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Caucasus Report: March 3, 1998

3 March 1998, Volume 1, Number 1

Armenian Presidential Campaign Threatens To Turn Ugly. With two weeks to go before the 16 March poll, the twelve Armenian presidential hopefuls are increasingly badmouthing each other, and accusing the country's authorities of trying to engineer the outcome of the vote. Opposition candidates Sergei Badalian and David Shahnazarian have adduced the ambiguous wording of the Armenian Constitution stipulating that only persons who have been citizens of the Republic of Armenia for ten years are eligible to run for the presidency as excluding Prime Minister and acting President Robert Kocharian, who was born in the (then) Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast of the Azerbaijan SSR, and from 1994-1997 served as president of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. Kocharian responded by pointing out that the Republic of Armenia has not existed for a total of ten years, affirming that his moral right to stand is indisputable. And in a possible allusion either to Shahnazarian's past psychological problems or to former Communist Party boss Karen Damirchian's allegedly failing health, Kocharian suggested that all candidates should furnish the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) with a clean bill of health.

The National Democratic Union (AZhM) and the Union for Constitutional Rights have both claimed that the media are unfairly devoting disproportionate "propaganda" to Kocharian -- an accusation that seemingly fails to differentiate between news coverage of Kocharian's day-to-day activities as acting head of state, and overt propaganda on his behalf. And as a CEC member has conceded, the electoral law fails to define clearly just what constitutes "propaganda" in favour of any given candidate.

More serious, however, than such subjective interpretations of the law are charges that some government and state structures are attempting to influence the outcome of the poll. AZhM candidate Vazgen Manukian said last week that "the police, former KGB and local government machines" are pressuring people to vote for Kocharian, possibly without the latter's knowledge. And Liberal-Democratic Party chairman Vigen Khachatrian has accused Defense Minister Vazgen Sarkisian of instructing local officials to ensure a Kocharian victory. Kocharian's campaign managers have denied that either law enforcement or government bodies are participating in his campaign.

CEC chairman Khachatour Bezirjian, the target of international monitors' misgivings following the disputed 1996 presidential poll, is on the defensive, and has ordained procedural innovations, such as using transparent glass ballot boxes, to minimize the possibility of fraud. In addition, protocols from the 1597 individual precincts will be faxed to the CEC immediately after the vote count is completed, rather than sent for tabulating to regional centers. And Vazgen Sarkisian has tried to dispel candidates' suspicions that military personnel may vote several times over at different polling stations.

Unofficial opinion polls indicate that Demirchian currently has a marginal lead over Kocharian, followed by Manukian in close third place. A further rise in tensions and more acrimonious exchanges between candidates seem certain during the final two weeks of the campaign. (Liz Fuller)

Could An Oil Pipeline Reconcile Abkhazia and Georgia ... In October, 1993, the central Georgian government was constrained to cede control of the breakaway Black Sea province of Abkhazia following a 13 month war in which the Abkhaz were abetted by the Russian military. Mediation efforts by both Russia and the UN have failed to produce an acceptable blueprint for resolving the conflict. But in a conciliatory gesture last August, Abkhaz President Vladislav Ardzinba travelled to Tbilisi for talks with Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze. That landmark meeting yielded agreements to abjure the future use of force in bilateral relations, and on holding regular inter-governmental talks on the restoration of economic, transport, energy and communications arteries between the two territories.

During the third round of such talks in Sukhumi last week, Georgian Minister of State Niko Lekishvili and Gia Chanturia, chairman of the Georgian company responsible for operating the Baku-Supsa oil pipeline, met behind closed doors with Ardzinba to discuss building an oil pipeline from the Russian port of Novorossiisk to Supsa, on Georgia's Black Sea coast. Abkhaz Prime Minister Sergei Bagapsh had discussed this project in Moscow in early January with Russian leaders who endorsed it as beneficial for Russia as well as Tbilisi and Sukhumi. That proposed pipeline could conceivably transport Kazakh crude from the gigantic Tengiz field: loading some Tengiz oil at Novorossiisk and some at Supsa would obviate the need for an underwater Caspian pipeline to transport Kazakh oil to Baku, and thence either to Supsa or to Ceyhan, on Turkey's Mediterranean coast. Moscow and Tehran last week expressed their joint opposition to underwater trans-Caspian pipelines, ostensibly on ecological grounds. Lekishvili made it clear that the proposed Novorossiisk-Supsa pipeline is intended as an incentive to Abkhazia to moderate its demands for equal status with the rest of Georgia as part of a confederation and expedite the repatriation to Abkhazia of an estimated 200,000 Georgian displaced persons.

Nor is Abkhazia the only contested region of the Caucasus where a pipeline is perceived as a potential key to peace. U.S. officials suggested last year that the Armenian leadership might make concessions on Nagorno-Karabakh in return for routing the planned Baku-Ceyhan pipeline through Armenia, rather than through Georgia. Then-President Levon Ter-Petrossian may have had that scenario in mind last autumn when he advocated timely concessions to resolve the conflict. Although Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev has rejected the Baku-Armenia-Ceyhan variant, Armenian parliament speaker Khosrov Harutiunian argued last month that transporting Caspian oil via Armenia could play a stabilizing role in the region.

Yet a policy of trading concessions in a territorial conflict for future economic benefits can misfire badly, as recent events in Yerevan have demonstrated. If Ardzinba is perceived by more hardline rivals as preparing to sell out on Abkhazia's de facto independent status, he could risk sharing the fate of his fellow oriental philologist-turned-president Levon Ter-Petrossian. (Liz Fuller)

... Or Azerbaijan And Turkey? If, as has been suggested, Turkish-Azerbaijani relations are a protracted love affair with sharp ups and downs, those countries could currently be compared to a couple held together primarily by the promise of an imminent shared legacy from a billionaire uncle -- in the form of the proposed Baku-Ceyhan pipeline. The coolness was palpable during Heidar Aliev's visit to Istanbul in February, during which both Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz and President Suleyman Demirel travelled from Ankara in an attempt to assuage Aliev's outrage at Turkish press reports of his son Ilham's alleged multi-million dollar gambling debts to a Turkish casino owner, and of the involvement of former Prime Minister Tansu Ciller's government in the failed March 1995 coup attempt against Aliev.

Three factors serve to compound mutual distrust. First, neither Baku nor Ankara can afford to treat this relationship as an exclusive priority. On the contrary, both are keen to keep other options open, specifically, to improve (or at least not risk a further exacerbation of) their respective relations with both Russia and Iran. Second, Aliyev seemingly cannot accept that the beloved is a multiple personality: there are in Turkey, as in Russia and Iran, various interest groups with distinct, even conflicting policies and priorities. Third, the U.S. has cast itself in the role of counsellor, pushing Baku-Ceyhan as the answer to the lovers' problems (and a way to anchor them more firmly in the U.S. sphere of influence) with little regard for either economic considerations or the possible reaction of other regional players. None of those factors is conducive to amatory bliss, either in the short or the long term.(Lowell Bezanis/Liz Fuller)