Accessibility links

Breaking News

Caucasus Report: November 19, 1999

19 November 1999, Volume 2, Number 46

Cabinet Compromise In Yerevan. The agreement arrived overnight on 12-13 November between President Robert Kocharian and Prime Minister Aram Sargsian regarding the composition of the new Armenian cabinet has defused tensions and ended speculation that the talks could end either in the resignation of the former or his firing of the latter. Since that time, Kocharian has sought to strengthen his position by naming one of his closest allies, former National Security Minister Serzh Sarkisian, to head the presidential administration.

The week-long crisis centered on the choice of candidates to head the National Security and Interior Ministries and on the political future of Minister for Industrial Infrastructures Vahan Shirkhanian. Shirkhanian has admitted being behind a 28 October statement addressed to Kocharian by senior defense ministry officials calling for the firing of the two power ministers and the prosecutor-general for their failure to prevent the previous day's bloodbath in the Armenian parliament.

In a one-hour TV interview broadcast on 16 November, Kocharian disclosed that just hours after the 27 October killings a dozen close associates of the murdered premier, including the latter's security advisor, Andranik Kocharian (no relation to the president), had presented him with a list containing the names of persons whom they wished to see appointed to key posts in the new government. In that list, Vahan Shirkhanian, a former deputy defense minister, was advanced for the post of premier.

Kocharian and Aram Sargsian apparently found it relatively easy to reach a consensus on the candidates to head the power ministries. The horse trading over Shirkhanian, however, proved more difficult and necessitated the intervention in the role of mediator of both Constitutional Court chairman Gagik Harutiunian and parliamentary speaker Armen Khachatrian. Observers at the Armenian government building on 12 November reported constant comings and goings of grim-faced senior government officials.

In overnight talks, however, Kocharian apparently agreed that Shirkhanian should retain his post in the new cabinet. Kocharian also agreed to the dismissal of Procurator-General Aghvan Hovsepian. The new interior and national security ministers are both non-partisan career professional police officers. Major-General Haik Harutiunian, 44, the new interior minister, had served with that ministry since 1981, most recently as first deputy minister and commander of the Interior Ministry troops. Major-General Karlos Petrosian, 49, who was named to head the National Security Ministry, is a graduate of the law faculty of Yerevan State University who similarly worked his way up through the ranks of the Interior Ministry to head its Investigation Department. Both men served under Serzh Sarkisian when the latter headed the combined Interior and National Security Ministry.

Andranik Markarian, the leader of the majority Miasnutiun faction within the parliament, told RFE/RL on 13 November that the solution to the deadlock had been arrived at jointly by Miasnutiun, the president, and the premier. He added that "We have reached full understanding with the president. There do not and will not exist any problems." In his 16 November TV address, Kocharian similarly affirmed that "I had no differences with the Miasnutiun bloc. Nor did I have differences with Aram Sargsian." He went on to describe the new premier as "a very sincere and honest person."

So were the press reports of deadlock and the possibility of a presidential resignation exaggerated or even invented? The first to report that Kocharian had threatened to resign was a prominent member of Miasnutiun, Hmayak Hovannissian. He told RFE/RL on 10 November that "the president told us that either he must be able to perform his duties or will have to quit." The next day, "Aravot" also claimed that Kocharian had threatened to resign if the parliament majority sided with the prime minister over the government's composition. But on 12 November, "Haykakan Zhamanak" reported that while overnight talks between Kocharian, Sarkisian, and parliament speaker Armen Khachatrian had failed to yield agreement, "this time Kocharian didn't speak about his possible resignation. On the contrary, he said it is his duty to stay on because he has a real chance to settle the Karabakh conflict."

Kocharian's press spokesman Vahe Gabrielian told Interfax on 12 November, however, that "the president has prepared no letter of resignation or taken up the matter with the parliament." OSCE Minsk Group co-chairman Jean-Jacques Gaillard, who met with Kocharian in Yerevan on 11 November, told journalists after that meeting that the president did not give the impression of a man about to resign. And in an editorial published on 13 November, "Aravot" suggested that to step down would be totally contrary to Kocharian's nature. In short, only two hypotheses accommodate all the above pieces of information: Either the steel nerves and sense of timing that Kocharian displayed in January 1998 in the runup to his predecessor's resignation failed him for a time. Or, in order to raise the stakes during his bargaining with parliament deputies, the president mentioned as a possibility a course of action which he had no intention of carrying out.

Despite last weekend's agreement, some observers predict continuing tensions within the country's leadership. Those observers base their hypothesis on the perceived weakness of the president, noting that few political parties expressed unequivocal support for him in his standoff with Sargsian and the parliament, whereas most merely called on both protagonists to seek a compromise in the interests of restoring political stability.

But other commentators suggest that even if many parties are ambivalent towards Kocharian, no political faction appears to have an interest in forcing the president to stand down at this juncture. Nor do there appear to be fundamental disagreements over policy between the parliament majority, government and president that could precipitate a new standoff. (Liz Fuller)

Chechen Foreign Minister Advocates UN Mediation. Speaking at a press conference at RFE/RL headquarters in Prague on 15 November, Chechen Foreign Minister Ilyas Akhmadov suggested that the UN should assume the role of mediator, as it had done in Kosova. He explained that such a mediator is essential, as Moscow either argues that there is no one to negotiate with in Grozny, or responds with "a wall of silence" to measures proposed by Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov to resolve the conflict.

Akhmadov said that Chechnya is equally at a loss over the lack of negotiating partners in Moscow. Who is there to talk to, he asked, with the exception of "a president who is only good for drinking toasts and awarding decorations, or a KGB lieutenant-colonel who has thrown the country into a new war?"

The minister said that for eight years, Chechens have been held hostage to legalistic rationalization by those who insist that Chechnya is the internal affair of the Russian Federation. But the murder of an entire people, he continued, cannot concern only Russia. He stressed that at present, Chechnya has no intention of raising the issue of its status with Moscow, but wants simply "to save our people from total destruction."

Akhmadov described Russia's tactics in Chechnya as "creating a zone of total destruction" in which "everything that moves is doomed to death." Part of that approach, he said, is to destroy Grozny entirely by bombing, and send Russian ground forces into the city only when it has been razed to the ground. He also noted that Russian official statements scrupulously avoid the term "war" when referring to the fighting in Chechnya, speaking instead of "a conflict of a military nature." He estimated the death toll since the Russian incursion into Chechnya on 30 September at 4,000.

Akhmadov rejected as untrue rumors of disagreements within the Chechen leadership, saying that "now is not the time" for internal discord. Asked to comment on the role of field commanders Shamil Basaev and Khattab, who precipitated the Russian assault on Chechnya by their incursions into Daghestan in August, he said that "at present they are just soldiers." In response to a further question about President Maskhadov's repeated but ineffectual efforts to prevent abductions for ransom in the North Caucasus, Akhmadov implied that Russia's Federal Security Bureau was behind such kidnappings, 60 percent of which, he said, took place outside Chechnya. (Liz Fuller)

Wanted: Negotiating Partner. The most recent Russian line on the possibility of a negotiated solution to the Chechen conflict, as expounded last week by First Deputy Head of the Russian Presidential Administration Igor Shabdurasulov, is that talks can be held only with persons who can claim to control the situation in Chechnya and only after the various Chechen factions have reached agreement among themselves. In that context, Shabdurasulov named as possible potential negotiating partners the former head of the pro-Russian Chechen puppet government, Malik Saidullaev, and former Grozny Mayor Beslan Gantemirov.

Saidullaev, who has business interests in Russia, stepped down from the post of premier at an overnight session in Moscow on 11-12 November of the pro-Moscow Chechen parliament elected in 1996, saying that he had decided to do so after consultations with Gantemirov, whom he considers a more appropriate candidate for the post. Saidullaev explained that he and Gantemirov "want to demonstrate how it is possible to unite without intrigue for a common objective and a common cause--restoration of order and peace in our republic."

But in an interview with Russian television on 13 November, Gantemirov denied that he would assume the duties of head of government. He said he intends to return to Chechnya before the end of November to head a Chechen volunteer force that will fight side by side with Russian troops. He added that he will accept an official position in Chechnya only if asked to do so by the Chechen population.

The reasons for Gantemirov's about face are not clear. He may be counting on emulating Maskhadov by negotiating a halt to the fighting in the name of the Chechen people, as Maskhadov did with then Russian Security Council Secretary Aleksandr Lebed in 1996, and then parlaying that achievement into a bid for political power. Alternatively, he may be aware that he cannot at present count on the backing of the Chechen diaspora community. Gantemirov demonstratively failed to attend the founding congress in Moscow on 12 November of the Union of Peoples of Chechnya, whose members he accused of "playing the Maskhadov card" by arguing that the Chechen president is the only person with whom Russia should negotiate.

According to the Union's co-chairman, Aslan Aslakhanov, the founding congress, which was attended by some 900 Chechens from across the Russian Federation, was intended to unite the emigre Chechen community in the hope of halting the bloodshed and persuading the Russian leadership to begin talks with "healthy political forces" in Chechnya. But in the event Gantemirov's prognosis proved correct, and the delegates insisted on calling for a dialogue between Moscow and the "legally elected president" of Chechnya. The Russian leadership has said repeatedly that there is no point in holding talks with Maskhadov as he does not control the situation in Chechnya. (Liz Fuller)

Quotations Of The Week. "Russia couldn't find any money to ensure peace. But Russia can find the money to make war." -- Yelena Bonner, writing in "The Moscow Times," 9 November 1999.

"The Chechen leaders are convinced they cannot attain their objectives--of which the main one is independence--by using military means... and the Russian presidential administration must change its priorities and insist on a political solution, which is actually their main priority." -- Boris Berezovskii in an interview with "Le Monde," quoted by Reuters, 17 November 1999.

"We would like to halt the standoff so that peaceful civilians do not have to die, but we are not going to talk to bandits, and if anyone tries to wipe his feet on Russia in Istanbul, we will not allow it." -- Russian State Duma speaker Gennadii Seleznev, quoted by "Nezavisimaya gazeta," 18 November 1999.

"The Chechen war is not a war against the Chechen people only, but against all Russia's small nations." -- Tatar Public Center chairman Rashid Yagfarov, quoted by RFE/RL's Kazan bureau, 15 November.