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Casting of prime ministers underway in Armenia: interview

Alexander Iskandaryan, Director of the Caucasus Institute. Photo: photolure.am

President of Armenia Serzh Sargsyan has lately named the candidate of the ruling Republican Party for the post of the next president. It is Ambassador of Armenia to UK Armen Sargsyan. The country has shifted to the parliamentary system of government after Constitutional reform of December 2016. The transition process will end in April 2018, when the term of President Serzh Sargsyan expires. Afterwards, the prime minister will centralize power, whereas the president will be just figurehead who is elected by the parliament for a 7-year term.

Although the president will have no real power, like Queen Elizabeth II, his personality is quite interesting. He has wide political and business ties in both Europe and Eurasian Economic Union countries. In November 1996, he was appointed prime minister of Armenia, but resigned some four months later for health issues (official narrative). It is widely rumored that the real reason behind his resignation were discrepancies with the then defense minister, late Vazgen Sargsyan.

Armenian Sargsyan’s business biography is quite interesting as well. Since 2000, he has been founding president of Eurasian House International, adviser at British Petroleum, Alcatel, Telefonica and others. He was involved in a range of big projects in Western countries and Eurasian countries rich in energy resources. Earlier, Sargsyan occupied the post of director at Lydian International Ltd that implements Amulsar Gold Mine Project in Armenia. With such background, some experts believe him to be “the West’s man.”

Why has the ruling party nominated just Armen Sargsyan for the post of president? Why those in power in Armenia have been recently appointing “foreign” persons to high positions (for instance, Karen Karapetyan, ex-head of Gazprombank, was appointed as prime minister in 2016). What kind of transformations are anticipated in the political system in Armenia in the near future? Will the country face any political crisis? Will Serzh Sargsyan leave the political field? Find answers to these and other questions in EADaily’s interview with Alexander Iskandaryan, Director of the Caucasus Institute.

Mr. Iskandaryan, why has the ruling party chosen Armen Sargsyan particularly?

I can raise several reasons for that. First, if they are going to have a figurehead, it should be a person able to represent the country and perform the responsibilities assigned to him. Armen Sargsyan has been representing Armenia abroad for long years. Under the new Constitution, representing the country will be almost the key responsibility of the president. Second, Armen Sargsyan is a very experienced person. He engaged in politics since the very beginning of Armenia’s independence from the Soviet Union. He comprehends Armenia’s political reality perfectly. Third, he is rather a serious scientist. Evidently, he has certain analytical skills that are very important for the president.

On the other hand, he is not from the local “political hangout,” which is good, considering the discrepancies and different clans inside it. The elite prefers people from outside the country to insiders. This circumstance was considered as an advantage when Karen Karapetyan was invited to take the prime minister’s post some 1.5 year ago. The last reason is that the “subs bench” is not that big. Armen Sargsyan had been offered positions several times for several years. At least, it was rumored behind the scenes in the government.

Considering his economic and political ties in the West, especially in UK, many believe him to be “the West’s man,” roughly speaking. Will he start lobbying the West’s interests in Armenia?

I am not guided with such primitive interpretation of political realities and institutes. President is an institute. From this point of view, I think it is very primitive handling such ideas as birthplace, baptism etc. Of course, he will have to implement foreign policy tasks, since he will be representing the country abroad. He will need to work with the West, as well. Anyway, I think it is wrong calling a person pro-Western just because he occupied the post of ambassador to UK and lived there for a while. I can say the same about Karen Karapetyan. He is not a pro-Russian official, like Armen Sargsyan is not a pro-UK or pro-Western politician. These people represent certain reality in the countries they lived and worked. Meantime, responsibilities of the president or prime minister are wider than just representation in a country or a group of countries.

No, the point is that as president he can, for instance, lobby the West’s interests in Armenia and help increasing the West’s influence in the country etc. At least, there are such views.

I think the functions of Armenian politicians, especially those engaged in foreign policy affairs, is to lobby Armenia’s interests in other countries and not the vice versa.

Sure, you are quite right, they should do it, but are they doing it, in fact?

In fact, the situation is more complicate than it may seem. Sometimes, interests of some foreign companies or corporations coincide with the interests of Armenia and, therefore, should be lobbied. Sometimes, these interests vary and it is impossible to lobby them. Sometimes, interests change. Anyway, the country’s leadership creates certain consensus, adopts certain decisions and fulfills them.

Will Armen Sargsyan’s nomination for president clarify the contours of the future government in Armenia? In other words, will Karen Karapetyan retain the prime minister’s post after April of the current year?

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Prime minister’s issue is clear to me. It bears no relation to the person occupying that post after April 2018, when the president’s term will expire, the country will shift to the parliamentary system governance and it will be time to form a new government.

I am non-judgmental. The government structure will be changed in Armenia after April. It will be absolutely different a structure. We will have the Republican Party that holds majority of seats in the parliament, forms the government and elects the prime minister. That situation is quite different from the current power vertical. Even if there is a parliamentary majority and leadership inside the ruling party, the government structure will change anyway. Actually, the party leaders will have to persuade those inside their party. The leaders will not give orders but try to persuade the party men to behave as they want. They will have to achieve a consensus every time they need to adopt a decision. The mechanism of relations inside the ruling party will change. They will be making more decisions than they used to. This is quite different structure that will work differently, independent of the person on the prime minister’s chair.

At the same time, succession will be retained. The idea is that decision making will depend on the party, not on a single person like now. It was done to de-personalize the succession system. Earlier, political discrepancies were a usual thing during transition of authority in Armenia – from Levon Ter-Petrosyan to Robert Kocharyan, from Kocharyan to Serzh Sargsyan. People perceived that process as a change of persons not power. In this sense, succession will be retained. Whoever the prime minister is after April, he will be selected through a consensus in the Republican Party. In such situation, there are miserable chances for a revolution to happen. That is, the candidate for the prime minister will be nominated by the party leadership.

If, as you say, the risks of political destabilization inside the country have been minimized, why does Serzh Sargsyan still keep everyone uncertain about the future prime minister?

Well, in simple words, if he names the next prime minister today, that person will be “eaten for breakfast” until April. They will find discrediting facts about him; black PR will be launched as well. They have declared casting for the prime minister. There is a severe fight for that post. Some people oppose any candidate, since every new person will bring his team, make staff reshuffles etc.

Therefore, the suspense will get more intense. Despite the information that all the “three million of political experts in our country” share with me, I am not sure about the person of the new prime minister. Rumors about this or another candidate are spread deliberately from behind the scenes in the government. Many representatives of the political elite would like to see Serzh Sargsyan on that post. So, they spread rumors that Serzh Sargsyan will not leave the political field. There are some who wish to see Karen Karapetyan on that post, so they spread opposite rumors. All this proves that casting for prime minister is underway in the country. There are two options: either even Serzh Sargsyan has no information about it yet or if he knows, I am afraid, no one else knows about it, or may be some three-four of his proxies do.

Casting implies juries led again by Serzh Sargsyan. May a jury member win the casting?

Since the casting is political, all options are possible. Sometimes, the juries and the participants may be the same persons. All them may be lobbied. I repeat, this is not the point. The point is that the system will start working.

The system led by Serzh Sargsyan and without him is different, isn’t it?

No. What will happen in 10 or 20 years? I am not sure if it will be important then who Serzh Sargsyan was and when he led Armenia, but the structure will be working. Do you think it important now why Moldova shifted to the parliamentary form of governance at the time? Does anyone speak now about the interests they pursued then? Meantime, that country still experiencing the parliamentary republic – president problems. Do you think Askar Akayev’s overthrow (former president – editor’s note), the issue of quasi-parliamentary system that resulted from that overthrow, is interesting to anyone now? Perhaps for historians only.

The same will be in Armenia. Let’s recall. The first Constitution of 1995 was drafted for Levon Ter-Petrosyan so that he could be reelected in 1996 for another 5 years in de-facto presidential republic. For how long had he occupied that post? (He resigned in 1998 after discrepancies with defense minister Vazgen Sargsyan – editor’s note). The second Constitution of Armenia was adopted in 2005 for Robert Kocharyan, so that he could stay in power after his second term despite certain changes in the political structure. Where is he now? Actually, a certain structure will be applied under which a new system of government will be formed where the person will have no crucial role.

For instance, transformations in the political systems happened also in the former Soviet countries - Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. One cannot say that all is well there. Each country is specific. That system collapsed in Kyrgyzstan. In Moldova it is developing poorly. The president of Moldova was even deprived of the few powers he had. Meantime, that country has the oldest parliamentary system comparing to the others mentioned above. In Georgia, they fail to work with President Giorgi Margvelashvili. Neither will Armenia avoid crisis inside the system, but a new system managing the country will be developed eventually. Everything will just start, not end after April.

Interviewed by Arshaluys Mghdesyan

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