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Archive for the ‘South Caucasus’ Category

Georgia heading for presidential runoff by early December

October 29, 2018

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Georgia is heading for a presidential runoff by early December after no candidate achieved the 50 percent of the vote to win the election on Sunday. The Central Election Commission said Monday that preliminary results showed two former foreign ministers — Salome Zurabishvili and Grigol Vashadze — won 39 and 38 percent of the vote, respectively, in an election with 25 candidates.

A runoff between the two is expected to be held by Dec. 1 in what will be Georgia’s last presidential election. Constitutional changes kick in at the end of the next president’s term that will leave it to a delegate system to choose the president. The changes will make the prime minister the most powerful political figure in the country.

Zurabishvili served as Georgia’s foreign ministry for a little more than a year when she was sacked in 2005 amid disagreements with parliament. She is running as an independent but is backed by the powerful Georgian Dream party which dominates the parliament.

Vashadze has been backed by a coalition that includes the United National Movement that was founded by former president Mikheil Saakashvili who opposes the current government. Election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation and Europe in their mission’s report released on Monday hailed the vote as “competitive and professionally administered.”

“Candidates were able to campaign freely and voters had a genuine choice, although there were instances of misuse of administrative resources, and senior state officials from the ruling party were involved in the campaign,” the report said.

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Georgians choose new president directly for last time

October 28, 2018

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Voters in Georgia are choosing a new president for the former Soviet republic on the Black Sea, the last time the president will be elected by direct ballot. Opinion polls ahead of Sunday’s election suggested that none of the 25 candidates is likely to receive the absolute majority need for a first-round win. If no one wins 50 percent support, a runoff between the top two candidates is to be held by Dec. 1.

After the new president’s six-year term in completed, future presidents are to be chosen by a delegate system, part of constitutional changes that make the prime minister the most powerful political figure in Georgia. The president functions as head of state and commander in chief but is otherwise largely ceremonial.

Incumbent Giorgi Margvelashvili is not running. The three top contenders are all former foreign ministers — Salome Zurabishvili, Grigol Vashadze and David Bakradze — who served during the presidency of now-exiled Mikheil Saakashvili.

Zurabishvili was sacked in 2005 amid disagreements with parliament. She is running as an independent but is backed by the powerful Georgian Dream party, which is funded by controversial billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, a Saakashvili foe. Georgian Dream holds an overwhelming majority in the parliament.

Zurabishvili, however, has been heavily criticized for her contention that Georgia started the 2008 war with Russia. Some Georgians look with suspicion at her foreign background: born in France, she did not visit Georgia until she was in her 30s and she once served as a French diplomat.

Zurabishvili counters that this background is a strong qualification for Georgian president as the country seeks closer ties with the European Union. Georgia also is a strong U.S. ally and has ambitions to join NATO.

Vashadze, who is backed by a coalition that includes the United National Movement that was founded by Saakashvili, says Saakashvili, who was stripped of his citizenship in 2015 and was sentenced in absentia for abuse of power, should be allowed to return to Georgia.

The third top candidate, Bakradze, is from the European Georgia Party, which split off from the UNM. He says Zurabishvili is “unacceptable due to her position and statements, which directly harm Georgia’s security and national interests.”

Some 3.5 million people are registered to vote in the election, which is being monitored by local and international groups.

Georgians to vote in last direct election for president

October 27, 2018

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Sunday’s election will be the last time residents of the former Soviet republic of Georgia get to cast a ballot for president — that’s if any of the 25 candidates running gets an absolute majority.

Opinion polls suggest that none of the candidates will exceed the 50 percent needed for a first-round victory and that the country on the Black Sea will have to choose between Sunday’s two top candidates in a November presidential runoff.

Under constitutional changes that began in 2010, Georgia is transitioning to being a parliamentary country. After the upcoming president’s six-year term ends, future heads of state will be chosen by delegates. The presidency’s powers already have been substantially reduced, with the prime minister becoming the country’s most powerful politician.

Russia warns of ‘horrible’ conflict if Georgia joins NATO

August 07, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — An attempt by NATO to incorporate the former Soviet republic of Georgia could trigger a new, “horrible” conflict, Russia’s prime minister said Tuesday in a stern warning to the West marking 10 years since the Russia-Georgia war.

Dmitry Medvedev said in an interview with the Kommersant daily broadcast by Russian state television that NATO’s plans to eventually offer membership to Georgia are “absolutely irresponsible” and a “threat to peace.”

Medvedev was Russia’s president during the August 2008 war, which erupted when Georgian troops tried unsuccessfully to regain control over the Moscow-backed breakaway province of South Ossetia and Russia sent troops that routed the Georgian military in five days of fighting.

The Russian army was poised to advance on the Georgian capital, but Medvedev rolled it back, accepting a truce mediated by the European Union. After the war, Georgia entirely lost control of both South Ossetia and another separatist region, Abkhazia. Russia has strengthened its military presence in both regions and recognized them as independent states, but only a few countries have followed suit.

The European Union on Tuesday reiterated its “firm support to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia within its internationally recognized borders” and lamented the Russian military presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In a show of support for Georgia, foreign ministers of Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, and a Cabinet member from Ukraine, visited Tbilisi Tuesday, urging Russia to withdraw its troops from Abkhazia and South Ossetia. “Nowadays no country can change the borders of another country by force,” said Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz.

Russian-Georgian relations have improved since the war, but the issue of the breakaway regions remains, preventing the full normalization of ties. Medvedev warned that NATO’s attempt to embrace Georgia could have catastrophic consequences.

“There is an unresolved territorial conflict … and would they bring such a country into the military alliance?” he said. “Do they understand the possible implications? It could provoke a horrible conflict.”

Medvedev pointed to Moscow’s recognition of independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and the Russian military bases there, saying that any attempt to change the status quo could lead to “extremely grave consequences.” ”I hope that NATO’s leadership will be smart enough not to take any steps in that direction,” he said.

The Russian prime minister described NATO’s eastward expansion as a major security threat to Russia. “Whatever our colleagues from the alliance may say, NATO countries see Russia as a potential enemy,” he said. “We can’t help getting worried when the circle around our country keeps narrowing as more and more countries join NATO. NATO’s expansion clearly poses a threat to the Russian Federation.”

Poverty-stricken Armenians pin hopes on opposition

May 03, 2018

LUSAGYUGH, Armenia (AP) — The local tax inspector would visit Alik Stepanyan’s small fishery in an Armenian mountain village every month to collect a bribe. Each time, Stepanyan would hand over 15 to 20 fish as a payoff to try to keep his business afloat. Last year, the 56-year-old farmer gave up.

“I just got angry and shut it down. I got tired of having to pay bribes,” Stepanyan said. “I hope the new government will tackle corruption and poverty which are hurting us and making our lives difficult.”

Corruption and poverty is what fed mass opposition protests in this landlocked Caucasus Mountains nation, ultimately forcing Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan to resign. He had ruled Armenia for a decade as president. But when term limits made it impossible for him to run again, Sargsyan pushed through an amendment to the constitution making the prime minister the most powerful position in Armenia. Parliament voted for Sargsyan as prime minister last month, which was largely viewed as his attempt to stay in power indefinitely.

Tens of thousands of indignant Armenians, led by former journalist and lawmaker Nikol Pashinian, took to the streets. Sargsyan resigned on April 23 after two weeks of protest rallies in the capital, Yerevan. Pashinian, whom the opposition has nominated to become prime minister, hasn’t put forward any concrete political demands or agenda other than to topple the ruling elite, viewed by ordinary Armenians as encouraging nepotism and corruption.

But the protest leader’s slogans resonated with Armenia’s impoverished rural areas which are struggling for survival. Armenia is one of the poorest former Soviet nations. Nearly 12 percent of its population lives below the poverty line, eking out a living on as little as 1,530 drams ($3.20) a day or less.

Armenia, sandwiched between Georgia, Iran, Turkey and Azerbaijan, has relied on Russia for energy supplies and loans since the fall of the Soviet Union. Strained ties with Turkey and Azerbaijan have crippled the country’s development, making energy imports, among other things, costly.

Poverty and unemployment in Armenia are particularly visible in rural areas like the village of Lusagyugh, about 60 kilometers (35 miles) north of the capital, where farmer Stepanyan lives. Work Is scarce in this picturesque village of 900 people which is nestled at the foot of Mount Aragats, Armenia’s highest mountain. Local residents grow vegetables and raise cattle for food.

Stepanyan’s family of six gets by thanks to two cows, a vegetable patch and Stepanyan’s mother’s monthly pension of 60,000 drams ($125). Stepanyan, whose eldest daughter regularly goes to Russia for odd jobs such as cleaning or babysitting, used to travel to Russia too for upholstery work. But several years ago he got homesick and returned to the village and tried to start a business.

He was immediately approached by tax inspectors who demanded that he pay amounts that were higher than anything he could hope to make from the small fish pond that he dug out on his plot of land. Stepanyan had agreed to give the local tax inspector fish instead of cash bribes, but after several months when fish were scarce and he still had to pay the tax inspector, he decided to shut down his business.

Armenians working abroad often support several family members back home, by sending them their paychecks: remittances account for about 14 percent of Armenia’s gross domestic product. About a quarter of houses in Lusagyugh stand abandoned because villagers have left for Russia in search of work.

Samvel Zakaryan, a 20-year-old culinary student at a school in Yerevan, was in Lusagyugh recently on a break to help his family with some chores. He said five of his friends and his elder brother had gone to work in Russia because there are no job prospects in Armenia.

Zakaryan has taken part in the opposition protests in Yerevan, and supports Pashinian’s nomination. “Several generations of Armenians have been going abroad for a better life,” Zakaryan said as he poured out fodder to the rabbits and two cows, which feed the whole family. “Now we have finally begun to find confidence that we can build a better life in our country, a new Armenia that people aren’t going to flee.”

About 900,000 people who were born in Armenia, a country of 3 million, currently live abroad, according to the U.N. Population Fund. More than 10 percent of the population left the country during the decade that Sargsyan was in power.

“Emigration has served as a relief valve of sorts, providing an outlet for people’s discontent while widespread poverty has allowed Sargsyan’s clan to consolidate power,” said Ruben Megrabyan, of the Armenian Center for International Studies.

Pashinian and his supporters have focused on toppling Sargsyan and proclaimed the fight against corruption as one of their main goals, but so far haven’t offered any specific agenda to fix rampant corruption or widespread poverty.

Back in Lusagyugh, Stepanyan pins his hopes on the opposition to deliver change. “We will feel different when corruption is eradicated,” he said, sitting by a campfire. “This is what the opposition wants, and these are fair demands.”

Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.

Armenian protest leader urges halt in demonstrations

May 02, 2018

YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — The opposition lawmaker who has led weeks of mass demonstrations in Armenia called Wednesday for the protests to take a break after a surprising move by the ruling party appeared to clear the way for him to become prime minister.

On a fast-moving day of turmoil that began with crowds blocking roads, railways and the airport in the capital of Yerevan, the head of the ruling Republican Party’s faction in parliament said it would vote May 8 for any prime minister candidate nominated by a third of the body’s 105 members.

That effectively promised the job to protest leader Nikol Pashinian, just one day after parliament rejected him. Pashinian told a Wednesday evening rally that his Elk party and the two other opposition factions would nominate him on Thursday. Together, those parties hold 47 seats — well over the one-third mark set by the Republicans, who will not nominate a candidate of their own.

“Armenia will have a prime minister on May 8,” Republican faction leader Vagram Bagdasarian said. In turn, Pashinian called for supporters not to protest on Thursday, saying: “Tomorrow, we will work in parliament.”

Pashinian was the only candidate nominated in Tuesday’s parliament vote for prime minister, but lost 45-55. The protests began April 13, plunging Armenia into political turmoil and leading to the resignation of Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan just days after his appointment.

Sargsyan had led the country as president for 10 years, but stepped down because of term limits. Soon thereafter, parliament named him prime minister under a new government structure that gave the post greater powers. Protesters said the move effectively allowed him to remain as leader indefinitely.

After he lost the vote in parliament, Pashinian called for Wednesday’s nationwide strike. Earlier in the day, Pashinian warned the government not to bring troops to the capital to quell the demonstrations.

“Police and security services are neutral, and if they (government) will bring for example the army to Yerevan, all soldiers will come to us and they will join us. And there is no way for any solution by force,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Acts of civil disobedience took place elsewhere in the small former Soviet republic. Protesters occupied the city hall in Gyumri, Armenia’s second-largest city, and some significant highways in the countryside became impassable. The highways are key conduits to Iran and Georgia; Armenia’s two other borders, with Azerbaijan and Turkey, are closed.

The State Revenue Committee warned that the blockages could “present a serious blow to Armenia’s food security” and urged protesters not to interfere with food deliveries. The national railway said it was suspending passenger service for Yerevan’s suburban area because of protesters blocking the tracks.

About 300 demonstrators used cars to block the road to Armenia’s main international airport, forcing many travelers to make long walks with their luggage to catch flights. In the AP interview, Pashinian said that by rejecting him as prime minister, the ruling party had dealt itself a fatal blow.

“I think that the Republican Party yesterday have made a suicide pact, as a party, as a whole,” he said.

Associated Press writers Yuras Karmanau and Mstyslav Chernov in Yerevan, and Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed.

Armenian ruling party won’t nominate own candidate for PM

April 28, 2018

VANADZOR, Armenia (AP) — Armenia’s ruling party said Saturday it will not put forward a candidate for prime minister to keep from exacerbating the political crisis sparked by the naming of the country’s termed-out president as premier this month.

Armenian lawmakers are scheduled to meet Tuesday to vote on a replacement for Serzh Sargsyan, who resigned Monday amid massive street demonstrations over his selection as prime minister. But so far, the only candidate put forward is opposition lawmaker Nikola Pashinian, who spearheaded the anti-government protests that prompted Sargsyan to step down.

Sargsyan’s Republican party holds a majority in parliament. Party spokesman Eduard Sharmazanov said the decision not to nominate a Republican candidate was made “to avoid confrontation and destabilization of the country.”

Republican lawmakers instead plan to consider all other candidates, then vote as a bloc, Sharmazanov said. Although the party won’t nominate a candidate, individual members apparently could enter the race. Former Prime Minister Karen Karapetian, who was appointed as acting premier after Sargsyan stepped down, is a party member.

Pashinian told an evening rally in Vanadzor, Armenia’s third-largest city, that having Karapetian remain in the position would be unacceptable. “Citizens, the people, must explain to Karen Karapetian that he may not be prime minister of Armenia because the country no longer exists where a Republican can be prime premier or president,” he said. “This is another Armenia.”

Sargsyan was president for 10 years before stepping down this month because of term limits. He was then appointed prime minister, a position whose powers were bolstered under a change in government structure. Opponents viewed the move as effectively allowing him to be leader for life.

It also galvanized long-standing resentment over the former Soviet republic’s widespread poverty and corruption. Huge demonstrations in Yerevan, the capital, brought downtown traffic to a standstill and filled the sprawling Republic Square that faces main government buildings.

“Pashinian gave us hope for the future, that our children won’t leave the country but will find their place in a new Armenia,” said Alina Mkrtchyan, 37, at the Vanadzor rally.

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