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Caucasus Report: March 31, 2000

31 March 2000, Volume 3, Number 13

Attack On Karabakh President Exacerbates Political Tensions In Yerevan. Investigators in Stepanakert announced on 27 March that the botched attempt five days earlier to assassinate Arkadii Ghukasian, president of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, was planned and carried out by persons close to the enclave's former army commander and defense minister Samvel Babayan, who is Ghukasian's most formidable political opponent (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 2, No. 27, 8 July 1999 and No. 50, 16 December 1999).

Three of the five persons named on 27 March as having confessed to that attack are members of Babayan's bodyguard, and a fourth is his wife's brother. Babayan was taken into custody within hours of the attack, as was his brother Karen, who has since been suspended from his duties as mayor of Stepanakert. As of 30 March, neither brother had been charged with involvement in the assassination bid. But the unrecognized enclave's prosecutor-general told RFE/RL's Stepanakert correspondent that day that more charges could brought against Samvel Babayan in addition to illegal arms possession, abuse of power and tax evasion.

Senior officials in both Stepanakert and Yerevan say that the motives for the attack on Ghukasian are to be sought in the local politicial situation. The unrecognized republic's Foreign Minister, Naira Melkumian, was quoted by Armenpress on 24 March as saying that "I do not think that there is a force outside Karabakh and Armenia that was interested in the elimination of President Ghukasian." Speaking in Tbilisi on 28 March, Armenian President Robert Kocharian attributed the attack to "internal processes which take place in post-war countries and regions when order is being restored."

In view of his months-long standoff with Ghukasian, Babayan was the most obvious suspect in the attack on the Karabakh president. And part of his power lies in his control of dubious economic interests, on which Ghukasian now plans to crack down. The attack on Ghukasian thus presented the Karabakh leadership with a cast-iron excuse to detain the renegade general, and, by extension, to hamstring the opposition to Ghukasian in the runup to elections for the enclave's new parliament, which Babayan's supporters stood a good chance of winning. Noyan Tapan's veteran political commentator David Petrosian observed that the primary beneficiary of the attack is Karabakh Premier Anushavan Danielian, who would have lost his post in the event of an election victory by Babayan's supporters. Danielian is currently discharging the duties of Karabakh president.

But whether despite or precisely because Samvel Babayan was the most obvious suspect, an increasing number of Armenian politicians from across the political spectrum in Yerevan are expressing doubt at his personal involvement in the attack, and they are warning against making him the scapegoat for it. Those sceptics include not only leading members of the nationalist "Right and Accord" bloc which supports Babayan and is believed to receive funding from him, but also Kim Balayan, a Karabakh-born member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation--Dashnaktsutiun, National Democratic Union chairman Vazgen Manukian, who characterized Babayan as too intelligent to issue direct orders for an attempt on Ghukasian's life, and Andranik Markarian, head of the Miasnutiun majority parliament bloc.

If Babayan is formally charged with the assassination bid, any failure by President Kocharian to distance himself from that charge could exacerbate the rift that already exists between the Armenian president and Miasnutiun, and broaden it into one between Ghukasian and Kocharian, on the one hand, and Babayan's sympathizers and supporters in both Yerevan and Stepanakert, on the other. But if Kocharian were to fail to express support for Babayan's indictment, the ensuing perceived lack of solidarity between Yerevan and Stepanakert could, at the very least, negatively affect the ongoing search for a political settlement of the Karabakh conflict.

Meanwhile, the circumstances of the attack, specifically the use of automatic rifles against a moving target, raise the question of whether the intention really was to eliminate Ghukasian, or simply to create a pretext for neutralizing Babayan. Lenser Aghalovian, chairman of a small Armenian party comprising mainly Karabakh-born intellectuals, reasoned, as have other observers, that if an experienced warrior like Babayan had indeed wanted to get rid of Ghukasian, the latter would not have survived. A single shot from a grenade-launcher would have left him no chances, Aghalovian told "Haykakan Zhamanak" last week. (Liz Fuller)

New Political Alignment Emerges in Azerbaijan. A new cooperation agreement between two major left-wing Azerbaijani opposition parties may have a significant longterm impact on the political situation in the country. The Azerbaijan Popular Front newspaper "Azadlyg" on 29 March quoted former parliament speaker Rasul Guliev as confirming rumors that the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, of which he and Ilyas Ismailov are co-chairmen, has concluded a cooperation agreement with Etibar Mamedov's Azerbaijan National Independence Party (AMIP) headed by Etibar Mamedov. Both parties were represented in the opposition delegation that travelled to the U.S. earlier this month in a bid to win support for their demand that the parliamentary elections due in November be held under UN supervision.

Right-wing opposition parties such as the Azerbaijan Popular Front have dismissed this initiative as unrealistic: Azerbaijan Popular Front First Deputy Chairman Ali Kerimov told "Zerkalo" in January that the opposition should rely on its own efforts to ensure that the November poll is democratic.

But in addition to broadly similar political views, there is a more practical and pressing reason for Etibar Mamedov to seek an alignment with Guliev. Mamedov made a high-profile and sophisticated, but ultimately unsuccessful bid for the presidency in October 1998. According to the official returns, he polled 11.6 percent of the vote, compared with 76.11 percent for incumbent Heidar Aliev. Mamedov himself rejects those figures, claiming that he garnered at least 26 percent of the vote, while Aliyev received no more than 60 percent -- or less than the 2/3 majority required for an outright first round victory.

In retaliation for Mamedov's strong showing, some political observers say, Aliyev set about targeting the financial empire of Mamedov and his closest associates, and has reduced AMIP to near bankruptcy: it is rumored that the party can no longer afford to pay the rent for its Baku headquarters. It was therefore in Mamedov's vital interest, those observers reason, to seek out a wealthy patron -- and Rasul Guliev was the obvious candidate. Guliev amassed a fortune during his tenure as director of one of Azerbaijan's largest oil refineries during the early 1990s. He has lived in self-imposed exile in the U.S. since the fall of 1996, and is believed to have bank-rolled the boycott by four other prominent opposition party leaders of the 1998 presidential poll.

One Baku commentator has construed the Mamedov-Guliev alignment as directed against two other prominent opposition leaders, Azerbaijan Popular Front chairman Abulfaz Elchibey and Musavat Party chairman Isa Gambar, on the assumption that the latter could form a united front following the demise of President Aliev. But "Azadlyg" quoted Guliev as saying that those two parties will be invited to join the new alignment, which he described as being "aimed at preventing dictatorship." Representatives of all four parties had held a series of meetings during the winter months to discuss possible cooperation, but neither Elchibey nor Gambar has yet indicated his readiness to accept Guliev's offer. Elchibey's willingness to do so may depend on whether the Popular Front splits into a reformist wing, headed by Ali Kerimov, and the "romantic radicals" grouped around Elchibey.

Kerimov, while admitting that differences of opinion exist within the Popular Front, has said repeatedly that such a split is not on the cards. But many Baku commentators treat such disclaimers with scepticism, and some even suspect Kerimov of either having been coopted by, or of seeking some kind of accomodation with, the present leadership. They point, for example, to Kerimov's visit last fall to Turkey, where he was received by Suleyman Demirel, arguing that such a meeting with the Turkish president could not have taken place without the Azerbaijan leadership's approval.

The ruling Yeni Azerbaycan party similarly publicly rejects any form of cooperation with the opposition, which the party's executive secretary, Ali Akhmedov, recently accused of "a biassed approach" to the authorities and "constant lies." Akhmedov added that Yeni Azerbaycan in any case has no need to seek political allies, as it may well succeed in winning all 125 seats in the new parliament.

One reason for such optimism lies in the increasing popularity of Heidar Aliev's son Ilham, who was elected one of five deputy chairmen of Yeni Azerbaycan at the party's congress last December. In a poll conducted in late January-early February among 50 political commentators and journalists in Baku, Ilham scored the highest rating among ten establishment and ten opposition politicians (excluding President Aliev), as the politician perceived as most capable of presenting a new program to extricate the country from crisis, of conducting a dialogue with the opposition, and of winning the presidential election in 2003. (Liz Fuller)

Quotations Of The Week. "They received us like Turks." -- A member of the Armenian "Right and Accord" bloc who travelled to Stepanakert to discuss the detention of Samvel Babayan with the leadership of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. Quoted by "Aravot" on 30 March.

"Stability in the South Caucasus will lack a solid foundation if it ignores the need for developing good-neighborly relations with Russia. The region has numerous historical, economic, cultural and other ties with Russia. We cannot but appreciate the depth of Russian interests in the region and, in the light of their underestimation, the presence of a certain anxiety on Russia's part. [...] We regard democratic Russia as a major partner." Armenian President Robert Kocharian, addressing the Georgian parliament on 28 March. Quoted by Noyan Tapan.