Kocharian Says Armenia Back On Track

YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–President Robert Kocharian said on Tuesday that he and Armenia’s main political forces have managed to save the country from turmoil in the wake of the October 27 assassinations of senior officials. But he added that the bloody attack on the parliament dealt a severe blow to political stability in Armenia and damaged its prestige in the eyes of the international community.

In an interview with leading local television channels–Kocharian denied having major differences with the new Prime Minister Aram Sargsyan–who is backed by the parliament majority. He insisted that the Armenian military is no threat to democracy despite having been manipulated by politicians close to the slain Prime Minister Vazgen Sargsyan–Aram’s brother.

Kocharian also said killings of Armenian leaders have pushed efforts to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict several months back–but stressed that he remains determined to strike a peace deal with neighbor Azerbaijan.

"We have found solutions that helped the situation return to normal," Kocharian announced in the hour-long interview–a recording of which was given to RFE/RL by the presidential press service before it was broadcast by state television and three private channels. Kocharian on Saturday approved the composition of Aram’s cabinet–filling up the last hole in Armenia’s leadership shattered by the killings. The move followed a compromise agreement with the new premier and the Unity bloc which controls the parliament. The bloc was co-headed by Vazgen Sargsyan and former parliament speaker Karen Demirchian also killed in the blood-bath.

"I had no differences with the Unity bloc. Nor did I have differences with Aram Sarkisian," Kocharian said–describing the latter as a "very sincere and honest person." Kocharian said agreement with the 38-year-old prime minister and Unity was made possible after influential individuals close to his brother were excluded from negotiations. He said those who "have nothing to do with the army" provoked the defense ministry into issuing a strongly-worded statement on October 28 demanding the resignation of top security officials.

The Armenia president confirmed press reports that a few hours after the parliament’s seizure a dozen individuals from the ex-premier’s entourage–among them two military officers–presented him with a list containing the names of the next prime minister–key ministers and the new prosecutor-general. He said the group was led by Andranik Kocharian–Vazgen’s adviser–and wanted Vahan Shirkhanian–the minister for industrial infrastructures–to be named prime minister.

"I told them strictly that there will be no such thing and that this [demand] does not come from the army," Kocharian said. He said he agreed to keep Shirkhanian in the government "at the prime minister’s request."

Shirkhanian’s fate was one of the sticking points that delayed the cabinet’s formal appointment. Kocharian said the delay did not result in a political crisis as was widely believed. He said he now intends to be more closely involved in the government’s day-to-day work to help the politically inexperienced premier cope with serious problems facing Armenia. "I will participate more actively in the government’s work until the new prime minister becomes familiar with things. Gradually I will loosen control–enabling him to act freely," Kocharian said.

Turning to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict–Kocharian said the conflicting parties "lost several months" as a result of the killings. But he made it clear that the future of the Karabakh peace process–which showed signs of a breakthrough in the last several months–is "very encouraging."I was forced to take time out–but will definitely return to the [peace] process," he said.

The shock killings were preceded by a series of direct talks between Kocharian and his Azeri counterpart Haydar Aliyev. The parties encouraged by the United States were seen as having inched closer to a deal on the Armenian-populated disputed territory which broke away from Azeri rule in the late 1980s. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott discussed the decade-long dispute just hours before gunmen burst into the parliament chamber.

Kocharian said the peace process sponsored by the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe may take "several months" to be put back on track. He suggested that his talks later this week with Presidents Clinton and Jacques Chirac of France on the sidelines of the OSCE summit in Istanbul will give a fresh impetus to Karabakh talks.

Together with Russia–the US and France co-chair the Minsk Group. Washington had earlier pushed for a framework Armenian-Azeri agreement to be signed at the Istanbul summit. But officials say the summit will only issue a non-binding statement on Karabakh.

"There is no question of signing a document in Istanbul. Istanbul is not the place where the Karabakh conflict should be settled," Kocharian said–highlighting the uneasy relationship between Armenia and Turkey. Kocharian said he and Aliyev will meet face to face and then hold joint talks with the presidents or foreign ministers of the Minsk Group troika.

Kocharian insisted that the current situation Armenia does allow the authorities to concentrate on the Karabakh issue–which he described as the number one challenge facing Armenia.

Peace in Karabakh is the key to solving Armenia’s economic woes as it would pave the way for a faster economic growth–the Armenian leader declared in an important remark. "If we have a settlement–Armenia will find itself in a completely different situation," he stressed.

The Armenian president also dismissed speculation that the gunmen who attacked the parliament aimed to scuttle a solution to the Karabakh conflict. Kocharian–who personally negotiated with the gunmen as they held dozens of hostages in the chamber–argued that they wanted as much publicity to their action as possible and would have mentioned Karabakh had it really been on their mind.

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