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Caucasus Report: April 7, 1998

7 April 1998, Volume 1, Number 6

Deja vu in Armenia. History is repeating itself in Armenia in the wake of last month's presidential election. Again, the opposition candidate refuses to admit his defeat by the country's incumbent leader, charging vote falsification. And again, the authorities deny those charges. The difference is that whereas in September,1996, supporters of defeated challenger Vazgen Manukian took to the streets in protest against alleged fraud, this time the defeated candidate, former Armenian Communist Party First Secretary Soviet-era leader Karen Demirchian has urged supporters to exercise restraint and prepare for a "civilized and constitutional struggle." But the very fact that many Armenians do not believe in the legitimacy of the new president is hardly conducive to the development of democracy. This election only reinforced their belief that the government in Armenia cannot be changed through elections. The long-term consequences of this conviction could be dangerous.

There are, however, mitigating circumstances that give president elect Robert Kocharian a certain advantage over his predecessor, Levon Ter-Petrossian. First of all, it looks as though the international community will not question the overall validity of the official vote results, even though Yerevan will not gain a reputation of holding clean elections. Second and perhaps more important, a broad coalition of mostly leftist and nationalist parties has rallied behind Kocharian, who they say embodies "national unity." Two of those parties, the Dashnak party and Self-Determination Union led by prominent Soviet-era dissident Paruyr Hayrikian, are quite influential, although the leaders of the smaller parties may be better known to the public than the names. By joining the Kocharian camp, these parties will have their status enhanced and may also obtain some government posts.

One may draw parallels with the now defunct Hanrapetutyun (Republic) bloc cobbled together by Ter-Petrossian in 1995 to ensure the triumph of "the right-wing ideology." But Kocharian has replaced that ideology with one that attracts many parties and appeals to most of the Armenian intellectual class, namely, nationalism or as Armenians put it, "national ideology." Despised by Ter-Petrossian, whose "wild liberalism" pushed it to the fringes of society, bringing to the forefront a new, often corrupt, economic elite, and impoverished by the cessation of generous state funding, the intelligentsia (university professors, writers, artists, scientists and the like) is now embracing nationalism in a desperate hope of regaining the privileged position it enjoyed as the national elite during the last decades of Soviet Armenia.

Kocharian has espoused the concept of national ideology, which is best defined as a set of ethical norms based on "Armenian traditions and values." And he has affirmed that he wants to give the intelligentsia a say in the new political order. The problem is that this nationalist euphoria is not shared by that sizable stratum of the population which voted for Demirchian primarily in the hope of improved living conditions. Besides, the new pro-government coalition will not be immune to splits. For all his stated intention to share power with his allies, Kocharian will not cede control of certain key ministries. All the signs are that one of the liberal economists from his entourage is slated to become Armenia's next prime minister. His economic policy may not necessarily be approved by the satellite parties demanding a rapid improvement.

In addition, discord may emerge among the various pro-government groups in the runup to pre-term parliamentary elections due by the end of the year. It is not yet clear whether the pro-government forces will stand in a single bloc. But tough competition is likely between local semi-mafiosi clans and pro-Kocharian parties. And together or separately, those latter groups will have to face two remaining strong opposition forces: Demirchian, who plans to set up his own political movement, and Vazgen Manukian's National Democratic Movement (AZhM). Both those parties will be determined to ensure that the next elections are free and fair. (Emil Danielyan)

Stalemate in Abkhazia. Developments in Abkhazia over the past week have highlighted the entire spectrum of obstacles to a political settlement of the deadlocked conflict between that breakaway region and the central Georgian government.

On 31 March, Georgian, Russian and UN representatives travelled to Sukhumi for the third session of the Coordinating Council created last November under UN auspices to address economic and social problems, the repatriation to Abkhazia of Georgian displaced persons constrained to flee during the1992-1993 war, and combatting ongoing terrorist activities in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali raion.

The talks proved tense and unproductive. The Abkhaz leadership again refused, as it had done at the first session of the Council in December, 1997, to condone the participation of Tamaz Nadareishvili, chairman of the so-called Abkhaz parliament in exile which comprises the ethnic Georgian deputies to the Abkhaz parliament elected in 1991.

General Harun ar-Rashid, commander of the UN observer force in western Georgia, complained that Georgia is violating the ceasefire agreement signed in 1994 by maintaining a military presence in Zugdidi raion, which borders on Gali, and that the ongoing protest demonstration by Georgian displaced persons at the bridge linking Zugdidi and Gali is hindering his men from discharging their duties.

Russian special envoy Gennadii Ilichev charged that sporadic guerrilla attacks on the CIS peacekeeping force deployed along the internal border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia prevent the peacekeepers from adequately protecting those ethnic Georgians who have already returned to their homes in Gali. Much of that district has in fact become a no-man's-land fought over by Abkhaz and Georgian detachments: three Georgian youths were shot dead by Abkhaz militants in one Gali village on 3 April and a further 19 Georgians taken hostage. Russian media reports, citing an Abkhaz interior ministry spokesman, identified those killed as Georgian saboteurs. The Abkhaz participants at the Sukhumi talks had also condemned Georgian guerrilla activities, whereupon the Georgian delegation proposed creating an anti-guerrilla force with UN and CIS representation. It is not clear whether the Abkhaz agreed to that proposal.

The failure to make any headway in Sukhumi on local security issues parallels the inability of either Moscow or the UN to propose a political solution to the conflict that would be acceptable to both Tbilisi and Sukhumi. Conceding that the settlement process had lost momentum, Ilichev accused both the Abkhaz and Georgian leaderships of "maximalism" and of refusing to consider mutual concessions over the contentious issue of Abkhazia's future status within Georgia.

Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, for his part, is apparently deadset on enlisting the support of his fellow CIS presidents for the guidelines drafted by Tbilisi on resolving the conflict that were endorsed by all CIS presidents at their summit in Moldova in October, but which Russian President Boris Yeltsin declined to sign for reasons that are unclear. Those guidelines envisaged that the CIS peacekeepers be redeployed throughout Gali raion, not merely within12 km of the internal border as at present, that repatriation of Georgian displaced persons to Gali should begin within two months, and that talks between Georgia and Abkhazia on economic issues be postponed until the repatriation process is complete. The guidelines also empowered Georgia to demand the withdrawal from its territory of the CIS peacekeeping force. The guidelines were subsequently approved at the CIS Foreign Ministers' meeting in Moscow on 5 March, and will be put to the vote at the next CIS summit -- when it takes place. (Liz Fuller)