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Caucasus Report: December 6, 2004

6 December 2004, Volume 7, Number 45

WHITHER THE KARABAKH PEACE PROCESS? Azerbaijan's campaign to induce the UN General Assembly to debate and adopt a resolution condemning the occupation by "Armenian forces" of seven districts of Azerbaijan bordering on the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) has proven abortive. But Armenia and Azerbaijan currently favor widely opposing approaches to resolving the Karabakh conflict, and several Azerbaijani officials, including President Ilham Aliyev, have accused Armenia of seeking to derail the search for a political settlement. Despite sharp statements by both sides in recent weeks, Noyan Tapan announced on 2 December that the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers will meet in Sofia on 6 December on the sidelines of the OSCE Ministerial Council meeting in the fifth of a series of exploratory talks that began in Prague in mid-April.

The UN General Assembly debate on Karabakh opened as scheduled on 23 November, but was adjourned indefinitely later that day after Ambassador Susan Moore, the U.S. envoy to the UN, speaking on behalf of the three countries (the United States, France, and Russia) that co-chair the OSCE Minsk Group that is seeking to mediate a solution to the Karabakh conflict, asked the General Assembly not to take any action that could negatively affect that mediation effort, Reuters reported. In a 22 November interview with RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, U.S. Minsk Group co-chairman Steven Mann expressed implicit disapproval of the Azerbaijani initiative. Mann stressed that "traditionally it has been the OSCE that handles Karabakh," rather than the UN, and he asked rhetorically "How does this [Azerbaijani initiative] bring us closer to a settlement?" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 November 2004).

Three weeks before the UN debate, Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian warned in an exclusive interview with RFE/RL's Armenian Service on 9 November that while Yerevan is ready to resume "at any time" the Prague talks at foreign minister level, Azerbaijan should not proceed on the assumption that it can continue negotiations on resolving the Karabakh conflict under the aegis of the OSCE Minsk Group, while at the same time seeking the assistance of other international organizations in resolving individual issues related to that conflict.

"Either we continue the negotiations within the Minsk Group, trying to reach a solution of the whole problem, or Azerbaijan can take the issue to other instances, seeking separate solutions," Oskanian said. Should Azerbaijan choose the latter approach, Oskanian said, the Azerbaijani authorities will have to negotiate with the Nagorno-Karabakh leadership. "Today the ball is in [Azerbaijan's] court," Oskanian concluded (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 11 November 2004).

But Baku immediately rejected Oskanian's warning that Azerbaijan should not try to launch a parallel effort to resolve the conflict. Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesman Metin Mirza on 10 November condemned Oskanian's statement as an effort to "torpedo" the negotiating process at a juncture when "favorable conditions" have been created for making progress. Mirza further noted that the OSCE Minsk Group has not designated Nagorno-Karabakh a party to negotiations on resolving the conflict, implying that the inclusion in the negotiating process of representatives of the unrecognized republic's leadership is therefore out of the question. Subsequently, however, other Azerbaijani officials have said that Baku would agree to negotiate directly with the NKR leadership. But at the same time, they set conditions for doing so that are clearly unacceptable to both Yerevan and Stepanakert. For example, President Aliyev said on 22 November that if Armenia wants direct talks between Nagorno Karabakh and Azerbaijan, then it should first "withdraw its troops from the occupied territories and stop subsidizing the NKR from the Armenian state budget," Turan reported. (In fact, the troops that currently control the seven occupied Azerbaijani districts belong to the NKR Defense army, not the armed forces of the Republic of Armenia.) And on 26 November, Azerbaijani Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov (who accompanied Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov to the four rounds of talks with Oskanian) said that Azerbaijan is willing to begin talks with the Armenian community of the NKR on condition that the "foreign troops" are withdrawn from the seven occupied Azerbaijani districts and that the Karabakh Armenians first acknowledge that their republic is an integral part of Azerbaijan, reported. Azimov also said that Baku considers possible the return to Karabakh of the enclave's former Azerbaijani population "before the political settlement is completed and the status of Nagorno-Karabakh is determined" -- a formulation that suggests that Azerbaijan continues to insist on a "phased" settlement of the conflict. Armenia, by contrast, favors a "package" settlement in which all aspects of the conflict would be addressed (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 9 July 2004)

Both before and after the UN General Assembly debate, Azerbaijani officials said that their purpose in raising the Karabakh conflict at that forum was to focus the international community�s attention on it. President Aliyev said on 3 November that "we want the question of resolving the conflict to be discussed within the framework of the Council of Europe and other international organizations," reported. And during the last week of November, Azerbaijani Defense Minister Colonel General Safar Abiev twice said that he believes it is time for NATO to address the Karabakh conflict. Abiev told visiting Belgian Defense Minister General August Van Daele in Baku on 22 November that "by continuing to occupy Azerbaijani territory," Armenia is violating the conditions under which it was accepted into NATO's Partnership for Peace program.

A third international body that Azerbaijan hopes to coopt is the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe. Azerbaijani Deputy Foreign Minister Azimov was quoted as telling journalists in Baku on 26 November that as the commission includes a number of experienced legal specialists, it could prepare proposals on the precise future status of the NKR vis-a-vis the central Azerbaijani government.

Meanwhile, Armenian officials continue to insist that the existing format of talks under the aegis of the OSCE Minsk Group is the optimum approach to resolving the conflict. Speaking on 16 November at a press conference with his visiting Estonian counterpart Arnold Ruutel, Armenian President Robert Kocharian noted the ongoing efforts of the Minsk Group to help the conflict sides reach a consensus, Noyan Tapan reported. Kocharian stressed that the Minsk Group's mandate does not extend to imposing a readymade blueprint, but rather in encouraging the two sides to find a mutually acceptable solution to the conflict. Armenian parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian similarly told Italian Defense Ministry official Pietro Ago on 29 November that Armenia hopes to resolve the conflict within the format of the Minsk Group, and with Karabakh's participation in the peace process, according to Arminfo on 29 November as cited by Groong.

Karabakh officials also view Azerbaijan's UN gambit with misgivings. NKR Foreign Minister Ashot Ghulian was quoted by the news agency De-Facto on 27 November as arguing that "Azerbaijan's attempts to transfer the discussion of the Karabakh problem from the Minsk Group to other international organizations" will only delay a final settlement. Ghulian said that neither the Minsk Group co-chairmen nor the governments of their respective countries are happy about the Azerbaijani initiative. In addition, Russian Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov made clear at a 30 November session in Yerevan of the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization that Moscow does not consider it either necessary or appropriate to change the current settlement format by coopting NATO as a mediator, reported on 1 December quoting the Armenian agency Mediamax.

Despite the indefinite postponement of the UN General Assembly vote on Azerbaijan's draft resolution condemning Armenia, some Armenian opposition politicians view the Azerbaijani initiative as part of a new international effort to force Armenia into agreeing to major concessions. Former parliament speaker Babken Ararktsian -- one of the original members in 1988 of the Karabakh Committee created in Yerevan to support the request of the then Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast to be designated a constituent part of the then Armenian SSR -- told journalists in Yerevan on 1 December that the Minsk Group has issued an ultimatum to Armenia either to accept a peace settlement that favors Azerbaijan or face condemnation by the UN, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. That assertion is, however, at odds with U.S. Minsk Group Co-chairman Mann's statement in his 22 November interview with RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service that the Minsk Group's task is to "work with the two sides to help them reach an agreement."

Other Armenian politicians have construed the draft report on Karabakh compiled by Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe rapporteur David Atkinson as a further component of that perceived international pressure on Yerevan. The draft report in question contains formulations critical of Armenia: it uses the term "ethnic cleansing" in reference to the Azerbaijani exodus from Karabakh in the early 1990s, and says that the seven occupied districts bordering on Nagorno-Karabakh are controlled by "separatist forces," Noyan Tapan reported on 17 November.

In an interview with Armenian Public Television broadcast on 1 December, Foreign Minister Oskanian expressed regret at what he termed political speculation about the Karabakh mediation process on the part of opposition politicians, Noyan Tapan reported on 2 December. Oskanian appealed to all Armenian political forces to form "a united front" on the issue of the search for a political settlement of the Karabakh conflict. (Liz Fuller)

ARTUR BAGHDASARIAN: A PROFILE. When a new party called Orinats Yerkir (Country of Law) was set up in Armenia nearly five years ago, it was widely dismissed as one of myriad political groups doomed to political oblivion. But it went on to win six parliament seats in the May 1999 elections and more than three times that number in the next polls four years later, becoming the country's second largest pro-establishment force.

The key to the party's success is its 36-year-old leader, Artur Baghdasarian, who became speaker of the current Armenian parliament and is regarded as a potential successor to President Robert Kocharian. Revered by his supporters but despised by his foes, Baghdasarian has made a spectacular career over the past decade. He has managed to adapt swiftly to the changing political environment and build a solid grassroots structure, something that no other party supporting Kocharian can boast.

A lawyer by training, Baghdasarian began his political activities in 1995 as an enthusiastic supporter of then President Levon Ter-Petrosian and his Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh) party. Baghdasarian made his name as the head of a lawyers association and the host of a TV program that promoted Armenia's post-Soviet Constitution, which was endorsed in a controversial referendum in July 1995. He was elected to parliament on the HHSh ticket in the parliamentary ballot held concurrently with that referendum.

Baghdasarian was among dozens of lawmakers who defected from the HHSh-led parliament majority in February 1998 and thus helped precipitate Ter-Petrosian's resignation. He has since played down his past links with the unpopular "former regime," repeatedly criticizing it in public speeches.

Orinats Yerkir contested the relatively clean 1999 elections along with scores of other small parties and blocs, most of which also had vague populist platforms and were likewise loyal to Kocharian. But Orinats Yerkir outperformed them with a barrage of television advertisements and Baghdasarian's populist appeal, its most potent weapon. It was also the first Armenian party to understand the importance of grassroots and targeting of specific segments of the population.

Orinats Yerkir currently claims to have tens of thousands of members across the country. Significantly, its structures comprise nationwide associations of small traders, teachers, doctors and other professionals. It also numbers among its members a growing number of wealthy individuals with connections to the present government.

All of this greatly contributed to Orinats Yerkir's much stronger showing in the elections held in May 2003. The party now has the second largest faction in the National Assembly, holding 22 of its 131 seats. Anecdotal evidence suggests that unlike the Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), the main powerful government faction led by Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, Orinats Yerkir did not benefit from the numerous vote irregularities reported by both domestic and international observers.

Immediately after he created Orinats Yerkir, rumors identified Baghdasarian as a protege of Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, Kocharian's most powerful associate. That hypothesis was reinforced by Baghdasarian's election as parliament speaker in June 2003, to which the HHK, which has more parliament seats, agreed only under strong pressure from Kocharian and Sarkisian. In addition, Orinats Yerkir formally became a governing party, obtaining three ministerial posts in Markarian's cabinet.

Baghdasarian's growing political clout fueled speculation that he is being groomed as Armenia's next president in the event that Kocharian decides to resign after completing his second term in office in 2008, in accordance with the article of the constitution that bars any one individual from serving more than two consecutive terms. Indeed, Baghdasarian is arguably the most popular and "electable" pro-Kocharian politician in Armenia.

But observers caution that Kocharian is likely to select as his successor only someone whom he can fully trust. Sarkisian, they say, has proved a more reliable ally, especially during last spring's failed opposition campaign for Kocharian's resignation, which Baghdasarian failed to explicitly condemn. Sarkisian, by contrast, is believed to have played a key role in a tough crackdown on the Armenian opposition which quelled the street protests in Yerevan.

Baghdasarian's ambiguous stance reinforced the perception that he is inconsistent and switches sides easily. It also underscored his close attention to the popular mood, which does not seem to favor the Armenian president. Baghdasarian may have publicly campaigned for Kocharian's reelection in 2003, but he never emphasized his close ties with the ruling regime during parliamentary election campaigns.

On the contrary, Orinats Yerkir posed as a vocal opposition force, even though it has never been in opposition to the ruling regime. Baghdasarian's discourse on government corruption and the difficult socioeconomic situation in Armenia still differs very little from that of opposition leaders, except for the fact that he rarely names names. In one such exception, in May Baghdasarian publicly accused Justice Minister David Harutiunian (another potential Kocharian successor) of misappropriating a $4.5 million World Bank loan designed to shore up Armenia's judiciary. Both Harutiunian and the World Bank denied the allegations, but that did not prevent Baghdasarian from scoring more points with the disgruntled electorate.

Orinats Yerkir's own track record in government has been less than impressive. Two of its three ministers were forced to step down last April under scandalous circumstances. Its third cabinet member, Education Minister Sergo Yeritsian, is also in a shaky position, dogged by reports about persisting large-scale bribery in the admission of students to state-run universities.

The party's key 2003 campaign pledge was to compensate Armenians whose Soviet-era bank savings were wiped out by the hyperinflation of the early 1990s, but that effort is falling flat. An Orinats Yerkir bill put forward earlier this year called for $70 million in public funds to be set aside for that purpose. However, its passage was blocked by the government, which argues that it has no money to finance the scheme. The Orinats Yerkir ministers have voiced no objections to that argument.

Yet this will not necessarily lose Orinats Yerkir votes in the next elections. Its leaders, no doubt, will say that they need more parliament seats and ministerial portfolios to pull the government strings. Baghdasarian, better known for his politicking flair than intelligence, has already proved how rewarding populism can be in Armenia. (Emil Danielyan)

IS GEORGIA'S PARLIAMENT CHAIRWOMAN SEEKING TO STRENGTHEN HER POWER BASE? Various Georgian publications, including the daily "Akhali taoba" on 30 November, have speculated that parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze, whose personal support base within the legislature numbers only a handful of the over 220 deputies, is seeking to form an alliance with the extra-parliamentary Union of Traditionalists. It was that faction, headed by Akaki Asatiani, who served himself as parliament speaker in 1990-1991 under Zviad Gamsakhurdia, that nominated Burdjanadze in early November 2001 to succeed Zurab Zhvania as speaker. And following the so-called Rose Revolution in November 2003, the Traditionalists argued that Burdjanadze was the most appropriate candidate to succeed Eduard Shevardnadze as Georgian president. It was that conviction that led Asatiani -- who had backed the mass protests spearheaded by Burdjanadze, Zhvania, and Mikheil Saakashvili that culminated in Shevardnadze's resignation -- to part company with his former allies, who agreed that Saakashvili was more suited to the role of president. Asatiani's clear affinity with Burdjanadze is the most likely source of the recent rumors of an embryonic alliance.

Asatiani, however, has dismissed those rumors as "without any real foundation." He told RFE/RL's Georgian Service on 30 November that they are based more on shared views regarding certain issues than on "intensive negotiations," and commented that State Security Minister Vano Merabishvili should be able to vouch for the fact that no such meetings between himself and Burdjanadze have taken place. He did not, however, totally exclude the possibility of an alliance with Burdjanadze, whom he described as the only one of the triumvirate that ousted Shevardnadze who succeeded in preserving her dignity, calm, and self-control.

Asatiani went on to note that at present Burdjanadze's political influence "is zero," even though her popularity rating is very high. A poll conducted last month by the Association of Public Opinion Research and Marketing found that President Saakashvili has the highest popularity rating in the country -- 73 percent -- followed by Burdjanadze with 53 percent. Similarly, Zhvania is regarded as the most astute politician, followed by Saakashvili, with Burdjanadze in third place, according to Caucasus Press on 19 and 15 November. (Nino Rodonaia and Liz Fuller)

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK. "Our current undetermined status is in fact an economic prison that has perpetuated conditions of unacceptable poverty." -- Kosova Prime Minister-designate Ramush Haradinaj, writing in "The Wall Street Journal Europe" on 1 December.