With just over one year to go before the end of his second and final term in office, Armenia’s President Robert Kocharian does not leave the impression of a man preparing for retirement. The past week has seen further indications that he wants to dominate Armenian politics — or at least retain a key role in government — in the years to come. Whether this sits well with his most likely successor, Defense Minister Serge Sarkisian, is not yet clear.
Armenia’s constitution bars Kocharian from seeking a third five-year term in the next presidential election, due in early 2008. This restriction was unaffected by a package of constitutional amendments that was controversially enacted by the Armenian authorities in November 2005. There were opposition fears that Kocharian could sidestep it by declaring that because the country has a new basic law, the clock on his years in office should start in 2005. But his aides and political allies have repeatedly dismissed such fears.
The 52-year-old Armenian leader, who has gone to great lengths to hold off numerous challenges to his decade-long rule, seems to be trying to secure his political future in a different way. His national security adviser, Garnik Isagulian, admitted on December 4 that he intends to retain a “big influence” on political processes in the country. “The role to be played by President Kocharian [after 2008] will be quite large,” Isagulian told reporters in Yerevan. The official would not specify whether Kocharian is aiming for another high-ranking government post or plans to pull the strings from behind the scenes.
The remarks only stoked mounting speculation that Kocharian has set his sights on the post of prime minister, which he held for almost a year before being catapulted to the Armenian presidency in 1998. According to Hmayak Hovannisian, a maverick parliamentarian reputedly linked to the ruling regime, this is part of a scenario drawn up by the country’s leadership. “After the parliamentary elections [slated for next spring] Serge Sarkisian will become prime minister and [current Prime Minister] Andranik Markarian [will become] speaker of the National Assembly,” Hovannisian claimed at a May news conference. “What will Robert Kocharian do? Who else is to occupy the post of prime minister when Serge Sarkisian becomes president of the republic?”
It is widely assumed that Kocharian’s preferred successor is Sarkisian, Armenia’s second most powerful man. Both men are natives of Karabakh who governed the disputed Armenian-populated territory during its secessionist war with Azerbaijan before ending up in top positions in Yerevan. They have jointly weathered many political storms and share a vested interest in keeping their bitter political foes at bay. Either man’s downfall would almost certainly mean the other’s exit from the political arena.
Sarkisian increasingly acts like a president-in-waiting, tying the state apparatus, wealthy businessmen, and the broader “power class” to the governing Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), his main support base. He is also organizing public relations stunts such as high-profile visits to Armenian army units, meetings with soldiers’ parents, and academic debates on Armenia’s new national security doctrine, which was drafted by Sarkisian. His early November visit to Iraq, ostensibly aimed at inspecting a small contingent of Armenian troops stationed there, was widely seen as an attempt to win U.S. support for his presidential ambitions.
The question is whether Sarkisian is willing to share power with Kocharian in the event of his victory in the 2008 election. Kocharian may well be trying to make sure that the powerful defense chief remains dependent on him after 2008 by covertly sponsoring a new and extremely ambitious party led by one of Armenia’s wealthiest “oligarchs,” Gagik Tsarukian. The party, called Prosperous Armenia, has been busy in recent months, distributing large-scale relief aid to low-income farmers, providing free medical services, sponsoring pop concerts, and engaging in other “charitable” activities. Tsarukian already claims to have the largest following in the country as a result of what his detractors, including some HHK leaders, regard as massive vote buying.
In lawmaker Hovannisian’s view, shared by some local analysts, Prosperous Armenia’s main mission is to form one of the largest factions in the next Armenian parliament and thereby help Kocharian become prime minister. Other commentators say Sarkisian does not necessarily have a problem with that, insisting that the two leaders continue to work in tandem and may have already agreed on the outcome of the 2007 parliamentary elections. (Little suggests that the polls will be democratic, despite constant government pledges to end Armenia’s post-Soviet history of electoral fraud.) Hayots Ashkhar, a daily newspaper close to Sarkisian, predicted on December 6 that the bulk of the parliamentary seats will be given to the HHK, Prosperous Armenia, and another pro-establishment party, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation. For all their bickering, each of these parties will be satisfied with its share of the pie, the newspaper wrote.
Whatever the real story, Kocharian is clearly taking every opportunity to remain in the limelight, showcasing what he considers to be the major achievements of his rule and maintaining a busy travel schedule. As if to demonstrate that he is no lame-duck president, he held an extraordinary meeting with Prime Minister Markarian and several other top officials on December 8 to lambaste the Armenian government for its failure to tackle widespread tax evasion. Kocharian warned them that he will be “more demanding” towards the work of the government’s tax collection agencies during the final year of his presidency.
(Statement by the Armenian president’s press service, December 8; Hayots Ashkhar, December 6; Haykakan Zhamanak, December 5; RFE/RL Armenia Report, December 4, May 17)