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Caucasus Report: October 20, 1998

20 October 1998, Volume 1, Number 34

Coup Attempt In Georgia. For the second time in less than nine months, the Georgian leadership has narrowly avoided a serious threat to the country's stability. Following the botched 9 February bid by supporters of deceased President Zviad Gamsakhurdia to assassinate President Eduard Shevardnadze, on 19 October a group of several hundred Georgian army troops and Gamsakhurdia supporters seized tanks and weapons and marched from their west Georgian base in the country's second city, Kutaisi. Following an exchange of artillery fire with government forces, the rebels agreed to talks with the Georgian military command and subsequently retreated to their base in Senaki.

The leader of the revolt was 42-year old Lieutenant-Colonel Akaki Eliava, who in 1992-93 had headed a detachment of forces loyal to Gamsakhurdia, but subsequently been amnestied. He was appointed commander of the Senaki military base several months ago by Defense Minister Davit Tevzadze. Eliava told Caucasus Press that when he abandoned his opposition to the Shevardnadze leadership, he had "hoped to serve [his] country, but not a group of corrupt people who are ruining the state." Eliava added that as long as Shevardnadze remains president it will be impossible to restore Georgia's territorial integrity. (Russian sources quoted Eliava as saying that he wished to focus attention on the appalling social and economic conditions in western Georgia. It is not clear whether similarly atrocioius conditions within the army, whose officer corps has not been paid for four months, were a contributing factor in the revolt.)

Speaking on Georgian state television on 19 October, Shevardnadze said the insurrection was intended to thwart both the ongoing democratization process and plans for the transportation via Georgia of Azerbaijan's Caspian oil. (The Azerbaijan International Operating Company that is renovating the oil pipeline from Baku to the Georgian Black Sea port of Supsa suspended work on that project when news of the mutiny broke.) Mikhail Machavariani, secretary-general of the ruling Union of Citizens of Georgia (SMK), claimed that 'serious political forces both inside and outside Georgia" were supporting the rebels.

Other leading Georgian politicians identified a number of persons who, they claimed, were aligned with, or actively supporting, the insurgents. Those accused included United Communist Party of Georgia chairman and retired General Panteleimon Giorgadze; Nemo Burchuladze, who served as deputy parliament speaker under Gamsakhurdia; and Boris Kakubava, one of the leaders of the Coordinating Council of Abkhaz Political Organizations that represents ethnic Georgian fugitives from Abkhazia. Whether any or all of those accused actually did have any connection with the mutiny is unclear. Kakubava has denied any involvement, suggesting that the entire episode was staged by the Georgian leadership, with Moscow's assistance, in the hope of raising the popularity rating of the SMK on the eve of local elections scheduled for 15 November. Political commentator Davit Berdzenishvili predicted last week that the SMK is unlikely to win more than 25-30 percent of the votes in most districts. Georgia, according to Berdzenishvili, is "at a standstill at an early stage of the post-Communist era." (Liz Fuller)

UN Mediates New Abkhaz-Georgian Talks. Three days of talks between Abkhaz and Georgian representatives at the Greek resort of Vouliagmeni over the weekend failed to make any substantial progress towards agreements on either economic aid to Abkhazia or the repatriation of Georgian displaced persons who fled Abkhazia in the 1992-93 war or the renewed hostilities in May of this year.

But the talks were nonetheless significant, for three reasons. First, as Georgian Minister of State Vazha Lortkipanidze, who headed the Georgian delegation, subsequently told Interfax, talks on confidence-building measures aimed at paving the way to an eventual political settlement had taken place under the auspices of the UN, although the Abkhaz side has long made clear its preference for Russian mediation. Second, the Georgian delegation included representatives of both the so-called Abkhaz government in exile (meaning those ethnic Georgian members of the Abkhaz government who fled in 1993) and of organizations representing the Georgian fugitives. And third, Lortkipanidze said that Liviu Bota, the UN Secretary-General's personal representative in Georgia, made it clear to both sides that the international community's patience is not unlimited, and that the Abkhaz leadership would be called upon to abide by earlier commitments it had made. Lortkipanidze did not, however, disclose what those commitments entail. (Liz Fuller)

Armenian Opposition Moves To Facilitate Impeachment Procedure. President Robert Kocharian is facing another challenge in parliament after opposition deputies launched an initiative that would simplify the legal procedure for his impeachment. An opposition motion put forth by the center-right Hayrenik (Fatherland) group would abrogate a clause in the parliament's regulations stipulating that the National Assembly may not vote to impeach the president unless the Constitutional Court finds grounds for doing so.

The move is the latest manifestation of the opposition's toughening anti-Kocharian stance that resulted in a confrontation earlier this month during parliament debates on a number of controversial privatization deals. The opposition, which includes supporters of former President Levon Ter-Petrossian, is angry at what it perceives as Kocharian's "unconstitutional" blocking of the issue's discussion.

Under the Armenian constitution, the president can be removed from office for committing "high treason or other grave crimes." The head of state can be ousted by two-thirds of parliament deputies "on the basis of a ruling by the Constitutional Court." However, the basic law does not specify what that ruling must be.

The opposition initiative is widely seen as an attempt to gain additional leverage over Kocharian, who has sweeping powers under Armenian law. Hayrenik leader Eduard Yegorian earlier said Kocharian's stance on the privatization controversy provides legal grounds for his impeachment. But it is still unclear whether opposition factions, including the pro-Ter-Petrossian Hanrapetutyun, will back his initiative.

The motion is being debated at an emergency session of parliament called in response to a demand by 70 of its 190 deputies. The agenda also includes draft amendments in the existing laws on taxation and privatization which may be at odds with government policy. The opposition will try form an ad hoc commission to investigate the financial state of the recently privatized Yerevan cognac factory and Armenia's two biggest hotels. In early October, the opposition failed by only a few votes to revoke their sale to foreign investors.

The volatile parliament majority is largely loyal to Kocharian. But it showed the first cracks during the voting on those controversial sales, in which some pro-government deputies aligned themselves with the opposition. (Ruzanna Khachatrian)

Quote Of the Week. "The domestic political situation in Chechnya is stable. It is not likely to worsen ... Generals Salman Raduev, Shamil Basaev and Khunkar Israpilov have proclaimed themselves defenders of the constitution, but they have violated every article in it." -- Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, quoted by Interfax, 19 October 1998.