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Caucasus Report: September 2, 1998

2 September 1998, Volume 1, Number 27

Upping The Ante In Baku. For the past three months, Azerbaijan's political opposition has been waging a war of attrition in the hope of coercing the country's leadership to craft a legal framework for ensuring that the presidential elections scheduled for 11 October are free, fair, and democractic. Proceeding from the assumption that the international community would not recognize the poll as free and fair if no opposition candidates participated, five prominent opposition figures -- Abulfaz Elchibey (Azerbaijan Popular Front Party), Lala-Shovket Gadjieva (Liberal Party of Azerbaijan), Isa Gambar (Musavat Party), Ilyas Ismailov (Democratic Party of Azerbaijan) and exiled former parliament speaker Rasul Guliev -- advanced increasingly radical preconditions for their participation.

Some of their specific demands, such as reducing the minimum required turnout from 50 to 25 percent, limiting the number of signatures collected in support of a given candidate's registration that may be verified for authenticity by the Central Electoral Commission, and the abolition of media censorship, have been met; others, including equal representation for the opposition on the Central Electoral Commission, have not. As of late August, six presidential candidates, including Aliyev and Azerbaijan National Independence Party chairman Etibar Mamedov, who constitutes the "loyal opposition," had been registered. But the "five" still declined to register, demanding instead that the elections be postponed by up to two months to enable them to participate.

In doing so, they may well have overplayed their hand: the election law is on Aliev's side, and, as observers in Baku point out, if the five did run, Aliyev might fail to win a clear majority in the first round of voting. Those observers also express their concern at what they perceive as the opposition's retreat to the confrontational tactics it espoused in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which risk further polarizing Azerbaijan's political landscape. (The opposition's immediate plans include a mass demonstration in Baku on 5 September and convening a national assembly to debate the political situation in the country.)

Finally, the West's concern with the electoral process in Azerbaijan may well be eclipsed for the coming weeks, if not months, by the volatile political and economic situation in Russia. (Liz Fuller)

The Sorcerer's Apprentice's Apprentice. In mid-August, the majority Union of Citizens of Georgia (SMK) faction within the Georgian parliament elected as its chairman 28-year-old lawyer Mikhail Saakashvili. That move is not simply the latest stage in Saakashvili's meteoric career; it could also prove crucial in determining the role of the SMK in Georgian politics over the next decade.

Saakashvili, who spent several years studying in the U.S. after graduating from Kyiv State University in 1992, returned to Georgia in 1995 at the invitation of parliament speaker Zurab Zhvania. Since then, he has made a name for himself for his contributions to reforming Georgia's legal system, and as a vociferous critic of corruption within the upper echelons of power. (He is simultaneously chairman of the parliament anti-corruption committee, and recently proposed the lustration of government ministers.)

Saakashvili is one of very few leading Georgian politicans who embarked on their political careers only after the collapse of the Soviet system. This, as "Kavkasioni" correspondent Ia Antadze points out, places him at a certain disadvantage vis-a-vis older politicians who are skilled in the art of behind-the-scenes intrigue. In addition, Antadze argues, Saakashvili is a "revolutionary" to whom compromise does not come either naturally or easily. At present, however, both those relative weaknesses are compensated for by Saakashvili's widespread popularity (he was named Georgia's "Man of the Year" in 1997) and the fact that he has the unqualified support of both Zhvania and Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze.

Zhvania and Saakashvili are the most prominent representatives of the progressive wing of the SMK, which was created by Shevardnadze in late1993 in order to provide him with a personal power base. The SMK represents an opportunistic marriage of convenience between disparate elements -- the Greens, whom Zhvania originally headed, former CP regional apparatchiks and bureaucrats-turned-businessmen, and youthful and ambitious scions of the former Communist intelligentsia -- all of whom chose to hitch their respective wagons to Shevardnadze's political star. Not surprisingly, this heterogeneity spawned serious policy differences within the SMK's ranks following its victory in the November 1995 parliamentary elections. Those disagreements were exacerbated by personal animosities, for example, between Zhvania and Minister of State Niko Lekishvili.

It is, however, the young, reformist wing of the SMK that has dominated and directed parliamentary debate. In the process, it has frequently demonstrated its independence, for example, by rejecting presidential nominees for various official posts. Its members have also criticized Shevardnadze's failure to act more decisively in replacing representatives of the corrupt "old guard" who still occupy senior posts. In addition, Zhvania has consistently been far more outspoken in his criticism of Moscow than has Shevardnadze. (Whether his role is that of stalking horse for the president or sorcerer's apprentice is unclear. Alternatively, Zhvania could simply be capitalizing on most opposition parties' shared antipathy and profound mistrust of Russia in order to secure a broader power base beyond his own party.)

In July 1998, Zhvania, speaking on behalf of his fellow reformers within the SMK, warned that failure to reform the local administrative system and the concomitant erosion of the leadership's authority had brought Georgia to the brink of catastrophe. He threatened to resign and assume the role of "constructive opposition" within parliament unless radical measures were adopted to kickstart the stalled reform process. That warning effectively precipitated the resignation three weeks ago of both Lekishvili and the government. But some observers argued that Zhvania's apocalyptic statements were hypocritical, and that neither he personally nor the SMK as a whole could disclaim a share of responsibility for the situation in the country.

Assuming that the new cabinet succeeds in implementing measures to disperse the present malaise, Zhvania and Saakashvili will be vindicated and their position strengthened. But their respective futures will hinge on two factors: first, whether the SMK retains its majority in the parliamentary elections due in November 1999, and second, how the political situation evolves upon Shevardnadze's demise. Under the Georgian Constitution, the parliament speaker assumes the presidency in the event of the president's death. But the ensuing pre-term presidential poll would inevitably be a hard-fought and ugly battle, and its outcome at this juncture is impossible to predict.

By the same token, there is no guarantee that the SMK would survive the death of its founder rather than split into rival factions -- especially if Zhvania failed in his bid for the presidency. In that case, Saakashvili would be better placed than Zhvania to head the reformist wing of the SMK in its next incarnation. Finally, Zhvania and Saakashvili may at some point cease to be allies. Saakashvili could conceivably regard Zhvania's less than spotless business reputation as reflecting badly on the SMK as a whole, whereas Zhvania might consider that Saakashvili's uncompromising approach makes him ill-suited to the political horse-trading that will be needed if the SMK fails to secure a clear majority in the next parliament. (Liz Fuller)

Quotation of the Week. "The Armenian people have a European mentality and have opted for a free society based on European values and democracy. There are not, and will never be, political prisoners, banned political parties and newspapers in Armenia." -- President Robert Kocharian, meeting with a Council of Europe delegation on 31 August. (RFE/RL Yerevan bureau).

Observation Of The Week. "Robert Kocharian is a real man. One could hunt for wild boars with him in Karabakh woods. [Prime Minister] Armen Darpinian is a business-minded person. One could do business with him and then go to a casino. One could drink one case of cognac with [Interior and National Security Minister] Serzh Sarkisian and he won't betray [any secrets]. And one could drink coffee with [Foreign Minister] Vartan Oskanian." -- An assessment of Armenia's top leadership by six Azerbaijani journalists who visited Armenia last week, cited in "Hayastani Hanrapetutiun," 29 August 1998.