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Armenia: Assessing The Impact Of The New Prime Minister

Prague, 22 April 1997 (RFE/RL) - The appointment one month ago of Armenian Prime Minister of Robert Kocharian, the elected president of the self-proclaimed Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, has had a significant impact on Armenia's domestic politics.

Kocharian is respected in Armenia and abroad as the man who led his countrymen to military victory during the war with Azerbaijan. He is even more popular in the Diaspora, where Karabakh is the sole issue that unites rival groups and factions. Even fierce critics of the present Armenian leadership admit that Kocharian's reputation is beyond reproach.

While uncompromisingly loyal to President Levon Ter-Petrosyan, Kocharian is also seeking to establish good contacts with the opposition. Specifically, Kocharian has embarked upon a dialogue with influential Dashnak Party leaders. The Dashnak Party is the strongest political party in the diaspora. It opened an office in Yerevan in late 1990, but was banned by Ter-Petrosyan in December, 1994, on the grounds that its members were allegedly operating a clandestine terrorist organization involved in drug smuggling, assassination and espionage. Several leading party members were subsequently arrested and have been tried and sentenced.

It is possible that Ter-Petrosyan's choice of Kocharian as new Prime Minister to replace the popular and exceptionally capable Armen Sarkisian (who resigned in early March because of ill health) may have been intended to facilitate a tactical reconciliation with the Dashnak party, and thus split the opposition. The Dashnaks are currently aligned with other opposition parties in the "National Accord," formed just before last September's presidential election to support the candidacy of National Democratic Union candidate Vazgen Manukian.

The opposition has never accepted the official election results, according to which Ter-Petrosyan was re-elected President with 52 percent of the vote, and Manukian received only 41 percent. Manukian and other opposition politicians claim that these results were falsified. The opposition had been planning a "Belgrade"-style campaign of mass protest, hoping to force the Government to accept its demands for pre-term parliamentary elections, and constitutional changes. It was hoped that at least 70,000 people would attend the first such rally, which was scheduled April 4.

Already weakened by Kocharian's appointment, opposition leaders were shocked when on the day of the planned rally, all Armenian newspapers carried a sensational report by the official news agency "Armenpress" that President Ter-Petrosyan had initiated a meeting with five Dashnak party representatives to discuss national political issues and legalizing the party's activity. Observers in Yerevan believe that the timing of this meeting was not coincidence, and that the Armenpress report may be one of the reasons why only about 10,000 opposition supporters attended the rally.

Between 10,000-and-15,000 people attended a second opposition rally April 18, at which Manukian harshly criticized Kocharian for "abandoning his people," and cooperating with what he described as the "illegitimate government of Levon Ter-Petrosyan." Manukian expressed confidence that the whole country will soon take to the streets and topple Ter-Petrosyan's regime. In contrast, the Dashnak party's local leader avoided any criticism of the new Prime Minister.

Most observers in Armenia question the opposition's ability to launch massive protests without the support of the Dashnak party. On the other hand, the reconciliation between Ter-Petrosyan and the Dashnak party is not secured. It is not clear yet to what extent the President and the Dashnak party can agree to cooperate, and whether Ter-Petrosyan is willing to allow the Dashnaks to become fully functional in Armenia. However, given the fact that since last year's presidential election Ter-Petrosyan has become increasingly isolated both domestically and internationally, it is clear that he can no longer ignore the powerful Armenian Diaspora, whose support could be crucial for his political survival.

Some experts and diplomats predicted that Kocharian's nomination as Prime Minister would lead to a hardening of Armenia's position in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)-mediated negotiations on a political settlement of the Karabakh conflict. It is not clear, however, that this was the sole reason for the lack of progress at the most recent round of talks in Moscow in early April. Some critics even suggested that the promotion of the Karabakh president to the second most powerful post in Armenia signalled the start of Armenia's annexation of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Other commentators suggest Ter-Petrosyan may anticipate a resumption of hostilities following last December's OSCE summit in Lisbon, where the international community reaffirmed its commitment to the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, thereby rejecting the Karabakh Armenians' bid for effective independence.

Kocharian has proven himself as an effective manager of a war-time economy and society, with limited democracy adapted to the needs of war. If violent clashes along the Armenia-Azerbaijan frontier over the past two weeks escalate into a full-scale war, his experience could be crucial to coordinating Armenian policy.