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Caucasus Report: April 15, 2004

15 April 2004, Volume 7, Number 15

WILL ARMENIA'S PRESIDENT BE COMPELLED TO RESIGN? In February 2003, the Armenian authorities responded to mass protests against the perceived rigging of the presidential ballot that eventually returned incumbent President Robert Kocharian to power for a second term by mass arrests (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24, 25, 26, 27, and 28 February 2003). Fourteen months later, on 13 April, special police in Yerevan went one step further and attacked several thousand demonstrators who had participated in a rally and march the previous day to demand a nationwide vote of confidence in Kocharian. The police used batons, stun grenades, and water cannons, injuring an unknown number of demonstrators, some 15 of whom required hospital treatment.

The 13 April rally was the third in a series organized by three leading opposition parties in a bid to force a nationwide referendum of confidence in President Kocharian. The Constitutional Court suggested such a referendum in April 2003 when it rejected a formal complaint by People's Party of Armenia Chairman Stepan Demirchian, who lost to Kocharian in the 5 March runoff, that the runoff outcome was rigged and therefore illegal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 April 2003), but the pro-Kocharian majority in the parliament elected in May 2003 has consistently rejected that option.

Demirchian has since forged an alliance with former Prime Minister Aram Sargsian with the aim of staging a rerun of the so-called Rose Revolution that toppled Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze in November 2003 and brought a group of younger, pro-Western and pro-reformist politicians headed by Mikheil Saakashvili to power in his place. Late last month, National Accord Party Chairman Artashes Geghamian (who polled third in the first round of the presidential ballot) also pledged his support for Demirchian. At a rally Geghamian organized earlier this month, women carried white carnations as a variant on the red roses brandished by the Saakashvili supporters in Tbilisi last November (see End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 April 2004).

Meeting on 13 April with the leaders of the three parties that form the ruling coalition government, President Kocharian condemned the opposition protests as "political extremism." He said police were justified in intervening to reestablish order, and that the authorities will use "all legal means" to prevent further manifestations of "political extremism." That uncompromising response is reminiscent of the Armenian authorities' rejection of international criticism of the irregularities and fraud that marred both the presidential and parliamentary ballots of 2003. It may be that Kocharian is confident that the international community, which failed unequivocally to condemn police violence in Baku against opposition supporters angered by the falsification of the outcome of the 15 October Azerbaijani presidential election, will not censure the Armenian leadership for the 13 April violence in terms harsher than those employed six months earlier in response to the Baku clashes. If that is the case, the U.S. statement of 13 April calling on both Armenian camps to embark on "political dialogue" in order to "reduce tensions" is likely to fuel Kocharian's belief that he can ride this crisis out.

Whether he succeeds in doing so will, however, depend on at least three factors. The first is whether those opposition leaders who are not currently hiding to avoid arrest can deliver on their pledge to continue mass demonstrations to call for the president's resignation. Similar mass protests in the wake of the disputed September 1996 presidential election and last year's presidential ballot quickly lost momentum. The second is that the authorities keep a cool head and do not fan popular anger by again overreacting. And the third, and perhaps most crucial, is that the ruling coalition does not withdraw its support for Kocharian the way the parliament majority abandoned his predecessor Levon Ter-Petrossian in February 1998.

Observers in Yerevan have already noted that the two junior partners in the three-party coalition -- Orinats Yerkir and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation--Dashnaktsutiun (HHD) -- have taken a softer line towards the opposition challenge than have Kocharian and the Republican Party of Armenia headed by Prime Minister Andranik Markarian. (Two HHD ministers faced a hostile reception on the first of the tours of the provinces that Markarian ordered in early March in the leadership's belated response to the realization of the possible threat posed by the combination of its own unpopularity and the possibility that Demirchian and Geghamian would might join forces to try to oust Kocharian.)

On 26 March, the leaders of the parliamentary factions of all three coalition parties read a statement, which the daily "Haykakan zhamanak" suggested was authored by the presidential administration, warning that any attempt to force Kocharian's resignation by "unconstitutional means" would be stopped by force if necessary (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 March 2004). Just 10 days later, however, on 5 April, the HHD released a statement warning that political tensions were approaching a dangerous level, and advocating dialogue as an alternative to confrontation. In what could be construed as a rejection of violence, the statement further affirmed that "the HHD categorically rejects any operation leading the country to unpredictable external or domestic consequences that may condemn the people to an unclear future," Noyan Tapan reported.

Two days later, on 7 April, parliament speaker and Orinats Yerkir Chairman Artur Baghdasarian likewise called for a dialogue between the Armenian leadership and the opposition in a bid to defuse the crisis. He further told fellow parliamentarians that he has "a negative attitude" to politically motivated arrests, which, he said, "cannot benefit Armenia. Criminal prosecutions of political actions would lead Armenia to destruction," RFE/RL's Armenian Service quoted him as saying. Unlike other pro-Kocharian politicians, Baghdasarian refrained from explicitly condemning Demirchian's campaign to oust Kocharian. (When Baghdasarian was named parliament speaker last summer, some commentators suggested that he was already planning to contest the presidential ballot due in 2008, in which Kocharian is barred by the constitution from seeking a third term.)

In the event that he forfeits the backing of the parliament majority, Kocharian might still be able to rely on one lever of support that Ter-Petrossian did not have at his disposal in 1998, namely the army and security forces -- although some observers in Yerevan contend that such support is by no means a given. Those forces are subordinate to Kocharian's fellow Karabakhtsi, Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, who together with Kocharian and Aram Sargsian's brother Vazgen engineered Ter-Petrossian's forced resignation. Two prominent officers from the army of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic have publicly condemned Demirchian's bid to force Kocharian's resignation. A domestic political crisis in Armenia that pitted Karabakh Armenians against the rest could tempt the Azerbaijani leadership to launch a new offensive in the hope of bringing Karabakh back under its control. Turan on 2 April quoted Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian as denying the existence of a separate Karabakh clan during an interview with Armenian Kentron TV and as stressing that Armenia and Karabakh are one people and one state. (Liz Fuller)

TURKISH-ARMENIAN PANEL SAYS ITS MISSION IS COMPLETE. The U.S.-backed Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC) said on 14 April that it has achieved its main objectives and will dissolve to pave the way for broader contacts between the two estranged peoples. The announcement came at the end of a three-day meeting in Moscow attended by three Turkish and four Armenian members of the private body. One of them, political scientist Andranik Migranian, lives and works in the Russian capital.

"TARC is announcing that its work as a commission is ending," they said in a statement obtained by RFE/RL. "TARC's term was to be one year, but the course of events required a longer period to accomplish our goals.... We feel that advances in civil society contacts are now permanent and will only grow in time. We also feel that beyond our recommendations, official relations can now best be continued and advanced independent of the TARC structure."

The commission, which was set up in July 2001 with close U.S. State Department involvement, finished its work by approving a set of "recommendations" to the governments of Turkey and Armenia on how to improve their strained relations. Their content was not disclosed. "The recommendations have a better chance of being implemented if they are presented in private," one commission source told RFE/RL. He said it will be up to the two governments to decide whether they should be made public.

TARC is likely to have reaffirmed its strong support for the unconditional reopening of the Turkish-Armenian border sealed by Ankara 11 years ago out of solidarity with Turkophone Azerbaijan. The current Turkish government has signaled over the past year its readiness to stop linking the opening of the border with a pro-Azerbaijani solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Azerbaijan is strongly opposed to the lifting of the Turkish blockade, fearing that it would lose a serious bargaining chip in Karabakh peace talks. Azerbaijani leaders have issued Ankara a series of warnings in recent weeks, with President Ilham Aliyev going as far as to claim that an open border between Armenia and Turkey would make a Karabakh settlement impossible.

The alarm in Baku suggests that the Turkish cabinet is seriously considering reopening the frontier for travel and commerce, a move which would please both the United States and the European Union. The United States has for years been pressing the Turks to soften their Armenian policy. Visiting Yerevan late last month, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said Ankara has been busy dealing with the events in Iraq and Cyprus. "I hope that as those concerns are ameliorated there will be a return of their attention to reopening the border," Armitage said.

It is not clear whether TARC recommendations also address the other thorny issue in Turkish-Armenian relations: the 1915 genocide of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. The commission members have not discussed it in detail since receiving in January 2003 the findings of a third-party study they commissioned from the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), a New York-based human rights organization. The ICTJ ruled that the killing of some 1.5 million Armenians fits into the internationally accepted definition of genocide (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 13 December 2001, 15 July 2002, and 13 June 2003).

TARC also announced plans to hold a big conference on "Turkish-Armenian rapprochement and reconciliation" this fall. "In addition we intend to support a Turkish-Armenian consultative group which would meet at least annually to exchange views, review progress, and recommend actions to promote improved relations," the statement said.

The Moscow meeting was chaired by Joseph Montville, a former U.S. diplomat known as the author of the concept of "track-two diplomacy" that calls for direct contacts between civil societies in conflict resolution. David Phillips, an adviser to the U.S. State Department who has coordinated the panel's activities, was in Yerevan on a brief, low-key visit on 11 April. He then proceeded to Ankara.

TARC has faced strong criticism from nationalist groups in Armenia and especially its diaspora ever since its creation. They say that its activities hamper international recognition of the Armenian genocide. Migranian and other Armenian members have denied this, pointing among other things to the ICTJ study. (Emil Danielyan)

GEORGIAN PRESIDENT WANTS CLOSER TIES WITH EU. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili used his 6 April visit to EU headquarters in Brussels to press for swifter integration with the bloc. He said integration with the European Union is Georgia's foremost foreign policy goal, and suggested his country lags only a few years behind current candidates. EU officials, however, made clear that talk of membership is highly premature.

It was only in January that the EU tentatively indicated that Georgia, which remains heavily dependant on foreign aid, and other South Caucasus countries might be included in the bloc's new neighborhood program (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 30 January and 27 February 2004). Yet Saakashvili took his hosts by surprise when he suggested Georgia is very close to meeting EU membership criteria. He told a news conference after meeting the president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, that the process may only take a few years.

"I believe that, besides getting the current assistance, we're also becoming members of the Wider Europe Initiative," Saakashvili said. "That's very important. I believe that if present positive trends in Georgia remain effective, [then] in the period somewhere between three to four years we'll be ready in terms of criteria for EU membership. Of course, it will take time. Of course, it will take long procedures. And I'm realistic about that. But I'm also convinced that Georgia could be in good shape in three to four years if we solve those problems and consolidate our statehood the way we are doing right now."

Specifically, Saakashvili said his country lags three or four years behind Bulgaria. After the EU's enlargement on 1 May, Bulgaria is the frontrunner in the next wave, set to join in early 2007.

Before meeting Prodi, Saakashvili said in a speech before the foreign affairs committee of the European Parliament that Georgia is a country with a "European identity and culture." He listed reforms aimed at bolstering the judiciary and law-enforcement structures, rooting out corruption, creating macroeconomic stability, and welcoming foreign investors. He also said Georgia would contribute to the EU's stability as a "frontline partner" in the fight against terrorism and a vital contributor to the bloc's energy security.

These arguments appear to have made little impression on Prodi, however. The commission president stuck to the tough EU line, according to which the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement signed with Georgia in 1995 still has a lot of unused potential. Prodi even refused to indicate whether he will recommend Georgia for inclusion in the bloc's new neighborhood scheme. "We start from the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement that gives us clearly plenty of room to increase our relations and we want to move ahead in the implementation of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement," he said. "But after the enlargement on 1 May, the commission in the same month of May intends to make a recommendation on the relationship of Georgia and Armenia and Azerbaijan to the European Neighborhood Policy and the [EU] Council [of heads of state and government] will consider this matter further, I hope, in June."

Nonetheless, the inclusion of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan in the neighborhood project appears to be a foregone conclusion. But EU officials privately doubt whether the three countries will be able to make use of the integration opportunities offered by the project. Prodi said on 6 April the EU has given Georgia 10 million euros ($11.94 million) of food aid in recent months, and will shortly add another 3.6 million euros to support reforms of the judiciary and law-enforcement structures.

Saakashvili said on 6 April his country will honor "European standards" of peaceful conduct in dealing with the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He said both will be offered autonomy. At the same time, Saakashvili appealed for the close involvement of what he termed "major European structures" in both peace processes.

Saakashvili also extended generous praise to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, who he said had played a very constructive role in the recent standoff between Tbilisi and the autonomous republic of Adjaria. "There are two things," he said. "We have high expectations for our relations with Russia, [because] they're accepting the new rules of the game, and the new rules of the game are that military presence is no longer acceptable, that they should abide by international agreements and [that] they should not meddle in the internal affairs of [their] immediate neighbors, and I think, what Putin demonstrated in Adjaria was [in the first instance] that he clearly gave the message to the local government leader [who] was no longer supported by his population, [who] had problems with central government and [who] had only hopes that President Putin of Russia would support him, that Russia was no longer willing to grant the same kind of support as one would have expected in the past, so that's quite a change from previous Russian [positions]." But, Saakashvili added, it is too early to say whether this pattern of behavior will continue. (Ahto Lobjakas)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "There are no ethnic, religious and other problems in Adjaria. There is only one problem there - Aslan Abashidze." -- Georgian Interior Minister Giorgi Baramidze, speaking in Moscow on 7 April (quoted by Caucasus Press).

"The worst of it is that we used to pride ourselves here on helping each other. Now if someone is seized or beaten we just look the other way." -- A Chechen farmer's wife, commenting on the cumulative impact of continuous brutal reprisals against Chechen civilians by Russian troops (quoted in "The Daily Telegraph" on 3 April).