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Armenia: President's Resignation Likely To Cause Policy Changes

Yerevan, 5 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The abrupt resignation of Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrossian is likely to have far-reaching effects on both the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and Armenia's internal politics.

The immediate result put more hardline politicians in full control of the country. Prime Minister Robert Kocharian became acting President. He and his ministers have consistently rejected the OSCE recent "phased" peace plan on Nagorno-Karabakh.

Under the plan, approved by Ter-Petrossian and Azerbaijan, the Karabakh Armenian forces would withdraw from six occupied districts in Azerbaijan proper before resolution of Nagorno-Karabakh's status. Ter-Petrossian argued that confidence building measures that would precede a decision on the status would facilitate it.

The Kocharian government and Karabakh Armenians says the plan is too dangerous because it provides no sufficient guarantees that Azerbaijan will not attack the disputed enclave once it regains lost territories. Instead, they call for a "package" deal, involving a single framework accord on all contentious issues.

With the new Armenian leadership and Nagorno-Karabakh certain now to reject the "phased" approach, Russian, US and French co-chairs of the Minsk Group may be forced to return to the "package" strategy. In effect, international mediators from the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe, who were due to gather in Paris on Wednesday, postponed their meeting pending resolution of the serious political crisis in Armenia.

The story does not end there. Ter-Petrossian said in his last address to the nation that the inner government disputes over the peace process merely disguises fundamental differences on how and when to end the 10-year dispute with Azerbaijan.

Ter-Petrossian appear to believe that Armenia has no prospect of economic development without a lasting peace with Azerbaijan. In his view, Armenia will eventually find it very difficult to cope with the oil-rich Azerbaijan. This made him inclined to compromise on the Karabakh status, namely to accept Karabakh returning to Azerbaijani rule but preserving a high degree of autonomy, own armed forces and land corridor link to Armenia.

Kocharian and his two closest associates, Defense Minister Vazgen Sarkisian and Interior and National Security Minister Serzh Sarkisian (not related to Vazgen) take a much tougher view. They rule out any "vertical subordination" of Karabakh to Baku. Kocharian has recently said that Armenia should insist on the establishment of a sort of a trilateral confederation in which Karabakh and Azerbaijan would be equal entities.

Having forced Ter-Petrossian's resignation, Kocharian and his associates feel that Armenia's could reach prosperity even without the settlement of the Karabakh issue.

This issue is important to the Armenians because of historical and psychological factors. After having been losing territories for centuries, the Armenians are reluctant to "lose" Karabakh now that they have won a war against Azerbaijan.

But it is clear that the ouster of to Ter-Petrossian will affect the peace process for at least several months. International reaction will depend on internal political developments in Armenia.

Yesterday Kocharian said that presidential elections, scheduled for March, will be free and fair. He seems to think that he has good chances of winning. Although only an Armenian citizen can become president, Kocharian, who comes from Nagorno-Karabakh, may find a loophole in the constitution for his candidacy.

Kocharian is likely to rally a broad coalition behind him. The re-legalization of the banned Dashnak party, expected later this week, will give a crucial boost to Kocharian's popularity. His main challenger will probably be the former opposition presidential candidate, Vazgen Manukian. In fact, the two men have similar agendas: both favor democratization and firmer stand on Karabakh.

Another option is that Armenia could be transformed into a parliamentary republic. The idea is supported by most opposition parties but has not been formally considered.