Armenia’s second most powerful official, Defense Minister Serge Sarkisian, is eliminating the last remaining doubts about his intention to succeed President Robert Kocharian after the latter completes a second five-year term in office in 2008. The past few weeks have made it even clearer that the two men have agreed on a rotation of power that could allow them to dominate Armenian politics for another decade. In a country that has failed to hold a single election recognized as free and fair by the international community, the opinion of voters is considered marginal for the realization of this scenario.
Sarkisian effectively kicked off his presidential campaign last week thanks to an event that could hardly be more apolitical. Armenia’s national chess team notched a victory at the 37th Chess Olympiad, which ended in Turin on June 4. The six grandmasters and their coach received a hero’s welcome as they returned to Yerevan two days later and addressed several thousand people in the city’s Freedom Square. Sarkisian also received congratulations and delivered a speech to the jubilant crowd broadcast live by state television. He happens to be chairman of the Armenian Chess Federation and stayed with the players in Turin throughout the two-week competition. Some government officials and even army generals who joined in the celebrations were quick to claim that this fact was key to the Armenian chess triumph.
Sarkisian, himself a keen chess player, stopped short of explicitly taking credit for the success, but clearly enjoyed himself, looking more like a politician on the campaign trail than a sport executive. For a man long vilified by his political opponents and disliked by many disgruntled Armenians, it was quite a public relations stunt. For local observers, it was a taste of things to come.
That Sarkisian is Kocharian’s preferred successor was essentially confirmed on May 20 by the Armenian president’s national security adviser, Garnik Isagulian. “One of those who is most experienced and ready to be the next president of Armenia is Defense Minister Serge Sarkisian,” he stated at a news conference. “In this case, Armenia’s current political course will be pursued.”
Indeed, Kocharian could hardly find a more reliable partner who would guarantee his personal security and let him continue to play a major role in Armenia’s government. Kocharian and Sarkisian have long known and worked with each other. They both come from Karabakh, having jointly governed the Armenian-controlled disputed region during its successful war with Azerbaijan before ending up in senior government positions in Armenia. They both were instrumental in the 1998 resignation of Armenia’s first president, Levon Ter-Petrosian, the man who had brought them to Yerevan.
The Kocharian-Sarkisian duo has proved more effective (and ruthless) in clinging to power than Ter-Petrosian, securing the allegiance of a wide range of pro-establishment parties and clans through a combination of sticks and carrots. The latter have taken the form of largely insignificant government posts that enable the leaders of those groups to enrich themselves but not endanger the duo’s exclusive grip on defense, law-enforcement, the judiciary, foreign affairs, tax collection, and dealings with large-scale foreign investors. None of the state institutions managing these key policy areas is accountable to Armenia’s cabinet of ministers. Kocharian and Sarkisian are also believed to control a narrow circle of wealthy businessmen that enjoy a de facto monopoly on lucrative imports of fuel and basic commodities.
The pro-establishment groups, especially those represented in the government, allow Armenia’s leaders to not only defuse public anger with their policies but also to somehow legitimize their rule, which has been tarnished by chronic vote rigging. (Kocharian was twice “elected” president in 1998 and 2003 and neither election was deemed democratic by Western observers.) Sarkisian is widely expected to officially join forces with one of those governing factions to actively participate in the next parliamentary election, due in May 2007 and seen as a rehearsal of the 2008 presidential ballot. His most obvious choice is Prime Minister Andranik Markarian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK). However, the powerful defense chief is in no rush to team up with the HHK, suggesting that he is considering other options as well.
There has already been speculation about the possibility of Sarkisian cutting deals with two new, but extremely ambitious, parties sponsored by Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian and influential “oligarch” Gagik Tsarukian. Their emergence earlier this year drew concern from another member of the governing coalition, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (HHD). One of its leaders, Hrant Markarian, has charged that both parties are bent on resorting to large-scale vote buying.
According to Hmayak Hovannisian, a supposedly independent lawmaker who is reputedly close to Sarkisian, Tsarukian’s “Prosperous Armenia” party was set up with the aim of securing Kocharian’s political future. The Armenian leader, he told reporters recently, wants to become prime minister after handing over the presidency to Sarkisian and therefore needs to have a serious power base in the next parliament. Hovannisian further said that Kocharian and Sarkisian would strive to ensure that the HHK, Prosperous Armenia, and Hovsepian’s “Association for Armenia” party win the 2007 election at any cost.
This scenario, if true, bodes ill for the freedom and fairness of the upcoming polls. Kocharian and Sarkisian are widely held responsible for entrenching Armenia’s post-Soviet culture of electoral fraud, and there is no reason to expect them to renounce something that has served them so well.
(Armenian Public Television, June 7; Iravunk, May 26; 168 Zham, May 23; RFE/RL Armenia Report, May 17)