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Western Press Review: Violence In Armenia Draws Comment

  • Don Hill

Prague, 29 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Assassination concentrates the mind. The Western press, which usually barely notices the Caucasus, suddenly finds its attention captured by Wednesday's killings of Armenian political leaders.

WALL STREET JOURNAL: There are reasons for suspicion

The Wall Street Journal Europe -- while admitting it has no evidence -- sniffs the air and catches a whiff of conspiracy. When there's trouble in the Caucasus, the newspaper says, one must ask, "Cui bono?" -- who benefits?

As the editorial puts it: "There is no evidence at this point that (lead gunman Nairi) Hoonanian was motivated by anything other than his own view that political corruption was responsible for Armenia's poverty. But clearly, the attack was yet another free gift for anyone who wants to keep the former Soviet republics of the Caucasus in a state of chaos."

The editorial concludes with these words: "In the haze that surrounds the Yerevan tragedy, very little can be known truly. But if you play the 'who benefits' game, Moscow keeps popping up. Perhaps that is unfair, but we can muster little remorse when we view the carnage the Russians are inflicting on Chechnya. And if Mr. Hoonanian and his fellows also end up eventually finding sanctuary in Russia, there will be further reasons for suspicion."

WASHINGTON POST: The U.S. and Armenia's other allies should render whatever support is possible

The Washington Post, by contrast, reacts with weighty concern. The negatives in Wednesday's killings in Armenia are magnified by the timing of the tragedy, the newspaper opines in an editorial. Armenia and Azerbaijan were showing signs of progress toward a settlement of their long-running dispute over the ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The Washington Post says this: "Now Armenia's fragile and highly imperfect democracy will, at best, be preoccupied with matters other than peace."

The editorial calls for sympathy and support from the West. In the newspaper's words: "This is another setback for a nation that has seen many disappointments since it regained independence in 1991. (Still), Armenia is far from lost when it comes to democratization. (And so) the United States and Armenia's other allies should render whatever support is possible now, to make sure this latest tragedy does not block further progress."

CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR: Closely connected with the Armenian gunfire is the battle for control of anticipated oil flows

The Christian Science Monitor publishes an analysis from Moscow on the subject. Commentator Fred Weir writes that, in his view, nationalism was the moving force behind the Armenian gunfire.

Weir: "The post-Soviet Caucasus has been erupting in violence for most of the past decade. The fighting might have been dismissed by the rest of the world if it weren't for Saudi-scale pools of oil thought to lie beneath the Caspian Sea."

He notes that the gunmen surrendered after President Robert Kocharian personally allowed them to make a televised statement and guaranteed them a fair trial." But the statement was a general tirade with, as Weir put it, "few hints about (their) motives."

Weir also finds significance in the timing. The attack came just as Armenia and Azerbaijan showed signs of settling their long feud over the ethnic-Armenian Azerbaijani enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. In the writer's words: "Closely connected with this, some analysts say, is the battle for control of anticipated oil flows from the recently-discovered Caspian Sea shelf."

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: Nationalists on both sides have now started warning against a sell-out of national interests

Commentator Wolfgang Koydl, writing from Istanbul in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, says that from one point of view: "The latest visit to the Caucasus region by America's Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott must be viewed as a disaster." Diplomats generally seek to avoid spectacular events, Koydl says. But during Talbott's visit, Azerbaijan's foreign minister resigned, and shortly thereafter Armenia's prime minister died in a burst of assassin's bullets -- spectacular events, indeed.

Koydl speculates that both events are coincidentally connected with Talbott's mission to help negotiate a peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan in their long-running dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh. He says: "Perversely, with opportunities for coming to a peaceful solution never looking better, nationalists on both sides have now started warning against a sell-out of national interests."

In answer to the question "Who benefits?", Koydl perceives not conspiracy, but rather blatant narrow nationalism.

TIMES: Armenians are struggling to cope

From Yerevan, Alice Lagnado writes in an analysis in The Times, London, that average Armenians -- divided from their prosperous, cosmopolitan leaders by a chasm of poverty and ignorance -- evince a curious mix of shock and cynicism about the events in their country.

In her words: "Despite other high-level murders in recent years, Armenians did not expect killings so brazen in Yerevan. (Already) they have enough to cope with: unemployment is sky-high and wages are low."

She quotes one man who says: "Politicians are politicians, they kill each other." And another, who said he understood the assassins' anger: "Let's say ten boxes of aid come from America. These politicians give one to their relatives and sell the rest. They don't think about people."

Lagnado writes: "Armenians here are struggling to cope with the slaughter of their leaders, even if there is an air of cynical resignation."

TIMES: It is wasteful to use a sledgehammer to crack a nut

In an editorial, London's The Times focuses on a different Caucasus conflict -- the one in Chechnya. The Times says this: "Russia should not repeat past excesses in Chechnya. It is wasteful to use a sledgehammer to crack a nut. It therefore seems extravagant for Russia to have sent 50,000 troops south to re-invade separatist Chechnya, scene of a disastrous war earlier this decade, in pursuit of the stated aim of detaining a small number of unnamed bandits."

The editorial concludes as follows: "The caution of Russia's generals, it seems, is evaporating as they gain confidence that the West will not interfere. Yet the generals should beware of going too far. Overkill now would not only be a military mistake; it might also prod the outside world into rethinking the easy complaisance it has displayed so far."