On May 12, President Robert Kocharian nominated parliamentary majority leader Andranik Margarian as the new prime minister of Armenia, in place of Aram Sarkisian. The president had dismissed Sarkisian and his key supporter, Defense Minister Vagharshak Harutiunian, on May 2, boldly seizing the initiative in the power struggle which pits the presidential camp against Sarkisian’s parliamentary and military loyalists. Under the constitution, the prime minister’s departure automatically entails the resignation of the entire cabinet of ministers. The cabinet–minus Sarkisian and Harutiunian–currently functions in a caretaker capacity pending the formation of a new one by the president’s nominee.
Margarian, born in Yerevan in 1951, was sentenced to two years in prison in 1974 for having joined an underground nationalist group in Soviet Armenia. He was later trained as a computer engineer at the Yerevan Polytechnic, worked in that capacity for the government after 1990 and was elected to parliament in 1995 as a backbencher. He rose only recently to the top of Armenian politics, and owes that rise largely to the slain strongman Vazgen Sarkisian, Aram’s elder brother. In January 1999, Vazgen Sarkisian recreated the small Republican Party as the new party of power, with Margarian installed as party chairman. The Republican Party and the allied paramilitary union Yerkrapah [Country Defender], backed by Sarkisian’s Defense Ministry, produced a landslide victory in the May 1999 parliamentary elections. Margarian has since combined the chairmanship of the Republican Party with that of the Unity parliamentary bloc, which consists of the Republican Party and its junior ally, the People’s Party. The Unity bloc controls nearly two-thirds of the chamber’s 131 seats. Margarian was among the key figures who facilitated the handover, under military protection, of the prime ministership in November 1999 from the elder to the junior Sarkisian. While continuing to support that camp in the power struggle against the president, Margarian nevertheless evidenced some reservations toward the military’s overt meddling in politics.
Kocharian’s nomination of Margarian to head a new government seems designed to enlarge the rifts which are emerging in the antipresidential front. Since the fall of the Sarkisian government on May 2, the Yerkrapah Union, the Republican Party and the Unity bloc have been unable to come up with any coherent plans or ministerial candidates, despite holding strategy meetings almost around the clock. Those meetings have produced only signs of disarray and internal division in all three organizations. Last week, a majority of Yerkrapah Union activists at a special gathering in Yerevan urged action to oust Kocharian, but the Yerkrapah leadership is temporizing, partly due to disagreements over the choice of a successor to Aram Sarkisian. The Republican Party is divided between a hard nucleus of Sarkisian loyalists and the apparently growing number of those who would climb on the president’s bandwagon. The Unity bloc is beginning to unravel as its junior component, the People’s Party, is negotiating separately with Kocharian, and seems inclined to support a presidentially controlled government without demanding a share of power. While Margarian’s Republicans seem prepared to accept the political responsibility along with their share of government posts, the People’s Party seems mainly preoccupied to avoid the responsibility of managing the country’s economic and political crisis.
With the parliamentary majority beginning to unravel, the twenty-two-strong Stability group of deputies is taking on a pivotal importance. Its members are mostly allies and proteges of the Sarkisian camp, not officially affiliated with the Republican Party or Yerkrapah, but taking their cue from them as long as the Sarkisians were in power. With Kocharian now gaining ground in the power struggle, the Stability group is rapidly redefining itself as propresidential and is turning itself into a party. With that, the components of a new parliamentary majority, one prepared to work with Kocharian, are beginning to emerge. That reconfigured majority could include parts of the Republican Party, most or all of the People’s Party, the Stability party-in-the-making, and two small parliamentary parties which supported Kocharian throughout the crisis: the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaksutiun and the Country of Laws party, the latter controlled by Kocharian’s chief of staff Serge Sarkisian (no relation to Vazgen and Aram). A third, small pro-Kocharian party, Right and Accord, has strong reservations against Kocharian’s deal in progress with Margarian’s Republicans. Right and Accord is loyal to Karabakh’s arrested ex-defense minister, Samvel Babaian, who has lost the power struggle against the Sarkisians’ proteges in Stepanakert.
While negotiating with his opponents from a position of strength, Kocharian is moving to undermine the social base of those opponents. Just in the last few days, a variety of interest groups and professional associations, ranging from the Union of Armenian Manufacturers and Businessmen to a representative sample of Armenia’s sportsmen, have issued statements–well-publicized by state television–supporting Kocharian and condemning the antipresidential actions. One of Armenia’s most popular military figures, Major-General Arkady Ter-Tatevosian, has announced the creation of a union of veterans of the Karabakh war, rival to Yerkrapah and obliquely supporting the president.
The options of the Sarkisian camp and of the unraveling parliamentary majority have become distinctly narrower. On May 31, Kocharian will be able under the constitution to dissolve the parliament and call new elections unless the Republicans and other groups accept the formation of a new government under presidential control (Noyan-Tapan, Snark, Mediamax, Armenpress, Armenian National Television, May 11-14; see the Fortnight in Review, May 12, March 3; the Monitor, May 1, 3, April 4, 27, March 9, 16-17, 21).
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