Armenian President Robert Kocharian has appointed his longtime influential associate, Defense Minister Serge Sarkisian, as prime minister, formalizing the latter’s status as Armenia’s second-most powerful leader. The appointment, officially announced on April 4, has been widely anticipated ever since the sudden death on March 25 of the previous prime minister, Andranik Markarian, which had heightened political uncertainty in the country ahead of the upcoming parliamentary elections. Its impact on the outcome of the elections, crucial for Kocharian’s and Sarkisian’s political future, is unlikely to be significant though.
Sarkisian, 52, had already been expected to occupy the post of prime minister after the May 12 vote as part of his apparent plans to become Armenia’s next president after Kocharian completes his second and final term in office less than one year from now. Markarian’s death from a heart attack simply hastened the implementation of that putative scenario. It also allowed Sarkisian to complete his smooth takeover of the governing Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) of which the late prime minister was the chairman. The HHK is looking to retain the largest faction in parliament by capitalizing on its control of many government bodies and other “administrative resources” that remain key to winning Armenian elections.
Sarkisian always wielded far more power than Markarian, who had little say on defense, foreign policy, law enforcement, tax collection, and other key policy areas. The post of defense minister, which Sarkisian has held for the past seven years, has enabled him to control some lucrative sectors of the Armenian economy through loyal businessmen without bearing responsibility for the government’s economic policy. He will now have to deal with socioeconomic issues and be responsible for the government’s failure to address them. Whether or not that will reflect positively on the HHK’s electoral chances remains to be seen. As the Yerevan newspaper Azg noted, the ruling party would gain even greater political clout but at the same time run the risk of losing popular support because many Armenians dislike Sarkisian.
Kocharian and leaders of his loyal parliament majority essentially decided Sarkisian’s appointment the day after Markarian’s death. They agreed that the HHK should continue to control the post. The party’s governing board unanimously nominated the defense chief for the job on April 2.
Kocharian signed and announced a corresponding decree just before the expiry of a constitutional deadline for replacing a prime minister who has resigned, died, or been incapacitated. He appears to have deliberately delayed the appointment until the last minute in order to spare Sarkisian the need for a parliamentary approval of the new government. Under Armenia’s constitution, the new prime minister has 20 days to form his cabinet and another 20 days to submit its program to the National Assembly, which will in turn have to approve it or vote no confidence within five days. This means that the current legislature will almost certainly be unable to debate the matter before completing its four-year tenure on May 12. The pivotal post of defense minister will thus likely remain vacant until then.
The Armenian constitution stipulates that the prime minister must step down right after legislative elections so that the president of the republic can pick a new prime minister backed by the new parliament majority. Assuming that the HHK will win the polls (by whatever means), Sarkisian will likely be re-appointed prime minister later in May. Even before Markarian’s death he was believed to be eyeing the job and planning to use it as a launch pad for the presidency. Few in Armenia doubt that Kocharian will not or cannot try to thwart his presidential bid.
What Kocharian is trying to do instead is to retain a key role in government affairs after the end of his 10-year presidency. The Armenian press has for months speculated that he has set his sights on the post of prime minister. Whatever his real intentions, Kocharian is clearly trying to secure his political future through his thinly veiled sponsorship of the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK) of Gagik Tsarukian, a millionaire businessman close to the president. The BHK has emerged in recent months as another election frontrunner, owing to what critics regard as massive vote buying and Tsarukian’s populist appeal.
The key question now is whether Sarkisian is willing to share power with Kocharian and be a less powerful president than the latter has been. The two men are natives of Karabakh who governed the disputed territory during its secessionist war with Azerbaijan and ended up in top government positions in Yerevan as a result. Working in tandem, they rose to power in 1998 and have since jointly warded off numerous challenges to their rule. “Believe us, the two will sort out their differences and cut a deal at the last moment,” a commentator for the pro-opposition newspaper Chorrord Ishkhanutyun exhorted readers on April 3.
But other analysts and politicians see potential for a serious conflict between Sarkisian and Kocharian, pointing to an increasingly obvious rivalry between the HHK and the BHK. The two establishment parties openly clashed in a March 25 local election in the southern Armenian town of Armavir, whose incumbent Republican mayor narrowly and controversially defeated a BHK candidate. The latter refused to concede defeat, alleging widespread fraud. But he unexpectedly withdrew his appeal against the official vote results just as a local court looked set to invalidate them, suggesting that the party leaders had agreed to avoid a further confrontation — for now.
(Statement by the Armenian president’s press office, April 4; Azg, April 4; Chorrord Ishkhanutyun, Haykakan Zhamanak, April 3)