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Caucasus Report: November 5, 1999

5 November 1999, Volume 2, Number 44

New Armenian Parliament Speaker, Premier Named. Meeting in emergency session on 2 November, the Armenian parliament chose replacements for its murdered speaker and his two deputies. People's Party deputy Armen Khachatrian was elected as speaker, while Gagik Aslanian (People's Party) and Tigran Torosian (Republican Party) were selected as his deputies. The next day, at the parliament's recommendation, President Robert Kocharian named 38-year-old Aram Sargsian to succeed his brother Vazgen as prime minister.

The contrast between the murdered Vazgen Sargsian and Karen Demirchian and the two men chosen to replace them could scarcely be greater. Demirchian and Sargsian, the chairmen of their respective parties, were both experienced and powerful. Their successors are relatively inexperienced and obscure. The 42-year-old Khachatrian, a philologist who organized Demirchian's unsuccessful presidential campaign in 1998, was elected a parliament deputy in May and since then has headed the National Assembly's Foreign Affairs Commission. But until his appointment as premier, few Armenians would have recognized the face of Armen Sargsian, who is director of a cement factory in his native town of Ararat.

The choice of those two figures reflects the stated determination of both parliament deputies and President Kocharian to ensure stability and the continued implementation of the economic and Karabakh policies espoused by the murdered elder Sargsian. That implies that the younger Sargsian will function as the implementor, rather than the architect, of policy, which will be dictated by the parliament majority who consider themselves "keepers of the grail" in the form of the economic program and 2000 budget crafted by the elder Sargsian and which they endorsed.

But the choice of new leaders also appears to represent a deliberate and conscious decision by the present parliament to reject any politician who occupied a senior position in the Ter-Petrossian administration. (That rejection is consistent with the parliament's decision to create a special commission to investigate allegations that millions of dollars in public funds set aside for the procurement of fuel were embezzled by government officials in the early 1990s.)

According to Gagik Aslanian, Sargsian's candidacy was one of four discussed, the others being Yerevan Mayor Albert Bazeyan (a close associate of Vazgen Sargsian who played a leading role in the latter's Yergrapah union of Karabakh war veterans), Minister for Industrial Infrastructures Vahan Shirkhanian (a former defense minister, Shirkhanian is said to have been the choice of the military), and Minister for State Revenues Smbat Ayvazian (identified by "Haykakan zhamanak" as Kocharian's preferred candidate).

Republican Party chairman Andranik Markarian told RFE/RL that in selecting the new parliament speaker and his deputies, legislators also considered it important to maintain the previous arrangement whereby the parliamentary speaker and one of his deputies represented the People's Party, and the second deputy speaker the Republican Party. But "Kommersant-Daily" reported that the Republican Party had demanded all three posts but was forced to back down after the People's Party threatened to quit the bloc and joint the parliamentary opposition. If true, that would suggest that the "Miasnutyun" alliance is currently held together less by shared political priorities than a desire to preserve the privileges that its members enjoy as parliament deputies and their economic interests outside parliament.

For the moment, however, "Miasnutyun" remains one of the strongest players on the political scene. Kocharian, by contrast, is perceived by many observers as weakened by the death of Vazgen Sargsian, who had shown signs of having espoused Kocharian's pro-western orientation. But for the time being at least, the parliament and president share the same priorities.

The Armenian Army, however, which Vazgen Sargsian played a major role in creating, has also emerged as a major force in its own right, as is clear from its 28 October statement demanding the resignation of the interior and national security ministers and the procurator-general. (That statement was reportedly partly the result of consultations held between senior figures within the Defense Ministry and two former senior members of former President Levon Ter-Petrossian's entourage, former Interior Minister Vano Siradeghian and former National Security advisor David Shahnazarian. The generals also reportedly sounded out Ter-Petrossian himself. The precise objective of those discussions is not known. But if elements within the Defense Ministry had nursed hopes of mounting a coup to oust Kocharian and bring back Ter-Petrossian, the former president rebuffed them, issuing a statement on 28 October calling on Armenians to rally around the current president.) There are clearly elements within the armed forces who are more conservative and more closely oriented towards Moscow than either the president or most parliament factions, but it is not clear how strong and how numerous those elements are. In a major concession to the military, Kocharian has allowed Armenia's chief military prosecutor to lead the official investigation into the parliament killings.

A fourth player, who had until recently been perceived as posing a potential threat to Kocharian is Samvel Babayan, commander of the armed forces of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. Babayan was quoted in the Armenian press last week as saying that there can be "no mention" of any intervention by the Karabakh military in Armenian affairs. But either the Karabakh or the Armenian army, or both, might be inclined to move against Kocharian to thwart a Karabakh settlement it perceived as damaging to national interests. (Liz Fuller)

Three Parties To Be Represented In New Georgian Parliament. Georgian Central Electoral Commission officials told journalists in Tbilisi on 6 November that at least three political parties won representation under the proportional system in the new parliament elected on 31 October.

Initial returns had indicated that only the Union of Citizens of Georgia (SMK), which has a majority in the outgoing legislature, and the Union for the Democratic Revival of Georgia, headed by Adjar Supreme Council chairman Aslan Abashidze, had polled the minimum 7 percent to qualify for representation under the party list system. That estimate had been called into question by several opposition parties, including two that were close to surmounting the 7 percent barrier, the Labor Party and the "Industry Will Save Georgia" bloc, which according to preliminary returns polled 6.85 percent and 6.75 percent respectively. Labor Party chairman Shalva Natelashvili claimed that the SMK "appropriated" 10 percent of the votes cast for his party, while Irakli Batiashvili of "Industry Will Save Georgia" said that bloc had polled no less than 20 percent of the party list vote.

According to the 6 November preliminary results (the final tally for the party list vote are to be released on 10 November), the SMK polled 41.77 percent of the vote, the Union for Democratic Revival 26.16 percent, and "Industry Will Save Georgia" 7.1 percent. Under the Georgian election law, that would give the SMK some 60 percent of the 150 seats to be allocated under the proportional system. The SMK had also won 39 of the 75 seats contested in single-mandate constituencies, compared with seven for the Union for Democratic Revival and five independent candidates. Runoffs will take place in the remaining 24 electoral districts on 21 November. But they cannot change the fact that the SMK already has an absolute majority with at least 118 of the 235 seats.

Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze hailed the SMK's performance as "a victory for democracy." (He had earlier affirmed that a win for Abashidze's bloc would be tantamount to a coup d'etat.) But Shevardnadze's assessment does not take into consider the failure of the OSCE Election Observation Mission in its preliminary evaluation to endorse the vote as free and fair. Granted, one of the major flaws noted was the conduct of the vote in Adjaria, but the OSCE also criticized the tone of the election campaign and the refusal of the Central Electoral Commision to register hundreds of candidates.

The perception of unfairness is shared by some opposition parties. Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia, chairwoman of the National Democratic Party, on whose initiative the threshold for parliamentary representation was raised in the new election law, from 5 to 7 percent, blamed her party's failure to surmount that margin on malpractice by the SMK. She said that "We have lost due to infringements of the electoral procedure." Even Akaki Asatiani, chairman of the Union of Traditionalists, which is a member of the Union for Democratic Revival, suggested that the poll had been falsified and that his party might refuse to acknowledge the outcome as valid. (Liz Fuller)

Regional Governor Resigns To Protest Shevardnadze Policies. Shevardnadze's description of the SMK election win as "a victory for democracy" also fails to take into account the fact that almost 60 percent of the electorate rejected outright the policies pursued by the Georgian leadership since the 1995 elections. One individual who has explained in detail his objections to those policies is the former governor of the west Georgian region of Imereti, Temur Shashiashvili.

Shashiashvili's criticisms of Georgian leadership policies are set out in a lengthy open letter to President Shevardnadze, entitled "It is difficult to reason analytically, or in a starving and weakened country good is represented by isolated individuals whereas evil joins forces, and the stomach wins out over reason," that was published in abridged form in late October in the newspaper "Kavkasioni."

Shashiashvili makes three main points, which are interlinked. The first concerns the political situation in Georgia as a whole, which he considers catastrophic both in terms of the economic situation and in terms of political culture, or the lack thereof. He asserts that: "The problem, and the tragedy for the [Georgian] leadership, is that the one party that, more than anything else, does not want the country to be starving and weak is the leadership, but that we are unable fundamentally to change the situation, first, because of our own weakness, and second (and this above all must be taken into account), because it is fatally easy to prevent us doing so, especially in a situation which involves a convergence of interests between two powerful factions."

Those factions, according to Shashiashvili, are Russia and opposition forces within Georgia centered on Aslan Abashidze's Union for Democratic Revival which, Shashiashvili claims, aim to draw Georgia back into Russia's sphere of influence. Shashiashvili perceives this trend as being stronger than the parallel striving by Georgia "to return to its roots, to Europe." And the worst thing is, he continues, that "all we can do is wait for the population to realize that this is a misfortune and to turn their backs on those who seek to exploit the situation." But the population shows no sign of doing so: on the contrary, many Georgians find themselves impelled by economic hardship to sell their vote in the 31 October elections "for flour, for cooking oil, for a pair of jeans, for a vacation."

Shashiashvili's second point concerns policy towards Georgia's regions. Shashiashvili reminds Shevardnadze that when in 1996 and 1997 he visited Kutaisi, the second largest city in Georgia and the center of the western half of the country, Shashiashvili (who had served as mayor of the city) and other local leaders and enterprise directors did not ask for either subsidies or credits from the central government, but simply for equal conditions for all regions -- what Shashiashvili terms the creation of "a single political, legal, financial and ecological space." But this did not happen: instead, one region of the country (Adjaria) enjoys unprecedented economic freedom, withholding millions of lari in taxes from the federal budget, whereas others, including Imereti, have been discouraged in every way from pioneering new approaches to financing and economic management.

Shashiashvili cites statistics demonstrating Kutaisi's economic upswing between late 1993 and 1995, and its subsequent economic decline from 1996. Although he does not in this context accuse any specific individuals, he makes the point elsewhere that following the 1995 parliamentary elections "the influence of private economic interests on political processes in Georgia intensified." Shashiashvili claims that many parlimentary deputies went into business, which, he continues, has led to the emergence of a multitude of separate interest groups controlling trade in specific commodities such as gasoline, timber, and cigarettes. At the same time, Shashiashvili says, "certain political forces" pushed for the total decentralization of the customs and tax systems, thereby engendering a corrupt system of administration and a situation in which the country has been divided into regions that are controlled by the central authorities, regions that are partially controlled by the center, and regions which are beyond Tbilisi's control.

Shashiashvili's third point is more personal: he accuses Shevardnadze of avoiding at all costs a confrontation with Abashidze. "You as president, the ruling party, the SMK, agreed to totally unacceptable compromises with the opposition in general and with the Union for Revival in particular," Shashiashvili says. More specifically, Shashiashvili accuses the president of failing to defend him personally against slanderous allegations made by Aslan Abashidze.

Shashiashvili asks Shevardnadze to dismiss him from his post as governor of Imereti, but adds that he has no intention of withdrawing from political life. Instead, he announces his intention of forming, together with like-minded politicians, a new movement named "Georgia's Regions For A Strong State," that will support Georgia's pro-western orientation. Although other Georgian political figures have also expressed concern at the existing inequalities between Georgia's regions (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 2, No. 19, 13 May 1999), it is by no means clear whether regional leaders, who are appointed by Shevardnadze, could overcome their traditional mistrust and rivalry to close ranks as impressively as have many of Russia's most influential governors within the Fatherland-All Russia Duma election alliance to form a powerful lobby. (Liz Fuller)

Headline Of The Week. "Without precedent even by Caucasian standards." "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," a propos of the Armenian parliament shootings, 29 October 1999.

Quotations Of The Week. "I have not come across any substantive evidence of meddling in the events in the North Caucasus by Turkey, Iran, or Saudi Arabia." -- Former KGB Directorate head Leonid Shebarshin, quoted in "Nezavisimaya gazeta," 30 October 1999.

"What the Russians are doing to us, with greater cruelty and disregard for civilian life, is what they so highly criticized NATO and the United States for doing in Serbia." -- Shamil Basaev, quoted in the "Boston Globe," 28 October 1999.