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Caucasus Report: November 16, 2000

16 November 2000, Volume 3, Number 45

Kocharian Backs Electoral Law Amendments. President Robert Kocharian has thrown his weight behind a multipartisan agreement on a crucial change in electoral legislation which would substantially increase the number of parliament seats contested under the system of proportional representation. A draft amendment agreed by all parties represented in the Armenian parliament would raise from 56 to 94 the share of seats allocated on the party list basis. The increase would come at the expense of single-mandate constituencies which would under this plan then be cut from the existing 75 to 37. The deal followed a sudden U-turn in Kocharian's position on how the next parliament should be elected.

The reform of the Armenian Electoral Code topped the agenda of a 16 November meeting between Kocharian and leaders of the parliamentary parties and groups. "I think that he is favor of the variant agreed by the parties," said Miasnik Malkhasian, chairman of the Hayastan group which comprises just over a dozen legislators affiliated with the Yerkrapah Union of Nagorno-Karabakh war veterans. Hayastan and another major group, Kayunutyun, as well as most non-partisan deputies are opposed to the proposed ratio of seats which, if passed, will make it far more difficult for them to get elected to the next National Assembly. Malkhasian said Yerkrapah has come up with a compromise formula whereby 80 seats would be set aside for party lists.

Those parties which have a vested interested in the dominance of proportional representation say that it will contribute to the democratization of Armenia's political system. Most of their candidates competing in single-seat constituencies fared poorly during the 1999 elections.

Kocharian expressed support for the parties' case for electoral reform in televised remarks earlier this month, feeding speculation that he may be intent on dissolving the parliament and calling for fresh elections soon. But Malkhasian said that Kocharian expressed no such intentions during the meeting. A new parliament would hardly be more sympathetic to the head of state, the Yerkrapah leader argued.

Parliament debates on election law amendments are expected to get underway next month. (Anna Saghabalian)

Fate Of Russia's Akhalkalaki Base Still Unclear. Russia's decision to pull out some of the military hardware from its base at Akhalkalaki in southern Georgia raises the prospect of the base's eventual closure, something which Tbilisi would welcome but that the predominantly ethnic population in the surrounding area would oppose. The redeployment of 76 armored vehicles to the Russian base in northern Armenia has again turned the spotlight on Georgia's impoverished Javakheti region, one of potential hot spots in the South Caucasus.

Officially, the redeployment is part of the ongoing reduction of the Russian military presence in Georgia agreed between the two countries in November 1999. Two of the four Russian military facilities have already been effectively shut down. The future of the other bases, including the one in Akhalkalaki, is uncertain. It will be discussed next month at further round of Russian-Georgian talks.

Javakheti Armenians fear that the transfer of military equipment, which was completed on 13 November, could be the first step towards closing the base. The population of the region bordering on Turkey and Armenia has had uneasy relations with the authorities in Tbilisi for much of the post-Soviet period (see "End Note," "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 September 1999). Some local groups have campaigned for greater autonomy from the central government. The presence of Russian troops there is seen as a major factor restricting Tbilisi's control of the mountainous area.

"Our wish is that the base stay on," says David Restakian, a leader of the nationalist Virk party, which has been unsuccessfully seeking official registration. "We will therefore do everything in our power to have the base stay on. But if Russia decides to close it there is nothing we can do about it."

Most local people share this view, citing mainly economic concerns. The Russian base is the largest single employer in Akhalkalaki. "Almost two thousand people live off the base," says one elderly trader in the town bazaar. "Can [Georgian President Eduard] Shevardnadze pay them? Of course not. He doesn't pay our pensions for nine and even ten months."

Javakhetia is one of the most underdeveloped parts of Georgia with subsistence-level agriculture and virtually no manufacturing. Thousands of residents have left it for other countries to in search of jobs. Economic development is thwarted among other things by severe power shortages. The region has electricity only a few hours a week, usually after midnight.

It was hoped that the debilitating energy crisis will be alleviated by direct power supplies from Armenia, whose government has laid a 50 kilometer high voltage line into Javakheti at its own expense. Construction work was finished a month ago, but the two countries have still to work out all modalities and conditions of the scheme. Local Armenians put the blame on the Georgian side, saying that Tbilisi is unwilling to have electricity from Armenia bypassing its centralized power grid. However, officials in the Armenian energy ministry say the situation is more complex, with Yerevan seeking guarantees that it will be paid for the supplies.

Local leaders in Akhalkalaki are threatening to hold protest actions if the situation does not improve by the end of this month. The mood in the town's dusty streets is one of desperation and anger. A simple journalistic inquiry about people's lives unleashes a storm of complaints. "If things continue like this we will perish," said one woman interviewed last weekend.

There is, according to Restakian, "fertile ground" for a collective outburst of frustration with persisting hardships. It is a possibility the governments of Georgia and Armenia are hardly enthusiastic about. Yerevan has always restrained the Javakheti Armenians from an open confrontation with the Georgian government, mindful of the fact that Georgia is landlocked Armenia's main conduit to the outside world. The Russians, on the other hand, are not averse to playing the Javakheti card in their dealings with Georgia's pro-Western leadership. The Akhalkalaki base is a strong lever to stir up trouble.

Some analysts in Yerevan are therefore doubtful about whether Moscow is actually willing to give up such a valuable asset in a region which it views as a zone of Russian influence. Indeed, Russian leaders have so far made no explicit statements about a complete troop withdrawal from Georgia. Armenian officials are likewise playing down the implications of the latest redeployment, saying that Russia has simply moved excess hardware to comply with the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty.

A banner inside the Akhalkalaki base carries a quote from 19th century Russian general: "The threat to Russia from the south has not disappeared. It remains a reality." That might also mean that the troop withdrawal is by no means a forgone conclusion. (Emil Danielyan)

Tbilisi Criticizes Armenian Visit To Abkhazia. A "working visit" to Abkhazia last month by a group of Armenian government officials headed by the former Armenian ambassador in Tbilisi, Levon Khachatrian, has provoked criticism in Tbilisi. Georgian Foreign Ministry spokesman Avtandil Napetvaridze said on 10 November that Yerevan had not coordinated the visit with the Georgian leadership. The present Armenian ambassador, Georgii Khosroev, was summoned to the Georgian Foreign Ministry to discuss the issue. Parliamentary speaker Zurab Zhvania similarly demanded that Khosroev appear before the Georgian parliament's committee for foreign relations.

Khosroev himself told Caucasus Press on 10 November that the visit had in fact been approved by the Georgian Foreign Ministry. He added that the purpose of the visit was to investigate reports of rising tensions between the Abkhaz and the Armenian minority living in that unrecognized republic.

Armenian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ara Papyan said the Armenian visit focused on "working issues," including the conditions in which Armenians live and the likely impact on Armenians in Abkhazia of the anticipated introduction of a visa regime betwen Russia and Georgia. The Armenian delegation met with Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba and Education Minister Beslan Dbar. (Liz Fuller)

Quotations Of The Week. "Georgia has the right to select as its partners those states that do not just pay lip service to its sovereignty and unity." -- Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, interviewed in "Izvestiya," of 14 November.

"Friendly relations with Russia are imperative for Georgia's foreign policy. Tbilisi understands very well that our relations to a great extent determine the whole situation in the Caucasus." -- Georgian Foreign Minister Irakli Menagarishvili, quoted by Glasnost-North Caucasus on 15 November.