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Caucasus Report: November 24, 1998

24 November 1998, Volume 1, Number 39

BACK TO SQUARE ONE, TWICE OVER? On 23 November, the OSCE confirmed Azerbaijani media reports that Baku had formally rejected the latest Karabakh peace plan proposed by the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairmen during their visit to the Transcaucasus earlier this month (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 1, No. 38, 18 November 1998). Meeting two days earlier with the French, Russian, and U.S. ambassadors in Baku, Foreign Minister Tofik Zulfugarov told them that the proposal that the Azerbaijan Republic and the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic should form a "common state" is unacceptable to Azerbaijan. Further objections were that the latest draft peace plan does not adequately protect Azerbaijan's territorial integrity, and that it links the liberation of occupied territories to a decision on Karabakh's status.

At the same time, Zulfugarov reportedly said that Azerbaijan is prepared to resume negotiations on an earlier draft proposal submitted by the Minsk Group in September of last year. That plan was based on the "phased" approach to resolving the conflict -- one of the reasons why it was rejected out of hand by the Karabakh leadership. Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrossian's willingness to accept that draft as a basis for discussions on a settlement was one of the factors that precipitated his resignation in February 1998.

Armenia's new leadership has repeatedly called for an "unconventional" solution to the conflict that would exclude Karabakh's vertical subordination to the central Azerbaijani government. The latest peace proposal, which was reportedly drafted by French Minsk Group co-chairman Georges Vaugier, was clearly an attempt to meet that demand: Russian ambassador to Baku Aleksandr Blokhin told journalists on 21 November that the latest plan "attempted to balance the interests of the two warring sides" and that Azerbaijan's rejection of it would hinder the peace process.

An OSCE spokesman in Vienna told RFE/RL on 23 November that he hoped it would prove possible to salvage "some elements" of the latest plan, in order to restart the deadlocked peace talks. But a spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry was less than optimistic. He confessed that he did not see what further efforts the OSCE could take, and noted that public opinion in Azerbaijan favors transferring responsibility for mediating a settlement to the UN.

It is not clear whether that belief that the UN would prove more effective in resolving the Karabakh conflict derives from that organization's apparent success in mediating talks between Georgia and its breakaway Black Sea region of Abkhazia. Two rounds of such talks in recent months, plus a series of meetings between high-level Georgian and Abkhaz representatives, have led to the drafting of two documents that were supposed to be signed at an upcoming meeting between Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and Abkhaz leader Vladislav Ardzinba.

But that meeting, originally tentatively scheduled for the first half of November, may now not take place until next month if at all. Abkhaz representative Anri Djergenia told journalists following the latest round of such talks (near Tbilisi, on 22 November) that Sukhumi will insist that the repatriation process proceed in accordance with the quadrilateral agreement signed by Georgian, Abkhaz, Russian, and UN representatives in April 1994. That agreement bars the return to Abkhazia of any persons suspected of having earlier participated in military actions, or of belonging to an armed formation (such as the White Legion) that is preparing for military action against Abkhazia. Georgian officials fear that the Abkhaz may adduce that proviso to prevent the return to Gali of any Georgian men of military age -- none of whom are likely to agree to their families returning there without firm guarantees of their future security. The Georgian side, for its part, is reportedly pushing for the creation in Gali of dual (Abkhaz and Georgian) local administration bodies, which the Abkhaz reject. Whether those disagreements will torpedo the signing of the protocol on repatriation is not yet clear, however. (Liz Fuller)

LOCAL ELECTIONS SPOTLIGHT CHANGES IN GEORGIAN POLITICAL SPECTRUM. RFE/RL's Tbilisi bureau moderated a discussion last week between Republican Party board member Davit Berdzenshvili and Emzar Djgerenaia, director of the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy, on the outcome and implications of the 15 November elections to local government bodies. The discussants agreed that the most striking developments were the clear erosion of support for the ruling Union of Citizens of Georgia (SMK) and the concomitant surprisingly strong showing of Shalva Natelashvili's Labor Party. But they also expressed shared concern at violations of voting procedure and their possible long-term impact.

While the SMK has the largest number of seats on most local councils, it has an overall majority in only some of them which, as Berdzenishvili pointed out, will complicate the process of electing a chairman. A second factor that reflects popular discontent with the ruling party is the very low voter turnout -- marginally over the minimum required 33.3 percent. That suggests that between 20 and 25 percent of the electorate, especially in towns, deliberately chose not to vote. The primary beneficiary of the SMK's loss of support was the Labor Party, which the SMK subsequently accused of engaging in populism to win votes. Berdzenishvili made the point that the Labor Party has to all intents and purposes eclipsed the United Communist Party of Georgia to occupy the ultra-leftist spot on the political spectrum. He also notes that Natelashvili will be in a strong position to contest the 1999 parliamentary elections, given that he is not currently required to govern the country and deliver on his pre-election promises.

The second opposition party to strengthen its position as a result of the elections is the Union for Democratic Revival headed by Adjar Supreme Council chairman Aslan Abashidze, which has demonstrated that it can muster support throughout the country. The discussants raised the question of whether, in the runup to the parliamentary elections, the Labor Party might form an alliance with the Union for Democratic Revival, and the SMK with the Socialists, who fared poorly in the local elections. Alternatively, they hypothesized, the Socialists and the Labor Party could join forces with former Georgian Communist Party First Secretary Djumber Patiashvili. Berdzenshvili predicted, however, that those 20-25 percent of voters who stayed at home on 15 November are most likely to vote for a right- rather than a left-wing party in the parliamentary elections.

Djgerenaia spoke with clear alarm and distress of the changing pattern of election falsification, based on the observations of the 2,400 volunteers which his NGO mobilized to monitor the poll. He explained that whereas in the 1995 parliamentary and presidential elections violations had taken place openly at the local precinct level, this time the precincts were "clean," local officials having exerted pressure on the population beforehand to cast their votes for the SMK. (He did, however, cite one blatant exception to this trend, naming a local election commission official in Gori who insisted at looking at all completed ballot papers before they were dropped into the ballot box. In this context, he made the point that there has never yet been a case in Georgia in which an official has been put on trial and sentenced for election falsification.)

Djgerenaia was particularly concerned at the falsification of the outcome of the vote in those districts of southern Georgia whose population is predominantly ethnic Armenian or Azerbaijani, and where the SMK received a particularly high percentage of the vote. That manipulation, which Djgerenaia condemned as "a crime against Georgia's future," could, he argued, lead to the exclusion of ethnic minorities from the national political process, which in turn could have dangerous repercussions.

The discussants' shared conclusion was that the poll had served to deepen the gulf between the rulers and the ruled, and that not only the present election law, but the entire "psychology of the elections" needs to be fundamentally changed. (Liz Fuller)

Quotations Of The Week. "It is better to have a good and successful defense minister than an unpredictable prime minister." Armenian parliament deputy speaker Albert Bazeyan, commenting on Defense Minister Vazgen Sarkisian's imputed ambitions to become premier (RFE/RL, 20 November 1998).

"[Former Azerbaijani President Ayaz] Mutalibov is sitting quietly and does not disturb anybody." -- Russian ambassador to Baku Aleksandr Blokhin, asked if the Russian government will extradite Mutalibov from Moscow to Azerbaijan (Turan, 20 November 1998).

Observation Of The Week. "A political party led by a defense minister can in no way contribute to the establishment of civil society ... No matter what the intentions of the Republicans and their leader are, in the conditions existing in our country a party wielding such 'force' and military levers can a priori be considered the winner of parliamentary elections. Parties without those levers cannot compete with it." -- "Aravot," 24 November, commenting on the launch of the Republican Party of Armenia, which Vazgen Sarkisian will head.