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Caucasus Report: May 20, 1999

20 May 1999, Volume 2, Number 20

Moscow Seeks To Avert New Crisis in North Caucasus. As many observers had feared, the 16 May presidential runoff in the North Caucasus Republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia led to a political standoff between the two rival candidates. That standoff was defused only by the intervention of (then acting) Russian Premier Sergei Stepashin.

In the first round of voting on 25 April, businessman Stanislav Derev, who is mayor of the republic's capital, Cherkessk, received some 40 percent of the vote, and his closest rival, former Russian Army ground forces commander Vladimir Semenov -- 19 percent. Over the next three weeks, more than a dozen instances of violence against members of both those candidates' campaign staffs were reported, prompting Stepashin in his capacity as Interior Minister to warn Derev and Semenov that he would dispatch troops to quell any post-runoff violence.

The tensions surrounding the poll are the direct consequence of the ethnic composition of Karachaevo-Cherkessia. The largest ethnic group (42 percent) are the Russians (many of them Cossacks), followed by the Turkic Karachais (31 percent), who traditionally have occupied most leading positions. The Cherkess account for only approximately 10 percent of the population. The runoff pitted Semenov, who is considered by the Cherkess to be a Karachai, although his mother was Russian and he cannot speak Karachai, against the Cherkess Derev.

The second poll was reportedly marred by large-scale vote-rigging by Semenov's supporters and other procedural violations, leading Derev's supporters to congregate in their thousands on the central square in Cherkessk even before the polling stations closed to demand that the election be declared invalid. The Central Election Commission nonetheless issued preliminary results, according to which Semenov polled between 75-80 percent and Derev 20 percent.

That outcome could hypothetically be valid if all those voters who had backed candidates other than Derev in the first round, plus some who had initially voted for Derev, transferred their allegiance to Semenov in the runoff. (Turnout in the first round was 77 percent and in the second-- 62.7 percent.) But the likelihood they would all have done so is minimal, given that not only Cherkess but also many Russian voters unequivocally support Derev. (Many of those Russians were among the estimated 15,000 Derev supporters who gathered on Cherkessk's central square.)

Derev then issued an ultimatum that had the effect he sought in Moscow even in the midst of the crisis precipitated by President Yeltsin's firing of Yevgenii Primakov as premier: he vowed that if Moscow did not rule the election outcome invalid and nominate a Russian administrator in the place of Semenov, the republic's Cherkess population would demand that the districts it inhabits be separated from the Republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia and placed under the jurisdiction of neighboring Stavropol Krai.

Stepashin summoned both Semenov and Derev to Moscow on 18 May, where he succeeded in persuading them not to convene further mass demonstrations or undertake any other measures that would exacerbate the situation. The two candidates also promised to refrain from further calls for the dismemberment of the republic along ethnic lines. In response to Derev's demands, a delegation from Russia's Central Electoral Commission will be dispatched to review the poll results. Also on 18 May, Yeltsin nominated Deputy Interior Minister Colonel-General Ivan Golubev, who until April 1999 headed the Interior Ministry's Operational Staff for the North Caucasus, as his personal representative in Karachaevo-Cherkessia.

Moscow has thus temporarily defused what could otherwise have evolved into a new north Caucasus crisis, but the central government still has to address the underlying causes. This will entail taking the difficult decision on whether to continue to support Semenov, who from the outset was perceived as its preferred candidate (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 2, No. 1, 5 January 1999), even if an investigation substantiates Derev's charges of vote-rigging. (Liz Fuller)

Georgian Parliament Considers Amendments To Election Law... Possible dates for this autumn's Georgian parliamentary elections have been narrowed down to the last ten days in October or the first ten days in November, Caucasus Press reported on 10 May quoting Central Electoral Commission Secretary Nugzar Skhirtladze. The precise date of the poll will be set by President Eduard Shevardnadze 60-80 days in advance. Before then, amendments msut be made to the electoral legislation passed in August 1995. One of those amendments concerns the procedures for selecting members of the CEC itself: several variants have been proposed, including one that envisages that the Supreme and Constitutional Courts choose three members, the president and the outgoing parliament -- six each, and the outgoing CEC -- three.

Last week, the parliament considered a more fundamental change to the law, namely revising the minimum percentage of votes a party must receive under the proportional system to gain representation in the new parliament. Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia, who heads the opposition National Democratic Party of Georgia, proposed increasing that minimum from 5 to 7 percent. Parliament speaker Zurab Zhvania for his part advocated reducing the minimum to 3 percent. Zhvania reasoned that doing so would facilitate the representation in parliament of as many as possible of Georgia's 90 or more political parties. But National Democratic Party deputies voiced the suspicion that Zhvania's rationale was that smaller groups of deputies from many different parties could be more easily pressured into supporting legislation tabled by the Union of Citizens of Georgia (SMK). Many analysts anticipate that the SMK's overall majority in the present parliament will be drastically reduced in the upcoming elections. In his weekly radio broadcast on 17 May, Shevardnadze did not exclude the possibility that the minimum threshold for representation in parliament would indeed be raised to 7 percent as Sarishvili-Chanturia proposed.

A third party leader, Shalva Natelashvili of the Labor Party, argued in favor of raising the threshold for party blocs contending the poll to 9 percent, and for individual parties to 7 percent, in order to preclude the entry into parliament of what he termed "small and insignificant parties." (Liz Fuller)

...As New Political Alliance Formed. At a press conference in Tbilisi on 11 May, Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia, Republican Party leader Ivliane Khaindrava, and Industrialists' Party chairman Beso Djugheli announced the creation of a political alignment between their respective center-right parties, which Sarishvili-Chanturia stressed is of a long-term strategic nature.

The National Democratic and Republican parties complement each other: the former has a charismatic and popular leader and a strong organizational structure that extends throughout Georgia, while the "Republicans" have an experienced team of parliamentary deputies and a base of support in Adjara and elsewhere.

The new "National-Democratic Alliance -- Third Way" is intended as an alternative to the two powerful parties that at present constitute the two poles of the Georgian political spectrum: the SMK and the All-Georgian Union of Revival headed by Aslan Abashidze, speaker of the Supreme Council of the Adjar Autonomous Republic. Supporters of the new alliance say it could be the catalyst for a major realignment of the Georgian political spectrum. They note that until now, many voters have tended to support either the SMK or the Union for Revival as the lesser of two evils, a choice that has been broadened by the creation of a realistic alternative.

Parallel to the talks that culminated in the emergence of the National-Democratic Alliance, Aslan Abashidze has held discussions with Socialist Party leader Vakhtang Rcheulishvili and Union of Traditionalists chairman Akaki Asatiani on forming an electoral alliance. Those proposals have proven inconclusive so far, but last week's proposal to raise the minimum vote requirement to 7 percent may impel left-wing parties to a new attempt to join forces. (Davit Berdzenishvili/Liz Fuller)

South Ossetia Vote May Complicate Conflict Settlement. Last week's parliamentary elections in Georgia's unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia resulted in a conclusive victory for the local Communist Party, which garnered over 80 percent of the 33 seats in the new parliament. Four seats reserved for ethnic Georgian deputies remained vacant, as the local Georgian population boycotted the poll.

According to RFE/RL's correspondent in the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, the outcome of the vote is a serious blow to President Lyudvig Chibirov, whose position in ongoing negotiations on defining the region's status many Ossetians regard as too conciliatory. Several rounds of talks in recent years between Georgian and South Ossetian representatives have failed to yield a compromise agreement on the region's status vis-a-vis the central Georgian government. The South Ossetians insist on international recognition as an independent state, whereas Tbilisi is prepared to offer only a variant on the autonomous status the region had prior to November 1990, when Supreme Soviet chairman Zviad Gamsakhurdia arbitrarily abolished that autonomy.

Chibirov's domestic opponents accuse him of having already signed a secret agreement with Tbilisi whereby Georgia's territorial integrity is preserved and South Ossetia is given the status of an autonomous republic within Georgia. Ossetians view that as tantamount to the loss of their hard won, if unrecognized, independence.

In what the opposition termed a bid by Chibirov to bolster his declining support, the embattled president recently proposed to the head of the Russian peacekeeping force deployed in the region that his troops should guard the borders of the "independent Ossetian state" -- an offer that the Russian contingent declined on the grounds that they do not have a mandate from Moscow to do so.

Observers in Tskhinvali predict a further deterioration of relations between the president and the parliament, possibly leading to demands for Chibirov's resignation. But even if Chibirov remains president, the Communist Party is likely to insist on conducting future negotiations with Georgia on the principle of equality. (Liz Fuller)

Quotations Of The Week. "If your wife spoils 37 percent of the dinner she cooks, you'd divorce her, wouldn't you?" -- People's Party of Armenia chairman Karen Demirchian, elaborating on his election pledge to fire energy sector personnel responsible for 37 percent losses of power due to faulty transmission ("Aravot," 20 May 1999).

"There was nothing of this kind." -- Armenian Defense Minister Vazgen Sargsian, denying a suggestion byAzerbaijani State Foreign Policy Advisor Vafa Guluzade that Armenia has acquired Chinese Typhoon rocket systems from Beijing (Noyan Tapan, 20 May 1999).