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Caucasus Report: March 9, 2000

9 March 2000, Volume 3, Number 10

New Standoff In Armenia. Less than two weeks after Prime Minister Aram Sargsian and representatives of Armenia's eight parliamentary parties signed an agreement pledging to work together to bring about an economic upswing, a new standoff has emerged between President Robert Kocharian and the leaders of the Miasnutiun parliament bloc and Prime Minister Aram Sargsian.

The latest round of tensions was precipitated by a 2 March press conference convened by the lawyers for Kocharian's former aide Aleksan Harutiunian, and Armenian National Television Deputy Director Harutiun Harutiunian, both of whom are accused of complicity in the 27 October parliament shootings. The two attorneys told journalists that they are convinced there is no evidence to substantiate those charges. They called for the investigation to be transferred from the office of Military Prosecutor Gagik Jahangirian to the Prosecutor-General's office.

The press conference received six minutes of coverage of Armenian National TV news that night. That prompted Miasnutiun leaders to issue a statement the following day demanding that President Kocharian dismiss his chief of staff Serzh Sarkisian and National Television Director Tigran Naghdalian. The statement, which was adopted at a meeting at Miasnutiun headquarters attended by the premier, claimed that Sarkisian is dictating to National Television how to cover the investigation into the shootings in an attempt to mislead public opinion and "obstruct" the investigation. It called on Kocharian to create "normal conditions" for the ongoing investigation into the "coup d'etat."

Speaking on National Television on 6 March, Kocharian defended both the right of the two lawyers to convene a press conference, and that of National Television to provide coverage of that event. He noted that the Military Prosecutor has not voiced any complaints about pressure on the investigating team. Kocharian further termed the demand for the resignation of his chief of staff "not correct and difficult to understand," arguing that such decisions lie with the president alone. He said the Miasnutiun alliance apparently lacks both political sophistication and leaders who could refrain it from actions that could tarnish its image. He also implied that the initiative for the 3 March ultimatum lay with the Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), which was founded by Aram Sargsian's murdered brother and predecessor Vazgen, rather than its sister party, the People's Party of Armenia (HZhK).

Aram Sargsian and senior Miasnutiun figures made clear on 7 March their displeasure with the president's response. The following day, Miasnutiun's leader, HHK deputy Andranik Markarian said that the bloc may appeal to the Constitutional Court to annul a decree signed by Kocharian on 6 March affirming his right to "confirm a general list of military posts" to be held by the most senior army officers. Markarian had told RFE/RL on 7 March that the decree "was meant to have an ideological effect...and to show that the army is his, But it belongs to the state." But in contrast to the HHK, HZhK parliament deputies showed little enthusiasm for challenging the president. One cautioned against "whipping up tension," while a second told RFE/RL that he considers Kocharian's decree "fully constitutional."

The Armenian Revolutionary Federation -- Dashnaktsutiun -- on 4 March reaffirmed its support for the president, and journalists condemned the 3 March statement as a violation of media freedom. But the rising tensions have fueled the ongoing press debate about the long-term motives of the Miasnutiun alliance. "Azg" on 7 March hypothesized that the bloc's ultimate aim is to oust Kocharian. "Hayots ashkharh" suggested that the reason for Military Prosecuutor Jahangirian's "nervousness" is that unnamed figures within Miasnutiun have ordered him to furnish evidence of Kocharian's involvement in the parliament killings. The same paper warns in a separate commentary that "these people are intent on establishing a dictatorship."

Jahangirian was scheduled to hold a press conference on 10 March, but observers say he may cancel it rather than face questions about statements made on 8 March by Harutiun Harutiunian's lawyer, Ruben Rshtuni. Rshtuni told journalists that his client had been drugged by investigators on 6 March in an attempt to extract evidence.

The time factor, above all, is viewed as crucial: if Kocharian can withstand the pressure on him that long, by 1 June he will be in a position to dissolve parliament and call new elections in an attempt to undercut Miasnutiun's authority. (The Armenian Constitution prohibits the president from dissolving parliament until one year after its election.) Meanwhile, addressing parliament on 8 March, Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian warned that the ongoing political tensions are negatively affecting the Karabakh peace process. (Liz Fuller)

Azerbaijan's Ex-President Calls For Direct Talks With Nagorno-Karabakh. In an interview published in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 2 March, former President Ayaz Mutalibov voiced his approval of the series of meetings begun last year between Armenian President Robert Kocharian and his Azerbaijani counterpart Heidar Aliyev devoted to the search for a mutually acceptable solution to the Karabakh conflict. But at the same time Mutalibov argued that Baku should embark on talks with the leadership of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic "as an equal participant in the negotiating process." For years, the present Azerbaijani leadership has rejected the idea of such direct talks, although recently it has hinted that it would agree to the participation of an Armenian delegation at future talks provided that the representatives of the Azerbaijani community who fled Karabakh during the fighting in 1992 are also present. The Azerbaijani opposition, too, does not recognize the Karabakh Armenian leadership as an acceptable negotiating partner.

Mutalibov's conciliatory proposal is the more surprising as he has made clear his intention of returning to Baku soon in order to contend the parliamentary elections due this fall. (He had fled to Moscow in May 1992 after an unsuccessful comeback bid catapulted the Azerbaijan Popular Front to power and has lived there ever since.) In articles published in "Zerkalo" on 29 January and 12 February, two Azerbaijani political commentators noted that the present leadership has softened the tone of its references to Mutalibov, although those authors do not link that shift directly to the success of a grassroots campaign launched last year to collect signatures on a petition that Mutalibov be allowed to return to Azerbaijan (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 2, No. 35, 2 September 1999). But those commentators agree that while many individual Azerbaijanis may sympathize with Mutalibov, it is by no means clear which segments of the domestic political spectrum could provide him with a support base.

Given Mutalibov's pro-Russian bias, it would be logical for him to seek the backing of left-wing political forces, and he has in fact expressed his intention to create such a left-wing bloc. At present there are two such blocs in Azerbaijan, which comprise communist and socialist parties respectively. The various communist parties, although they disagree among themselves on many issues, are unanimous in still considering Mutalibov a traitor for having dissolved the Communist Party of Azerbaijan (of which he was then first secretary) in the wake of the failed August 1991 coup. By contrast, the socialist parties aligned in the recently formed Movement for Socialist Solidarity would welcome Mutalibov as their leader and as an eventual candidate in the next presidential elections. But their electoral support is extremely modest.

There is, however, one group of voters who would be prepared to back an election bloc headed by Mutalibov: those Azerbaijanis who have been constrained by the imploding economy to leave Azerbaijan and seek work in the Russian Federation and who, according to "Zerkalo," constitute almost half the total electorate (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 2, No. 50, 17 December 1999). (Liz Fuller)

Can 'Transcam' Supplant TRACECA, Caucasus Common Market? "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 7 March published a draft proposal for an east-west transportation network across the Russian Federation that is intended as an alternative to the EU's TRACECA project. That latter initiative envisages the creation of a rail, highway and ferry network that will link China and the Central Asian states with the Caucasus and Turkey via the Caspian, avoiding Russia.

The alternative road and rail network unveiled by "Nezavisimaya gazeta," provisionally named "Transcam," would link China, Japan and the Russian Far East with the Near East, and the ports of the Black Sea, the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf with those of the Far East, via the Russian Federation and North and South Caucasus. The Russian project also includes creation of an extraterritorial international free economic zone on the territory of parts of the North Caucasus republic of North Ossetia and the present unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, in Georgia. The author estimates that the project would require 10 years to implement, at a total cost of approximately $4 billion, and would contribute to restoring Russia's international prestige and its influence in the Caucasus.

Implementation of the "Transcam" project, however, would be contingent on resolving the deadlocked conflict between the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia and the central Georgian government. The prospects for doing so figured on the agenda of talks in Tbilisi last week between Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and North Ossetian President Aleksandr Dzasokhov. During those talks, Dzasokhov proposed expanding the TRACECA network to include a north-south highway from the Urals to Turkey via the Caucasus (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 February 2000). Several days later, on 4 March, "Izvestiya" reported that secret talks are underway between Georgian and South Ossetian officials on the terms whereby the unrecognized republic will abandon its struggle for recognition as an independent state and accept some unspecified status within Georgia.

The "Transcam" project could also supplant the plans by Chechen officials, including former First Deputy premier Khozh-Akhmed Noukhaev, to raise international funding for a Caucasian Common market (see "End Note," "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 September 1997). President Aslan Maskhadov reportedly met with British businessmen to discuss that initiative during his visit to the U.K. in the spring of 1998. (Liz Fuller)

Quotations Of The Week. "We must think of the country's destiny and of the international community's attitude to our country: what will they think of us?" -- Armenian President Robert Kocharian, explaining his rejection of the Miasnutiun demand that he fire two senior officials. Quoted by Noyan Tapan, 7 March.

"A constitutionally elected president is much better than those who are guided by the desire to drive him out and impose their dictatorship on the country." -- Editorial comment in "Azg" of 7 March on the Miasnutiun ultimatum to President Kocharian.

"Chechens are not the kind of people who admit their defeat." -- Russian State Duma speaker Gennadii Seleznev, speaking in St. Petersburg on 5 March, quoted by ITAR-TASS.