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Caucasus Report: February 19, 2001

19 February 2001, Volume 4, Number 7

ARMENIAN PARLIAMENT SHOOTINGS TRIAL OPENS, ADJOURNS. The trial of 13 men prosecuted in connection with the October 1999 shootings in the Armenian parliament was adjourned for on 15 February less than two hours after its long-awaited start. The next court session is to be held within one week. The formal reason for the delay, cited by Judge Samvel Uzunian, was the absence of one of the defendants and two defense lawyers. All five members of the armed group that had gunned down eight senior officials, including Armenia's prime minister and parliament speaker, appeared before a district court in Yerevan to the accompaniment of taunts from the victims' relatives.

Some two hundred supporters of the assassinated officials gathered in the meantime outside the court building in the city center to demand the death sentence for the attackers. The area surrounding the building was cordoned off by special police units. Security was particularly tight inside the courthouse with several dozen armed police guarding 11 defendants locked up in five adjacent cages.

Some relatives of the murdered officials shouted abuse at Nairi Hunanian and four other arrested gunmen, including his brother Karen and uncle Vram Galstian, as they made their way into the dock. The opening court session mostly involved a check of the defendants' identity and other formalities. Hunanian, making his first public appearance since 28 October 1999, looked calm and self-confident while answering the judge's and lawyers' questions.

Hunanian went on to demand that one of the four members of the prosecution team, Hakob Martirosian, be barred from taking part in the trial, accusing him of violating the due process of law. "I want him to be called up instead as a witness of illegalities committed during the investigation," he charged. The demand was rejected by the judge.

Hunanian claimed last April that the investigators had forced him implicate an aide to President Robert Kocharian and several other well-known persons in the killings. The 35-year-old former journalist is expected to defend the bloody raid on the National Assembly and blame the assassinated officials for Armenia's socioeconomic problems. He has refused to hire defense counsels, preferring to himself make his case.

Tension at the hearings rose when one of the three police officers charged with allowing the gunmen to smuggle weapons into the chamber, demanded that Judge Uzunian order his release. "Don't force me to sit with this scum," the defendant, Armen Gasparian, exclaimed, pointing to the other accused. The petition was turned down.

Emotions also ran high outside the building where an angry crowd demanded a tough verdict against Hunanian and his henchmen. The gathering was organized by the Yerkrapah Union of Nagorno-Karabakh war veterans, which was founded by Vazgen Sarkisian, the slain prime minister. Among the demonstrators were members of Yerkrapah's children's organization dressed in khaki uniforms. "Death to the criminals," read one of the black banners held by the boys aged between 10 and 15.

The trial followed a year-long criminal inquiry conducted by military prosecutors. Relatives and friends of the victims accuse the prosecutors of failing to solve the case. Aram Sarkisian, the brother of the assassinated premier, repeated the charge on 15 February, saying that he still believes the crime was masterminded by other "influential forces" and not Hunanian.

Sarkisian spoke to reporters, standing amidst the protesters. He said: "I won't be taking part in the trial. I consider myself Asian and find it impossible to be in the same room with the person who killed my brother."

Sarkisian, who succeeded his older brother as prime minister and was sacked by Kocharian in May, was joined by several prominent members of his cabinet, including former Defense Minister Vagharshak Harutiunian, former Minister for Industrial Infrastructures Vahan Shirkhanian, and Albert Bazeyan, the recently sacked mayor of Yerevan.

"We are demanding justice and not putting pressure on the court," Bazeyan said. "If it turns out that some governing circles were involved in or knew about the crime they will have to be brought to account," he added, in a remark highlighting some Yerkrapah leaders' continuing suspicion of Kocharian and his allies. (Karine Kalantarian and Emil Danielyan)

IS TURKEY SEEKING TO ENHANCE ITS ROLE IN THE SOUTH CAUCASUS? Two recent developments suggest that Ankara may be trying to compensate for the blow dealt to its prestige from the French parliament's resolution condemning the Armenian genocide by seeking to play a more prominent role in regional politics.

Annoyed by Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliev's visit to Paris just days after the French parliament resolution, Ankara appears to have extended a particularly warm welcome to visiting Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze in late January. Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit underscored the "strategic nature" of bilateral relations, affirming that "Georgia's problems are our problems. Georgia's security is our security." Turkish media construed that statement as reflecting Turkey's intention to create a Turkish-Georgian axis to counter the perceived special relationship between Armenia and Russia. That interpretation was fueled by Seifi Tashan, director of Turkey's Foreign Policy Institute, who reportedly argued in Shevardnadze's presence that "Turkey needs Georgia's support against Armenia."

In an attempt to dispel suspicions of an emerging Georgian-Turkish alignment, however, Georgian Foreign Ministry spokesman Avtandil Napetvaridze told journalists in Tbilisi on 16 February that Shevardnadze's talks on regional issues dealt exclusively with "regional cooperation and efforts to settle conflicts." He specifically denied that Georgia is considering engaging in an "anti-Russian conspiracy," according to Interfax.

Speaking at a conference in Ankara on security issues in the South Caucasus, Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem suggested that Ankara could host trilateral talks with Armenian and Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry officials to discuss ways of resolving the Karabakh conflict. Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Yigit Alpogan stressed that the Turkish initiative is intended to complement, rather than undercut, the ongoing Karabakh mediation by the OSCE Minsk Group, of which Turkey is a member.

Minsk Group co-chairman Carey Cavanaugh welcomed Cem's proposal. But Armenian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Dziunik Aghajanian told RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau on 19 February that Turkey cannot act as a mediator because of its "explicitly one-sided position" in favor of Azerbaijan. She also argued that Turkish mediation is not feasible in the absence of diplomatic relations between Yerevan and Ankara. (Liz Fuller)

GEORGIAN OFFICIALS OUTLINE MILITARY REFORM PLANS. A U.S. military delegation visited Georgia last week to assess both ongoing bilateral (U.S.-Georgian) and trilateral (U.S.-Turkish-Georgian) military cooperation and to advise on the planned reform of the Georgian armed forces. The aim of that reform, as Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze told the delegation, is to create "a small but mobile army complying with modern Western standards."

The Georgian Defense Ministry plans to publish very shortly a "White Book" giving full details of the planned reform. Meanwhile, Defense Minister David Tevzadze and Deputy Defense Minister Gela Bezhuashvili have explained the broad outlines of the reform in interviews published earlier this month in "Krasnaya zvezda" and "Vremya MN."

Tevzadze lists as the primary objectives of the planned reform making control of the Georgian armed forces more flexible, making the forces themselves more adaptable to serving alongside other international forces in possible peacekeeping operations, and transforming the mindset of those Georgian army officers who are veterans of the Soviet army. He observes that "Georgia is not the Soviet Union, we have absolutely different tasks," and that the threats now facing Georgia are local, and require a new concept of defense. Bezhaushvili makes the related point that Georgia's new defense concept stipulates that Georgian troops will not take part in combat operations outside Georgia, although they may participate in international peacekeeping operations.

To achieve optimum military readiness and effectiveness in conditions where the Defense Ministry budget is widely admitted to be inadequate, the number of military personnel will be reduced from the present 38,414 to 20,000 by mid-2001 and 12,000-13,000 by 2004. But those reductions will be primarily in ancillary personnel such as medical and sporting facilities for the exclusive use of the armed forces and military choirs and brass bands. The reformed armed forces will not include a separate air force as that would be too costly. Military aircraft and helicopters will be under the jurisdiction of the ground forces. The nucleus of those forces will be a small rapid-reaction force.

In comments that seem utopian in the light of budget constraints, Tevzadze said that ideally some 70 percent of soldiers will be professionals serving on contract, rather than conscripts. He also said that a review of armaments is planned to determine "what we now have and what we would be financially able to acquire in the next two-three years." Those acquisitions are likely to be contingent on continued financial support from the U.S. and Turkey, which to date have donated at least $94 million and $13 million respectively to fund Georgia's armed forces. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK. "The lack of relations [between Armenia and Turkey] is not natural." -- OSCE Minsk Group co-chairman Carey Cavanaugh, quoted by AP (17 February).