Accessibility links

Breaking News

Armenia: 'Palace Revolt' Rooted In Dispute Over Karabakh Policy

By Mardo Soghom

Yerevan, 3 February 1998 (RFE/RL) - An open rift in the ranks of Armenia's government has abruptly changed the country's political landscape. President Levon Ter-Petrosyan, who has dominated politics since 1990, seems to have lost his dominant position and his future is uncertain. The current "palace revolt," as it is being called in Yerevan, was triggered by Ter-Petrosyan's insistence that Armenia should accept the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) proposals to settle the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute.

In the last two weeks, the prime minister and the defence and security ministers have openly broken with the president. There has also been a series of resignations of top Ter-Petrosyan supporters, and calls for Ter-Petrosyan's resignation.

Armenia's Central Bank chairman, Bagrat Assatarian, is the latest high-ranking official to resign after the resignation of Foreign Minister Aleksandr Arzumanian was accepted by Ter-Petrosyan yesterday. Today other resignations have been announced. They include that of the government minister responsible for coordinating policy with local administrations and that of the head of the private Pan-Armenia Fund, which helped the government address humanitarian issues.

The mayor of Yerevan, Vano Siradeghian, resigned over the weekend. Siradeghian heads the governing Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh) and -- like the others -- were close allies of Ter-Petrosyan.

An influential organization of Karabakh war veterans in Armenia -- previously allied with Ter-Petrosyan -- now calls for his resignation.

RFE/RL's bureau in Yerevan today confirms the arrest over the last several days of more than 20 supporters of the governing HHSh. Charges are reported to range from illegal arms possession to corruption.

Ter-Petrosyan, one of the leaders of the Karabakh Committee that, in 1988, began challenging Moscow's rule, not only led the country to independence and helped secure military victories in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, but also created what -- for a time -- seemed to be a stable regime.

But, it was not Armenia's economic isolation or a more active opposition that challenged the 51-year-old scholar-turned politician. The challenge came from his own allies. Indeed, the most decisive role seems to have been played by Defense Minister Vazgen Sarkisian, a veteran of the Nagorno-Karabakh confict, who, after the disputed presidential elections of 1996, had ordered his troops to Yerevan to suppress the opposition.

The OSCE's (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) proposals to settle the Karabakh dispute included surrendering captured Azerbaijani territories, with agreement on Nagorno-Karabakh's status to be left for later negotiations.

This approach was seen by many in Armenia as a dangerous policy, which could lead to a flight of ethnic Armenians from the area, as Azerbaijan re-established its sovereignty -- both near and within the borders of the small enclave.

Armenia's Prime Minister Robert Kocharian and Security Minister Serzh Sarkisian (not related to the defence minister) both come from Nagorno-Karabakh, and seem largely motivated to protect the interests of that self-proclaimed republic. Kocharian is Karabakh's former president, and Sarkisian is its former defense minister.

But, observers say that, in order to challenge Ter-Petrosyan successfully, Kocharian and Sarkisian had to ensure the support of Defense Minister Vazgen Sarkisian. And, Vazgen Sarkisian soon made clear he believed Ter-Petrosyan was making unacceptable concessions to Azerbaijan.

The troika challenging Ter-Petrosyan has effective control over the army and police forces, and tacit support from a large part of the opposition. And, observers in Yerevan suggest the troika's position has won the sympathy of a significant part of the population.

Those challenging Ter-Petrosyan, say observers, want to accomplish their aims without de-stabilizing the country. There have been no mass demonstrations, or calls for a moblization of the opposition.

Observors believe that -- given their control over the armed forces and security structures - the challengers do not need to take harsh and extremist actions to achieve their aims. And, it remains uncertain whether the challenge to Ter-Petrosyan could lead to his ouster or could only limit his power and force new parliamentary elections. The troika seems determined to expend no more political capital than necessary.

As the tension in Yerevan rises, it should be noted that Ter-Petrosyan has skillfully dealt with opposition challenges before. But, observers say the powers arrayed against him this time might prove to be much more effective than any previous act of defiance.