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Caucasus Report: July 28, 1998

28 July 1998, Volume 1, Number 22

A Constitutional Coup in Georgia? Minister of State Niko Lekishvili, a former Communist Party apparatchik and mayor of Tbilisi, tendered his resignation on 26 July, one day after calling on the entire cabinet to resign in order to give President Eduard Shevardnadze a free hand to undertake an urgently needed cabinet reshuffle. The following morning, Georgian government ministers were reportedly queuing up outside Shevardnadze's chancellery to submit their resignations, on the assumption that those who did so voluntarily would stand a better chance of retaining their posts in the new cabinet, according to an RFE/RL correspondent in the Georgian capital. Under the Georgian Constitution, the president decides the fate of each individual minister, rather than of the cabinet as a whole. As of early 28 July, only Agriculture Minister Bakur Gulua and Communications Minister Pridon Indjia (under fire for allegedly misapppropriating a $4 million credit) had not signalled their willingness to step down.

In his traditional Monday radio broadcast on 27 July, Shevardnadze argued that the imminent government reshuffle is a normal occurrence and proof that Georgia is becoming a democratic country. He predicted that the new cabinet will be formed by 15-20 August. Shevardnadze said Lekishvili's resignation does not mean his departure from national politics, but declined to comment on Lekishvili's chances, or those of Foreign Minister Irakli Menagharishvili or Ambassador to Russia Vazha Lortkipanidze, of heading the new government. Lekishvili himself had told journalists on 26 July that he plans to work with the ruling Union of Citizens of Georgia (SMK) in the runup to next year's parliamentary elections and the presidential poll in 2000.

Later on 27 July, after consulting with parliament speaker Zurab Zhvania, Shevardnadze offered the post of Minister of State to his long-time colleague Vazha Lortkipanidze, who requested 48 hours to think over the offer. Lortkipanidze, who is 48, began his political career in the Georgian Komsomol, of which he was first secretary from 1983-1986, at a time when Shevardnadze was Georgian Communist Party first secretary. He then served as first secretary of the Kalinin (Tbilisi) Raion Party Committee of the Georgian Communist Party. After Shevardnadze returned to Georgia in March, 1992, Lortkipanidze served first as deputy prime minister and then as head of the head of state's administration. He was named ambassador to Russia in early 1995.

The timing of Lekishvili's resignation constitutes a victory for Shevardnadze, in that it cuts the ground from under increasingly vociferous opposition demands for sweeping constitutional changes that would redefine the duties of the cabinet and reintroduce the post of prime minister. The opposition considers such structural changes in the executive branch imperative in order to give fresh impetus to the flagging reform process. Those constitutional changes must, however, be debated by parliament, which is currently in its summer recess. The question thus arises: did Lekishvili cut a deal with the president whereby he would step down at this juncture in return for an equally prestigious post? Some Tbilisi observers have suggested that Lekishvili may be in line for the chairmanship of the SMK -- which would in turn imply that its present chairman, parliamentary speaker Zurab Zhvania, would acquire a government post.

As yet unclear is how the impending reshuffle will impact on the group of youthful and ambitious SMK members, including Zhvania, Parliament State and Legal Affairs Committee chairman Mikhail Saakashvili and SMK parliament faction chairman Giorgi Baramidze, who have made no secret of their dissatisfaction with the present strained political situation, and who are believed to aspire to cabinet posts. It has been suggested that the SMK may have reached an accomodation with two right-wing opposition parliament factions, the National Democratic Party of Georgia (SEDP) and the Popular faction, which have 13 and 23 deputies respectively, on forming a coalition government. Such an agreement would effectively sideline the leftwing opposition parties, who have been foremost in demanding not only constitutional changes but also Shevardnadze's resignation. But SEDP chairwoman Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia told Interfax on 28 July that her party did not support Lortkipanidze's nomination as minister of state, which she interpreted as a concession by Shevardnadze to Moscow. (Liz Fuller)

Maskhadov's Calculated Risk. It appears that President Aslan Maskhadov has profited from the failed 23 July attempt on his life to strengthen his position within Chechnya, RFE/RL's Grozny correspondent reported on 28 July. Maskhadov ordered former acting President Zelimkhan Yandarbiev, Arbi Baraev, former commander of the Special Purpose Islamic Regiment (disbanded for its role in the Gudermes fighting on 14-15 July) and field commander Ramzan Akhmadov to appear before the Supreme Shariah Court and swear on the Koran that they played no role in the bid to kill him. Yandarbiev duly signalled his readiness to take such an oath, after which the court absolved him of the need to do so. Baraev, Akhmadov and several other field commanders met with Maskhadov on 27 July and pledged their loyalty to him.

Also on 27 July, Maskhadov announced that he would not further extend the state of emergency imposed in late June and prolonged following the clashes in Gudermes. Consequently, the 5,000 reservists mobilized ten days ago will be sent home, and presumably former acting Premier Shamil Basaev, who had accepted the position of deputy commander of the Chechen armed forces for the duration of the state of emergency, will step down. (Basaev on 23 July laid the blame for the attack on Maskhadov on Russian intelligence which, he claimed, was seeking to provoke further clashes between rival factions in Chechnya. He further warned that "no politician can come to power in Chechnya and remain in power by force.")

It is unclear, however, to what degree Maskhadov is confident that forces loyal to him control the domestic situation, and to what extent he hopes that the unprecedented expressions of support for him by the top echelons of the Russian leadership will deter political rivals from undertaking any further move against him. Maskhadov has agreed to the meeting with Russian Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko proposed by Boris Yeltsin on 25 July. But Maskhadov also made it clear that he would insist that Moscow take concrete measures to implement earlier agreements on providing funds for reconstruction, the lack of which he claimed is driving the republic into "social chaos." Maskhadov affirmed that "Chechnya is looking to establish the most neighborly, mutually beneficial relations with Russia," but added that its claim to independence from Moscow remains non-negotiable.

As of late 28 July, the Chechen leadership had not commented on the joint statement issued the previous day by former Premier Viktor Chernomyrdin, CIS Executive Secretary Boris Berezovskii, Krasnoyarsk Krai Governor Aleksandr Lebed and Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiev calling on the federal government to adopt and implement a clear policy on Chechnya and the North Caucasus in general. But Grozny did act to counter one of the concerns registered in that statement, resuming retransmission of Russian TV broadcasts that had been suspended on 24 July. (Liz Fuller)

Observation of the Week: "Frontiers must not be redrawn. That leads to war. In order to normalize Ossetian-Ingush and Russian-Georgian relations, the territorial question must be dropped once and for all." (Former North Ossetian President Akhsarbek Galazov, in an interview with "Nezavisimaya gazeta," 17 July 1998.)