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Caucasus Report: March 5, 2004

5 March 2004, Volume 7, Number 10

ARMENIAN OPPOSITION LEADER UNDER PRESSURE. Two of the dozen parties aligned in the opposition Artarutiun bloc have suggested this week that its leader, People's Party of Armenia (HZhK) Chairman Stepan Demirchian, is ineffective and should be replaced. On 3 March, a spokesman for the Hanrapetutiun party suggested that its outspoken leader, former Prime Minister Aram Sargsian, might be better placed to spearhead an opposition push for power. Hanrapetutiun is an important member of the Artarutiun alliance that Demirchian has headed since its inception a year ago (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 13 March 2003).

Hanrapetutiun spokesman Suren Sureniants told RFE/RL on 3 March that the party continues to recognize Demirchian as the rightful winner of last year's disputed presidential elections. But he argued that the 2003 elections are already a past chapter in Armenia's political life and that a new leader might be needed for the success of a "democratic revolution" promised by Hanrapetutiun. "We are presenting to the public another leader who we believe would best implement that program and is one of the most viable alternatives to the regime," Sureniants said, referring to Sargsian.

Speaking at a rally in Yerevan at the weekend, Sargsian said opposition supporters will hear later this month a "decisive call" for a campaign of demonstrations that will demand President Robert Kocharian's resignation. He indicated that Hanrapetutiun will launch that offensive even if its plan of radical actions is not approved by its Artarutiun allies.

A spokeswoman for Demirchian's HZhK said the leadership of Artarutiun has not yet set any dates for the start of mass protests in Yerevan, warning that Hanrapetutiun would "place itself beyond the alliance" if it took unilateral steps. "The bloc's statutes simply do not accept different behavior," Ruzan Khachatrian told RFE/RL. "The Hanrapetutiun party has not raised such issues in the alliance. It can be suggested that this was just a rally technique," she said. Khachatrian also dismissed talks of any inroads on Demirchian's claim to opposition leadership, saying that "only the people" can choose their leader.

Demirchian's cautious tactics of political struggle have always contrasted with Sargsian's firebrand rhetoric that galvanized opposition crowds during last year's anti-Kocharian rallies. Relations between the two men have been less than cordial in recent months. Some Hanrapetutiun leaders, including Sureniants, have openly blamed the opposition's failure to unseat Kocharian on Demirchian's "indecisiveness."

On 4 March, National Democratic Union (AZhM) Chairman and former Prime Minister Vazgen Manukian argued that none of the opposition leaders who aspire to replace Kocharian as president meets his criteria for an effective head of state. Manukian also complained that they lack a clear idea of what they would do once in power.

"Different people in the alliance got different percentage points [during last year's presidential election]...But there is no leader in the opposition who is able to rally people with ideas and not just win votes," Manukian told RFE/RL, in an apparent reference to Demirchian's strong electoral performance that contrasted with his extremely poor showing. "They have neither political experience nor carry rousing ideas. Why should we hope that replacing one [president] with another would be good?" he said.

Manukian also argued that toppling Kocharian must not be the sole aim of his more popular opposition allies, complaining that they have so far failed to come up with "clear action programs." "There is a lack of that now," he said. "There needs to be a program guaranteeing internal policy changes in Armenia."

Manukian has conspicuously failed to participate in the ongoing public gatherings held by Demirchian and other Artarutiun leaders across the country. (Shakeh Avoyan and Karine Kalantarian)

RUSSIAN-ARMENIAN TYCOON LAMENTS LACK OF DIASPORA SUPPORT. Ara Abrahamian, Russia's most famous Armenian-born businessman, deplored on 2 March a lack of support for his recently formed pan-Armenian structure from the leading political groups in the worldwide diaspora.

"It is very unfortunate that none of the parties in the diaspora has contacted me in the last five months to find out what we are up to," he told RFE/RL in Yerevan. "I can't understand what the problem is. We have no expectations from them because there is nothing they can do in our area of activity," he added. "They have thus shown that they are outside that area."

Abrahamian specifically named the three main diaspora-based parties, including the biggest and most influential of them: the Armenian Revolutionary Federation -- Dashnaktsutiun (HHD). The HHD, which is represented in the Armenian government, is thought to view with suspicion the World Armenian Organization (WAO), which Abrahamian set up last year. The organization held its founding congress in Moscow in President Vladimir Putin's presence in October, setting an ambitious goal of "uniting" millions of ethnic Armenians scattered around the world. However, few prominent Armenians from Europe and the United States attended the high-profile gathering which was given prime-time coverage by Russian state television (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 and 9 October 2003).

The Kremlin-backed initiative has also met with lukewarm reaction from Armenia's political establishment, with President Robert Kocharian voicing misgivings about Abrahamian's attempts to put all major diaspora communities under a single umbrella structure. In a speech at the WAO's Moscow congress, Kocharian said only the Armenian state should aspire to that role.

Abrahamian has since been struggling to disprove speculation that the whole undertaking is part of Moscow's efforts to gain influence on the Armenian diaspora, which is particularly influential in the United States. The WAO's main objective, he insisted, is to "create a powerful diaspora" and achieve international recognition of the 1915 genocide of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.

Abrahamian also spoke of his "grandiose plan" to set up "business councils" around the world that would promote foreign investment in Armenia. He said one such group already operates in Argentina, bringing together the country's leading businessmen of Armenian descent, among them billionaire Eduardo Eurnekian. The Moscow-based tycoon has already invested in Armenia's burgeoning real estate and construction sectors. But his business interests remain concentrated in Russia's diamond mining and trading sector.

Underscoring his Russian government connections is the fact that Abrahamian is one of the official campaign proxies of Putin who is up for reelection next week. "Putin has helped the Union of Armenians and Armenia a lot," he said. (Armen Zakarian)

GEORGIA REGISTERS FIRST SIGNS OF ECONOMIC UPSWING. Finance Minister Zurab Nogaideli told a press conference in Tbilisi on 2 March that the provisional budget revenue target for the first two months of this year was overfulfilled by 106.4 percent, Caucasus Press reported. (The parliament has not yet formally approved the amended draft budget for 2004; Nogaideli said on 19 January he hoped deputies would do so in March, but the outgoing legislature held its final session before the 28 March parliamentary ballot last week.) Although revenues in January fell marginally short of target, they still exceeded the 2003 figure by some 13 million laris ($6.39 million), Nogaideli announced on 2 February. The independent daily "Mtavari gazeti" on 1 March quoted Deputy Finance Minister Basil Grigolashvili as saying that February was the first month in 14 years that the revenue target has been met.

Nogaideli further told journalists on 2 March that the increase in revenues should make it possible to pay February wages to public-sector employees by the end of March, and to pay off wage arrears totaling 18 million laris. He also mentioned in passing that the leadership of the Adjar Autonomous Republic, which for years has refused to transfer any budget revenues to the central government in Tbilisi, has agreed to do so in future, although the question of Batumi's estimated 140-million-lari debt in past taxes has not yet been addressed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 and 23 January 2004).

The government's chronic failure to meet tax collection targets was one of the reasons why the IMF last year suspended further loans to Georgia. But an IMF team that visited Georgia last month signaled that the fund will take a formal decision in late April or early May to resume lending. That team also gave its approval to the revised 2004 draft budget which, according to Nogaideli, sets revenues at 1.77 billion laris and expenditures at 1.93 billion laris, resulting in a deficit of 157 million laris. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said after talks in Washington last week that both the IMF and the World Bank will resume their cooperation with Georgia in the near future.

Meanwhile the Georgian currency -- the lari -- has risen 10 percent in value against the U.S. dollar over the past three months and, on 3 March, traded at under 2 laris to the dollar for the first time since 2001, Caucasus Press reported. (On 23 November, immediately prior to President Eduard Shevardnadze's forced resignation, the exchange rate was 2.22 laris to $1.) Roman Gotsiridze, chairman of the Georgian parliament's Budget Office, told Caucasus Press on 3 March that he anticipates that the lari will continue to strengthen for a further week. (Liz Fuller)

CORRECTION. On 20 February, "RFE/RL Caucasus Report" inaccurately claimed that none of the ministers in Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania's new cabinet had served under President Shevardnadze. Zhvania's Finance Minister Zurab Nogaideli served in that capacity from mid-May 2000 until early May 2002.

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "I do not agree that we [Azerbaijanis and Armenians] are genetically incompatible." -- Hikmet Hadjizade, a member of Azerbaijan's opposition Musavat party, in an interview with the Armenian independent daily "Aravot" on 3 March (courtesy of Groong).

"Personally I do not believe it is possible for everyone to live according to the same standards. The world does not live according to a single set of standards. A great power cannot fail to try to formulate for itself its own standard of behavior distinct from [that of] others. Great powers have always done so throughout history." -- CIS Institute Director Konstantin Zatulin, a propos of the need for mutual respect of the territorial integrity of CIS member states (from an interview published in "Tribuna" on 18 February).

"For Serbia, the word 'status' in relation to Kosovo can have many meanings, but not independence." -- Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, addressing the parliament on 2 March. Reported by RFE/RL.