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Caucasus Report: April 21, 1999

21 April 1999, Volume 2, Number 16

Armenian President's First Year In Office. In a 17 April round-table discussion moderated by RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau, two senior officials in the former and present Armenian administrations offered radically differing assessments of President Robert Kocharian's policies since taking office on 9 April 1998.

Karapet Rubinian, who served as oversight committee chief to former President Levon Ter-Petrossian, whom Kocharian and other government ministers forced to resign in February 1998, said the new authorities' one-year rule has been characterized by Armenia's growing international isolation, the "monopolization" of its economy, and a lack of political reform. His opponent, Kocharian's chief of staff Aleksan Harutiunian, dismissed that criticism and, for his part, credited Kocharian with defusing political tension in the country and laying the foundations for imminent economic improvement.

Citing what he termed "frightening trends" in Yerevan's foreign policy, Rubinian argued that "We are being increasingly isolated in the region." He said Armenia's close ties with Russia are alienating its immediate neighbors, which have been gravitating to the West. "Our relations with [Russia] have gone beyond the limit of relations between two sovereign states. They are seen [in Armenia] as steps taken in self-defense but the calculations [behind them] haven't been done thoroughly," Rubinian said.

Harutiunian countered that close ties with Moscow were also a key component of the foreign policy pursued by Ter-Petrossian and his Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh). He said those ties, which have been primarily manifested through Russian-Armenian military cooperation, are complemented by efforts to deepen relations with Western countries. "Armenia did and does pursue a fairly balanced foreign policy," said Harutiunian, who is one of Kocharian's closest confidants. Harutiunian said Armenia was in a far more difficult international situation under the previous leadership, whose handling of elections he claimed had dealt a blow to the country's democratic credentials.

But Rubinian objected that Ter-Petrossian's foreign policy cannot be taken as a blueprint by the authorities as it was never "100 percent balanced." "Russia is a superpower that has been vanishing from the region for quite a long time and...we have become the sole friend of a losing country," he said.

But Harutiunian characterized the present leadership's policy as one of "making sure we don't damage the regional interests not only of Russia but of other superpowers as well." He pointed to the expected meeting this week in Washington between the Armenian, Azerbaijani and Georgian presidents as an example of Armenia's commitment to regional cooperation.

Turning to the economic situation over the past year, Rubinian claimed that none of Kocharian's pre-election promises has materialized. Rubinian said senior government officials have extended their control over economic "monopolies," which he admitted had emerged under Ter-Petrossian. "We can now say that the entire economy has been monopolized," Rubinian said. "The interior ministry, for instance, controls imports of fuel. Do you think there can be a free market economy in these conditions?" he asked.

"There are few normal countries in which there is no state monopoly on imports of fuel, alcohol, and tobacco," Harutiunian replied. "Having said that, I don't think that there exists monopolies in the main sectors of our economy."

Harutiunian attributed the lack of economic improvement in Armenia to the severe economic crisis that gripped Russia last August. Armenia's exports to Russia and other ex-Soviet republics have fallen dramatically as a result. Harutiunian went on to argue that the healthier "political atmosphere" achieved by the Kocharian government is conducive to faster economic growth. Armenian parties, he said, have become more cooperative toward each other since the change of government one year ago.

While acknowledging that political tension in Armenia has declined, Rubinian said it has been done mainly through co-opting former opposition leaders into government structures. (Anna Israelian, Emil Danielyan)

Armenian Prime Minister Expects Only Minor Government Changes After Elections. Prime Minister Armen Darpinian said on 14 April he expects only a minor reshuffle of his cabinet after the May parliamentary elections, but he declined to comment on his chances of keeping his job.

"What the next government will look like will to a certain degree depend on [the outcome of] the parliamentary elections. But I think that the government's core will stay on," Darpinian told reporters. Asked whether he thinks he will remain prime minister after the polls, Darpinian said: "Ask the president [Robert Kocharian]."

Many analysts predict that Darpinian will have to resign his post even if the pro-government Miasnutyun alliance, seen as the top contender, wins a majority in the next parliament (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 2, No. 15, 13 April 1999). Many members of Miasnutyun make no secret of their dissatisfaction with the performance of Darpinian's cabinet and are trying to distance themselves from it in order to win voters' sympathy.

In an unusually politicized speech on 12 April, Darpinian harshly criticized opposition factions in the current parliament in what appeared to be an attempt to woo Miasnutyun. (Armen Dulian)

Georgian Parliament Reviews Situation In Akhalkalaki. On 15 April, Gennadii Muradian, administrative head of the remote and economically depressed Akhalkalaki raion in southern Georgia, addressed Georgian parliament deputies concerned with a possible new flare-up of separatist sentiment among the district's predominantly ethnic Armenian population.

Muradian claimed that "Djavakhk," the nationalist organization created during the early 1990s in order to spearhead a campaign for the Djavakheti region of southern Georgia to be given formal autonomous status, now "barely exists." One of its leaders, according to Muradian, has been arrested for "an attempted armed attack" and "pressuring the authorities." (It was not clear from the published accounts whether the "attempted armed attack" in question was the standoff in August 1998 between armed Armenian residents and Georgian army units en route for joint maneuvers at the Russian military base in Akhalkalaki [see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 1, No. 26, 25 August 1998.]) But two Armenian officials, Deputy Interior Minister Hovhannes Hunanian and Yerevan Deputy Mayor Vartan Vartabedian (who was born in Djavakheti), reportedly continue to back "Djavakhk," according to Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service.

Muradian implied that Djavakhk has been superseded by another as yet unregistered organization, "Virk," which he characterized as non-political. (Virk is the name of one of the fifteen provinces of historical Armenia. That province comprised the northern regions of present-day Armenia and southern Georgia.)

Muradian nonetheless conceded that the potential for conflict exists in Akhalkalaki, insofar as popular dissatisfaction with miserable economic and social conditions could grow into an open confrontation between the population and the local leadership. A further possible source of conflict, Muradian and the ethnic Armenian parliament deputy for Akhalkalaki suggested, is the local mafia's resentment of pressure from the regional administration to pay its taxes. (Liz Fuller)

Abkhazia Doubts Georgia Will Call for Withdrawal of CIS Peacekeeping Force. Meeting in Moscow on 2 April, the presidents of CIS member states set a one-month deadline for Georgia and Abkhazia to agree among themselves on the text of two draft documents intended to pave the way towards a solution to the Abkhaz conflict (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 2, No. 15, 13 April 1999). With ten days to go before that deadline elapses, Tbilisi and Sukhumi have not yet agreed on the text of those documents or apparently even on arranging a meeting between Georgian and Abkhaz officials to discuss the drafts.

Caucasus Press on 16 April quoted Georgian Foreign Ministry spokesman Avtandil Napetvaridze as saying that UN special envoy for Abkhazia Liviu Bota had repeatedly tried, without success, to persuade the Abkhaz to agree to such a meeting. But three days later Anri Djergenia, who is Abkhaz President Vladislav Ardzinba's special envoy for negotiations with Tbilisi, told the same news agency that his consultations with Georgian Minister of State Vazha Lortkipanidze on the second of the two documents, on the return to Abkhazia of Georgian displaced persons and measures to restore the region's economy, have yielded no progress. Djergenia added that a breakthrough is unlikely as long as Tbilisi continues to try to engineer a solution to the conflict without consulting the Abkhaz side, as it did at the CIS summit.

On 20 April, Ardzinba aide Astamur Tania said he does not believe Georgia will call for the withdrawal from Abkhazia of the CIS peacekeeping force which since July 1994 has been deployed along the internal border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia. The CIS summit participants ruled that in the event that Tbilisi and Sukhumi failed to agree on the drafts of the two documents, Georgia would raise the question of the CIS force's withdrawal. Tbilisi accused the CIS peace-keeping force of failing to halt an Abkhaz offensive in May 1998 that forced thousands of Georgians to flee their homes. But it is unclear whether the UN is either willing or able to provide a substitute peacekeeping force at short notice in the event of the CIS force's withdrawal. (Liz Fuller)

Quotation Of The Week. "Russia must not lose Georgia as a good neighbor." -- Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov, meeting with Georgian parliament speaker Zurab Zhvania on 20 April.