Recent weeks have revealed a rift between Armenia’s two most powerful leaders that could have far-reaching implications for the political future of the South Caucasus state. President Robert Kocharian is reportedly monitoring with unease the efforts by Defense Minister Serge Sarkisian, his hitherto chief lieutenant and most likely successor, to succeed him in 2008.
Sarkisian has confirmed his presidential ambitions by formally joining and assuming a key position in the governing Republican Party of Armenia (HHK). Kocharian, for his part, is widely linked with another party that was set up recently by the country’s most influential oligarch and is increasingly seen as a counterweight to the HHK. The party’s growing strength has also prompted concern from Armenian opposition leaders who believe it bodes ill for democratic change.
The HHK officially admitted Sarkisian and elected him as its deputy chairman at a high-profile congress on July 22 that was attended by many members of the Armenian government. Although the party continues to be nominally headed by Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, few doubt that it is Sarkisian who will now be calling the shots. The HHK holds several ministerial portfolios, controls local government bodies across the country, and boasts the largest faction in parliament. Hence its significance for Sarkisian. The powerful defense chief has repeatedly stated that his participation in the next presidential election, due in 2008, hinges on the HHK’s strong performance in parliamentary elections scheduled for next spring. His critics insinuate that the Republicans will therefore try to win the 2007 polls at any cost.
Kocharian claimed through a spokesman on July 24 that he does not object to Sarkisian’s alliance with the ruling party and even welcomes it. “An authoritative politician’s membership in the HHK … is a welcome development and may have a positive influence on the Armenian political field that is still far from being perfect,” presidential press secretary Victor Soghomonian said in a statement.
Still, a growing number of local analysts believe that in reality Kocharian is banking on the equally ambitious Prosperous Armenia party of Gagik Tsarukian, a millionaire businessman close to the Armenian leader. They say Kocharian is building a new, totally reliable support base that will enable him to continue to play a major role in government affairs after he completes his second and final term as president in 2008. In particular, he is rumored to have set his sights on the post of prime minister.
Prosperous Armenia announced its existence last January and claims to have already recruited as many as 300,000 members, or 10% of the country’s population. Individuals close to Tsarukian say the tycoon is seriously hoping to win the upcoming elections by capitalizing on his vast financial resources, which opposition leaders and even some top Republicans fear could be used for a massive vote buying.
Sarkisian, meanwhile, played down Prosperous Armenia’s significance on July 20, questioning its ability to serve as Kocharian’s new power base. “Prosperous Armenia is not yet a party,” he told RFE/RL. But the remarks only added to speculation that he is worried about the pro-Kocharian oligarch’s political maneuvering. Hayots Ashkhar, a newspaper reputedly sponsored by Sarkisian, poured scorn on Tsarukian on August 18, alleging that he is paying ordinary Armenians to join his party.
It has escaped no one’s notice that Tsarukian was invited to attend the last HHK congress along with leaders of other parties but failed to show up, citing “technical reasons.” He promptly held a Prosperous Armenia conference in Yerevan two days later to address hundreds of party activists and slam those who question the sincerity of his pledges to make his countrymen more prosperous.
Yet not everyone is convinced that Kocharian and Sarkisian have fallen out. Chorrord Ishkhanutyun, a newspaper highly critical of the government, insisted on July 28 that the latest developments signal “anything but a Kocharian-Serge standoff” and are part of a scenario drawn up by the two men. Indeed, they have long known and worked with each other, both in their native Karabakh and Yerevan. Conventional wisdom therefore suggests that Kocharian would have a reliable successor in Sarkisian, someone who would at least guarantee his personal security. The question is, though, whether Kocharian intends to retire from active politics or remain in government in some other capacity. In the latter case, he would hardly need a strong president.
The Armenian opposition, meanwhile, is ringing alarm bells over an influx of more wealthy businessmen and other influential individuals with questionable reputations into the HHK, which was sparked by its alliance with Sarkisian. Some opposition leaders, including former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian, have openly branded those individuals as “criminal elements” tasked with helping the ruling regime rig the next elections.
Sarkisian dismissed these concerns as he joined the HHK, promising that the 2007 vote will be the “best” one in Armenia’s post-Soviet history. But he was quick to add that he believes the previous Armenian elections, criticized as undemocratic by Western observers, were not deeply flawed. “Things were good and will get even better,” said the man regarded by his opponents as a key mastermind of serious fraud reported during the last presidential and parliamentary elections held in 2003.
(Hayots Ashkhar, August 18, July 25; Iravunk, August 15; Chorrord Ishkhanutyun, July 28; RFE/RL Armenia Report, July 20-21)