Armenia: Will Murder Allegations Impact On Presidential Vote?
Addressing a campaign rally on January 24 in Charentsavan, Ter-Petrossian implicated outgoing President Robert Kocharian and Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, widely regarded as the favorite in the February 19 ballot, in the October 1999 parliament shootings in which a group of disaffected gunmen killed eight senior officials, including then-Prime Minister Vazgen Sargsian and parliament speaker Karen Demirchian.
Two weeks later, on February 9, Ter-Petrossian told tens of thousands of supporters in Yerevan that those two men were killed because of their objections to a U.S.-backed proposal for resolving the Karabakh conflict that would have entailed Armenia ceding its southernmost Meghri district in exchange for formal international recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Armenia. Ter-Petrossian claimed that Kocharian, Sarkisian and Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian all approved that option.
Such allegations of a connection between the alleged proposed territorial exchange and the 1999 parliament shootings are not new: they were discussed in detail in the August 3, 2000, issue of the Armenian daily "Aravot," and three months later, on November 10, 2000, Yerevan Mayor Albert Bazeyan claimed he had been recently informed by oppositionist Ashot Manucharian that the OSCE Minsk Group, which since 1992 has sought to mediate a solution to the Karabakh conflict, proposed such an exchange to Kocharian. According to Manucharian, Kocharian approved the idea but Sargsian and Demirchian opposed it, whereupon the OSCE co-chairs -- not the Armenian leadership -- engineered their deaths in the parliament shootings.
Senior Armenian officials, including both Kocharian and Oskanian, have made no secret of the fact that a territorial swap was one of various approaches to resolving the Karabakh conflict that has been discussed and then abandoned as unacceptable and/or unworkable. Kocharian disclosed in February 2000 that international mediators had again proposed the prospect of a territorial exchange to resolve the Karabakh conflict, and that he discussed that possibility during one of his meetings with his Azerbaijani counterpart Heidar Aliyev.
But both Kocharian and Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian subsequently said repeatedly that the Armenian side rejected such a territorial exchange out of hand. On November 22, 2000, then-Armenian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ara Papian was similarly quoted by "Zhamanak" as saying that the OSCE proposed a territorial swap first in 1992 and then in 1999, but that both the Armenian authorities and the leadership of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh republic rejected it on both occasions.
A spokesman for Kocharian rejected Ter-Petrossian's allegation on February 9 as a cheap pre-election ploy. Then on February 13, Oskanian, who has served as point man for the Karabakh peace process since 1997, went on record as affirming that that none of the three draft Karabakh peace proposals submitted by the OSCE Minsk Group to the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan since Ter-Petrossian's ouster in February 1998 contained any mention of the possibility of Armenia ceding Meghri to Azerbaijan in exchange for international recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh as Armenian territory.
Oskanian pointed out that the idea of a territorial swap was the brainchild in 1992 of former U.S. State Department analyst Paul Goble, but that what became known as the "Goble plan" never figured officially as a component of any OSCE-drafted peace proposal. Oskanian accused Ter-Petrossian of acting immorally, suggesting that he "will stop at nothing to achieve his political goal of [again] becoming president of Armenia," Novosti-Armenia reported.
There is an element of irony in Ter-Petrossian's attempt to use Sarkisian's purported involvement in the 1999 parliament shootings and his alleged willingness to cede Armenian territory as a means of undermining his credibility with voters. Conventional wisdom has it that it was Ter-Petrossian's conciliatory approach to resolving the Karabakh conflict that motivated Kocharian, Sarkisian, and Vazgen Sargsian to engineer his forced resignation in February 1998, although Ter-Petrossian's former adviser Zhirayr Libaridian implied in his "The Challenges of Statehood" that other factors entirely were behind that decision.
Even prior to Ter-Petrossian's February 9 allegations, Sarkisian warned that unnamed candidates who engage in slander will be held legally responsible once the election is over. But setting aside the moral and legal implications of Ter-Petrossian's statements, the question arises: why did he wait to go public with them until so late in the election campaign?
Two days earlier, Ter-Petrossian filed a formal request with the Constitutional Court to order measures to remove "obstacles" to his campaign activities, specifically the consistently negative coverage of his campaign by major state-controlled television channels. Under the provisions of Armenia's election law, failure to remove such obstacles necessitates the postponement of the election by two weeks.
The Constitutional Court on February 11 recognized Ter-Petrossian's complaint as valid and ordered the "obstacles" to be removed, but declined to order a postponement of the vote, after which Ter-Petrossian flew to Moscow where he reportedly met with top Russian officials. The purpose and timing of that trip is likewise puzzling: is Ter-Petrossian aware of some Russian involvement in the 1999 parliament shootings, and might he have presented Russian leaders with an ultimatum: drop your support for Serzh Sarkisian, or I go public with this damaging material?
Two other factors may have influenced the timing of Ter-Petrossian's trip to Moscow: a fire during the night of February 8-9 badly damaged the top two stories of the Armenian Justice Ministry building, including much of the evidence and records from the investigation into the parliament shooting. Firefighters called to extinguish the blaze made only token efforts to do so, an eyewitness told RFE/RL.
And second, February 9 was the last day on which any of the nine registered presidential candidates could step down and pledge their support for another. Despite rumors that he would do so, former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian failed to pull out of the race and endorse Ter-Petrossian, although RFE/RL's Armenian Service quoted him as saying on February 11 that he might still do so on February 15 or 16.
It remains unclear how, eight years after the event, Ter-Petrossian's allegation of Sarkisian's partial responsibility for the parliament shootings will resonate with those voters who are still undecided. Ter-Petrossian's rival candidates, almost without exception, have focused primarily in their campaign statements on the need to eradicate corruption, raise living standards, and create new jobs, issues that are presumably closer to the hearts of much of the electorate than unsubstantiated allegations of murder and willingness to cede Armenian territory.
Finally, even if widely held suspicions that Armenia's current elite fully intends to rig the outcome of the ballot to ensure the transfer of presidential power from Kocharian to Sarkisian are unfounded, some members of that elite may have been so angered by Ter-Petrossian's allegations that they might intervene in the process of vote tabulation to ensure that the official election results show minimal support for him.
Georgia: Can Saakashvili Keep The Country Together?
Following January's controversial early presidential election, Georgia finds itself more divided than at any time since the 2003 Rose Revolution catapulted Saakashvili into power.
The opposition claims that the 53 percent of the vote that allowed Saakashvili to declare a first-round victory was garnered by fraudulent means.
As a result, opposition leaders who met with a visiting EU delegation in Tbilisi last week said they do not recognize Saakashvili as a legitimate president.
It is unclear how the sudden death of billionaire Badri Patarkatsishvili -- a prominent opposition backer whose February 12 death was determined to be the results of "natural causes" -- will ultimately impact the growing resistance to Saakashvili. The opposition is likely to struggle without his funding. But it has gained significant momentum in recent weeks and may be able to capitalize on Patarkatsishvili's death as a galvanizing event.
Speaking at the time of the EU tour, Tina Khidashvili, a prominent member of Georgia's Republican Party, spoke plainly: No deals with Saakashvili were forthcoming. Accusing Saakashvili of "stealing the vote," she implied that only extreme duress would compel the opposition to return to negotiations that they abandoned last week.
"If Russia bombs Georgia tomorrow, yes, we will go and sit around the same table with him," she said. "Because in that case, there will be a higher interest than our political issues."
Even among Saakashvili's outside supporters -- although few would admit so publicly -- there appears to be a growing sense of unease about the tactics used by the Georgian leader in the months leading up to the election.
The European Union's external relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, met with members of the Georgian opposition as well as the government and said alleged voter irregularities were among the issues discussed. Still, she said she stood by the generally positive assessment given the vote by the monitoring arms of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) -- albeit with some reservations.
"[They] have said that the elections were competitive and that, even if there had been some flaws, President Saakashvili won the elections. So this, for us, is what counts," she said. "But at the same time, we see quite a number of deficiencies, and of course we addressed those very, very clearly in our different talks."
It is an open secret in Western capitals, however, that Saakashvili's advisers fought successfully to suppress until after his inauguration the release of an interim OSCE report that -- unlike earlier assessments in the early days following the vote -- failed to describe the elections as free and fair.
The opinion among Western leaders appears to be that Saakashvili, despite his shortcomings, is preferable to any alternative. Support for Saakashvili is particularly strong among Eastern Europe's EU members, who see him as a useful ally in the effort to check Russia's recent attempts to reestablish its regional influence.
Georgia's own leaders have enthusiastically embraced the Western-style electoral spin. Echoing official OSCE and EU formulations, Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze told RFE/RL the elections "reflected the will of the people" and "were broadly in line with European standards."
Such assessments, however, gloss over obvious, deep, and potentially lasting divisions within Georgian society.
'Lack Of Justice'
In interviews with opposition politicians, civil-society activists, and the country's own ombudsman, a recurring criticism of the government was that it regularly fails to abide by the basic tenets of rule of law.
"The major problem here is a feeling of lack of justice in society, that there is no rule of law in the country," says the ombudsman, Sozar Subari.
Subari says the public has little trust in the judicial system, which he says is now wholly controlled by the government. The government therefore lacks any real counterweight. Horror stories about flagrant abuses of judicial and police privilege abound among Georgian activists and Western diplomats. There are also disturbing reports of the government seeking to neutralize independent journalists by doubling or tripling their salaries.
He says his own office is under constant government pressure -- although this has eased somewhat after the January poll. Subari's most damning criticism is arguably that, in his assessment, there would have been "no positive changes" in terms of democracy and human rights without Western pressure during Saakashvili's four years in power.
But members of the Georgian government dismiss the criticisms. Foreign Minister David Bakradze emphasizes that Georgia was a "failed state" barely five years ago, and stressed that reform takes time.
Prime Minister Gurgenidze, for his part, says the ombudsman's charges are "based on emotions and feelings," rather than facts. Saakashvili's critics, he asserts, are in the minority.
"You can view the glass as three-quarters full. About 75 percent of the people have clearly benefited from reforms and their lives have improved very noticeably and profoundly," Gurgenidze says. "But the glass is also one-quarter empty, because we still have about 25 percent living below the poverty level."
Gurgenidze says he would be "shocked" if what he describes as Georgia's burgeoning middle class, taking out consumer loans and buying cars and houses on credit, simultaneously held "doom-and-gloom" views of their country's basic institutions.
Yet neither Gurgenidze nor any other Georgian official offers a satisfactory explanation as to why the government has declined to authorize a single investigation into the many allegations of electoral fraud raised by opposition parties and civil-society groups.
The government promises improvements by the time parliamentary elections take place in April. But it remains an open question whether such promises have been made in good faith. Prime Minister Gurgenidze, for instance, says he welcomes the emergence of a strong opposition to Saakashvili -- if a viable opposition, he suggests dismissively, is in fact what it is.
North Caucasus: Instability In Daghestan Spreads To South
Police and security forces have also launched special operations on a number of occasions, most recently in November 2007 and again last month, against militants who moved to Makhachkala to spend the winter months there.
Since the beginning of this year, however, Russian media have reported a string of clashes with militants in the extreme south of Daghestan. On January 8, Interior Minister Lieutenant General Adilgirey Magomedtagirov personally commanded an operation to surround and apprehend a group of suspected fighters in the southeastern Tabasaran Raion. At least one, and possible two militants were killed and one police officer injured in a shoot-out on January 8; police then surrounded a house where the militants took refuge and destroyed it with mortar fire on January 9, killing at least five of them, senior Russian and Daghestan Interior Ministry officials told a press conference in Makhachkala on January 10.
Three of the dead men have been identified as natives of Derbent, on the southern Caspian coast; they are said to have belonged to a group of militants commanded by Elgar Malachilov, a deputy to former Daghestan jamaat head Rappani Khalilov who was killed in a special operation five months ago.
In a statement posted on February 10 on the website kavkazcenter.com, the self-styled Shariat jamaat that is based in Daghestan disclosed that in 2004, acting on orders from then Shariat jamaat head Rasul Makarsharipov, Yasin Rasulov, one of its members and author of a thoughtful historical analysis of Islamic resistance in the North Caucasus, traveled to Derbent to establish a jamaat there with the aim of opening a "second front." Makarsharipov was killed in a shoot-out in July 2005 and Rasulov in April 2006; their deaths may partially explain why the Derbent jamaat has only now emerged from the shadows.
In a statement posted on January 21 on kavkazcenter.com, the Derbent jamaat confirms the identity, and praises the heroism, of six of its members killed in the fighting in Tabasaran. The statement also sheds light on conditions in Derbent, claiming that practicing Muslims there "can no longer go in peace to the mosque to perform the namaz."
It claims that whereas previously officials adduced the need to "protect traditional Islam" (presumably against the pernicious influence of "Wahhabism"), today young people are warned against any involvement with Islam whatsoever. The statement claims the climate of fear in Derbent is such that "young people are afraid to attend the funerals of their friends who became shahids in Tabasaran."
Police launched a second operation on February 3 to apprehend a group of militants in Suleiman-Stalsky Raion, which lies immediately south of Tabasaran. The militants managed to escape but were pursued further south to Dokuzpar Raion (which borders on Azerbaijan), where two of them were killed in a shoot-out on February 7 and a third captured. Meanwhile, one fighter was killed in Derbent on February 5.
Meeting in Makhachkala on February 13 with visiting First Deputy Russian Prosecutor-General Aleksandr Bastrykin, Daghestan's President Mukhu Aliyev admitted that the situation throughout the republic remains tense. He mentioned specifically "isolated criminal groups active in the south of the republic." Whether Aliyev was referring to the Derbent jamaat or to purely criminal formations remains unclear.
So, too, does the ethnic makeup of the Derbent jamaat, and the extent of contacts between that jamaat and co-believers and co-ethnics in Azerbaijan: three days after the initial abortive attempt on February 3 to apprehend the group of fighters in Suleiman-Stalsky Raion, police detained in the village of Tselegyun an unnamed citizen of Azerbaijan suspected of "belonging to an illegal armed formation." Azeris are believed to be the largest ethnic group in Derbent, which has a population of approximately 100,000, followed by the Lezgins (who also live in the districts of northern Azerbaijan bordering on Daghestan) and the Tabasarans (the seventh-largest of Daghestan's 14 titular nationalities).