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Caucasus Report: May 12, 1998

12 May 1998, Volume 1, Number 11

Armenia, Georgia Map Out New Areas For Cooperation. Recent high-level meetings between Georgian and Armenian officials suggest that relations between the two countries are cordial, even harmonious: Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze told journalists after his meeting in Moscow with his Armenian counterpart Robert Kocharian on the eve of the 29 April CIS summit that he "could not name a single issue on which we failed to find a common language and understanding." But Georgia appears nonetheless concerned that tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan could obstruct regional cooperation. In his traditional weekly radio broadcast on 11 May, Shevardnadze affirmed that "the time has come for the intensive development of trilateral Georgian-Armenian-Azerbaijani contacts" because "the Caucasus has no future without peace."

The prospects for peace and broader regional cooperation featured prominently during the three-day visit to Tbilisi in early May by an Armenian parliamentary delegation headed by speaker Khosrov Harutiunian. True, the visit yielded only one further bilateral agreement to supplement the 43 already signed. But that accord, and Harutiunian's talks with Georgian leaders, focussed on a range of issues crucial to cementing cooperation not only between Yerevan and Tbilisi, but among all three Transcaucasus states.

Addressing the Georgian parliament, Harutiunian advocated direct negotiations between the leaderships of Azerbaijan and the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, and called on Georgia to promote a rapprochement between Armenia and Azerbaijan that would enhance the prospects for peace in the Transcaucasus. Harutiunian argued that a key component of peace and regional stability is a regional security system that would balance the interests of all the countries of the region.

Harutiunian also assessed with Georgian Minister of State Niko Lekishvili the barriers to expanding economic cooperation between the two countries, explaining that high transit tariffs serve as a deterrent to Armenian businessmen eager to take advantage of Georgia's transit potential. The single accord signed in fact included a section on Georgia's role as a transit link between Armenia and Romania and Bulgaria. (Expanding Armenia's transportation cooperation with those two countries was discussed during visits to Yerevan last autumn by Romanian Senate speaker Petre Roman and Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nadezhda Mihailova.)

Summarizing the outcome of the talks at a subsequent press conference in Yerevan, Harutiunian's advisor Vahagn Mkrtchian said that the Armenian delegation had expressed an interest in any forms of economic cooperation, but had stressed that such cooperation should not ignore the interests of any of the countries of the region. The Georgian side had, Mkrtchian continued, undertaken not to embark on any such cooperation that does not take account of Armenia's interests. It is not clear from agency reports of Harutiunian's various meetings whether it was in this context that his Georgian counterpart Zurab Zhvania affirmed that Armenia has an important role to play in the most grandiose -- and lucrative -- of all such planned undertakings, namely the construction of export pipelines for Caspian oil and gas. Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem had argued in January that all regional states should benefit from the export of Caspian hydrocarbons, regardless of whether or not the export pipelines transit their territory. (Liz Fuller)

Political Power Grows Out Of The Barrel Of A Gun. The leader of the Yerkrapah ("Country Defenders"), currently the largest single group of deputies within the Armenian parliament, announced on 7 May that the organization intends to formalize its status as a political party before the next parliamentary elections. How this metamorphosis will impact on Armenian domestic politics is, however, unclear: although it wields considerable clout (both literal and figurative), the Yerkrapah is a single-issue (defending Nagorno-Karabakh) political group, and does not have a comprehensive and clearly-formulated political programme. Moreover, press reports hint at tactical disagreements among its members.

The Yerkrapah is one of the largest public organizations in Armenia with over 5,000 members, primarily veteran volunteers of the fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh (its president is Defence Minister Vazgen Sargsian). Its members achieved dubious notoriety for their alleged role in provoking and then suppressing the spontaneous attack on the parliament building following the disputed presidential elections in September, 1996. (According to the chairman of the Helsinki Association in Yerevan, they had earlier engaged in reprisals against minority religous groups.)

The Yerkrapah parliament group was created in October, 1997, by a handful of deputies who split from the majority Hanrapetutiun faction, but the attendance at, and press coverage of, Yerkrapah's third congress one month later demonstrated that the organization's influence was already disproportionate to its modest representation within the National Assembly. As the rift between President Levon Ter-Petrossian and Prime Minister Robert Kocharian over the optimum approach to resolving the Karabakh conflict widened, the Yerkrapah, together with Vazgen Sargsian and Interior and National Security Minister Serzh Sargsian, unequivocally aligned themselves with the prime minister. On 1 February, 1998, Yerkrapah vice-chairman Albert Bazeyan joined opposition demands for the resignation of Ter-Petrossian, who finally stepped down two days later following mass defections from Hanrapetutiun to the Yerkrapah group.

Kocharian may, however, have considered the Yerkrapah backing of his bid for the presidency as a mixed blessing. Its members objected to the presence of international election monitors on the grounds that they could themselves do a better job of preventing election fraud -- but some Yerkrapah supporters were accused of intimidating both voters and proxies for rival candidates. In any event, unlike some other parties that endorsed Kocharian, the Yerkrapah were not rewarded with high-level government posts. (Liz Fuller)

Support Grows For A United Azerbaijan. The concept of a single Azerbaijani state is winning increasing support among ethnic Azeris on both sides of the frontier between the Azerbaijan Republic and the Islamic Republic of Iran. In the former, over one hundred opposition organizations aligned in December, 1997, in the United Azerbaijan Union [Vahid Azerbaycan Birliyi] headed by former Azerbaijani president and Popular Front chairman Abulfaz Elchibey. The United Azerbaijan Union aims to unite both regions in order to "liberate" Iranian Azeris from cultural and linguistic oppression. Nor is support for unification the exclusive preserve of the Azerbaijani political opposition: at its third congress last month, the pro-government Fatherland Party espoused the concept of a confederation of northern and southern Azerbaijan as the first step towards a united Azerbaijani state.

Also last month, six organizations representing Iranian Azeris aligned in an umbrella organization, the National Council. In its first statement, the Council enumerates the following priorities and objectives:

the creation of an independent Republic of South Azerbaijan on "historic Azerbaijani territory." That Republic would reject authoritarianism, ideological dictatorship and one-party rule in favour of democratic principles and and a law-based state. The national ideology would be "Turkism." on achieving independence, the Republic of South Azerbaijan would unite with northern Azerbaijan, and would defend its independence without "interfering into the internal affairs" of Northern Azerbaijan. The Republic of Azerbaijan reserves the right to take action against any body that opposes the independence and territorial integrity of the composite Azerbaijani state. the National Council vows to "do its best" to "liberate the occupied territories of Azerbaijan" and to "resolve the Karabakh problem artificially posed by the Dashnaks."

The Iranian Embassy in Baku recently issued a press release protesting the publication in several Azerbaijani newspapers of a map of United Azerbaijan, RFE/RL's Baku bureau reported. (Liz Fuller)