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Caucasus Report: June 17, 1999

17 June 1999, Volume 2, Number 24

Armenian President Unveils New Cabinet. President Robert Kocharian announced the composition of a new Armenian government late on 15 June, four days after naming the country's defense chief Vazgen Sargsian as prime minister. The government held its first session on 16 June, with Kocharian expressing confidence in its success, official sources said. The government's press service quoted Kocharian as describing the ministers as the "most able forces in the country." For his part, Sargsian pledged to work "with the utmost responsibility and creativity." Sargsian and former Armenian Communist Party First Secretary Karen Demirchian are the leaders of the Miasnutyun alliance that swept to a landslide victory in the 30 May parliamentary elections. The bloc controls the majority of seats in the new parliament which elected Demirchian as its speaker last week.

Nine ministers in the previous cabinet kept their jobs, one minister changed his portfolio and a second had his agency radically restructured. The outgoing premier, Armen Darpinian, will serve as economics minister in the new cabinet. The remaining 12 cabinet members are newcomers, some of whom previously held lower-ranking government posts.

In a drastic step which he had previously opposed, Kocharian split the powerful interior and national security ministry, headed until now by one of his closest allies, Serzh Sarkisian. Sarkisian was left in control of the new national security ministry (the former KGB), while Yerevan mayor Suren Abrahamian, who is allied with the new premier, was named to head the interior ministry. A 43-year-old army general, Vagharshak Harutyunian, will succeed Vazgen Sargsian in the post of defense minister.

Also split was the ministry of finance and economics. Levon Barkhudarian, a one-time finance minister, was re-appointed to that post by the presidential decree. Former parliament speaker Khosrov Harutiunian, who failed to win reelection to the new National Assembly, became minister of local self-government.

Most of the cabinet members have close ties with the powerful prime minister. By contrast, only one of them, Minister of Postal Service and Telecommunications Ruben Tonoyan, is a member of Demirchian's People's Party (HZhK), one of the two parties comprising Miasnutyun. The former Communist leader's popularity was key to Miasnutyun's election success. The bloc campaigned with a promise of sweeping policy changes, including greater state support of the industry and more social spending. However, the presence of liberal economists in the Sargsian government suggests that little will change in the tight macroeconomic policies Yerevan has pursued since 1994. World Bank officials have said Armenia is unlikely to divert from the path of economic reform.

Sargsian is due to submit his government's program to the parliament on 18 June. The absence of a vote of no-confidence would amount to its automatic approval. The program, discussed at the cabinet session, calls for "coordinated reforms in all economic spheres," according to the press service.

The Armenian constitution gives sweeping powers to the country's president. But the new premier, whose supporters already control many local administrations, is expected to be more independent than his seven post-Soviet predecessors.

The 40-year-old Sargsian is one of the most powerful men in Armenia. A former fiction writer, he rose to prominence in the early 1990s with the beginning of the war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. In 1992, he became independent Armenia's first defense minister. Sargsian played a key role in the forced resignation of President Levon Ter-Petrossian in February 1998. Some analysts have speculated that his growing influence may eventually put him at odds with Kocharian.

Still, the Armenian president will at least remain in full control of foreign policy with Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, a former US citizen, remaining in his job. This means that major changes in Yerevan's foreign policy--and Armenia's position on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in particular--are unlikely.

In another major development, the number of ministerial portfolios controlled by the nationalist Dashnaktsutyun party, a key ally of President Kocharian, was reduced from two to one. The move may reflect that party's worse-than-expected performance in the elections. Dashnaktsutyun's Levon Mkrtchian, the education minister, was replaced by Eduard Ghazarian. Culture Minister Roland Sharoyan will thus be the sole Dashnak member of the government. No other parties will be represented in the cabinet.

In addition, the head of the government's tax collection department, Sbmat Ayvazian, was elevated to the rank of minister. A former Nagorno-Karabakh prime minister, Leonard Petrosian, was appointed "minister for operational issues." David Zadoyan, a former minister of local self-government, was moved to head the important energy ministry. And Razmik Martirosian, a leading figure in the Yerkrapah Union (Sargsian's original support base), became minister of social security. Other newcomers are Hrair Hovannisian, minister for town-planning, and Vahan Shirkhanian, minister for "industrial infrastructures."

The new government has a daunting task of making good on Miasnutyun's lavish campaign promises. Widespread public expectations of a rapid improvement in living standards as a result of Demirchian's return to power, will keep it under strong pressure. (Emil Danielyan, Ruzanna Khachatrian)

Georgian Rebels Released Pending Trial. In October 1998, Georgian army colonel Akaki Eliava and a tank unit under his command launched an abortive rebellion in western Georgia with the aim of forcing the resignation of President Eduard Shevardnadze. Regular army units under the personal command of Defense Minister David Tevzadze intercepted the mutineers near the city of Kutaisi, whereupon most of the rebels surrendered. Eliava, however, escaped, and has since engaged in sporadic negotiations with various Georgian government representatives on the conditions under which he is prepared to lay down his arms (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 May 1999).

Last week, Shevardnadze signed a decree meeting one of those conditions--the release from pre-trial detention of 39 of Eliava's associates, who were required to give a written pledge not to leave their homes. That concession, together with the failure of the Georgian special services to apprehend Eliava, reflect the tense and complicated relations between the central Georgian government in Tbilisi and Eliava's home region of Mingrelia, where he is now in hiding.

Mingrelia was also the home, and remains a bastion of support for, deceased former president Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who was ousted in January 1992, by warlords Tengiz Kitovani and Djaba Ioseliani. In the summer and early fall of 1992, the region was subjected to savage reprisals by Ioseliani's Mkhedrioni paramilitary detachments. A subsequent appeal by Shevardnadze for reconciliation failed to overcome the alienation caused by those reprisals.

The Mingrelians, whose language is very similar to Georgian, preserve a strong sense of regional identity which could acquire political connotations or, some Georgians fear, be manipulated to the detriment of national unity. In February 1999, parliament deputy Kakha Djikia (whose surname suggests he is of Mingrelian origin) proposed creating a parliamentary faction to promote the region's interests. Several weeks later, the announcement by political scientist Aleksandre Chachia of the foundation of a public organization named the Union for the Revival of Mingrelia evoked a storm of criticism from some Georgians who perceived it as a Russian-inspired campaign to fuel a new separatist campaign among a disaffected segment of Georgia's population (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 2, No. 13, 30 March 1999).

The Mingrelians for their part are similarly sensitive to perceived slights and insults. Last month, Georgian parliament deputy speaker Vakhtang Kolbaya called on the Union of Writers of Georgia to expel from its ranks venerated poet Murman Lebanidze for publishing a poem which Kolbaya said "deeply insulted" the Mingrelian population.

In his weekly radio address on 14 June, Shevardnadze downplayed the significance of his decision to release Eliava's associates, noting that over 2,500 prisoners have been amnestied in Georgia, and explicitly denying that the move was geared to win the votes of the Mingrelian population in the parliamentary elections due this fall. Shevardnadze also underscored that he trusts the population of Mingrelia just as he does that of other Georgian regions. Those statements have met with scepticism on the part of some Georgian commentators. (Liz Fuller)

Ioseliani Considers Hunger-Strike. Shevardnadze's 2,500 amnesty beneficiaries included former defense minister Tengiz Kitovani, who is currently recovering from cardiac surgery in Linz, but not Djaba Ioseliani. Ioseliani was sentenced in November 1998 to 11 years' imprisonment on charges of treason, robbery, and involvement in the failed August 1995 bid to assassinate Shevardnadze. A leading Mkhedrioni official told RFE/RL's Tbilisi bureau in September 1998 that those charges were clearly fabricted, and that even the presiding judge had privately admitted that the case was riddled with internal contradictions (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 1, No. 29, 25 September 1998).

Last month the Georgian Supreme Court rejected a request by Ioseliani's lawyer for the case to be reviewed. Ioseliani, who is 71 and suffering from bone tuberculosis, refuses to submit to surgery in a prison hospital and has demanded to be allowed to enter a Tbilisi hospital for treatment. His son Konstantin told Caucasus Press on 15 June that Ioseliani may embark on a hunger strike if that request is denied. (Liz Fuller)

Is Azerbaijan's President Seriously Ill, Or Out Of Favor With Turkey? Shortly before Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliev's 9 June return to Baku following his convalescence in London and Turkey, members of the presidential administration described an impressive, but potentially gruelling, schedule of presidential public commitments, including the opening of a new airport complex in Baku on 13 June, a ceremony to mark the 1300th anniversary of the Turkish epic "Kitebi Dede Korkut" on 14 June, and a summit of leaders of Turkophone states on 14-15 June. All those events were, however, abruptly cancelled, and Aliev's presence at the 22 June summit of Transcaucasus leaders in Luxembourg is likewise now in doubt. Also postponed was a planned ceremony in Turkey at which Aliyev was to have been presented with the Ataturk Peace Prize.

Adding to the confusion, members of Aliev's staff offered differing explanations for the cancellation of the Turkophone leaders' summit. One official attributed that decision to Aliev's precarious health, while a second said that Turkish President Suleyman Demirel, who visited Aliyev in Antalya shortly before the latter returned to Baku, had requested the postponement.

Observers in Baku have, however, offered a third possible explanation, namely, that the Turkish leadership is disturbed by the implications of claims made by Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan at his ongoing trial. Specifically, Ocalan claimed that the PKK maintained a presence in Azerbaijan with the tacit connivance of senior Azerbaijani officials. Some Azerbaijani newspapers have suggested that Ocalan's incriminating testimony, rather than Aliev's uncertain health, may have been the reason for the cancellation of the Ataturk Peace Prize award ceremony. But Ali Hasanov, head of the Public-Political Department within the presidential administration, told "Yeni Azerbaycan," the newspaper of the eponymous ruling party, that Aliyev will receive that prize during his next trip to Turkey. (Liz Fuller)

Quotations Of The Week. "Had I read the Koran, there would have been fewer casualties in the Chechen war." -- Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin, quoted in "Kommersant-Vlast," No.13, June 1999.

"We must still wait. Our time will come." -- Communist Party of Armenia chairman Sergei Badalian, commenting on the outcome of the 30 May parliamentary election in "Aravot," 15 June 1999.