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Caucasus Report: April 14, 1998

14 April 1998, Volume 1, Number 7

Kocharian's Credo. In an extensive interview with "Izvestiya" on 8 April, and during his inauguration address the following day, Armenian President Robert Kocharian outlined his domestic and economic policy priorities, and his favoured scenarios for a solution to the Karabakh conflict and for the future course of relations with Russia and the CIS.

Speaking at his inauguration ceremony, Kocharian described the next five years as a period of "consolidation of the bases of our state," of resolving social problems, and of creating conditions for the population to exercise to the full its constitutional rights and freedoms -- tasks which he said require "internal unity and consent, and constructive political dialogue." Kocharian said sweeping constitutional amendments are "imperative" in order to provide for a more balanced interaction between the president on the one hand, and the government and National Assembly on the other, and to redefine the responsibilities of the Constitutional Court. And in a veiled sideswipe at the previous leadership, he affirmed, first, that "everyone, from the president to ordinary citizens, should be equal before the law," and second, that all reforms, whether political or economic, should be geared to existing conditions, and their possible social impact taken into consideration. In this context, he observed that it is now clear that the state should not have given up its regulating role in the sphere of economic relations, especially as market institutions to replace the state had not been established." The resulting vacuum, Kocharian continued, had above all damaged the agricultural sector, which badly needs state support.

Kocharian advocated economic policies focussed specifically on creating favourable conditions for attracting investment and for the development both of industry and of small and medium businesses, with the aim of creating new jobs. He had earlier told "Izvestiya" that Armenia has "the most open economic policy" of any CIS state, and predicted that optimal development of the country's technological base and its potential as a net exporter of energy could create 45,000 - 50,000 new jobs over the next 2-3 years. Asked whom he would select to implement the economic programs he had outlined, Kocharian said that "We know what needs to be done and how to do it." He said the idea of a coalition government is "unacceptable," but did not exclude the inclusion in the new cabinet of "professionals" prepared to set aside their party affiliation.

Finance and Economy Minister Armen Darpinian, whom Kocharian named Prime Minister on 10 April, has also painted a rosy picture of Armenia's financial prospects, predicting investment of $200 million in 1998. In an interview with "Respublika Armeniya" last month, Darpinian said that he anticipates that by August of this year Armenia will receive an international credit rating that is "no lower than the best in the CIS."

Turning to foreign policy, Kocharian pledged that Armenia will strive for "dynamic and mutually beneficial relations with our neighbours and with those states that have traditional strategic interests in the region" [i.e. Russia in the first instance], and will abide by the international agreements it has signed. He noted the importance of "a strong and disciplined army" as a guarantor of national security. And he singled out as "a responsibility of our generation" ensuring the active participation of the Armenian diaspora in the social, political and economic life of the country, specifically through the introduction of dual citizenship.

As for Karabakh, the issue that precipitated the resignation of his predecessor Levon Ter-Petrossian, Kocharian termed it a "pan-national issue" that should be resolved peacefully and "with dignity." A solution to the conflict, he added, must entail international recognition of the right of the people of Karabakh to self-determination and guarantee the region's development within secure borders and "in constant geographical connection" with Armenia -- a formulation that implies demilitarization and international control of the strategic Lachin corridor linking Karabakh with Armenia.

The Karabakh conflict was one of the issues that Kocharian discussed in greater depth in his "Izvestiya" interview. Characterizng himself as "not a hawk but a pragmatist," he again rejected Ter-Petrossian's equation of his resignation with the advent to power in Yerevan of the "party of war." Kocharian suggested that the differences between Armenia and Azerbaijan are so great that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Minsk Group is unlikely to succeed in mediating a solution to the conflict, especially as Baku's offer of broad autonomy for Karabakh is "inacceptable," but affirmed his readiness for direct talks with his Azerbaijani counterpart, Heidar Aliev. Arguing that the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic is already de facto independent, Kocharian proposed defining its future status in terms either of a federation or confederation with Azerbaijan, or "equal, horizontal relations", but stressed that this decision is the prerogative of the Karabakh leadership. (Liz Fuller)

Cracks Emerge In Georgian-Turkish Partnership. Since the collapse of the USSR, Turkey has surpassed Russia as Georgia's primary trading partner. The new strategic relationship between Tbilisi and Ankara will be additionally strengthened by implementation of the TRACECA project to build a network of road, ferry and rail links from China across Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Turkey to Europe, and for plans to route the main export pipeline for Azerbaijan's Caspian oil through Georgia to Turkey.

The increasingly visible Turkish presence in Georgia is, however, regarded with misgiving by many Georgians. In 1996, plans to open a privately funded Turkish university in Georgia met with fierce opposition. More recently, Georgian environmentalists have questioned major projects involving Turkey that they claim pose a serious ecological threat to the Black Sea. The first of these is a Georgian-Turkish hydro-electric project to build a series of eleven dams along the Chorokhi river that marks the frontier between the two countries. Georgian scientists who studied the possible impact of those dams concluded that they will obstruct the natural flow of pebbles and detritus, and thus contribute to the erosion of Black Sea beaches. This in turn could lead to the flooding of the Adjar capital, Batumi, and of much of the Colchis lowland which lies two meters below sea-level. In the course of a 3 April debate, Georgian parliament deputies claim that as long ago as 1962 the Soviet leadership prohibited the implementation of this project on ecological grounds, and rejected as "cynical" and totally inadequate the Turkish government's offer to pay $5 million towards strengthening Georgia's coastal defences. (According to Givi Gigineishvili, chairman of the Georgian Parliamentary Commission for the environment and natural resources, the minimum cost of such measures is $1.7 million per year.) The Georgian parliament deputies expressed their unanimous opposition to the project, but President Eduard Shevardnadze is still scheduled to travel to Turkey, together with Adjar parliament chairman Aslan Abashidze, to attend the ceremony of laying the foundations of the first of the eleven dams on 26 April.

The second project that has aroused the ire of Georgian environmentalists is the planned "Blue Stream" project to build a 396 km gas pipeline under the Black Sea from Djubga in southern Russia to Samsum in Turkey. Giorgi Gachechiladze, leader of the Georgian "Greens," told a news conference in Tbilisi last week that even a small leak of gas from that pipeline could kill all life in the Black Sea. He castigated the Russian and Turkish governments for failing to conduct an evaluation of the potential hazards. (Russia's Gazprom rejects such charges: it says that it is cooperating with environmental agencies, and that no organisms live at a depth of 200 meters beneath the surface of the sea because of the lack of oxygen.) Gazprom has opened a tender for construction of the pipeline, which is scheduled to begin next month. The pipeline should be operational by July, 2000. (Liz Fuller)