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Caucasus Report: January 20, 2006


20 January 2006, Volume 9, Number 2

ARMENIA LOOKS AHEAD TO 2007 PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS. There are still 16 months to go before the Armenian parliamentary elections due in May 2007. But already signs are surfacing of tensions within the current three-party coalition government and within the opposition Artarutiun (Justice) bloc that constitutes the larger of two opposition parliamentary factions. And new parties and alliances are likely to emerge in the run-up to the ballot.

The first indications of tensions within the coalition government took the form of an exchange of barbs one year ago between Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, chairman of the Republican Party of Armenia and the longest-serving prime minister in the 15 years since Armenia became independent, and parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian, head of the Orinats Yerkir (OY, Law-Based State) party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 and 28 February and 2 and 11 March 2005).

Some observers in Yerevan anticipate that Baghdasarian's sometimes populist statements could herald a bid for the presidency in 2008 when incumbent President Robert Kocharian's second term expires. The constitution does not permit Kocharian to seek a third presidential term.

Then in December 2005, Baghdasarian broke ranks with the country's authorities and alleged "serious ballot-stuffing" during the 27 November nationwide referendum on a package of draft constitutional amendments. Local observers questioned official statistics according to which turnout in the referendum was over 65 percent. Baghdasarian pledged to submit evidence of that malpractice to the Prosecutor General's Office, which had undertaken to examine allegations of fraud.

Asked on 23 December to comment on rumors of a possible coalition breakup, Baghdasarian said that despite some internal disputes, the coalition has until now succeeded in tackling the problems that have arisen, Noyan Tapan reported. But at the same time, he predicted "a serious political discussion" within the coalition in 2006 focusing on its future activities and principles. He added that he does not exclude the emergence of "different political arrangements" in the course of 2006.

Similar oblique criticism of the conduct of the referendum came from the second junior coalition partner, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation--Dashnaktsutiun (HHD). The chairman of its bureau, Hrant Markarian (no relation to the prime minister), told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that "I think the reputation of all of us was damaged" by what he termed the "falsifications." Markarian added, however, that he does not believe the malpractice was on such a scale as to prove decisive in securing the passage of the amendments in question.

Speaking in Yerevan on 22 December at a ceremony to mark the 115th anniversary of the HHD's foundation, Markarian addressed the misgivings of some party members over the HHD's decision to join the government. He explained that the HHD's rationale for doing so was to contribute to internal political stability, which, he continued, is contingent on "justice" and eradicating corruption, a objective for which, he said, the HHD will continue to fight.

Markarian went on to address President Kocharian personally, affirming that "the HHD cannot accept injustice irrespective of who perpetrates it and against whom.... The causes and consequences of this injustice are corruption, poverty, and the atmosphere of impunity in the country."

Commenting on Markarian's address, the opposition paper "Chorrord Ishkhanutiun" observed on 23 December, "It is clear that the main target of Dashnaktsutiun criticism in the forthcoming year 2006 will be the government of Andranik Markarian." The paper suggested that the HHD is well-aware that it has no hope of winning a majority in the next parliament (it garnered 11 percent of the vote in 2003), and has therefore decided to create an "opposition image" for itself ahead of the 2007 elections.

Meanwhile, the independent daily "Aravot" pointed out on 11 January that there is no love lost between OY and the HHD. The paper quoted an unnamed leading HHD member as saying he would prefer the return to power of former President Levon Ter-Petrossian's Armenian Pan-National Movement to Baghdasarian's election as president. Ter-Petrossian banned the HHD in 1994, paving the way for the trial of 31 of its members on trumped-up charges of terrorism.

The apparent failure of the campaign spearheaded by Artarutiun to persuade voters to boycott the 27 November referendum resulted in a major tactical disagreement among several of its most prominent leaders. Former Prime Minister and Hanrapetutiun (Republic) party leader Aram Sargsian, who for the past two years has sought to mobilize the population to push for the peaceful overthrow of the present leadership, convened a series of rallies in December to protest the apparent rigging of the referendum outcome.

At a meeting in Yerevan on 8 December, he and the heads of several other parties aligned in Artarutiun announced plans for the creation of a broad-based, antigovernment "civic movement" comprising not only politicians but representatives of civil society, that would launch a "serious struggle" aimed at ousting the present Armenian leadership.

But Stepan Demirchian, Kocharian's defeated challenger in the 2003 presidential runoff ballot, distanced himself and his People's Party of Armenia (HZhK) from those plans on 14 December, saying he sees no point in participating in further antigovernment rallies. On 26 December, Demirchian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that he does not think Armenia is ripe for the kind of spontaneous mass uprising that proved the catalyst for the peaceful revolutions in Georgia in November 2003, Ukraine in December 2004, and Kyrgyzstan in March 2005.

Demirchian conceded that tactical differences between himself and Sargsian may precipitate the collapse of Artarutiun in 2006, but he added that "the HZhK can operate separately, while cooperating with reliable partners." He predicted that "there will certainly be regroupings in 2006 within both the government and opposition camps."

A further possible blow to Artarutiun is the rumored imminent defection of one of its leading members, Viktor Dallakian, who is reported to have agreed to serve as nominal head of Prosperous Armenia (BH), a new pro-government party currently being established by wealthy oligarch Gagik Tsarukian.

According to "168 Zham" on 11 November, Tsarukian aspires to a "big faction" in the Armenian parliament that would include "a number of prominent entrepreneurs and politicians" whom the paper declined to identify. In a 21 December interview with the daily "Haykakan zhamanak," Tsarukian said BH aims to unite influential and uncorrupt people to tackle unspecified political and socioeconomic problems.

Dallakian declined on 11 January to comment to RFE/RL's Armenian Service on the rumors of his alignment with Tsarukian, but he too hinted at "the emergence of new serious political forces that will play a serious role in Armenia's political life."

Others, however, have questioned whether money alone can transform BH into an influential political party. Prime Minister Markarian pointed out in an interview published on 14 January in "168 zham" that even if Tsarukian spends millions on his election campaign, "you can't create a powerful party in one year or six months. It may...have powerful resources. But these are different things." At the same time, Markarian admitted that he and Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian have recently met several times with Tsarukian in a bid to dissuade him from establishing a new political party.

Sarkisian for his part denied on 16 January any connection with BH, saying he has not been invited to join its ranks and does not expect to be. He added, however, that he will announce at the end of this month whether or not he plans to run as a candidate from Prime Minister Markarian's HHK in the 2007 parliamentary ballot.

Some Yerevan commentators believe that BH is intended to provide support for Sarkisian's candidacy in the 2008 presidential election. Others have suggested that President Kocharian has given the green light for the creation of several new opposition forces that will compete among themselves for influence and votes and thus preclude the possibility of an opposition victory next year. (Liz Fuller)

GEORGIAN FOREIGN MINISTER HOPES FOR 'STRATEGIC' TIES WITH ARMENIA. Georgia is interested in developing the kind of "strategic" relationship with Armenia that it already has with Azerbaijan, Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili said during an official visit to Yerevan on 16 January. He also indicated Tbilisi's desire to import Iranian natural gas through a pipeline currently being constructed in southeastern Armenia.

Officials said Bezhuashvili's meetings with President Robert Kocharian, Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, and Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian touched on a wide range of issues of mutual concern, including bilateral economic ties, unresolved conflicts in the South Caucasus, and ways of spurring regional integration. No concrete agreements were announced after the talks.

At a joint news conference with Oskanian, Bezhuashvili was asked about the implications of Georgia's recently published national-security doctrine, which refers to its relations with Azerbaijani as "strategic" and seems to attach less importance to Georgian-Armenian ties.

"They have a strategic character because as you know, a number of energy corridors run through Georgia," Bezhuashvili said in reference to two major pipelines that will transport Azerbaijani oil and gas to Turkey. "They are very important for the development of our country not so much in the economic as security sense." "That doesn't mean we should not develop strategic ties with Armenia," he added. "I think relations between our states have a very good potential for becoming strategic. And I believe that time will come for the emergence of political conditions for the implementation of programs of strategic significance involving all three regional states."

The two U.S.-backed pipelines have made Georgia a key regional transit hub. That status would only be enhanced in case of the planned construction of a new railway that would link Tbilisi to the Turkish city of Kars. The project, estimated to cost at least $300 million, has provoked strong objections from Armenia, which fears that it would add to its regional isolation. The Armenian government says Georgia as well as Azerbaijan should instead use the existing Giumri-Kars railway, which Turkey has kept closed as part of its 12-year blockade of Armenia.

Armenian leaders conveyed their concerns to Bezhuashvili. Oskanian told reporters that Armenia is even ready to avoid shipping any cargo through the Giumri-Kars rail link and put it at the disposal of Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan only. "The international community, Georgia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan know that Armenia is ready to let that railway function without its participation," he said.

Bezhuashvili, for his part, reiterated Tbilisi's assurances that the Tbilisi-Kars project is not aimed at isolating Armenia and is only meant to bring Georgia extra economic benefits.

The two sides also discussed the future of another rail link, via Abkhazia, that connected Armenia and Georgia to Russia until the 1992-93 war in Abkhazia. The Georgian and Russian governments have reportedly made progress towards its reopening over the past year. "The [Georgian foreign] minister has certain optimism on this score, but there are still unresolved problems," Oskanian said.

Regional cooperation is also seriously hampered by the unresolved conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. Oskanian said he briefed Bezhuashvili on recent developments in the Karabakh negotiating process that have brought closer the prospect of a peaceful settlement. Markarian praised Georgia's position on the conflict as "balanced."

A statement by Markarian's office said Bezhuashvili told the Armenian prime minister that his country is "following the construction of the Iran-Armenia gas pipeline with interest and is also interested in developing cooperation with Iran in this sphere." The first section of the pipeline is slated for completion by the end of this year.

Both Armenia and Georgia currently import gas only from Russia and are expected to be hit hard by the recent surge in its price. The administration of President Mikheil Saakashvili is reportedly interested in extending the Iran-Armenia pipeline to Georgia. The issue was apparently on the agenda of Bezhuashvili's meeting with Kocharian. A statement by the Armenian president's press service said the two men "exchanged thoughts on the possibility of cooperation between the energy sectors of the two countries." No details were reported.

Also on the agenda of Bezhuashvili's visit was the two countries' failure to complete the long-running demarcation of their border. Oskanian admitted that the two sides have so far failed to bridge their differences. "But that I think these are solvable issues, and with a bit of political will from both sides we will be able to settle them," he said. (Anna Saghabalian)

RUSSIA CAN NEITHER RESOLVE CHECHEN CONFLICT NOR LEAVE, GROZNY RUSSIAN SAYS. The Russian Federation government is not going to be able to end the Chechen conflict in the foreseeable future, but neither is it able to withdraw from that republic, according to an ethnic Russian from Grozny whose family has been living there for four generations.

In a essay posted online this week, Konstantin Novikov, a descendent of Russians who arrived there in the 19th century, provides some intriguing insights into Chechen-Russian relations, many of which differ significantly from those offered by Moscow officials or supporters of the Chechen cause (http://www.rusk.ru/st.php?idar=8534).

Among the questions Novikov addresses in his 9,000-word discussion are "Who is fighting against Russia?" "How are these forces being financed?" "Can Russia leave Chechnya?" "How can we live in one country?" and "How should we live together in the future?"

According to Novikov, there are currently "several hundred militants" who are organized in small groups of 25 to 30 fighters each. The core cadres, he says, are in many cases from abroad, mostly from Arab countries, but he suggests that they are not mercenaries but rather "paid ideological volunteers."

In addition, however, the anti-Moscow Chechens have what he calls "a mobilized reserve of militants" who number several thousand in all. Most live in at home but join up with the core groups to carry out particular missions. In between, they help supply the core militants.

Collectively, these "resistance forces" can be divided into three groups, Novikov suggests. First are people who are little more than bandits who fight because they know no other way of life. Few of them have taken part in the second post-Soviet Chechen war; but they continue to engage in violence for purposes of revenge.

Second are the supporters of an independent Chechnya-Ichkeria. A decade ago, they were the strongest of the three groups, but "now this camp has practically ceased to exist as a military force" because Russian forces have wiped out most of their leaders, including most prominently former Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov.

And third, are the mujahids or Wahhabis -- real "terrorists," Novikov says -- who are connected with Al-Qaeda and are less interested in the independence of Chechnya than in the establishment of a caliphate across as broad a territory as possible in the North Caucasus and southern Russia.

Relatively small in number, this group represents "a real military force," increasingly attractive to "all forms of the armed opposition" and serving as the "leading and defining force" for all of them. It is especially attractive to the young and to declasse elements. "And under no circumstances will it lay down its arms."

Novikov says the Chechen opposition receives financial support from four sources: Al-Qaeda and other Islamic terrorist centers, including Arab oil sheiks interested in promoting holy war; Muslims abroad whose humanitarian contributions pay for arms; the large Chechen diaspora; and Chechen residents who give voluntarily or otherwise.

As to whether Russia could "leave" Chechnya to itself, Novikov argues that fewer people are asking that question now than did so a few years ago. On the one hand, Chechens themselves are tired of the fighting. And on the other, the Russian side has had some successes.

But those successes, Novikov warns, must not be overstated. The problem in Chechnya has "not been resolved; it has only been frozen." And consequently, it is entirely possible that a Russian withdrawal from that republic will again be the subject of discussion. That is because, he says, "even if everything develops according to the most optimistic scenario, terrorist acts and diversions will continue to occur for a very long time to come." And Russians must recognize that they will have to devote consider forces and funds to Chechnya well into the future.

A Russian withdrawal, Novikov insists, would be a disaster on many levels. Not only is there the moral problem of deserting the many Chechens who look to Russia for leadership and have linked their fates to Moscow, there is the danger of a "domino effect" elsewhere in the Russian Federation.

When at the end of the 1980s, many in the Soviet Union were prepared to accept the departure of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, they did so without any sense that the exit of the three Baltic countries would soon be followed by the independence of Ukraine and Belarus as well. And thus, Novikov argues, were Moscow to exit from Chechnya, "we would have to be prepared to leave the entire North Caucasus. And also, it is not excluded...the Muslim republics of the Middle Volga as well, after which Russia would be cut in two and would cease to exist as a single state."

But can Russians and Chechens live in a single state? Novikov notes that many across the political spectrum in Moscow are inclined to believe that after all that has taken place, such coexistence is simply impossible. But Novikov, who has lived in Chechnya, suggests that the two groups could live together, under certain conditions.

The two groups do represent very different cultures, but, he argues, in some cases the Chechens behave better than do the Russians. The Chechens respect their parents, show concern for their siblings, take care of orphans, and help those around them who find themselves in a difficult situation. These are qualities, Novikov says, that Russians "unfortunately" too often lack. "And if as a result, a Russian neighbor loses respect in the eyes of a Chechen, who is to blame for that?"

Despite that, and despite everything that has happened in the last decade, Novikov says, the majority of Chechens do not feel "ethnic hatred" toward Russians or have a negative attitude toward Russian culture. Indeed, many, including some of the leaders of the opposition, routinely show their respect for the Russian language and Russian culture.

Given that, how should Moscow proceed in the future, given the enormous difficulties ahead? He suggests that coming up with schemes for the territorial structure of the Chechen Republic or for the organization of the structures of power and relations with Moscow are "useless" exercises. Instead, he says, Moscow should develop policies for Chechnya according to the following seven principles.

First, Moscow must build up its forces in Chechnya for the long haul. Those serving there must be among the most highly trained and best equipped soldiers in the Russian military and security agencies.

Second, Moscow must do everything in its power to make Chechens feel at home in Russia as a whole. The Chechens must become confident that Moscow will come down hard rather than aid and abet those who discriminate against them, and they must be included in the most elite units of spetsnaz and even the Kremlin guard.

Third, Chechens must be given a "real chance" to occupy positions of power at the highest level of the federal system in Moscow, in just the same way that ethnic Russians must be represented in the elites of the Chechen Republic.

Fourth, Moscow must oversee the creation of both Russian Orthodox seminaries and Muslim madrasahs. In that event, Novikov says, "there will not be either Christian or Muslim protestants, [adding that] Wahhabis are typical protestants with a primitive, literalist but understandable ideology."

Fifth, Moscow must launch and carry through a major program for the rehabilitation of Chechen youth who grew up in war, did not study and in part do not know Russian well. Unless they are reintegrated into society, the situation in their homeland will remain insecure.

Sixth, "everything that has been destroyed must be rebuilt, and compensation for loss of life must be paid punctually." That is both morally and prudentially necessary, Novikov argues.

And seventh, "the Chechens are not indifferent as to what kind of Russia they will live in." Chechens will be loyal to a country that has demonstrated its strength and consistency, but they will be less interested in linking their fates to one that is constantly changing directions and shifting alliances.

Whether or not Novikov's analysis of the situation is correct, his prescriptions, many of which seem entirely reasonable, are unlikely to be implemented either by the current Russian government or any likely future replacement. And as a result, his judgment that the war will continue well into the future seems tragically likely to be proven true. (Paul Goble)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "Although there appears to have been an improvement in the security situation in Chechnya, a culture of impunity remains. Reported cases of disappearances and torture should be fully investigated and the perpetrators, including members of the law-enforcement authorities, should be brought to justice." -- EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, speaking during a European Parliament debate in Strasbourg on 18 January (quoted by RFE/RL).

"The foundations of Armenian-Russian state relations were laid when Russia was a wholly different country, when it strived to adopt democratic values and pursued a predictable foreign and domestic policy. Our state interests...now require a revision of the concept of relations between Armenia and the Russian Federation."-- David Shakhnazarian, a leader of the opposition Armenian National Movement, quoted by "Kommersant-Daily" on 12 January.

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