A reshuffled government took office in Yerevan on November 16, defusing–for the moment at least–the power struggle between President Robert Kocharian and his rivals. Those rivals–who for the time being are acting as a cohesive bloc–represent the military, political and economic clientele of the country’s late strongman, Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian, whose assassination on October 27 triggered a struggle over power and policy between his heirs and the president. The Sarkisian camp, currently led by Vazgen’s brother Aram as the new prime minister, amounts to a powerful concentration of vested interests arrayed against a relatively isolated Kocharian. His rivals control the military establishment, the main governing party and other political groups–making up an overwhelming majority in parliament–as well as most local administrations and a number of ministries in both the outgoing and the incoming government.
The truce just reached over the new government’s composition reflects the president’s vulnerability to the political and military power wielded by his opponents. Kocharian was constrained to release National Security Minister Serge Sarkisian, his strongest and most reliable ally in the government (no relation to Vazgen and Aram), release the loyal Internal Affairs Minister Suren Abrahamian and Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian, and accept the reappointment of Industrial Infrastructure Minister Vahan Shirkhanian and the continuing presence of Andranik Kocharian (no relation to the president) as a political grey eminence in the Defense Ministry. Both Shirkhanian, a close associate of the army command, and Andranik Kocharian were cronies of the slain prime minister and are regarded as inspirers of the Defense Ministry’s quasi-ultimatum to Kocharian to bring the military’s nominees into the government, following Vazgen Sarkisian’s assassination.
The new National Security and Internal Affairs ministers are Major-General Haig Harutiunian and Major-General Karlos Petrosian, described as nonpolitical career officers. Such a description is in line with Kocharian’s minimal demand during the tense negotiations with his rivals. Yet that description says nothing about the two ministers’ actual loyalties or their behavior in a possible crunch to come; nor can it disguise the net loss incurred by Kocharian’s camp through Serge Sarkisian’s departure from the National Security Ministry. Kocharian promptly appointed him as head of the presidential staff–a post whose influence at this time does not extend far beyond the walls of the presidential residence.
The president was also able to reward Hovsepian with the post of deputy prosecutor-general under the new prosecutor-general, Boris Nazarian, the nominee of anti-Kocharian forces. Nazarian is a native of Ararat district and made his entire career to date in that district, which is also the birthplace and fief of the brothers Vazgen and Aram Sarkisian, the late and the new prime minister. The Nazarian appointment seems designed to ensure continued military control of the investigation into the October 27 terrorist carnage. The military, in violation of the law, took over that investigation from the civilian prosecutors. The army generals are now in a position either to retain direct control of the investigation or to turn it over to the loyal civilian Nazarian. Either way, the investigation can be turned into a political tool in the power struggle, only the first round of which has been settled through this government reshuffle (Noyan-Tapan, Snark, Azg, Respublika Armeniya, November 12-17; see the Monitor, October 28, November 1, 3, 8 and the Fortnight in Review, November 5).
Kocharian seems clearly on the defensive, indeed embattled at this stage. The disproportion of forces brought the president to the brink of resignation during the tense bargaining with his rivals. Fortunately for Kocharian, the opposite side is not interested in forcing him out at this stage. Nor is the unity of that side to be taken for granted any longer in the absence of Vazgen Sarkisian, who had held all the strings in his hands. Kocharian’s position has, for the moment, become even weaker than it had been prior to the terrorist assault; but he has gained time and perhaps some opportunities to play on potential divisions among his opponents in the power struggle which seems set to continue.
The situation illustrates four oft-neglected facts which make Armenia a unique exception among the post-Soviet countries, to wit: use of force in adjudicating differences among groups within the ruling establishment; military dominance of political processes; weakness and vulnerability of the presidential institution; and, as the most recent development, hereditary succession to the post generally considered the most influential–that of the military-backed prime minister.
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