Armenia’s governing coalition has been thrust into fresh turmoil by a bitter row between two of the three political parties represented in it. The row between the Republican Party (HHK) of Prime Minister Andranik Markarian and the Orinats Yerkir (Country of Law) party led by parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian has dominated front-page newspaper headlines for almost two weeks. It has sparked renewed speculation about the imminent collapse of a power-sharing deal cut by President Robert Kocharian’s leading political allies following a disputed parliamentary election in May 2003.
The intra-government squabbles stem from rumors about Markarian’s impending resignation that began circulating in Yerevan late last month. Markarian, in office since May 2000, has been dogged by such forecasts for years, but he has still managed to become post-Soviet Armenia’s longest serving prime minister. What made the latest rumors different was the fact that they were apparently spread by highly-placed individuals from the ruling establishment.
Markarian implicitly pointed the finger at Baghdasarian and Orinats Yerkir in a February 22 interview with Haykakan Zhamanak, a daily highly critical of the Armenian authorities. Such was his fury that he openly accused Baghdasarian of illegally setting up several “councils” advising him on issues ranging from science to youth affairs. “I have instructed all executive bodies not to respond to papers from the commissions created by the National Assembly chairman and not to take part in their work,” Markarian said.
The attack was echoed by other top Republicans in the following days. “The National Assembly has been turned into Orinats Yerkir’s pre-election campaign headquarters,” one of them, Galust Sahakian, charged on February 25.
Baghdasarian, meanwhile, was quick to rebut the allegations through another pro-opposition paper, Aravot. He claimed that the Armenian prime minister himself broke the law by telling government officials not to cooperate with his consultative bodies.
The recriminations were reportedly discussed at a meeting between Kocharian and leaders of the coalition parties on February 23. Afterward, some of them sought to downplay their implications.
That the parties represented in Kocharian’s cabinet do not quite like each other has been obvious since the coalition’s formation. The deal reinforced the HHK’s status as Armenia’s number one “party of power.” It currently has the biggest faction in parliament and controls most ministries and local government bodies. Orinats Yerkir and especially the third coalition partner, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (HHD), still have trouble coming to terms with that. They both feel that they were cheated by the Republicans during the 2003 polls, which Western monitors criticized as undemocratic.
The HHD, also known as Dashnaktsutyun, is the most outspoken and unhappy of the three governing parties. Its leaders expressed serious concern last fall about what they called “the power of money” and a lack of democracy and the rule of law in the country. One of them, Armen Rustamian, deplored Armenia’s “divergence from the democratization process” in an interview with RFE/RL on February 21. He warned in particular that failure to ensure the freedom and fairness of local elections scheduled for this October could result in bloodshed.
The coalition squabbles periodically brew to a boil, requiring Kocharian’s personal intervention. The president, for example, was instrumental in a November agreement between the HHK and its junior partners that calls for a major increase in the number of parliament seats contested under the system of proportional representation. The change was demanded by Dashnaktsutyun and initially opposed by the Republicans.
Whether the Armenian leader relishes the arbiter’s role or finds it a nuisance is a matter of contention. What is obvious is that he will need coalition unity in the coming weeks when he is expected to give a final answer to one nagging question: will he seek a third term in office in 2008 or try to pick a loyal successor instead?
The existing Armenian constitution stipulates that the head of state cannot serve for more than two consecutive terms. Kocharian and his allies have been working on a package of constitutional amendments that will be put to a referendum later this year. Its final version is due to be unveiled and approved by the Kocharian-controlled parliament this spring.
Kocharian, whose democratic credentials were severely damaged by the reputedly fraudulent presidential elections of 2003 and 1998, will likely come under domestic and international fire if the amendments leave a loophole for a third presidential term. Even some coalition members might be against that.
Finding a successor who would satisfy the HHK, Dashnaktsutiun, and Orinats Yerkir seems equally problematic. Defense Minister Serge Sarkisian, Armenia’s second-most powerful man, is the most likely candidate for that role. But Sarkisian would have a hard time winning over Dashnaktsutyun, which is particularly influential in the worldwide Armenian Diaspora.
In addition, Orinats Yerkir’s Baghdasarian is also thought to be harboring presidential ambitions. The 36-year-old politician is the most “electable” supporter of Kocharian, owing to his populist appeal and organizational skills. Little wonder that in his newspaper interview, Markarian grumbled that “certain pro-government or, so to speak, semi-pro-government forces” are already preparing for presidential elections.
(Haykakan Zhamanak, February 22, February 25; Aravot, February 24; RFE/RL Armenia Report, February 21)