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Caucasus Report: January 6, 1999

6 January 1999, Volume 2, Number 1

1999 Marks Start Of Election Marathon. In all three Transcaucasus states, and in at least one North Caucasus republic, political developments in 1999 are likely to revolve around upcoming elections. Armenia must elect a new parliament in early summer. Georgia faces parliamentary elections in the autumn, followed by presidential elections one year later. Azerbaijan continues to grapple with the fallout of last October's disputed presidential poll, and must gear up for parliamentary elections in 2000. And on 25 April, voters in Karachaevo-Cherkassia will have the chance to end President Vladimir Khubiev's 18-year tenure as unelected head of that republic. That poll could also provide Moscow with an opportunity to strengthen its position in the North Caucasus.

Armenia's New "Ruling Party" Hopes To Consolidate Power... In Armenia, many political observers and opposition politicians believe that the outcome of the parliamentary elections is a foregone conclusion, given that the Yerkrapah Union of veterans of the Karabakh war, currently the largest group within parliament, is prepared to make only minor compromises over its draft election law, passed in the first reading on 16 November. Under that draft, 80 of the 131 deputies in the new parliament will be elected from single-mandate constituencies. Fearing that arrangement is conducive to vote-rigging, given that Yerkrapah will have a majority on electoral commissions at all levels, most opposition parties argue that the majority of deputies should be elected according to the proportional ("party list") system. But the widely-held perception that Yerkrapah will enter the election campaign with an unfair advantage over other parties has not prevented a wave of speculation about possible tactical electoral alliances. Much of that speculation focuses less on ideology than on individual political actors.

A key figure is Defense Minister Vazgen Sargsian, patron of the Yerkrapah union, which is in the process of merging with the Republican Party to form a centrist party that Sargsian predicted six weeks ago will become President Robert Kocharian's main power base. But since then, observers have suggested a possible rift between Sargsian and the President. "Iravunk," the weekly paper of the Christian Democratic Union, suggested on 25 December that Sargsian might choose instead to form an election alliance with former Armenian Communist Party First Secretary Karen Demirchian, whose recently launched People's Party of Armenia (HZhK) already boasts thousands of members nationwide. (In this context the question arises: was Sargsian's nomination in late December as one of the two co-chairmen of the government commission charged with preparations for a major conference on relations between Armenia and the diaspora intended as an outward and visible sign of his acknowledged behind-the-scenes influence, or to secure his loyalty to the present leadership, or both?)

A second alignment that "Iravunk" believes may be in the cards would reconcile the Armenian Revolutionary Federation -- Dashnaktsutiun (HHD) with Vazgen Manukian's National Democratic Union (AZhM). The HHD was one of several opposition parties that backed Manukian's presidential candidacy in 1996. For the moment, however, the Yerkrapah/Republican Party appears in a reasonably strong position, although Demirchian may come to be perceived as a strong challenger within the next few months. (Liz Fuller)

... While Its Georgian Counterpart May Have To Struggle To Retain It. In both Georgia and Azerbaijan, by contrast, the authority and standing of the ruling party is crumbling. The Union of Citizens of Georgia (SMK) is widely perceived as corrupt and either unable or unwilling to push through systemic reform.

Disillusion with the SMK was one of the reasons for the unexpectedly strong showing in the November 1998 local elections by the Labor Party, which deprived the SMK of the chairmanship of the Tbilisi and Kutaisi municipal councils. The Union for Democratic Revival headed by Adjar Supreme Council chairman Aslan Abashidze also demonstrated its ability to garner support nationwide and not simply on its leader's native turf. As yet, however, it is not clear whether the most influential left- and right-wing parties will form electoral alliances, or whether, as in 1990, 1992 and 1995, rugged individualism will prevail, and up to 50 separate parties and blocs will field candidates.

The outcome of the poll will depend largely on the present Georgian leadership's success (or lack of it) in reversing the spectacular economic downturn of 1998. In a possible attempt to prevent the 200,000 strong lobby of displaced Georgians who fled Abkhazia in 1992 and1993 from turning their plight into an election campaign issue, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze warned in late December that a political solution to the Abkhaz conflict in 1999 is highly unlikely, and will depend first and foremost on who is elected Georgian president in 2000. (Liz Fuller)

Karachaevo-Cherkessia Presidential Elections Too Good A Chance For Moscow To Pass Up? Under normal circumstances, elections in a republic of the Russian Federation with a total population of less than half a million, few strategic resources, and no simmering territorial conflicts would not seem to warrant much attention. But the upcoming presidential campaign in Karachaevo-Cherkessia is unique in a number of ways. First, 66-year-old incumbent Vladimir Khubiev is the only remaining president of a federation subject to have been appointed to his post by Russian President Boris Yeltsin rather than elected. The enacting of a law on the presidential elections in September was preceded by mass demonstrations in the republic's capital, Cherkassk (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18, 23 and 24 September 1998).

Second, the republic's ethnic composition will inevitably impact on the election campaign. Karachaevo-Cherkessia is one of several hybrid North Caucasus territorial formations that arbitrarily lumps together a Turkic and a Caucasian titular nationality. The largest ethnic group (42.4 percent of the total population) are the Russians (many of whom are Cossacks), followed by the Turkic Karachais (31.2 percent). The Cherkess account for less than 10 percent of the population.

To date, only two candidates have formally announced their intention to contend the poll. They are the Karachai Vladimir Khubiev, whose popularity rating has plummeted in tandem with the republic's economy, and 51-year old businessman Stanislav Derev, the dynamic mayor of Cherkessk. A Cherkess, Derev can nonetheless reportedly count on the support of much of the ethnic Russian population and even some of the Karacahi vote (35 percent of the town's Karachai voters backed him in the mayoral elections), and leads the opposition to Khubiev.

But the most interesting, and from Moscow's point of view the ideal presidential candidate, is the former commander of the Russian army's land forces, Vladimir Semenov, who is currently an advisor to the Russian Ministry of Defense. Semenov's father was Karachai and his mother Russian, and his presidential candidacy has been endorsed by the republic's Council of Elders. Semenov's overriding virtue in Moscow's eyes, however, is his support for the consolidation of the peoples of the North Caucasus in the face of the perceived threat posed to the region, and to Moscow's interests there, by the expanding Western influence in the Caucasus and Transcaucasus.

Semenov's vision of pan-Caucasian solidarity, which he outlined at a recent conference in Vladikavkaz organized by the Confederation of Peoples of the Caucasus, has elicited criticism from observers who feared that it would undermine the existing leaderships of the various North Caucasus republics, or that Semenov is in fact advocating the creation of a new federation subject combining the present separate North Caucasus republics, and which might at some future stage seek to secede from the Russian Federation.

While many North Caucasus republics would welcome Semenov's initiative, some prominent political figures in Chechnya will undoubtedly oppose it. Geopolitical pragmatists in Moscow who are resigned to the ultimate loss of Chechnya but anxious that that loss should not provide the impetus for the disintegration of the Russian Federation may, however, welcome the idea of creating a unified "cordon sanitaire" on Russia's southern borders. And Semenov is likely, too, to have little sympathy for those Cherkess who advocate the creation of a "Greater Cherkessia" comprising parts of the present Karachaevo-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Adygeya and the Shapsugh raion of Krasnodar Krai. (Liz Fuller)

Headline Of The Week. Caspian Nations Need Money, But Can They Survive Coming Oil Bonanza? ("The New York Times," 2 January 1999).