Publication: Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 57

Karabakh president Robert Kocharian announced yesterday that he has been appointed prime minister of Armenia by Armenian president Levon Ter-Petrosian. The Karabakh legislature and government recommended that Kocharian accept the appointment and empowered Karabakh prime minister Leonard Petrosian to serve as acting President pending new presidential elections.

Kocharian, born in 1954 in Stepanakert and a trained electrical engineer, is a founding father of the movement in Karabakh for unification with Armenia. Active in the paramilitary underground since 1988, Kocharian served as Karabakh Defense Committee Chairman in 1991-94, was elected President in 1994 by the legislature, and was returned to office in November 1996 by an overwhelming popular vote in an election deemed invalid by all OSCE countries except Armenia. The prime ministership of Armenia is not his first political post in Yerevan. Kocharian was elected a deputy to the first post-Communist parliament of Armenia in 1990 despite being a resident of Karabakh and thus of Azerbaijan. (Noyan-Tapan, Western agencies, March 20)

The post of Prime Minister of Armenia became vacant when Armen Sarksian was hospitalized in February and formally resigned on March 6 after only four months in that post. Official secrecy and changing stories regarding Sarksian’s medical condition added to signs of political differences between him and Ter-Petrosian.

In terms of internal Armenian politics, the appointment of Kocharian looks like a masterstroke by the unpopular Ter-Petrosian. Widely criticized for having rigged last September’s presidential election and for representing narrow clan interests, the President has sought a unifying figure apt to conciliate the opposition and defuse social protests. Karabakh is the issue that can unify Armenia’s body politic, and Kocharian is ideally suited to be a conciliation symbol. Sarksian himself attempted to play that role but seemed to be held on a short leash by Ter-Petrosian.

Internationally, however, the appointment can seriously complicate the negotiations to resolve the Karabakh conflict. Not only Azerbaijan but also the mediating countries will probably see it as another step toward Armenia-Karabakh unification in defiance of OSCE and UN resolutions. Technically, Kocharian is considered a citizen of Azerbaijan and the leader of Karabakh’s Armenian community in the OSCE-sponsored negotiations on Karabakh autonomy within Azerbaijan. Baku and the OSCE may, however, choose to refer to precedents in which Yerevan appointed foreign citizens — notably Armenian-Americans — to senior government posts.