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Robert Kocharian

When Robert Kocharian became President of the Republic of Armenia in 1998, many analysts and international observers hoped that peace with neighbouring Azerbaijan would follow. Although a ceasefire had been in effect since 1994, the frozen conflict between the two former Soviet Republics over the territory of Nagorno Karabakh threatened to destabilize the South Caucasus region and frustrate Western plans to exploit untapped oil reserves in the Caspian. However, the conflict still simmers. Attempts to broker a lasting peace were dashed in Paris and Bucharest earlier this year. Robert Sedrak Kocharian was actually born in Nagorno Karabakh – a territory then within Soviet Azerbaijan – in 1954. Rising through the ranks of the Communist Party, he became the leader of Nagorno-Karabakh in 1994. Then, in an extraordinary move, Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrossian invited Kocharian to Armenia to become Prime Minister in 1997. The following year Ter-Petrossian, who favoured a concessionary peace deal with Azerbaijan, was overthrown by Kocharian and the then Defence Minister Vazgen Sarkisyan in an internal coup. A cynical style of leadership quickly came to define Kocharian’s rule. He began by violating the Constitution and running for President in the 1998 elections, despite failing to fulfil the 10-year citizenship requirement. Before long he found himself in possession of a backdated Armenian passport. International observers cried foul, though diplomatic missions remained silent. They hoped Kocharian would take Armenia away from the legacy of the Soviet Union. Declaring that ‘the people are my party’, he skilfully crafted his image as someone who might reverse the predictable trend of post-Soviet leaders who milk their countries dry. ‘Our people have always faced hardships with the hope that they will go away with the passing year and the coming year will bring welfare,’ he said. Economic growth did indeed increase, largely due to reforms implemented by his predecessor and to direct financial assistance from the large Armenian diaspora. But corruption, assassination, murder and other abuses of power became synonymous with Kocharian’s style of leadership – particularly when it came to dealing with political opponents. In 1999 his powerful Defence Minister, Vazgen Sarkisian, teamed up with Armenia’s former Soviet leader, Karen Demirchian, to sweep the board in parliamentary elections. Less than six months later Sarkisian, Demirchian and several other political rivals were assassinated in the National Assembly. The only significant threat to Kocharian’s power was wiped out in one night, live on TV. Many Armenians continue to believe that Kocharian was responsible for the assassinations. In 2001 Kocharian visited a café to listen to jazz – another of the publicity stunts he favours. An Armenian, Poghos Poghosian, dared to greet him in an overly familiar manner and was beaten to death by presidential bodyguards in the café’s toilet. A British witness left the country in fear for his own safety. Only one bodyguard was prosecuted, receiving a two-year sentence for manslaughter. He was released after serving only six months and was later promoted. Kocharian turned his attention to the media. In April 2002, less than a year before he was due to seek re-election, he took Armenia’s main independent TV station, A1 Plus, off the air. Despite criticism from the Council of Europe and international media watchdogs, the station is still deprived of its broadcasting frequency. In April 2006 the Speaker of Parliament, Artur Baghdasarian, implied that Kocharian’s re-election in 2003 had been fraudulent, and was forced to resign. He had already jinxed his own political career by criticizing the heavy-handed repression of opposition protests in the capital, Yerevan, in 2004. Kocharian, apparently forgetting that the people were his party, sent Interior Ministry troops onto the streets to crush any dissent. Human Rights Watch protested, while the Council of Europe expressed astonishment at Armenia’s backward slide towards Soviet-style authoritarianism and repression. Since then, even the Council of Europe has discovered just how adept countries which border on dictatorship can be at pushing through European-style ‘reforms’. A referendum was held in November 2005 to amend the Constitution, bringing it into line with Council of Europe standards and obligations. Polling stations were empty across the country, yet the Government announced a record high voter turnout. While the amendments should have ushered in new democratic freedoms, they were instead used to remove opponents of the President. As for finding a peaceful settlement to the Karabakh conflict, that appears no closer than eight years ago. With Kocharian banned by the Constitution from running for a third term, Armenia waits to see who he hand-picks as his successor in 2008.

New Internationalist issue 396 magazine cover This article is from the December 2006 issue of New Internationalist.
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