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Armenian President Under Pressure

President Serzh Sarkisian is now being attacked not only by the opposition, but by a coalition partner.
President Serzh Sarkisian is now being attacked not only by the opposition, but by a coalition partner.
Two years after being sworn in as Armenia's third postindependence president, Serzh Sarkisian is under increasing pressure not only from his closest challenger in the February 2008 presidential ballot, but from one of the two junior partners within the ruling coalition government, the Bargavach Hayastan (BH, Prosperous Armenia) party headed by prominent oligarch Gagik Tsarukian.

Since its creation in 2007, BH has been increasingly perceived as enabling Sarkisian's predecessor as president, Robert Kocharian, to keep at least one foot in mainstream politics. In fact, many see BH as the vehicle for Kocharian's return to power, possibly as prime minister.

This incipient split within the ruling coalition into two almost equally matched factions is deeper and potentially a more serious threat than either the perennial confrontation between a hitherto unified presidential power base and a marginalized opposition, or the "palace coup" that forced then-President Levon Ter-Petrossian to step down in February 1998. In that respect, it marks a "first" in Armenia's post-Soviet political history.

The criticisms of Sarkisian and of the coalition government encompass virtually every aspect of policy, from the post-2008 election crackdown and subsequent inconclusive investigation, to the government's half-hearted response to the onset of a serious economic crisis, to Sarkisian's ground-breaking policy of rapprochement with Turkey and its impact on the search for a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

The extraparliamentary opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK) bloc headed by former President Ter-Petrossian has consistently argued that the 2008 presidential election was rigged in Sarkisian's favor, and called for the release of opposition activists and supporters arrested and jailed for their participation in the postelection protests that culminated in violent clashes with police and security forces in Yerevan during the night of March 1-2, 2008.

In response to pressure from the international community, the Armenian parliament declared an amnesty in June 2009 for dozens of opposition members jailed for their involvement in those protests.

As he did during the presidential election campaign, Ter-Petrossian has also repeatedly lambasted corruption and economic ineptitude within the present administration. Ter-Petrossian also claims that the current draft peace plan for Nagorno-Karabakh, which Sarkisian has accepted as a basis for talks, is far less advantageous for Armenia than the one he argued in October 1997 that Yerevan should sign.

By contrast, criticism from BH has until recently been less public and largely confined to the parliament, in which BH is the second-largest faction with 22 deputies, and the Yerevan city council. In December 2008, for example, BH voted against proposed amendments to the country's Tax Code. In November 2009, BH threatened to boycott future sessions of the Yerevan city council to protest what it termed the "monopolization of power" by HHK Mayor Gagik Beglarian.

In the wake of that latter disagreement, senior BH lawmaker Naira Zohrabian denied that BH had any differences with the HHK on "issues crucial to the country." She said the party continued "to stand by" President Sarkisian.

At the same time, she said that it was not a foregone conclusion that the existing coalition government would survive until the parliamentary elections due in 2012. "The coalition is not a fusion of Siamese twins," she told RFE/RL. "Each political force has its own concrete objectives."

In recent weeks, both Tsarukian and Kocharian have lambasted the government's economic policy. On March 15, Tsarukian took Trade and Economy Minister Nerses Yeritsian to task for affirming that Armenia has now emerged from economic crisis.

Both President Sarkisian and Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian (no relation to the president) were quick to defend Yeritsian, demonstrating their mounting impatience with Tsarukian. Moreover, Tsarukian's stubborn refusal to pay even marginally higher taxes from his vast business interests has reportedly angered some government officials.

One week later, in an interview with Mediamax, Kocharian accused the government of "squandering" the "ideal macroeconomic situation" bequeathed by the outgoing government in 2008.

Sarkisian's HHK initially downplayed Kocharian's criticism, which party spokesman Eduard Sharmazanov described as "acceptable" and "within the bounds of correctness."

Then on April 2, Galust Sahakian, who heads the parliament faction of Sarkisian's Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), said that Sarkisian's track record was impressive enough that he could be confident of winning a second presidential term in 2013. Sahakian said it was "unlikely" that Kocharian would be a candidate in that ballot.

Kocharian himself issued a statement on April 8 saying that he had not yet decided whether to return to big-time politics. "If I decide to return to politics I will declare that openly and directly, just as I do everything else," he affirmed.

That statement is unlikely to put an end to speculation that Kocharian is indeed planning a political comeback, and may even aspire to the post of prime minister, which he held from late 1996 until early 1998.

If, as seems probable, the divisions within the coalition government continue to deepen, President Sarkisian may consider bolder options for reasserting his control. He may even turn to a weapon of last resort: dissolving parliament and calling early elections to preempt an anticipated power bid by Kocharian.

True, doing so would be a gamble: but Sarkisian is reputed to be a skilled and successful player at the gaming table. And the fallout in recent years from orchestrating the outcome of successive elections has been minimal.

If it comes to a standoff between the current and former presidents, the small Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD) may emerge as "kingmaker." The party's past relations with Sarkisian have been uneasy, and it quit the coalition government one year ago to protest the terms on which he sought rapprochement with Turkey. Meanwhile, it has been consistent in expressing support for Kocharian.

Yet a tactical political marriage between the HHD and Tsarukian's BH seems implausible, not least because Dashnak supporters throughout the Armenian diaspora would have a hard time accepting an alliance with such a prominent and controversial oligarch, even in the interests of securing Kocharian's return to power.

And since the Dashnak party ostensibly resigned from the coalition over Armenia's opening to Turkey, it may find Tsarukian's past support for that effort especially unacceptable.

-- Liz Fuller and Richard Giragosian

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.


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