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Caucasus Report: October 3, 2002

3 October 2002, Volume 5, Number 33

ARMENIAN OPPOSITION PARTIES MULL COMMON PLATFORM. Sixteen Armenian opposition parties forming a loose antigovernment coalition held further discussions on 1 October on their common platform, and moved to draw up a plan of joint actions in the run-up to the February presidential election.

Opposition leaders attending the three-hour meeting made no official statements about its details, saying that they agreed to keep their talks confidential. "The coalition is achieving its objective on time," said Hrant Khachatrian, leader of the small Union for Constitutional Rights who chaired the gathering. "Many issues were discussed and serious decisions were taken," another prominent oppositionist, Arshak Sadoyan, noted ambiguously.

But other informed sources told RFE/RL that the meeting focused on a 18-point program that outlines opposition approaches to key issues facing Armenia. They said the program mainly reflects the views of left-wing parties dominating the coalition and could serve as a basis for the electoral manifesto of the opposition's possible joint presidential candidate.

The opposition parties, which hope to prevent President Robert Kocharian's re-election, seem to have again avoided any discussion on who their single candidate should be, anxious not to rekindle their differences on the issue. Instead, they instructed their coordinating body to work out a plan of specific joint actions ahead of the February vote.

They also named Shavarsh Kocharian (no relation to the president), chairman of the parliament Committee on Science and Education, to coordinate the work of their newly formed united faction in the parliament. The unofficial faction unites 28 deputies affiliated with opposition parties represented in the 131-member National Assembly.

Opposition leaders admit that they will not necessarily agree on the joint presidential candidate, but will definitely do so in the event of a run-off vote with Kocharian. One of the opposition heavyweights, the National Unity Party, is expected to endorse the presidential bid of its ambitious leader, Artashes Geghamian, at a congress on 5 October. Another major player, the People's Party of Armenia (HZhK), will hold a similar congress on 2 November. Its leader, Stepan Demirchian, is one of the most popular opposition figures. (Armen Zakarian)

ARMENIA DENIES REJECTING ALIEV'S KARABAKH-SETTLEMENT PROPOSAL. Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev on 28 September accused the Armenian side of intransigence on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, saying that it has rejected his offer to lift the Azerbaijani blockade of Armenia in return for a partial return of occupied Azerbaijani territories. But a spokesman for Armenian President Kocharian rejected Aliev's claim two days later as untrue.

Reports from Baku said Aliyev complained to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group co-chairmen on 28 September that during their face-to-face talks in Sadarak on 14 August he proposed to Kocharian to reopen rail communication between Azerbaijan and Armenia if the latter ensures the return of four out of six Azerbaijani districts around Karabakh. Aliyev said Kocharian told him that Armenia's struggling economy "does not need" a rail link with Russia via Azerbaijan. He said this stance shows that long-standing Armenian complaints about negative effects of the Azerbaijani blockade are baseless.

But speaking in Yerevan on 30 September, Kocharian's press secretary, Vahe Gabrielian, said that Aliyev had only alluded to the "rail link for territory" exchange which, Gabrielian continued, Armenia has consistently rejected every time Baku raised it, most recently during talks in Prague this summer at deputy-foreign-minister level. That proposal is a modified version of the so-called phased resolution of the Karabakh conflict that would delay indefinitely agreement on the disputed region's status -- the main bone of contention. The current leadership of Armenia and the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic find that option too risky, pushing instead for a "package" peace accord. Gabrielian said on 30 September that "the conflict has to be settled in a packaged manner and no component must be taken out of that package. The question of the [Azerbaijani] territories, which serve as a security zone for Karabakh, is an integral part of that package."

Aliyev revealed no further details of his four-hour meeting with Kocharian in Sadarak, which the two presidents said at the time had ended on "an optimistic note," although they stopped short of announcing a breakthrough on any of the sticking points.

The 79-year-old Azerbaijani president also renewed his criticism of the OSCE mediators, saying that the Azerbaijani people are losing hope for a peaceful settlement of the conflict because of their unproductive activities. "The people's mood is changing. They are starting to lose hope in a peaceful solution and are coming to the view that we have to recover our land ourselves by whatever means necessary," AFP quoted Aliyev as saying.

"It has been...nearly 10 years since the Minsk Group was created," he added. "How much longer can we go on talking about a peace settlement?"

But Russia's chief Karabakh negotiator, First Deputy Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Trubnikov, defended the group's work. "The Minsk Group has not failed," he told reporters after meeting Aliev. "We should continue our work. In Baku and in Yerevan we got confirmation of this view and we will continue our work." The Minsk Group mediators visited Yerevan and Stepanakert on 26-27 September. (Emil Danielyan)

VINTAGE VAFA. Vafa Guluzade, who served from June 1993 to late 1999 as Heidar Aliev's foreign policy advisor, was equally, if not more critical of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs in an interview with Turan circulated on 30 September.

In line with what he described two years ago as his "accurate" assessment of Russia's role in the South Caucasus (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 3, No. 25, 23 June 2000), Guluzade said he is "not surprised" by what he termed the pro-Armenian bias shown by Trubnikov and the Russian Minsk Group co-Chairman Nikolai Gribkov. He said that "Armenia is one of Russia's provinces [and] is used by Moscow to restore its reign over the Caucasus." (Turan noted in this connection that on a previous visit to Baku, Trubnikov had "been unable to conceal his liking for Armenian Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian.")

Guluzade argued that Russia is not qualified to act as a mediator in the Karabakh conflict because it has no interest in achieving a fair and just solution. He suggested that what Russia is hoping to do is to bring a puppet president to power in Azerbaijan, but he did not suggest who the "puppet" might be. Then, he continued, Russia will delay resolving the conflict artificially, securing the liberation after five years of Agdam, and then after a further five years of Fizuli, but will never agree to restore either Nagorno-Karabakh or the Lachin corridor to Azerbaijani control.

Guluzade claimed that, in contrast, the West backs a deal whereby Armenian forces would be simultaneously withdrawn from six occupied Azerbaijani districts adjacent to Karabakh. (He did not say in return for what concession from the Azerbaijani side). But Russia, Guluzade said, will not permit Armenia to agree to that proposal. He added that as long as the U.S.'s attention is focussed on Iraq, Washington will be content simply to delay a solution to the Karabakh conflict and prevent the advent to power in Baku of a Russian puppet.

Therefore, Guluzade reasoned, Azerbaijan has no option but to prepare for a new war to win back Karabakh. This, he says, will require serious preparation on the part of the armed forces and the Interior Ministry troops, as well as establishing a dozen camps for young volunteers to participate in the war of liberation. He implies he does not doubt Azerbaijan's capacity to win that war, comparing the Azerbaijani people to an athlete living with hands and feet bound together.

Finally, Guluzade called for an end to Russian "propaganda" in the form of the retransmission of Russian TV channels. (Liz Fuller)

GEORGIA UNVEILS PLANS TO REVIVE DJAVAKHETI. Over the past week, two senior Georgian officials have traveled to Yerevan for talks with senior Armenian officials on the situation in the predominantly Armenian-populated south Georgian region of Djavakheti. The first was Teimuraz Mosiashvili, whom Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze earlier this year named as his representative in Djavakheti; the second, on 1 October, was Minister of State Security Valeri Khaburzania. Mosiashvili's talks reportedly focussed primarily on ways to improve socioeconomic conditions and possibly also on how the Georgian leadership plans to cope with possibly violent protests from the local population should it insist on the swift closure of the Russian military base in Akhalkalaki, which is the region's biggest single employer.

Djavakheti is a mountainous and predominantly agricultural region largely isolated from the rest of Georgia, and whose population has grown increasingly resentful of and alienated by decades of neglect on the part of the Georgian central government. Most Djavakheti Armenians do not speak Georgian, which is not taught in local schools; and the Russian ruble is used as the local currency, rather than the Georgian lari (see "End Note," "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 September 1999). Popular resentment has given rise to two local political movements: Djavakhk, which demands a greater degree of regional self-government, and the more radical Virk, which wants formal autonomous status for the region within a federal Georgian state.

In April, the Georgian government completed drafting a strategic development program for Djavakheti that was finally adopted at a government session last month. The program is aimed at improving social conditions and infrastructure, including building new highways to facilitate communication with other regions of Georgia, providing mains gas, and expanding electricity supplies, currently restricted to a few hours per day; building relay stations to enable Djavakheti residents to watch Georgian television; providing Georgian-language teaching in schools; and reviving local enterprises that could provide alternative employment, including a brewery, plants for producing fruit juice and bottling local mineral water, and basalt and pumice quarries. (The Georgian government has already begun modernizing two local hospitals and several schools.)

The program is to be implemented over a period of three years, from 2003-05, presumably in the hope that Tbilisi may be able to constrain Moscow to close the Russian military base in Akhalkalaki by that date. (Russian military officials have consistently argued that the closure will take between 10-15 years.) In April, Ghia Nodia, who heads the Tbilisi-based Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy, and Development, told Prime News that the Georgian government was seeking financial backing for the program from the UN and OSCE. But Mosiashvili said in Yerevan on 25 September that it will be financed from the Georgian budget. He did not offer an estimate of the costs involved.

During his talks with Mosiashvili, Armenian Prime Minister Andranik Markarian hinted that Yerevan might be prepared to contribute to financing the development program. But as an apparent quid pro quo he suggested that Armenia open a consulate in Djavakheti to monitor implementation of the program (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 September 2002). Mosiashvili refused to comment on that proposal, saying it is not within his competence to do so.

Meanwhile the population of Djavakheti has responded with skepticism to the announcement of the proposed development program, which was outlined by senior Georgian government officials at a meeting with local officials in Akhalkalaki on 20 September. Armenpress said local community leaders pointed to numerous such programs adopted in the past, none of which was systematically implemented. At least one such program was adopted during Shevardnadze's 13-year tenure as Georgian Communist Party first secretary.

One week earlier, some 5,000 Djavakheti residents had participated in a demonstration in Akhalkalaki to protest the anticipated closure of the Russian military base. Their apprehension at that possibility is, moreover, not confined to the probable economic impact; they fear that Tbilisi may make that facility available to Turkey, which is still regarded as a historic enemy. Demonstration participants appealed to the Armenian government to facilitate travel between Djavakheti and Armenia, and called on the Armenian parliament to adopt legislation on relations between the Republic of Armenia and Djavakheti.

In Armenia, too, some political factions have expressed alarm over the likely impact of the closure of the Akhalkalaki military base on both the political and economic situation in Djavakheti. On 26 September, Communist Party of Armenia parliament faction leader Frunze Kharatian appealed to fellow deputies to back the Djavakheti Armenians' demands that the Russian military base not be closed. And Galust Sahakian, who heads the majority "Miasnutiun" parliament faction, warned that Armenia will oppose any measures by the Georgian authorities to force the Djavakheti Armenians to speak Georgian, rather than their native Armenian, Noyan Tapan reported. (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATION OF THE WEEK. "The Chechens have reached a degree of unity and mutual understanding that they have not known since the memorable August of 1996." -- Chechen Deputy Prime Minister Akhmed Zakaev in an interview with (30 September).