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Caucasus Report: December 5, 2003

5 December 2003, Volume 6, Number 42

OSCE MINSK GROUP CO-CHAIRMEN HEAD FOR ARMENIA, AZERBAIJAN... The U.S., French and Russian co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group are scheduled to travel to Baku, Stepanakert and Yerevan on 5-8 December. The visit was originally scheduled to take place directly after the 15 October Azerbaijani presidential elections (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 5 November 2003).

Speaking at a press conference in Yerevan on 24 November, Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian said that the co-chairs' visit will focus on two objectives: a resumption of direct talks between the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents on resolving the Karabakh conflict, and "introducing new ideas and approaches" into the peace process, according to Noyan Tapan on 25 November. Oskanian said that Armenian President Robert Kocharian reached agreement with former Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev on "a wide range of issues," and that "it would be a pity...and pointless, to start talks [again] from scratch," Interfax reported.

In an interview published in the official government daily "Hayastani Hanrapetutiun" on 22 November and circulated by Groong, Oskanian said he does not expect the co-chairmen to bring with them "a new written proposal" for resolving the conflict. He predicted that "there will be new approaches and the co-chairmen will talk them through with the Azerbaijani and Armenian presidents and the Azerbaijani authorities. If they feel there are common approaches, they will try to present them in a written form."

The U.S. co-chairman, Rudolf Perina, indirectly substantiated Oskanian's statement. The Karabakh paper "Azad Artsakh" quoted Perina on 26 November as saying that there are five or six possible and acceptable approaches to resolving the conflict, but no "principally new" ones. At the same time, Perina was quoted as saying that the co-chairmen try to find new approaches and view the problem from new angles.

Meanwhile, Russian officials continue to make it clear that they consider the optimum approach is for the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan to hammer out an agreement in direct talks. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko said on 20 November that Russia "favors the resumption of a direct dialogue between the presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia," ITAR-TASS reported. He added that Moscow is prepared to act as mediator both in such bilateral talks and in its capacity as a member of the OSCE Minsk Group.

Similarly, Russian Deputy Presidential Chief of Staff Sergei Prikhodko told journalists on 30 November that Russia believes the Karabakh conflict can only be settled by means of a political dialogue between the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Interfax reported.

On 29 November, however, the pro-opposition daily "Haykakan zhamanak" published what it claimed was the transcript of a report Oskanian delivered on 25 November to a closed session of the parliament's Commission on Foreign Relations, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported on 4 December. The paper quoted Oskanian as saying the Armenian leadership fears that the Minsk Group co-chairs will unveil a new proposal that may differ considerably from the agreements during talks in April 2001 in Florida between Kocharian and Aliyev, under which Karabakh would have remained under Armenian control.

Meanwhile, Baku continues to place the onus for kickstarting the peace process on the Minsk Group which, it argues, should come up with a new peace proposal, which would fully preserve Azerbaijan's territorial integrity and compel Yerevan to accept such a solution. (Liz Fuller)

...AS ARMENIAN COALITION PARTIES ADVOCATE REFERENDUM ON PEACE DEAL. Leaders of Armenia's three governing parties said on 4 December that any internationally brokered peace agreement on Nagorno-Karabakh will have to be put to a referendum and win popular approval before it can come into effect. But their opponents dismissed this as another indication of President Robert Kocharian's alleged intention to dodge responsibility for his failure to secure a pro-Armenian solution to the dispute with Azerbaijan.

"We believe that a final decision will naturally be taken by the people," said Mher Shahgeldian, chairman of the parliament committee on defense and security. Shahgeldian represents the Orinats Yerkir (Law-Based State) Party, one of the three members of the governing coalition. His remarks, made at weekly parliament briefings, were echoed by senior lawmakers from Orinats Yerkir's two coalition partners, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation--Dashnaktsutiun and the Republican Party (HHK). "It is possible that the final variant of resolving the problem will be put to a referendum," said Hrair Karapetian of the HHD. "The republics of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh can not accept any solutions without taking into account the people's opinion."

Senior deputies from the opposition Artarutiun (Justice) bloc claimed on 4 December that the referendum calls are part of an effort by the Armenian leadership to create a pretext for rejecting an anticipated new peace proposal that would not meet Armenia's key requirements. (Hrach Melkumian)

FORMER ARMENIAN PRESIDENTIAL HOPEFUL FOUNDS NEW OPPOSITION GROUP. Outspoken opposition politician Aram Karapetian, who finished fourth in the first round of this year's presidential election with just under 3 percent of the vote, held the founding conference of his new party on 2 December, warning the Armenian authorities that he is prepared for the kind of action that toppled the ruling regime in neighboring Georgia.

Karapetian, who entered the political arena only a year ago, warned that the Armenian opposition will stage similar mass protests if it continues to be barred from coming to power through elections. "And let nobody doubt that I and my supporters will be at the forefront," he told several hundred members of his Nor Zhamanakner (New Times) party.

Karapetian dismissed President Robert Kocharian's claims that the opposition stood no chance of forcing him into resignation after his controversial reelection, which the international community criticized as undemocratic. Karapetian said he and other oppositionists who rallied around Kocharian's main challenger Stepan Demirchian after the first round of voting on 19 February were simply not organized enough and wanted to avoid civil unrest in Armenia. "They are badly wrong. We were not afraid of anything," he said.

A politically inexperienced scholar who spent much of the past decade in Moscow, Karapetian was unknown to most Armenians as recently as one year ago, at the start of the presidential race. He quickly made his name and attracted a substantial following through tough anti-government rhetoric voiced in a series of televised interviews and news conferences.

His well-funded election campaign drew large crowds in various parts of the country. The official results of the first round, rejected as fraudulent by all opposition candidates, showed Karapetian winning about 3 percent of the vote. He was a major speaker at the opposition rallies in Yerevan against reported vote rigging.

Karapetian was high on the electoral list of the Demirchian-led Artarutiun (Justice) alliance before being barred by the authorities from contesting the 25 May parliamentary elections on the grounds that he had not permanently resided in Armenia for the previous five years. The opposition denounced the move as politically motivated, arguing that he was earlier deemed by the Central Election Commission to have met the even more stringent eligibility criteria for presidential candidates set by Armenia's election law.

Karapetian subsequently distanced himself from Demirchian and Artarutiun, deciding to form a party of his own, which he said will stand for "democracy, liberal economics and pan-Armenism." But he was vague about the party's foreign policy agenda. His latest comments suggest that like some other Armenian oppositionists, he was inspired by Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze's decision to resign in the face of huge opposition demonstrations against serious irregularities reported in the 2 November parliamentary elections.

Speaking on state television late last week, Kocharian said his political foes could not have replicated the Georgian opposition because he was the legitimate winner of the presidential vote, the outcome of which was not explicitly challenged by the United States and the West in general. He said the Armenian opposition would have been in "a more deplorable" state now if it had provoked a popular uprising.

Karapetian scoffed at those remarks. "Can there be a situation more deplorable than this one?" he asked. "Did he mean that we would have been in jail? I must remind Mr. Kocharian that he who goes to prison in Armenia ends up in government." (Shakeh Avoyan)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "Our main duty, our main task, is to make sure that, from now on, the link between the name of Georgia and the notion of falsified polls will remain history." -- Georgian Minister of State Zurab Zhvania, speaking in Tbilisi on 4 December (quoted by RFE/RL's Georgian Service).

"Russia always fulfills its international obligations." -- Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, quoted by Caucasus Press on 5 December.