A Yerevan-based political strategist Vigen Hakobyan shares his views about domestic and foreign policy of Armenia, namely the situation inside the Armenian government and opposition, configuration of the governance system after April 2018, the attitude of Russia and the West towards the key candidates for prime minister – Serzh Sargsyan and Karen Karapetyan.
It has been widely rumored in Armenia that with the configuration of the regime in April 2018, President Serzh Sargsyan will become the prime minister and Prime Minister Karen Karapetyan will take the post of deputy prime minister. Is it true?
I do believe that there is no final arrangement between these two politicians so far. Depending on a series of factors, I think such arrangement is possible by the end of the year. I am speaking about such factors as prospects of the Karabakh peace process, geopolitical situation in the world and in the region, particularly. Much will depend on specific economic results of the government and on external messages.
All these rumors are nothing but PR campaign elements. At first, they wrote that the sides agreed after Sargsyan returned from negotiations in Geneva under pretext of the Karabakh issue he should manage. Later, after the prime minister refuted the rumors, they wrote that there are certain arrangements. After a while, they reported that Samvel Karapetyan, who is believed to back Karen Karapetyan, persuaded the prime minister to take the post of deputy prime minister. I do not think that there is any final agreement, but there are various options. Moreover, in certain regional situation, these options may not suit either of the candidates and they may not want to be the prime minister in such historical period not to deal with defense, foreign policy and Artsakh issues. Things are not that easy.
Who if not they?
I do not mean that both them avoid leading the country, but the situation may change so that they will not want to get involved in geo-political processes. I think the point is that they are not willing to undertake responsibility for political processes along with economic ones. The situation, especially in the Karabakh issue, may change so that they will prefer staying aside of it until the issue is settled and then will return and tackle economic issues.
Who if not they? There may be many options, but they are not considered now. Perhaps, by the press only. Let’s see what these two candidates think of it. Karen Karapetyan has not avoided direct answers to the question saying that he is ready. Quite recently, he said he would like to serve the country.
As for Serzh Sargsyan, he made an exact statement on this issue in 2014. “I declare officially that I, Serzh Sargsyan, will never nominate myself for the post of the Republic of Armenia’s president.” He has repeatedly said that no one should govern the country longer than two terms. Actually, we have just two statements of the potential candidates. All the others are hints. One can see such hints in Serzh Sargsyan’s various interviews. There are statements, comments and wishes on the issue by well-known Republicans, for instance, Galust Sahakyan.
Does Karen Karapetyan have a team able to play independently?
I think, it’s a little complicated issue. I mean Karen Karapetyan is building his team on, as they say, “hybrid” model. Firstly, these are the people who are in the government thanks to him. I am speaking about the new young staff and the elder ones who returned to power together with him. These are the people who joined RPA together with him, who are in the system thanks to him, who work and are associated with him.
The second option is hybrid one. Karen Karapetyan, who is not regarded as the system insider by his position, knows the system well and comprehends that the existing team, including RPA key personnel, will easily and without any feeling of discomfort, join his team if a political and geopolitical decision is adopted to appoint Karen Karapetyan (as prime minister). In fact, such a political decision is what makes sense and the alleged “not his team” will become his team.
That is why I am speaking about a “hybrid” approach. Karapetyan did not seek to fill all the government agencies with his men. Maybe, it was not important, I cannot insist on the opposite. He goes forward in two directions trying to create his own team through combination of the old and new staffs. He realizes that the government supporters are not considered to be his supporters, but are potentially his supporters and will vow allegiance to him easily.
What about the plans of Russia and the West about the future prime minister? Do they have any ‘favorites’?
It appears to me that the West and Russia have no serious disagreements about Karen Karapetyan. It’s another matter what they say analyzing their “origin,” where they have come from and through which agencies they have passed. Normally, everyone believes he came from “Gazprom” and is inherently a pro-Russian politician. At the same time, he has quite good business relations with U.S. Ambassador Richard Mills, Head of EU Delegation Piotr Switalski, judging from the passionate appraisals Mills makes every time after their meetings. At their last meeting, he said for camera that he received positive feedback from Armenia-based American companies, especially on the reforms in customs sector, where they faced many problems before. There is an easy geopolitical consensus around him. Everyone sees that it is possible to work with him even in his status of prime minister with his current functions.
As for Serzh Sargsyan, I think the situation is not much different there. In fact, the West pins certain hopes that Sargsyan - before he leaves someday, in the strategic outlook, (I think both Sargsyan and geopolitical centers have a strategic decision in this respect) – will implement all his commitments on Karabakh and to EU.
I think neither Moscow nor the West presses him. It is evident. They want him to go through with it, so that another person that will come in the future starts working from scratch. Therefore, I think, the West and Moscow will have no disputes over Serzh Sargsyan or Karen Karapetyan (he said for a reason that he was invited to Davos – a symbolic “bride-show”). Moscow trust them both, and the West, I think, has tactical and maybe even strategic interests connected with Sargsyan, first of all. They are pragmatics, they cherish no illusions, they realize that Karen Karapetyan is not Saakashvili. I think, Western pragmatics have quite pragmatic attitude towards pragmatic Karapetyan.
What about the situation in the opposition camp? Will Yelq (Outcome) bloc become a new opposition leader? Is it capable of influencing the situation in the country?
There is vacuum in the opposition field. “The elders,” those who lost elections were sidelined, they were defeated and cannot find themselves. Several months have passed since the elections, but they still do not know what to engage in. They are exhausted. Neither we see any new forces able to fill that vacuum.
Speaking of parliamentary opposition, we mean mostly Yelk, as Tsarukyan’s bloc is nominally opposition, but it not perceived as such by either politicians or people. It is a transitional link between the opposition and the government. Their “locomotive is on the reserve track” and they seem to wait for an invitation to the coalition. You may remember that Tsarukyan once said they may join the ruling coalition after 2018. Actually, they work with the opposition, trying to ask questions like a constructive opposition, constantly raising issues, making suggestions, promoting 15 clauses of their program. In fact, they try to imitate opposition.
As for Yelk, it seeks to lead the opposition, but it has poor contacts with the non-parliamentary opposition, because the latter regards Yelk and Tsarukyan bloc as systemic opposition unlike themselves. These two camps distrust each other calling each other a government’s project. In this sense, everyone has doubts, because in different political situations, the government tries to bring to forefront the opposition as well. In disputes, including inside the government, some of our non-parliamentary forces have certain roles. They speak about what the government cannot say publicly. Experts and journalists have doubts too. Nominally, with all its actions – sometimes radicalism, constructivism, geopolitical agenda (withdrawal from EAEU) – Yelk tries to manifest its difference from other opposition forces and lead the entire opposition.
It is easy for them to do so, since, I have already said, for the time being there is no alternative to them, except the forces that take to the streets with more radical calls. Yelk has an advantage: parliamentary tribune, press and other tools to demonstrate their opposition. They are leaders of the opposition – it is an objective reality. There is certain jealousy towards them. On the other hand, to become a leader, concrete actions are needed, and everyone will join you in that case.
Meantime, Yelk is a bloc that has brought together forces of very different origin. This makes it vulnerable, unless it becomes a political party. In case of desire, one can always find the way to split such bloc.
Interviewed by Hayk Khalatyan