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Caucasus Report: February 2, 1999

2 February 1999, Volume 2, Number 5

Accusations, Recriminations, Misgivings In Yerevan. More perhaps than any of the controversial issues of the past six to eight months (the draft election law, the legal ambiguities surrounding the privatization of the Armenian Cognac Factory and the Armentel telecommunications company), last week's abortive attempt to indict former Armenian Interior Minister Vano Siradeghian for incitement to murder has highlighted the extent to which support for the present leadership has eroded.

In a secret vote on 26 January, parliament deputies rejected, by 65 to 56 votes with 25 abstentions, Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian's request the previous day to strip Siradeghian of his deputy's immunity in order to facilitate his arrest. Siradeghian had responded by claiming the charges against him were fabricated on the basis of testimony by one police officer who is mentally ill. He also savagely criticized the "men from Karabakh" for "seizing power" in Armenia in February 1998, adding that the bid to remove him from the political scene is part of an attempt by them to shore up their crumbling power base. On 29 January, just hours after Hovsepian announced that he would undertake a second attempt to persuade parliament to lift Siradeghian's immunity, the latter left Yerevan on a plane bound for the United Arab Emirates. He is currently rumored to be in Paris.

Observers have suggested that the majority Yerkrapah group failed to vote unanimously in favor of condoning Siradeghian's arrest. They construe that presumed lack of unanimity as reflecting a split within Yerkrapah's ranks. Originally created in the fall of 1997 with a dozen deputies, the Yerkrapah group swelled to over 70 early last year, thanks primarily to defections from the then ruling Hanrapetutiun faction. Siradeghian currently heads the board of the Armenian Pan-National Movement, the largest party within that faction. It is thus understandable that some defectors from the HHSh to Yerkrapah may have had serious reservations about condoning Siradeghian's arrest, especially if, as has been suggested, the former interior minister could shed light on their own dubious business activities. A second hypothesis is that the failure of Yerkrapah's powerful patron, Defense Minister Vazgen Sargsian, to take a clear stand on the Siradeghian issue deterred some Yerkrapah deputies from approving the latter's indictment.

But if some Yerkrapah deputies equivocated, several opposition parties have expressed their outrage that Siradeghian managed to escape justice. The Communist Party of Armenia threatened to boycott future parliament proceedings in protest, while the Armenian Revolutionary Federation -- Dashnaktsutiun called on President Robert Kocharian to dissolve the parliament.

Leading members of the HHSh have, predictably, played down Siradeghian's precipitous departure, claiming that he left the country to seek medical treatment and will return by early March at the latest. On 5 March, the HHSh is scheduled to convene a congress which will decide on the movement's program and candidates for the parliamentary elections due in mid-May. Siradeghian told journalists two months ago he thought it unlikely that the HHSh would make a strong showing in the poll (see "Armenia Report," 6 November 1998).

If, however, parliament does move to strip Siradeghian of his deputy's immunity, his former rivals within the HHSh stand to benefit from his political demise. Even before Siradeghian left the country, the HHSh voted on 28 January to restore the board membership of former deputy parliament speakers Ara Sahakian and Karapet Rubinian. Those two, together with other former HHSh leading lights, had announced the creation of their own pro-European public organization just two weeks earlier. Siradeghian explained the reinstatement of several former leading HHSh members who had been expelled from the board last year in terms of their "shared ideology."

Meanwhile Vazgen Sargsian's Republican Party held its founding congress on 29-30 January. The Republican Party, which comprises the original eponymous small nationalist party, the Yerkrapah parliament group, and the Yerkrapah union of veterans of the Karabakh war, now boasts some 5,000 members, including President Robert Kocharian's chief of staff, Aleksan Harutiunian. Addressing the congress on 30 January, Sargsian sought to allay widespread fears that the party's primary objective is to ensure its own victory in the parliamentary elections in May. But those disclaimers failed to convince some commentators, who perceive the Republicans now firmly entrenched as the new "ruling party." Karapet Rubinian, for his part, commented that "in a democratic country, it is inadmissible for the defense minister to engage in stormy political activities." (Liz Fuller)

UN Security Council Disappoints Georgian Displaced Persons. Representatives of the ethnic Georgians forced to flee their homes in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali raion during the 1992-1993 war and the renewed fighting in May 1998 traveled to New York last week to brief UN representatives in the runup to the 28 January Security Council session to assess the situation in Abkhazia. In interviews before leaving Tbilisi, both Tamaz Nadareishvili, chairman of the Abkhaz parliament in exile comprising the ethnic Georgian deputies to the Abkhaz parliament elected in 1990, and Londer Tsaava, chairman of the Abkhaz government in exile, had expressed the hope that the Security Council would agree to their request to condemn the actions of the Abkhaz side during the fighting as "ethnic cleansing." But to their considerable regret, the resolution adopted by the Security Council failed to include any such condemnation. The resolution, based on a report submitted by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan several days earlier, registered concern at the "tense and unstable" situation in the conflict zone and called on both sides to show greater political will in the search for a settlement of the conflict, for an agreement on the repatriation of displaced persons, and in combating ongoing terrorist activities in southern Abkhazia.

Nor were Nadareishvili and Tsaava the only ones hoping that the Security Council would take a tougher stance: Georgian Minister of State Vazha Lortkipanidze told journalists on 28 January that "it is high time that the United Nations take resolute measures for settling the conflict ... the UN has mechanisms that make it possible to influence this process in the framework of law and in compliance with international norms."

Lortkipanizde's statement was one of a series by Georgian leaders that apparently seek to convey the impression that the entire failure for the present deadlock in the peace process lies with the Abkhaz side. On 25 January, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze had accused Abkhaz leader Vladislav Ardzinba of reneging on a previous agreement on the repatriation of the ethnic Georgian displaced persons. Press summaries of Shevardnadze's remarks do not make it clear what agreement Shevardnadze was referring to, nor whether Shevardnadze also commented on the offer made by Ardzinba last month to allow the return of the displaced persons beginning on 1 March. In a 23 January letter to Liviu Bota, the UN secretary-general's special representative in Georgia, Ardzinba had affirmed his commitment to the agreements reached during the past few months concerning repatriation.

"In directing this letter to you," Ardzinba wrote, "I officially confirm that the Abkhazian side is ready to realize the commitments which we agreed at the time of these negotiations, namely: The sides reaffirmed the undertaking which they earlier accepted relating to the rights of the refugees and displaced persons to a voluntary return to the places of their former permanent residence, principally in the Gali region, irrespective of ethnic, social or political affiliation, in conditions of full security, safeguarding of freedom and dignity." (Liz Fuller)

Quotations Of The Week. "Azerbaijan's security finds itself under a great threat, in connection with the massive arms deliveries from Russia to Armenia. The Turkish army should enter Azerbaijan as it did in Cyprus." -- Azerbaijani presidential advisor Vafa Guluzade, quoted by Agence France Presse, 27 January 1999.

"A real American base in Azerbaijan is impractical, especially since there's no direct threat to American interests there or any active enemy to defend against. If they were to request military assistance or military advisors, that would be a different thing." -- Unnamed U.S. military planner, quoted in the "International Herald Tribune," 1 February 1999.

"Everything must be decided at the negotiating table, and the mediators' task is to find the best solution and develop the mechanisms of the negotiating process." -- Arkadii Ghukassian, president of the unrecognized Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, quoted by Noyan Tapan, 27 January 1999, commenting on the mediation mission to Baku and Yerevan by two retired U.S. diplomats (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 2, No. 4, 26 January 1999).