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Caucasus Report: April 28, 1998

28 April 1998, Volume 1, Number 9

"Controlled Chaos" in Georgia? The 9 February mortar attack on the Georgian presidential motorocade may have failed to kill Eduard Shevardnadze, but its impact on political developments within the country continues to be felt. The Georgian leadership identified the perpetrators of that assault, and of the abduction two weeks later in western Georgia of four UN military observers, as supporters of deceased former President Zviad Gamsakhurdia acting at the behest of unnamed foreign interest groups. Parliament speaker Zurab Zhvania said openly that he held Moscow responsible, while Shevardnadze himself was more circumspect, referring to forces "who cannot forgive Afghanistan, the [fall of the] Berlin Wall, Europe's liberation, oil pipelines and the Eurasian transport corridor."

The ongoing speculation about possible Russian involvement in the assassination bid further exacerbated the already strained relations between Moscow and Tbilisi, and prompted Shalva Natelashvili, leader of the minority Laborist faction within the Georgian parliament, to accuse the majority Union of Citizens of Georgia (SMK) faction of "waging an undeclared war against Russia." Natelashvili said Georgia is in a state of "controlled chaos," and called for pre-term elections to preclude a further deterioration in bilateral relations, RFE/RL's Tbilisi bureau reported. The SMK is also at daggers drawn with the Revival faction, the third largest, representing the Adjar Autonomous Republic. Revival leader Djemal Gogitidze has accused the SMK of regularly rigging the voting process within parliament, and announced on 22 April that Revival will boycott future parliament sessions. (Liz Fuller)

The Emir Strikes Back. The SMK had earlier incurred the ire of Revival by proposing that Adjaria be stripped of its autonomous status within Georgia -- a move plainly intended to neutralize the region's autocratic leader, Aslan Abashidze (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 1, No.5, 31 March 1998). Last week Abashidze threw down the gauntlet, warning that Adjaria will boycott the next Georgian parliamentary elections (due in November, 1999) unless his republic's demands are met, an RFE/RL correspondent reported. Those demands include the creation in the Adjar capital, Batumi, of a free economic zone and the revision of the Georgian election law to reduce the number of deputies elected by proportional representation. Abashidze also hinted that he will run against Shevardnadze in the presidential elections in 2000. Recent opinion polls indicate that Abashidze ranks among the five most popular Georgian politicians. (Liz Fuller)

Azerbaijan Looks Ahead To Presidential Elections ... The Azerbaijani authorities and opposition have set about discussing their respective draft laws on the presidential election due in October. Chairing a session of the Azerbaijani Constitutional Commission on 22 April, President Heidar Aliyev ordered unspecified amendments to the official draft election law, which has not been published for public debate. One week earlier, the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party had unveiled its alternative draft, which stipulates measures to preclude voter fraud, including the use of transparent glass ballot boxes, and provides for the inclusion in electoral commissions at all levels of opposition representatives. It also bans the presence of local government officials and police at electoral precincts during the poll, and allocates funds from the state budget to cover candidates' campaign expenses.

The primary concern of the Azerbaijani opposition is that the authorities may either "monopolize" the election campaign in favour of Aliev, who has announced his intention to run for a second term, or resort to mass ballot stuffing and similar procedural violations, as during the November 1995 parliamentary poll. But that is not the only consideration. Sardar Jalaloglu, head of the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, warned earlier this month that if the October poll is perceived as undemocratic, Azerbaijan could incur the same harsh censure from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe as did Armenia in the wake of last month's preterm presidential elections.

Similarly, Ali Guliev, head of the Centre for Democratic Elections Assistance, predicted that an undemocratic poll could destabilize Azerbaijani society and negatively affect the country's chances of integration into Europe. Guliev advocated replacing the entire Central Electoral Commission and lowering the minimum voter participation from 50 percent to 25 -- 30 percent in view of the outmigration from Azerbaijan in recent years of some 2 million people. According to the State Committee for Statistics, the population of Azerbaijan on 1 January, 1998, was 7,625,000, which suggests that many of those who emigrated are still registered as resident in Azerbaijan. That circumstance opens the possibility for election violations, unless voter lists are revised, as the Azerbaijani Popular Front demands, to exclude persons no longer resident in Azerbaijan. (Liz Fuller)

... Which Will Not Be A One-Horse Race. The findings of a recent opinion poll commissioned by RFE/RL's Baku bureau suggest that this year's presidential election will be a much closer contest than that of 1993, in which Aliyev received a 98.8 percent majority. Between 6-10 April, fifty Azerbaijani journalists, analysts and heads of NGOs were asked to evaluate the Azerbaijani leadership's domestic, economic and foreign policies and the relative influence of the country's political parties, and to say which candidate they would vote for if presidential elections were held at that time.

Responding to the latter question, 36 percent named Heidar Aliev, 28 percent -- Musavat Party leader Isa Gambar (who served as parliament speaker under former President Abulfaz Elchibey), 6 percent -- exiled ex-parliament speaker Rasul Guliev, 6 percent -- National Independence Party of Azerbaijan (AMIP) chairman Etibar Mamedov, 6 percent -- Liberal Party chairwoman Lala Shovket-Gadjieva, 4 percent -- Abulfaz Elchibey, and 2 percent each -- Democratic Party leader Ilyas Ismailov and Social-Democratic Party chairman Zardusht Ali-Zade.

There was, however, no exact correlation between the popularity of the political figures listed above and the political parties with which they are affiliated. Asked to name the three Azerbaijani political parties they considered to be most influential, 72 per cent of respondents named the Musavat Party, 64 percent -- the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party, and 62 percent -- the Azerbaijan Popular Front. This latter figure indicates that the Popular Front is held in far higher esteem than its leader, Abulfaz Elchibey. Etibar Mamedov's AMIP was named by 34 per cent of the respondents, the Democratic Party by 8 per cent, the Liberal Party by 4 percent, and the Vahdat, Ana Veten and Social-Democratic Parties by 2 percent.

The majority of those questioned -- 44 percent -- assessed foreign policy positively, and 20 per cent -- negatively, while 36 percent considered it satisfactory. By contrast, only 24 per cent rated domestic policy positively. The same number termed it satisfactory, while 52 per cent gave a negative assessment. Evaluations of the government's economic reform programme followed a similar pattern -- 56 percent negative as compared with 26 percent satisfactory and only 18 percent positive.

Asked to evaluate the Azerbaijani leadership's approach to resolving the Karabakh conflict, 44 percent gave it a negative rating, 30 percent -- satisfactory, and only 26 percent -- positive. 82 percent of those polled advocated taking measures to improve Azerbaijan's military strength while simultaneously conducting peaceful negotiations on a solution to the conflict. Twelve percent supported an exclusively political approach, while 6 percent were in favour of a purely military solution.

While a poll of fifty members of the Baku intelligentsia cannot be considered representative of the country as a whole, it is reasonable to assume that dissatisfaction with economic and domestic policy is even higher among the less well-off strata of the population. But it is premature at this juncture to speculate about which, if any, opposition candidate could profit from this discontent. (Liz Fuller)

CORRECTION: to "RFE/RL Caucasus Report", Vol. 1, No. 8. In the second item, "Whose Side Is Russia On Anyway?" paragraph 1, the Abkhaz local elections were held in March, 1998, not last year as stated.