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Caucasus Report: January 26, 1999

26 January 1999, Volume 2, Number 4

Two Former Prime Ministers Lambaste Armenian Leadership. Over the past week, two ex-premiers have delivered blistering criticism of the present leadership's policies which they warn may have catastrophic consequences. Speaking at a press conference in Yerevan on 20 January, National Democratic Union (AZhM) chairman Vazgen Manukian, who served as prime minister in Armenia's first post-communist government in 1990-1991, said that only nation-wide mass rallies can deter the present government from falsifying the outcome of the parliamentary elections tentatively scheduled for mid-May.

Manukian also claimed that the present leadership is composed of "disparate groups," none of which acknowledges any superior authority. Pointing to what is widely perceived as a deadlocked "collision of interests" between President Robert Kocharian and Defense Minister Vazgen Sarkisian, Manukian said that if one of those two finally wins out over the other, "things will get much worse." (Presidential press spokesman Vahe Gabrielian denied the following day that any such tension exists between Kocharian and Sarkisian.)

Manukian characterized the political situation as a whole as one of extended crisis. That view is shared by Hrant Bagratian, who served as prime minister from 1993 to 1996, pursuing tight macroeconomic policies and launching a massive privatization. That period saw the start of an economic recovery in Armenia, which nevertheless has not yet brought tangible benefits to the majority of the country's population.

In a statement issued on 22 January in the name of his radical liberal Azatutiun (Liberty) party, Bagratian charged that Armenia is currently in the "worst political and economic situation" since the end of Communist rule in the summer of 1990.

"Armenia is now on the way of returning to a communist-socialist, military-bureaucratic and totalitarian regime. Extreme nationalist forces and criminal elements have become more active," the statement continued, calling on "truly democratic forces" to unite around the "principles of a market economy." Bagratian said the current authorities are retreating from the path of economic liberalization, and specifically attacked their tax policy. "There can be no limited liberalism or limited freedom," he argued.

Bagratian announced that his party will field candidates in the May parliamentary elections, while predicting that the poll will not be democratic. And Bagratian too expressed disquiet at what he termed the "destructive role" of Vazgen Sarkisian, whose Yerkrapah union of war veterans Bagratian said controls most government bodies. (Ruzanna Khachatrian and Liz Fuller)

Retired U.S. Diplomats Discuss Karabakh Settlement. Two retired veteran U.S. diplomats are touring Azerbaijan and Armenia in what they say is a "private effort" to promote a search for peace in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Edward Djerejian, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria and Israel, and Peter Rosenblatt, a long-time foreign policy maker, told reporters in Yerevan on 25 January that they are visiting Armenia and Azerbaijan to help the conflicting parties find a solution to the long-running Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. But they made it clear that the visit is not part of a mediation effort separate from negotiations sponsored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). "We try to support the ongoing negotiations under the [OSCE] Minsk Group framework," Djerejian said.

The two men were in Baku over the weekend, holding what they termed "very good" talks with Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Tofik Zulfugarov and other top officials. They met with Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian on 25 January, and were also scheduled to meet President Robert Kocharian and Defense Minister Vazgen Sarkisian, and with the leadership of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.

"We are not the new mediators. We are here as outsiders of the official channels to help facilitate the initiation of constructive and timely negotiations for the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh problem," said Djerejian. An American of Armenian origin, he is now the director of the James Baker Public Policy Institute.

"This is not a new negotiating initiative," said Rosenblatt, a member of the board of directors of the American Jewish Committee since 1998. In the words of Djerejian: "There is no hidden agenda here. We are truly people of good will with some experience." Rosenblatt said that experience can serve as a "source of ideas." The two men added that their mission also involves "informing all [interested] governments" about the results of their discussions.

"We have conveyed to Armenian officials our appreciation of the Azeri position," Djerejian said. Djerejian made it clear that the existing OSCE Karabakh peace plan, based on the idea of a "common state" comprising Azerbaijan and the Armenian-populated region, was not discussed in detail during the talks. The plan was largely accepted by Armenia and Karabakh, but rejected by Azerbaijan as failing to guarantee the country's territorial integrity. (Emil Danielyan)

Is Moscow Playing With Fire In Chechnya? Alarmist and contradictory statements over the past few days by leading Chechen and Russian politicians have once again highlighted the problems inherent in trying to determine precisely who is doing what to whom in Chechnya.

On 21 January, Deputy Prime Minister Turpal Atgeriev, who is in charge of the various Chechen law enforcement agencies loyal to President Aslan Maskhadov, announced on local television that shariah security ministry forces had clashed with opposition Islamist armed formations in the town of Urus Martan, southwest of Grozny. Atgeriev said that the fighting signaled the beginning of an attempted coup by forces he declined to name. But other Chechen officials denied that any armed clashes had taken place in Urus Martan. Culture Minister Akhmed Zakayev termed Atgeriev's statement a "fabrication," a claim substantiated by an Interfax correspondent who visited the town but discovered no trace of recent fighting. Maskhadov's special representative Yusup Soslambekov explained to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" that what had taken place was a routine scuffle resulting from the local armed formations' insistence on monitoring all traffic through the town.

At a press conference on 23 January, however, Aslan Maskhadov repeated Atgeriev's claim that fighting had occurred in Urus Martan, stating that "there are no forces in the republic capable of seizing power by military means and removing the president." In addition, Maskhadov again affirmed that he has the support of the Chechen people. Maskhadov then went on to blame Russia for provoking the alleged incident, arguing that repeated statements by Russian politicians in his support only serve to alienate his fellow former field commanders. That latter accusation is out of character: Maskhadov has hitherto adopted a pragmatic and non-confrontational approach to his dealings with successive Russian governments, while deploring Moscow's lack of any clear vision or policy for the North Caucasus in general and Chechnya in particular.

Maskhadov's statements do, however, substantiate the impression that the domestic political situation has reached a state of near deadlock, in which the various players have enough leeway to issue ultimatums or threats in the hope of extracting minor concessions, but none of them is strong enough to undertake decisive action that would fundamentally change the entire equation. Since last October, three influential field commanders (former acting Premier Shamil Basaev, radical Salman Raduev and Khunkar-pasha Israpilov) have appealed first to the parliament and then to the Supreme Shariah court to impeach Maskhadov on treason charges. Both authorities declined to do so -- but possibly in return for its support of the president, the parliament rejected Maskhadov's proposal for restructuring the cabinet. The Shariah court, in turn, called for the parliament's powers to be transferred to an Islamic council of field commanders, Basaev and Raduev. That proposal prompted Maskhadov to announce the creation of a special commission charged with drafting a new Islamic constitution.

Russian politicians, including Krasnoyarsk Krai Governor Aleksandr Lebed (who as Security Council secretary in August 1996 co-signed with Maskhadov both the Noviye Atagi cease-fire agreement and the Khasavyurt pact on the basis for future Russian-Chechen relations) have, indeed expressed their alarm at the possibility of a new large-scale conflict in Chechnya. A further danger is that posed to neighboring Dagestan by the rumored alignment of forces between Shamil Basaev and former Union of Muslims of Russia chairman Nadirshakh Khachilaev, whose brother heads a private army composed primarily of members of Dagestan's ethnic Laks. (Basaev advocates the creation of an Islamic state that would unite Chechnya and Dagestan.)

Moscow therefore has grounds to try to provoke a showdown between Maskhadov and the field commanders in the hope that the Chechen president would prove strong enough to neutralize his opponents (or that, if he is not, the ensuing protracted fighting would at least tie Basaev's forces down in Chechnya and prevent them from any incursion into Dagestan). But there is scant evidence to substantiate Maskhadov's allegations that recent statements by Russian politicians were made with the deliberate intention of sparking an armed confrontation between Maskhadov and the opposition. (Liz Fuller)

Quotations Of The Week. "Become a peaceful state, become a normal member of our region, without ambitions, without territorial claims, without being an instrument in the hands of Russian imperial forces. Azerbaijan would then open its border [with Armenia], lay the [oil] pipeline through Armenia. We would then have a normal situation where everybody will feel good." -- Azerbaijani presidential advisor Vafa Guluzade, interviewed by Snark news agency, "Hayastani Hanrapetutiun," 19 January 1999.

"If the first person in an authoritarian state leaves active politics, certain problems can arise. This is first of all connected with the inability of the government to work independently without instruction from the top." -- Musavat party chairman Isa Gambar, commenting on President Heidar Aliev's hospitalization in Turkey (Turan, 18 January 1999).