The October 27 assassination of Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian, parliament chairman Karen Demirchian and six other officials has left a gaping vacuum in Armenia’s leadership. Sarkisian, formally the prime minister, was also in de facto control of the army, the parliamentary majority and most territorial administrations; his real powers eclipsed those of President Robert Kocharian. A silent rivalry for influence in the state between Sarkisian’s and Kocharian’s camps has turned into an open contest since the very day of the strongman’s death. Moscow, whose client Sarkisian was, seems to favor that side for now. A number of other groups are watching from the fence at this juncture.
On the surface at least, the battle lines are drawn according to conflicting interpretations of the significance of the terrorist assault. The Army and most of the governing Republican Party–Sarkisian’s creations and bastions–maintain that the assault stemmed from a wide-ranging conspiracy against the Armenian state and was to have sparked a coup d’etat, which the Army managed to block. That version has been embraced by the staunchly Moscow-oriented Armenian Communist Party and, more significantly, by the Russian government. Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, in Yerevan for the funeral of the murdered officials, added his spin–namely, that Sarkisian and Demirchian had been singled out for assassination “because they were true friends of Russia.” “Very ardent supporters of close relations with Russia”–echoed–in bipartisan consensus–the Duma’s Communist chairman Gennady Seleznev at the gravesite in Yerevan.
By contrast, Kocharian, Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian and government officials close to them maintain that the terrorist attack was a wanton act by five psychopathic individuals with no sponsors, political agenda or coup scenario. The Kocharian camp furthermore insists–as does the government of Azerbaijan–that the assault had nothing to do with the current Armenian-Azerbaijani peace negotiations and that its aftershocks must not be allowed to interfere with those negotiations. This crucial point is usually absent from the Sarkisian camp’s pronouncements. The omission suggests that the army generals–with Moscow in the background–are dissatisfied with the course of those negotiations, which Kocharian and Oskanian have recently been conducting under United States auspices. It therefore appears that the pro-Russian hardliners are exploiting the terrorist assault in order to derail Kocharian’s policy or to obtain a larger role for themselves in its formulation.
Control over the “force ministries” constitutes an even higher stake in the contest, because that control will define the balance of power between the contestant groups and, ultimately, their ability to shape Armenia’s foreign policy in general and the negotiating position on Karabakh in particular. Only hours after the shooting in parliament, the Defense Ministry issued a statement demanding the immediate resignation of National Security Minister Serge Sarkisian (no relation to Vazgen) and Internal Affairs Minister Suren Abrahamian. The Defense Ministry–under Vazgen Sarkisian’s handpicked minister, Lieutenant-General Vagarshak Harutiunian–backed up its demand by deploying patrols in the streets of Yerevan and checkpoints around the city, without the required authorization from Kocharian. Serge Sarkisian, a pillar of Kocharian’s “clan” of Karabakh natives, had earlier this year lost out organizationally and politically in a power struggle against Vazgen Sarkisian’s Defense Ministry. That ministry now seems to aim to place its allies in the two “force” portfolios controlled by Kocharian. The President has characteristically retorted twice publicly that he “never yields to ultimatums.” Although Abrahamian and Serge Sarkisian have, in that order, handed in their resignations, Kocharian has declined to accept them.
The posts of prime minister and parliamentary chairman are up for grabs. The Army wants the ex-defense minister, now Industrial Infrastructure Minister Vahan Shirkhanian to become prime minister. Kocharian seems to favor the Republican Party leader Andranik Markarian to head the government. Markarian is no ally of Kocharian but he has, in the president’s eyes, the merit of resisting the brazen form of the military’s interference in politics. Either side rejects the other’s candidate outright.
The contest over power and policy in Yerevan seems in full swing. This situation may have the undesirable consequence of reducing Kocharian’s negotiating leeway with Azerbaijan, and thus also the scope for the informal but crucial American mediation, in the runup to the summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Although the Kocharian camp is almost certainly correct in dismissing any link between the terrorist assault and the peace negotiations with Azerbaijan, the rival camp seems intent on forging such a link after the fact in order to stymie those negotiations–to the satisfaction of its friends in Moscow (Noyan-Tapan, Snark, Azg, Armenpress, Respublika Armeniya, Itar-Tass, October 28-31, November 1-2; see the Monitor, October 28, November 1).
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