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Caucasus Report: May 31, 2007

Armenia Coalition Talks Enter Third Week

By Liz Fuller

Serzh Sarkasian speaking at a campaign rally in Yerevan earlier this month

May 31, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Almost three weeks after the May 12 parliamentary elections from which Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian's Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) emerged the clear winner with 64 of the total 131 mandates, it remains unclear which other parties will be represented in the next government.

Participants say the ongoing talks between the HHK and its junior partner in government since 2003, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD), focus not on the number of ministerial portfolios the HHD would receive, but on increasing its input into the formulation of government policy.

But the real bone of contention may be whether the HHD is prepared to support Sarkisian's candidacy in the presidential election due early next year.

Sarkisian may be reluctant to include the HHD in the new government without a binding pledge of support for his 2008 presidential bid.

In his first public comments after the release of the preliminary election returns, Sarkisian told journalists in Yerevan on May 16 that "the more political forces are included in the government, the more trusted that government will be."

He added, without elaboration, "we are ready to cooperate with any political force, with any individual."

What Kind Of Coalition?

Meeting with election observers one week later, he repeated that the HHK is ready "to draw capable parliamentary and extra-parliamentary forces into the government," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. But at least one senior HHK member has said the new government will not be a coalition in the classic sense of the word.

Tentative talks on the composition of the new cabinet took place on May 18, according to the opposition newspaper "Hayk" that has ties to former President Levon Ter-Petrossian's Armenian Pan-National Movement. How many subsequent rounds of talks have taken place is unclear.

Sarkisian told journalists on May 28 that "negotiations are still going on" with the HHD, which has 16 parliament mandates, and the Bargavach Hayastan (Prosperous Armenia, BH) party headed by wealthy businessman Gagik Tsarukian, which is the second-largest parliament faction with 25 mandates.

Two top HHD members, Armen Rustamian and Hrant Markarian, similarly told journalists after a two-hour meeting on May 30 with President Robert Kocharian that negotiations on forming a new government are continuing. Rustamian confirmed that "we have not yet reached agreement on a number of issues."

Sticking Points Remain

Media reports have generally attributed the delay in reaching agreement on the new cabinet on imputed disagreements over which party should obtain how many, and which, ministerial portfolios, with some analysts suggesting that the sticking point is the HHD's desire to increase the number of ministerial posts it controls, possibly by acquiring the defense portfolio.

In the outgoing government, the HHD headed the ministries of Agriculture, Education, Health Care, and Social Welfare. Under the Armenian Constitution, however, it is the prerogative of the president, not the prime minister, to name the ministers of defense and foreign affairs. And some observers have pointed out that Russia is likely to object to the appointment as defense minister of anyone whose pro-Moscow credentials are perceived to be less than impeccable.

Outgoing Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, who has served in that post since April 1998, told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on May 28 that he has not yet received an invitation to join the new government.

On May 23, Rustamian said the HHD received "various kinds of offers" of ministerial posts, but declined to be more specific. He said a decision would be made "very soon." One week later, on May 30, Rustamian denied that the disagreements between the HHK and the HHD center on specific ministerial posts. What is at issue, he said, is the HHD's "new proposals and approaches" to the functioning of the new government.

In an interview the previous day with RFE/RL's Armenian Service, Markarian similarly denied the HHD has already accepted an offer of three ministerial portfolios, and explained that the "negotiations center on more important issues."

He said the HHD cannot be "bribed by a few portfolios to join a government as an appendage," but will agree to enter a putative coalition only after "ascertaining policies, rights, and responsibilities." Markarian further denied explicitly that the HHD is insisting on naming the new defense minister.

Looking Toward The Presidency

But the most likely explanation for the protracted delay in forming a new government is Sarkisian's recent public confirmation that he intends to run for president in the ballot due in early 2008. The Armenian Constitution bars incumbent President Kocharian from seeking a third consecutive term. On May 29, Markarian said the HHD is reluctant to commit its members to supporting Sarkisian's candidacy, but he declined to say whether the party plans to field its own candidate.

On May 30, Rustamian said that he and Markarian did not discuss the 2008 presidential ballot during their meeting with Kocharian, and that the HHD will nominate its own presidential candidate.

"That also means retaining our political independence," he said. "That is the most important thing for any political force."

But Sarkisian, for his part, may be reluctant to include the HHD in the new government without a binding pledge of support for his presidential bid.

BH has not yet made any public statement about joining the new government, while a member of the Zharangutiun (Heritage) party headed by U.S.-born former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian told Noyan Tapan on May 22 that the party has not yet been invited to join talks on forming a new cabinet.

Date For Azerbaijani Presidential Ballot Confirmed

By Liz Fuller
May 30, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Central Election Commission Chairman Mazahir Panahov announced on May 22 that the presidential election due next year will take place on the precise date stipulated by the constitution: the third day of the third week of October (October 15, 2008).

The ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP) is certain to nominate incumbent Ilham Aliyev for a second term. But it appears unlikely at this juncture that the fractured Azerbaijani opposition will close ranks and field a single candidate to challenge him.

The official results of the October 2003 presidential election gave Ilham Aliyev over 76 percent of the vote, thereby legalizing his succession to the post previously occupied by his father, Heydar Aliyev.

For months prior to that ballot, rival Azerbaijani opposition parties tried to reach agreement on nominating a single candidate to challenge the incumbent, but ultimately failed to do so.

Musavat Party leader Isa Qambar, who reportedly declined to withdraw his candidacy and ended up a distant second with just under 14 percent of the vote, subsequently claimed that the results were falsified and that he was the legal winner with some 60 percent of the vote.

Election Violations

International observers conceded that the vote was not free and fair, but qualified their criticism with the caveat that the egregious procedural violations they witnessed were unlikely to have been the decisive factor in Ilham Aliyev's election.

Qambar was one of several prominent oppositionists who boycotted the 1998 presidential ballot, in which Heydar Aliyev garnered 76 percent of the vote and Etibar Mammadov of the opposition Azerbaijan National Independence Party (AMIP) 11.6 percent.

In the weeks and months following the 2003 elections, political observers debated at length whether veteran opposition leaders such as Qambar and Mammadov should be written off as a spent force in whom the electorate no longer has confidence, and if so, which opposition figures might emerge, either individually or aligned in a new movement, to take their place.

Given that lack of mutual trust, tactical differences, and the personal ambitions of individual party leaders, the chances of even a loose opposition alignment, let alone agreement on a single opposition candidate, look as bleak now as they did a decade ago.

Among those identified as possible leaders of a "new force" were Nazim Imanov, a longtime close associate of Mammadov who quit AMIP shortly after the election, and former presidential advisor Eldar Namazov.

Those two men were among several opposition political figures -- together with Mammadov and National Unity Movement leader Lale Sovket-Haciyeva -- who aligned in a bloc named Yeni Siyaset (New Thinking, aka YeS) to participate in the November 2005 parliamentary elections. Whether as a result of falsification or because its intellectually sophisticated program failed to appeal to rank and file voters, YeS won only two mandates in the 125-seat legislature which, as before, is dominated by YAP.

Despite successive election defeats and relentless harassment by the authorities, the Azerbaijani opposition remains divided, prey to mutual suspicion and enmity, and unable to agree on tactics.

Musavat, one of three parties that formed the Azadliq (Liberty) bloc to participate in the 2005 parliamentary election, left it in early 2006 after deciding its deputies would participate in the work of the new legislature, while its partners, the progressive wing of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP), the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan (DPA) and Sovket-Haciyeva's National Unity Movement, decided to boycott the new legislature.

Two veteran opposition parties have likewise fallen victim to internal feuding that led to the split of AMIP split into two rival components in early 2006, and of the DPA in early 2007. That latter division left Sardar Calaloglu heading a party that still goes under the DPA name, while the erstwhile DPA leader, exiled former parliament speaker Rasul Quliyev, recently founded a new party named Open Society.

Cynics may argue that any such realignment of opposition forces is to all intents and purposes irrelevant in a quasi-authoritarian political system in which the opposition's parliamentary representation is minimal, and its freedom to communicate with voters, either by staging rallies or through the official media, is greatly curtailed.

Divide And Conquer

The Azerbaijani leadership nonetheless seeks relentlessly to capitalize on divisions within the opposition, adopting different approaches in its dealings with different parties and individual politicians.

Thus Musavat, whose deputies attend parliament sessions, has received permission to stage protests in Baku against the price hikes announced in January 2007 (albeit at venues selected by the city authorities, not of the party's choosing), while the AHCP, which continues to boycott parliament proceedings, is refused permission to convene analogous protests.

The tougher stance taken with regard to the AHCP could also signal a perception that Qambar is no longer regarded as a serious political figure, in contrast to AHCP leader Ali Kerimli, who for the past nine months has been refused permission to leave Azerbaijan and travel abroad.

Whether that differentiated approach is part of a broader and carefully crafted strategy is difficult to say; indeed, different factions within the Azerbaijani leadership may have widely diverging views on whether and how to neutralize or sideline the opposition in the run-up to next year's ballot. At present, however, the overall strategy appears to be one of granting opposition parties only the minimum freedom of maneuver commensurate with Azerbaijan's pledges to human rights organizations such as the Council of Europe, while ignoring any initiative originating with the opposition.

The most notable such initiative in recent months was a public proposal by DPA leader Calaloglu for a broad "dialogue" of all political forces. While President Aliyev responded by affirming that he supports any such dialogue, YAP, which holds all the aces, has not formally accepted the offer.

In light of those constraints on opposition activity, some opposition politicians have raised the possibility of boycotting the 2008 presidential ballot to highlight the lack of a "level playing field." Sovket-Haciyeva, for example, said in November 2006 she will not run as a candidate unless the political climate improves dramatically. But senior Musavat party member Arif Gacili on April 20 has ruled out a boycott, while Namazov told on May 14 that only those political figures with little faith in their own popularity would even consider the idea.

In an April 28 article published the online daily, independent political analyst Zardusht Alizade predicted that at least seven or eight opposition candidates will run in the 2008 ballot, including Qambar, Mammadov, Classical Popular Front Party leader Mirmahmud Miralioglu, and Iqbal Agazade, who is the chairman and sole parliament deputy from the Umid (Hope) party.

'Absurd' Idea

Asked whether he thinks it possible that this time around, the opposition will join forces behind a single candidate, Agazade told on April 10 that in light of opposition parties' chronic inability to close ranks, the very idea is "absurd."

Undaunted by past failures, some opposition parties nonetheless hope for closer cooperation in the run-up to the 2008 ballot. Following preliminary consultations over a period of at least several weeks, Namazov, Qamber, Akif Sahbazov of Open Society, a representative of Mammadov's AMIP, and Taraggi party leader Cingiz Damiroglu met recently to discuss the creation of a new opposition bloc, according to on May 24.

That online daily quoted Namazov as explaining that the objective of the nascent and as yet unnamed alliance is "to create an atmosphere that will make it possible to hold free and democratic elections in 2008."

In an earlier interview with (on May 14), Namazov had argued that the October 2008 presidential election "will be the most important election since Azerbaijan became independent, and the competition will be the most intense ever." At the same time, he affirmed that "if we set about organizing the right way, the opposition has a real chance of winning."

Asked whether the putative new alliance will field a single presidential candidate, Namazov pointed to the diverging approaches among opposition parties, noting that some advocate a boycott, others agreement on a single candidate, while a third school of thought proposes nominating several strong candidates with the aim of forcing a runoff. That latter approach, he said, would help to clarify which opposition party leader enjoys the greatest degree of support.

Azadliq Not Interested

From the outset, however, Azadliq has signaled that it is not interested in, and will not join, the proposed new bloc. Ali Aliyev, chairman of the Civic Development Party formed in early 2006 by defectors from AMIP, was quoted by on May 23 as saying that Azadliq's members see no need to do so, although they do not rule out cooperation "between a large number of blocs."

Aliyev and Kerimli of the AHCP did nonetheless attend a brainstorming session on May 25 organized by Quliyev's Open Society party that focused on ways to ensure that the 2008 election is free and democratic. But here again, participants' views diverged: while Quliyev argued that the UN should be asked to organize and monitor the ballot, other speakers, including National Democratic Party (aka Boz Gurd, Gray Wolves) leader Iskander Hamidov warned against either appealing to or relying on international organizations for support.

Liberal Party of Azerbaijan head Avez Temirkhan for his part highlighted the persistent mutual suspicion between rival parties. Affirming his own party's support for a united opposition front, he admitted to being "tormented by doubts" about the sincerity of analogous statements by other party leaders.

Given that lack of mutual trust, tactical differences, and the personal ambitions of individual party leaders, the chances of even a loose opposition alignment, let alone agreement on a single opposition candidate, look as bleak now as they did a decade ago.