Special to the Armenian Weekly
The recent Parliamentary Elections in Armenia were meant to signal a fresh start, but that fresh start is being held hostage by a president who refuses to clarify his next move.
Despite instances of thuggery, this parliament was elected in the most free and fair elections the Republic had witnessed since independence from the Soviet Union. The constitutional changes that preceded the election signaled a new dawn in Armenian political life, wherein individual rule would be replaced by more democratic, collective governance.
The government seems to be working hard, implementing an economic agenda reflective of a Prime Minister who understands the relationship between business and jobs, while new programs in defense, education and regional development (among other areas) are trying to pave a path forward for a state that has been in a post-Soviet coma for more than two decades.
However, the Armenian people are not hearing any of this progress. They are unable to even debate the options of prosperity being proposed. They are not being allowed to move on.
Why? Because the uncertainty surrounding President Serge Sarkisian’s next move is sucking up all the oxygen available in Armenia’s air.
The constitutional changes will enter their next implementation phase when Sarkisian’s current term as President of Armenia comes to an end in April 2018. From that point on, the president will not be voted on by the people; instead, the government will select a primarily ceremonial president head of state. No longer will the person in that role have the decisive say in areas such as defense and foreign affairs. Rather, that role will belong to the National Assembly (Parliament) of Armenia, led by the government’s chosen Prime Minister.
The genuine concern among the people of Armenia is that Sarkisian, who is an unpopular figure after over nine years at the helm of a nation losing more citizens each year than it gains, will replace Karen Karapetyan as the nation’s Prime Minister and continue his rule.
However, that would be a move that makes little to no sense.
As president, Sarkisian has been able to bark orders from his Baghramyan headquarters, which have duly been followed per the expectations of the old constitution. For nine years, he has fronted the media that he has handpicked and has avoided questioning unless he has chosen to be questioned.
The new constitution requires the Prime Minister to sit in the parliament chambers, face questions, and be front-and-center of all scrutiny.
Why would Sarkisian want to do that?
He is blamed for allowing a cartel environment of oligarch rule to continue flourishing in Armenia, further dividing the rich and the poor, and prompting mass emigration. However, especially following the failed Armenia-Turkey Protocols, he has managed to maintain a strong diplomatic front in Artsakh negotiations and has chaperoned the country’s entry into the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union.
While there are some who may argue the merits of those actions as a legacy, it is at least a legacy he can defend well beyond his years in office.
Why would he want to threaten a potential legacy, however frail, with a power-grab that seems unnecessary?
Karapetyan, who has assumed the prime minister’s role, is a largely popular figure in Armenia. Not to mention, he is a member of Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (RPA). Karapetyan’s charm and work ethic have helped the party remain another term in power, and polls suggest he has the support of most of the country’s citizens as he heads the effort to implement reforms.
Why would the significantly less popular Sarkisian want to damage his own party by taking over from a far more popular leader?
Like Sarkisian, Karapetyan is seen as a friend of the Russian Federation. And Sarkisian’s re-election as leader of the RPA means he has a firm grip over his party and can discipline or remove Karapetyan should the prime minister fail to toe the party line on core issues.
Why would Sarkisian not be satisfied with that significant level of “behind the curtains” control?
If the answer to these “whys” is that Sarkisian wants to simply remain in power, that is a poor answer, and it would be seen as exactly that by the people of Armenia. Even if rumors are true that corrupted pocket-filling motivates many in political power in Armenia, that also seems a poor reason. Surely if Sarkisian retires from active political duties, he will do so as a rich man.
No constituency responds well to power-hungry leaders, especially those who are not willing to pass the baton to someone younger, fresher, and more acceptable by the masses.
Therefore, the answer seems simple: Sarkisian should not want to be a candidate for the prime ministership after April 2018. And who knows? He probably does not want that role for the reasons highlighted in this article, as well as many more a smart man like him would have figured out.
Then the question becomes, Why doesn’t he just say it? Why doesn’t just he clear the air for the current government dominated by those he supports?
The opposition has been clever. They know that the government’s agenda is positive, that Karapetyan is a formidable opponent, and that the involvement of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) in the government has given the RPA a sense of greater credibility. Knowing all this, and having less to attack on the policy front, the opposition has decided to create an illusion (or reality) of an “elephant in the room.”
They continuously say that Karapetyan and Co.’s shiny new policies will mean “more of the same” when “Serge takes over as Prime Minister.”
The media has jumped on this bandwagon. They are asking the same questions, referring to Karapetyan as a “seat-warmer” for Sarkisian. This impression of an “interim leader” damages Karapetyan’s credibility and that of the government he leads. It chokes any public progress that should have evolved during a honeymoon period after the election.
Sarkisian was asked about his future again during an interview on Armenia TV last week. He said, “I have honestly said many times, I have not decided what my future will be. Is it that important?”
Of course it is!
This typical answer of “not sure yet” means that he is not ruling it out. And by not ruling it out, he is sucking the life out of the body of the government led by his own party.
Karapetyan is asked every other day if he thinks he will remain in charge post-April 2018. He answers that he is not planning on going anywhere. What else can he say?
As coalition partners, ARF leaders in Armenia are constantly being asked whether Sarkisian will return to lead the country as prime minister post-April 2018, and whether he will do a Putin-Medvedev, with Karapetyan playing the role of his Medvedev. The ARF leaders state that they do not have a say about who becomes prime minister, as that decision belongs to the RPA based on their coalition agreement. What else can they say?
By April 2018, President Sarkisian would have ruled in a way he has seen fit for 10 years. It is time he does what is best for his country by clearly announcing that he will not be a candidate for the post of prime minister, and throw his unequivocal backing behind Karapetyan and his team.
Sarkisian needs to do so for his own party and the government to move on. He needs to do so for Armenia to turn the page and move forward.