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Caucasus Report: July 1, 2002

1 July 2002, Volume 5, Number 23

CORRIDORS OF OPPORTUNITY. The second half of June witnessed two sensational statements by senior officials involved in the ongoing search for a solution to the Karabakh conflict. Although neither statement has been confirmed, they both indicate that the issue of unrestricted access between Azerbaijan and its exclave of Nakhichevan on the one hand, and between the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) and the Republic of Armenia on the other, is still regarded as a key component of any lasting settlement, as Paul Goble argued in 1992 in what has come to be known as the "Goble Plan" (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, No. 23, 8 June 2000).

On 14 June, Azerbaijan's President Heidar Aliyev announced that the so-called "Paris Principles" he agreed on in March 2001 with his Armenian counterpart Robert Kocharian during talks in Paris mediated by French President Jacques Chirac included an exchange of territory whereby Azerbaijan would be granted sovereignty over a corridor across the southern Armenian region of Meghri that linked Nakhichevan and the rest of Azerbaijan, while the Lachin corridor linking the Republic of Armenia and the NKR, which Armenia has controlled since the spring of 1992, would be recognized as Armenian territory. Aliyev added that having initially agreed on that exchange, Armenia reneged on it at subsequent talks in Florida in early April 2001.

Armenia immediately refuted Aliev's statements. A senior Armenian official told RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau on 15 June that the deal agreed by Aliyev and Kocharian in Paris was "asymmetrical," in that Lachin would become an internationally recognized part of Armenia, but that Azerbaijan would have only unrestricted access to Nakhichevan via Meghri, which would remain Armenian territory. That official added that the so-called "Paris principles" were "formalized in a document at Key West," Florida, in April 2001, but that after the Key West talks Aliyev unexpectedly demanded that Meghri should become a part of Azerbaijan. That demand led to the effective "collapse" of the entire peace process, the Armenian official said.

Aliev's statement triggered a storm of protest in Azerbaijan from opposition politicians who accused him of insincerity in the light of his previous insistence that the Paris Principles were "a myth," and of making an unacceptable concession in agreeing to give up Azerbaijan's claim to sovereignty over Lachin. In Armenia, too, opposition political figures seized upon Aliev's allegations in order to accuse Kocharian, as they had repeatedly done in the past, of having secretly agreed to cede Meghri.

That is not to say that the prospect of a territorial exchange has never been raised: in February 2000 Kocharian disclosed that international mediators had done so, and that he had discussed that option during one of his one-on-one meetings with Aliev. But both Kocharian and Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian said repeatedly that Yerevan had ruled out any peace settlement based on a territorial exchange. Oskanian said in June 2000 that "the issue is closed." On 25 June 2002, however, the Azerbaijani newspaper "Halq cebhesi" quoted former Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Tofik Zulfugarov as saying that the reason for his resignation in October 1999 was that he could not agree to a territorial exchange in which Armenia would cede Meghri to Azerbaijan in exchange for the Lachin corridor, implying that Aliyev at that juncture was ready to sign such an agreement.

In a statement on 18 June, Kocharian imputed Aliev's sensational disclosure (which he too rejected as untrue) to a desire to destabilize the already tense domestic political situation in Armenia. But Aliyev may equally have had a second, possibly more important, objective. Two years ago, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Vilayat Quliev was quoted by "Izvestiya" as saying that "Azerbaijan would consider as a great success the reaching of an agreement on resolving the Karabakh conflict that would grant the country a corridor to the Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic in exchange for the corridor uniting Armenia with Nagorno-Karabakh." Quliev went on to explain that such an agreement would constitute a unilateral concession on the part of Armenia insofar as Armenia already controlled Lachin. Aliev, therefore, may have been seeking to demonstrate that he has already extracted one unilateral concession from Armenia, even if Armenia subsequently backed away from it, and therefore he has no reason to agree to any settlement that would require mutual concessions.

The second disclosure, made in Istanbul on 26 June to a member of RFE/RL's Armenian Service, was no less sensational. A senior official involved in the peace process divulged that the land-corridors issue is now the sole remaining obstacle to resolving the conflict. "The negotiating process has reached a point where the Karabakh conflict can be considered resolved once a solution is found to the problem of corridors," that official said. That statement implies that agreement has been reached on the future political status of Nagorno-Karabakh. But no indication of any such agreement emerged from the talks held by the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairmen in Istanbul on 24 June with Aliev, and on 27 June in Tallinn with Kocharian. Russian co-Chairman Nikolai Gribkov refused to comment on Aliev's 14 June statement concerning the Paris Principles. But Gribkov did say that Aliyev and Kocharian are to meet "soon," and that the meeting will be "extremely important." Kocharian for his part, was quoted by Arminfo as saying after his 90-minute session with the three co-chairs that "I also try to make as few concessions as possible." (Liz Fuller)

HAS AZERBAIJAN'S PRESIDENT MODIFIED HIS 'SUCCESSION PLAN?' On 21 June, Azerbaijan's Constitutional Court approved 39 separate amendments proposed by President Aliyev to 20 articles of the constitution adopted in 1995. The following day, Aliyev scheduled a referendum on those proposed changes for 24 August.

The most important amendments would provide for deputies to future parliaments to be elected only in single-mandate constituencies and not according to the proportional system. (At present 100 deputies are elected in single-mandate constituencies and 25 under the "party-list" system.) They would transfer the duties of the president to the prime minister if the president dies, steps down, or is incapacitated. (At present, in such circumstances the president's duties devolve on the parliament speaker.) The minimum number of votes a candidate must receive in the first round to be elected president is lowered from two-thirds of all votes cast to 50 percent plus one vote, and the outcome of the presidential ballot must be made public within14 days, not seven as at present.

Other changes relate to alternative military service; abolishing the paragraph on depriving parliament deputies of their mandate if the party they represent is closed down; excluding from the list of issues that can be the subject of a nationwide referendum those that lie within the competence of the executive, such as taxes, the state budget, amnesties, elections, and appointments to executive posts; empowering the parliament to elect an ombudsman; and giving the right of legislative initiative to the Prosecutor-General's Office.

Speaking to journalists two days later prior to his departure for Istanbul to attend the Black Sea Economic Cooperation summit, Aliyev said the changes are "essential" in order to bring Azerbaijan's Constitution into line with the requirements of the Council of Europe and European conventions. But opposition politicians almost unanimously construed the planned changes as intended to strengthen the power of the executive, undercut the role of opposition political parties, and, most crucially, to facilitate what many observers believe to be Aliev's long-cherished plan to maneuver his son into a position in which he can succeed him as president.

Addressing parliament on 25 June, Ali Kerimov, leader of the reformist wing of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP), said that the proposed amendments to the constitution themselves violate Article 158 of the Basic Law, which rules the president cannot make proposals concerning the executive. A second AHCP deputy, Jamil Hasanli, noted that Article 6 of the constitution forbids the usurpation of power. But the parliament, which is dominated by the pro-presidential Yeni Azerbaycan Party, rejected opposition demands to hold a debate on the proposed changes before the end of its emergency session.

Most newspapers predicted on 25 June that the rationale for the amendments is to enable the president to name his son as prime minister. (Under the Azerbaijani Constitution, it is the president who is empowered to appoint the premier, who is answerable to him, not to the legislature.) Naming Ilham as prime minister would be one way to allow him to demonstrate his efficiency as an economic manager, at a time when increasing oil revenues (the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline is scheduled for completion in late 2004) could bring the long-hoped-for economic upswing, and thus enhance Ilham's popularity.

But other observers have pointed to another innovation, namely the provision that the prime minister must not necessarily be a citizen of Azerbaijan. Referring to unidentified "observers," suggested that that change was made in order to install LUKoil President Vagit Alekperov (an ethnic Azerbaijani) as Azerbaijan's prime minister, and that Alekperov would work in tandem with Ilham as president as the latter's eminence grise and "guardian angel." There is circumstantial evidence suggesting the two men are close: in February 2000 "Novye izvestiya" cited unidentified sources close to Ilham as having disclosed that Aliyev suggested in 1998 that Alekperov run for president of Azerbaijan and agreed to run for a second term himself only after Alekperov rejected that proposal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 February 2000).

But by the same token, the provision allowing foreign citizens to serve as prime minister could become a liability. If, for example, Heidar Aliyev were to die suddenly, pro-Russian forces might seek to take advantage of the resulting chaos to engineer the return to Baku of either former President Ayaz Mutalibov, or former KGB Chairman Vagif Huseinov, both of whom have acquired Russian passports during their respective exiles in Moscow. (Liz Fuller)

COMEBACK ATTEMPT BY FORMER ARMENIAN PRESIDENT NOT RULED OUT... At the urging of former President Levon Ter-Petrossian, the former ruling Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh) began talks earlier this year with several smaller parties that split from it in the late 1990s on the possibility of forming a "bloc of right-wing forces" to contest the parliamentary elections due in May 2003 (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 5, No. 9, 7 March 2002). Although those talks failed to yield a concrete agreement, former parliament speaker Babken Ararktsian said on 21 May that the groups in question will "definitely" forge such an election alliance (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 5, No. 18, 24 May 2002).

Those efforts to revive the HHSh inevitably sparked speculation that Ter-Petrossian, who has devoted himself to academic research since his forced resignation in February 1998, might essay a political comeback. In early April, Ter-Petrossian's press spokesman Levon Zurabian dismissed that possibility as an invention of the media. (Zurabian's disclaimer did not prevent the ambassadors of several EU members states from holding a reception in the former president's honor in late April, the express purpose of which, according to the independent newspaper "Iravunk," was to try to determine whether Ter-Petrossian is considering running for president in 2003).

In an interview published in "Iravunk" in mid-May, however, Zurabian was less categorical. He said that "the right-center forces would like to have their joint candidate," and that "they all accept Levon Ter-Petrossian as a leader who can unite all the right-wing forces, and I think they would like to see him as their candidate." Asked whether Ter-Petrossian would agree to run, Zurabian said he might do so if convinced that the majority of the electorate supports his philosophy and approach to politics. And in late June, Zurabian was quoted as telling Interfax and Noyan Tapan in separate interviews that Ter-Petrossian "is likely" to participate in next year's presidential ballot.

Both in Armenia and abroad, Ter-Petrossian's anticipated comeback bid has been directly linked to the international community's desire to resolve the Karabakh conflict before the scheduled completion (in late 2004) of the planned Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil-export pipeline. A visiting deputy to the German Bundestag is reported to have met with Ter-Petrossian in mid-June and to have discussed the Karabakh peace process with him.

Commenting on 27 June on the increasingly frequent hints that Ter-Petrossian might attempt a political comeback, "Hayots ashkhar," which has generally been sympathetic to incumbent President Kocharian, suggested that Ter-Petrossian is intent on forming a political alliance that would help the "superpowers" sell a peace accord on Karabakh to the Armenian public. Also on 27 June, the opposition "Haykakan zhamanak" said the majority of Armenian parliament deputies have a "normal" attitude toward Ter-Petrossian's possible return to active politics. One notable exception, however, is National Unity Party Chairman Artashes Geghamian, who aspires to become the sole candidate proposed by the 13 opposition parties that earlier this year joined forces with the express aim of forcing Kocharian's impeachment. Assuming that Geghamian was chosen in that capacity, Ter-Petrossian's participation in the ballot (together with that of National Democratic Union Chairman Vazgen Manukian and Self-Determination Union Chairman Paruyr Hairikian) could seriously undercut his chances. Interfax on 22 June quoted Geghamian as saying that "Ter-Petrossian is a mature and reasonable statesman and he is unlikely to agree" to contend next year's presidential ballot. (Liz Fuller)

...AS HIS FORMER CHALLENGER REMAINS UNDECIDED. Vazgen Manukian, who is currently seen as a more likely choice than Geghamian to win endorsement as the opposition's sole candidate in next year's presidential election, has said on several occasions over the past three months that he has not yet come to a decision whether or not to run.

Manukian estimates Kocharian's chances of re-election in a free and fair ballot as minimal, and similarly doubts whether he could win through vote rigging. But at the same time he admits that he does not see any worthy alternative candidate. "To be honest, I don't see in the political arena any candidate...whom I would support, of whom I would say: 'Let's set aside all ambitions and make him president,'" Noyan Tapan on 25 June quoted Manukian as saying.

Manukian has also implicitly questioned the likelihood that the opposition could reach agreement on a single candidate, given that most political parties are at odds among themselves. Moreover, he said, in the absence of a clear choice between the incumbent and an opposition candidate perceived as having a reasonable chance of defeating him, the electorate is largely indifferent to the upcoming ballot. Manukian has nonetheless implied that, if either he were proposed as united opposition candidate or if he concluded that the electorate would support him, he would agree to run, as "the role of an observer is unacceptable [to me]," because "this is our country, we are responsible for the country."

But since the 1996 presidential election, when he came within an inch of defeating Ter-Petrossian, and the pre-term ballot in March 1998, Manukian's National Democratic Union has been seriously weakened by internal dissent that resulted in some key members splitting from it to form a rival grouping. With his power base thus undercut, Manukian would need substantial backing from other opposition parties, especially if either Geghamian, or People's Party of Armenia Chairman Stepan Demirchian, or both, were to opt out of the "alliance of 13" and run independently. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "Chechnya has become a cemetery." -- Duma Deputy Aslanbek Aslakhanov, speaking at a news conference on 26 June (quoted by AP).

"No one -- neither American special forces, nor specially trained units of the Georgian military -- can resolve the problem of terrorists in the Pankisi Gorge without the direct and active participation of Russian special forces." -- Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking in Moscow on 24 June (quoted by RFE/RL's Russian Service).

"Power is not an end in itself for me." -- Arkadii Ghukasian, announcing his intention to run for a second term as president on the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (Noyan Tapan, 25 June).