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Caucasus Report: November 15, 2007

Georgian Preterm Presidential Election A Concession Or Calculated Risk?

By Liz Fuller

Saakashvili announcing the date of early elections to a nationwide audience on November 8

November 15, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Both the Georgian opposition and the international community have construed President Mikheil Saakashvili's decision to hold preterm presidential elections on January 5, 2008, as a concession to the opposition's multiple political demands. But it may equally have been part of Saakashvili's larger strategy aimed at neutralizing any challenge to his authority and, depending on just how deep popular dissatisfaction and resentment runs, may likewise be a calculated risk.

Saakashvili announced the preterm ballot, to be held concurrently with a referendum on the timing of the next parliamentary ballot, in a televised statement during the evening of November 8, 36 hours after police used indiscriminate force to disperse opposition protesters in Tbilisi, injuring hundreds of people. In response to those clashes, Saakashvili proclaimed a state of emergency, first in Tbilisi and then nationwide, for a period of 15 days.

Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli claimed that the police intervention was justified given that "we have witnessed an attempted coup d'etat today." (Edward Luttwak of the Center for International and Strategic Studies in Washington, who is the author of "Coup d'Etat - A Practical Handbook," was quoted by the "Financial Times " on November 10-11 as differentiating clearly between a revolution, which "is a mass action," and a coup, "which is just a technique.") "The New York Times" on November 10 quoted parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze as echoing Noghaideli's argument of an imminent coup. "The threat that existed until now is still present despite the calm that has been restored," the paper quoted her as saying. A subsequent government press release on November 10 re-categorized Noghaideli's purported coup, terming it "a threat to constitutional order" that posed "a grave danger to liberal democratic values." "The state of emergency, foreseen by the constitution, was necessary to avoid plunging the country into chaos and to protect the constitutional order," the statement continued.

That argument is less than entirely convincing. The protesters had congregated peacefully outside the parliament building daily since November 2 in support of demands presented to the leadership in early October by the 10-party opposition National Council (see "Georgia: Opposition Unveils Political Manifesto,", October 26, 2007). Only on November 7 did police resort repeatedly to force to disperse them, indiscriminately using truncheons, rubber bullets, and tear gas on protesters and innocent passers-by alike. Nor is there any evidence of the remotest danger of destabilization nationwide that would have justified extending the state of emergency outside Tbilisi.

Similarly less than convincing is the Georgian government's claim that the opposition was acting in collusion with Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and financed by Georgian oligarch Badri Patarkatsishvili -- who is wanted in Russia on criminal charges. Even before the police crackdown, Saakashvili argued in an extensive television interview on November 4 that "There is a concrete oligarch Russian force behind all this, which at the same time is in coordination with a concrete foreign country and its political circles, whose goal is to stir chaos in Georgia ahead of [parliamentary] elections in Russia, which are scheduled in December.... What is now happening in Georgia is an attempt by a dark, black force that has no responsibility to or love for Georgia and which is directly linked to Georgia's foreign factors -- to force us to share power, consult with me on how to rule Georgia. We will never let this happen."

On November 8, Georgian Deputy Prosecutor-General Nika Gvaramia told journalists that a criminal case has been brought against Patarkatsishvili on charges of conspiring to overthrow the Georgian government. Patarkatsishvili, who resettled in Georgia from Russia in 2000 and maintains close ties with his former business partner, self-exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, unveiled a political manifesto last month calling, among other things, for the abolition of the presidency and the creation of a bicameral parliament as a means of strengthening and promoting democracy, and for perfecting the distribution of power between the authorities and society at large in favor of the latter. On October 28, Patarkatsishvili offered to finance the Georgian opposition National Council, stressing at the same time that his aim in doing so was not to provoke a revolution. On November 2, he flew to Tbilisi to address the mass protest demonstration, urging participants to pressure the country's leaders to embark on a dialogue that would pave the way for elections that would result in a "people's government." Until late October, Patarkatsishvili owned a major stake in the independent Georgian television channel Imedi, one of two that Georgian special forces ransacked on November 7, threatening and abusing staff and systematically destroying equipment.

The "Economist" on November 10 made the point that "it is difficult to reconcile the Georgian claims that Patarkatsishvili sought at Russia's behest to overthrow the Georgian leadership with the fact that the Russian authorities have issued several warrants for Patarkatsishvili's arrest."

Nor was Patarkatsishvili the only Georgian opposition politician identified as having colluded with Moscow. The Georgian Interior Ministry released on November 8 video and audio of conversations four oppositionists allegedly had with employees of the Russian Embassy in Tbilisi. The four men are parliamentarian Levan Berdzenishvili (Republican party); former Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava; Labor Party leader Shalva Natelashvili; and Tsotne Gamsakhurdia, whose half-brother Konstantine Gamsakhurdia heads the Tavisupleba (Liberty) party. According to unconfirmed reports, Natelashvili has since requested political asylum either in Germany or the United States; but Saakashvili said on November 10 that Natelashvili does not face arrest and is free to participate in the January presidential ballot, according to the website

Former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, whose arrest in late September 48 hours after he went public with damaging allegations against Saaksvhili served as the catalyst for the opposition to close ranks, told Reuters in Berlin on November 9 that "I don't want to be a Russian advocate, but I should say that there is no Russian role behind this opposition."

Two European diplomats, too, have implicitly questioned the official argument that Russia was behind the opposition protests. Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe rapporteur Matyas Eorsi was quoted on November 10 by Caucasus Press as saying that "We know that the incumbent Russian authorities are not on friendly terms with the Georgian government, and we have seen for ourselves how Russia can influence elections in neighboring countries. But nevertheless, I cannot say what the role of the Russian factor is in the current situation in Georgia." Playing up the alleged Russian involvement is not helpful, Eorsi added.

EU special envoy for the South Caucasus Peter Semneby was similarly quoted on November 12 as saying, "I do not want to go too far into this and I do not want to go into the issue of whether there was any serious threat to the state..., at least as long as I have not seen solid evidence."

Yet the flaws in the proclaimed rationale for the November 7 violence should not distract attention from the equally compelling question of motivation. Were the Georgian authorities planning all along to use force against the demonstrators, and then proclaim a state of emergency, even if there were no cogent grounds for doing so, precisely in order to create the rationale for a seeming major concession on Saakashvili's part? (Granted, in his marathon television interview on November 4, Saakashvili again affirmed that "both the parliamentary and presidential elections will be held in the autumn of 2008 as defined by the constitution and nobody can blackmail us. Everything in Georgia will happen whenever it is envisaged by the constitution, law ,and the country’s national interests.")

Or was the decision to bring forward the date of the presidential ballot a damage-containment exercise in response to NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer's statement earlier on November 8 warning that "the imposition of emergency rule, and the closure of media outlets in Georgia, a partner with which the alliance has an Intensified Dialogue, are of particular concern and not in line with Euro-Atlantic values"?

If the decision to bring forward the date of the presidential elections indeed predated, and even served as the rationale for, the November 7 crackdown, it was a masterstroke on at least three counts. It creates the illusion of willingness to compromise, while at the same time wrong-footing both the opposition (which has less than two months to conduct an election campaign) and the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, which ideally requires a minimum of two months to organize and implement an election-observation mission. (Georgian officials, including parliament speaker Burjanadze, were swift to appeal to the international community to deploy as many observers as they could muster to monitor the vote.) And it excludes the participation of Okruashvili, who will not turn 35 -- the minimum age for a presidential candidate -- until November 2008.

Moreover, the deliberate destruction -- several hours before the formal declaration on November 7 of a state of emergency -- of the broadcasting equipment and the entire archive of the independent television station Imedi and similar reprisals against a second television company, Kavkasia, will severely limit independent television coverage of at least the early states of the election campaign. AP on November 11 quoted Imedi's U.S. director-general Lewis Robertson, as saying it could take "several months" to repair or replace the damaged equipment and get the station back on the air.

In Georgia -- as elsewhere in the former USSR -- television, rather than radio, the print media, or the Internet, is by far the single most important source of information on political developments.

Saakashvili's scheduling of the presidential elections has not proven a large enough concession to silence criticism of last week's violence. The international community continues to insist that the state of emergency should be lifted immediately as the ban on demonstrations and sweeping restrictions on the independent media cannot be reconciled with Saakashvili's professed commitment to the principles of democracy. Saakashvili on November 9 effectively defied Washington by rejecting the message from U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, conveyed personally by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, that the state of emergency should be lifted immediately. "The state of emergency will be lifted when I, as the leader of this country, consider it necessary, and not when a foreign minister of a foreign state tells me," Saakashvili was quoted as telling Georgian businessmen.

Other international diplomats nonetheless continued to hammer home the message that the state of emergency should be ended. EU special envoy Semneby told RFE/RL's Georgian Service in Tbilisi on November 11 that "We would also expect that the state of emergency should be lifted as soon as possible. And that should of course involve all aspects of the state of emergency, including the possibility of the media to resume full operations."

Spanish diplomat Josep Borrell Fontelles, the special envoy of OSCE Chairman in Office Miguel Antonio Moratinos, was similarly quoted on November 12 by Caucasus Press as saying that during "frank and open" discussions with the Georgian leadership, "I...relayed the chairman-in-office's call to immediately lift the state of emergency, to restore full freedom of the media, especially all broadcast media in Georgia, to respect the freedom of assembly, and to ensure all conditions for free and fair elections."

The biggest unanswered question, however, is just how popular Saakashvili still is in light of his failure over the past four years to improve the lives of much of the population, the widely held perception that he turns a blind eye to corruption among his closest associates, and last week's violence. An opinion poll of 859 respondents conducted in July found that just 39 percent would vote for Saakashvili if presidential elections were held the next day -- less than half the 96.27 percent of the vote he garnered in January 2004. But a second poll of 300 people summarized by the weekly "Mteli kvira" on October 1 showed that no alternative candidate would poll more than 10 percent support with the exception of Okruashvili (12.2 percent), who, as noted above, is barred from running in January due to his age. Or does Saakashvili plan to salvage his waning popularity by launching an offensive in the next few weeks to restore Georgia's control over one of its two breakaway regions?

Article 70 of the Georgian Constitution stipulates that a candidate shall be deemed to have been elected president if he/she obtains more than half the votes cast; there is no minimum turnout requirement.

Chechen Leadership In Exile Seeks To Salvage Legitimacy

By Liz Fuller

Doku Umarov proclaimed himself amir in a video sent to RFE/RL

November 15, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Adducing the Chechen Republic Ichkeria (ChRI ) Constitution adopted in March 1992, the ChRI parliament in exile ruled on November 6 that ChRI President and resistance commander Doku Umarov has effectively relinquished his presidential powers by proclaiming a North Caucasus emirate of which he claims to be the leader. A statement signed by ChRI parliament Chairman Zhaloudi Saralyapov and posted on November 6 on affirmed that the authorities of the president and government chairman now devolve upon the Chechen parliament.

Representatives in exile of the ChRI parliament and government responded to the initial rumors of Umarov's proclamation of a North Caucasus emirate with outrage and concern. They not only suspected -- and continue to suspect -- that Umarov has been manipulated in a bid to provide Russia with a new pretext for renewed reprisals against the population of Chechnya and the neighboring North Caucasus republics. They also construed Umarov's action as violating the constitution and undermining the legal foundations of the ChRI as an independent state.

The parliament's ruling was based on the constitution enacted by the Chechen parliament on March 12, 1992, and intended to supercede the Soviet-era constitution of the Checheno-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic adopted in 1978. The 1992 constitution was amended first in November 1996, following the end of the 1994-96 war, then in February 1997 following the election of Aslan Maskhadov as president in a ballot which the international community and the Russian leadership formally recognized as free, fair, and valid. Further amendments reflecting Maskhadov's imposition in early 1999 of the Shari'a legal system were endorsed at a session of the War Council in the summer of 2002.

The 1992 constitution defines the Chechen Republic Ichkeria as "a sovereign and independent democratic state based on the rule of law and created as a result of the self-determination of the Chechen people." Article 2 describes as "a most grave crime" any attempt by any person or organization to usurp power; Article 69 of that constitution describes the president as heading the executive branch, and also says he may not simultaneously serve as a parliament deputy; Article 72 specifies the oath of office, in which the president pledges to strengthen and defend the sovereignty of the ChRI and strictly abide by its constitution and laws; Article 74 stipulates that in the event of his committing a crime, the president may be relieved of his post on the basis of a vote by no fewer than two thirds of all parliament deputies. Oddly, however, it does not specify who then assumes the presidential powers. Following the deaths of Presidents Djokhar Dudayev in April 1996, Aslan Maskhadov in March 2005, and Abdul-Khakim Saidullayev in June 2006, the vice president automatically succeeded him.

The validity of the 1992 constitution is, however, open to question, as is whether the ChRI is indeed an independent state. On April 26, 1990, the USSR Supreme Soviet enacted a law that upgraded the status of the Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republics (ASSRs), of which the then-Checheno-Ingush ASSR was one, to the level of the union republics, a status that carried with it the hypothetical right the union republics enjoyed to secede from the USSR. Campaigning in Kazan four months later for the Russian presidency, Boris Yeltsin uttered his now legendary exhortation to the leaders of Russia's republics to "take as much sovereignty as you can digest!" The Tatar and Yakut ASSRs wasted no time in taking up that challenge, adopting declarations of sovereignty on 30 August and 27 September, 1990, respectively. And on November 27, 1990, the Checheno-Ingush ASSR Oblast Soviet similarly issued a declaration of "state sovereignty" that defined that republic as a sovereign state that was part of neither the Russian Federation nor the USSR. In a statement posted on the ChRI website on August 17, 2004, ChRI Foreign Minister Akhmed Zakayev argued that it was that declaration, adopted "in complete accordance with the universally recognized principles of international law, and also of the laws in force at that time on the territory of the USSR," that formalized the emergence of the Checheno-Ingush Republic as a sovereign state.

The Checheno-Ingush ASSR Oblast Soviet was forcibly disbanded on September 6, 1991, in the wake of the failed putsch against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. That date is commemorated annually as a landmark on the road to true independence: in his address to the Chechen people on September 6, 2007, Umarov characterized it as "the day on which the Chechen people restored its state independence." The first presidential edict issued by Djokhar Dudayev, on November 1, 1991, reaffirmed the "state sovereignty of the Chechen Republic." At the time, Chechens greeted those developments with jubilation as incontrovertibly cementing Chechnya's separation from the USSR and its emergence as an independent state.

But as Professor Gail Lapidus pointed out in her analysis "Contested Sovereignty," the precise semantic connotations of "state sovereignty" in the Soviet and post-Soviet context, specifically whether that concept implies, or automatically entails, international recognition as an independent state, have never been clarified. Even before the demise of the USSR and the emergence of the Russian Federation as an independent state, Russian politicians tended to use the term "sovereignty" as a synonym for "real autonomy" (as opposed to the nominal autonomy granted to those republics and oblasts under the 1977 Soviet Constitution).

That limited interpretation of "sovereignty" was reaffirmed in the Federation Treaty signed on March 31, 1992, in a clear bid to prevent Russia from falling apart the same way as the USSR had done. Chechnya, however, refused to sign the Federation Treaty, and its leaders subsequently argued that Chechnya was not bound it by, nor by the Russian Constitution adopted in December 1993 which explicitly includes Chechnya in the list of federation subjects. Tatarstan, which likewise declined to sign the Federation Treaty, managed over a period of two years to negotiate its own bilateral treaty on relations with the federal government. That agreement gave Tatarstan far broader powers than other subjects of the Russian Federation, but was inexorably renegotiated after Vladimir Putin succeeded Yeltsin as Russian president in 2000.

Yusup Soslambekov, who served as chairman of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Chechen parliament elected in October 1991 but split with President Dudayev 18 months later, argued in his 1995 compilation "Chechnya (Nokhchich'o) -- vzglyad iznutri" that insofar as the sovereign Chechen Republic Ichkeria adopted its constitution prior to the signing of the Federation Treaty and the adoption of the new Russian Federation Constitution, it was not legally bound by either document.

Members of the ChRI government and parliament adduce as further proof that Russia formally recognized the ChRI as an independent state two documents signed in Moscow in May 1997. Those two documents are designated "Treaty on Peace and the Principles of Relations between the Russian Federation and the Chechen Republic Ichkeria," signed byYeltsin and Chechen President Maskhadov, and "Agreement between the Government of the Russian Federation and the Government of the Chechen Republic Ichkeria," signed by Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and by Maskhadov in his capacity as head of the Chechen government. Russia has never formally unilaterally annulled those agreements. But it could be argued that the Chechen Republic constitution adopted in a referendum in March 2003, and which affirms that "the Chechen Republic is an unalienable part of the territory of the Russian Federation," supercedes the 1992 constitution -- even though those human-rights activists who monitored the vote questioned the accuracy of the 85 percent turnout claimed by the Russian authorities.

Even if one accepts the existence of an independent ChRI, however, it could be argued that the November 6 decision by the members of its parliament currently living in exile in Europe to strip Umarov of the post of president violates the 1992 constitution. As noted above, Article 74 of that constitution allows for the ChRI president to be stripped of his powers in the event that he commits a serious crime, but also stipulates that a minimum of two-thirds of all parliament deputies must approve that move. The parliament elected under Maskhadov in 1997, the powers of which Maskhadov extended in 2002 due to the impossibility of holding free elections during time of war, comprised 63 deputies. Some, including its chairman Ruslan Alikhadjiyev, died during the war that erupted in 1999. Some remained in Chechnya and pledged loyalty to the new administration imposed by Moscow; only 10 are currently abroad, first deputy chairman Selim Beshayev told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service on November 6. Article 69, stipulating that the president may not simultaneously be a parliament deputy, is also problematic in that respect.

And the November 6 decision by the 10 parliament deputies in exile to assume temporarily the presidential powers would seem to contravene Article 71 of the 1992 constitution, which rules that the president is directly elected in a popular secret ballot, and any attempt to elect or appoint a president by any other means, or to usurp presidential power, is illegal and invalid.

While the desire to limit the damage to the cause of Chechen independence from Umarov's declaration of a North Caucasus emirate is understandable, it is not clear why the exile parliament deputies opted for a step that is dubious from the point of view of constitutional law, rather than appoint as acting president a figure with more convincing bona fides -- unless they were unable to agree on such a candidate.