Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 83

Armenia’s parliamentary majority, subservient to the military-backed government of Aram Sarkisian, has taken a first and preliminary step to impeach President Robert Kocharian. This majority–consisting primarily of the Unity parliamentary alliance and the Stability group of deputies–decided to make their move at a joint meeting on April 25. Sarkisian and other government members were present.

The Unity alliance consists of the Republican Party, which holds the lion’s share of ministerial posts, and the People’s Party which holds the parliamentary chairmanship. The Stability group consists mostly of allies and proteges of the Sarkisian clan. Unity and Stability hold a total of eighty out of 127 parliamentary seats. This majority is not rock-solid, but it can count on the support of some deputies outside these two caucuses, notably that of the ten-strong Communist group. Kocharian has the support of three small parliamentary parties. Under the constitution, the president can be removed from office by the parliament with a two-thirds majority vote, the grounds for which must be validated within thirty days by the Constitutional Court (Noyan-Tapan, AP, Itar-Tass, April 25-26).

Parliament’s decision amounts to a second-wave offensive, a response to Kocharian’s recent, successful political counterattack against his opponents. For the first time since the outbreak of the power struggle last October, the antipresidential forces registered a series of defeats. On April 11 and 14, Yerevan court and a court of appeals turned down Chief Military Prosecutor Khachig Jahangirian’s request to prolong the investigative detention of Kocharian’s top aide, Alexan Harutiunian, for a third period of two months. The president’s military opponents had organized Harutiunian’s detention last December, apparently hoping to implicate him and Kocharian as accomplices to the October 27, 1999 carnage of senior officials. But the investigation failed to uncover any evidence in the space of four months, the military prosecutors’ motives became increasingly suspect and Harutiunian was released on April 15. Sarkisian then lost face in a futile protest against the courts’ decisions, which he and his supporters blamed on the president (Noyan-Tapan, Azg, April 12-13, 16, 19-20).

On March 31 and April 25, Kocharian issued two related decrees, centralizing the authority to formulate and execute foreign policy into the hands of the Foreign Affairs Ministry. All other state bodies involved in foreign policy–excepting relations with international financial organizations–are now required to take their guidance from the Foreign Affairs Ministry, whose head Vardan Oskanian is an ally of the president. The move appears designed primarily to curtail the military’s foreign policy initiatives, which recently involved Armenia in controversial and potentially risky agreements with Russia (Noyan-Tapan, Snark, April 1, 13, 25; see the Fortnight in Review, March 3; the Monitor, February 14, March 16).

On April 19, the president dismissed Armen Sarkisian (no relation to the brothers Aram and Vazgen) from the post of ambassador to Great Britain. Armen, a former prime minister, had been approached by current Prime Minister Aram Sarkisian and others in London as a possible replacement for Kocharian, in the event that the antipresidential forces are able to remove the president from office (Armenpress, Mediamax, April 20).

On April 20, Kocharian went on national television–still his stronghold–to attack Jahangirian, and (by implication) the latter’s protectors in the top brass and around Aram Sarkisian, for politicizing the investigation into the October 27 murders and for stepping outside the bounds of law. The president threatened to dismiss the chief military prosecutor if he and his subordinates persist in their “tactics of political blackmail” (Armenian Television, Mediamax, Respublika Armeniya, April 20-21).

On April 21-22, the president publicly rejected Prime Minister Aram Sarkisian’s request for the dismissal of Internal Affairs Minister Haig Harutiunian (no relation to Alexan Harutiunian), who had recently begun distancing himself from the Sarkisian camp and had fired a senior pro-Sarkisian police official. Kocharian praised the minister’s overall performance (Mediafax, Noyan-Tapan, April 21-22, 25). Kocharian’s successful moves began generating a bandwagon effect in his favor in the political arena.

Attempting to recoup the initiative, segments of the antipresidential camp reached for the Russian card in the form of the Russia-Belarus Union. An estimated 10,000 to 15,000 people, many of them bused in from the provinces, demonstrated in rainy weather in central Yerevan on April 21, demanding Armenia’s accession to the Russia-Belarus Union by popular referendum. That initiative is being pushed by the “Russia-Belarus-Armenia” group of Armenian parliamentary deputies. The group has recently more than doubled its size to thirty-eight, thanks to deputies from the governing majority who joined the group’s communist and left-nationalist founders. Speakers at the rally threatened to impeach Kocharian if he persists in refusing to call a referendum. Movement organizers claim to have collected a million signatures in favor of holding that referendum; the claim is unproven and probably exaggerated, but it serves as a lever of political pressure–in this case on the president, whose opponents hope through this tactic to curry favor in Moscow. The movement’s propaganda claims–as did the April 21 rally speakers–that accession to the Russia-Belarus union would enable Armenia to overcome her economic crisis and to solve the Karabakh conflict on Armenian terms. Both claims are meant to challenge Kocharian’s position that economic recovery necessitates cooperation with Armenia’s neighbors and the West, and that a viable solution to the Karabakh conflict should be sought directly with Azerbaijan under Western aegis (Noyan-Tapan, Mediamax, April 20-22; Itar-Tass, Izvestia, April 21; see the Fortnight in Review, March 3; the Monitor, January 10, 20, March 9, 16-17, 21).