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ARMENIA: POLITICAL PROSPECTS FOR 1998

By Hratch Tchilingirian

In late December, the OSCE Ministerial Council in Copenhagen marked
the end of Armenia's yearlong efforts of political recovery subsequent
to the Lisbon Summit in December 1996. Contrary to expectations and
due to Armenia's diplomatic efforts, the Ministerial Council did not
make any substantive declarations concerning Nagorno Karabakh. Armenia
characterized the outcome in Copenhagen as "positive," since it did
not create "additional obstacles" for the peace process in general.

The resolution of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict will continue to
dominate Armenia's political and foreign relations agenda in 1998. In
the aftermath of the Copenhagen conference, the sides to the conflict
and the Minsk Group mediators will concentrate their efforts on
restarting the negotiations process, which were halted in November
1996. The key obstacle to the resumption of the talks remains
Azerbaijan's refusal to recognize Nagorno Karabakh as a side to the
conflict without preconditions. The Azeri leadership has expressed
interest in direct talks with Stepanakert, but only if Nagorno
Karabakh , first accepts Azerbaijan's territorial integrity and
returns the "occupied territories." Karabakh Armenians argue that
direct talks should start without preconditions and without
predetermining the relationship of the one side with the other.  In
the short term, direct talks between Baku and Stepanakert remain
highly unlikely. And yet in the long term, no serious progress will be
made without full participation of the Karabakh Armenians in
determining their status.

According to Armenian Foreign Minister Alexander Arzoumanian at the
Copenhagen conference, a final and lasting resolution to the Karabakh
conflict is possible only if:

a) there is an agreement regulating the relations between Nagorno
Karabakh and Azerbaijan, whereby Karabakh is allowed to maintain full
control over its territory and its future;

b) security measures and guarantees are provided, which will
unequivocally eliminate the possibility of military actions and make
the peace process irreversible;

c) "geographic contouring" is allowed, to end Nogorno Karabakh's
enclave situation, that is, establishing permanent land link with
Armenia.

While it remains to be seen how Baku would react to these proposals,
Nagorno Karabakh is likely to have an influence on the presidential
elections due to take place in late 1998 in Azerbaijan. The efforts of
the Aliyev administration are likely to focus on establishing positive
public opinion regarding the resolution of the conflict. If the
negotiations drag on without concrete results, Aliyev may speak about
the "military option" during his campaign, a) to show his opponents
and the public his strength and determination to resolve the conflict
by all means, b) to calm public frustration over the impasse and build
favorable public opinion toward his administration, c) divert
attention from existing socio-economic difficulties of Azeri society.
However, it is unlikely that the threats of military attack will
materialize, at least in 1998, since they would not only result in
heavy losses for Azerbaijan, but, most important, would hurt its
booming oil-based economy.

The temptation for Azerbaijan is to maintain the ceasefire and
accelerate the oil-boom, justifying inaction by prosperity. The
difficulty this poses is that each year that passes further solidifies
Karabakh Armenians' de facto independence status.


FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Security concerns, prevention of possible diplomatic
pressures, energy supply, economic stability and development will be
the key determinants of Armenian foreign policy in 1998. In addition
to participation in multinational regional and international
structures, such as CIS, NATO, European Council, Armenia is likely to
continue establishing diplomatic relations within and outside the
region, with special attention given to the development of bilateral
and multilateral agreements. The Armenia-Greece-Iran relation is
likely to be strengthened with further mutually beneficial economic,
strategic and security arrangements.

Armenian-Russian relations, beyond the ratification and implementation
of military agreements, will focus on energy supply arrangements and
economic development. As for the Karabakh conflict and its resolution,
Russia is likely to continue to exercise its unpredictable political
influence on both sides to the conflict, determined by its own
changing geo-political and strategic interests in the South Caucasus.

The United States has allocated $87 million foreign aid for Armenia
for the fiscal year 1998. The Clinton administration's failure to
repeal Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act, a promise Clinton made
to President Aliyev of Azerbaijan, was a major victory for Armenia and
the Diaspora's Armenian lobby.  Congress not only preserved the ban on
direct U.S. government aid to Azerbaijan, it also approved $12.5
million for direct U.S. government aid to Nagorno Karabakh.

Armenia has created balanced relations with both Russia and the United
States, by neither antagonising nor fully accommodating them. This
policy is likely to continue.


DOMESTIC AFFAIRS: In 1998 the continuing factional rivalries and
splits in both the ruling and opposition parties will dominate
Armenia's domestic political affairs. As seen in the second half of
1997, virtually all the major political parties-- among them the
ruling Armenian National Movement, the Communist Party, the Armenian
Revolutionary Federation (ARF), the "National Unity" coalition (which
no longer exists), and various factions in the parliament--experienced
internal and external difficulties.

The dissentions and splits in the rank and file of the political
parties haven taken place in the context of several key factors. It
remains to be seen how these factors will effect Armenia's internal
politics.

a) All the opposition parties in Armenia have failed to develop a
broader political base and agenda. Especially since the last
presidential elections, they have made President Ter Petrossian and
his administration the sole focus of their political activities. Their
criticism of the government has been ineffective, with diminishing
public support, since they do not offer viable alternative political
or economic policies for Armenia. The scattered public support of the
opposition parties is not a recognition of their policies or ideology,
but is primarily an expression of dissatisfaction with the government.

b) The fact that there are 57 political parties and organizations for
a population of 3.7 million is an indication that no party would be
able to create large political and popular support in Armenia with
proper resources for effective functioning.  With a few exceptions,
most political parties in Armenia are made of small groups of
individuals or intellectuals who oppose the government or the
leadership of their former party or organization.

c) The opposition has not been able to reconcile itself to the fact
that the Ter Petrossian administration is there to stay for the next
four years.  Popular support for the opposition parties will depend on
whether they are able to develop new and creative ways to address
Armenia's problems and move beyond criticism of the government.  The
collapse of the "National Unity" coalition is only one example of this
problem.

d) There are indications that the Ter Petrossian administration is
cautiously opening itself for dialogue with the opposition, especially
with the ARF. The end of the "political trials", notwithstanding the
implications of the sentences, might pave the way for full restoration
of ARF in Armenia.

e) The government has learned to appear more open and accountable to
the public before major national policies are decided. To avoid
political rivalry and negative public opinion, the Ter Petrossian
administration has been discussing major political issues and
policies, such as those concerning Karabakh, in wider governmental and
parliamentary circles. This is a departure >from past practice where a
small group of presidential advisors and ministers determined
significant national policies.

It is likely that a number of opposition parties will persist in
trying to justify their existence by only criticizing the
government. However, a larger number of parties will try to play a
more constructive role in Armenian politics by reevaluating their
agenda and realigning their relations with the government.

Creating consensus for the resolution of the Karabakh conflict,
consolidation of political power, slow economic development,
continuing low standards of living are among some of the challenges
that Armenia faces in 1998. However, with relative victories at the
OSCE Ministerial Council in Copenhagen and in Congress, Armenia's
domestic political affairs and foreign relations will appear to be on
a positive footing to policy-makers in 1998.


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Hratch Tchilingirian, a PhD candidate at London School of Economics
and Political Science, is the  Director of the Zoryan Institute for
Contemporary Armenian Research and Documentation, Cambridge, MA and
Toronto.

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