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Caucasus Report: March 24, 1998

24 March 1998, Volume 1, Number 4

Spokesmen For Kocharian, Demirchian Trade Accusations. In a round-table discussion hosted by RFE/RL's Armenian Service on 22 March, the top campaign officials of the two candidates who will contend the 30 March runoff for the Armenian presidency blamed each other for major irregularities during the first round of voting. Former Armenian Communist Party First Secretary Karen Demirchian�s campaign spokesman Armen Valesian said that violations of voting procedure had an impact on the outcome of the first round, and that Demirchian would otherwise have finished first in the first round. But Aghvan Vardanian, press spokesman for Armenian Prime Minister and acting President Robert Kocharian, said that Demirchian and his supporters were the major violators.

Commenting on the OSCE monitoring missions preliminary findings, Valesian said that violations during the16 March poll were intentional and organized by the government officials. He said that Kocharian failed to keep his promise of ensuring free and fair elections.

Asked whether Kocharian intends to appoint Karen Demirchian as Prime Minister, Aghvan Vardanian said that there are no such plans. He added that Demirchian has burned the bridges for future cooperation by adding his signature to a statement by other opposition candidates who charged that the first round voting was not free and fair. Aghvan Vardanian claimed that the aim of the defeated candidates in issuing that joint statement was to discredit Armenia and to erode its image abroad.

Kocharian's campaign press spokesman sharply criticized some representatives of the Russian media for staging a campaign against Nagorno-Karabakh in Russian TV programs. In a clear allusion to Demirchian, Vardanian said that certain presidential candidates in Armenia are supportive of that campaign. The spokesman for Karen Demirchian denied those charges.

Both campaign officials denied that their candidates will launch a campaign of denigration before the second round of voting. But the round-table discussion left no doubt that the campaign will turn ugly this week.

Kocharian's spokesman Aghvan Vardanian said that some defeated candidates, including Paruir Hairikian, Aram Sargissian and Hrant Khachatrian, have endorsed the Prime Minister�s candidacy. He said that negotiations are underway with Armenian Communist leader Sergey Badalian, who also indicated that he might back Kocharian. But analysts in Armenia say that the defeated candidates have only minimal control over their electorates, and it is hard to predict the outcome of the second round by just considering the electorates of certain parties or politicians as potential supporters of either Robert Kocharian or Karen Demirchian. (Harry Tamrazian)

Movement for Democratic Elections vs. "Party of Faceless Gangsters." Two recent developments testify to a consolidation of opposition forces in Azerbaijan and a concomitant morale crisis within the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party. On19 March, all major opposition parties (with the exception of Etibar Mamedov's National Independence Party of Azerbaijan) and some 20-25 public organizations aligned to form the Movement for Democratic Elections, RFE/RL's Baku bureau reported. An initiative of the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan (DPA), the Movement will coordinate opposition tactics in the runup to the presidential poll due in October of this year. Its members are committed to ensuring that the presidential election campaign is not "monopolized" by the present authorities, and that all candidates be granted equal rights. Mutallim Ragimov, press spokesman for the DPA, told the weekly newspaper "Zerkalo" that Yeni Azerbaycan will not be invited to join the Movement for Democratic Elections, as the latter "opposes those forces that wish to falsify the outcome of the poll."

One week earlier, two parliament deputies, Mahir Asadov and economist Akif Shahbuzov, had announced that they were quitting Yeni Azerbaycan and joining the DPA to protest the domestic and foreign policies of the Azerbaijani leadership. In a written statement, Shahbuzov charged that Yeni Azerbaycan is incapable of resolving the problems which the country faces: the disastrous economic situation, endemic corruption, alarming social conditions, and the erosion of national, cultural and religious values. He complained that his proposals for improving economic conditions in Bilasavur Raion, which he represents, have been repeatedly rejected by the government. His decision to quit the ruling party for the DPA, Shahbuzov explained, was motivated by the desire to cooperate with "decent people who love their country and want to help revive it." In contrast, Shahbuzov said that Yeni Azerbaycan's impotence and the cynicism and self-interest of many of its members have prompted its deputy chairman, Information Minister Siruz Tabrizli, to characterize it as "a party of faceless gangsters."

On 17 March, parliament speaker Murtuz Alesqerov condemned the defection of Shahbuzov and Asadov and announced that legal proceedings would be opened against the former, whose written statement he characterized as "false" and "defamatory." The two deputies have asked a local Baku court to begin a counter-action against Alesqerov. (Liz Fuller)

Will Abkhazia Erupt? Tensions are again rising on the border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia in the wake of the14 March Abkhaz local elections. Condemned as invalid by both the UN and the Georgian and Russian governments, the polling was marred by bomb explosions and violent clashes between Abkhaz and ethnic Georgians in which several people were killed and wounded.

On 20 March, Abkhaz guerrillas launched a cross-border artillery attack on a village in Georgia's Zugdidi raion, wounding four people. Two days earlier, adducing "political and social complications and instability," the Abkhaz Interior Ministry had dispatched additional forces to Abkhazia's southernmost Gali raion. The CIS peacekeepers deployed along the internal border since mid-1994 are manifestly incapable of preventing ongoing low-level hostilities. Inadequately supplied and the target of sporadic murderous attacks by Georgian guerrillas, the peacekeeping force is demoralized and in legal limbo: its mandate expired on 31 January, and can only be formally extended at the next CIS summit, now tentatively scheduled for late April.

The postponement of the CIS summit planned for 19-20 March constitutes a blow for Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, who had intended to present for discussion a draft proposal for resolving the Abkhaz conflict. That proposal encompassed the immediate unconditional repatriation of some 200,000 Georgian displaced persons forced to flee their homes during the 1992-1993 war and the creation in Gali raion of a "temporary administration" under UN control -- possibly modelled on that imposed on Eastern Slavonia in January, 1996.

Whether the Abkhaz leadership would have agreed to Shevardnadze's proposal is, however, far from clear. Ardzinba told journalists in the Abkhaz capital, Sukhumi, on 13 March that Georgia's efforts to involve other countries in resolving the conflict "lead to a dead end," and that a settlement can be reached only if the Abkhaz and Georgian sides sit down together at the negotiating table. In an interview with Interfax on 21 March, Ardzinba warned that any document endorsed by CIS presidents without taking Abkhazia's position into account would have no legal force, and Abkhazia would not consider its implementation mandatory.

An additional destabilizing factor is the Georgian displaced persons themselves, who plan to convene a congress in mid-April to demand the withdrawal of the CIS peacekeepers and the acceleration of the stalled repatriation process. Meeting with an RFE/RL delegation in early February, Georgian parliament chairman Zurab Zhvania and Tamaz Nadareishvili, leader of the ethnic Georgian deputies to the former Abkhaz parliament, both warned that if repatriation is delayed indefinitely, unidentified "radical elements" could attempt to capitalize on the displaced persons' frustration and resentment and mobilize them against the present Georgian leadership. (Liz Fuller)