Vartan Oskanian, a former U.S. citizen who has served as Armenia’s foreign minister since 1998, is increasingly signaling his intention to contest the presidential election of 2008. There is mounting speculation in Yerevan that it is he, rather than the powerful Defense Minister Serge Sarkisian, who is President Robert Kocharian’s preferred successor. Sarkisian’s allies exposed their unease over Oskanian’s possible presidential ambitions by attacking him in parliament last week.
In recent months Oskanian has repeatedly and pointedly declined to rule out his participation in the presidential ballot, which would hardly sit well with either Sarkisian or Armenian opposition leaders. The suave 51-year-old minister, who rarely commented on domestic politics until recently, is now taking every opportunity to publicly deplore chronic vote rigging, government corruption, and mismanagement.
Oskanian first dropped a hint about his presidential run at a news conference last July, calling for urgent “second-generation reforms” in Armenia that he said would “hit the economic and political interests of the [ruling] elite.” He said he is ready to help implement such reforms and warned against a repeat of the serious fraud that has marred almost every election held in the country since the Soviet collapse in 1991. These remarks followed media reports that Kocharian might be grooming him for the presidency.
That Kocharian, who is expected to quit after completing his second five-year term in office in 2008, would like to hand over power to his longtime defense minister and most powerful lieutenant has long seemed a given. However, there are growing indications that the Armenian leader is keen to counterweight the influence of Sarkisian and his governing Republican Party of Armenia (HHK). The HHK is still considered the favorite to win next spring’s Armenian parliamentary elections by again making the most of its grip on many government bodies, its vast financial resources, and Sarkisian’s clout.
Oskanian underscored his increasingly outspoken stance in an extensive interview with the Haykakan Zhamanak daily published on October 19. He sought to distance himself from the Armenian government, citing an “abyss” separating it from the people and stressing the fact that he has not attended 80% of cabinet sessions due to his frequent trips abroad. Furthermore, he implied that only a new government equipped with a “right agenda” could meet key challenges facing the country. One of those challenges, in his words, is the proper conduct of the next parliamentary and presidential elections.
“Everyone must realize that we simply have no more room for holding bad elections because this time the damage to our people would be not only moral but also material,” he said before issuing what appeared to be a thinly veiled warning to the HHK: “If there are violations and if there are [negative] consequences as a result, it will be obvious who those people are and they must be really held answerable before the people.”
The government’s response was not late in coming. A young HHK lawmaker, whose main job is to publicly pour scorn on the party’s detractors, accused Oskanian on the parliament floor on October 25 of “forgetting his main functions and external challenges facing the country.” “He is unhappy with the government’s policies but remains in office,” said Armen Ashotian. Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, the nominal head of the HHK, added that Oskanian should not be surprised by such attacks.
Oskanian, meanwhile, only added to talk of his presidential designs by stating in the Haykakan Zhamanak interview that he will resign as foreign minister in 2008 in any case. He claimed that he still has not decided to run for president. Whether he would stand a good chance of winning the presidential election is a separate matter.
Born and raised in Syria, Oskanian was still a Syrian national of Armenian descent when he graduated from Yerevan Polytechnic Institute in 1979 before moving to the United States to study international relations at Harvard and two other top universities. He returned to Armenia in 1992 to work, as an American citizen, at the former Soviet republic’s newly established Foreign Ministry. Oskanian surrendered his U.S. passport to obtain Armenian citizenship when Kocharian appointed him as foreign minister shortly after coming to power in early 1998. He has since been largely unaffected by the dramatic political battles in Yerevan, carrying out Kocharian’s “complementary” foreign policy and representing Armenia in peace talks with Azerbaijan.
Oskanian’s knowledge of international affairs has earned him the kind of respectability in the West that few other Armenian politicians can boast. Also, unlike most other members of the ruling regime, he has not been implicated in corruption scandals. His main weakness is a lack of a power base and the fact that, in many ways, he is still an outsider in the Armenian political scene.
Yet assuming that Kocharian is encouraging his presidential bid, Oskanian can count on the backing of a new but extremely ambitious party led by Gagik Tsarukian, the country’s top “oligarch” close to the Armenian president. The party, Prosperous Armenia, is already busy preparing for the parliamentary polls, having embarked on a massive distribution of agricultural aid to impoverished farmers across the country. The unprecedented campaign, heavily advertised by Tsarukian-controlled TV channels, has already prompted serious concern by the Republican and other mainstream political groups.
Some local observers have speculated that Prosperous Armenia’s most likely presidential candidate is none other than Oskanian. The latter has also been linked with the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, an influential member of the ruling coalition that has already indicated that it will not endorse Sarkisian for the presidency.
(Aravot, October 26; Hayk, October 25; Haykakan Zhamanak, October 19; RFE/RL Armenia Report, July 14)