Analysis: Is Georgian Opposition Still Force To Be Reckoned With?
By RFE/RL analyst Liz FullerThe Georgian parliamentary elections on May 21 gave President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement for a Victorious Georgia a constitutional majority in the new legislature, but appear only to have perpetuated the political polarization that resulted from the crackdown on opposition supporters last November and the disputed preterm presidential ballot on January 5.
As in January, Saakashvili claimed victory for his party before all votes were counted, on the basis of preliminary returns and exit polls, while opposition leaders alleged that the outcome of the ballot (in which only some 55 percent of the electorate bothered to cast their votes) was falsified. Two of the three opposition parties that won parliamentary representation under the proportional system subsequently vowed to boycott the working of a parliament they consider lacking legitimacy and to establish an alternative parliament.
Meanwhile, international monitors concluded that not all problems identified during the January 5 presidential election were rectified, and termed the May 21 vote "not perfect" and not a true reflection of Georgia's "democratic potential."
The preliminary official results of the ballot, made public on May 23, gave Saakashvili's party a total of 120 of the 150 mandates, 49 of the 75 distributed under the proportional system and 71 of the 75 single-mandate constituencies. The nine parties aligned in the United Opposition coalition won 16 seats (14 proportional, two majoritarian); the Labor Party and the recently created Christian Democratic Movement -- six proportional seats each; and the opposition Republicans -- two seats in single-mandate constituencies.
That outcome represented an unpalatable defeat above all for the moderate Republican Party, which had sought to portray itself as a less radical and more constructive alternative than the sometimes strident and maximalist United Opposition coalition.
Yet both the distribution of votes and the level of voter participation closely parallel that in the January 5 presidential ballot, in which Saakashvili polled 53.47 percent and Levan Gachechiladze of the United Opposition 25.6 percent, followed by now-deceased exiled oligarch Badri Patarkatsishvili (7.1 percent) and Labor Party leader Shalva Natelashvili (6.49 percent). It thus seems that some opposition voters who opted in January for Gachechiladze or Patarkatsishvili transferred their support to the new Christian Democratic Movement, while others voted for the ruling party.
Opposition Boycott Questioned
The nine opposition parties aligned in the United Opposition coalition rejected the official returns as rigged and announced on May 23 they would not participate in the working of a legislature whose members Conservative Party leader Kakha Kukadze claimed were handpicked by Saakashvili, civil.ge reported. They further pledged to campaign for the annulment of the vote and the holding of new elections, as they had done, without success, in the wake of the disputed January presidential poll.
Labor Party leader Shalva Natelashvili said on May 23 that his party would join the proposed boycott, but one of its elected deputies, Nugzar Ergemlidze, was quoted by Caucasus Press on May 24 as saying he feels bound to protect the interests of his voters.
Giorgi Targamadze, leader of the Christian Democratic Movement, the third opposition group to win parliamentary representation under the proportional system, argued on May 22 that "We have been given parliamentary mandates by 200,000 of our voters, who cast their ballot for us and tasked us with implementation of concrete steps," Caucasus Press reported. The following day, Targamadze similarly said, "we should not go to extremes" and that "all resources should be used," meaning the chance, however slim, to influence the legislative process, civil.ge reported.
On May 28, Pikria Chikhradze, a leading member of the United Opposition, told journalists that those of its candidates who won election will nonetheless comply with all the formal requirements, including undergoing a drug test, needed to take possession of their mandates, Caucasus Press reported.
Addressing some 10,000 people who rallied outside the parliament building on May 26, United Opposition leader Gachechiladze, Saakashvili's main challenger in the January presidential ballot, issued an ultimatum to the authorities to annul the outcome of the May 21 vote, failing which he pledged continued protests and a boycott of the new parliament. He further said the opposition "will not let a handful of criminals run the country," and appealed to the rally participants to reassemble on June 10 and form a human chain around the parliament building to prevent the new parliament convening for its first session.
But at its May 26 session, the Central Election Commission annulled the results only from 26 of the 3,604 polling stations, Caucasus Press reported. As of May 29, the results at 13 more polling stations have been annulled, according to civil.ge.
Speaking on May 26 at a joint press conference in Tbilisi with visiting Polish President Lech Kaczynski, President Saakashvili invited the opposition to engage in "dialogue," stressing that "the minority should respect the will of the majority," and that "the parliament has been elected...[and] will defend the interests of the whole of Georgia regardless of whether some people voted for it or not," civil.ge reported.
Lack Of Dialogue
He did not repeat his offer of May 20 to work more closely with the new parliament, and to "spare no efforts to ensure that the opposition plays a more active role in the process of ruling the country, to reduce polarization and confrontation in our politics, to make meetings and negotiations more fruitful and desirable for everyone, rather than protest rallies." Nor did he offer, as his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sarkisian did in the wake of the disputed February 21 Armenian presidential election, to forge a government of national reconciliation.
The United Opposition immediately rejected Saakashvili's offer of dialogue: leading Conservative Party member Zviad Dzidzugiri told journalists that "we have nothing to discuss with a president who rigged the elections and deprived the Georgian people of the right to vote for the leadership they want," Caucasus Press reported.
Parallel to the boycott, the Republican and Labor parties and eight of the nine parties aligned in the United Opposition bloc plan to convene an alternative parliament, which will be based in the former election headquarters in Tbilisi of the New Rightists, who belong to the United Opposition. But Paata Davitaia announced on May 27 that the small Chven Tviton (We Ourselves) party he heads does not support the idea of an alternative parliament and for that reason will quit the opposition coalition, Caucasus Press reported.
Nor is it clear either what the opposition hopes to achieve through the alternative legislature, or how an opposition boycott will impact on the work of the parliament elected on May 21. True, the idea of a boycott is not new: several opposition parties boycotted parliament for several months two years ago. But a long-term boycott could lead to a loss of both visibility and credibility among the parties involved, as has proven the case in Azerbaijan, where the opposition Azadliq bloc refused its handful of parliament mandates to protest egregious fraud in the November 2005 parliamentary election.
The daily "Rezonansi" on May 26 quoted election-law expert Vakhtang Khmaladze, an unsuccessful Republican Party candidate in a Tbilisi constituency, as observing that a total opposition boycott would call into question the legitimacy of the new parliament insofar as it would focus attention on the opposition's motives, namely what he termed grave procedural violations on polling day. Possibly for that reason, several leading National Movement members and one government minister have slammed both the proposed parliament boycott and the concept of an alternative parliament.
Already on May 23, former Foreign Minister David Bakradze, the first name on the United National Movement party list and thus the obvious candidate for the post of parliament speaker, decried the proposed boycott as irresponsible, civil.ge reported. He added that the National Movement is prepared to begin talks with the opposition on the distribution of parliamentary posts.
On May 24, Giorgi Gabashvili, one of the National Movement's representatives on the Central Election Commission, argued that an opposition boycott would be tantamount to betraying the trust of the 320,000 voters who cast their ballots for the opposition, and that it reflects the "low political culture" of the opposition parties in question, Caucasus Press reported. State Minister for Regional Issues David Tkeshelashvili was quoted on May 27 by Caucasus Press as branding the idea of an alternative parliament "very dangerous," and he warned that it could "throw the country back 15 years."
In the final analysis, however, the opposition's options are limited, and some of its members may consider they committed a major strategic error in January in yielding to pressure from U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza to abandon their campaign for the annulment of the presidential election results and treat the parliamentary vote as a surrogate runoff between the ruling party and the opposition.
In a trenchant analysis of the Georgian political situation three years ago, commentator Ghia Nodia made two crucial points that are still relevant today. He noted that the Georgian opposition was weak not only because it was divided and had few parliament mandates, but because it lacked popular leaders and ideas capable of mobilizing the population at large. (The United Opposition's parliamentary election campaign focused primarily on the need to replace what its members consider a corrupt and inept leadership.)
Consequently, Nodia continued, the opposition pinned its hopes on, and sought to capitalize on, public dissatisfaction with government policy, a tactic that Saakashvili and Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze have countered by adopting in the wake of the January presidential ballot a government program explicitly designed to reduce poverty and unemployment.
And second, Nodia pointed to a "communication breakdown" within the political elite in which government and opposition "simply do not speak to each other anymore," with politicians instead engaging in "monologues" that frequently stoop to the realm of personal insults. In that respect, the current postelection polarization in Georgia could prove pernicious insofar as the one figure who sought tirelessly to bridge the gulf between the authorities and the opposition, former parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze, declined to seek reelection.
Analysis: Armenian Authorities Continue To Send Mixed Signals
By RFE/RL analyst Liz FullerThree months after the disputed February 19 ballot in which former Armenian Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian was elected to succeed Robert Kocharian as president, and despite repeated expressions of concern by the U.S. government and the EU, courts continue to hand down, or to uphold, prison terms on supporters of former President and defeated presidential candidate Levon Ter-Petrossian.
On May 23, Armenia's Court of Appeals upheld three-year prison sentences handed down to Ter-Petrossian supporters Simon Amirkhanian and Samvel Karapetian, who were sentenced last month for alleged interference in the vote count at a polling station in Gavar, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported.
The court similarly upheld verdicts against three Ter-Petrossian election campaign activists sentenced to between 18 and 30 months in prison on charges of assaulting a pro-government heckler during a campaign rally in the town of Talin, and on May 26 against Hovannes Harutiunian, a Ter-Petrossian proxy sentenced to 18 months in prison on charges of illegal possession of ammunition.
The Abovian municipal court on May 23 sentenced Sos Gevorgian to one year in jail on charges of illegal possession of weapons, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Gevorgian's uncle Sasun Mikaelian is one of three opposition parliamentarians charged with plotting to overthrow the Armenian leadership in the wake of the disputed February 19 vote.
Meanwhile, the Armenian authorities are planning to deport Zhirayr Sefilian, a prominent Lebanese-Armenian oppositionist jailed in late 2006. Sefilian and a fellow Karabakh war veteran, Vartan Malkhasian, were arrested in December 2006 just days after founding an unofficial pressure group opposed to resolving the Karabakh conflict through territorial concessions to Azerbaijan.
They too were charged with calling for the violent overthrow of the Armenian government. A Yerevan court found Malkhasian guilty of that charge and sentenced him in August 2007 to two years in prison; Sefilian was acquitted on that charge but found guilty and sentenced to 18 months in prison for illegal possession of arms. His sentence is due to end on June 9.
Both Sefilian and Malkhasian claim they were jailed for their pledge to fight to prevent fraud during the May 2007 parliamentary elections, and both subsequently endorsed Ter-Petrossian's presidential bid. Sefilian's defense lawyer Vahe Grigorian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that deporting Sefilian would be illegal as he has two underage children. Sefilian has appealed to Bako Sahakian, president of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, to grant him political asylum there, according to Arminfo on May 22.
The Armenian Revolutionary Federation--Dashnaktsutiun (HHD), one of the four parties represented in the coalition government, has informed President Sarkisian of its objections to the decision, first to deny Sefilian citizenship of the Republic of Armenia, which he has twice applied for, and then to deport him, HHD bureau head Hrant Markarian told journalists in Yerevan on May 27, Noyan Tapan reported. On May 28, Armenia's Administrative Court rejected the police request to endorse Sefilian's deportation on the grounds that it was incorrectly phrased, according to Noyan Tapan.
Meeting on May 24 with President Sarkisian in Yerevan, three visiting members of the U.S. House of Representatives -- Adam Schiff (Democrat, California), Wayne Gilchrest (Republican, Maryland), and Allyson Schwartz (Democrat, Pennsylvania), all of them members of the House Democracy Assistance Commission -- expressed their shared concern about the ongoing postelection crackdown, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on May 26.
"We are concerned with the problems that occurred during the election, the violence that occurred after the election," Schiff told RFE/RL after the talks. "We consider ourselves very strong friends of Armenia. We want a good and successful future for Armenia, a democratic Armenia.... So we are here to try to assess the situation and talk with the Armenian government about how we can help move the government further in the direction of democracy," he said.
Specifically, Schiff stressed U.S. concerns that at least some of those detained and sentenced in the wake of the postelection protests and the violent clashes on March 1-2 in Yerevan between police and security forces and Ter-Petrossian supporters were targeted purely because of their political affiliation. "We've raised concern about the detention of anyone who was detained for political reasons, and we certainly hope that the government addresses these issues," he said. "No one is advocating that people that committed violent crimes be released or not be subject to trial. But people should not be detained or put to trial for merely expressing their views."
The pro-Ter-Petrossian daily "Haykakan zhamanak" noted on May 24 that U.S. President George W. Bush has still not congratulated Sarkisian on his election as president.
The overall pattern of repression has, however, been tempered by two positive moves on the part of the authorities. On May 23, Sarkisian's national-security adviser, Garnik Isagulian, told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that Ter-Petrossian will be invited to nominate a representative to Sarkisian's planned public chamber, which will comprise both pro-government and opposition politicians and will focus on key domestic and foreign-policy issues. Isagulian said he would call Ter-Petrossian's office personally "and try to agree terms with them," and then, assuming the invitation was not rejected out of hand, meet personally with Ter-Petrossian's staff to repeat the offer.
But Levon Zurabian, Ter-Petrossian's former presidential spokesman, told RFE/RL the same day that Ter-Petrossian will not embark on any talks with the authorities as long as his supporters remain in jail, as doing so would mean that "the authorities have drawn us into the hostage trade...they would seek to extract a concession from us in exchange for the release of every hostage."
On May 26, state prosecutors agreed in what was termed a goodwill gesture to release opposition Nor Zhamanakner (New Times) party leader Aram Karapetian from pretrial detention, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Karapetian was arrested on February 24 for having circulated DVDs on which he posed incriminating questions to both Kocharian and Sarkisian, and hospitalized with heart problems on May 15.
Armenia: Top Police, Security Officials Dismissed
By Ruzanna Khachatrian and Emil DanielianIn recent days, Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian has dismissed both the head of the State Protection Service, Girgory Sarkisian (to whom he is not related) and national police chief Lieutenant General Hayk Harutiunian in what some observers believe is an attempt to distance himself from men who played a key role in the crackdown in Yerevan on March 1-2 on opposition demonstrators protesting the perceived falsification of the February 19 presidential ballot. At least 10 people died during or as a result of injuries received in that crackdown.
by Ruzanna Khachatrian and Emil Danielian
Other commentators, however, suggest that President Sarkisian has begun a methodical purge of senior officials with close ties to his predecessor, Robert Kocharian.
The presidential administration issued a statement on May 27 announcing Grigory Sarkisian's dismissal, but did not offer any explanation for it. Sarkisian, who has headed the State Protection Service, which is responsible for the personal security of the country's most senior officials, since it was founded in 2004, told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that he tendered his resignation several days previously "because the president wanted it," and that he will be named to another, unspecified position. Asked whether he might head the police force, he replied, "probably not."
Grigory Sarkisian was born and grew up in the then-Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, as was former President Kocharian, to whom he reportedly has close ties. He earlier served as head of Kocharian's bodyguard.
Unconfirmed press reports claim that he is increasingly at odds with a third Karabakh Armenian, Vahe Ghazarian, who has long been responsible for Serzh Sarkisian's personal security. Grigory Sarkisian was present when police set about expelling opposition protesters from Liberty Square in Yerevan early on March 1, and former President and defeated presidential candidate Levon Ter-Petrossian claims that Sarkisian served as mediator in talks between Kocharian and Ter-Petrossian later on March 1 that failed to prevent the renewed clashes that evening.
On May 29, Sarkisian issued a decree firing Harutiunian, who was named interior minister in the wake of the October 1999 parliament shootings, but stripped of his ministerial status three years later while retaining responsibility for the police force. Again, no reason was cited for Harutiunian's dismissal.
Sarkisian named to succeed Harutiunian as police chief Alik Sargsian, who occupied senior positions within the police departments in Yerevan and the southern region of Ararat prior to his appointment as Ararat regional governor in 2000. Sargsian is said to be close to presidential chief of staff Hovik Abrahamian, whose regional power base is Ararat.
Analysis: Is Ruslan Aushev Answer To Ingushetia's Problems?
By RFE/RL analyst Liz FullerAgainst a backdrop of systematic reprisals by security forces against the civilian population, oppositionists in Ingushetia have sought over the past year, with minimal success, to pressure Moscow to face up to, and to take action to curtail, blatant corruption, embezzlement, mismanagement, and downright disinformation on the part of the republic's leadership, in particular Ingushetian President Murat Zyazikov.
In the wake of Moscow's disinclination to acknowledge, let alone condemn, the flagrant falsification of voting in Ingushetia in the elections in December 2007 to the Russian State Duma and in March 2008 for a new Russian president and Ingushetian parliament, the opposition has launched a campaign to return to power Zyazikov's predecessor, retired Lieutenant General Ruslan Aushev, who stepped down in 2002. Aushev, who served with the Soviet Army in Afghanistan and was elected Ingushetia's first president after the split into two parts of the Checheno-Ingushetia ASSR in the summer of 1992, is widely, but not universally, viewed as the sole political figure capable of putting an end to the ongoing indiscriminate violence, endemic corruption, and economic collapse.
On April 27, the opposition website ingushetiya.ru launched an online poll in which respondents were asked to say whether they would approve Aushev's reinstallation as president. As of May 30, of a total of 3,741 respondents, 85.2 percent (3,188 people, of a population of approximately 480,000) answered in the affirmative, while 10.3 percent (384 people) said "no."
By contrast, as of April 2007 only 1,958 people had appended their signatures to an earlier petition launched by ingushetiya.ru three years earlier to demand Zyazikov's resignation. At the same time, the website set about collecting signatures in support of Aushev's return to power, providing a downloadable form in both Microsoft Word and PDF format for signing, and as of May 30 had collected 50,000 signatures. On May 16, ingushetiya.ru reported that "thousands" of car drivers have taken to displaying portraits of Aushev either on the windshield, the hood, or the dashboard of their vehicles (see ingushetia.org/news/14393.html).
The Ingushetian authorities also tried unsuccessfully to ban the sale of the latest issue of the monthly Russian-language journal "Dosh" (Word), which contained an interview with Aushev, kavkaz-uzel.ru reported on May 24, citing the journal's editor in chief Abdulla Duduyev. In that interview, Aushev expressed concern over the current situation in Ingushetia, but was careful not to utter any direct criticism either of Zyazikov or of Moscow.
He rejected the suggestion that the Russian leadership is not aware how serious and unstable the situation in Ingushetia really is, adding that the federal center will only intervene to restore order if and when it considers it expedient to do so. "The power vertical was not created in order to address the population's grievances," he observed. Aushev likewise rejected the suggestion that he could act as mediator between the Ingushetian authorities and the population at large, saying that "no one is going to listen either to me or to the demonstrators."
In mid-April, the Chechen separatist website kavkazcenter.com reported, first, that Aushev had openly and harshly criticized the Ingushetian leadership during an address to students in Moscow, and second, that members of Russian President-elect Dmitry Medvedev's staff had approached Aushev as a possible replacement for Zyazikov. Those reports were never confirmed, but within weeks the republican authorities began circulating leaflets denigrating Aushev.
At the same time, as indicated above, the domestic political opposition, or more precisely the opposition website ingushetiya.ru, launched its campaign to bring back Aushev as president. Whether the opposition truly believes that option is realistic, or whether they simply seek to use Aushev's name to mobilize popular support and pressure Zyazikov and his team is unclear, however.
On the one hand, Aushev is a known quantity with a national reputation, in contrast to other opposition figures whose influence, popularity, and mutual relations are opaque. Several political figures identified as possible future leaders are based in Moscow, including Mukharbek Aushev (no relation to Ruslan), who represented Ingushetia in the Russian State Duma; Musa Keligov, a former vice president of LUKoil International and a former inspector within the office of the presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District; and Issa Kostoyev, who represents Ingushetia on the Federation Council.
Two prominent opposition activists, Maksharip Aushev and Magomed Yevloyev (not to be confused with the eponymous owner of ingushetiya.ru), were arrested in the wake of an abortive mass protest in Nazran on January 26 and have been held in detention since then in Nalchik; they launched a hunger strike on May 23 after their pretrial detention was extended for a further two months.
Since their arrest, coordination of further protest demonstrations has devolved on a young businessman, Magomed Khazbiyev. But Khazbiyev has continued the tactic adopted last fall, repeatedly announcing the date for a planned mass protest and then calling it off or postponing it. Thus, a meeting provisionally scheduled for February was postponed until March, then April, then May.
No convincing explanation has been offered for those postponements, and it remains unclear whether the organizers fear attendance will be so low as to discredit them, or that police and security forces will resort to violence to prevent any such mass gathering, or whether the intention is simply to maintain constant pressure on the authorities.
On May 29, it was finally announced that five simultaneous rallies -- in Nazran, Magas, Malgobek, Ordjonikidzevskaya, and Karabulak -- will take place on June 6, kavkaz-uzel.ru reported. And whereas earlier protests focused simply on the demand for Zyazikov's resignation, on June 6 participants will demand Aushev's reinstatement as president, the website quoted Khazbiyev as saying.
Meanwhile, the various Ingush teyps (clans) have selected their representatives to the Mekhk Kkhel, a traditional national assembly intended to function as an alternative to the republican parliament elected on March 2, and in which the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party holds 20 of the 27 mandates. Its objectives, as enumerated in the draft statutes posted on ingushetiya.ru on March 30, focus on mobilizing the population to ensure the democratic implementation of all legal decisions made by the republican authorities to restore political stability.
On the other hand, a small minority of Ingush remain unconvinced that Aushev is a convincing alternative to Zyazikov, although some concede he could serve as an interim leader. Those skeptics point out that Aushev too turned a blind eye to corruption (albeit not on the current scale), and that his efforts to galvanize the republic's moribund economy, for example through the special economic status the republic enjoyed from June 1994-July 1997 under which it paid no taxes to the federal center, failed to achieve the desired result.
Ingushetia currently has the highest unemployment rate -- 67 percent --of any federation subject, and as of 2005 it was the most heavily subsidized republic, relying on funds from Moscow for 88 percent of its annual budget.