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Armenia: New Leaders Represent Desire For Stability

Last week (Nov. 2/3), Armenia's parliament and president chose replacements for the country's parliament speaker and prime minister, who were murdered in a terrorist attack the week before. RFE/RL analyst Liz Fuller looks at the inexperienced new leaders of Armenia and at the political ramifications of their appointment.

Prague, 9 November 1999 (RFE/RL ) -- The contrast between the murdered prime minister and parliament speaker and the two men chosen to replace them could scarcely be greater. Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkissian and speaker Karen Demirchian were both chairmen of their respective parties, experienced and powerful. Their successors are relatively inexperienced and obscure.

The new speaker, People's Party deputy Armen Khachatrian, is a 42-year-old philologist. He is at least somewhat known to the public, having been the organizer of Demirchian's unsuccessful presidential campaign in 1998, and since May a parliament deputy and head of the Foreign Affairs Commission.

The new prime minister, however, is a virtual unknown. Until his appointment as premier, few Armenians would have recognized the face of 38-year-old Aram Sarkissian, the brother of the slain Vazgen. Aram was a director of a cement factory. And fewer still have heard his voice -- the new prime minister canceled a press conference scheduled for today (Tuesday) and has still not spoken to the public.

The choice of those two figures reflects the stated determination of both parliament deputies and President Robert Kocharian to ensure stability and the continued implementation of the previous prime minister's policies. The younger Sarkissian will probably function as the implementer, rather than the architect, of policy. Policy will be dictated by the parliament majority, who consider themselves the guardians of the elder Sarkissian's economic program.

But the choice of new leaders also appears to represent a deliberate and conscious decision by the parliament to reject any politician who occupied a senior position in the administration of former president Levon Ter-Petrossian.

The ruling bloc in parliament, Miasnutyun (Unity) is made up of the two parties headed by the murdered prime minister and parliament speaker. With their deaths, the bloc has few leaders of charisma.

For the moment, however, Miasnutyun remains one of the strongest players on the political scene. President Kocharian is perceived by many observers as weakened by the death of Vazgen Sarkissian, who had shown signs of having espoused Kocharian's pro-Western orientation. But for the time being at least, the parliament and president share the same priorities.

The Armenian army, however, which the deceased prime minister played a major role in creating, has also emerged as a major force in its own right. The day after the shootings (Oct. 28) the army demanded the resignations of the interior and national security ministers and the procurator-general. But if elements within the Defense Ministry had nursed hopes of mounting a coup to oust Kocharian and bring back Ter-Petrossian, the former president himself rebuffed them, calling on Armenians to rally around the current president.

There are certainly elements within the armed forces that are more conservative and more oriented toward Moscow than either the president or most of the parliament, but it is not clear how strong those elements are. In a major concession to the military, Kocharian has allowed Armenia's chief military prosecutor to lead the official investigation into the parliament killings.

Another player, who had until recently been perceived as posing a potential threat to Kocharian, is Samvel Babayan, commander of the armed forces of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. Babayan has said there can be "no mention" of any intervention by the Karabakh military in Armenian affairs. But either the Karabakh or the Armenian army, or both, might be inclined to move against Kocharian to thwart a Karabakh settlement it perceived as damaging to national interests.