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Armenia: New Government Takes Shape, Faces Big Challenges

Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian (file photo) (ITAR-TASS) Armenia's new government is beginning to take shape, with the naming of six ministers this week. Only three will be new faces, however.

Armenia's former ambassador to France, Eduard Nalbandian, has assumed the position of foreign minister. Seyran Ohanian, the former chief of Armenia's armed forces, has become the defense minister. The third new face has been known for more than a week, with the appointment of former Central Bank chief Tigran Sarkisian to the post of prime minister.

Three ministers retained the positions they held in the outgoing government. Gevorg Danielian (Republican Party) will stay on as justice minister, while Armen Grigorian (Prosperous Armenia) will continue as minister of sport and youth affairs and David Lokian (Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun) as agriculture minister.

Consultations Continuing

The ruling coalition -- led by President Serzh Sarkisian's Republican Party and including Prosperous Armenia, Orinats Yerkir, and Dashnaktsutiun -- is continuing consultations, and a full cabinet is expected to be formed by the end of this week.

The new government will have its work cut out for it in winning over a population still recovering from the bloodiest postelection violence Armenia has ever seen.

After weeks of protests contesting the results of the country's February 19 presidential election, police on March 1 moved in with force to drive opposition supporters from the capital's Freedom Square. Dominated by backers of second-place finisher Levon Ter-Petrossian, the rallies were staged daily to voice the belief that the election was rigged and to call for a new vote.

Ten people -- including protesters and two police officers -- were killed as a result of the chaos that followed the police action. Armenian authorities followed up by imposing a 20-day state of emergency, making mass arrests, introducing a ban on public demonstrations, and curtailing media freedoms.

As a result of those steps, the new government also faces an uphill climb in restoring its image in the international community.

The Monitoring Commission of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) adopted a resolution on April 17 urging the Armenian authorities to implement a number of reforms aimed at improving the situation in the country. PACE suggests launching an independent inquiry into the clashes, releasing all prisoners who did not commit crimes, amending the law on public rallies, and engaging in a dialogue with the opposition.

PACE warns that, unless those conditions are met, it will consider suspending the voting rights of Armenia during its next session, which takes place in June.

'Attempts To Increase Legitimacy'

Alexander Iskandarian, the director of the Yerevan-based Caucasus Media Institute, says the Armenian authorities are well aware of the need to improve their image.

"Everything that the authorities are doing now represents their attempt to increase legitimacy," Iskandarian says. "Be it through appointments of some neutral figures; through attempts to talk to the public and assure them that steps will be made to improve the situation; through appropriation of the opposition's slogans; through the removal of figures from the government who particularly irritate people; and so on. These are attempts to increase legitimacy -- attempts to make people trust the government and president more. The authorities are lacking this right now. Whether they will be successful in their attempts remains to be seen."

Most observers do not expect significant changes in the country's foreign or domestic policies.

New Foreign Minister Nalbandian, is a 52-year-old career diplomat who, apart from France, has also served as the country's ambassador to Israel, Andorra, and the Vatican. He replaces Vartan Oskanian, a veteran diplomat who announced his resignation last week.

"At this moment, it is difficult to predict what the next president will do," Oskanian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service after his resignation. "It's his choice, what kind of foreign policy he will implement -- whether he will maintain the notion of 'complementarity' [between Russia and the West] or not. But given my experience, I don't think Armenia's room to maneuver is very wide. Our options are limited. What can be done is simply to make some changes in accents, not necessarily in direction."

New Defense Minister Ohanian, who is 46, is a close associate of the new president, Serzh Sarkisian. Both men hail from Nagorno-Karabakh and have a longstanding friendship.

"Seyran Ohanian has a somewhat standard background for Armenian high-ranking officials," says Iskandarian. "Just like nearly the entire political and, moreover, military elite of Armenia, his 'roots' are in the Karabakh war. He is a veteran of the war and has firsthand military experience. After that, he worked at various posts at the Defense Ministry."

The new administration's attitude on the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh -- an Armenian-controlled and -populated enclave within Azerbaijan over which Baku and Yerevan fought a war in 1988-94 -- has perhaps gained the most clarity.

In his first major foreign-policy speech on April 16, Armenia's president was uncompromising.

"Azerbaijan must understand the simple reality that the existence of the republic of Nagorno-Karabakh's independence is irreversible," Sarkisian said. "The people of Nagorno-Karabakh have won their right to a free and independent life. And through our efforts, that right must be recognized by the international community."