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Posts tagged ‘South Caucasus’

Azerbaijan’s leader names his wife as 1st vice president

February 21, 2017

BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) — Azerbaijan’s president on Tuesday appointed his wife as the first vice president of the ex-Soviet nation — the person next in line in the nation’s power hierarchy. Ilham Aliyev, 55 named his wife Mehriban, 52, to the position created after a constitutional referendum in September. Mehriban, who married her husband when she was 19, graduated from a medical university. She has served previously as a lawmaker and headed a charity.

The constitutional amendments approved at the referendum introduced the positions of two vice presidents, one of them the first vice president. The first vice president takes over the presidency if the president is unable to perform his or her duties. It doesn’t describe the first vice president’s duties, but it’s expected that they will include overseeing the Cabinet.

Aliyev’s critics say the September referendum that also extended the presidential term from five to seven years effectively cemented a dynastic rule. In 2003, Aliyev succeeded his father, who had ruled Azerbaijan first as the Communist Party boss and then as a post-Soviet president for the greater part of three decades.

Aliyev and his wife have two daughters and a son. Aliyev has firmly allied the energy-rich Shiite Muslim nation with the West, helping secure his country’s energy and security interests and offset Russia’s influence in the strategic Caspian Sea region. At the same time, his government has long faced criticism in the West for alleged human rights abuses and suppression of dissent.

Azerbaijan’s leader has cast himself as a guarantor of stability, an image that has a wide appeal in the country where painful memories are still fresh of the turmoil that accompanied the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.

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President’s party seen winning Armenian parliamentary vote

April 03, 2017

YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — Early results in the Armenian parliamentary election shows the country’s ruling party has won just under half of the vote. Sunday’s election was the first since the ex-Soviet nation modified its constitution to expand the powers of parliament and the prime minister.

The Central Election Commission said on Monday that 94 percent of the ballots counted show the Republican Party of Armenia’s president, Serzh Sargsyan, winning 49 percent of the vote. The bloc led by businessman Gagik Tsarukian trails with 28 percent. Two more parties also look set to clear the 5-percent barrier necessary to get seats in parliament.

Critics see the constitutional amendments as part of Sargsyan’s efforts to retain control of the country after he steps down in 2018 due to term limits.

Armenia holds a parliamentary election, ruling party favored

April 02, 2017

YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — Armenians voted Sunday in the country’s first parliamentary election since the ex-Soviet nation modified its constitution to expand the powers of parliament and the prime minister.

Polls prior to the vote showed the Republican Party of Armenia’s president, Serzh Sargsyan, in the lead, closely followed by a bloc led by businessman Gagik Tsarukian, one of Armenia’s richest men. Critics see the amendments as part of Sargsyan’s efforts to retain control of the country after he steps down in 2018 due to term limits. If his party controls parliament, he could be appointed prime minister after leaving the presidency.

But the 62-year-old Sargsyan, who has led Armenia since 2008, has rejected the allegations, describing the constitutional changes approved in a 2015 referendum as steps toward strengthening democracy.

“We have set a task to make resolute step toward developing a European-style democracy and strengthening democratic institutions,” Sargsyan said. The constitutional changes, set to take force after Sargsyan’s term ends, envisage largely symbolic powers for the nation’s president, who will now be elected by parliament instead of by popular vote.

Prime Minister Karen Karapetian has spearheaded the Republican Party’s campaign, promising to encourage foreign investment in the economically struggling nation. Tsarukian also has pledged to attract up to $15 billion in foreign investment from Persian Gulf countries and elsewhere.

The nationalist Dashanktsutyun party and two other parties also are expected to make it into the parliament. Sergei Minasian, an independent political expert based in Yerevan, said the ruling party had a “significant advantage” in the campaign, thanks to its use of administrative resources. The European Union mission in Yerevan has expressed concern about “allegations of voter intimidation, attempts to buy votes, and the systemic use of administrative resources to aid certain competing parties.” It didn’t name any parties.

Landlocked Armenia, one of the poorest of the ex-Soviet nations, borders Iran, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. It has suffered from a crippling economic blockade imposed by Turkey, which supports its ally Azerbaijan in the conflict with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Armenia is also a member of Moscow-dominated economic and security alliances and hosts a Russian military base. The country has seen some unrest in recent years. In 2015, thousands demonstrated in Yerevan for weeks protesting electricity price hikes. In July, several dozen armed men captured a police compound in the capital, demanding freedom for an opposition activist and the government’s ouster. They held several police officers and medics hostage before eventually releasing them. The two-week siege left two people dead and several wounded and triggered rallies in support of the gunmen.

In March, several hundred protesters rallied in Yerevan after an activist who fed the siege perpetrators died in prison while on a hunger strike.

Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to the report.

Georgia’s governing party wins parliamentary majority

October 31, 2016

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Early results in the former Soviet republic of Georgia show the governing party winning a large majority of seats following the second round of parliamentary voting. Three weeks ago, the Georgian Dream party took 67 of the parliament’s 150 seats. Runoffs had to be staged for 50 other seats in which no candidate received a majority.

Central Election Commission chief Tamar Zhvaniya told reporters on Monday that the Georgian Dream took 48 seats in the runoff, giving the party a healthy majority of 115. Only 37.5 percent of eligible voters participated in the runoffs.

Georgian Dream was started by tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia. He later became prime minister, but even after stepping down from the post he is still seen as the party’s dominant influence.

Georgia’s governing party seeks constitutional majority

October 30, 2016

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — The governing party in the former Soviet republic of Georgia aimed to win a constitutional majority of parliament seats in the second round of national voting Sunday, which was marked by low turnout.

Only 37.5 percent of eligible voters took part in the runoffs, which will choose a third of the country’s parliament members, the central elections commission said. It also said no complaints of major violations were reported.

In voting three weeks ago, the Georgian Dream party took 67 of the parliament’s 150 seats. But 50 seats needed to undergo Sunday’s runoff vote because no candidate received a majority. Georgian Dream candidates polled the largest support in most of those races in the first round, but the likelihood of its winning the 46 seats needed for a three-quarters constitutional majority are unclear. In most districts, substantial first-round vote shares went to independents or candidates from a score of small parties.

Both Georgian Dream and main opponent the United National Movement are pro-West, seeking better relations and possible eventual membership in NATO and the European Union. But Georgian Dream has tried to balance these aspirations with developing better relations with Russia.

Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili said Sunday that Georgia will continue to pursue “the principle of integration with the EU and NATO, at the same time reducing tensions with Russia.” Russia and Georgia fought a short war in 2008 that ended with Georgia losing all control of two Russia-friendly separatist regions. Former Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili was a vehement critic of Russia and detested by the Kremlin.

Although Saakashvili was stripped of his citizenship after becoming governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region, he is still a key figure in the opposition UNM, which denounces the governing party as the creation of a Russian oligarch.

Georgian Dream was started by tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia. He later became prime minister, but even after stepping down from the post he is still seen as the party’s dominant influence.

If Georgian Dream gets the three-quarters majority in parliament that would allow it to change the constitution, an early move is likely to be an amendment to make the presidency a position appointed by parliament.

“We already know what (Ivanishvili) wants to do — he wants to take away our right to elect the president directly,” said Giga Boleria, foreign affairs secretary for UNM. Georgian Dream executive secretary Irakli Kobakhidze justifies the proposed change as “the opportunity to improve the constitution to strengthen the parliament as the main constitutional body in the country and to secure the principle of separation of powers.”

Aside from the 27 seats won by UNM in the first round, only one other political bloc entered the new parliament — the Russia-tolerant Alliance of Patriots, with six seats.

Azerbaijan holds referendum on presidential term extension

September 26, 2016

BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) — Amid international criticism, Azerbaijanis held a referendum Monday on proposed constitutional changes that would extend the presidential term and powers in the ex-Soviet republic.

The proposals, which include raising the presidential term from five years to seven and granting the president the right to dissolve parliament, have been criticized by a European constitutional law watchdog and international human rights groups. Azerbaijani authorities have dismissed the criticism as unfounded and politically driven.

Azerbaijan’s Central Election Commission chief Mazahir Panahov said early Tuesday that with about 72 percent of the ballots counted, over 90 percent of the voters supported the extension of the presidential term.

Turnout was high at nearly 70 percent, according to election officials. Some opponents say the changes would cement what they see as effectively a dynasty, as President Ilham Aliyev is the son of the previous leader. They see the proposed measures as a mechanism for extending his rule in the oil-rich Caspian Sea nation that has come under frequent criticism from abroad for alleged human rights abuses and suppression of dissent.

Last week, the Venice Commission, a watchdog body of constitutional law experts based in France, released a preliminary report saying that extending the presidential mandate “cannot be justified” and that other proposed legal changes would upset the balance of power.

The commission expressed concern about a measure limiting public gatherings and said a measure giving the president the power to dissolve parliament would weaken political dissent. The Venice Commission experts are part of the Council of Europe, a rights authority whose 47 members, including Azerbaijan, have signed the European Convention on Human Rights.

In a statement before the vote, Amnesty International said the constitutional amendments would give more authority to the already powerful president and grant the government even more power to interfere with freedom of assembly, in violation of international standards. It added that preparations for the vote were marked by arrests and intimidation of critics of the proposed constitutional amendments.

The Azerbaijani government has rejected the criticism and insisted that the proposed changes are aimed at streamlining the government and promoting economic reforms. “One of the main reasons for the referendum is the need to conduct fast economic reforms … to improve the efficiency of the government and cut the red tape,” Aliyev aide Ali Hasanov told reporters Monday.

Leyla Abbasova, a 53-year old school teacher who cast her ballot in the capital, Baku, said she voted for the proposed amendments and voiced hope that “they will bring positive changes.” Camilya Abdullayeva, 23, also said she voted ‘yes,’ adding that by removing minimum age limits for officials and legislators the proposed changes would “encourage young people to engage in politics.”

Officials say the referendum results will be announced by Oct. 21.

Exit polls: Georgian ruling party leads parliamentary vote

October 08, 2016

TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Two exit polls in Georgia’s parliamentary election on Saturday showed the ruling party in the lead, but the polls differed sizably on the margin of victory. Regardless of the election’s outcome, the former Soviet republic appears determined to integrate more closely with the West, including keeping alive distant hopes of joining the European Union and NATO.

A poll conducted for Georgia’s public broadcaster and other stations showed the ruling Georgian Dream party with nearly 54 percent of the vote Saturday and the opposition United National Movement at 19.5 percent support.

But an exit poll for the independent channel Rustavi-2 put the figures at 39.9 percent for the ruling party and 32.7 percent for the opposition. The discrepancy could feed tensions after a campaign that included a car bombing of one prominent opposition politician and shots fired at another candidate.

About 100 assailants attacked a polling station Saturday in the town of Marneuli, 30 kilometers (19 miles) south of the capital, Tbilisi. Police said the assailants were supporters of the UNM. Based on the exit polls, Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili told Georgian Dream party members: “I congratulate you on a big victory.”

“These elections are a very important step forward toward reinforcing Georgia’s image as a democratic European state,” Kvirikashvili said after casting his ballot. But UNM leader David Bakradze told journalists he believes his party will prevail once single-constituency races are tallied. Of the 150 seats in parliament, 77 are chosen by proportional representation and 73 are in single districts.

The small, pro-Russian Alliance of Patriots was likely to pass the 5-percent threshold it needs to be allotted seats, according to the exit polls. The contest highlighted the often disorderly political climate in a country that has endured revolutions both violent and peaceful over the past three decades. Enthusiasm among the electorate was low; just 51 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, according to the national elections commission.

In all, 25 parties or groups competed for the 77 seats that will be chosen by party-list voting; more than 800 candidates ran for the 73 single-district seats. Each of the two main parties carries substantial baggage.

Georgian Dream, which came to power in the 2012 elections, is the creation of tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili, a former prime minister who appeared prominently in the “Panama Papers” leak about officials with offshore accounts.

Although Ivanishvili does not currently hold office, he is believed to wield enormous influence. Many Georgians consider him a Trojan horse for Russia because of his business connections there and his attempts to improve relations with Moscow, which were badly damaged by the 2008 war between the two countries.

Adding to the tensions, one of the campaign’s most prominent figures has been Mikhail Saakashvili, the former president who was stripped of his Georgian citizenship after he became leader of one of Ukraine’s most troubled regions, Odessa.

Saakashvili is vowing a triumphant return if his UNM supporters in Georgia win power but he is a divisive figure. While Saakashvili and the UNM are credited with enacting important police and economic reforms after the peaceful Rose Revolution of 2003, opposition to him grew for being hot-tempered and uncompromising.

He had to address the rally in Tbilisi through a video linkup because he left the country after his term ended in 2013, then was charged in absentia with abuse of office. Saakashvili declared that if UNM regains power in Georgia, “I will cross the sea” to return to his homeland.

Georgian Dream continued the reform path that Saakashvili laid out and this year achieved an agreement with the EU that boosts trade and political relations. But Georgia remains troubled by high unemployment of about 12 percent, low pensions and other economic concerns.

The tensions underlying the election surfaced in violent incidents over the past week. On Sunday, two people were wounded by gunshots at a campaign rally for candidate and former defense minister Irakli Okruashvili. He claimed the gunmen were affiliated with Georgian Dream.

On Tuesday, an explosion destroyed the automobile of lawmaker Givi Targamadze, a Saakashvili ally. Georgia’s Interior Ministry says police have identified a suspect in the bombing and that weapons and explosives had been seized as part of the investigation.

Sophiko Megrelidze in Tbilisi and Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this story.

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