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Caucasus Report: October 28, 1999

28 October 1999, Volume 2, Number 43

Cui Bono? The 27 October blood bath in the Armenian parliament building, in which Prime Minister Vazgen Sargsian and parliamentary speaker Karen Demirchian died along with five other deputies and one government minister, raises many disturbing questions, most of which at present cannot be answered with any degree of certainty.

The five gunmen led by Nairi Hunanian have offered several diverging explanations of their motives and intentions. Initially they told parliament deputies that they were staging a coup to remove national leaders who "had sucked the blood of the people for too long," affirming that "seven or eight people must die." But Hunanian later said that he shot Prime Minister Vazgen Sargsian because Sargsian had for five years prevented the holding of free elections. And in a statement broadcast on Armenian state television shortly before their surrender on 28 October, the group said they had been acting in protest against the policies of successive governments that had plunged the nation into poverty. They further denied intending to kill anyone, even Sargsian, saying that they only began shooting in self-defense after security forces opened fire. TV footage, however, clearly shows the gunmen deliberately targeting Sargsian, Demirchian, and the two deputy parliament speakers.

Those contradictions raise the question whether the attackers were entirely rational. Galust Sahakian, one of the parliament deputies held hostage in the parliament building overnight, described them as "schizophrenics," while Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun leader Vahan Hovannisian characterized them as "sick people who wanted a place in history." In an interview with the independent Armenian TV station A1-Plus, Hunanian gave the impression of being totally calm and rational. But his identification of Vazgen Sargsian as the single individual most responsible for Armenia's current economic problems is puzzling and erroneous. Until his appointment as premier following the 30 May parliamentary elections, Sargsian concentrated on defense affairs, serving as Defense Minister from mid-1995. In that capacity, he had the reputation of being both a "loose cannon," and of enjoying high-level patronage in Moscow (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 1, No. 35, 27 October 1998). In recent months, however, and especially during his trip to Washington in September for the World Bank annual meeting, Sargsian appeared to share other Armenian leaders' determination to balance the country's traditional orientation towards Moscow with cordial and mutually beneficial relations with the West.

As for the gunmen's objectives and possible political affiliation, presidential spokesman Vahe Gabrielian told Reuters late on 27 October that "this is definitely not a coup d'etat." He called the gunmen "a handful of terrorists or individual people who don't have any affiliations with any political party or organizations, or at least don't claim any." Opposition National Democratic Union chairman Vazgen Manukian similarly told Noyan Tapan on 28 October he thinks it unlikely that the gunmen were acting on behalf of a specific political force. Manukian added that he does not believe the killings were connected with the ongoing Karabakh peace talks.

Some international politicians and observers, however, expressed concern that the killings were deliberately intended either to destabilize the political situation inside Armenia, and/or to thwart the signing at the 18-19 November OSCE summit in Istanbul of a formal commitment by the Armenian and Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev to pursue their efforts to reach a Karabakh peace agreement and of the long-anticipated agreement between Azerbaijan and Turkey to build the Baku-Ceyhan oil export pipeline. Azerbaijani Prime Minister Artur Rasizade said on a visit to Kazakhstan last week that that pipeline could be routed via Armenia if a Karabakh peace deal is cemented quickly.

Meeting with the president on 28 October, the leaders of all factions and parties represented in parliament pledged their support for Kocharian. But that pledge may be put to the test when deputies are called upon to endorse Kocharian's choice of a new prime minister. One possible candidate who could be expected to continue the current drive for Western investment backed by a crackdown on corruption and tight fiscal and monetary policy is Armen Sarkisian, who served briefly as premier in 1996-1997 before stepping down on health grounds. An alternative -- and one with greater experience than Sarkisian in foreign policy -- would be the National Democratic Union's Manukian, who served as prime minister in 1991-1992.

By contrast, the choice of a "strong-man" such as National Security Minister Serzh Sarkisian could herald a retreat from those policies. And Sarkisian would adopt almost certainly adopt an extremely tough line on Karabakh. Sarkisian's position appears to be increasingly shaky, however, in the light of the Armenian Defense Ministry's 28 October demand for his resignation, together with those of the Interior Minister and Prosecutor-General. The Defense Ministry pins the blame for the 27 October shootings on the failure of the Interior and National Security Ministries to prevent the gunmen from entering the parliament building. They reportedly did so through the entry reserved for journalists, producing the required press credentials, and carrying assault rifles.

Nor is it clear whether the majority Miasnutiun (Unity) parliament faction will survive the murder of the chairmen of its two component parties. Both Prime Minister Vazgen Sargsian's Republican Party of Armenia and parliamentary speaker Karen Demirchian's People's Party of Armenia were created to serve primarily as a power base for their respective leaders, and have diverging political ideologies. If Miasnutiun splits, People's Party deputies may choose to align with the Communists, who are currently the second-largest faction within parliament, while the Republicans are likely to join forces with the small Dashnaktsutiun parliament faction..

Regardless of whether the gunmen were acting alone or to order, the killings have created an atmosphere of uncertainty that many factions both inside Armenia and beyond its borders may be tempted to try to exploit for their own ends. The opposition in Azerbaijan is likely to adduce that uncertainty as a further argument against the signing of a Karabakh peace agreement. The Azerbaijani leadership has not yet expressed regret or condolences for the killings, whereas both Turkish President Suleyman Demirel and Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit have done so. (Liz Fuller)

Violence, Mutual Recriminations Overshadow Georgian Election Campaign. During the final weeks of the runup to the 31 October Georgian parliamentary elections, the policy issues at stake have been almost totally eclipsed by mutual accusations of malpractice by the leaders of the most influential political parties, complaints at the Central Electoral Commission's refusal to register hundreds of would-be candidates, and concern at election-related violence.

As in previous parliamentary polls in 1992 and 1995, several dozen parties and blocs signaled their desire to participate. By the 6 September deadline, 13 blocs and 37 individual parties had applied for registration; 13 and 20 individual parties were finally registered by the Central Electoral Commission.

And as in previous polls, parties with very similar priorities and programs mostly chose to run individually, rather than join forces. There are, for example, several parties or blocs representing Georgia's Communists and Stalinists, and three which aim to revive Georgia's moribund industrial sector. At the same time, those electoral alliances that did emerge tended to unite parties with diverging, or even conflicting policies or orientations. This holds true first and foremost of the two blocs that are believed to have the greatest chances of surmounting the 7 percent minimum of the vote needed to win a share of the 150 seats to be allocated under the proportional system. The remaining 85 mandates are in single-mandate constituencies.

The first of those two blocs comprises the Union of Citizens of Georgia (SMK), with 70 seats the largest faction in the outgoing parliament, and the recently created Party for the Liberation of Abkhazia, headed by the chairman of the so-called Abkhaz parliament-in-exile, Tamaz Nadareishvili. The SMK advocates resolving the Abkhaz conflict via peaceful negotiations, whereas Nadareishvili favors bringing Abkhazia back under Tbilisi's control by force.

The second major alliance is the Union for the Democratic Revival of Georgia, headed by Aslan Abashidze, chairman of the Supreme Council of the Adjar Autonomous Republic. That bloc unites four parties: Abashidze's Union for Democratic Revival, which is the second largest faction in the outgoing parliament, the Socialist Party, the Union of Traditionalists, which in 1990 formed part of the late Zviad Gamsakhurdia's Round Table-Free Georgia coalition, 21st Century, which also comprises supporters of the late president, plus a nameless group of supporters of former Georgian Communist Party First Secretary Djumber Patiashvili.

The only other entities which observers predict may win seats under the party list system are the right-wing National Democratic Alliance-Third Way (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 2, No. 20, 20 May 1999), the Labor Party, which scored a significant success in the local elections held in November 1998, and "Industry Will Save Georgia," which is headed by beer magnate Gogi Topadze.

As indicated above, the Union of Citizens of Georgia founded in late 1993 by then Georgian parliamentary speaker Eduard Shevardnadze polled the largest number of seats in the 1995 elections. (Shevardnadze was simultaneously elected president.) At that juncture, the mood in Georgia was one of cautious optimism. After three years of chaos, collapse, civil war and economic decline, a modicum of political stability had created the foundations for a modest economic upswing. But despite millions of dollars in credits from international financial organizations, that upswing was not sustained, nor did Shevardnadze succeed in making good on his 1995 election promise to create one million new jobs. Impatience and dissatisfaction at the stalled reform process impelled several prominent young members of the SMK, led by parliamentary speaker Zurab Zhvania, to threaten in the summer of 1998 to form a "constructive opposition" to the SMK faction within parliament. But after popular disillusion with the SMK's failure to revive the country's economy and create jobs contributed to the unanticipated strong showing of Shalva Natelashvili's Labor Party in the November 1998 local elections, the dissenters within the SMK closed ranks to present a united front.

In contrast to the rest of Georgia, Adjaria under Abashidze could appear an oasis of calm, stability and relative prosperity. But that stability is maintained by suppressing any expressions of dissent, while many analysts believe that Adjaria's economic success is at least partly due to its misappropriation of millions of lari in taxes that it should have paid to the central government in Tbilisi. In addition, Abashidze is widely regarded both in Georgia and abroad as a stalking horse for Moscow, which still maintains a military base in Adzharia.

Observers disagree as to how much of a threat Abashidze's alliance poses to the SMK. One poll conducted in early October in several large cities registered support for the Union of Citizens of Georgia at 27 percent, and for the Union for Revival at 17.8 percent. But an article in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" of 22 October put Abashidze's support countrywide at 46 percent, compared with only 22 percent for Shevardnadze's party. Such predictions, in conjunction with Shevardnadze's recent description of the election campaign as "a struggle for power," have served to fuel the widespread popular perception that the SMK will resort to underhand means, including falsification of the vote, to ensure an election victory. Caucasus Press, for example, reported that Bondo Djikia, governor of the Samegrelo region in western Georgia, whose population traditionally supported Gamsakhurdia and has little love for Shevardnadze, had warned local administrators that they will be fired if they fail to ensure that the SMK receives at least 65 percent of the party list vote.

Other developments have similarly contributed to apprehension that the poll will be less than totally free and fair. Buses transporting Abashidze's supporters to a planned rally in Tbilisi were intercepted by police in Khashuri, in western Georgia, and forbidden to proceed for several days. (Abashidze in turn barred SMK activists from entering Adzhariia.) Natelashvili has claimed that power supplies are cut in some rural areas when Labor and other opposition candidates appear on state television. Several opposition and independent candidates have been attacked and injured. And the Central Electoral Commission refused to register a total of 476 candidates on the grounds that their applications contained errors. As of 25 October, the commission was still unable to say precisely how many candidates would contend the poll.

These concerns have been compounded by the realization that the parliamentary poll is in effect also a "qualifier" for the presidential elections, which Shevardnadze recently said will take place in April next year. Both Shevardnadze and Abashidze have already announced their intention to run. If the SMK defeats Abashidze's bloc by only a narrow margin, tensions will rise even further over the next six months, and other candidates may be tempted to participate not so much in the hope of winning, but of securing benefits in return for backing one or other candidate in an anticipated runoff. If, by contrast, Abashidze's bloc fares more poorly on 31 October than most observers currently predict, then either Patiashvili, or Socialist Party leader Vakhtang Rcheulishvili, or Traditionalists' chairman Akaki Asatiani, may decide to challenge Abashidze as the bloc's presidential candidate. (Liz Fuller)

Quotations Of The Week. "If it hadn't been for that damned pipeline, there wouldn't have been a war in Chechnya." -- Umar Avturkhanov, who headed the Russian-supported anti-Dudaev Provisional Council in Chechnya in 1994, interviewed by "Nezavisimaya gazeta," 23 October 1999.

"[The Russians] should stop their imperial thinking. It is imperial thinking that prevents the Russian leadership from having a policy in the Caucasus." -- Ingushetia's president, Ruslan Aushev, quoted by "The New York Times," 25 October.

"I cannot say for certain but one thing I know is that if I am re-elected for my second term in next April's [presidential] elections, we will be knocking very hard on the door [of NATO.]" -- Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, quoted in the "Financial Times," 25 October.

"I support the foreign policy of Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliev. I will not sign a peace agreement that is contrary to Azerbaijan's national interests." -- Newly appointed Foreign Minister Vilayet Guliev, quoted by Turan, 27 October.