North Caucasus: New Adygeya President Takes Office
But Sovmen's hopes were dashed on December 13, 2006, when the Adygeya parliament endorsed Russian President Vladimir Putin's proposed candidate -- former Maykop Technological University Rector Aslancheryy Tkhakushinov.
Meeting with Tkhakushinov in Moscow in December, Putin stressed that what had been the main bone of contention between Adygeya and Moscow -- the purported plan to subsume the Adygeya Republic into the surrounding Krasnodar Krai -- is no longer on the agenda.
But Tkhakushinov, who was inaugurated as president on January 13, will have to handle a second controversial issue: the celebration -- scheduled for later this year -- of what is being touted as the 450th anniversary of the region's "voluntary incorporation" into the Kingdom of Muscovy.
Sovmen, who was born in 1937, left Adygeya in the early 1960s after completing his military service and worked for decades in Siberia, where he worked his way up to become director of Polyus Gold, Russia's largest gold producer and the 15th largest worldwide. In the January 2002 presidential ballot, he trounced the incumbent, Aslan Djarimov, and five other candidates to win election with 68 percent of the vote. Tkhakushinov, one of those five, polled less than 2 percent.
In his December valedictory message, Sovmen chronicled in detail the problems he failed to resolve during his five-year term, problems that Tkhakushinov, too, may find intractable.
Sovmen identified as his key priorities when he assumed office kick-starting the republic's stagnating economy and cracking down on endemic corruption. He recalled that when he took office Adygeya relied on subsidies from Moscow for 80 percent of its budget. By the following year that percentage had fallen to 70 percent, and by 2005 to 58 percent, the lowest of any North Caucasus republic, according to ingushetiya.ru on September 30, 2005.
Sovmen further pointed out in his farewell address that in 2005 and for the first 11 months of 2006, Adygeya had the highest GDP growth of any North Caucasus federation subject. Revenues have doubled over the past four years and some 4,000 new jobs have been created (for a population of 447,000). At the same time, Sovmen claimed that a large some of the funds he invested in a bid to kick-start the economy were embezzled.
The Institute for War and Peace Reporting noted in July 2002 that he slashed government bureaucracy by 25 percent and reduced the total number of ministries. But according to Sovmen, his anticorruption drive ran up against "a system that barred my way like an unscalable wall," and what he termed the stubborn resistance of powerful people (whom he did not name) who are accustomed to "living off society."
Two additional factors may have worked against Sovmen: his ethnic origin (he is not an Adyg but a member of the tiny Shapsug ethnic group), and the related fact that he did not have a power base within Adygeya, and did not want to rely on the bureaucracy he inherited from Djarimov.
To remedy that lack, according to a detailed analysis circulated by regnum.ru last August, he brought in several former colleagues from elsewhere in Russia, but fired most of them within a couple of years. As of early 2004, his cadre policy reportedly became increasingly "chaotic," and ministers he dismissed swelled the ranks of the disparate opposition to him.
Sovmen's position was weakened by the election in March 2006 of a parliament in which barely half the 54 deputies supported him, according to regnum.ru. It was following a standoff with the new parliament in early April that Sovmen publicly offered to resign. But he subsequently explained that he made that offer not in a fit of pique at some deputies' refusal to rise to their feet as a mark of respect when he entered the parliament chamber, as some Russian media reported, but because he was under intense pressure from Dmitry Kozak, Russian presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District, to approve the proposed merger between Adygeya and Krasnodar Krai that had been under discussion since late 2004.
On April 11, 2006, Sovmen submitted a written letter of resignation to Kozak and Russian presidential administration head Sergei Sobyanin. But organizations representing Adygeya's small Adyg/Cherkess minority closed ranks in support of Sovmen, issuing strongly worded statements denouncing the proposed merger, and the Kremlin decided to permit him to remain in office.
Days later, commenting on the outcome of the April 17 referendum on subsuming the Taimyr and Evenk autonomous okrugs into Krasnoyarsk Krai, Putin commented that merging federation subjects "is not an end in itself," and should be resorted to "only if territories...cannot resolve the problems of their residents independently," thereby implying that plans to combine Adygeya and Krasnodar could be shelved.
Five months later, and with four months of Sovmen's presidential term still to run, presidential envoy Kozak set in motion the procedure for determining who should succeed the president.
The Main Contenders
Following consultations in Maykop on October 2-3, Kozak selected seven possible candidates from an original list of 11. The seven were: Tkhakushinov, reportedly Kozak's preferred choice; parliament speaker Ruslan Khadjibiyokov, a key member of the Adygeya chapter of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party; former Adygeya parliament speaker Mukharbiy Tkharkhakov; Russian Air Force deputy commander in chief Lieutenant General Aytech Bizhev; Adam Tleuzh, Adygeya's outgoing representative on the Federation Council, and his successor, Ruslan Khashir; and Sovmen himself.
Sovmen nonetheless launched a last-ditch battle for the right to serve a second term, soliciting public statements of support from several political organizations and groups, including the political organization Adyghe Khase that had hitherto been ambivalent toward him.
Tkhakushinov has revealed that economic-development plans have been drafted for individual regions of the republic, and for each separate government ministry.
Meanwhile, the Prague-based "Caucasus Times" published in late October the findings of an opinion poll it conducted among some 400 respondents in Maykop between October 19-24, 59 percent of whom positively assessed Sovmen's term in office as a period of "order," "stability", and improved socioeconomic conditions.
But the Adygeya parliament went ahead and approved Tkhakushinov's candidacy on October 25 by 46 votes in favor, with two against and six abstentions. President Putin endorsed that proposal on December 6 and the Adygeya parliament formally approved Tkhakushinov's candidacy one week later.
Speaking at a press conference in Maykop on December 22, and again in his inauguration speech on January 13, Tkhakushinov singled out as his primary task reviving the republic's economy, specifically agriculture, in particular livestock raising, and the food-processing industry. That emphasis on the economy implicitly calls into question Sovmen's claim in his farewell address to have turned the moribund economy around.
It is likewise at odds with the assessment delivered on December 25 by members of Adygeya's outgoing government, who according to regnum.ru calculated that following a 50 percent decline between 1991-2001, GDP grew by 26 percent during Sovmen's five-year term to reach 17 billion rubles ($602.6 million) in 2006.
Why Not Sovmen?
Remarks by Tkhakushinov at his December 21, 2006, press conference go some way toward answering those questions. Tkhakushinov affirmed unequivocally on that occasion that he is against any formal merger of Adygeya into Krasnodar Krai. But at the same time, he argued eloquently in favor of far closer economic integration and cooperation between the two regions -- which figured prominently in the original rationale for the merger.
Official support for such integration would also find favor with businessmen from Adygeya who have invested in Krasnodar, and vice versa. Tkhakushinov also revealed that the Maykop Technological University has drafted economic-development plans for individual regions of the republic, and for each separate government ministry.
In addition, Tkhakushinov stressed that Adygeya's Slavic population will receive a quota of government posts commensurate with its relative share of the population. He has already named a Slav, Vladimir Samozhonkov, as prime minister. In other words, Tkhakushinov has shown himself willing to redress one of the major grievances -- lack of representation in government -- that contributed to the Slavic population's support for the proposed territorial merger.
Whether Tkhakushinov will manage to demolish the "unscalable wall" of vested interests against which Sovmen claims to have come to grief, and how he will defuse any countercampaign the Adygs and Cherkess may launch against the proposed 450th anniversary celebrations this summer, remains to be seen.
Armenia: Junior Coalition Partner Warns Against Election Fraud
Senior HHD member Armen Rustamian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service recently that it will not seek representation if the ballot falls short of democratic standards, or if the HHD fails to win a "sufficient" number of parliamentary mandates.
"If it becomes clear that the election results are not recognized by international bodies, Dashnaktsutiun will never be part of a government formed by such a National Assembly," said Rustamian, echoing a similar warning he issued last September.
Rustamian also repeated on January 12 his earlier warning that the HHD would "become extremely resolute and move into opposition" if the 2007 elections are perceived as marred by serious fraud. He hinted that Dashnaktsutiun might stage street protests in the event that the vote is seen as less than fair and democratic.
"If you move into opposition, you draw up a corresponding strategy," he said. "In that case, we would use all political means to influence processes with an opposition stance."
The HHD joined other opposition parties in challenging the official outcome of the May 2003 parliamentary elections, but opted to remain in government in order not to jeopardize "political stability."
A repeat in May of the intimidation, widespread vote-buying, and manipulation of election returns that have characterized successive national ballots since 1995 would negatively impact the Armenian leadership's efforts to build closer ties with the West. Specifically, it could jeopardize the disbursement of funds under the U.S. Millennium Challenge program, and Armenia's participation in the EU's European Neighborhood Policy.
Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian alluded to those possible repercussions in an interview published last fall in the opposition daily "Haykakan zhamanak." "Everyone must realize that we simply have no more room for holding bad elections, because this time the damage to our people would be not only moral, but material," the paper quoted him on October 19 as saying. President Robert Kocharian for his part assured Armenians in his televized New Year's address to the nation that "I am sure [the elections] will be up to the mark. Free and fair elections should be a priority" for Armenia.
Yet even if this May's vote is perceived as meeting international standards for a free and fair election, the HHD's continued participation in government is not a foregone conclusion, but will be contingent on the overall division of votes.
At present, the HHD has four ministerial portfolios, none of them relating to the keys spheres of defense, security, and foreign policy. It also holds 11 seats in the 131-strong National Assembly, and Rustamian indicated on January 12 that it hopes to win at least that number of seats in the new parliament.
"We will not remain part of the government if the number of our parliamentary deputies does not enable us to influence the adoption of government decisions," he said. "For example, if two political forces are able to form a coalition without us, we will not join them just to increase their government's number of parliamentary seats. That is, we are not going to become the fifth wheel of any government."
Those comments echo the argument made in December 2006 by another senior HHD official, Hrant Markarian. Speaking in the northern town of Giumri at a celebration to mark the 116th anniversary of the party's foundation, Markarian stressed that a party that won just 11 percent of the vote should not be held responsible for all policies implemented by the coalition, yerkir.am reported on December 15.
Markarian said the HHD was "successful in national issues because we had the president's support. We were unsuccessful in democratic and social issues because we were alone. We were not the [whole] government, we were [only] a part of it.... It was not the government of the HHD."
Implicitly distancing the HHD still further from its coalition partners, Markarian called for "an organized and systematic fight" against such "terrible phenomena" as corruption and the shadow economy, and for economic policies that would address more effectively such social problems as poverty by substantially increasing pensions and the minimum wage.
Armenia: Turkish Businessman Pessimistic About Open Border
Together with several other Turkish experts, Soyak, who is co-chairman of the nongovernmental Turkish-Armenian Business Council (TABC), attended a conference inYerevan on January 13 organized by the Armenian International Policy Research Group (AIPRG) titled "The Social and Economic Consequences of Opening the Armenian-Turkish Border."
He told journalists in Yerevan on January 15 that he thinks that, out of solidarity with Azerbaijan, the Turkish government is unlikely to drop its main precondition for lifting the economic blockade it imposed on Armenia in 1993: the withdrawal of Armenian forces from districts of Azerbaijan bordering on the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh republic that they currently control.
"This was the reason why Turkey closed the border," Soyak told reporters in Yerevan, referring to the unresolved Karabakh conflict. "So unless there is movement or progress in this area, I don't see any green light from the Turkish side. But what I see at the same time on the Turkish side is a greater willingness than ever before to approach Armenia. They too are trying to find a way out," he added.
Successive governments in Ankara have adhered to this policy despite pressure from the United States and the European Union, both of which argue that normalization of Turkish-Armenian ties is essential for regional peace and stability.
The Armenian leadership likewise stands for the establishment of diplomatic relations and reopening of the land border between the two countries without any preconditions. Deputy Foreign Minister Aram Kirakosian reaffirmed Yerevan's position on the issue in a speech at the January 13 conference. He urged Turkey to act "impartially" toward all regional states and to "abandon its policy of excluding Armenia from regional projects."
Gul said Ankara insists on the idea of setting up a commission of Turkish and Armenian historians that was floated by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a 2005 letter to President Robert Kocharian.
Kocharian effectively turned down the proposal, however, saying that this and other problems hampering Turkish-Armenian rapprochement should first be tackled by the two governments. Armenia and its worldwide diaspora believe that the 1915-18 killing of some 1.5 million Armenians in Ottoman Turkey is a proven fact that cannot be disputed by historians. They see the Turkish offer as a ploy designed to scuttle greater international recognition of the genocide.
Soyak told the international conference in Yerevan that some of his contacts in the Turkish Foreign Ministry acknowledge that Ankara's reluctance to open its border with Armenia constitutes an obstacle to resolving the existing problems in bilateral relations. He said it also amounts to "punishing" eastern Anatolia, the region that stands to benefit most from any resumption of cross-border trade, Noyan Tapan reported on January 16.
Soyak nonetheless concluded that prospects for opening the border are remote. "It's been almost 10 years since we started work on opening the border," he said of the TABC. "We hoped then that the border would open next month. We now want to [see it] open before we die."
Soyak also said that the proposed railway linking the eastern Turkish city of Kars with the Azerbaijani capital Baku, via Akhalkalaki and Tbilisi, was shortsighted without a complementary move to restore the existing rail link between Kars and the northern Armenian city of Giumri, an option long advocated by the Armenian government.