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Armenia: Analysis From Washington--Turning The Caucasian Kaleidoscope

Washington, 21 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - The appointment of the leader of the secessionist Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijan as prime minister of Armenia represents far more than the latest twist in the always complicated politics of the Caucasus.

Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrossian's choice on Thursday of Robert Kocharyan, president of Nagorno-Karabakh, will have a major impact on the politics of Armenia, relations among the three countries of the Transcaucasus, and the international system as whole.

But the impact of this highly unexpected choice may be either greater stability and cooperation in each or greater instability and conflict in all, depending on how the parties involved behave and react.

The impact of this choice on Armenia itself is especially unclear. Ter-Petrossian faced a very difficult political problem after the resignation of former Prime Minister Armen Sarkissian, a popular reformer.

Weakened by political and electoral controversies, Ter-Petrossian clearly wanted someone who could strengthen his position without becoming a threat to it.

Despite his highly irregular position as president of a secessionist region in a neighboring country, Kocharyan apparently impressed the Armenian president as just such a leader.

Kocharyan clearly helps the Armenian president at home. He is regarded by many Armenians as a national hero. His appointment already has won praise from the parliamentary opposition.

And precisely because of his irregular position, Kocharyan is unlikely to threaten Ter-Petrossian anytime soon.

Thus, Ter-Petrossian may have solidified his position at least in the short term, even if the international implications of this choice may come to undercut his standing at home in the future.

The impact of this choice on the Transcaucasus, while equally open, seems certain to be greater and more immediate.

It has already elicited a sharp response from Baku. Azerbaijan's deputy premier Araz Azimov, for example, said that the Kocharyan appointment could not be viewed "as anything other than a provocation" directed at the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan.

And other Azerbaijani officials have even suggested that it may represent an Armenian-Russian effort to trigger a new round of fighting, a development they fear Moscow might seek to use to depose President Heidar Aliyev in order to gain leverage in Baku.

The Georgian government seems certain to view the appointment in much the same way. While unlikely to speak as bluntly, Tbilisi is worried about Moscow's efforts to control its foreign policies and to block the flow of Azerbaijani oil across its territory.

The logic for their conclusions is clear. Armenia and Ter-Petrossian have been isolated internationally since the Lisbon summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe tilted toward Azerbaijan on the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Feeling he had nothing to lose, Ter-Petrossian may have picked Kocharyan as a kind of declaration of his intention to act unilaterally and possibly militarily regardless of what the international community wants.

Moreover, at least some in Moscow may be pushing him in this direction in the hope that they can make Ter-Petrossian even more dependent on Russian support and re-ignite fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan that could be the occasion for the overthrow of Aliyev.

But there may be another logic at work here, one that points in an entirely different direction.

However improbable it may seem, the Kocharyan appointment could in fact represent a subtle signal from Ter-Petrossian that he is now interested in reaching some kind of settlement on Nagorno-Karabakh, albeit one on his terms.

By naming Kocharyan his prime minister, Ter-Petrossian has effectively decapitated the Nagorno-Karabakh movement even as he has picked up support from Armenian nationalists.