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Caucasus Report: September 18, 2006

September 18, 2006, Volume 9, Number 31

THE SHIFTING ARMENIAN POLITICAL LANDSCAPE. With only months to go before the election of a new parliament, Armenia's traditionally murky politics have become even more difficult to decipher. Several crucial shock realignments in recent months, involving both parties and individual politicians, mirror not only a natural jockeying for position, but also a deeper pattern of change that is far from cosmetic.

The most recent of those changes was the defection of parliamentarian Tatul Manaserian from the embattled Justice (Artarutiun) bloc to a burgeoning pro-government party. That defection, the second from Artarutiun within a period of weeks, reflects the rapid weakening of Armenia's hitherto largest opposition force and the parallel ascension of the country's newest party, Prosperous Armenia (Bargavach Hayastan) of Gagik Tsarukian, a millionaire businessman-parliamentarian closely linked to President Robert Kocharian.

Founded in early 2006, Prosperous Armenia serves as a new instrument for Armenia's most senior political elite, capable of both checking the power of existing parties and creating a new vehicle for the small circle around President Kocharian. The promotion of Prosperous Armenia also seeks to prevent the emergence of a new class of contenders, ranging from Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian to Justice Minister David Harutiunian.

The recent defections from Artarutiun also signified the overall decline of the opposition, however. That decline is visible both the erosion of its position in parliament, with a meager 12 seats, and in its marginal role in Armenian politics. Years of pursuing an appeal based on personality over platform has left the opposition with a paucity of both. While such an outcome may be natural, the lack of a unified or coherent opposition has done little to contribute to a healthy and vibrant democracy in Armenia.

The most sweeping change in Armenian politics, however, was a reconfiguration of the country's three-party coalition sparked by the political demise in May of parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian and the subsequent defection of several leading ministers and deputies from his Orinats Yerkir party. In the wake of that move, Prime Minister Andranik Markarian's Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) quickly consolidated its position as the dominant political party.

Yet Baghdasarian's downfall stemmed more from his rather open presidential ambitions than from any internal conflict within the coalition, seemingly confirmed by his very public emergence as an outspoken opposition figure. Thus, although the coalition initially appeared shaken by the expulsion of a sometimes disruptive influence, this change was neither wholly unexpected nor particularly unwelcome to its other members.

Those two developments are overshadowed in magnitude by a third -- Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian's decision in July to join the HHK. It underscored the fact that the May 2007 parliamentary elections are a key determinant for the presidential contest a year later. And it confirmed long-held speculation that the powerful defense minister will eventually put himself forward as the natural successor to President Kocharian.

Sarkisian's alignment with the HHK was a logical step given his election in the last parliamentary elections on that party's ticket, and his ascension to a key leadership position within the party endows well-entrenched resources for his candidacy. It also offers him the option of assuming the prime-ministerial position as a launching pad to the presidency.

While these changes constitute a serious shift in the political landscape in the run-up to a looming electoral cycle, there are also two broader considerations affecting Armenian politics. First, each of the coming elections will be largely confined within the rigid parameters of Armenia's closed political system, with a decreasing level of discourse or debate and with an absence of any real opposition. As with previous elections, the electorate will again be offered a meager contest between competing elements of the same political elite, offering the voter little voice and even less choice.

Secondly, in light of the procedural violations that marred every election over the past decade and also the November 2005 constitutional referendum, the coming elections will be held to a higher standard than ever before. The authorities have already come very close to the limits of international tolerance and indifference, so that anything short of real, demonstrable progress in the 2007 elections will be treated as a major black mark against the country's new leadership. This is particularly important given the European Union's greater engagement in the region and interest in the country. Moreover, the new, incoming U.S. ambassador will feel compelled to adopt an even greater focus on Armenia's illusive democratic credentials.

These two considerations will exert contradictory influences on the trajectory of Armenian politics, however, as a contest between rival elites does not offer much hope for improved elections and may even mark a step backward. Moreover, the authorities have not shown much appreciation for the raised expectations of the international community, opting instead for a predictable arrogance based on the muted expectations of the public. The Armenian elite also remains dangerously fixated on ensuring planned election results rather than on assuring progress in the country's electoral performance -- Sarkisian's July pledge that the 2007 ballot will be "the best" in Armenia's history notwithstanding. (Richard Giragosian)

SHOULD THE CHECHEN REPUBLIC BE RENAMED? Speaking to journalists on September 4 on the sidelines of a Russian-Arabian Business Council session in St. Petersburg, pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Alu Alkhanov suggested that it would be expedient to change the name of the Chechen Republic to Nokhchiyn Republic. (Nokhchi is the ethnonym by which the Chechens refer to themselves.) Alkhanov argued that the toponym "Chechnya" (as opposed to "Chechen Republic") "has negative connotations" and no legal foundation, according to on September 4. He added that he has tasked specialists with studying the implications of changing the republic's official designation, after which "we shall think about which name to use," reported.

Alkhanov's reasoning is logical insofar as the Chechens themselves do not refer to their republic as "Chechnya." Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, however, rejected Alkhanov's suggestion outright on September 5 as untimely and economically inexpedient, reported on September 6. Kadyrov claimed that changing the republic's name would cost "millions of rubles" that could better be channeled into the social sector. Kadyrov went on to point out that the republic's official designation is not "Chechnya" but "the Chechen Republic" (Chechenskaya Republika), and that the name "Chechnya" is not mentioned in the republic's constitution. Kadyrov did not, however, touch on the similarity, and the potential for confusion, between the term "Chechen Republic" used by the pro-Moscow Chechen administration and enshrined in the constitution adopted in 2002, and the designation "Chechen Republic Ichkeria" adopted at the behest of then President Djokhar Dudayev in 1994, three years after Chechnya formally announced its independence from the Russian Federation.

At one level, Kadyrov's rejection of Alkhanov's proposal was predictable in light of the increasingly strained relations between the two men. Many Russian observers have predicted that Moscow will shunt Alkhanov sideways next month, when Kadyrov reaches the age of 30, the minimum age for being appointed republic head. Some other commentators, however, doubt that Alkhanov's replacement by Kadyrov is a "given." Alkhanov has moved in recent weeks to strengthen his position, and one of those moves -- the creation of a council for economic security -- would certainly have required high-level approval from Moscow (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," August 18, 2006).

There may, however, be a second dimension to Kadyrov's rejection of any change in Chechnya's official name. In May, Dukvakha Abdurakhmanov, chairman of the lower chamber of the Chechen parliament and widely seen as a mouthpiece for opinions that Kadyrov espouses but does not wish to go public with, argued that the process of "stabilizing" the North Caucasus could be speeded up by merging Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Daghestan to form a single federation subject (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," June 19, 2006). Abdurakhmanov again raised the possibility of merging Chechnya and Ingushetia in an interview three months later with ANN. On that occasion, however, although he noted that some districts that historically were part of Chechnya are now part of Daghestan, he did not advocate reincorporating those districts into an enlarged federation subject. One week later, however, on August 30, Kadyrov publicly distanced himself from Abdurakhmanov's statement, stressing the "close relations" between Chechnya and Daghestan and denying that the former has any territorial claims on the latter, according to the official website of the pro-Moscow Chechen administration ( Kadyrov went on to comment that Abdurakhmanov was expressing his own personal opinion, and that there are currently far more pressing issues facing the Chechen leadership than hypothetical territorial claims.

It is therefore conceivable that Alkhanov's trial balloon may have been floated deliberately in order to elicit from Kadyrov an explicit disclaimer of territorial claims on neighboring regions of the North Caucasus that in other circumstances he might have tacitly supported. Days after his denial of any territorial claims on Ingushetia, Kadyrov traveled to that republic for talks with President Murat Zyazikov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 7, 2006). Zyazikov has consistently rejected proposals, first floated four years ago, to resurrect the joint Chechen-Ingush republic that was divided into two constituent parts in 1992 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 10, 2002; October 15 and 23, November 3 and December 30, 2003; January 22, 2004; and January 31, 2006). (Liz Fuller)

SOUTH CAUCASUS: MEP SEES ROLE FOR EU. A delegation from the European Parliament traveled on September 11 to Tskhinvali, the capital of separatist South Ossetia, and met with its leader, Eduard Kokoity. Among the issues discussed were Kokoity's announcement that same day that the region will hold an independence referendum on November 12.

French politician Marie Anne Isler Beguin is a member of the European Parliament (MEP) and the chairwoman of the South Caucasus parliamentary delegation. She spoke with RFE/RL Georgian Service correspondent Nino Gelashvili in Tbilisi on September 12.

RFE/RL: How was your visit to South Ossetia? What were the main topic of your talks with Kokoity, if it's not a secret?

Marie Anne Isler Beguin: No, no, no. It's absolutely not a secret, because all the journalists were around us during the meeting. Nobody asked if it was secret or not. But I think the message that we have to deliver from the European Union and the European Parliament is very clear --- we don't want any escalation of the violence. The European Parliament and the European Union will never, ever accept a military option to resolve frozen conflicts like the one in South Ossetia, and that is the message that we are delivering. And we put a lot of questions to Kokoity, to find out why this peace plan isn't making much progress.

RFE/RL: On September 11 he announced that South Ossetia will hold an independence referendum in November. Did you talk about that as well?

Isler Beguin: Yes, of course. It was his first announcement, that on November 12 he will have a referendum. But that was a question I asked -- what does this mean, a referendum like this in a region where 80 percent of the population holds Russian passports? Is it a South Ossetian population or a Russian population that is demanding to decide its future? I also said that everybody has to look at what's happening around the world. The European Union is now 25 countries, going on 27. It's difficult to resolve social and economic problems in big, rich countries. So what would the future be for such a little country? They also have to reflect on this, for the sake of their own population.

RFE/RL: What should the role of the EU be in the South Caucasus conflicts, particularly in Georgia? Do you think the EU should accept the proposal by the Georgian government that it, like Russia, becomes a party to conflict-resolution negotiations?

Isler Beguin: As the delegation involved in the South Caucasus region, we would like our EU special representative [Peter Semneby] to be much more active in conflict resolution. But as you know, the coordination between the Council of Europe, the European Commission, and the European Parliament is complicated. We pushed to integrate the three countries here into the European Neighborhood Policy. That was a success. But Mr. Semneby's current road map is not sufficient. But that is the will of the council, and that is the problem, because we are not directly involved in the resolution. But now Mr. Semneby also has to participate, and we hope that he'll be much more active.

RFE/RL: The European Parliament did initiate the plan to include the South Caucasus countries into the European Neighborhood Policy. You and your colleagues later prepared a draft declaration on giving these countries the opportunity to become EU-membership candidates. But you haven't received a lot of general support on that issue.

Isler Beguin (RFE/RL) You know, after the French and the Dutch referendums [rejecting the EU draft constitution], everybody was very shocked. I think that we simply didn't do a good enough job explaining what enlargement will mean for the European Union. And one day the French people discovered that we were not 15 but 25 states, and it seems that they were afraid of what this new Europe would do. We didn't do enough to prepare people. And that's why we really have to teach our citizens what Europe is, to discover Europe, and to understand that there are people beyond the Black Sea who are also European citizens who can integrate. I'm sure that it isn't possible for three countries like Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia to live alone between two big countries like Russia and Turkey. If Turkey enters the EU, of course these three countries will also enter one day. When, we don't know, but it's definitely in the future."

RFE/RL: Why do you think it's important for the European Union that the conflicts in the South Caucasus are solved?

Isler Beguin: We can see that all the conflicts in the world are regional conflicts. And here we have a situation with a frozen conflict, but a frozen conflict with deaths. Every month we can see that people are killed. It's not that frozen. And that's why we have a responsibility, because these countries asked Europe to help them, and we have the responsibility to help resolve this conflict. I can't understand why the European Union and the council aren't much more involved in resolving the conflict, or why they don't ask the United Nations to resolve the conflict and bring agreements between the different regions.

RFE/RL: Once you noted that there is a double standard in the EU's relationship with Russia. Is it possible that the EU will someday ask Russia to answer for its activities in the conflict zones?

Isler Beguin: It could be simple. But nothing is simple, and that is politics. Of course, when the European Parliament asked about how people in Abkhazia and South Ossetia happened to get Russian passports, we got no answer. We asked for this question to be introduced into the negotiations between the European Union and Russia. But the negotiations take place between politicians from the council and from the state of Russia. We have to push it onto the agenda, and that's what we're doing.

MEDIATORS 'STILL TRYING TO GET KARABAKH DEAL IN 2006.' International mediators believe that they may still succeed in brokering a framework peace agreement on Nagorno-Karabakh in the coming months, Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian said after meeting them in Paris on Tuesday.

"They believe that it is still possible to make some additional progress before the end of this year or before our parliamentary elections [due early next year] at the latest," he told RFE/RL by phone after two days of negotiations with the American, French, and Russian co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group.

Oskanian described the talks as "very good and effective" but gave few details, saying only that they focused on ways of reinvigorating the Karabakh peace process, which ran into trouble this summer after substantial progress reportedly made by the conflicting parties. The mediators are trying to arrange a meeting of the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers for that purpose, he said, adding that it might take place on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York later this month.

The co-chairs, among them U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, are scheduled to hold similar talks with Azerbaijan's Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov in London on September 20. "The results [of their efforts] can be assessed only after their meeting with the Azerbaijani foreign minister and, if there is agreement, after the two ministers' meeting," said Oskanian.

The latest round of Minsk Group diplomacy began amid talk of yet another Armenian-Azerbaijani summit on Karabakh that could be held on the sidelines of a CIS summit in Belarus slated for October 16. A spokesman for President Robert Kocharian did not rule the possibility of such an encounter. "But before it can happen, there must be a meeting of the foreign ministers," Victor Soghomonian told RFE/RL.

"Only after the ministers meet and clarify whether there is a chance to continue negotiations and make further progress will it be possible to talk about a meeting of the presidents," agreed Oskanian.

Kocharian and his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev have already met twice this year in unsuccessful attempts to agree on a framework peace accord put forward by the mediators. The proposed deal calls for a gradual settlement of the Karabakh conflict that would culminate in a referendum on the disputed region's status. (Harry Tamrazian and Karine Kalantarian)