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At a congress on 9 December, the Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh), which ruled Armenia from 1991-98, adopted a resolution calling for the ouster of what it termed the country's current corrupt leadership. That statement, coinciding as it did with the Ukrainian opposition campaign to force a repeat of the flawed 21 November presidential runoff, has fueled speculation that Armenia might also be headed for regime change, and specifically for the return to power of the HHSh and former President Levon Ter-Petrossian. That speculation is based largely on the belief that the Armenian leadership is under intense pressure from the international community to make significant concessions in the Karabakh peace process, in line with arguments that Ter-Petrossian made in the fall of 1997. Ter-Petrossian, some pundits reason, is a more acceptable figure for the West than incumbent President Robert Kocharian.

The series of mass opposition demonstrations in Yerevan in March-April testifies to the strength of popular feelings of alienation, anger, and disgust at perceived high-level corruption and protectionism. But predictably, President Kocharian's security adviser Garnik Isagulian dismissed the possibility of an "Apricot Revolution" in Armenia in the wake of the "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine. Isagulian told "Hayots ashkhar" on 2 December that "there is no real alternative to the present leadership." He also pointed out that Ter-Petrossian's occasional meetings with foreign diplomats should not be conflated with a desire by the West for him to return to active politics.

Many Armenian political observers, too, are skeptical, that the HHSh enjoys broad popular support. The independent daily "Azg" on 1 December reported that of the 30 people its correspondents polled on the streets of Yerevan, not one reacted positively to the possibility of former President Ter-Petrossian's return to power. In addition, the HHSh has been weakened in recent years by the defection of many of its most effective activists to Prime Minister Andranik Markarian's Republican Party of Armenia. "Haykakan zhamanak," which has links to the HHSh, nonetheless proclaimed on 4 December that "Ter-Petrossian's return to the public political arena is already a reality." It added that only Ter-Petrossian can preside over a victory of democracy in Armenia by virtue of being "the legitimate and recognized leader of liberal democratic forces" -- a formulation that fails to take into account the December 1998 confession by former Interior Minister Vano Siradeghian that the outcome of the September 1996 presidential ballot was rigged to ensure a second term for Ter-Petrossian. It also overlooks the fact that it was under Ter-Petrossian that Armenia concluded a series of crucial economic and military-cooperation agreements with Russia, as well as signing (in May 1992) the CIS Collective Security Treaty.

On 11 December, "Haykakan zhamanak" quoted an unnamed opposition politician as claiming that Washington has given the green light for regime change in Armenia. "The United States has decided, with President [George W.] Bush's blessing, to help the opposition in Armenia carry out regime change.... In order to humiliate and morally destroy this regime, it has been decided that they must quit power under the pretext of failing to bring about a pro-Armenian solution to the Karabakh conflict," that politician was quoted as saying.

Should the HHSh be contemplating active measures to topple the present leadership (as opposed to simply waiting to assess the impact of the international pressure its leaders allege is being exerted on Kocharian to agree to a settlement of the Karabakh conflict on terms disadvantageous to Armenia), then it may have to act swiftly or risk losing out to a nascent rival opposition alliance. Opposition party leaders told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on 10 December that they are preparing to establish a new alignment that will not only seek to oust Kocharian, but will also espouse a more pro-Western foreign policy. Political figures named in connection with the putative new bloc include former Prime Minister and Hanrapetutiun party Chairman Aram Sargsian, former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian, and Liberal Progressive Party leader Hovhannes Hovannisian (no relation to Raffi). Sargsian confirmed to RFE/RL that "I am in favor of any new and expanded [opposition] structure." Sargsian attended last week's HHSh congress as a guest, but there have been no indications that the HHSh is being considered as a possible member of the new opposition alliance. Indeed, any cooperation with a party that many Armenians associate with years of poverty and desolation could prove more of a liability than an asset for Sargsian, who may himself run in the next presidential election.

An alignment between Hanrapetutiun and Raffi Hovannisian would seriously weaken the Artarutiun opposition alliance headed by People's Party of Armenia (HZhK) Chairman Stepan Demirchian. Artarutiun was the driving force behind the mass protest demonstrations last spring. "Haykakan zhamanak" on 9 December quoted an unnamed senior HZhK member as saying Demirchian has not been invited to join the Sargsian-Hovannisian alignment. But six days later, Sargsian was quoted by the same paper as saying that Demirchian is participating in the talks on setting up a new opposition alliance.

Meanwhile, a second constituent member of Artarutiun, Vazgen Manukian's National Democratic Union, is reportedly on the verge of quitting Artarutiun and joining forces with Ashot Manucharian, another long-time opposition figure who, like Manukian, served under Ter-Petrossian in the early 1990s, but later distanced themselves from him and founded opposition parties. The two men have signed an agreement on establishing two consultative councils, one of leaders of political parties and a second that will focus on foreign policy, Noyan Tapan reported on 3 December. Both Manukian and Manucharian, however, would probably be more circumspect with regard to a possible reorientation of Armenian foreign policy than would the unequivocally pro-Western Hovannisians. For that reason, a presidential candidate from that camp might be able to count on covert backing from Russia in the event of a preterm presidential ballot.

Indeed, having suffered the humiliation of seeing its preferred candidate defeated in Ukraine, Moscow might play safe by backing rival candidates in Armenia, not only the one from the Manukian-Manucharian bloc but possibly also the existing leadership's choice to succeed Kocharian, who is barred by the constitution from seeking a third presidential term. The two most likely candidates at this juncture are Defense Minister Sarkisian and parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian. In an interview published on 9 December in the independent "Golos Armenii," Sarkisian dodged the question whether he intends to run for president when Kocharian's second term expires in 2008.

UKRAINE REGISTERS 8,000 FOREIGN OBSERVERS FOR 26 DECEMBER BALLOT. The Ukrainian Central Election Commission has registered 8,295 international monitors for the repeat of the flawed 21 November presidential runoff between Viktor Yanukovych and Viktor Yushchenko on 26 December, Interfax reported on 19 December. JM

YANUKOVYCH ENDORSES RUSSIAN LANGUAGE, CONDEMNS SEPARATISM. Vacationing Prime Minister and presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych reiterated in Odesa on 18 December that he would like to grant Russian official-language status in Ukraine if he is elected president, Interfax reported. Yanukovych also spoke against separatist calls in some eastern regions that surfaced following the 21 November presidential runoff (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 1 December 2004). Yanukovych said those calls appeared to be a reaction to "the lawlessness that people felt following second-round voting." "As far as I am concerned, I am in favor of [greater] economic autonomy for our regions," Yanukovych added. JM

YUSHCHENKO FAVORS UKRAINIAN PLEBISCITE ON NATO ISSUE... Answering a question about whether Ukraine under his potential presidency would apply for NATO membership, Viktor Yushchenko told journalists in Kharkiv on 17 December that a decision on the country's military alignment cannot be made without a nationwide referendum, Interfax reported. Yushchenko stressed that the country's top priorities in foreign policy are obtaining market-economy status, World Trade Organization membership, and associate membership of the European Union. JM

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT MOVES TO SEND PEACEKEEPERS TO SYRIA. Outgoing President Leonid Kuchma has signed a decree on sending some 200 peacekeepers to the UN Disengagement Force separating Syrian and Israeli forces in the Golan Heights in Syria, Ukrainian news agencies reported on 18 December. The decree still requires the approval of the Verkhovna Rada. Since 1992, Ukraine has participated in a dozen international peacekeeping operations around the world. Ukraine's largest military contingent -- some 1,600 troops -- has been in Iraq since August 2003. JM