.) The deadline for parties to submit documentation to the Central Electoral Commission is 11 September.

Moreover, the Musavat party is now under a cloud following the abortive attempt by one of its members on 18 August to hijack an Azerbaijani Airlines internal flight. One of the hijacker's demands was changes to the election law. The Musavat leadership issued a statement on 23 August expressing concern that the authorities will adduce the hijack attempt as grounds for barring the party from the poll. Other observers anticipate that Musavat's registration may be revoked on the grounds that it is a "terrorist organization." With Musavat banned and the AHCP divided, there would thus be little need for the authorities to resort to falsification of the 5 November vote. (Liz Fuller)

Where Is The Reform Process In Georgia Headed? On 9 August, RFE/RL's Tbilisi bureau moderated a roundtable discussion that assessed the reasons for, and chances of reversing, the perceived slowdown in the democratization process in Georgia. Opening that discussion, moderator David Paichadze remarked that since the re-election in April for a second term of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, the influence on political developments in Georgia of the group within the country's leadership known as the "young reformers," which is headed by parliament speaker Zurab Zhvania and parliament majority Union of Citizens of Georgia faction leader Mikhail Saakashvili, has declined markedly.

Concurring with that perception, philosopher Zaza Shatirashvili cited the diagnosis of "erosion of democracy" pronounced after last November's parliamentary elections by political commentator Ghia Nodia. Nodia said that the SMK, which claims to be at the forefront of democratization, resorted to undemocratic means to cling to power, and that the population at large responded to that development with cynicism or nihilism. The resounding defeat in both polls of conservative opposition forces, Shatirashvili argued, has altered the political landscape, with the result that the "reformers" are no longer perceived as the "democratic alternative." Shatirashvili said he sees no alternative force that could expedite the stalled reform process.

Political scientist Ramaz Sakvarelidze sees the reasons for the crisis in the reform process in an "intellectual deficit" that is reflected in the lack of precision in formulating a precise program of economic measures. (Leszek Balcerowicz, author of the Polish "economic miracle," who has just accepted a post as President Shevardnadze's economic advisor, offered a very similar diagnosis in Tbilisi last week, telling journalists that Georgia must clarify exactly what kind of state it intends to build. Just labeling it as a "democracy," Balcerowicz said, is not sufficient.)

"Reforms are being implemented without any concept of reforms," Sakvarelizde said. "Where the economic situation is so weak there is no chance for reform of the judiciary, because the economy is the foundation for all other reforms."

Sakvarelizde noted that Georgia is currently on its third Economy Minister, adding given the lack of an overall concept that would determine in what direction changes are intended to lead, "in all probability it makes no difference whom we appoint as minister." (Asked by Paichadze whether those who oppose the reform process evince a similar intellectual deficit, Sakvarelidze quipped "A pocket does not need a head. It manages to get filled regularly where it is now.")

Shatirashvili pointed out that the lack of a clearly thought through concept has been one of the hallmarks of political life in Georgia over the past 10 years. He and Sakvarelidze agreed that the Georgian leadership's policies are reactive and not pro-active. Shatirashvili added that one aspect of the intellectual deficit is that political thought focuses primarily on false historical comparisons rather than pure analysis of the current situation. That orientation towards the past, rather than the future, he concluded, is "fatal."

Developing the idea that the present leadership's policies are reactive, Sakvarelidze said he has impression that reforms as currently implemented in Georgia arose as a reaction either to various external pressures from IMF and World Bank, or to events in Russia, rather than in response to a domestic need for development and change. Shatirashvili provoked spontaneous laughter from his fellow discussants by comparing the Georgian body politic to an "amoeba" that exists in a permanent "sleep-like state" and only reacts to external stimuli.

Arguing that Georgia must abandon that passivity or risk being branded "a banana republic," Sakvarelidze suggested that a solution to the present inertia in the reform process does not depend so much on the political will of Georgian leadership, but that what is needed is for those members of Georgian middle class business community who are impatient to operate in normal civilized business conditions to take the initiative and create a political force that will in turn create "a new Georgia." "Without such an alliance, just waiting for new political initiatives, any progress is unrealistic," he said. (Somewhat surprisingly, neither participant referred in this context to the opposition parliament faction "Industry Will Save Georgia," whose recent legislative initiative to introduce a tax code that would alleviate the tax burden on small businesses was defeated.)

Shatirashvili agreed with that prognosis, but stressed that it is important that the "moving force" behind this new alliance should be the middle class, rather than a Georgian counterpart to Russia's infamous oligarchs. He called for an alliance between the middle-class intelligentsia and the middle-class business community, who together would draft a new reform program and then set about implementing it. Such an alliance, the discussants concluded, would demonstrate to the present leadership that it does not have a monopoly on the reform process, and might even galvanize it into greater activity. (Liz Fuller)

Observers Anticipate Disintegration of Armenian Parliament Majority Bloc. Many political analysts in Yerevan believe that it is now only a matter of time before the People's Party of Armenia (HZhK) quits the majority Miasnutiun parliament faction to register its displeasure with the policies of Andranik Markarian's government. Markarian is a member of the Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), the other member of Miasnutiun. Each of the two parties has accused the other of betraying the joint program on which the alliance was elected to parliament in May 1999.

True, HZhK leader Stepan Demirchian, the younger son of the party's founder Karen (one of the victims of the 27 October parliament shootings) went on record earlier this week as denying that his party will quit Miasnutiun. "The HZhK is a cooperative force willing to negotiate [with other parties] over certain principles and concrete issues. But we don't intend to run from one bloc to another," he told RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau on 22 August. But notwithstanding that disclaimer, Markarian the following day hinted to journalists that he may fire more HZhK supporters from their government posts. He said that "Unfortunately some of the political forces [that joined forces to form the current cabinet last May] have not clearly accomplished the tasks we agreed on straight from the beginning. In view of that there may arise the necessity to treat their representatives [in the government] in a corresponding manner as was the case during the dismissal of some deputy ministers."

Three deputy ministers who are members of, or closely aligned with, the HZhK have lost their jobs this month in a purge which Demirchian termed "unacceptable" and other members of his party have claimed constitutes political persecution. Markarian on 23 August shrugged off those allegations. At the same time, he registered annoyance that Demirchian had not consulted with his HHK partner in Miasnutiun before embarking on consultations with Artashes Geghamian, the leader of the nationalist Right and Accord parliament bloc.

How serious those consultations were is not clear. Geghamian has sought to portray his talks earlier this month with Demirchian as aimed specifically towards creating a new alliance (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, no. 31, 3 August 2000), while Demirchian on 22 August suggests they constituted only an exchange of views. Nor does there appear to be unanimity within the HHK over what course of action to take: Agriculture Minister Zaven Gevorgian, who was close to Karen Demirchian although he is not a formal member of the HZhK, spoke out against such an alliance earlier this month.

Similarly unclear is whether a putative divorce between the HZhK and the HHK could spark a broader realignment within parliament. Several possible scenarios have been suggested, including an alliance between the HZhK and Hayastan, the parliamentary group comprised primarily of members of the Yerkrapah Union of veterans of the Karabakh war who ran for parliament on the HHK slate. The chairman of the Hayastan faction, Miasnik Malkhasian, promptly scotched that rumor, but other members of that faction and of Yerkrapah are said to favor such an alliance.

Neither does it seem likely that the HHK would become the nucleus of a new alignment together with the Kayunutiun (Stability) faction, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation--Dashnaktsutiun, which supports President Kocharian, and some members of the National Democratic Union. But in the words of one Yerevan observer, the situation is so complicated that any predictions are fraught with risk, given that "the universal rules of political struggle do not always apply to Armenia." (Liz Fuller/Emil Danielyan)

Rising Trade With West Weakens Armenia's Economic Dependence On CIS. Former Soviet republics accounted for just over a fifth of Armenia's trade with the outside world in the first half of this year, while the country's commercial links with the West reached a new record high level, reflecting its continuing economic re-orientation.

The share of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Armenian foreign trade fell to $120 million or 21.6 percent of its overall volume during the period in question, while the European Union further consolidated its position of Armenia's number one trading partner, official statistics reveal (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 2, no. 40, 7 October 1999). The volume of commerce with the EU reached $207.8 million or 37.4 percent of Armenia's external economic turnover as of late June, with Belgium replacing Russia as its single largest trading partner due to a $93.2 million bilateral trade. Exports of Armenian-refined diamonds to Belgium, their primary market, account for that country's predominance.

Britain remained among other leading EU partners of Armenia largely because of relatively large supplies of UK goods. Imports from Greece, mainly in the form of equipment for the Greek-owned ArmenTel monopoly, shot up to $28.5 million.

Coming next in the list of Armenia's trading partners is the United States with a $54.2 million share. The U.S. was the final destination of nearly 8 percent of Armenian exports that totaled $135.7 million--almost 17 percent higher than during the same period last year.

The official figures are a further indication that the economic significance for Armenia of Russia and other former Soviet republics is slowly but steadily decreasing. That process accelerated after the 1998 Russian financial crisis. Imports of Russian natural gas and other energy resources account for a large part of the Armenian-Russian trade, which equaled $84 million in the first half.

Likewise, neighboring Iran's commercial ties with Armenia continued to decline. The latest figures put the volume of bilateral trade at $46.7 million, which is considerably less than in the mid-1990s.

Officials in Yerevan welcome the West's growing importance for the Armenian economy but are concerned at the continuing huge trade deficit. Despite the first-half surge, Armenian exports were still three times lower than imports. (Emil Danielyan)

Quotations Of The Week. "The DHL minority--decent, honest, law-abiding--is the most endangered in the Caucasus." -- Georgian analyst Alex Rondeli, quoted in the "Economist," 19-25 August.

"Despite all financial difficulties, Georgia will not agree to an emission. It would ruin the country." -- Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, speaking at a government session on 23 August (quoted by Caucasus Press).

"It is impossible to organize democratic elections on territory occupied by enemy troops." -- Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, quoted by AFP, 20 August.