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Caucasus Report: December 10, 1999

10 December 1999, Volume 2, Number 49

Yerkrapah Leaders Throw Down The Gauntlet. Speaking on 4 December at a congress in Yerevan of the Yerkrapah Union of veterans of the Karabakh war, Vahan Shirkhanian, the Armenian minister of industrial infrastructure, called for new presidential elections as the logical way to extricate Armenia from the political crisis precipitated by the 27 October parliament shootings. Many of the 800 deputies to the congress applauded that proposal, but the final resolution adopted by the congress did not explicitly call on President Robert Kocharian to resign. Nonetheless, Shirkhanian's demand, which he repeated to RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau three days later, underscores the political tensions in the wake of the slaying of Prime Minister Vazgen Sargsian and parliament speaker Karen Demirchian.

Even before the 27 October shootings, observers of the Armenian political scene had noted that the victory in the 30 May parliamentary election of the Miasnutiun bloc, which includes Vazgen Sargsian's Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), the political arm of Yerkrapah, and Demirchian's People's Party of Armenia (HZhK), had led to a reduction of the power and influence of the president. But that realignment did not appear to pose a serious threat to political stability particularly because Sargsian, who in his previous post as defense minister had been perceived as pro-Russian, had presented a government program in August whose economic section was largely contingent on Western financial support, and which met the conditions on which such aid was contingent.

The death of Vazgen Sargsian and Demirchian, however, did create a power vacuum which individual members of the slain premier's circle led by Shirkhanian have sought to take advantage of. Those actors succeeded in ensuring that Shirkhanian retained his post in the new cabinet. (On the night of 27 October, they had presented Kocharian with a draft list of new cabinet members in which Shirkhanian figured as prime minister.)

Many members of Yerkrapah have made no secret of their concern that the investigation into the parliament shootings appears to be bogged down, but it is not clear how many of them would back a serious bid by Shirkhanian to oust Kocharian. (Ironically, it was the defection of many of Yerkrapah members from the ranks of the then ruling Hanrapetutiun faction in the previous parliament that precipitated the resignation in February 1998 of Kocharian's predecessor, Levon Ter-Petrossian.) As recently as 19 November, prominent Yerkrapah member Ara Ketikian told RFE/RL that "We stand by the president of the republic and don't demand his resignation. In these conditions it is unacceptable." Yerkrapah board member and Yerevan mayor Albert Bazeyan conceded to Noyan Tapan earlier this week that "there is some objective discontent with the republic's president." But he went on to explain that the discontent with Kocharian expressed at the Yerkrapah congress is directed primarily at the economic sphere (for which, theoretically, the government, not the president is primarily responsible.).

The election of Major-General Manvel Grigorian as Yerkrapah's new chairman may herald a tougher anti-Kocharian line from that quarter. But even if proves to be the case, it is not clear whether the Yerkrapah could gather the 2/3 majority of all parliament deputies needed to impeach Kocharian. The HHK swiftly distanced itself from Shirkhanian. Republican Party deputy chairman Tigran Torosian told RFE/RL that in his opinion "fresh elections can take place only if there are insurmountable differences between branches of power." Other political parties represented in parliament similarly failed to endorse unequivocally the call for new presidential elections. Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun leader Vahan Hovhannissian categorically rejected it, expressing concern that the former ruling Armenian Pan-National Movement appears to be seeking to restore its influence over Yerkrapah. If that attempt is successful, Hovhannissian warned, Yerkrapah will again become "a destabilizing factor."

In an apparent attempt to defuse tensions, the new prime minister, Aram Sargsian, questioned the need for early presidential elections. In an oblique acknowledgement of the organization's role as king-maker in the past, he observed that "Yerkrapah remains Yerkrapah and it has always had methods of its own," adding that "we must be happy that such an organization issues statements rather than takes steps."

On the one hand, Sargsian's remarks could be taken as a signal that the reaction to Shirkhanian's statement was overblown. But that holds true only if the new premier is in a strong enough position to dictate to Shirkhanian and the latter's fellow officers, to whom he owes his post. If, on the other hand, as seems more probable, Aram Sargsian is a puppet figure acting on instructions from some members of the Armenian military, then Shirkhanian might at some point move against him if he considers the premier too independent and/or not entirely loyal. Shirkhanian has, however, denied that he would accept the post of prime minister.

Meanwhile "Aravot" on 8 December suggested that the real bone of contention between Kocharian and his Yerkrapah opponents is over control of lucrative sectors of the economy. The paper interprets the speech delivered to the Yerkrapah congress by one of that union's leading figures, Colonel Murad Kirakosian, who argued that "such strategic spheres as imports of gasoline and wheat cannot be the monopoly of certain individuals or groups," as an attack on Kocharian's close ally, former Interior and National Security Minister Serzh Sarkisian. Some of Sarkisian's associates are known to be engaged in those sectors of the economy. Kirakosian's name reportedly figured on the list of new government ministers Shirkhanian and his allies presented to Kocharian on the night of 27 October. Kirakosian insists, nonetheless, that he has no ministerial aspirations.

And on 9 December, Robert Kocharian demonstratively availed himself of his constitutional right to chair cabinet meetings. He had not done so while Vazgen Sargsian was premier. (Liz Fuller)

Azerbaijan Gears Up For Crucial Municipal Elections. On 12 December, Azerbaijan will finally hold the local elections that should have taken place in 1997. The outcome of the poll is unlikely to impact on political life, but the way in which the vote is conducted will be significant, in that a repeat of the egregious ballot-stuffing and other violations that led the OSCE to evaluate both the 1995 parliamentary poll and the 1998 presidential election as less than free and fair could negatively affect Azerbaijan's chances of full Council of Europe membership. Azerbaijan currently has "special guest" status in that organization.

Some 35,000 candidates for local and city councils have been registered of whom just over half (18,000) represent political parties. Of that number in turn, 12,300 represent the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan party, according to Reuters. Only some 5,000 opposition candidates have succeeded in registering to contend the 21,000 seats.

At least one prominent opposition party--the Azerbaijan National Independence Party--is boycotting the poll to protest violations by the Azerbaijani authorities of the election-related legislation as well as the shortcomings in the law itself. Those violations range from the exclusion of opposition representatives from local election commissions to the refusal of those commission to register opposition candidates. Fikret Rzaev of the NGO "For A Civil Society" told the newspaper "Zerkalo" on 12 November that in some rural areas, would-be candidates were allowed to collect only the minimum number of signatures required for registration. If any of those signatures were ruled invalid, the candidate's registration was jeopardized.

The Musavat (Equality) and Azerbaijan Popular Front Parties provisionally plan to participate in the poll, while reserving the option to declare a boycott at the last minute.

A further subject of opposition complaint is the law on local elections, which allows candidates to local councils simultaneously to serve as members of local electoral commissions. Numerous Yeni Azerbaycan supporters or nominally independent candidates who support the ruling party have reportedly availed themselves of that opportunity.

Rzaev complained to "Zerkalo" that the Central Electoral Commission has done virtually nothing to explain to the population the importance and function of local councils, or the finer points of the election process. That omission has been partially compensated for by international organizations such as the International Fund for Electoral Systems (IFES), which has provided the election-related TV commercials for the campaign. (Liz Fuller)

Czech Press Chooses Iconography To Slam Russia's Chechnya Policy... "Lidove noviny" in its 8 December edition published a collage of a smiling President Boris Yeltsin standing next to Adolf Hitler. The two politicians are superimposed on a background that shows the ruins of Lidice (the Czech town razed in 1942 after the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler's top deputy in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia), and of Grozny in 1999. (Liz Fuller)

...Whereas Italian Government Opts For Beethoven. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and his German counterpart, Joschka Fischer, attended the opening of La Scala's new season in Milan on 7 December at the invitation of Italy's chief diplomat, Lamberto Dini. On the program was Beethoven's "Fidelio," which relates how the young nobleman Florestan, with the help of his wife Leonora, overcomes the tyranny of the corrupt prison governor Pizarro to regain his freedom. Writing in the 6 December issue of "Corriere della Serra" the previous day, Dini stressed that "Fidelio is not just an opera about the love between two people but it is also about liberty denied, human rights violated and finally the triumph of man and his values." He explained that the decision to invite his Russian and German colleagues was prompted by the opera's significance as the "hymn of a united Europe." Prior to the performance, Ivanov had briefed Dini and Fischer about the goals of Moscow's ongoing campaign in Chechnya. (Jan Cleave)

Quotations Of The Week. "There was not any ultimatum given to civilians. It was ordered that military formations should be disbanded. This includes those who are located now, not only in Grozny, but also in Urus Martan, in Shali, and other inhabited areas. It was said that there still was time to think about it in order to avoid unnecessary bloodshed. That it was necessary to give up their weapons. [...] My plans as a commander of the united military formation, I repeat, are to cause the fewest possible casualties among the military forces of the formation and among the civilians located on Chechen territory." -- General Viktor Kazantsev, Commander of the Russian forces in Chechnya, explaining the ultimatum to residents of Grozny to leave the capital by 11 December.

"The ultimatum issued to the population of Grozny must immediately be taken back by the Russian government. It is not acceptable to make a collective threat of violence against an entire city." -- German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, quoted by Reuters on 7 December.

"Russia has no reason to replay the events of 1921 [when Soviet Russia invaded and annexed Georgia], and I am sure Russia will refrain from doing so." -- Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, quoted by Turan on 6 December.

"Terrorism can shatter all our dreams and lead to the loss of our main achievement, independent statehood." -- Armenian Prime Minister Aram Sargsian, addressing parliament on 2 December.