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Armenia: Differences On Karabakh Conflict Precipitate Crisis

Prague, 21 January 1998 (RFE/RL) - In the third attack on a government official this week, Armenia's deputy interior minister was wounded today in an attack by an unknown assailant.

Major-General Artsrun Markarian, the Interior Ministry troops commander, was reported to have been wounded in the legs this morning when an unidentified gunman opened fire at him near his home in Yerevan. The Interior Ministry said in a statement Markarian was hospitalized and was recovering from surgery.

Yesterday, an official of Armenia's ruling Pan-National movement, Ruben Hayrapetian, was wounded when a hand grenade was thrown at him. Three days ago (Jan. 18), the chief of the presidential security service, Major-General Roman Ghazarian, escaped unharmed when his car came under fire some 50 kilometers from Yerevan.

Armenia is involved in a 10-year old conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan over the disputed mainly ethnic Armenian populated enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Observers say the recent violence may be linked to a disagreement within the Armenian leadership over how to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Since the turn of the year, differences of opinion within the upper echelons of the Armenian leadership over the Karabakh conflict have become increasingly visible. Those differences pit President Levon Ter-Petrossian and the ruling Armenian Pan-National Movement against Prime Minister Robert Kocharian and the Defense and Interior and National Security Ministers.

Kocharian's future appeared to be in the balance today. Leading members of the Pan-National Movement, including Yerevan mayor Vano Siradeghian, told RFE/RL in Yerevan that the movement will ask Ter-Petrossian to take "all necessary measures" to restore order in the country. They said that the alleged indifference of the Kocharian government to a series of recent assassination attempts demonstrates that the government is "paralyzed," and threatens to plunge the country into chaos.

Analysts in Yerevan interpret this as meaning that the Movement may demand the resignation of Interior and National Security Minister Serzh Sarkisian, or even of the entire government.

The present standoff derives from statements by Ter-Petrossyan in September and November 1997 arguing that it is unrealistic for Armenia to continue to demand outright independence for the unrecognized, and predominantly-Armenian populated, Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. Ter-Petrossian affirmed that Armenia should seek a compromise solution to the conflict rather than risk increasing international isolation and economic stagnation.

This argument was rejected by the Armenian opposition and by several key members of the Armenian government including Prime Minister Kocharian, a former President of Nagorno-Karabakh, Interior and National Security Minister Serzh Sarkisian (who also comes from Karabakh) and Defense Minister Vazgen Sarkisian (no relation to Serzh).

Last May the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) launched a new initiative in the hope of persuading Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan to agree on a timetable of negotiations to resolve the conflict and formalize Karabakh's status vis-a-vis the central Azerbaijani government in Baku.

In September, Azerbaijan formally accepted the OSCE Minsk Group's two-stage peace proposal, which required the withdrawal of Armenian forces from occupied Azerbaijani territories prior to the start of negotiations on Karabakh's future status. Armenia accepted these proposals as a basis for further negotiations, but Nagorno-Karabakh rejected them outright.

According to Kocharian's successor as President of the unrecognized enclave, Arkadii Ghukasian, the "phased" peace plan requires Karabakh to surrender its only bargaining chip -- the occupied territories -- but provides no firm security guarantees in return. Ghukasian continues to insist that he will resume negotiations only a "package" solution that resolves all contentious issues within a single framework agreement.

Both OSCE officials and the Armenian leadership had hoped that the December 1997 meeting in Copenhagen of OSCE Foreign Ministers would make minor concessions to the Karabakh Armenians that would induce them to agree to resume negotiations on the draft "phased" peace plan. But the Copenhagen meeting failed to do so.

Two weeks ago (Jan. 7-8), the Armenian Security Council held a meeting in Yerevan attended by the NKR's top leadership, including Ghukasian and Defense Minister Samvel Babayan, who in an interview last fall had suggested that new hostilities may be inevitable if a peace agreement is not signed soon.

Armenian government media published no details of the meeting, but the independent newspaper "Aravot" last week ( Jan. 14) reported that serious differences of opinion emerged within the Armenian leadership, with Kocharian and the two Sarkisians backing the Karabakh leadership in defiance of President Ter-Petrossian. In addition, the president allegedly threatened to split the Interior and National Security Ministry headed by Serzh Sarkisian into its two component parts. That threat, according to "Aravot," prompted Kocharian to tender his resignation, which the president refused to accept.

Presidential press spokesman Levon Zurabian has denied the "Aravot" report. Kocharian for his part told journalists last week that while disagreements do indeed exist within the Armenian leadership over the relative merits of the "phased" as opposed to the "package" approach to resolving the Karabakh conflict, those disagreements are not so great that individuals "are no longer on speaking terms or refuse to shake hands with each other."