U.S. Official Sees Need For 'Serious Change,' Reconciliation In GeorgiaFollowing the inauguration of President Mikheil Saakashvili to a second term on January 20, RFE/RL's Georgian Service Director David Kakabadze spoke to Matthew Bryza, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, in Tbilisi about the disputed presidential election, continuing opposition protests, and what he expects to see in Georgia in the coming months.
RFE/RL: The two months since the November 7 dispersal of demonstration protests have been quite eventful here in Georgia. What is your assessment of the developments in Georgia during these past weeks?
Matthew Bryza: It was a very difficult situation, as every Georgian knows, in November. Our assessment is that the leadership here -- in the government and, hopefully, in the opposition as well -- took a deep breath, looked at the situation and realized there needed to be some serious change.
And, in fact, it was the electorate who made that statement on January 5. And we analyze the results and see that -- as far as we can tell and based on serious analysis that our embassy conducted -- there were irregularities of concern but there was no systematic attempt we saw to use massive fraud to change the result of the election. And that's after our own intensive and objective research and that's why we're happy to celebrate the inauguration of President Saakashvili.
But at the same time those serious irregularities and the mood in the population that was almost split 50-50 between supporters and opponents of the president, all that indicates the need to improve the electoral procedures till the parliamentary elections [in the spring] and to have this government continue reconnecting with all of the population, in fact, as the president said in his inaugural speech today. He talked about the need to bring the benefits of reform and economic growth to all the people of Georgia. So, it's as if the country has gone through a very difficult cycle that will continue. And we'll have the next big moments occurring during the parliamentary election.
RFE/RL: You mentioned the president's inaugural speech, which lasted for almost 40 minutes. What were the main points of the address for you, as a listener?
Bryza: As a subjective American listener, one who cares deeply about this country and our relations with it, what I heard, was, No. 1, a call for tolerance and reconciliation between the government and the opposition, between and among all ethnic groupings. He made a point to talk about all the various regions with important ethnic minorities and between Georgia and Russia. Those were very significant conciliatory and -- more than conciliatory -- forward-looking statements.
The second set of themes besides reconciliation was the need to, again, bring the benefits of economic reform and economic growth to all the people, especially in the rural areas of Georgia. We heard about his three-part and 50-day plan to really begin the process of bringing the benefits to the people in the regions.
And from our perspective in Washington, that is wonderful news. These are subjects we've long discussed with him. I remember President [George W.] Bush's speech right out here, down the road on the Freedom Square, where he talked at length about the importance of tolerance and interethnic harmony as a cornerstone of democracy. And he talked about the need to strengthen democratic institutions and allow the opposition to flourish, not just be tolerated. And I think I heard those same messages in the speech today.
RFE/RL: President Saakashvili said that he is going to strengthen ties with Russia and do everything possible to make these relations better. Did you have a chance to talk to Russian officials on this issue? Do you see any prospects for these relations to become really good or, at least, better than they currently are?
Bryza: I did have a chance to speak with some very senior Russian officials here and I did sense there's a real chance to improve the relationship. What I sensed was that, on the Georgian side, there is a real commitment to putting in place concrete steps to improve the relationship and to elaborate the plan of action. It's not a desperation, it's not an urgency but it's a recognition that life can improve for all Georgians if there's that positive path.
And I sensed from my discussions with a couple of Russian officials a readiness to pursue that same sort of agenda. Now the challenge is, of course, to find concrete steps and programs, on which both sides can agree.
RFE/RL: Something that will be very difficult to agree on is Georgia's NATO aspirations. This is something Russia does not like at all. Do you think this can change in the near future?
Bryza: Well, that's certainly a question for [Russian Foreign]Minister [Sergei] Lavrov or Deputy [Foreign] Minister [Grigory] Karasin, not for me. I have no way of answering that.
All I can say is what my government's policy is, and that is that we fully support Georgia's NATO aspirations, as expressed by a strong majority -- nearly three-quarters of the Georgian population -- in the referendum that just took place. So we believe that it's important to keep our focus on our strategic objectives, and helping Georgia achieve its aspirations to become a NATO member is one of our strategic objectives. But so is an improvement of Georgian-Russian relations. So regardless of what some people may think in Moscow or any other capital, we want to pursue both of these objectives and we'll continue to.
RFE/RL: We've been hearing quite a lot of criticism from the opposition and also from some analysts that the United States is supporting personalities rather than institutions in Georgia. What is your response to that?
Bryza: I'm glad you asked me. You are too polite and kind to say there's been a lot of criticism of me. I, as a representative of my government, have a deep love of Georgia that dates way back to the 1990s, back to the time when now-President Saakashvili was a parliamentarian. And that deep affection that we all in the United States government feel for Georgia, has everything to do with Georgian people but nothing to do with any individual Georgian person.
The Georgian people and the American people and our governments truly have shared values, again, as you heard about in President Saakashvili's speech today. I make a point out of duty and out of pleasure to meet with members of the opposition every time I'm here. And with civil society, and with government officials....
I think, it's absolutely false to say that we support only one person in this country when, in fact, we support democracy, the entire development of democracy and all of democracy's components, which, of course, includes the opposition. I think, our friends in the opposition know better and, frankly, I'm surprised as to why some would want to mischaracterize the nature of our relations, which are quite strong and warm.
RFE/RL: In parallel with the inauguration ceremony, a protest rally took place just a few kilometers from Rustaveli Avenue. It was organized by the opposition and attended by several thousand people, according to some estimates even by tens of thousands. The leaders, addressing the crowd, called this inauguration illegitimate, saying that President Saakashvili is not the legitimate leader of the country. Did the opposition politicians you've been meeting here in Tbilisi articulate this claim in talks with you and, if yes, what did you answer?
Bryza: Out of respect to them, I prefer not to comment on specific contents of any specific meeting. But I can say in general: I've seen these statements from them and, of course, they've been saying them for some time. And our response in general is: It's time to get beyond those sorts of claims that President Saakashvili's reelection is not legitimate.
There are several heads of state here, who were standing right out there in front of the parliament, proclaiming the legitimacy of this election. They would not have come here, had they not viewed this election as legitimate. President Bush would not have called President Saakashvili last Monday [January 14], after a very careful and lengthy analysis about the freeness and fairness of the election if he had not viewed the election as legitimate.
So people are entitled to have their opinion, they can claim forever if they wish that the election was not legitimate, and demonstrate. They have a right to do so. But from my government's perspective it is time to move forward, it's time to accept the results and prepare for parliamentary elections, and improve the election procedures. That election needs to be much better than this last one was -- in the conduct of the campaign, in the election and postelection period. But from our perspective -- and I think we officially say it by virtue of being at the inauguration -- it was a legitimate election.
RFE/RL: Did you tell President Saakashvili that the next election has to be better than the last one?
Bryza: President Saakashvili, I think, is well aware of our view that there needs to be improvement. I said it in the press yesterday, I am saying it to you now. I am too humble to assume he reads whatever I might say in the press but I think he is very aware of where our government's views lie and he has a close and extremely positive relationship with our excellent ambassador here, John Tefft.
RFE/RL: There is not much time left till the next election. Do you think the current heated situation will calm down or the things will escalate in the next few months?
Bryza: Well, I can't predict the future but I feel positive momentum. In what I heard from the president today in his speech and what I felt from the opposition leaders yesterday, despite their continuing anger, which is understandable -- we had a lot of anger in America when President Bush was first elected but we've gotten beyond that -- despite all of those intense feelings, I sense new momentum.
It will be turbulent, there will be demonstrations and yelling and shouting but I also feel that on the government side, the leadership here recognizes that there really needs to be some significant change. Change in personalities perhaps -- that's something people have been rumoring about on television here, I don't have any insights into that. But I certainly have insights, I think, into the change in policy that seems to be contemplated. And, again, we heard about that in the inaugural address today.
Georgian Opposition Mulls Options
Having failed to force a runoff between Saakashvili and its own candidate, Levan Gachechiladze, the nine-party opposition National Council is now preparing to appeal the official election results first to the Georgian Constitutional Court and, if that fails, to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. An appeal to Strasbourg is, however, unlikely to be heard before the parliamentary elections tentatively scheduled for May.
U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza met with National Council representatives in Tbilisi on January 20, the eve of Saakashvili's inauguration ceremony. Subsequent statements by the opposition leaders present suggest that Bryza tried, but failed, to induce them to drop their criticisms both of the conduct of the ballot and of the international community's failure unequivocally to condemn the outcome as falsified. He apparently urged them instead to "move on" and focus their attention on the parliamentary poll tentatively scheduled for May. Parliamentarian Levan Berdzenishvili of the opposition Republican party, a member of the National Council, was quoted on January 19 as saying the parliamentary elections would be tantamount to a "second round," meaning that they would clarify the level of popular support for Saakashvili and the government on one hand and the opposition on the other.
Speaking on January 20 at a meeting on the outskirts of Tbilisi attended by up to 70,000 people, Gachechiladze again affirmed, as he had done during a live television address on January 15, that the opposition continues to regard Saakashvili as an illegitimate president, and that its members will not agree to any "compromise" with the authorities, or accept any government posts Saakashvili may offer.
Opposition parliamentarian Zviad Dzidziguri from the Conservative party, which is part of the National Council, for his part told the rally that "we shall not stop, we shall not retreat.... We shall continue our fight every day and every minute to achieve our goal: to deprive Saakashvili of the presidency both de facto and de jure." Tavisupleba (Liberty) party leader Konstantine Gamsakhurdia said "we shall fight to the end until this country is liberated from Saakashvili and the remnants [of his regime]."
On January 15, Gachechiladze said he hopes the National Council will participate in the upcoming parliamentary ballot as "a single, united strong opposition coalition" that would encompass not only the nine-member National Council but also the Labor party, the New Rightists and others. But David Usupashvili of the Republican party, also a member of the National Council, was quoted on January 21 as saying that "it is too early to say whether we will stand in the parliamentary election together." He added that opposition parties will probably decide within the next month between a tactical arrangement of a broad alliance or several alliances, depending on which approach is seen as likely to yield better results. Meanwhile, Gachechiladze on January 21 raised the hypothetical possibility of a boycott, telling journalists that "if the current climate of violence persists, I doubt we shall participate in the parliamentary elections."
Gachechiladze on January 21 further identified the opposition's primary demands as "free elections and free media," and predicted that if the authorities fail to meet those demands, the police and armed forces will defect to the opposition camp and "we shall force Saakashvili to flee the country," civil.ge reported. At the same time, Gachechiladze stressed that "we shall not allow civil confrontation to take place; we will never let bloodshed occur." Usupashvili similarly warned on January 21 that a popular uprising is "inevitable" if the authorities seek to falsify the upcoming parliamentary elections the same way as they did the presidential poll.
Saakashvili for his part continues to downplay the opposition allegations that the election outcome was rigged to give him victory in the first round, telling "The New Times" that "It's a typical Georgian pastime -- this penchant for being overly dramatic and kicking up a fuss."
Armenian Presidential Campaign Gets Under WayThe nine candidates in the February 19 presidential ballot made public their respective manifestos and held their first meetings with voters on January 21, the first day of the election campaign. Former President Levon Ter-Petrossian was the first to hit the campaign trail, with other major opposition candidates contenting themselves with news conferences and other indoor meetings. For his part, Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, widely regarded as the frontrunner, visited several of his campaign offices in Yerevan on January 21, before heading the following day to the southern district of Vayots Dzor, where he assured voters that if elected, he will double household incomes within five years.
Ter-Petrossian spent January 21 touring towns and villages in central Armenia in a motorcade of about 40 cars that carried leaders of various opposition groups who support his presidential bid. His meetings attracted considerable interest from local residents who turned out to hear their former president speak publicly for the first time in over a decade. Addressing a crowd of several hundred at his first meeting in the town of Artik, the starting point of the campaign swing, Ter-Petrossian recalled the severe hardships people suffered during the first years of Armenia's independence, which coincided with the war in Nagorno-Karabakh and broader turmoil in the region. "I know that during my rule I did not live up to all of your expectations and hopes," he said. "There were disappointments, there was discontent, there were very harsh criticisms. I accept all of that.... And if you think that I am to blame for that, I apologize for my guilt," Ter-Petrossian added.
The ex-president issued a similar public apology at a big rally in Yerevan last November. He made it clear at the same time that he believes that the deprivations of the early 1990s were the inevitable cost of the Armenian military victory over Azerbaijan. "I have not come here to ask or beg for votes. That's Serzh's business because he has no votes in Armenia," Ter-Petrossian claimed on January 21, prompting chants of "Levon! Levon!" from the crowd.
Ter-Petrossian again sounded supremely confident of his victory as he spoke at a similar rally held in another small town, Aparan. "It's you, not me, who will win on February 19," he claimed in the town square opposite Sarkisian's local campaign headquarters. "I congratulate you on your victory in advance."
Ter-Petrossian's campaign office in Aparan is run by Razmik Petrosian, a former town mayor and a veteran of the Karabakh war. "Ter-Petrossian remains my commander-in-chief," he told RFE/RL. Other local residents too evoked Ter-Petrossian's wartime leadership of the country. "We have had only one victor in our history and that person is Levon Ter-Petrossian," said one man. "I will vote for Levon because he is an intelligent man," said another.
On January 22, thousands of Ter-Petrossian supporters braved freezing weather to stage a rally in Yerevan's Freedom Square followed by a march through the city streets. Addressing the rally, Ter-Petrossian again branded Armenia's leadership "a thieving and anti-popular regime" and said he and his political allies are ready to suffer "any deprivation and sacrifice" for the sake of regime change. "We have reached a turning point where words end and deeds take hold," he said, describing the February 19 election as a "real opportunity to build a normal state."
Another major opposition contender, former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian, kicked off his campaign under the slogan "A civic movement for new Armenia," with an official presentation of his 32-page election manifesto in Yerevan. "My victory will eliminate corruption and embezzlement rooted in the country," he told journalists and activists of his Orinats Yerkir (Law-Based State) party on January 21. "My victory will mean equality before law, a drastic rise in the living standards of the people of Armenia."
Baghdasarian dismissed claims by government loyalists that the Armenian opposition cannot prevent the handover of power from outgoing President Robert Kocharian to Sarkisian because it has failed to close ranks and back a single presidential candidate. "There are and there will be alliances," he said without elaborating. "As for the authorities, they are not united either," he added, pointing to the participation in the ballot of a candidate from the Armenian Revolutionary Federation -Dashnaktsutiun (HHD), a junior partner in the governing coalition. HHD candidate Vahan Hovannisian held a similar campaign event in Yerevan later on January 21 at which he listed as his primary objectives dismantling the existing system of economic monopolies, promoting intensive economic development, increasing exports, enhancing the role of the armed forces, and securing the participation of representatives of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic in the ongoing talks aimed at resolving the Karabakh conflict, Noyan Tapan reported on January 22.
Also meeting journalists on January 21 was another opposition candidate, National Unity Party Chairman Artashes Geghamian. Rather than outline his campaign program, Geghamian again focused on attacking Ter-Petrossian and denouncing what he called a "barbaric" smear campaign waged against him by opposition newspapers. Some opposition media outlets have suggested that Geghamian was bribed by the authorities to enter the fray with the sole aim of discrediting Ter-Petrossian.
Geghamian's opposition credentials were also questioned over the weekend by the Zharangutiun (Heritage) party of Raffi Hovannisian (no relation to Vahan), a major opposition group that has so far declined to endorse any of the presidential hopefuls. "Mr. Geghamian's recent political behavior raises questions about his being in opposition and reinforces the government's positions," Hovsep Khurshudian, a Zharangutiun spokesman, told RFE/RL.
(Astghik Bedevian, Ruzanna Khachatrian, Ruben Meloyan, and Anna Saghabalian)
Russia: Fears, Tensions Resurface In Adygeya
But subsequent developments over the past year have raised doubts among the republic's Circassian minority as to where Tkhakushinov's loyalties really lie. Adyghe Khase, one of two NGOs that seek to defend Circassians' interests, opposed Tkhakushinov's candidacy from the outset, appealing without success in November 2006 to Russian President Vladimir Putin to permit outgoing Adygeya President Khazret Sovmen to serve a second term.
The proposed merger of Adygeya into Krasnodar was the subject of a protracted political crisis that was finally defused in April 2005, when President Putin said the issue was no longer on the agenda. Tkhakushinov again ruled out any such merger in April 2007, but just weeks later he signed a friendship and cooperation pact with Krasnodar Krai governor Aleksandr Tkachev that envisaged closer cooperation in numerous spheres, including legislation, trade, agriculture, establishing ties with foreign countries, the use of natural resources, and "preserving a single information space." The Prague-based "Caucasus Times" on April 28 construed that cooperation pact as intended to promote the integration of Adygeya into Krasnodar.
Circassians' collective doubts were fuelled by plans to abolish the Adygeya branches of several federal agencies, including the customs office and the federal veterinary, natural resources, and narcotics-control agencies. Two months ago Adyghe Khase and a second Circassian public organization, the Cherkess Congress, addressed an open letter to President Putin, State Duma Chairman Boris Gryzlov, Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov, and Constitutional Court Chairman Valery Zorkin protesting those plans as violating the Russian Constitution, kavkaz-uzel.ru reported on November 16.
The Adygeya parliament committee for budget-finance, tax, and economic policy issues similarly drafted an appeal to President Putin not to proceed with the abolition of republican subsidiaries of federal agencies, kavkaz-uzel.ru reported on October 20, citing committee Chairman Rashid Mugu. Mugu stressed the key role played by the agencies in question in developing the republic's economy.
Tkhakushinov not only failed to persuade Moscow to back down, but has since made what the Circassians consider a further, equally unacceptable concession to Moscow by insisting that a Russian should be named as the new chairman of the republic's parliament to replace Ruslan Khadjibiyokov, who resigned to take up his seat in the Russian State Duma elected on December 2. Russians are by far the largest ethnic group in Adygeya, accounting for some 64.5 percent of the republic's population of 447,000; the Circassians, by contrast, account for only 24.2 percent. In line with his pledge at the parliament session in December 2006 at which he was confirmed as president, Tkhakushinov in January 2007 named a Russian, Vladimir Samozhonkov, as prime minister. He also vowed that that Russians would receive 50 percent of all ministerial portfolios and posts as administration heads. But Circassians account for approximately 50 percent of the 54 parliament deputies, kavkaz-uzel.ru noted on January 11.
At a joint meeting on January 18 of Adyghe Khase and the Cherkess Congress, Adyghe Khase Deputy Chairman Nalbi Guchetl argued that since the republic's president is now chosen by the Russian president and his authority is less than when he was popularly elected, the significance of the parliament as the second most important organ of power is correspondingly greater. For that reason, Guchetl continued, a great deal now depends on the choice of parliament chairman.
Arambi Khapai, a member of Adyghe Khase's leadership, pointed out at the January 18 meeting that the process of reducing the number of federation subjects is continuing, and therefore the perceived threat to Adygeya's survival as a separate (and the second smallest) federation subject has not been removed. The meeting participants decided to convene a meeting on January 23 with the Circassian parliament deputies to decide how to proceed.
Tkhakushinov, however, moved first, convening a meeting on January 21 with parliament deputies at which he presented then with a list, endorsed by Moscow, of three alternative candidates for the post of parliament speaker, all of them Russians: Anatoly Ivanov, deputy speaker of the outgoing parliament; Aleksandr Luzin, who heads the executive committee of the local chapter of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party; and Sergei Pismak, deputy chairman of the government Committee for Culture, Sport, the Media and Work with Public Organizations. On December 21, Mugu listed among possible candidates Ivanov and two Circassians: acting speaker Mugdin Chermit and Construction Committee head Asker Shkhalakhov. The parliament speaker is chosen by a simple majority vote; 35 of the 53 parliament deputies are members of Unified Russia.
Khapai was quoted by kavkaz-uzel.ru on January 22 as arguing that Tkhakushinov's insistence on appointing a Russian, rather than a Circassian to head the legislature is further proof that Moscow seeks to use the Circassians themselves to bring about the abolition of the Republic of Adygeya.