AAA: Armenia This Week – 03/19/2004

Friday, March 19, 2004

President Robert Kocharian this week criticized Armenia’s law-enforcement
bodies for not being “active and resolute” enough in fighting crime and
corruption. The criticism came as Kocharian appointed his close ally Aghvan
Hovsepian as Prosecutor-General, the position he held between 1998-99 before
being forced to resign by Kocharian’s political opponents. Kocharian said
that he expects the law-enforcement bodies to follow through in
investigating corrupt practice revealed by the Presidential Oversight

Earlier in the week, head of the Service Vahram Barseghian publicized
results of 2003 inspections, revealing abuse of office and misappropriations
of public property by the customs, transportation, justice and local
government officials. Barseghian particularly singled out the Mayor of
Gyumri Vartan Ghoukasian, who is accused of misappropriating apartments
built for earthquake victims. Ghoukasian, who was one of Kocharian’s key
backers in the last elections, is now facing potential criminal charges and,
if convicted, would be removed from the post. Already dismissed is head of
Armenia’s forest administration, also accused of corruption.

Last November, Armenia’s three-party coalition government adopted an
anti-corruption program and the officials have repeatedly pledged to fight
the problem. While organizations such as Transparency International have
noted some headway against corruption in Armenia during Kocharian’s first
term, much of the Armenian public remains skeptical.

According to a recent poll conducted by the U.S.-funded International
Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), a full 44 percent of 600 people
contacted in Yerevan, Vanadzor, Ararat and Goris never heard of the
government’s anti-corruption plan, while 74 percent were unaware of its
content. Half of those polled did not view the plan as confirmation of the
government’s intention to fight corruption. (Sources: Armenia This Week
10-25, 11-22-02; 6-27, 10-10, 11-7; Arminfo 3-3, 18; RFE/RL Armenia Report
3-12, 18; Noyan Tapan 3-19)

The central government of Georgia and authoritarian leadership of the
Ajarian autonomous republic this week came to the brink of armed conflict
before striking a new power-sharing deal. The standoff had immediate
repercussions throughout the region, with Ajaria’s Batumi port virtually
shut down for days and traffic rerouted through Georgia’s only other port of
Poti. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili ordered a blockade of Ajaria
and both sides mobilized forces after Saakashvili and his security retinue
were barred from entering the republic by local police loyal to Ajarian
leader Aslan Abashidze. Saakashvili and Abashidze have been at loggerheads
for some time, and pro-Saakashvili forces in Ajaria have in recent months
intensified campaigning for Abashidze’s ouster.

While Armenian companies mostly use the port of Poti for their import and
export operations, Batumi’s long-term closure could have potentially
overloaded Poti leading to delays and price increases, especially on
gasoline. The Armenian government publicly urged both sides to settle their
differences peacefully earlier this week. In the meantime, Armenian
companies rerouted shipments of diesel fuel from Ukraine, while another ship
with Armenia-bound sugar was stranded in the port of Batumi.

In a deal described as a “temporary truce” by most observers, Abashidze
reportedly promised Saakashvili to stop pressuring opponents in the run-up
to parliamentary elections next week and share more of the profits from the
Batumi port and border crossing with Turkey. The deal came following intense
diplomatic pressure from Russia, Turkey and the United States to avoid an
armed confrontation.

Abashidze, who has ruled the ethnically Georgian and traditionally Muslim
Ajaria as his fiefdom for over a decade, has close relationships in both
Russia and Turkey. There is a Russian base in Ajaria and Turkish officials
have claimed that under Soviet-Turkish treaties Turkey has a right to
intervene in Ajaria (as well as Nakhichevan). But both Georgian officials
and most legal scholars deny that Turkey has any such right. (Sources:
; RFE/RL 3-15, 16; Interfax 3-15, 17; Arminfo 3-15, 17;
RFE/RL Armenia Report 3-16, 17; 3-18; Ekho 3-19)

A first major international sporting event concluded this week in
Stepanakert amid largely unsuccessful efforts by Azerbaijan to undermine it.
The Tigran Petrosian memorial tournament brought together some of the
strongest chess players from Armenia, Latvia, Georgia, Iran, Poland, Russia
and Switzerland. Petrosian, an Armenia native, was the world champion for
much of the 1960s, before being defeated by Boris Spassky. Spassky, now a
French national and retired from the game, was the guest of honor at the
Stepanakert tournament.

Chairman of the International Chess Federation, FIDE, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov
sent a letter welcoming the competition as contributing to the “unique
Armenian chess culture.” One of the world’s strongest chess players, Garry
Kasparov, welcomed the selection of Stepanakert as the site for the
tournament as another confirmation that Karabakh has overcome the difficult
post-war legacy. Kasparov, who is an ethnic Armenian on his mother’s side,
was forced to flee anti-Armenian violence in his native Baku in 1990.

The Azerbaijani government put pressure on chess federations of
participating nationals to recall their players and judges, claiming that
their participation was “illegal.” Two players, a Georgian and Iranian were
forced to withdraw towards the end of the tournament, which Spassky
described as a “real chess holiday.”

In the end, Armenia’s Karen Asriyan narrowly won the hard-fought series with
six out of nine possible points. Bartlomiej Macieja of Poland was a close
second with 5.5 points and Gabriel Sargsian of Armenia was third with 5
points. (Sources: ; Azat Artsakh 3-8, 10; RFE/RL Armenia
Report 3-9; Turan 3-10; 3-12; Artsakh TV 3-18; Ekho 3-19; Noyan Tapan

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