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Caucasus Report: April 7, 2003

7 April 2003, Volume 6, Number 14

MOSCOW-BASED ARMENIAN OLIGARCH PLANS WORLD ARMENIAN BODY. Moscow-based Armenian businessman Ara Abrahamian, who founded the Union of Armenians of Russia three years ago (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 June 2000), has recently announced two new initiatives. Visiting Yerevan last week, Abrahamian announced plans for a World Armenian Organization, the founding congress of which is scheduled for October 2003. On 27 March, he also announced his support for the diaspora-based Ramkavar-Azatakan Party of Armenia (HRAK), which supported incumbent Armenian President Robert Kocharian in the recent presidential election and to which Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian has reportedly long been sympathetic.

Speaking at a press conference in Yerevan on 27 March, Abrahamian said he and the HRAK will jointly invest $50 million in the Armenian economy, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. He said the planned World Armenian Organization will lobby for international recognition of the 1915 genocide and create a unified commercial structure that will channel 20 percent of its business revenues into the promotion of "Armenian issues." Abrahamian has already toured Armenian communities in Europe, North America, and the Middle East to discuss the planned new organization with them. Abrahamian has also secured Kocharian's backing for the new body.

When Kocharian met with Abrahamian in Moscow in early January, opposition Armenian papers speculated that he had offered to support (and possibly to bankroll) Kocharian's campaign for reelection for a second presidential term in return for the post of Armenian prime minister -- a hypothesis that presidential press secretary Vahe Gabrielian swiftly denied. An alternative possibility is that Abrahamian and the current Armenian leadership are looking ahead to the presidential elections in 2008, in which Kocharian has already said he will not seek a third term. Abrahamian and the HRAK may be planning to support a presidential bid by Oskanian, who, with Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, at present appears the best-placed figure to guarantee continuity in both foreign and domestic policy. If the present constitutional ban on dual citizenship is rescinded, hundreds of thousands of diaspora Armenians would qualify for Armenian citizenship -- and to vote in the 2008 presidential election. (Liz Fuller)

WHEN IS A COUP ATTEMPT NOT A COUP ATTEMPT? Following a 29 March meeting with President Eduard Shevardnadze and "force" ministers, Georgian Defense Minister Lieutenant General David Tevzadze told journalists the same day that the temporary occupation of an army base during the night of 23-24 March by drunken National Guard veterans can be considered closed. Nonetheless, Shevardnadze warned during his weekly radio interview on 31 March that although earlier demonstrations of dissatisfaction by military units were treated with leniency, those involved in the most recent standoff will be tried and sentenced. Some 15 veterans have accordingly been remanded in pretrial custody for three months on charges of seizing a strategic location, an offense that carries a prison sentence of between seven and 14 years.

Three interpretations of the incident have been offered to date. The veterans themselves claim that their decision to seize three tanks from the Isani base on the outskirts of Tbilisi (where some of them still live in barracks) was taken spontaneously at the 24 March funeral of a fellow veteran who died of TB because he could not afford medical treatment. The objective, they said, was to focus the attention of the government and the public on their predicament: the veterans in question, men aged for the most part between 30-40, are homeless, unemployed, and destitute.

Georgian military and law enforcement officials, however, claimed on 24 March that the incident had been planned days or even weeks in advance, possibly in consultation with former Georgian Defense Minister and National Guard commander Tengiz Kitovani (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 March 2003). Kitovani played a key role in ousting then President Zviad Gamsakhurdia in late 1991, after which he and fellow warlord Djaba Ioseliani invited Shevardnadze to return from Moscow to Georgia in March 1992 to become de facto head of state. He was subsequently sidelined by Shevardnadze, served four years of an eight-year prison sentence for organizing an unauthorized campaign to "liberate" Abkhazia, and now lives in Moscow. In January 2000, Kitovani met in western Georgia with Colonel Akaki Eliava, who evaded capture for 18 months after an abortive insurrection in western Georgia. Interior Minister Koba Narchemashvili told journalists in Tbilisi on 24 March that there were grounds to assume that the veterans' actions were "either a conspiracy or an attempted coup."

That argument has since been modified. On 31 March, Shevardnadze said in his weekly radio address that the seizure of the Isani base was a bid by "criminal elements" who made use of the veterans in an attempt to sow "chaos" in Georgia. That version still implies that the seizure of the base was indeed planned in advance, possibly as both Shevardnadze and Defense Minister Lieutenant General David Tevzadze claimed earlier, by persons outside Georgia. But Prosecutor-General Nugzar Gabrichidze, whom "Kommersant-Daily" quoted on 25 March as claiming that the veterans "had close links" with Kitovani, told Interfax on 3 April that the investigation has not uncovered any evidence of such ties. Gabrichidze added, however, that the Georgian authorities would like to question Kitovani, given that the arrested guardsmen once served under him.

Finally, meeting on 4 April with foreign military attaches, parliament Defense and Security Commission Chairman Irakli Batiashvili accused Moscow outright of masterminding the revolt, Caucasus Press reported. (Liz Fuller)

SENIOR AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITION FIGURE TO RUN FOR PRESIDENT. The Democratic Congress that unites nine opposition parties announced on 29 March that it will nominate Musavat Party Chairman Isa Gambar as its candidate for the October 2003 presidential election. Gambar, one of five opposition leaders who boycotted the October 1998 presidential ballot to protest what they termed the undemocratic conditions under which the ballot was held (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 July 1998), said earlier this year that even though the proposed new draft election legislation falls short of democratic standards, he intends to run for president and is confident he will win.

A balding, bespectacled pipe smoker who could pass for an Oxford don, Gambar was born into the Baku intelligentsia in 1957, studied history at Baku State University, and then worked at the Oriental Institute under the controversial historian Zia Buniatov. His political baptism of fire came in the late 1980s, when he composed a samizdat rebuttal of Armenian publicist Zorii Balayan's treatise advocating the unification of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia. In 1989, Gambar was one of the founding members of the Azerbaijan Popular Front (AHC) and was elected to parliament on that party's ticket in 1990. After the AHC came to power in May 1992 he served as parliament speaker under President Abulfaz Elchibey until the latter's flight into exile in June 1993. Gambar was subsequently arrested and spent several months in jail.

In November 1992, Gambar was elected chairman of the Musavat Party, the successor to the eponymous party that ruled the short-lived Azerbaijan Democratic Republic between 1918-1920. Musavat espouses Western-style democracy and close ties with the West, especially with Turkey and the U.S. Gambar has travelled to Turkey at least three times in recent years (in July 1999 and 2001 and December 2002) for talks with successive Turkish governments. While himself a practicing Muslim (he performed the hajj in 1997), Gambar is a firm advocate of a democratic and secular state. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "To become president means condemning oneself to four years of hard labor." -- Russian State Duma deputy for Chechnya Aslanbek Aslakhanov, in an interview published in "Rossiiskie vesti" on 26 March.

"The violence, human rights violations, and impunity that have characterized conditions in Chechnya can end only if the rule of guns is replaced by the rule of law." -- OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights Director, Ambassador Christian Strohal, addressing the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna on 27 March.

"Why have they become so hostile?" -- Yerevan Museum of Modern Art Director Henrik Igitian, a propos of some California Armenians' reaction to the violations that marred the recent Armenian presidential ballot (quoted by "Hayots Ashkhar" on 29 March).

"Robert Kocharian is creating a political system in Armenia where there is no room for the opposition." -- Editorial published in "Haykakan zhamanak" on 2 April.