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By Armen Zakarian
A prominent Armenian opposition leader accused Russia on Tuesday of seeking to thwart democratization of the political systems of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia in an effort to maintain its strong geopolitical presence in the region.

Shavarsh Kocharian, who is a leading member of the opposition Artarutyun bloc, argued that democratically elected governments would reduce Moscow’s leverage against its three ex-Soviet satellites.

“Russia, in accordance with its interests, wants the countries located in its zone of influence to be undemocratic because if their governments are not acceptable to their peoples they become even more dependent on Russia,” he told RFE/RL in an interview.

The remarks appeared to reflect the Armenian opposition’s hitherto muted frustration and anger at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s quick and unconditional endorsement of President Robert Kocharian’s hotly disputed reelection last March. Putin also rushed to congratulate Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliev who became president last October in an election also criticized by Western observers.

Moscow’s post-election stance resulted in a first-ever mass demonstration outside the Russian embassy in Yerevan during last spring’s opposition campaign of protests against the official outcome of the presidential election.

The opposition crowds, by contrast, praised the United States for slamming the Armenian authorities’ handling of the vote. Thousands of its supporters cheered and applauded as they marched past the U.S. embassy in the capital at the time.

The contrast was highly unusual in a country that has traditionally been oriented towards Russia and still regards the latter as the main guarantor of its security. Artarutyun leaders, including former presidential candidate Stepan Demirchian, have until now been careful not to attack the Kremlin directly.

They have at the same time denounced last year’s controversial agreement that gave Russia several large Armenian enterprises in exchange for writing off Armenia’s $100 million debt. A similar deal relating to the Metsamor nuclear plant was signed by the two governments after this year’s election. The swap arrangements put Armenia’s energy sector under virtually full Russian control.

Unlike Russia, Armenia’s main opposition group hailed last month’s bloodless overthrow of Georgia’s President Eduard Shevardnadze in a popular uprising sparked by a fraudulent parliamentary election. Artarutyun now looks buoyed by the Georgian “rose revolution,” threatening to unleash similar action in Armenia.

“What has been taking place in Georgia gives hope that Georgia can step onto the path of democracy and the rule of law,” Shavarsh Kocharian (no relation to the Armenian president) said. “If Georgia really moves along that path, that will have a substantial impact on the region.”

The Putin administration is deeply suspicious of the new, even more pro-Western government in ]Tbilisi and has already been accused by the latter of whipping up separatist sentiment in Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as well as the autonomous republic of Ajaria. Artarutyun’s Kocharian said he is concerned that the predominantly Armenian population of another Georgian region, Javakheti, might be used in possible attempts to “destabilize” the country.

“It would be a serious blunder if the [local] Armenians were incited into taking drastic steps,” he said without elaborating.

Kocharian, who attended a seminar on Georgian-Armenian relations in Tbilisi last week, also made it clear that the Georgian authorities must finally put an end to what he called a political and economic discrimination of the Armenian minority. He complained in particular that farmers in Javakheti are still not allowed to privatize their land unlike other parts of the country and that many local communities do not have elected bodies.
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