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The choice of Serzh Sargsyan

The approaching year might be groundbreaking for Armenia’s political scene, as the country awaits president Serzh Sargsyan’s decision on what to do after his mandate ends in April 2018.

December 22, 2017 - Bartłomiej Krzysztan - Analysis

Image by http://en.kremlin.ru

The position of the Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) is as strong as ever. Despite a number of crises the country has been through in the recent years, in April 2017 the party emerged as the winner of yet another election. If the Four Days War, the attack on the police station at the outskirts of Yerevan and the largely questionable benefits of entering the Eurasian Economic Union had not brought any substantial changes in the country’s political landscape, one may ask what would.

But the approaching year might be groundbreaking for Armenia’s political scene, as the country awaits president Serzh Sargsyan’s decision on what to do after his mandate ends in April 2018.

Before prime minister Karen Karapetyan’s popularity unexpectedly rose, few observers had thought a new face would appear in Armenian politics. President Sargsyan was expected to take the prime minister position in order to keep power and give the West another artificial reason to believe that Armenia respects the rule of law and democratic process.

However, Karapetyan’s unexpected upsurge, which largely helped the RPA’s victory, calls for a reevaluation of possible scenarios. While the successful and increasingly powerful Karapetyan has no reason to step down to please Sargsyan, the president must make a decision about his own future. For now, he remains silent.

The president might follow the steps of his predecessor, Robert Kocharyan. Given that Armenia lacks transparency and a clear division between business and politics, losing the position of power would not cost Sargsyan much of his assets. Being a long-time mentor and political tutor of the unexperienced prime minister, Sargsyan might remain close to power circles without entering an open conflict with his successor.

Nevertheless, it would be a risky move. After more than a year of holding the PM position, Karapetyan already seems to understand the structures and mechanisms of Armenian politics. His popularity and the society’s fatigue with the long-serving Sargsyan has granted him a firm advantage over the president. Therefore, Sargsyan should not count on Karapetyan’s obedience, which makes another scenario highly possible: the power struggle at the very top of Armenia’s political elite. 

In the Kremlin’s shadow

Sargsyan’s silence might be deliberate. Karapetyan has long been considered as a temporary leader, probably masterminded by Sargsyan at the very beginning of “Karapetyan’s mission”. When Sargsyan’s mandate ends, he may openly ask Karapetyan to step down and take his position. Some analysts have already noted that even though many Armenians have expressed their support for Karapetyan and believe in his promises, they would not stand for him.

The public’s lack of trust in the political class has been a permanent feature of the system. It goes down to the continuous economic crisis, poverty, depopulation and impasse in solving the Karabakh conflict with Azerbaijan. Most Armenians after almost two decades of RPA’s rule do not care about political debates and power reshuffling.

Sargsyan enigmatic silence might therefore be considered as calm before the storm. He may wait for the moment when no one is likely to react. In 2011 Karapetyan took the office of Yerevan’s mayor during the state of emergency. His predecessor Gagik Beglaryan had caused a scandal when he assaulted a public official responsible for the diplomatic protocol and then resigned. After a year, when the public opinion calmed down, he returned to Moscow to continue his work with Gazprom. If he steps down now, he will just confirm the status quo.

Karapetyan does not have enough resources and powerful supporters in business and politics to take part in an open war against Sarkisyan – an experienced political animal. If he tries, he is likely to lose it, and can already start planning the return to his previous duties at Gazprom. However, since Karapetyan is often seen as representing Russian interests, there is also a possibility that Moscow would not easily resign on the flexible and obedient leader in the last Caucasus republic which still supports it.

Both politicians represent different approaches towards Moscow. In case of Sargsyan, there is no doubt that many of his decisions are dictated by his own private interest. His politics is often dependent on shady interests groups, businessmen, politicians and active or retired law enforcement agents. However, while Sargsyan has many flaws, he cannot be denied a deep patriotism and a pragmatic political approach. In relations with Moscow and in talks with Azerbaijan, he has proven that he is capable of opposing solutions that would be harmful for Armenia. On many occasions he managed to defend the country’s raison detat.

During Sargsyan’s March 2017 visit in Moscow, before the parliamentary election in Armenia, Putin said: “We know that our meeting is taking place against preparations for big domestic developments in Armenia. Parliamentary elections are expected in Armenia on April 2nd. The process of constitutional reform is not an easy one, of course. I believe that under your leadership Armenia will successfully pass this stage of development. Good luck to you!” The statement can be read as a promise that the Kremlin would support Sargsyan in case of any power struggles emerge following the election.

It is not a mystery that Sargsyan’s decisions can be surprising. That was the case, for example, with Armenia’s 2014 accession to the Eurasian Economic Union. For the Kremlin, he has always been an unpredictable player. Nevertheless, Putin might prefer to sacrifice the loyal man in Karapetyan to earn Sargsyan’s stable fidelity.

Moscow continues to be the main beneficiary of Armenia’s membership in the EAEU and so far, the latter has not seen much of the promised investment in its economy. In light of a lack of any tangible benefits of the membership, Sargsyan could turn to the European Union to increase its bargaining power vis-à-vis Moscow. He could thereby negotiate assurances for Armenian-Russian defence agreements, favourable gas prices and Russian investment in energy. Such a double-vector policy is already a fact, as the November signing of EU-Armenia agreement in Brussels demonstrates.

Has Sargsyan received Putin’s backing in Armenia’s internal struggle because he ensured the Kremlin that he would not withdraw Armenia from the failed structures of the EAEU? Perhaps. But this will become clear only when Sargsyan announces his next step.

Karapetyan’s links with Moscow are less complicated. Observers noted that his rise to the position of prime minister could have been a pragmatic decision of Sargsyan who needed an experienced negotiator in the talks with Moscow. Karapetyan’s more conciliatory approach and his greater dedication to urgent economic issues was meant to counterbalance Sargsyan’s politics.

Possible cooperation

Another possible scenario is that Sargsyan and Karapetyan have planned to share power. During his time in office, Sargsyan proved to be a great political strategist, which has manifested itself in the creation of a loyal judiciary. Moreover, Sargsyan managed to remove the last independent figures from public posts and party structures and replace them with loyal youngsters.

Most famously, Sargsyan deprived Seyran Ohanyan, a popular Karabakh war veteran, from his position at the Ministry of Defence, and replaced him with Vigen Sargsyan whose political career has spiked thanks to the president. The same scenario repeated in other departments linked to the military and security, which allowed the president to build a network within the RPA that cannot be seriously threatened by any other faction.

Karapetyan still lacks a similar support base and it is highly unlikely he will be able to build one during the months following Sargsyan‘s departure. At the same time, Karapetyan possesses something that Sargsyan had lost a long time ago – freshness and social support. In the end, they will both have to accept one another’s conditions. If the Republican Party wants to survive till the end of this term without controversies and win again in 2021, cooperation between Karapetyan and Sargsyan will have to be beneficial for both sides.

The December 2015 changes in the country’s political structure reshaped the duties of the main political posts. Responsibility for national defence was shifted from the government to the National Security Council. Previously NSC was just an advisory board, which included the prime minister, the speaker of parliament, justice minister and top law enforcement officials. Now, after the amendments, the NSC is also an administrative and executive body with additional decision-making powers. Formally, it was meant to decentralise the political process and shift power from the president to the parliament and a multiplayer executive.

The National Security Council’s core function is to coordinate the activities of the law enforcement departments, mainly due to the possible escalation of the Karabakh conflict. The head of the NSC will control the police, the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Special Affairs, some departments within the Ministry of Justice (including correctional service) and several others. Currently, this post is vacant. But Sargsyan might be interested in taking the position of the head of the NSC having his loyal associates in the key positions.

Karapetyan could thus remain prime minister and the face of reforms, taking care of the economy and foreign affairs (mainly relations with Russia). As a counterbalance, Sargsyan, a former soldier and war veteran, could be responsible for security.

Some Armenian newspapers (such as Hraparak) speculated that Samvel Karapetyan, an Armenian business tycoon based in Russia, convinced the prime minister not to enter into a conflict with Sargsyan. According to rumours, Karapetyan also agreed to step down to the position of deputy prime minister. After the government reshuffle, Karapetyan would be responsible for all issues except for security and negotiations with Azerbaijan. Sargsyan as the prime minister will be responsible for those matters, which could prove to be too much of a burden for the inexperienced Karapetyan.

But no matter what decision Sargsyan will make, it will have a profound impact on Armenia’s geopolitical and internal situation. His regaining power as a result of an open war with a legally nominated prime minister may affect the level of trust between the country and the West.

Sargsyan’s withdrawal from politics – the most unlikely scenario – would leave the already defenceless Armenia without a strong leadership, crucial for the country in danger of the escalation of the Karabakh conflict. At the same time, however, while cooperation with the new prime minister may seem to be the best option currently on the table, it risks pushing the country into another decade of stagnation and hopelessness.

Bartłomiej Krzysztan is a PhD candidate at the University of Wrocław. His research interests include cultural memory and identity in the post-Soviet space and politics in the South Caucasus.

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