Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 54

On March 14, President Robert Kocharian made extensive changes in Armenia’s Army command, relieving two deputy defense ministers of their posts; appointing three new deputy defense ministers and a new deputy chief of the General Staff; replacing the commanders of the First, Second and Fifth Army Corps (leaving the Fourth Army Corps’ command vacant until further notice); and promoting three of the new appointees from colonel to major-general.

He ordered these changes based on his March 6 decree, which broadened the president’s authority as commander in chief of the armed forces. In that decree, Kocharian conferred on himself–and himself alone–the exclusive power to establish the list of military posts to be held by officers with the rank of general, appoint generals to and remove them from those posts, discharge them from military service altogether, and appoint and remove department heads in the Defense Ministry. Until now, presidential authority had in practice been confined to appointing the defense minister and his deputies, leaving all other military posts to be filled by the defense minister’s order. To make matters worse from the standpoint of civilian control, the presidential “appointment” merely ratified the military’s choice of a defense minister.

Kocharian’s March 6 decree is generally being deemed a bold move to assume certain powers previously held by the defense minister, Lieutenant-General Vagharshak Harutiunian. Considered to be closely linked with the Russian military, Harutiunian was handpicked for the post by the strongman prime minister Vazgen Sarkisian last June, a move which bypassed presidential authority. When Vazgen Sarkisian was assassinated by terrorists last October, Harutiunian threatened to move against Kocharian and has since supported the anti-Kocharian camp nominally led by Aram Sarkisian, Vazgen’s brother and his successor as prime minister.

The practical significance of the March 14 command reshuffle is for the moment a puzzle to local observers. Although the Armenian military is intensely politicized, the particular politics of most of the generals affected by the shakeup are far from clear. The one clear-cut case is that of Major-General Manvel Grigorian, who doubles as chairman of Yerkrapah [Country Defender], the paramilitary organization which spawned the governing Republican Party. Vazgen Sarkisian had been the leader of both the party and Yerkrapah. His successor in the latter post, Grigorian, openly encouraged his organization’s congress in February to demand an early presidential election–that is, Kocharian’s ouster. Under the March 14 presidential orders, Grigorian has been released as commander of the First Army Corps, only to be appointed to one of the posts of deputy defense minister. Speculation is rife as to the meaning of this and other changes of command.

Hours after issuing his set of orders, Kocharian descended on the Defense Ministry to introduce the new appointees. In a speech to the ministry’s senior staff, the president warned that military involvement in politics is unacceptable and that he is prepared strictly to curb it. By the same token, Kocharian promised personally to attend to the military’s professional needs. Harutiunian, projecting confidence, flew to Moscow for today’s meeting of defense ministers of CIS member countries (Noyan-Tapan, Snark, Azg, Armenpress, March 14, 15; see the Monitor, January 10, 20, February 14, 29, March 9, 14).

Any assessment of this shakeup ought to factor in Kocharian’s and his top aide Serge Sarkisian’s contingency plans for the next few months. Under the constitution, the president has the power to dissolve the parliament and call new elections no earlier than the end of his first year in office. That crucial deadline falls in late May. Given the country’s economic disaster, the Republican-Yerkrapah “party of power” and their close allies fear defeat in any pre-term election. Some of Kocharian’s most aggressive rivals would therefore like to oust him ahead of the May deadline, while moderate opponents would be content to force the president to give up some constitutional prerogatives, particularly that of dissolving the parliament. Kocharian and his embattled supporters need to prevent hostile generals from bringing troops into the streets of Yerevan in May. Such precautions should presuppose changes in some operational commands at Army Corps level, as well as transferring potentially dangerous generals from troop command posts to ministerial desk jobs.