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Caucasus Report: May 5, 2000

5 May 2000, Volume 3, Number 18

Game, Set And Match? On 2 May, Armenian President Robert Kocharian put an end to the six month standoff between himself and Prime Minister Aram Sargsian, dismissing both the latter and Defense Minister Vagharshak Harutiunian. In a statement broadcast the same day by Armenian National Television, Kocharian said he had had reservations about dismissing the premier in view of his personal relationship with the latter's murdered brother and predecessor Vazgen (a comrade in arms during the Karabakh war.) But he said he had been constrained to dismiss Aram Sargsian in order to end a situation that threatened to "shatter the foundations of our statehood." Kocharian said that despite all his efforts, the president and government had proven unable to work as a team whose activities serve the same goal. He said "political intrigues" between ministers "have become a way of life, while economic and other problems are snowballing to become a serious challenge to the country." He said a continuation of the status quo could lead to "collapse" and "political breakdown" within the armed forces.

Aram Sargsian had been named premier in November 1998, one week after the 27 October parliament shooting in which eight people, including his brother Vazgen, died. An almost unknown cement-factory director, Aram Sargsian was the sole candidate whom the majority Miasnutiun parliament faction and the Yerkrapah Union of veterans of the Karabakh War (which Vazgen Sargsian founded) trusted to continue implementing Vazgen's policies. But from the beginning Sargsian and Kocharian had disagreed, first about the optimum composition of the cabinet and then over the ongoing investigation into the 27 October parliament shootings. In mid-March, in what commentators termed "a brilliant tactical move," Kocharian moved to undercut Sargsian's powerbase by promoting several prominent Yerkrapah generals to senior Defense Ministry posts (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, No. 11, 17 March 2000). He explained that move in terms of the need to prevent the "politicization" of the army.

Armenian commentators have hailed the sacking of the premier as the culmination of the power struggle between the president, on the one hand, and on the other, Sargsian, backed by the majority Miasnutiun parliament bloc and the Yerkrapah Union. Aram Sargsian's defeat was inevitable, some observers said, because of his lack of experience and his willingness to allow himself to be used by Miasnutiun in its attempt to settle scores with the president.

But even before Kocharian sacked Sargsian, there were growing indications that his support within parliament was waning. Kayunutiun, the second largest parliament faction which had expressed support Sargsian when he was named president, distanced itself from calls late last month by Miasnutiun for Kocharian's impeachment, and its members met with the president late last week to discuss the political situation.

More significantly, Miasnutiun seems closer than ever before to splitting into its two component parts: the Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) founded in 1998 by Vazgen Sargsian as the political arm of Yerkrapah, and the People's Party of Armenia (HZhK) created by parliament speaker Karen Demirchian (who also died in the 27 October bloodbath). Unconfirmed reports claim that on 1 May Kocharian met with Demirchian's son Stepan, who succeeded him as leader of the HZhK, to offer him the premiership.

As for the Yerkrapah, "Aravot " on 5 May claimed its leadership has split into two factions headed respectively by the union's chairman, General Manvel Grigorian (one of the generals promoted by Kocharian in March to the post of deputy defense minister), and the minister for industrial infrastructures, Vahan Shirkhanian. (Liz Fuller)

Armenian Center-Right Forms New Alliance. Four small center-right parties that had split from the former ruling Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh) at different times joined forces on 3 May in a new opposition bloc which they said will seek the"constitutional" removal of the current Armenian leadership. The leaders of all four parties held senior posts under former President Levon Ter-Petrossian between 1991 and 1998. They are former parliament speaker Babken Ararktsian (Armat), ex-premier Hrant Bagratian (Azatutiun), former National Security Minister David Shahnazarian (21st Century), and Vigen Khachatrian (Liberal Democratic Party).

In a declaration issued after the creation of the Union of Right-Wing Forces, they accused the present Armenian authorities of rolling back political and economic reforms, bullying the opposition and pursuing an "aggressive foreign policy."

"Armenia has turned from a guarantor of stability and a leader of democracy and reforms into an obstacle to regional integration and development," the statement said. The new grouping will strive to restore "constitutional order," to achieve "the irreversibility of democracy" and ensure Armenia's "active participation" in regional integration processes, it said.

But the new alliance will have to contend with the negative legacy of the former ruling Armenian Pan-National Movement's dismal track record, which comprises corruption, mismanagemtent, and the perceived falsification of both the 1995 constitutional referendum and the 1996 presidential poll. Of the four parties, only Bagratian's Azatutiun contested last year's parliamentary elections, but failed to win a single parliament seat. (Emil Danielyan)

More Confrontations in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijani police on 29 April used force to break up an unsanctioned demonstration in Baku injuring and detaining dozens of people, including women and journalists. The number of participants has been variously estimated at between 5,000--20,000, making it the largest such undertaking since November 1998, when some 4,000-5,000 people marched to protest what they suggested was the falsification of the presidential poll one month earlier (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 November 1998).

According to a declaration drawn up by the opposition Democratic Congress which organized it, the protesters assembled to demand the passage of a new election law to ensure that November�s parliamentary poll will be fair and free as well as to call for the release of political prisoners, and opposition access to the state-controlled media.

Azerbaijani officials argue that the first two of these demands are unnecessary: With input from the OCSE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, they have already drafted amendments to the existing election legislation. Specifically, the law on the Central Electoral Commission, which ODIHR Director Gerard Stoudmann termed "crucial," had been amended to reduce the number of that body's members from 24 to 18, of whom six would represent the government, six -- opposition political parties represented in parliament, and six -- independent parliament deputies. The opposition objects to that proposal on the grounds that many allegedly independent deputies are loyal to the country's leadership. The opposition also objects to a new requirement that candidates contesting single-mandate constituencies should pay a $620 deposit.

As for the release of political prisoners, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Vilayet Guliiev denied in Washington last week that any of the approximately 50 persons identified by the opposition as such were sentenced for their political beliefs.

In the wake of the violence, both sides have sought the moral high ground. Presidential administration official Ali Hasanov said on national television that the opposition has no grounds to fear falsification of the outcome of the November elections, given that Azerbaijan's acceptance into full membership of the Council of Europe is contingent on the poll being perceived as fair and democratic. Foreign Minister Guliev had argued even before the demonstration took place that police in all countries have the right to disperse unsanctioned demonstrations. And on 2 May, parliament deputies adopted by a vote of 79-1 a resolution condemning the demonstration as directed against the state system and intended to damage the country's international image on the eve of its acceptance into full membership of the Council of Europe.

Opposition party leaders, for their part, hailed the demonstration as "a moral victory," and pledged in a resolution adopted on 2 May "to continue the struggle for the democratization of society." To that end, they are planning a new rally in Baku on 20 May. That avowed readiness for further confrontation, and the language in which it is expressed, may point to an increase in domestic political tensions in coming months. That prospect is particularly disturbing because the opposition groups appear to be embarking on precisely the same type of attrition tactics they used within the then Supreme Soviet in 1990-1992. Those tactics culminated in the March 1992 forced resignation of President Ayaz Mutalibov and the advent to power two months later of the Azerbaijan Popular Front.

Recognizing the dangers of such an escalation, the U.S. State Department on 4 May issued a statement calling on the Azerbaijani leadership to ensure protection of freedom of assembly and expression, including the right to hold peaceful demonstrations, and on both sides to abjure violence. Washington also urged the Azerbaijani leadership to work with the opposition to improve the Central Election Commission, and to present and adopt within a short period a law on elections that conforms to international democratic norms. (Liz Fuller)

Baku Sees 'Beginning Of The End' Of CIS. Speaking at RFE/RL's Washington office on 29 April, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Vilayet Guliev said his government views the creation of the Russia-Belarusian Union as "the beginning of the end" of the Commonwealth of Independent States. He said the CIS can be "viable only if it is engaged in processes leading to economic integration." Efforts to turn the CIS into a political organization, which is apparently how Baku construes last December's treaty on creating a Union State of Russia and Belarus, have the effect of reducing the importance of the CIS in the economic area as well, Guliev argued. He said that Azerbaijan has always objected to Moscow's effforts to use the CIS as a means of superceding national laws and undermining the sovereignty of fellow CIS member states.

Guliev suggested that "the imperial psychology sometimes survives," even when the empire which gave rise to it has ceased to exist. He further noted the existence of "certain political circles" in Moscow which, he said, are unhappy with the existence of independent states in the South Caucasus. But he said such views will not deter Azerbaijan from continuing to pursue its independent foreign policy aimed at developing good relations with its neighbors, with the West in general and with the U.S. in particular.

Such a foreign policy is absolutely necessary for Azerbaijan, Guliev concluded, because the country is situated "at the crossroads of Europe and Asia," and thus can serve as an important link between the two both economically and politically. (RFE/RL)

How Many Concessions Has Tbilisi Made To Adjaria? Ever since Adjar Supreme Council chairman Aslan Abashidze withdrew his presidential candidacy on the eve of the 9 April Georgian presidential poll, observers have speculated as to the nature of the quid pro quo.

The most obvious consequence of Abashidze's talks in Batumi in early April with Georgian parliamentary speaker Zurab Zhvania and President Eduard Shevardnadze was the anouncement that the Georgian Constitution will be amended to include formal mention of Adjaria's status as an autonomous republic (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, No. 16, 21 April 2000). But in addition, over the past ten days Georgian Minister of State Vazha Lortkipanidze has hinted at two further concessions to Abashidze.

On 24 April, Lortkipanidze told journalists that he considers economically expedient the creation of a free trade zone in Batumi, which is situated a stone's throw from the Georgian-Turkish border. The Adjar authorities have been demanding lobbying for years for the creation of such a free economic zone, which the Georgian parliament has consistently rejected. One week later, Lortkipanizde disclosed that Adjaria may get representation in the new Georgian government, even though the number of ministers is likely to be cut from 21 to 15. Opposition politicians reacted negatively to that proposal: Labor Party leader Shalva Natelashvili argued that if implemented, it could exacerbate centrifugal tendencies.

It would also set a precedent that the present leaderships of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia might adduce during future negotiations on the status of their respective republics within a single Georgian state. (Liz Fuller)

Quotations Of The Week. "The authorities have shown that all promises about democratization are mere words....All their actions seek to crush the opposition and falsify the parliamentary elections." -- Azerbaijan Popular Front Party statement, quoted by Reuters, 30 April.

"This is the worst a father could do to his son." -- Former Azerbaijani President Ayaz Mutalibov, a propos rumors that President Heidar Aliyev plans to name his son Ilham to succeed him (quoted by Turan, 27 April).