Armenian Authorities, Opposition Brace For Postelection Showdown
Radical opposition parties have warned that they will convene mass public protests in the event that the vote, like previous ballots, is perceived as less than free and fair, while President Robert Kocharian has warned the opposition that any attempt to "undermine political stability" will elicit an "appropriate response" from the authorities.
Of the 131 parliament mandates, 90 are to be distributed under the proportional system and the remaining 41 in single-mandate constituencies. Initially, 27 parties and one electoral bloc applied to participate under the proportional system, fielding a combined total of some 1,300 candidates.
Twenty-four parties and one bloc were formally registered, of which two -- the Armenian Pan-National Movement of former President Levon Ter-Petrossian and the pro-Kocharian Progressive Party of Armenia -- have since withdrawn, lowering to 1,245 the total number of candidates competing under the party-list system. Of the 173 candidates who applied for registration in the single-mandate constituencies, 119 remain on the ballot.
Candidates, voters and outside observers alike all fear that the May 12 ballot will prove a carbon copy of earlier elections that were marred by gross procedural violations, including multiple voting, ballot-box stuffing, and the falsification of election protocols.
In light of that flawed track record, repeated affirmations by senior officials, including Kocharian, Sarkisian, and Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, that every effort will be made to ensure that the vote conforms to European standards for a free, fair, and democratic ballot have met with widespread skepticism.
Kocharian reacted with anger to the publication last month of what was billed as the transcript of a conversation between former Parliament Speaker Artur Baghdasarian, chairman of the opposition Orinats Yerkir party, and a British diplomat, in which Baghdasarian asked whether the EU could issue a statement protesting ongoing efforts to secure an election victory for parties that support Kocharian. Kocharian slammed that request as tantamount to "treason."
But widespread fears that the ballot will again be rigged have only been compounded by confident predictions from leading members of Sarkisian's HHK. For example, Galust Sahakian, who heads the HHK faction in the outgoing legislature, was quoted by Noyan Tapan on May 2 as saying that the party will receive an absolute majority.
Unlike the elections of 1999 and 2003, however, this time around the HHK faces serious competition in the form of the Prosperous Armenia (Bargavach Hayastan) party established in late 2005 by wealthy businessman Gagik Tsarukian, a close associate of Kocharian. Prosperous Armenia boasts several hundred thousand members, and its regional activists have reportedly been distributing humanitarian aid on a massive scale to impoverished villagers in a bid to win votes.
Neck And Neck
A recent opinion poll suggests the HHK and Prosperous Armenia are neck and neck, with the former set to garner some 34 percent of the vote, compared with 32 percent for the latter, according to Noyan Tapan on May 2. The same poll gives the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD), the HHK's junior partner in government since 1999, 11.2 percent of the vote, compared with 12.8 percent for Baghdasarian's opposition Orinats Yerkir (Law-Based State) party, and 7 percent for Artashes Geghamian's opposition National Accord Party.
Also expected to surmount the 5-percent minimum required to win parliamentary representation under the proportional system are the Zharangutiun (Heritage) party of U.S.-born former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian; the People's Party of Armenia (HZhK) headed by Stepan Demirchian; the United Labor Party (the third member of the present coalition government); and Dashink (Alliance), which is headed by Samvel Babayan, the former commander of the Nagorno-Karabakh armed forces. RFE/RL's Armenian Service noted on May 10, however, that attendance at rallies organized by Demirchian's HZhK has been far lower than during the 2003 election campaign.
Zharangutiun Chairman Hovannisian predicted on May 4 that if the vote is truly free and fair, his party will win a plurality of votes, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Hovannisian did not exclude the possibility of aligning with three radical groups that have vowed to mobilize voters to protest any attempt to rig the outcome of the vote in favor of the HHK.
Those three -- former Prime Minister Aram Sargsian's Hanrapetutiun (Republic) party, Aram Karapetian's Nor Zhamanakner (New Times), and the Impeachment bloc that includes former Ter-Petrossian allies -- told thousands of supporters at rallies in Yerevan on May 3 and 9 that they will convene mass protests in the event that the election falls short of democratic standards.
Sargsian assured supporters that "if they again ignore our will, if they trample on our rights, if they again look down on us..., we will rise up and gather in this square on May 13.... We will march ahead of you, we won't hesitate, we won't run away." Orinats Yerkirleader Baghdasarian has likewise pledged that "if the elections are bad, we will revolt and struggle for the people's rights," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on May 10.
Claims And Counterclaims
Opposition leaders claimed that police used truncheons and tear gas against some participants in the May 9 rally, but senior police official Major General Ararat Mahtesian denied that on May 10, saying that it was opposition supporters who used tear gas against police. Mahtesian also accused the leaders of the three groups of deliberately provoking a violent response, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported.
Also on May 10, leading HHK member Eduard Sharmazanov warned that "freedom ends where the law begins" and that the authorities have the right to "maintain order," Noyan Tapan reported. Artur Rustamian of the HHD for his part commented on May 10 that some political forces appear to be less interested in winning seats in parliament than in "inflaming the postelection atmosphere."
Summing up the election campaign on May 10, President Kocharian stressed that it is "extremely important that the new parliament and president be able to cooperate. If there is a confrontation between these two institutions, it is the people who will suffer." Kocharian expressed the hope that the HHK will win "a weighty presence" in the new legislature that would enable the party to "continue reforms with renewed vigor," and that BH and the HHD would have "a serious presence."
He made it clear that he would prefer to see only what he described as "the constructive opposition" winning parliamentary representation. Whether or not opposition parties take to the streets of Yerevan in protest on May 13 will depend to a large extent on the degree to which local election commission interpret Kocharian's comment as an order, rather than as a hypothetical preference.
Chechnya: The Turning Point That Wasn't
Maskhadov proved unable to rein in renegade former fellow commanders who in the summer of 1999 invaded neighboring Daghestan and proclaimed an independent North Caucasus Islamic republic, and in October 1999 Russia launched a new war against Chechnya in the name of stamping out Islamic terrorism.
In an April 23 interview with RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, Ivan Rybkin discussed at length and in detail the preparations for and consequences of the signing of the May 1997 agreements, in which he played a key role as secretary of the Russian Security Council.
In October 1996, Rybkin took over that position from Aleksandr Lebed, who had negotiated and signed with Maskhadov the cease-fire agreement ending the war and the subsequent Khasavyurt accord on structuring future relations between Chechnya and the federal center.
Rybkin told RFE/RL that he still considers the signing of the treaty on peace and bilateral relations a positive development. He recalled that the signing was preceded by what he termed "months of painstaking work" by the two delegations, dismissing the view that it was enough, as in Russian fairy tales, "to stamp your feet twice and clap your hands twice" and all problems were solved as if by magic.
Rybkin himself headed the Russian negotiating team, which also included his deputies Boris Berezovsky, Colonel General Leonid Mayorov, and Boris Agapov; Nationalities Minister Vyacheslav Mikhaylov; State Duma first deputy speaker Aleksandr Shokhin; and high-level Russian Foreign Ministry officials.
The Chechen team comprised Akhmed Zakayev, Movladi Udugov, Khozh-Akhmet Yerikhanov, and Said-Khasan Abumuslimov.
Zakayev too stressed the atmosphere of trust established between the two sides. He told RFE/RL that successive rounds of talks to negotiate the text of the treaty and accompanying intergovernmental agreement took place partly in Ingushetia, at the country residence of President Ruslan Aushev (a close ally of Maskhadov), partly in Chechnya, and partly in Russia.
Rybkin did not explain why it took the negotiating teams six months to agree on a peace treaty that comprised just a few sentences. On April 1, 1997, five months after the negotiations got under way, Maskhadov was quoted as telling journalists the talks were deadlocked because the Russian side was attempting to link political and economic issues and objected to the term "peace treaty" as implying that Chechnya was an independent state.
Zakayev explained to RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service that one reason the negotiating process took so long was because Russia refused to recognize the Chechen Declaration of Independence. As Russian law and Chechen law were at odds, Zakayev continued, there was no legal basis on which to structure bilateral relations, and the treaty was therefore intended to serve as such a basis.
'Accomplish The Impossible'
Zakayev said that initially, despite their agreement to "try to accomplish the impossible" and reconcile their conflicting view points, both sides were reluctant to give ground, but that in the end Moscow agreed to recognize Chechen independence, even though the logical next step -- the establishing of formal diplomatic relations -- was never taken.
The final document was indeed entitled "Peace Treaty and Principles of Inter-relations." The two sides agreed to abjure forever the use of force or threat of force in resolving disputed issues, and to build bilateral relations "on the generally recognized principles and norms of international law." To that extent, the treaty was a triumph for the Chechen side. The treaty was complemented by a longer (three to four pages) intergovernmental agreement signed the same day by Maskhadov and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.
Zakayev, who was present at the signing ceremony together with Maskhadov and Udugov, told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service that Yeltsin proposed at the last minute altering the planned text, and Maskhadov agreed. Yeltsin, who according to Zakayev disliked Lebed intensely, insisted on striking out from the preamble the words "developing the Khasavyurt accords." That phrase was crossed through in the Russian text -- the one that Yeltsin and Maskhadov signed -- but not in the Chechen translation of the treaty.
Maskhadov was quoted as saying at the May 12 ceremony that the treaty would deprive unnamed hardliners in Moscow "of any basis to create ill-feeling between Moscow and Grozny" and thus heralded a new political era for "Russia, the North Caucasus, and the whole Muslim world." And the signing on May 12 was greeted with jubilation in Grozny.
But that optimism soon proved misplaced. Russia failed to provide funding from the federal budget to restore Chechnya's war-shattered infrastructure and create jobs for the thousands of demobilized former fighters. Some resistance groups took to crime, while Maskhadov's rival Shamil Basayev and other prominent field commanders systematically set about undermining his authority. Zakayev told RFE/RL that although on May 12 he was optimistic that the treaty would facilitate the albeit long and difficult process of cementing a new chapter in Russian-Chechen relations, within three to four months he began to have doubts.
In February 1998, Yeltsin named Rybkin deputy prime minister responsible for CIS affairs, and his designated successor as Security Council secretary, Andrei Kokoshin, announced that the council would no longer deal with Chechnya, responsibility for which, Rybkin explained to RFE/RL, was offloaded onto Ramazan Abdulatipov in his capacity as a deputy prime minister. But Abdulatipov had no staff other than two secretaries, which limited what he could accomplish.
Precisely when Chechnya reached the point of no return after which a new war became inevitable remains a matter for debate. Nor is it clear when, by whom, and in what circumstances the decision was made in Moscow to plan for new hostilities. What is undeniable, however, is that unlike Yeltsin, President Vladimir Putin consistently ruled out the option of negotiations with Maskhadov to end the ongoing resistance and reach a new political settlement that would give Chechnya "conditional independence" under an international administration. Rybkin has challenged Putin repeatedly, in an open letter in June 2002 and again in interviews with RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service in August 2005 and June 2006, to "start peace talks or resign."
Instead, Putin chose to delegate to hand-picked Chechen quislings responsibility first for terrorizing the Chechen civilian population into acquiescence and then for planning and overseeing the reconstruction process. The adoption in a referendum in April 2003 of a new constitution affirming that the Chechen Republic is a subject of the Russian Federation paved the way for elections for a new parliament (to replace that elected in 1997) and for the post of pro-Moscow republic head.
Meanwhile, the Chechen resistance quietly expanded its presence across the North Caucasus, liaising with and providing training and financial backing for militant jamaats in Daghestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Karachayevo-Cherkessia. Those groups have launched two major assaults on Russian police and security facilities, in Ingushetia in June 2004 and Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, in October 2005.
New Leader, New Fronts
In May 2005, Maskhadov's successor as president, Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev, announced that the resistance will no longer be bound by the constraints imposed by Maskhadov to confine military operations to the territory of Chechnya, and he appointed a series of amirs, or commanders, for the various North Caucasus sectors.
One year later, veteran commander Doku Umarov, who in turn succeeded Sadulayev in June 2006 as president and resistance commander, announced the creation of resistance fronts in the Volga and Urals regions. Those groups have already targeted a key gas-export pipeline, and say they plan to do so again.
In short, while the treaty of May 12, 1997, was intended to create a legal basis for equitable and mutually beneficial relations between Moscow and Chechnya, the lack of commitment on both sides to implementing and complying with its provisions has not only cost up to 100,000 lives and wreaked unimaginable devastation: it has served as the catalyst for a broader wave of Islamic militancy that may prove impossible to isolate and contain.
Chechnya: Nothing To Celebrate
When the news came of the peace agreement in 1997, people weren't out on the streets singing and dancing. Although it was a glimmer of hope, there was very little to celebrate. It was the end of a bloody and painful war, which inflicted huge suffering and losses on the Chechen people.
My first thought when I heard about the signing of the peace agreement was whether this was finally the end of years and years of hostilities between Russia and Chechnya. Is this a new page in history? Or is it simply a ploy, a temporary solution to the problem?
Many Chechens were skeptical of the peace agreement. There's been a very long and difficult history of relations between Russia and Chechnya. In Tsarist times, the Russians fought against Chechens and Caucasians for several decades.
Because of this historical burden, a lot of people were concerned whether Russia was going to respect the agreements. When I heard about the signing I remembered what Winston Churchill once said: " I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."
There was a fear in the back of many people's minds that as soon as Russia gets stronger, as soon as the economy improves, things might turn nasty.
There were two big factions, both inside the Russian leadership and in Chechnya: the peaceniks, and what we may call the "war faction." Many people knew that the faction that advocated violence was still quite strong.
History proved them right, as a couple of years later the situation changed radically. It was clear by 1999 that Russia would never let Chechnya become independent.
Now, the prognosis is not very promising. It is clear that the "siloviki," the powerful faction of former security-service personnel, are consolidating their power in Russia. There are still voices calling for a peaceful solution in the Caucasus -- but those voices are mostly abroad.(The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.)
Azerbaijani President Claims Armenia Has Made Key Concessions On Karabakh
But both Armenian Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian and Foreign Ministry spokesman Vladimir Karapetian immediately denied that Yerevan's negotiating position has changed in any way.
Explaining his rationale for violating the unwritten agreement that details of the peace process should not be made public until all aspects are finalized, Aliyev claimed that the Armenian side has already violated that agreement by distorting the nature of the agreements reached to date, zerkalo.az reported on May 5.
But Aliyev's account of what has been agreed to differs considerably from the "basic principles" for resolving the conflict proposed to the conflict sides last year by the co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group, which since the summer of 1992 has sought to mediate a settlement.
Those "basic principles" were posted on the website of the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan in June 2006, and continue to serve as the nucleus for the ongoing peace talks.
Aliyev said that Armenia has agreed both to the "phased" approach to resolving the conflict and to a withdrawal from the seven districts of Azerbaijan bordering on the unrecognized republic of Nagorno-Karabakh that it has controlled since 1993, including the strategic Lacin corridor linking Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia and the broader Kelbacar district located between the two entities.
Aliyev said a "general agreement" has been reached on the Armenian withdrawal, which will take place step-by-step over a period of several years.
At Armenia's insistence, Aliyev continued, Baku has dropped its opposition to the deployment of an international peacekeeping force, but the duration of that deployment will be limited.
Once all seven districts are liberated, Aliyev continued, the Azerbaijani displaced persons will return to their abandoned homes, after which the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh vis-a-vis the central Azerbaijani government will be determined in a manner that preserves the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan.
He said that future status would encompass broader autonomy than the region had prior to 1988 as an autonomous oblast within the former Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. Those Armenians who want a greater degree of self-determination are free to leave Karabakh and resettle in Armenia, the daily echo-az.com quoted Aliyev as saying.
Aliyev's claim that Armenia has agreed to the "phased" approach to resolving the conflict is at odds with the "basic principles" made public 10 months ago. Those principles point to a "phased-package" approach, meaning that the various elements of a settlement are all addressed and resolved in one comprehensive peace agreement, although not all implemented simultaneously.
But the "basic principles" do indeed provide for the gradual redeployment of Armenian troops from Azerbaijani territories around Nagorno-Karabakh, with unspecified "special modalities" for the Kelbacar and Lacin districts. International peacekeepers would then be deployed on the demilitarized liberated territories. Finally, the "basic principles" stipulated that at some unspecified future date, a referendum among the population of the region would be held on the future status of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Yerevan, however, has always insisted that the issue of Lacin and Kelbacar must be addressed separately from that of the other five occupied districts. Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian told journalists on June 29, 2006, that "there will be a [Lacin] corridor linking Nagorno Karabakh to Armenia." He added that Armenia will insist that that corridor "has the same status" as Karabakh.
Oskanian also explained that due to security considerations, Kelbacar can be returned to Azerbaijani control only after the referendum on Nagorno-Karabakh's future status. In a statement on June 26, 2006, pegged to the publication of the "basic principles," the Armenian Foreign Ministry claimed that the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan have agreed on holding such a referendum.
The Karabakh leadership, however, has argued against any such plebiscite on the grounds that it would call into question the legality of referendum held on December 10, 1991, in which the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh voted overwhelmingly for independence from the then-Azerbaijan SSR, while the Azerbaijani minority boycotted the vote. Aliyev on May 4 made no reference to any future referendum.
In Yerevan on May 4, Armenian Prime Minister Sarkisian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that "I don't know what goals the president of Azerbaijan is pursuing, but it is known to everyone that we have principles and that those principles have not changed."
Armenian Foreign Ministry spokesman Karapetian for his part focused on Aliyev's implicit threat that after 10 years of fruitless peace talks, Azerbaijan would be justified in seeking to bring Nagorno-Karabakh back under its control by military force, and that thanks to the recent huge increases in its military spending, Azerbaijan's armed forces are capable of winning a new war. Karapetian construed that "militant rhetoric" as a reflection of weakness.
Elections In Armenia
There are several possible, interrelated reasons why Aliyev should have chosen to sow confusion over the status and key points of the Karabakh peace talks just one week before the May 12 Armenian parliamentary elections. Many observers, both in Yerevan and abroad, believe that a victory in that ballot for Prime Minister Sarkisian's Republican Party of Armenia would pave the way for Sarkisian's election next year to succeed incumbent Robert Kocharian as president of Armenia. Kocharian's second term expires in March 2008, and he is barred by the constitution from seeking a third term. (Aliyev's first presidential term expires in October 2008, but his reelection is considered a given.)
Kocharian and Sarkisian were both born and raised in Karabakh and participated in the 1992-93 war. Sarkisian could thus be expected to continue unchanged the tough policy Kocharian has espoused for the past eight years regarding the timing of an Armenian withdrawal from the occupied districts and the future status of Karabakh.
Aliyev may well have been hoping to compound the pressure on the Armenian leadership in the run-up to the ballot -- although it is by no means clear whether, in the unlikely event that the opposition launches mass protests at ballot rigging that evolve into a spontaneous revolution that topples the present Armenian leadership, the opposition would subsequently adopt a softer line on resolving the conflict.
Alternatively, Aliyev may simply have been hoping to weaken the Kocharian leadership, whether or not as a prelude to launching a new military offensive.
Moreover, Aliyev on May 4 described as a major diplomatic victory for Azerbaijan the recent double revision of the wording of the U.S. State Department's annual report on human rights. According to the initial, and final, version of that report, "Armenia continues to occupy the Azerbaijani territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding Azerbaijani territories." The Armenian leadership protested that formulation, which was duly changed, but the initial wording was restored in late April after Baku pulled out of high-level security talks in Washington in protest. Aliyev may have been seeking to capitalize on that diplomatic victory.
Speaking at Yerevan State University on April 27, President Kocharian referred to preparations under way for a meeting in St. Petersburg on June 10 between himself and President Aliyev to resume talks on resolving the Karabakh conflict, Noyan Tapan reported. Whether Aliyev's May 4 comments will torpedo those plans is not yet clear.