Accessibility links

Caucasus Report: May 17, 2007

Key Players Seek To Maximize Election Gains In Armenia

By Liz Fuller and Richard Giragosian

Sarkisian's Republican Party surpassed nearly all preelection estimates, giving the prime minister a strong legislative mandate and a sound platform for a likely presidential candidacy

May 17, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The May 12 Armenian parliamentary elections resulted in a victory for Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian's Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) and the eclipse of two opposition parties represented in the outgoing parliament. But the division of mandates raises questions about the composition of a new coalition government, which may hinge on the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun, a junior coalition partner since 2003.

The May 12 vote was hailed by international election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) as a "clear improvement" demonstrating "progress" compared with earlier ballots, and as largely meeting international standards for democratic elections. That evaluation both conveys a heightened degree of legitimacy on the new legislature and suggests a break with Armenia's dubious legacy of tainted elections.

The election results largely confirmed general expectations, with Prime Minister Sarkisian's HHK the overall winner, followed by the new Bargavach Hayastan (Prosperous Armenia, BH) party and the HHD. Yet the election was not without some surprises. First, the scale of the HHK victory surpassed nearly all preelection estimates, while votes for Prosperous Armenia were surprisingly fewer than expected. The HHK garnered nearly one-third of the party-list vote, which together with the seats it won in single-mandate constituencies will ensure it 64 or 65 seats in the new 131-seat parliament, endowing the party with an outright majority. Bolstered by its strong position, the HHK now offers Prime Minister Sarkisian both a firm platform for dominating the legislative agenda of the new parliament and a strong position for his candidacy in the February 2008 presidential election.

Prosperous, But Popular?

Coming in a distant second, Prosperous Armenia polled a mere 14.7 percent of the vote, less than half that cast for the HHK, and which will translate into 25 or 26 parliamentary seats. That modest showing surprised many, as the party steadily acquired political standing and seeming popularity in the preelection period thanks primarily to the mass-scale distribution of "charity" and "benevolent aid" throughout the rural areas of Armenia by party founder and wealthy businessman Gagik Tsarukian. The party's poor showing underscores the extent of political apathy and cynicism in Armenia, marked by the ordinary voter's inclination to accept both bribes and promises prior to an election, but to ignore both once in the voting booth.

Prosperous Armenia was established primarily to provide President Kocharian with the political power base he has never had before, rather than from any ideology or political platform. Yet even despite garnering fewer votes than it hoped for, and in stark contrast to its preelection boast of over 400,000 members nationwide, the election outcome does not necessarily mark Prosperous Armenia's premature eclipse.

On the contrary, the results actually fulfill the party's stated primary goals -- simply to emerge as a new political force and to enter parliament. Tasked with a novel political role as more a pro-presidential than a pro-government party, the future of Prosperous Armenia will be closely aligned with that of Kocharian, whether he opts for a Boris Yeltsin model of secure presidential retirement or some Vladimir Putin-style political future.

The third pro-establishment party, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD), the long-serving junior partner in the ruling coalition government, improved its position by securing 16 seats (compared with 11 in the outgoing parliament) and slightly more than 13 percent of the vote. But reflecting the intricacies of true parliamentary politics, the HHD has simultaneously emerged as a potential kingmaker in the new parliament, and as a broker in the formation of a new pro-government coalition in light of Sarkisian's stated preference for the broadest possible coalition, rather than relying on his parliamentary majority for a HHK-only government. Sarkisian's rationale is presumably that a broader coalition would expand support for his presidential bid next year, while at the same time preventing any potential alliance between the HHD and Prosperous Armenia that could pose a challenge to the HHK.

Opposition Ranks Changing

The election also resulted in significant shifts within the parliamentary opposition, notably the weakening of the opposition Orinats Yerkir party of former parliament Chairman Artur Baghdasarian. With less than 7 percent of the vote, the onetime member of the pro-government coalition will have only 10 deputies in the new parliament, but Baghdasarian has nonetheless made it clear that he intends to discard the opposition's traditional tactics of boycott and abstention, vowing to embark instead on a bold strategy of legislative confrontation.

Second, if the sidelining of Orinats Yerkir was generally expected, the failure of longtime opposition leader Stepan Demirchian and his People's Party of Armenia (HZhK) to surmount the 5 percent threshold for returning to parliament was not. The failure of both Demirchian -- whom Kocharian defeated in presidential runoffs in 1998 and 2003 -- and his opposition party to win reelection, and the HZhK's dismal 1.7 percent of the party-list vote, may reflect his erstwhile supporters' unhappiness at his refusal to sacrifice his personal ambition for the sake of creating a unified opposition bloc.

The third significant development was the emergence of a new dynamic political actor in the form of the Zharangutiun (Heritage) party of U.S.-born former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian. Official election results gave the party only 6 percent of the vote and a total of six parliament mandates, although many Armenians believe that the popular Hovannisian received a far greater number of votes, especially in Yerevan. The well-liked Hovannisian is hailed as a new opposition force, capable of injecting a new sense of optimism and integrity into Armenian politics.

What's Ahead

As the country's uncrowned new opposition leader, Hovannisian will most likely eclipse Baghdasarian in terms of both political prowess and popular appeal, thanks largely to his personal record. He is seen as untainted by corruption and, unlike Baghdasarian, free from the constraints of past association with the ruling elite. Most importantly, Hovannisian, who first moved to Armenia 16 years ago and served as its foreign minister in 1992, offers something new for Armenian politics, while still maintaining an established record of principled opposition and standing. He has waged a long battle with the Armenian authorities, beginning with the controversial rejection of his candidacy in the 2003 presidential election and culminating in the eviction of his party last year from the building housing its Yerevan headquarters. This dual record of political persecution and opposition has only endeared him to ordinary Armenians.

In this reconfigured political landscape, the main players now face the task of forming first a new coalition, and then a cabinet. Here too, the HHD will exert its newfound political power, demanding not only the retention of its existing ministerial portfolios (agriculture, education and social welfare), but also seeking the defense minister position for one of its members, former Deputy Defense Minister General Artur Aghabekian. Aghabekian, a leading reformer within the Armenian military who served as deputy to Prime Minister Sarkisian during the latter's tenure as defense minister, may also bring a new vitality to the post now held by the retirement-aged Colonel General Mikheil Harutiunian.

Still unclear is whether and how the reconfigured political landscape will impact the relationship -- and the rumored rivalry -- between Sarkisian and Kocharian. Over the medium term, politics will be driven by Sarkisian's clearly stated aspiration to succeed the outgoing president. But will Kocharian readily accept a passive role as a lame-duck president? Crucially, will Kocharian choose to ease Sarkisian's path to the presidency or to hinder it, possibly by backing a rival candidate?

Georgian Foreign Minister Hails South Ossetia 'Breakthrough'

Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili

BRUSSELS, May 16, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili visited European Union headquarters in Brussels earlier this week. In an interview with RFE/RL correspondent Ahto Lobjakas, he said that Tbilisi believes it has achieved a "breakthrough" in relations with separatists in South Ossetia.

RFE/RL: To start with the most recent developments, one of South Ossetia's two rival separatist leaders Dmitry Sanakoyev addressed the Georgian parliament on May 10. How important was that event in terms of Georgia's attempts to recover its separatist territories?

Gela Bezhuashvili: It is indeed a breakthrough. This is a point [of view] that is shared by not only the leadership or executives, but it is shared by the broader spectrum of political forces in Georgia, and this is the most important thing. It is a breakthrough, it is the first time the former separatists -- who fought back in 1992-1993 on [the other] side of the barricade -- said 'enough is enough.' [Sanakoyev has] collected significant support from the local population, both Georgian and Ossetian. [He] legitimately represents the Ossetian population, having a vision [and] expressing himself very clearly -- what he wants, how he sees the future of his people. It is indeed a breakthrough. If you compare Dmitry Sanakoyev [to de facto South Ossetia President Eduard] Kokoity -- who is surrounded by Russian nationalists, [and has] nothing to do with Ossetia or [the] Ossetian ethnos or Ossetian culture at all -- you will see more legitimacy in than Kokoity.

RFE/RL: So where does this leave Kokoity in your eyes? Are you not going to talk to him at all, even if that were possible?

"The political engagement of the EU has proved to be a successful exercise. The dominant negotiating power of Russia needs to be equalized by an equally important partner."

Bezhuashvili: No, no, we've said from the beginning we will be talking -- this is an inclusive process. We will continue to talk with Kokoity if he wants to talk, no doubt. For the last month or two, there was an attempt [by] the Georgian leadership, from different forces -- opposition parties, [the] ruling majority, executives -- to reach out to Kokoity and say 'Let's meet and let's discuss.' We've been denied access [and told] 'No, we don't have anything to talk about with you.' [But] the doors are still open.

RFE/RL: What Georgia is doing in the Kodori Gorge in Abkhazia right now, is this something similar -- an attempt to set up a rival local power structure next to the separatist regime?

Bezhuashvili: No, [there is a] difference here. All conflicts are different and those on the territory of Georgia, they are also different. [A] legitimate government of Abkhazia exists since the conflict started, since 1992, [or] 1991. The only difference is that they've been stationed in the capital of Georgia, in Tbilisi, and then they themselves decided to move to Abkhazia, and they've chosen Kodori because it's the only part that the Georgian government controls. [It's that] simple, so it's not that similar to what is happening in the Tshinkvali region, [in] South Ossetia.

RFE/RL: And what do you expect from the EU at this stage when it comes to these two conflicts?

Bezhuashvili: The political engagement of the EU has proved to be a successful exercise. I mean that the dominant negotiating power of Russia needs to be equalized by [an] equally important partner and player.

RFE/RL: But the EU has still not agreed to join the Joint Control Commission for Ossetia.

Bezhuashvili: No, no, of course not. I'm talking about the relevance of the EU to be a player and it's a process [that needs] the engagement of the EU first -- and then the engagement of Russia, from a positive perspective. The EU's role here is twofold. One, the EU engages in the [conflict-resolution] process itself, and second, the EU debates with Russia, within existing formats, the framework for a settlement of the conflicts in Georgia. So this should be part of the agenda of the EU-Russia dialogue.

RFE/RL: Have you got assurances from the EU in the course of your visit to Brussels that the EU will raise the Georgian issues at the summit meeting with Russia in Samara on May 18?

Bezhuashvili: Well, it is not about the assurances. My mission here was to update EU leadership on the issues of Georgia and certainly it's in my interest, and I asked [the EU] to put these issues on the agenda. Whether they will [do so] and whether there'll be enough time, I don't know.

Pro-Georgian South Ossetian leader Dmitry Sanakoyev (InterPressNews)

RFE/RL: Will the recent announcement by Russian President Vladimir Putin that Russia may suspend its implementation of the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty have any impact on Georgia and the presence of Russian troops in the country?

Bezhuashvili: It requires certain analysis and we do this analysis [of] how this might affect [us]. Every country does it, the [necessary] risk assessment [after the] Russian declaration on the CFE. CFE is a good arms-control mechanism, a very unique one for our part of the world, so we care about it. We are worried about the statement of Russia, as other members of the international community are worried, although it was not unexpected for us that Russia has declared this moratorium on the CFE, because they've signaled previously as well that they are not happy with the attempt, basically, to link CFE ratification with the legal commitments [resulting from the] Istanbul summit of [the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] in 1999 [according to which Russia agreed to remove its troops and equipment from Georgia and Moldova].

RFE/RL: And you've had no signal from Russia that this might affect the withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgia by 2008, agreed between the two sides separately?

Bezhuashvili: No, no everything concerning Georgia goes based on the timetable we have agreed on. So we have no complaints [and] we fulfill our obligations in this respect, [there are] no problems.

RFE/RL: There have been reports that the United States may want to position certain parts of their missile-defense system in the Caucasus. Is this something you can comment on?

Bezhuashvili: No, this is not part of our agenda, not part of our internal agenda or our external agenda, we are not part of any consultations, or any process about this. Any misinterpretation on this, or speculations on this issue are absolutely unacceptable. We are not part of it.

Filmmaker Documents Chechen Villagers' Sad Fate

The picture from which Mukusheva's film takes its name

May 15, 2007 (RFE -- High in the mountains of Chechnya, the ancient village of Zumsoi stands as a tragic symbol of the recent wars pitting the independence-seeking republic against Russia. Once home to several families whose ancestors had farmed the rocky terrain for generations, it is now abandoned.

Zarema Mukusheva is a young Chechen human rights activist from Grozny who spent two years documenting life in Zumsoi. The resulting film -- “Crying Sun: The Impact Of War In The Mountains Of Chechnya” -- was recently screened in Washington, D.C. RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher spoke to Mukusheva ahead of the event.

RFE/RL: How did you decide the title of the film?

Zarema Mukusheva: We chose this title because we remembered a picture that was painted by one of the village children. It was of the village and the burned houses, and there is a sun that is crying in the sky, above the houses.

We thought this title was very suggestive, and explained the situation and emotions of the people who lived during the war.

RFE/RL: How did you find out about the village of Zumsoi?

Mukusheva: This is a very high, mountainous village in Chechnya and we came there because we heard about a mop-up operation [being conducted by Russian troops]. And we visited this village after this mop-up operation because we wanted to document it.

The mountain village of Zumsoi (Courtesy photo: Memorial)

[The Russian human-rights group] Memorial has never produced films or videos before, this is our first project. The film was also done in cooperation with Witness [a U.S. human rights group that uses video cameras to document abuses.]

We spent two years filming footage, but we actually never intended to make the film, we were just observing the people who were coming and going and filming what we saw.

RFE/RL: In two years you must have filmed many things. What did you end up putting in the finished film?

Mukusheva: The action takes place in the mountains of Chechnya, in the village of Zumsoi. This village is remarkable because it is a historic village, an ancient village. The characters -- the heroes in our film -- are two families, and we trace their fates over the last two years.

We especially follow one man [Myahdi Muhayev] -- during the war, his 15-year-old brother was abducted by Russian troops. Another brother was also detained, and after very cruel torture, became handicapped. Then our character himself is thrown into jail. After his detention by the federal services, he disappears for several days, and then there is an attempt to accuse him of serious crimes.

The other main character in the film is a schoolteacher in Zumsoi whose father is 103 years old. After everyone abandons the village, she starts to work for a human-rights organization and on the cases of disappeared people.

The film shows the lifestyle of these people, their situation, and how they are treated by the [Russian] military troops. It also shows the environment of the village -- which is a result of the war; aerial attacks on the village, mop-up operations, and about how the families, one after another, gradually have to leave the village until the village is finally abandoned.

Myahdi Muhayev (left) was detained by Russian troops while the film was being made (Courtesy photo: Memorial)

Our film depicts the tragedy of how people have had to abandon the mountainous villages of Chechnya, how the war has squeezed the local population out of their native homelands.

The federal troops justify their actions by saying that people who live in the mountains serve as a food-supply base for Chechen guerrillas who are still operating in the mountains.

Our aim was not only to show this social problem, but to show the lives of simple people of Chechnya who have had to bear this war on their shoulders. And to show how their lives and their fates have been injured by this war.

RFE/RL: You have made a very emotional film. How have audiences reacted when they see it?

Mukusheva: There are certain moments in the film that are tough to watch, even for me, although I have seen it with my own eyes, and witnessed it, but it is still difficult to watch. For example, there is footage of a mop-up operation by Russian troops, and watching it, you get chills.

There are moments in the film when Chechens who live outside Chechnya -- those who had to flee Chechnya -- feel very sad and nostalgic, especially when they see the beautiful mountains and the life of the people who live in the mountains.

We have shown the film in Moscow, and we plan to show it in several towns in Russia. I don’t want this film to be seen only by the authorities. For me, it’s more important to change the opinion of ordinary Russian citizens, than to try and change the opinion of people like [Russian President Vladimir] Putin.

RFE/RL: As a filmmaker and human-rights activist, you have worked with victims and ordinary people who have lived through years of fighting. What long-term effects do you think the wars in Chechnya will have?

Mohadi Hadjiyev, age 103, walking through his home village of Zumsoi (Courtesy photo: Memorial)
Mukusheva: War is terrible not only because it brings destruction and the death of friends and relatives, but also because it plants the seeds of conflict and hatred which can grow again. In Chechnya today there are many families who have taken in orphaned children, and these children, since early childhood, have seen and heard about federal troops, mop-up operations, and men in masks.

They are growing up with these images. And when they become adults, what will their political outlooks be? This is largely shaped by their childhood experiences.

Once I visited a family during my work for Memorial, and there was an old woman, she was surrounded by five small boys. She said, pointing at one child, "this is the son of my oldest son." She pointed at another and said, "this is the son of my youngest son," of another, she said, "this is the son of my middle son."

All of her sons had been detained by the [Russians], as well as her husband, and all were still missing. And I’m thinking about these boys, who are growing up without fathers. And they’re playing 'war' in the yard. So I’m thinking that when they grow up, their outlooks will be more radical than their parents.

When I was a child, my friends used to play "war" as well. Some would be Russian soldiers, and others would be told, "You have to be Germans, the Nazi soldiers." And no one wanted to be German, they all wanted to be Russian soldiers. Now, when children play war here, they all want to be Chechen fighters. No one wants to be a Russian soldier.