YEREVAN–March 20 (Reuter) – Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan on Thursday named the leader of Azerbaijan’s breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region–Robert Kocharyan–as Armenia’s new prime minister.
Ter-Petrosyan’s decree gave no explanation for the step–which is likely to enrage neighbouring Azerbaijan.
The two are involved in a protracted conflict over Karabakh–an Armenian-populated enclave which broke away from Azeri rule in the late 1980s.
No immediate reaction was available from Azerbaijan. The mainly Moslem Azeris have been odds with the Christian Armenia’s for centuries.
Kocharyan will replace Armen Sarkisyan who resigned earlier this month because of bad health.
Some Armenian officials have hinted that Kocharyan — who has kept his distance from Yerevan’s latest political intrigues — is a rare compromise figure acceptable to both Ter-Petrosyan and his many political opponents.
"Apart from carrying out the premier’s duties–Kocharyan could play a unifying role in Armenian society," Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted the deputy chairman of the Armenian parliament–Ara Saakyan–as saying.
Last September–Ter-Petrosyan won re-election in a poll which the opposition says was not fair. His victory was followed by a crackdown on his opponents.
Nationalist sentiment over Karabakh is one of the few issues on which the president and the opposition see largely eye to eye.
"Kocharyan is a balanced–highly educated person who is treated with high respect in all sectors of society," Saakyan said.
Kocharyan–43–is one of the toughest of Karabakh’s pro-independence leaders. He spearheaded the separatist movement in 1988. Already effectively in charge–he won an unrecognised presidential election in Nagorno-Karabakh last year.
Thousands of people were killed in the conflict between Azerbaijan and Karabakh–which began in the late 1980s. It was the first of many violent ethnic conflicts in the former Soviet Union which helped hasten its disintegration.
Shortly before a 1994 ceasefire which has yet to produce a lasting settlement–determined Karabakh forces marched into Azerbaijan proper and still hold big chunks of its territory.
Azerbaijan insists that Armenia used the local separatists merely as a cover for its attempts to annexe the territory.
Armenia has always insisted it was not formally involved in the conflict though it was fully sympathetic to the separatists.
Talks between Azerbaijan and Armenia–launched after the ceasefire and aimed at finding a lasting political solution to the Karabakh problem–have stalled with both parties refusing to compromise so far despite international mediation.
Azerbaijan is especially keen to solve the Karabakh conflict–which has more than once led to domestic unrest–in the view of multi-billion dollar projects that have been launched to develop offshore oil deposits in the Caspian Sea.
One of the planned pipelines–to deliver oil to Europe via Georgia’s Black Sea ports–would run along the Karabakh border.
Political analysts have said that long-term political stability is a crucial factor for foreign investors in the oil project.
Landlocked Armenia–exhausted by years of conflict–has also appeared reluctant to let open hostility with Azerbaijan replace the at least visible calm of the last two years.