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Caucasus Report: June 12, 2008

Georgian Ruling Party, Opposition Seek New Modus Vivendi

By RFE/RL analyst Liz Fuller

Speaker Davit Bakradze appealed to the opposition to drop the boycott (file photo)

Three weeks after the landslide victory of President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement in the May 21 parliamentary ballot, the united opposition coalition that took shape last fall is standing fast by its initial decision to boycott a parliament it considers illegal.

Meanwhile, the newly established Christian Democratic Movement (KhDM), which was the first opposition party to rule out a boycott, has made its participation in the work of parliament contingent on the authorities' endorsement of a memorandum it unveiled on June 11 outlining proposed measures to overcome the "highly polarized and tense political environment."

The National Movement won 119 seats in the new 150-seat parliament. The United Opposition has a total of 17, the Labor Party and KhDM six each, and the Republican party two. The opposition coalition initially rejected the outcome of the ballot as rigged and vowed to boycott what they branded an illegitimate legislature and establish a parallel unofficial parliament. But plans to thwart the opening session of the new parliament failed dismally when Saakashvili scheduled that session at a few hours' notice for June 7, rather than on June 9 or 10 as anticipated.

Former Foreign Minister Davit Bakradze, who was elected speaker of the new parliament at its opening session, appealed to the opposition on June 7 to abandon their planned boycott, reported. (The only opposition deputies to attend that opening session were one from the Labor Party and the two representing the Republican Party.) Bakradze pointed out that the opposition is entitled to nominate two of the five deputy speakers and to representation on parliament committees, and that the parliament regulations would be changed to reduce from seven to six the minimum number of deputies needed to form a parliament faction. But opposition coalition spokesman Davit Saganelidze responded that the coalition would not abandon its boycott even if offered the post of speaker, Caucasus Press reported. On June 11, National Movement deputies were elected to head all 13 parliament committees, reported.

Speaking on June 7 at the opening parliament session, Saakashvili argued that Georgia "cannot afford a split into radicals and moderates," according to a Eurasia View analysis. And in an interview two days later with the television channel Rustavi-2, Saakashvili reaffirmed his desire for a "strong and constructive" opposition and reiterated his offer of parliamentary and unspecified government posts. At the same time, he argued that the opposition is itself to blame for the election defeat, given that they opted for the misguided election tactic of "bombarding the authorities with abuse."

Two deputies elected from the United Opposition's party list -- Gia Tortladze and Giorgi Tsagareishvili -- announced on June 9 that they have quit the coalition. The two men complained that since the New Rightists joined the coalition, they have monopolized negotiations and the principle of consensus-based decision-making has been routinely violated.

At the same time, they said they will observe the opposition's parliament boycott unless the majority agrees to three conditions: not to enact constitutional amendments without the agreement of the opposition; the introduction of direct elections for the posts of mayors and regional governors; and the appointment of an opposition deputy to head the parliament's investigative commission, Caucasus Press reported. Two other deputies elected in single-mandate constituencies, Dmitri Lortkipanidze and Paata Davitaia, announced shortly after the election results became known that they would ignore the coalition boycott and take up their mandates.

The coalition leadership submitted a formal request on June 10 to the Central Election Commission to annul all but the remaining top 15 names on the party list to preclude those placed lower on the list from taking over the mandates of deputies-elect who refuse them. The elected deputies will then be required to submit a formal statement relinquishing their mandates: any who refuse to do so will be expelled from the coalition, RFE/RL's Georgian Service reported on June 10.

Meanwhile, the KhDM opted for constructive engagement, rather than joining the parliament boycott. In a June 7 interview with the daily "Rezonansi," its founder and leader, former television anchor Giorgi Targamadze, explained that "we believe that one should struggle wherever one can. The arena offered by parliament is the best place in this regard.... Our approach is that the opposition should demonstrate its power and intellectual abilities everywhere, including parliament, and should not refrain from struggling in any other arena."

He acknowledged that his party's influence within parliament will be limited, but argued that that limitation does not preclude consistent efforts to promote democracy. "Obviously, the minority or one opposition party would not be able to pass laws," Targamadze said. "If someone thinks that being in parliament involves nothing but passing laws, this statement is in jest. We have to make every effort to prevent people from losing interest in democracy, on the contrary, [this interest] has to become stronger. We will be the force that will offer constant opposition to Mikheil Saakashvili's parliament and will not let it make the country regress. There is a difference in our approach to strategy, not in the idea. We need results rather than pointless promises that would disappoint the people."

At the same time, Targamadze advocated cooperation and coordination among opposition forces both within and outside parliament. "We, the Christian Democrats, believe that there should be general coordination among the opposition forces even in the event of an especially radical wing or a reasonable force becoming highlighted among the opposition forces," he said.

On June 11, the KhDM unveiled its 13-point "anticrisis memorandum," which contains proposed changes to the election law and to the procedures for appointing various senior officials. Specifically, it calls for amendments to the election law to limit electioneering by public officials; the appointment of the Central Election Commission chairman, the Audit Chamber head, and the prosecutor-general on the basis of consensus among political parties; direct elections for city mayors; the inclusion of an opposition representative on the Supreme Justice Council and the National Communications Commission; and the passage of laws on the opposition and parliament minority, and guaranteeing "balanced" news coverage by the public broadcaster.

Targamadze admitted that "we have no illusion that implementation of this memorandum will create an oasis environment for the opposition in Georgia. But we believe that agreement on most of its conditions will be a serious precondition for developing democratic processes in Georgia and raising the effectiveness of the opposition's activities within parliament," reported.

Parliament speaker Bakradze hailed the memorandum on June 11 as "a good basis for talks," but added that some of its provisions are "unacceptable." He and several other leading National Movement deputies met later on June 11, and again on June 12, with Targamadze and Davitaia, who heads the small party We Ourselves, to discuss the memorandum.

The opposition coalition, for its part, continues to reaffirm its commitment to the proposed boycott, which New Rightists leader Davit Gamkrelidze depicted as the criterion for determining which parties constitute a genuine opposition. "Those who agree to enter parliament are not real opposition," quoted him as saying on June 10. The Labor Party too rejected the KhDM memorandum and reaffirmed its commitment to a boycott, but its deputies have not yet formally renounced their mandates.

Armenian President Calls For Public Unity

By Liz Fuller and Karine Kalantarian

Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian (file photo)

In a June 9 address to prominent intellectuals and public figures who he hopes will agree to serve on his planned Public Chamber, President Serzh Sarkisian again argued the need for all political forces to unite to overcome the polarization that resulted from the flawed February 19 ballot in which he was elected president.

But some observers may doubt the sincerity of such statements, given that as of June 5, some 40 supporters of defeated presidential challenger Levon Ter-Petrossian remain in pretrial custody for their participation in the postelection violence in Yerevan on March 1-2.

"I have repeatedly said and am still of the opinion that we must unify all forces of the society in order to direct their efforts toward solving the problems of our country, and I think no one doubts that these problems are numerous," Sarkisian affirmed in his June 9 address. "I sincerely believe that that we can unite.... I think we should act in such a way that the public...will be able to participate, in a formal or informal format, in a discussion of the problems that worry them, to participate in processes necessary to advance our country," Noyan Tapan quoted him as saying.

Sarkisian went on to solicit his interlocutors' proposals on how to ensure that the Public Chamber becomes a forum for "sincere discussion" and for generating ideas. Noyan Tapan did not list those persons present at the discussion, but the opposition daily "Haykakan zhamanak" on June 10 claimed that they all either expressed support for the government crackdown on the opposition or refrained from public comment on it.

Plans for creating the public chamber, which will comprise both pro-government and opposition politicians and will focus on key domestic and foreign policy issues, were unveiled in late May, although a press release from Sarkisian's office quoted him as saying that even before the post-election violence he was planning to set up such a body. On May 23, Sarkisian's national security adviser, Garnik Isagulian, told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that Ter-Petrossian would be invited to nominate a representative to the chamber, but Ter-Petrossian aide Levon Zurabian promptly ruled out doing so as long as Ter-Petrossian's supporters remained in detention.

One of the detained Ter-Petrossian associates, former Foreign Minister Aleksandr Arzumanian, spoke to RFE/RL's Armenian Service on June 6 at the maximum-security prison where he has been held since being taken into custody on March 10 and charged with organizing "mass disturbances" and seeking to "usurp power." Arzumanian said the charges against him were fabricated in response to orders handed down from the Armenian authorities.

"I am being persecuted for my political views, and that is why I refuse to give testimony or participate in any other investigative activity," Arzumanian told RFE/RL. "This case is a bubble. There is not a single fact to substantiate the accusations. They are holding us hostage here until they see what happens next," he said, adding that government "repression" will not force the opposition forces grouped around Ter-Petrossian into submission. Arzumanian too affirmed that no dialogue is possible between the authorities and the opposition as long as opposition activists are "illegally" detained. On June 5, Tigran Ter-Yesayan, a lawyer representing some of the detained oppositionists, told Noyan Tapan that many of his clients have not yet been questioned, and the investigation into their cases is effectively frozen.

On June 10, police in Yerevan finally tracked down and arrested Samvel Gevorgian, who headed one of Ter-Petrossian's regional campaign offices during the presidential election campaign and went into hiding following the violent clashes in Yerevan on March 1-2 between police and security forces and Ter-Petrossian supporters, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Like Ter-Petrossian, Gevorgian was one of the leaders of the 1988 campaign for the unification of Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia.

Presidents Give Green Light For Continuation Of Karabakh Talks

By RFE/RL analyst Liz Fuller
The presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Serzh Sarkisian and Ilham Aliyev, met for one hour on June 6 on the sidelines of a CIS summit in St. Petersburg to discuss prospects for resolving the Karabakh conflict.

It was the first such top-level meeting since Sarkisian's inauguration as president on April 9; Aliyev refused to meet with Sarkisian on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Bucharest several days earlier, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on March 31.

The two presidents agreed on June 6 that their foreign ministers should continue the ongoing talks on ways to resolve the conflict on the basis of the so-called Madrid Proposals presented to the conflict sides in November 2007 by the three co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group. In an interview with Russia's Vesti-24 television on June 2, Armenian Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian characterized those proposals as "a good basis for finding a solution to the conflict." In addition, the co-chairs will travel to Armenia and Azerbaijan at the end of this month for further talks aimed at narrowing the differences between the two sides.

Both Nalbandian and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Elmar Mammadyarov, described the June 6 talks to journalists as "constructive" and "positive," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. On June 10, the website quoted Mammadyarov as saying that Sarkisian's approach differed slightly from that of his predecessor, Robert Kocharian, in terms of unspecified "nuances."

The two ministers also explained on June 6 that the Madrid Proposals were not discussed during the talks, as the approach of both sides requires further evaluation. U.S. Minsk Group co-Chairman and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza made the similar point that the Madrid Proposals "are simply proposals...and the two sides do not agree with them completely," the website reported. "They need to be perfected, and both the mediators and the presidents agreed to continue work to that end," Bryza continued.

The written text of the Madrid Proposals has not been made public, but they are reportedly based on the so-called Basic Principles for resolving the conflict that the co-chairmen went public with two years ago. "These principles include the phased redeployment of Armenian troops from Azerbaijani territories around Nagorno-Karabakh, with special modalities for Kelbacar and Lachin districts [separating Karabakh from Armenia proper]," according to the text posted on June 28, 2006, on the website of the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan.

"Demilitarization of those territories would follow. A referendum or popular vote would be agreed, at an unspecified future date, to determine the final legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh." "An international peacekeeping force would be deployed," added the statement. "A joint commission would be agreed to implement the agreement. International financial assistance would be made available for de-mining, reconstruction, resettlement of internally displaced persons in the formerly occupied territories and the war-affected regions of Nagorno-Karabakh. The sides would renounce the use or threat of use of force, and international and bilateral security guarantees and assurances would be put in place."

In a June 5 interview with the Russian news agency Regnum, Bryza said the Minsk Group co-chairs see their task as "developing an agreement or formula that would allow the two sides here -- Armenia and Azerbaijanis -- to agree on the status of Karabakh. I do not know what their agreement will be. All I know is that we need to try to get two sides to get to an agreement on status and that's going to take a long, long time."

Bryza acknowledged the risk involved in insisting that Armenian forces be withdrawn from the seven districts of Azerbaijan contiguous to Karabakh that they currently occupy before a firm agreement is reached on the unrecognized republic's future status vis-a-vis the Azerbaijan Republic, noting that the withdrawal will not happen unless the Armenian side feels it has secured from Azerbaijan a concession of comparable magnitude. Similarly, Bryza continued, on the Azerbaijani side there is a political risk to giving to Armenia what Armenia needs to agree to give back the territories.

At the same time, Bryza stressed that an Armenian withdrawal would improve the security situation in the conflict zone and lessen the potential for a resumption of hostilities (such as took place in March of this year). He said that "there are many elements of this peace plan that are attractive to Armenia," including the provision of a land corridor (the so-called Lachin corridor) connecting Karabakh with the Republic of Armenia. Such a land link is one of Armenia's three basic requirements from any potential peace plan.

While Bryza continues to insist that any solution to the Karabakh conflict will require concessions from both sides, some Azerbaijani officials clearly believe that Baku is in a stronger position to resist any unpalatable concessions in the wake of the adoption in mid-March by the UN General Assembly of a resolution condemning the continued occupation by Armenian forces of Azerbaijani territory.

Commenting on the June 5 St. Petersburg talks, Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesman Xazar Ibrahim told journalists in Baku on June 9 that resolution has given rise to "a totally new situation." He also stressed that discussion of Karabakh's final status should not begin until Armenian forces have withdrawn from all the Azerbaijani territory they currently control, and he implied that Baku will insist that the proposed referendum on Karabakh's final status should exclude any variant that would not preserve Azerbaijan's territorial integrity, and that it might not even grant the disputed region autonomy within Azerbaijan.

Like Bryza, Ibrahim did not mention any time frame for conducting such a referendum, but the online daily on May 28 quoted former Russian Minsk Group Co-chairman Vladimir Kazimirov as saying that it should be held no later than five years after the signing of a formal settlement, rather than waiting for 10-15 years.

Mammadyarov on June 10 inferred that Azerbaijan's commitment to resolving the conflict peacefully, rather than militarily, itself constitutes a concession, and that the only other concession it would agree to would be to grant Nagorno-Karabakh any conceivable level of autonomy within Azerbaijan. In that context, the example he cited was that of Tatarstan within the Russian Federation.

Nalbandian for his part told journalists in Yerevan on June 11 that he considers it imperative that representatives of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh republic participate in the "final stage" of negotiations on resolving the conflict, Noyan Tapan reported.