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Caucasus Report: January 28, 2000

28 January 2000, Volume 3, Number 4

Trial Balloon In Yerevan. Speaking at a press conference in Yerevan on 19 January, National Democratic Union (AZhM) Chairman Vazgen Manukian proposed that President Robert Kocharian should voluntarily resign to allow new presidential elections to be held. Manukian characterized the political situation in Armenia three months after the murder of Prime Minister Vazgen Sargsian and parliament speaker Karen Demirchian as anarchy, and claimed that Kocharian is no longer in control. Allowing the current situation to continue indefinitely, Manukian said, would only cause further damage to the country.

Manukian's remarks represent a shift from his earlier position. In mid-November, he had argued that new presidential and/or parliamentary elections should be held only after the political situation in Armenia has stabilized. Asked why he now advocates new elections, Manukian said that the situation "is swiftly deteriorating," and that a solution is urgently needed.

The response to Manukian's proposal by leaders of other parties represented in parliament was, however, either ambivalent or negative. The two parties that are most closely linked with the current president, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutiun) that backed his successful presidential bid in 1998 rejected Manukian's proposal for new parliamentary elections and Orinats Yerkir (Country of Law), which is reportedly partly financed by the head of Kocharian's National Security Council, former Interior and National Security Minister Serzh Sarkisian, both argued against holding new polls.

Orinats Yerkir leader Artur Baghdasarian told RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau that "there are no legal or political grounds" for the president's resignation, nor any guarantee that a new poll would be free and fair. Both Orinats Yerkir and the ARFD made the point that measures to improve the social and economic situation in Armenia would contribute more to stabilization than would new elections. Artashes Geghamian, leader of the nationalist "Right and Accord" parliament bloc similarly made the point that "forces trying to prevent the president from carrying out his constitutional duties may try to engineer the outcome of a new presidential poll.

But the majority Miasnutiun parliament faction, which despite repeated disclaimers by both sides is widely perceived as mistrustful of Kocharian, also did not endorse Manukian's call for a new poll. Miasnutiun faction head Andranik Markarian told RFE/RL that the president's resignation should be treated as an option only if "there are serious political grounds." The only other political party leader to advocate a pre-term presidential poll is the new Communist Party First Secretary Vladimir Darbinian, who told journalists in mid-January that such a poll would contribute to stability.

There are, however, convincing explanations both for Manukian's proposal to hold new presidential elections, and for other politicians' ambivalent response. Manukian may be proceeding on the assumption that if a new poll were held within the next few months, he would stand a good chance of recapturing the "protest" vote against the economic status quo that almost propelled him to the presidency in 1996, and which he forfeited in the 1998 presidential poll to former Armenian CP First Secretary Karen Demirchian. Miasnutiun, by contrast, would be hard put at present to field a candidate who could compete with Manukian in a fair poll. Its two charismatic leaders, Demirchian and former premier Vazgen Sargsian, were both victims of the 27 October parliament shootings, and new premier Aram Sargsian (Vazgen's brother) has not yet shown himself to be either a strong personality or a decisive and competent economic manager.

In addition, delaying the new poll would give Miasnutiun time to draft, and to submit to a nation-wide referendum, its planned amendments to the present constitution that would significantly curtail the president's current sweeping powers.

Delaying a new presidential poll until after the planned referendum, which Miasnutiun wants scheduled for May of this year, could also result in significant changes in the apparent present alignment of political forces. In mid-December, Noyan Tapan's veteran political commentator David Petrosian identified the most important political groupings as follows:

1) the pro-Kocharian camp, which includes the ARFD, Orinats Yerkir, "Right and Accord," the Ramkavar-Azatakan Party, Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian and Arkadii Ghukasian, president of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic;

2) Prime Minister Aram Sargsian, together with Minister for Industrial Infrastructures Vahan Shirkhanian, the Yerkrapah Union of veterans of the Karabakh war, and some senior Defense and Interior Ministry officials, and the Miasnutiun parliament faction (Communist Party leader Vladimir Darpinian recently hinted that he might align with Miasnutiun);

3) supporters of former president Levon Ter-Petrossian, including the upper echelons of the Armenian Pan National Movement, and the 21st Century Party led by Ter-Petrossian's former National Security advisor David Shahnazarian;

4) the army, together with Defense Minister Vagharshak Harutiunian and Interior Minister Hayk Harutiunian.

Petrosian observed that the third group is trying to coopt the second, which he characterizes as lacking intellectual potential, and that the first three groups are vying for the support of the army which, as an Armenian journalist on the staff of the Russian newspaper "Itogi" pertinently observed, in Armenia functions both as a stabilizing and as a destabilizing factor. If the second and third groups were to field separate presidential candidates, possible presidential candidates from the premier's entourage are Vahan Shirkhanian and Karen Demirchian's son Stepan, who last week was elected acting chairman of the people's Party of Armenia which his father founded.

If, however, those two groups join forces, then one candidate who might prove acceptable to both is Armen Sarkisian, who served briefly as premier in 1996-1997 before resigning on health grounds, and is currently Armenian ambassador to the U.K. The daily "Haykakan Zhamanak," which is sympathetic to the HHSh, last week cited unidentified "sources close to the government" as admitting that Sarkisian's candidacy is being "seriously discussed," but that several influential government figures do not consider him an acceptable choice. Noyan Tapan's Petrosian has suggested that the primary purpose of Prime Minister Sargsian's visit to London earlier this month was to ascertain whether Armen Sarkisian would be willing to run for the presidency.

"Haykakan Zhamanak" concludes that the timing of a new presidential poll depends, in the final analysis, on the premier's supporters selecting a candidate whom they are certain can win. Meanwhile, some commentators suggest that Kocharian's rating is rising as a result of the resumption of his stalled dialogue with Azerbaijan's President Heidar Aliyev on resolving the Karabakh conflict. (Liz Fuller)

Armenian Constitutional Court Chairman Calls For 'Professional Debate' On Basic Law Reform. One of the individuals whom Noyan Tapan's David Petrosian perceives as influential and respected enough to mediate between the various Armenian political factions is Constitutional Court chairman Gagik Harutiunian. Meeting on 24 January with the Armenian parliamentary leadership, Harutiunian complained that up to now the country's lawyers have not yet become involved in the process of drafting the proposed constitutional amendments redefining the role and powers of the president. He warned that it is imperative that legal specialists be invited to express their opinion on the proposed amendments. "Not listening to their opinion is unacceptable," he warned.

Harutiunian, who served as Armenian vice-president from 1991 until 1995 when the post was abolished, reportedly played a key role last November in mediating a compromise between President Kocharian and Prime Minister Aram Sargsian on the composition of the latter's cabinet. (Hrach Melkumian)

Is There A Political Dimension To Arrests Of Azerbaijani Officials In Turkey? On 11 January, one day after Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev visited Ankara for talks with his Turkish counterpart Suleyman Demirel, Turkish police detained two former city officials from Azerbaijan's second city, Gyanja. The two men, Natig Efendiev, who headed the Gyanja police from October 1994-September 1996, and the former head of the city's Azerbaijan oil base, Rza Mamedov, have been wanted by Azerbaijani police since 1998. Efendiev faces charges of exceeding his duties, abusing his powers, wrongful arrest, and illegally storing arms. Mamedov is charged with embezzlement. It is not clear whether the two men have been extradited to Azerbaijan.

In an analysis of the social and economic situation in Gyanja published last summer, "Zerkalo" noted that Rza Mamedov was one of that city's richest inhabitants. (It also divulged that he provided free gasoline for the city's garbage collection trucks, and that since his flight into exile enormous quantities of refuse have accumulated in the city's streets.) "Zerkalo" hinted that the source of Mamedov's wealth, and the reason for his fall from favor, was his close association with Rasul Guliev, who in the early 1990s headed one of Azerbaijan's largest oil refineries. Guliev served as parliament speaker from 1993 to the fall of 1996, when he resigned and left the country amid speculation that he had angered President Aliyev and the leadership by criticizing aspects of the latter's policies in an interview with a Russian journal. Mamedov told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service last year that he was required to pay regular kickbacks to the vice president of the Azerbaijan State Oil Company, Ilham Aliev.

Guliev's Democratic Party has formally denied any links with Efendiev. On 27 January, the party's newspaper "Hurriyet" reported that up to 70 people with ties to Efendiev and Mamedov have been arrested in Gyanja and the adjacent Dashkesan Raion. Whether those individuals are also suspected of links with Guliev, or whether the arrests are meant to intimidate the Gyanja population, who have taken to the streets repeatedly to protest the abysmal social and economic conditions in the town, is not clear. According to "Zerkalo," only 5,000 of the city's 300,000 population have jobs. (Liz Fuller)

Abkhaz Premier Greets Shevardnadze's Decision To Seek Re-election. In his traditional Monday radio broadcast on 24 January, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze characterized as "not insignificant" the expression of support for him in the 9 April elections by Abkhaz Premier Vyacheslav Tsugba. Shevardnadze said Tsugba had told him during a face to face meeting the previous week that the Abkhaz people believe Shevardnadze's international authority can help expedite a solution of the conflict between the breakaway republic and the central Georgian government.

But there is a further aspect to the Abkhaz expression of support for Shevardnadze. Had the incumbent president chosen not to seek a second term, one of the likely contesters for the presidency would have been the chairman of the Abkhaz parliament in exile, Tamaz Nadareishvili. Nadareishvili is spearheading a campaign to have the Abkhaz leadership indicted for war crimes and genocide, and does not rule out the use of military force to bring Abkhazia back under Georgia's jurisdiction. (Liz Fuller)

Quotations Of The Week. "There are no peaceful Chechens. These people are like wolves, they cannot be divided into good and bad." -- A 43-year old inhabitant of the Daghestan village of Botlikh, whose home was destroyed by Russian shelling during the Chechen incursion into Daghestan last summer. Quoted in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," 21 January.

"I shall definitely participate in the next [presidential] elections." -- Liberal Party of Azerbaijan chairwoman Lala Shovket. Interviewed in "Zerkalo," 15 January.