Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 6 Issue: 10

On May 2, Armenian President Robert Kocharian dismissed his rivals, Prime Minister Aram Sarkisian and Defense Minister Vagharshak Harutiunian, from their posts. Kocharian’s move capped a series of maneuvers by which the embattled president managed to wrest the political initiative and gain the psychological advantage over his opponents in government and in parliament. Kocharian tasked the army’s chief of staff, Mikael Harutiunian (no relation to Vagharshak), to serve as acting defense minister; the prime minister’s post is still vacant. Under the constitution, the prime minister’s resignation or dismissal automatically entails that of the entire cabinet of ministers. Aram Sarkisian’s government, a coalition of economic and military interest groups, had been in power since November 1999, when Aram took over from his elder brother Vazgen Sarkisian in the wake of the October 27, 1999 assassination of political leaders.

In a communique to the nation, Kocharian accused the cabinet of ministers collectively, and Sarkisian nominally, of engaging in “political intrigues as a way of life,” refusing to cooperate with the president, failing to tackle the country’s “snowballing economic problems” and jeopardizing Armenia’s international standing. Kocharian also accused his military opponents, Vagharshak Harutiunian included, of politicizing the armed forces and thereby threatening their unity. “The present situation threatens the very foundation of our statehood,” Kocharian warned, placing the onus of responsibility on his rivals. He defended his decision to dismiss them as an urgently needed corrective action in the national interest.

The Sarkisian government commanded the loyalty of approximately two-thirds of the National Assembly’s deputies. Under the constitution, the president has the right to dissolve the National Assembly and call new elections not earlier than one year into the legislature’s term of office. That deadline is coming up on May 31. Kocharian might exercise that right unless the parliamentary majority cooperates with the president in forming a new government, one not beholden to the Sarkisian clan and the pro-Moscow military.

Those two wings of the party of power had, as recently as the preceding week, moved to reinforce Armenia’s already close links with Russia. Vagharshak Harutiunian discussed with Defense Minister Igor Sergeev in Moscow the logistical and financial aspects of transferring to Armenia some of the Russian troops which are due to withdraw from Georgia. Those troops would in that case supplement, not replace, Russian troops already based in Armenia. Harutiunian was visiting Moscow together with Sarkisian and could not have conducted those talks without the blessing of the prime minister, who owed his recent rise largely to the army’s support.

Also that week, the Sarkisian-controlled parliamentary majority voted to rescind the privatization tender for the country’s electricity distribution networks. It did so because a Russian consortium had failed to qualify, leaving only Western companies in the contest. Kocharian, backed by some Western missions in Yerevan, had supported the privatization of the networks by financially and technologically strong Western companies. Last but not least, hardliners in the parliamentary majority–and outside it as well–criticized Kocharian’s willingness to negotiate directly with Azerbaijan toward a possible compromise solution over Karabakh. The president’s rivals, fixated on group interests and the special relationship with Russia, have yet to evidence an awareness of the resulting disadvantages to the country.