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Caucasus Report: September 15, 1998

15 September 1998, Volume 1, Number 29

TRACECA: Euphoria and Infighting. The superlatives echoing round Baku during last week's EU-sponsored TRACECA conference were on a par with the hype that accompanied the signing of the so-called Contract of the Century four years earlier. Representatives of 33 countries (including Italy, Britain, Norway, China, and Japan) and 12 international organizations affirmed their support for the planned revival of the Silk Road in the form of nine interconnected transport routes linking Asia with Europe via the Caucasus. But behind the facade of euphoria and enthusiasm, the leaders of the countries of the Transcaucasus and Black Sea basin were engaged in a tussle to extract the maximum benefit from the international community's commitment to a project that sidelines the tottering Russian Federation and may further undermine its crumbling economy.

The most aggressive moves came from the host country. Having, as "Noviye izvestiya" commented, staged a spectacle to rival in its opulence anything that Paris could offer, Azerbaijan demonstratively insisted on adding to the Baku Declaration a codicil reserving the right to invalidate the main provisions guaranteeing the unrestricted transport of goods to Armenia. And in a clear bid to appropriate the plum role in perpetuity, the Azerbaijani leadership demanded that the TRACECA permanent secretariat be located in Baku. Finally, the Azerbaijanis infuriated the Georgian delegation by reneging on a "gentlemen's agreement" with the Georgian leadership to announce publicly that the next TRACECA summit would be held in Tbilisi, according to an RFE/RL correspondent in Baku. The Georgian capital was in fact the venue originally selected for last week's gathering, but Aliyev succeeded in coercing the EU to change it. (Liz Fuller)

Police, Demonstrators Clash In Baku. Azerbaijan's opposition Movement for Democratic Elections and Election Reform cited the desire not to create tensions on the eve of the TRACECA conference as its rationale for postponing until 12 September a protest demonstration originally scheduled for the previous Saturday. With conference guests and accompanying journalists conveniently out of the way, the Baku police had no inhibitions about resorting to violence to prevent thousands of would-be participants converging on Baku's central Azadlyg Square, and to confiscate cameras and dictaphones from local journalists. Estimates of the number of people injured in the skirmishes, which continued at several separate locations over a period of 4 to 5 hours, range from 70 to 200. Several dozen demonstrators, including former premier Panah Huseinov, were arrested. The German ambasador to Baku, Christian Siebeck, told Reuters that he considered the police action unwarranted and a violation of citizens' democratic rights. Azerbaijani Prosecutor-General Eldar Huseinov, however, insisted on national television the following day that the demonstrators were "attempting to seize power by force."

Assuming that the police were acting on orders (and there has been no official condemnation that would indicate that they acted spontaneously), the recourse to violence suggests that President Aliyev is confident that the international community considers his country's hydrocarbon resources, strategic location, and unambiguously pro-western orientation so important that it is prepared to turn a blind eye to egregious human rights violations. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 15 September that the detachments deployed to prevent the demonstration included units from the presidential guard.

The intervention failed, however, to intimidate the opposition. On 14 September, the leaders of the 37 political parties and organizations aligned in the Movement for Democratic Elections and Electoral Reform announced that they will stage a further demonstration in central Baku on 20 September. Musavat Party chairman Isa Gambar characterized the clashes as "a great moral victory" that testified to "the unity of the nation and the opposition." (Liz Fuller)

Mkhedrioni Rides Again? On 12 September, members of the Mkhedrioni paramilitary organization, formally banned in November 1995, convened a congress to assess the organization's activities since its founding in 1988. In an interview with RFE/RL's Tbilisi bureau on 10 September, Mkhedrioni's political secretary Tornike Berishvili provided an insider's somewhat subjective perspective of Mkhedrioni's evolution from an informal civil defense corps into a private army loyal only to its charismatic leader, former bank robber, one-time playwright and now ex-parliament deputy Djaba Ioseliani. Ioseliani was arrested in November, 1995, and together with five other Mkhedrioni members is currently on trial on charges of involvement in the failed assassination attempt against Eduard Shevardnadze three months earlier.

Berishvili said that one of the objectives of the congress is to evaluate Mkhedrioni's "faults." He admitted that one of the reasons for the crackdown against it was the widespread perception that Mkhedrioni's members were "bandits" and "enemies of society." Berishvili claimed that that perception was partly the result of a propaganda campaign against Mkhedrioni, but at the same time obliquely conceded that the organization's reputation for lawlessness was not without foundation. (In 1992, for example, Mkhedrioni members perpetrated horrendous atrocities against the population of several villages in western Georgia loyal to ousted President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, but were never brought to trial.)

According to Berishvili, the problems that culminated in Mkhedrioni's demise dated from late 1993, after the war in Abkhazia ended and Mkhedrioni was "engaged in redefining its role in peacetime conditions." He claimed that by that time Mkhedrioni had already acquired "a certain authority and influence." (This is something of an understatement: Western journalists who visited Georgia at that time described Ioseliani as being at least as powerful as then parliament chairman Eduard Shevardnadze, and Mkhedrioni as a 3,000 man-strong armed force.) Mkhedrioni's status, Berishvili continued, prompted a mass influx of new members -- not only representatives of the Tbilisi intelligentsia, who later backed Ioseliani's bid to create his own political party to contest the 1995 parliamentary elections, but also criminal elements who, Berishvili implied, discredited the original nucleus of "romantics." He explained that the Georgian authorities seized upon this influx of criminal elements as a pretext for neutralizing Mkhedrioni, and predicted that Mkhedrioni will continue to be regarded with suspicion "as long as forces exist both within Georgia and outside who do not want a strong and independent Georgian state," given that Mkhedrioni could constitute a powerful opposition to those forces.

Invited to comment on the ongoing trial of Ioseliani, Berishvili termed it "an indicator of the predicament Georgia is in today." He argued that the charges are clearly fabricated, and that even the presiding judge had privately admitted that the case is riddled with internal contradictions.

Looking to the future, Berishvili defined Mkhedrioni's most important function as "setting an example" and facilitating cooperation between Georgia's diverse political forces in order to resolve the problems the country faces "by civilized means and without the use of violence." There are, he concluded, "values that are above party politics." (Liz Fuller)

Quotes Of The Week: "The people should understand that we are in such a deep hole that we won't get out of there in one or two years." -- Armenian Economics Minister Eduard Sandoyan, quoted in "Hayots ashkhar," 10 September 1998.

"In foreign policy matters, I consider myself to be the most able man I have ever seen in my life." -- Murad Petrosian, chairman of the Nagorno-Karabakh parliament committee on security and defense, interviewed in "Aravot," 10 September 1998.

"Are you sure the rich man fights better?" -- Armenian President Robert Kocharian, commenting on the hypothesis that oil wealth will improve Azerbaijan's military potential ("The New York Times," 14 September 1998).

Prognosis Of The Week: "The appointment of Yevgenii Primakov to the post of the Russian prime minister will do no good for Georgia." -- Georgi Kervalishvili, chairman of All-Georgian Association on Human Rights (Caucasus Press, 14 September 1998).