President Robert Kocharian fired his appointee, Prime Minister Aram Sarkisian, last week, and challenged the pro-Sarkisian parliament to join in assembling a pro-Kocharian government or face dismissal and new elections. The split between Kocharian and his prime minister dates from last October’s assassination of then Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian, Aram’s brother. Vazgen Sarkisian had been the country’s strongest political figure, with a base of support in the military and ties to a number of business figures.
Conflicts between the Kocharian and Sarkisian camps are mostly over money and power–which families will dominate which industries, what regions will win subsidies, who will pay taxes, and who will decide these matters. But foreign policy also figures in. Kocharian launched serious negotiations with Azerbaijan’s President Haidar Aliev over Karabakh, the de facto Armenian province that is de jure part of Azerbaijan. In this effort he has drawn closer to NATO and especially to the United States, which sponsored the initial bilateral talks. Sarkisian and his military backers, however, depend heavily on Russian support and take a harder line on Karabakh, perhaps to perpetuate a crisis that enhances the army’s stature. The outcome of the struggle between Kocharian and his opponents could determine whether Armenia will continue to pour its meager resources into its military and the defense of Karabakh, or whether a negotiated stand-down with Azerbaijan will release money and energy for economic growth and development.