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Caucasus Report: June 3, 1999

3 June 1999, Volume 2, Number 22

If At First You Don't Succeed, Try, Try Again. The 23 May revelation that Georgian law enforcement and security bodies had thwarted a third attempt to assassinate Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze elicited widely differing responses from the country's top leadership, on the one hand, and opposition politicians, on the other.

As on the two previous occasions, in August 1995 and February 1998, when Shevardnadze narrowly escaped attacks on the car in which he was traveling, Georgian officials identified unnamed Russian circles as having masterminded the attack in an attempt to destabilize the political situation in Georgia. But in each successive assassination bid, Georgian investigators have identified a different set of perpetrators. In 1995, Security Minister Igor Giorgadze and members of the Mkhedrioni paramilitary force headed by Djaba Ioseliani were named as the actual perpetrators of the car bomb attack on Shevardnadze. In a subsequent Russian press interview, Giorgadze, who fled Georgia to avoid arrest, rejected those charges as an insult to his professional expertise, affirming that if he had indeed been responsible, Shevardnadze would not have escaped merely with cuts and bruises.

In February 1998, the men who launched a mortar attack on Shevardnadze's limousine were identified as Georgian supporters of deceased Georgian President Zviad Gamsakhurdia and Chechen militants, acting at the behest of unnamed figures in Moscow.

Not all of the 20 suspects detained to date in connection with the most recent attempt to eliminate Shevardnadze have been named. But of those whose identity is known, five are connected with either the security services or the Defense Ministry. Various security officials have also said that an unspecified number of unnamed parliament deputies, a bodyguard of former Prime Minister Otar Patsatsia, and some members of Mkhedrioni were involved. And as in 1995, Igor Giorgadze was named as having played a key role in preparations for the attack.

In three key respects, however, the circumstances of the thwarted 1999 murder bid differ from earlier such attacks. First, Georgian National Security Minister Vakhtang Kutateladze has said that citizens of two other CIS countries in addition to Russia were involved. Second, on this occasion Shevardnadze was reportedly not the only intended victim. Caucasus Press on 31 May quoted an unnamed source within the Security Ministry as stating that several groups of killers had been charged with the murders of Shevardnadze, parliament chairman Zurab Zhvania, Minister of State Vazha Lortkipanidze, and the heads of the "power" ministries. Moreover, those groups of attackers were to act independently of each other, and were not aware that "their" victim was not the sole intended target. And third, some members of the Russian leadership may have played a positive role in neutralizing the conspiracy: in a possible allusion to former Russian Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin, Shevardnadze told journalists on 24 May that the change of government in Moscow had contributed to uncovering the coup plans.

While opposition Georgian politicians joined the condemnation of the two previous attempts to assassinate Shevardnadze, this time their reactions were more skeptical. Both Labor Party leader Shalva Natelashvili and National Ideology Party chairman Zurab Gagnidze suggested that the Georgian authorities had stage-managed the arrests in attempt to neutralize rivals to the ruling Union of Citizens of Georgia (SMK) in the parliamentary election campaign that is just getting underway. (That hypothesis lacks conviction in that Adjar Supreme Council chairman Aslan Abashidze, who is perceived as the potential leader of a left-wing bloc that could pose a serious threat to the SMK, has not been named in connection with the plot, at least as of now. And the military officials detained are not known to have links with any specific political party.)

National Independence Party of Georgia chairwoman Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia, for her part, termed the situation "tragicomic." She added that such repeated coup allegations are the hallmark of a country ruled by the Mafia. (Liz Fuller)

An Avoidable Fiasco? As of 2 June, four Armenian political parties had suggested that the 30 May parliamentary elections should be declared invalid because incomplete and outdated voter lists had deprived tens of thousands of people of the opportunity to cast their ballots. Some Armenians have charged that names were omitted deliberately from voter lists in order to exclude those who were likely to oppose the Miasnutyun alliance of Defense Minister Vazgen Sargsian and former Communist Party First Secretary Karen Demirchian.

But that hypothesis suggests an improbable degree of omniscience on the part of local authorities with regard to citizens' individual political sympathies. A more likely explanation is incompetence and oversight on the part of local authorities responsible for revising and updating lists of voters, which were to be computerized in a laudable attempt to preclude multiple voting and similar malpractice.

The OSCE monitoring mission noted that "the voter lists, especially in Yerevan, were not updated with regularity required by law and proved highly inaccurate.... The Central Electoral Commission failed to publish the number of registered voters in the timeframe provided by law, denying voters and political parties necessary information on this basic element in an election contest."

There were indications even before the poll of significant lapses in the process of updating and computerizing voter lists. The proxy for an independent candidate running in a central Yerevan constituency told journalists on 26 May that 1,200 names, including that of the candidate himself, had not been included on the list of eligible voters.

Estimates differ as to the number of people who were prevented from voting. Self-Determination Union chairman Paruyr Hayrikian spoke of 100,000, and Union of Constitutional Right deputy chairman Haik Babukhanian--200,000, while Central Electoral Commission chairman Artak Sahradian told ITAR-TASS that 22,000 people appealed to local courts to have their names reinstated on voter registers, which was done in 21,000 cases. There are approximately 2.2 million registered voters, of whom 55.7 percent actually cast their ballots. (By contrast, over 68 percent of the electorate voted in the second round of last year's presidential election.)

The condemnation that the incomplete voter registers elicited from the OSCE and the National Democratic Institute is a blow to President Robert Kocharian, who had said last week that all conditions exist for an exemplary poll, and warned that anyone found guilty of attempting to manipulate the outcome of the poll would be severely punished. Meeting with OSCE representatives on 2 June, Kocharian pledged a "thorough" investigation into the reported irregularities, his press office reported. "If we don't take drastic steps today the same problem will arise during the local elections in November," he said.

Yet the problem need not have arisen at all if the Central Election Commission had managed to get the message across to voters that the election law requires that voter registers be displayed at polling stations five days prior to polling day, thus giving voters the opportunity to check beforehand that their names are indeed included on the list. (Liz Fuller)

The Last Taboo. Despite the participation in the Armenian parliamentary elections of one political party (Right and Accord) openly backed by the defense minister of the unrecognized Republic Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, and a second (Country of Law) supported by an Armenian government minister from Karabakh, commentators have scrupulously avoided equating the election campaign with an undercover power struggle between Yerevan and Karabakh Armenians.

That is not to say that the former were unaware of the implications of then-Prime Minister Robert Kocharian's elevation to the post of acting president of the Republic of Armenia following the forced resignation in February 1998 of President Levon Ter-Petrossian. A joke circulating in Yerevan at the time characterized the change of leadership as "Anschluss," meaning the annexation of Armenia by the NKR. And some politicians aligned with the HHSh argued that under international law Kocharian was a citizen of the Azerbaijan Republic, and for that reason not eligible to participate in Armenian presidential elections. (In early March 1998, the newspaper "Aravot" published a photo of Kocharian's new Armenian passport, issued on 17 February 1998.)

Many observers believe that Ter-Petrossian's resignation and the accompanying collapse of the majority Hanrapetutyun parliament faction were engineered by Kocharian in conjunction with Defense Minister Vazgen Sargsian and Interior and National Security Minister Serzh Sarkisian, who, like Kocharian, is a native of Karabakh. Vazgen Sargsian at that time was the leader and patron of the Yerkrapah parliament group, to which dozens of Hanrapetutyun deputies defected overnight.

But in recent months, rumors have surfaced in Yerevan of a major rift between Kocharian and Vazgen Sargsian, which has been construed as reflecting a broader standoff between the "Yerevan" and "Karabakh" camps. That rift is perceived as posing a long-term threat to Kocharian. Although the president can rely on the support of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation--Dashnaktsutyun, that party is no match for the Miasnutyun ("Unity") alliance forged in March 1999 between Vazgen Sargsian's Republican Party of Armenia (formed through the takeover by the Yerkrapah of the tiny Republican Party) and former Armenian Communist Party First secretary Karen Demirchian's People's Party of Armenia. That alliance has emerged as by far the strongest group within the new parliament.

Speaking on Armenian television on 24 May, Vano Siradeghian, who is chairman of the board of the former ruling Armenian Pan-National Movement, referred to Kocharian, Serzh Sarkisian, and NKR Defense Minister Samvel Babayan as "foreign citizens." According to a recent public opinion poll, Siradeghian, whose re-election to parliament may mean a new battle to strip him of his immunity to face multiple murder charges, is the third most popular politician in Armenia. Vazgen Sargsian is in first place, followed by Karen Demirchian. Kocharian ranks fourth, and Serzh Sarkisian fifth. (Liz Fuller)

Quotations Of The Week. "Armenia is ready to join the Council of Europe." French Ambassador Michel Legras in an interview with Snark news agency ("Golos Armenii," 29 May 1999).

"We have good business relations with the CIA and Mossad, as well as with the German, French, and Russian intelligence services." -- Georgian Foreign Intelligence Service chief Lieutenant-General Avtandil Ioseliani, quoted by ITAR-TASS, 25 May 1999.