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Caucasus Report: October 30, 1998

30 October 1998, Volume 1, Number 35

"Things Fall Apart ..." Six months after his inauguration as Armenia's president, Robert Kocharian is increasingly under fire from a parliament in which the majority supporting him is crumbling. The two parties that hitherto formed his main power base are at odds over fundamental policy issues. And those parties that are underrepresented or not represented in parliament are questioning the point of further participation in the presidential consultative council that Kocharian created specifically to provide them with a forum for making their views known.

Kocharian, who began his political career in the then Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast and served as the unrecognized republic's president from 1994-1997, is not a member of any Armenian political party. The two main pillars of his support base are the Yerkrapah union of veterans of the Karabakh war, whose chairman and patron is Defense Minister Vazgen Sarkisian, and the Dashnaktsutiun (HHD). (One of Kocharian's first moves after assuming the role of acting president in February 1998 was to legalize the HHD by lifting the ban imposed on its activities two years earlier by then President Levon Ter-Petrossian.)

It was mass defections from the ruling Hanrapetutiun coalition to the Yerkrapah parliament group (which numbered only a handful of deputies when it was founded in late 1997) that swelled the ranks of the latter to 77, making it currently the majority group within parliament. The HHD, by contrast, was barred from participating in the 1995 parliamentary elections, and has only one parliament deputy. Thus, as Communist Party head Sergei Badalian recently remarked, the Yerkrapah effectively control the political agenda within parliament, and the Dashnaks -- outside it. The two parties are divided over the proposed introduction of dual citizenship, which the HHD enthusiastically supports, and the Yerkrapah categorically reject. But the fundamental bone of contention between the Yerkrapah and the HHD is the proposed new election law. The Yerkrapah advocate allocating all but 40 seats in the 131 member parliament in single-mandate constituencies, while the HHD and most groups within parliament argue that up to 75 percent of deputies should be elected under the party-list system (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," Vol. 1, No. 13, 26 May1998, and No.16, 16 June 1998). Meeting with the Yerkrapah faction on 22 October, Kocharian reportedly expressed support for their demand that 60 percent of the seats should be reserved for single-mandate constituencies -- a demand that other parties within parliament continue to reject.

There is one very good reason why Kocharian should side with the Yerkrapah against the Dashnaks: he cannot afford to alienate the majority within a parliament whose smaller factions are engaged in a seeming war of attrition against the existing government and its policies. The primary target of opposition dissatisfaction to date has been the government's privatization policy, specifically the sale to foreign investors of the Yerevan Cognac factory and Armenia's two largest hotels. Kocharian's failure to respond to a request by 68 parliament deputies to convene an emergency debate to discuss the June sale for $30 million of the Cognac factory to France's Pernod Ricard was construed as a violation of the constitution by opposition deputies who earlier this month sought unsuccessfully to persuade the Constitutional Court to begin impeachment proceedings against the president.

But parliament deputies have also targeted Prime Minister Armen Darpinian, most recently for having appended his signature to the declaration signed by participants of the September TRACECA conference in Baku. That declaration reportedly includes a clause advocating that conflicts in the Caucasus should be resolved in accordance with the relevant UN Security Council resolutions. Parliament deputies have construed Darpinian's endorsement of that clause as a retreat from the Armenian leadership's affirmed rejection of autonomous status within Azerbaijan for the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.

While the opposition parties' criticism of government policy, and their demand that Kocharian deliver an unequivocal condemnation of the perceived misdeeds of the Ter-Petrossian leadership, are largely geared towards next summer's parliamentary elections, they may also in part be a reflection of what Vano Siradeghian, chairman of the formerly ruling Armenian Pan-National Movement, recently characterized as a uniquely Armenian resentment of power and those who wield it. (Liz Fuller)

Kingmaker Or Loose Cannon? Evaluating the present balance of political forces in Armenia, commentators point to the figure of Defense Minister Vazgen Sarkisian as a crucial factor. Sarkisian, who is 39, worked as a teacher, Komsomol activist and journalist after graduating from the Yerevan Institute of Physical Culture. He was one of the original members of the Armenian national movement, and a deputy to the first post-Communist parliament elected in 1990. He was first appointed minister of defense in 1991, but was fired from that post the following year after a series of serious military defeats in Nagorno-Karabakh. At that time, he was criticized not only for incompetence and lack of professionalism, but also for being boastful, ambitious, and duplicitous.

Sarkisian returned to head the Ministry of Defense in early 1995, and came to be regarded as one of President Levon Ter-Petrossian's closest associates, especially after he deployed tanks and troops in Yerevan to quash opposition protests over the alleged gerrymandering of the September 1996 presidential election. Sarkisian's influence apparently extended beyond matters purely military: Sarkisian himself claimed that it was he who proposed the candidacy of Armen Sarkisian (not a relation) as premier in the fall of 1996 to succeed Hrant Bagratian. Whether or not that claim is true, Vazgen Sarkisian's withdrawal of support for Ter-Petrossian certainly helped to precipitate the latter's resignation in February 1998.

The image Sarkisian projects is that of a rough diamond who does not always think before he speaks: in March 1997, when other Armenian leaders were denying the veracity of Russian media reports of clandestine arms supplies to Armenia, Sarkisian blithely admitted that "over the past two years we have doubled our defense capacity at no cost to the budget." But in an interview with "Nezavisimaya gazeta" last November, he demonstrated a capacity for sophisticated and independent geopolitical thinking.

Interviewed by "Hayastani Hanrapetutyun" one month later, Sarkisian expressed enviable confidence in his own abilities, affirming that "I am Vazgen Sarkisian and I have a force within myself. I very much want to use that force in the capacity of defense minister for another five or six years." On that occasion, Sarkisian did not hint what his long-term ambitions might be, but recent press commentaries have suggested that Sarkisian sees himself as a possible successor to Premier Armen Darpinian. His chances of doing so would appear to be minimal, however, given his lack of economics experience.

And Sarkisian's continuing sympathy for Kocharian's arch rival, former Communist Party First Secretary Karen Demirchian, may likewise prove a liability. In March, Sarkisian made no secret of his preference for Demirchian -- Kocharian's defeated rival in the presidential runoff -- as prime minister. Demirchian has since founded his own political party to contest the 1999 parliamentary elections. (Liz Fuller)

Quotations Of The Week. "I know Akaki Eliava long enough to understand that he wouldn't have tried to occupy Kutaisi with two hundred soldiers and twenty tanks. He is too prudent for that. Someone obviously promised Eliava help, and that someone has to be found." Former Georgian Security Chief Irakli Batiashvili, quoted by Caucasus Press, 23 October 1998.

"I should have persuaded the HHSh [Armenian Pan-National Movement] and the president to hold a runoff election in [October] 1996. It was wrong of me not to insist on that." Former Armenian Interior Minister and current HHSh chairman Vano Siradeghian, interviewed by Noyan Tapan, 5 October 1998.

Hypothetical Question Of The Week. "Can Heidar Aliyev Become President Of Armenia?" -- Headline of an article in "Nezavisimaya gazeta," 22 October 1998.