Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 207

Slain Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian’s brother, Aram Sarkisian, was nominated for the same post by President Robert Kocharian on November 3, seven days after the bloodbath in the Armenian parliament. The Defense Ministry and the Unity [Miasnutiun] parliamentary bloc–creations and power base of Vazgen Sarkisian–foisted their candidate, Aram, on the president.

Aram Sarkisian, 38–two years younger than his late brother–is a trained construction engineer and head of Ararattsement–the large, state-owned cement factory in the Sarkisians’ native town of Ararat. He is a veteran of the Karabakh war, a member of Vazgen’s Republican Party and also a member of the Yerkrapah [Country Defender] paramilitary organization, which doubled as a vigilante apparatus of the Defense Ministry under Vazgen’s control. Aram has no experience in politics or government, is completely unknown to the public and has yet to address the parliament or the country since his nomination.

Owing in part to his obscurity, Aram has been at the center of rumors about shadowy business activities of the “Sarkisian clan.” Aram mattered but little when Vazgen visited Washington in September as his country’s strongman. Not many will have noticed on that occasion that Vazgen’s set of conditions for Armenian-Turkish detente included a large-scale deal for Ararat cement.

In rallying behind Aram, the parliamentary majority leaders offered two self-denying comments. First, that the nomination is intended to ensure “continuity of power” after the passing of Vazgen. And, second, that the parliamentary majority–while formally empowered to approve the cabinet’s composition–will not influence the selection of cabinet ministers. These comments suggest that Aram’s nomination originated outside the constitutional framework, most likely in the Defense Ministry. Considering Aram’s inexperience and lack of personal authority–indeed his derivative status–he seems destined to serve at least initially as a front man for the military and business circles associated with the slain strongman Vazgen.

With Aram Sarkisian’s nomination, Armenia becomes the first post-Soviet country to move toward hereditary succession of power. This development appears all the more striking in view of the commonplace speculation that Azerbaijan was headed that way. Aram’s ascent–even if his role turns out to be that of a figurehead–is literally a testament to Vazgen Sarkisian’s power, also indicating that the power base has at least for now survived the late strongman. As a net result, Kocharian’s position has turned more precarious vis-a-vis the military hardliners.

On November 5, Kocharian, Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian and the Defense Minister, Lieutenant-General Vagharshak Harutiunian, held talks with Russia’s President Boris Yeltsin and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Moscow. The invitation had been extended on shortest notice, and the Armenian delegation’s composition–excluding Aram Sarkisian–reflected the real balance of power in Yerevan between the president and the Defense Ministry. Yeltsin and other Russian leaders used the significant wording “President Kocharian and the entire Armenian leadership” in addressing their guests. The meeting looked like an exercise in Russian arbitration of the inter-Armenian power contest. Moscow seems to have declared its full support for the Armenian president while asking him to accept the policies of his rivals. And that situation may severely constrict Kocharian’s leeway at this critical juncture in the peace negotiations with Azerbaijan (Noyan-Tapan, Azg, September 27-28; Noyan-Tapan, Snark, Azg, Armenpress, Respublika Armeniya, Itar-Tass, November 2-6; see the Monitor, October 28, November 1, 3; The Fortnight in Review, November 5).

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