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Armenia: Analysis From Washington -- Another Shock On Caucasus Faultline

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 29 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The assassination of Armenian Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkissian Wednesday further destabilizes one of the most unstable regions of the world.

It undercuts recent progress toward a deal between his country and Azerbaijan on the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. It casts doubt on the future of the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline intended to carry Caspian basin oil to the West. And it raises questions about the reordering of security arrangements in an area now being shaken by the Russian advance into Chechnya.

A group of gunmen on Wednesday entered the Armenian parliament and opened fire on Prime Minister Sarkissian as well as other deputies. Claiming that Sarkissian had denied the Armenian people the chance to freely elect their own government, the gunmen demanded that Armenian President Robert Kocharian meet with them.

This assassination will have an enormous impact on an Armenian society that has suffered a variety of catastrophes in the last decade, but it is certain to have even greater and more explosive consequences for the Caucasus as a whole and hence for a variety of outside powers.

First of all, Sarkissian's passing makes it much less likely that Kocharian and his Azerbaijani counterpart Heidar Aliyev will be able to successfully conclude their talks about the future of Nagorno-Karabakh anytime soon. In both countries, many people oppose progress the two of them have made recently toward a new status for that predominantly Armenian enclave, which has been part of Azerbaijan since the 1920s.

Azerbaijani opposition parties have signaled that they oppose any concessions to Yerevan, and two of Aliyev's senior foreign policy aides have left in recent weeks, leading to speculation that there is dissent within Aliyev's own administration over his efforts to reach an agreement. And now, with the death of Sarkissian, Kocharian loses a powerful ally who could have helped him sell an accord to Armenians suspicious of any agreement with Azerbaijan.

Consequently, hopes that the two presidents would sign an agreement soon, hopes that had attracted U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott to Yerevan on the very day Sarkissian was killed, now appear to have dimmed considerably.

Sarkassian's assassination is also likely to have an impact on plans for the construction of the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline backed by the United States and Turkey but opposed by the Russian Federation.

Last week, Turkey announced that it had arranged financing for this enormously expensive route, one that would allow the countries of the Caspian Sea basin to export their oil to the West without having to send it through Russia. Such a routing, governments in that region have argued, would be significant both economically and geopolitically, helping these countries to earn their way in the world and allowing them to get out from under Russian control.

Despite American support, this project already has suffered repeated delays, many of them related to concerns about just how stable the Caucasus as a whole is. By raising the specter of ever greater instability, the assassination of Sarkissian will only increase those concerns, particularly in the current run-up to the OSCE summit in Istanbul next month. And such concerns may further push back possible financing and the ultimate completion of this route, with all the political and economic consequences that would have.

As significant as that development could be, Sarkissian's assassination could trigger a much larger reordering of the geopolitical order in the Caucasus and in the balance between East and West. Regional instability highlighted by Moscow's campaign against Chechnya has prompted many people in each of these countries to reconsider the arrangements they have made and even more led representatives of outside powers to think about whether any arrangements they may have made are likely to last.

In recent years, Armenia has closely allied itself with Moscow on many issues, while Azerbaijan and Georgia have successfully sought much closer ties with the West in general and the United States in particular. But there are indications in each of the capitals that some officials, either on their own or under pressure from outsiders, may be reconsidering such arrangements in whole or in part. Sarkissian's death will only give additional impetus to such thinking.

And at the same time, many outside powers -- Russia, the United States, Turkey, and Iran, to name the most heavily involved in this region -- are certain to see this new indication of instability in the Caucasus as something they can exploit for their own purposes, as something that others may try to exploit, or as an indication that no side is likely to be successful in doing so anytime soon.

More than most nations, Armenians have had to deal with the consequences of being in a geological fracture zone. Now, Sarkissian's assassination is a clear reminder to them and to everyone else that they live along a political faultline as well.