Author: Fuad HILALOV
The new year in Armenia began with unparalleled political activity revolving around the “appointment” of the next, fourth president and the growing socio-political tensions caused by rising prices of primary goods. In both cases, the incumbent head of state, Serzh Sargsyan, is the main character and instigator of backdoor games.
The first presidential elections in Armenia after the constitutional reform of 2015, providing for the transition of the country's political system from a presidential to a parliamentary republic, are scheduled for March 2, 2018. In other words, the powers of the National Assembly (parliament) and the cabinet will be expanded while the president will exercise symbolic duties only. From the very beginning, it was clear that the sole purpose of the constitutional reform was to ensure the longest possible stay of Serzh Sargsyan on top of the Armenian political Olympus. After the last parliamentary elections, when the ruling Republican Party (RPA) won a majority of seats in the parliament, it does not make much difference for Sargsyan, the RPA chairman, whether he spends his next term in office as a prime minister, supreme leader, or anyone else. It is important that he will retain the status of the main regulator of political processes in Armenia.
However, the main intrigue of the inbound presidential elections is the name of the RPA candidate, who is going to take the office of the president, as mentioned above. As usual, Serzh Sargsyan has tried to prolong the momentum further intensifying the depth of all kinds of forecasts, assumptions and talks around his successor. Answering the question about his vision of the next Armenian president, he said that he ought to speak several foreign languages, have good connections in the Diaspora and Western circles, and most importantly, not to have any political experience. Apparently, the last point has confused Armenian political scientists trying to guess the identity of the next president. But on January 19, Serzh Sargsyan finally “made a proposal” to Armen Sargsyan, Armenian ambassador to Great Britain, putting an end to intrigues.
What do we know about Armen Sargsyan? He is a native of Yerevan specialized in physics, who taught in Cambridge and then in Yerevan in mid-eighties. In 1992, he was promoted to a diplomatic rank serving as the ambassador to the EU, Belgium, the Netherlands, the Vatican, and Luxembourg. From late 1996 to early 1997, he has been the Prime Minister of Armenia. Apparently, Serzh Sargsyan has forgot this fact from the biography of his successor speaking about his lack of political experience. He also forgot paragraph 4 of Article 124 of the Armenian Constitution: “The President of the Republic cannot occupy any other position, engage in business activities, and perform other paid work.” The second paragraph of the same article reads: “every citizen of the Republic of Armenia who has been the resident of the Republic for the last six years may be elected as the President of the Republic...” Let us assume that the Armenian embassy to the UK, where Armen Sargsyan has lived during his tenure, is the territory of Armenia. Then what about his entrepreneurship? Interestingly, Armen Sargsyan’s tenure as a prime minister has lasted only four months. In February 1997, he officially resigned due to health issues. However, almost everyone in Armenia knew the real reason of his sudden departure from the office. In fact, Armen Sargsyan had a conflict of business interests with the then most powerful man in Armenia, the odious defence minister Vazgen Sargsyan, which ended with the physical abuse by the latter. The battered prime minister immediately retired and returned to the UK under the pretext of health problems.
In addition to diplomatic activities, the future president of Armenia is an active entrepreneur. He is the former owner of Knightsbridge Group, which includes more than fifteen companies operating in energy, oil and gas industries in Europe, Russia, China, Mongolia, India, and Kazakhstan. Armen Sargsyan’s name is also linked to a very scandalous project, the development of the Amulsar field located near the Lake Sevan and known for its precious metal reserves. Under this ambitious project, it is planned to start the extraction of gold, silver, aluminium, radioactive uranium and thorium in 2018. Many Armenians claim that the Amulsar field is the focal point of business interests of Armenian political elite, including the incumbent president Sargsyan. Interestingly, the main operator of the project is Lydian International operating through its Armenian subsidiary, Lydian Armenia. And Armen Sargsyan has once served as a board member of Lydian International. In May 2013, he also accompanied Prince Charles during his visit to Armenia. Then the voyage of Prince of Wales was associated with the lobbying of Lydian International's involvement in the Amulsar project.
For many analysts, Armen Sargsyan is an actual representative of international financial and oligarchic circles, who has vast experience with the largest international corporations. In fact, it is not the first time that the name of Armen Sargsyan is referred to as a likely candidate supported by the above circles for such a high rank.
What are the motives of Serzh Sargsyan in nominating Armen Sargsyan for presidency? Most likely, he has several motives.
First and utmost, Armen Sargsyan is the protégé of the western financial and oligarchic circles. For years, Armenia has been trying to demonstrate its commitment to the policy of complementarity. Under the current prime minister, the old Gazprom-man Karen Karapetian, “the pro-Western president” Armen Sargsyan is the best candidate for demonstrating this policy. On the other hand, Serzh Sargsyan has long attempted to get in good with the Armenian Diaspora, which still considers him as “a stranger savage” unlike their favourite Armen Sargsyan. Incidentally, the future president is very fond of arranging and being a direct participant of various pseudo-glamorous parties. In addition to Prince Charles, he also invited to Armenia the world star of Armenian origin Cher in mid-nineties.
Secondly, an image of “intelligent Yerevantsi” is also designed for domestic audience, which has long been fed up with people from Karabakh with explicit criminal past and profile. Thus, we can assume that the recent nomination is a manifest of power division between the people from Karabakh and Yerevan, albeit a controversial one, given the symbolic powers of the next president.
Thirdly, the person and character of Armen Sargsyan work in Serzh Sargsyan’s favour since he will be “as gentle as a lamb” afraid to prevent the latter from ruling the state as he wishes. In other words, he will be a compliant president unlike his Georgian counterpart, who often tries to gain the most out of his limited powers. And given the past sad experience with Vazgen Sargsyan, after which Armen Sargsyan left the office of prime minister and the country, he will hardly act against the will of Serzh Sargsyan even as a president.
Apparently, the incumbent president has solved all the issues related to his successor. His final mission is to determine the fate of the Prime Minister Karen Karapetian. Only a few people in Armenia can guess the roles of Serzh Sargsyan and Karen Karapetian after early April, when the parliament will elect a new prime minister.
There are two versions. According to the first one, Serzh Sargsyan will not run for the post of prime minister, but will retain his influence over the political processes as the leader of the ruling party. But this version has caveats. In the recent history of Armenia, the top management of RPA has overthrown its leader repeatedly and treacherously. On the other hand, even a minimal distance from direct political processes can weaken the influence of Serzh Sargsyan. According to the second version, the president will take the office of prime minister, and Karen Karapetian as his first deputy. One should not attach particular importance to earlier statements of Serzh Sargsyan that he was not going to become a prime minister. When the constitution is violated for political purposes, any promises sound unrealistic. But it seems it is important for Sargsyan to make Karapetian more compliant. However, the president realises that Karapetian is different from Armen Sargsyan and it is difficult to force him to leave his post. Karapetian has a good public image and, most importantly, if he is seriously offended, his friends in Moscow may get upset – a situation that Serzh Sargsyan avoids as death. That is why Sargsyan will have to use his skills to prepare a stick against Karapetian besides the post of the first vice-premier as a carrot. Thus, the protests of the Armenian opposition under the leadership of the parliamentary faction Elk can come in handy.
It all started on December 13, 2017 when the parliamentary majority represented by RPA and Dashnaktsutyun adopted changes and amendments to the Tax Code of Armenia. The draft law was prepared by Serzh Sargsyan’s first deputy in the ruling party, Prime Minister Karen Karapetian. On December 26, the president signed the draft and the changes to the laws on state duties and on profit tax. Most importantly, he did so contrary to his government’s memo warning that the latest changes can affect the prices of the major groups of goods.
As expected, prices for some goods rose by 40% on the first day of 2018. This had an adverse impact on the welfare of citizens, while strengthening the public protest mood. On January 9, Serzh Sargsyan met with the Minister of Finance Vardan Aramian, and expressed his dissatisfaction with the above changes signed by himself, while reproaching the minister for frequent alteration of the tax legislation. One would regard such a behaviour as a mental dysfunction, when a person criticises the bills prepared and adopted by his own party, and signed by himself. However, everything becomes clear if we consider that immediately after the increased prices, the Elk parliamentary faction known as the “pocket opposition” of Sargsyan announced the protest action against the government.
The pro-Western parliamentary opposition is only one of the cards, albeit not trump cards, in the hands of Serzh Sargsyan against the incumbent prime minister. Incidentally, the opposition has managed to take several thousand supporters to the streets in the centre of Yerevan. The main innovation of the event was a group of oppositionists pushing an old Soviet-made car as a symbol of Armenian economy. However, for many in Armenia the car means the opposition itself. In other words, the “creativity” of the opposition played a cruel joke with her. The fact that only a few people took out to the streets even after such a significant price increase means that people have long ceased to believe in the opposition, let alone the authorities. In fact, ordinary citizens of Armenia do not really care who the next president is. Not only because they will not participate in the election, but also because they do not know what to expect from a new president. Therefore, the people of Armenia have long remained a hostage to endless ambitions of political figures, and the reshuffle of Sargsyans will not affect the outcome at all.