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Why Did Armenian Prime Minister Resign?

Did Armenian Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian go of his own volition, or was he pushed? And if so, why?
Did Armenian Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian go of his own volition, or was he pushed? And if so, why?
Armenian Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian's announcement on April 3 of his resignation came as a complete surprise, even though rumors of his impending dismissal had surfaced on half a dozen occasions during the six years he held the post. But inconsistencies in the various explanations given for Sarkisian's decision cast doubt on his insistence that he quit voluntarily.

Serzh Sarkisian, to whom he is not related, had appointed Sarkisian, then chairman of Armenia's Central Bank, as prime minister following his election as president in spring 2008. At that juncture, Tigran Sarkisian was not aligned with any political party, although in the early 1990s he had been a member of the opposition National Democratic Union. He joined the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) only in November 2009, 18 months after being named prime minister. Serzh Sarkisian reappointed him to head the cabinet after his reelection for a second presidential term in February 2012.

There are at least six possible explanations for why Tigran Sarkisian has relinquished his post. The first is that he did indeed do so of his own volition, possibly for health reasons (he is 54 and was briefly hospitalized four years ago with high blood pressure), or because he has been offered a prestigious post with an international financial organization. His spokesman Harutiun Berberian has been quoted as denying a report in the daily "Zhoghovurd" that Sarkisian will be named a vice president of the World Bank.

If that is indeed the case, however, the question arises why Sarkisian did not say anything to colleagues during the April 3 cabinet meeting. And if, as Sarkisian himself told journalists, he had submitted his resignation several weeks earlier but been asked by the president to continue in his post until after "a series of important state events, including a HHK economic forum," the president would have had plenty of time to reach a decision on his successor, who has not yet been named.

The second is that Sarkisian's resignation was precipitated by new and as yet unannounced developments in the corruption scandal in which he was implicated last year. The case centers on allegations made public in June 2013 against businessman Ashot Sukiasian, who is accused of misappropriating a $10.7 million loan to a second businessman and depositing the cash in the offshore bank account of a Cyprus-based company named Wlispera Holdings. Sarkisian and Archbishop Navasard Kchoyan were identified as co-owners of Wlispera, together with Sukiasian. Both men deny any connection with it; Sarkisian said he had been registered as a co-owner without his knowledge, although Cyprus's attorney general, Petros Clerides, said that was not possible.

At the time those allegations surfaced, senior HHK member Samvel Nikoyan was quoted as dismissing them as "an organized campaign against the prime minister." Nikoyan went on to point out that "everybody has come to terms with the fact that the president has been elected for a second term and will serve until 2018. This means that the only influential post over which one can haggle and which can be used for influencing political developments is that of prime minister."

The third is that Sarkisian's resignation marks the culmination of a protracted power struggle between him and parliament speaker Hovik Abrahamian, who has reportedly long aspired to the premiership. When rumors first surfaced in the spring of 2009 of Tigran Sarkisian's impending dismissal, the daily "Hraparak" reported that Serzh Sarkisian personally summoned Abrahamian and ordered him to stop spreading them.

Two years later, Tigran Sarkisian admitted in an interview with RFE/RL's Armenian Service that he faced "competition" from other members of the leadership. Asked how long he expected to remain in his post, he replied "God knows."

The fourth is that questions had arisen about Sarkisian's loyalty to the HHK. Last summer the daily "Zhoghovurd" reported, citing unidentified "reliable sources," that the prime minister was sounding out like-minded colleagues with a view to creating his own political team.

The fifth is that President Sarkisian is profoundly concerned by the alarming socioeconomic situation and decided to make the prime minister the scapegoat for it, rather than face the mass protest demonstrations to call for the prime minister's resignation that major opposition parties had scheduled for the end of this month to coincide with a no-confidence vote in the government.

True, the president praised the prime minister's track record, but at the same time he declared that "the new government must be able to restore our citizens' trust in reforms and its activities.... I think there will be substantial changes in the new government. There is a need to take a fresh look at existing problems and areas."

This is the explanation favored by the opposition parties involved. Levon Zurabian of the Armenian National Congress (HAK) claimed that the prospect of the mass protests had caused the authorities to "panic," while former President Levon Ter-Petrossian construed Prime Minister Sarkisian's resignation as a sign that "the authorities have never been so weak."

And the sixth possibility is that President Sarkisian sought simultaneously to pull the rug from under, and drive a wedge between, the four parliamentary parties not represented in the ruling coalition by acceding to their demand for Tigran Sarkisian's replacement as prime minister. The president may have been gambling on those four parties not being able to reach a consensus on their future course of action.

Two of them, Ter-Petrossian's HAK and the Zharangutiun (Heritage) Party headed by U.S.-born former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian, see the logical next step as forcing the president too to step down. But the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutiun), which was briefly part of the coalition in 2008-09, and the Prosperous Armenia (BH) party have until now stopped short of demanding Serzh Sarkisian's resignation.

Zharangutiun member Ruben Hakobian told journalists after a meeting of the four parties' representatives on April 4 that they were "determined" to keep up their joint efforts and work out "a new agenda." He said they will meet soon to discuss proposals for alternative action.

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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