Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 49

After months of passivity and step-by-step retreat before his rivals for power, President Robert Kocharian is at last demonstrating that he can still hold his own and perhaps even go on the counteroffensive. Last week, antipresidential military prosecutors extended by another two months the investigative detention of two senior presidential supporters, namely, Kocharian’s top adviser Alexan Harutiunian and the deputy director of National Television, Harutiun Harutiunian. The military investigators want to implicate the Harutiunians (who are not related) in the October 27 terrorist carnage, and it is commonly assumed in Yerevan that the investigation aims to get at, or at least intimidate, Kocharian at the behest of his military rivals in the camp of Prime Minister Aram Sarkisian.

On March 2, lawyers for the Harutiunians held a news conference which received top billing on National Television, one of Kocharian’s few remaining bastions. The two lawyers–who are among the country’s top barristers–obliquely questioned the motives and integrity of the investigation against their clients. The next day, Kocharian’s rivals held their news conference with the participation of Sarkisian, the top leaders of the governing Republican Party and People’s Party and their parliamentary groups, several ministers, army generals, the chief military prosecutor, and leaders of Yerkrapah, the paramilitary organization closely linked with the Republican Party and the prime minister. In terms designed to embarrass Kocharian before the country, his rivals demanded that the president dismiss two of his closest supporters from their posts–namely, National Television Director Tigran Naghdalian, for having put the lawyers’ news conference on the air; and Presidential Chief of Staff Serge Sarkisian, a former national security minister and internal affairs general (unrelated to Aram), who is generally ranked as the president’s most capable aide. The news conference was widely interpreted as an ultimatum to Kocharian.

On March 6, Kocharian surprised his rivals and the country with an unusually effective counterattack on television. Rejecting the ultimatum in nearly disdainful terms, Kocharian cast himself as a defender of the rule of law, of freedom of speech and press–against the attempt to impose political censorship over television–and of the separation of powers. He also managed in his speech to hold the Sarkisian government responsible before the country for the unrelieved economic crisis.

In the ensuing political polemics, the press sided strongly and almost unanimously with Kocharian in denouncing his rivals’ attempt to censor the media. The press, furthermore, grew more vigorous in questioning or downright impugning the motives and methods of the military-led investigation into the October 27 massacre. In the parliament and body politic, the polarization intensified, with virtually all groups forced to define or reaffirm their positions. The Communist Party came out strongly in support of the Sarkisian and the pro-Russian military.

Kocharian’s support remains limited to three small parties: the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaksutiun, the Country of Laws party under the control of Serge Sarkisian, and the Right and Accord bloc controlled by Karabakh’s General Samvel Babaian. This particular configuration is particularly inauspicious from the standpoint of those who wish Armenia to negotiate with Azerbaijan a mutually acceptable compromise over Karabakh. Those three pro-Kocharian parties happen to espouse hardline nationalist positions on Karabakh and on the disposition of territories seized from Azerbaijan beyond Karabakh.

On March 6, in his boldest move yet, Kocharian signed a decree which–if implemented–would give him power to control the military hierarchy. Citing his constitutional status as commander in chief of the armed forces, the president decreed that it is for him alone to: (1) establish the list of military posts to be held by officers with the rank of general; (2) appoint generals to such posts, remove them from those posts, and cashier them from military service; and (3) appoint and remove the department heads in the Defense Ministry. Until now, the president’s status as commander in chief had been subjected to a narrower interpretation: The president would only appoint the defense minister and his deputies, leaving all other military posts to be filled by the defense minster’s order. Kocharian’s decree clearly aims to limit the authority of the current defense minister, Lieutenant-General Vagharshak Harutiunian, a key supporter of Aram Sarkisian and exponent of pro-Moscow elements in Yerevan. The military hierarchy and the Sarkisian camp will probably resist the implementation of this decree, setting the stage for a new round of confrontation (Noyan-Tapan, Snark, Armenpress, Armenian Television, Respublika Armeniya, Azg, March 3-7).

The Monitor is a publication of the Jamestown Foundation. It is researched and written under the direction of senior analysts Jonas Bernstein, Vladimir Socor, Stephen Foye, and analysts Ilya Malyakin, Oleg Varfolomeyev and Ilias Bogatyrev. If you have any questions regarding the content of the Monitor, please contact the foundation. If you would like information on subscribing to the Monitor, or have any comments, suggestions or questions, please contact us by e-mail at pubs@jamestown.org, by fax at 301-562-8021, or by postal mail at The Jamestown Foundation, 4516 43rd Street NW, Washington DC 20016. Unauthorized reproduction or redistribution of the Monitor is strictly prohibited by law. Copyright (c) 1983-2002 The Jamestown Foundation Site Maintenance by Johnny Flash Productions