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Armenia: Prime Minister's Appointment Could Trigger Upheaval

Serzh Sarkisian (NATO) April 5, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Over the last 10 days, Armenia's domestic landscape has shifted dramatically, with a series of developments that have greatly upset the political scene prior to the country's looming May 12 parliamentary elections.

While such political change is neither especially new nor particularly surprising for Armenia, it has injected a new sense of tension and upheaval.

These changes culminated on April 4, with Armenian President Robert Kocharian's appointment of long-time Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian to serve as the country's acting premier, following the sudden death from heart failure on March 25 of Andranik Markarian, who had served in that position since May 2000.

Although a temporary appointment, which expires with the election of a new parliament and the subsequent formation of a new cabinet, the move may end, or at least defer, the recent political upheaval sparked by Markarian's death.

Yet it may be too little, too late, as Markarian's death has already altered the Armenian political landscape and upset the prior political balance between two rival pro-government parties.

For the ruling political elite, Markarian's death could not have come at a worse time. Markarian was the fulcrum in Armenia's domestic political struggle both by virtue of his position within the ruling pro-government coalition and as the pivotal balance between two rival pro-government parties, his own Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), and the new-found power of the Bargavach Hayastan (BH, Prosperous Armenia) party headed by wealthy businessman Gagik Tsarukian.

Rumor Mill

The sudden and unexpected nature of the premier's death also sparked confusion and rumor, ranging from the ever-present conspiracy theories around his ill-timed demise to public confusion among both officials and observers alike over claims that Sarkisian had already been appointed to fill the vacant post.

Much of the confusion was reported in the newspaper "Iravunk," which revealed that leaders of the governing Republican Party began discussing the question of who will be Armenia's next prime minister just hours after Markarian's death.

The urgency of the crisis forced Sarkisian to hurry back to Armenia, abruptly canceling a visit to China and ordering his plane to turn around in mid-flight. And as "Iravunk" noted, "the process went through several stages," with Sarkisian heading straight for the president's office upon landing in Yerevan.

Party Control

Having sensed the necessity for being present at such a critical time, Sarkisian's return enabled him to secure the backing of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), which named him as its sole candidate to replace Markarian in a late-night meeting on April 2.

The selection of Sarkisian, who assumed the number two spot within the party leadership last summer, virtually ensured his appointment as premier after an agreement was reached on March 26 in a meeting between Kocharian and the pro-government parties represented in the Armenian parliament that confirmed that the post would go to a candidate from the Republican Party. It also secured Sarkisian's control over the party and allowed him to assume full leadership, taking over the number one spot held by the late Markarian.

Yet the appointment of Sarkisian as interim prime minister may spark a confrontation on two fronts. It will likely exacerbate existing tensions between BH and the HHK "old guard" led by Sarkisian. That conflict is centered on a jockeying for position prior to the 2008 presidential election as much as it is about garnering power in the new parliament. But it may also feature an internal confrontation within the Republican Party between the Sarkisian camp and the ranks of Markarian loyalists, emboldened by the outpouring of grief and popular support for the late premier.

Presidential Bid

But the real question is who will succeed incumbent President Kocharian, who is barred by the constitution from seeking a third consecutive term when his current term expires in 2008.

The president's assumed chosen successor, Sarkisian, has positioned himself fairly well, with a view to utilizing his position as the new leader of the dominant Republican Party (HHK) as his platform for a later presidential bid.

Sarkisian's virtual "takeover" of the leadership of the HHK from the late prime minister in summer 2006 gave rise to tensions within that party, which were reportedly defused by a trade-off under which, following a HHK election victory, Markarian would have received the post of parliament speaker in return for ceding the premiership to Sarkisian. Now that the terms of that putative power-sharing agreement no longer apply, Armenia's current parliamentary speaker Tigran Torosian -- a veteran HHK member -- is in a much stronger position to retain his post after the election.

Markarian's funeral on March 28 (Onnik Krikorian/Eurasia Net)

Even before the May 12 election, Markarian's untimely death could impact on political stability in other ways. As the country's longest-serving prime minister, Markarian came to personify a mediating role within Armenia's traditionally cut-throat politics, conferring a degree of internal stability that set his tenure apart from that of his predecessors. It remains to be seen whether the junior coalition partner, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD), will inherit that role as a mediator between the two rival pro-government camps.

At the same time, the new situation has presented new opportunities for Defense Minister Sarkisian. The new landscape allowed him to consolidate his personal power and authority within the HHK by either sidelining or co-opting the remaining Markarian loyalists. And the appointment also offers an early start to his effort to present himself publicly as a viable, if not necessarily popular, successor to Kocharian.

While it may prove to have been a tactical mistake for Sarkisian to assume the position at this early stage, rather than after the elections, he may enhance his control over more of the administrative resources of the state. Nevertheless, his move has forced him to cede his ever-powerful role as defense minister, a critical position whose current vacancy only adds to the tension and upheaval.

As interim premier, Sarkisian is likely to bolster his position in the face of the mounting pressure from his only real rival, BH. The power and appeal of that party, formed just over one year ago by Gagik Tsarukian, a wealthy businessman with close personal ties to Kocharian, has peaked, however. And although its claims of collecting more than 370,000 members, a startling figure that would be equal to roughly 10 percent of the total population of Armenia, has been matched by its growing popularity, the real lasting power of the party is actually limited by its mission.

Despite expectations that the BH party will gain the second-largest number of parliament mandates after the HHK, its mission is limited to providing political support and a possible platform for outgoing President Kocharian and his closest associates. This suggests that any tension or instability from this rivalry will not carry over to the presidential election. But this also means that the coming weeks will pose a crucial test for the country, only compounded by pre-election tensions under the strain of intense scrutiny and higher expectations for clean elections.

Most importantly, an end to the relative pre-election calm from the forging of a virtual power-sharing agreement among the country's competing elites also questions the promise of fair elections. On the one hand, Sarkisian now holds a premiership that makes him both more secure in terms of political positioning but also more vulnerable at the same time, having given up the powerful post of defense minister. This may actually push him to do everything he can to ensure improved elections, as it will be seen as much as a test of him and his leadership, and not just a test for the country.

On the other hand, if attempts to adjust and adapt to this recent political upheaval fail or if conflict escalates, the contending elites may be even more tempted to resort to the irregularities and fraud that marred previous ballots. And this reveals a deeper deficiency in Armenian politics -- namely that the political system is far too dependent on individuals and lacks the institutions crucial for true democratic resilience and political stability.

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

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