After The Shooting

Armenia's president is weak and its prime minister is dead. Whatever follows the attack on the National Assembly, political change is inevitable.

After The Shooting

Armenia's president is weak and its prime minister is dead. Whatever follows the attack on the National Assembly, political change is inevitable.

The tragic killing of Armenia's Prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian and Parliamentary Speaker Karen Demirchian on October 27 looks set to change the country's political map.

Sarkisian had come a long way politically before his death. Originally a member of home guard, he fought on the frontline during the Armenia-Azerbaijan clashes near Yeraskhavan in January 1990.

Minister of Defence in Levon Ter-Petrosian's government in 1991-92 he made little progress in the post. But after he sent the army to crush the opposition protests following the disputed presidential elections of September 1996, Sarkisian became de facto the most influential political figure in the country.

In January 1998 he managed to utilise the tactical and strategic advantages of his position, pushing aside the fading Levon Ter-Petrosian to support Robert Kocharian in his struggle for the presidency.

Sarkisian's power base was by now substantial: he had a political base in the civic-political organisation Yerkrapa, and, following a merger, the Republican Party. He had substantial family capital and influence in the construction, food and agrarian sectors and a good relationship with the highest Russian military officials, plus a reputation as a steadfast Russia-oriented politician.

His ability to go for the most unexpected tactical unions in order to achieve his goals was Sarkisian's most important asset. The creation of the ruling Miasnutun [Unity] bloc, which was formed by his Republican Party and Karen Demirchian's Popular Party, is a good example.

Practically, it was this bloc which led Sarkisian to the prime minister's chair and could, according to many people, have opened his way to the presidency. All he had to do was get rid of the image he gained during the Nagorno-Karabakh war as a guerrilla (encouraged by Ter-Petrosian) and to prove to the people that he was capable of governing the state.

The short period of Sarkisian's premiership saw a more or less successful attempt to take the country out of its financial crisis. For the first time in many years real steps were taken to fight corruption and uncover financial-economic crimes. These last, however, remained a problem, as did mediocre intellectual standards in government.

The attack on the Armenian National Assembly was not an attempted coup d'etat. It was a criminal terrorist act, undertaken on social-political grounds.

Certain business circles, dissatisfied with the government's economic policy, could have had a hand in it. It is unlikely that it was related to the Nagorno-Karabakh negotiations or the resolution of the long-running problems between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which had begun to show some positive developments.

The situation at Sarkisian's death means change is now inevitable. There are many reasons for this. The president's position is weak: he has little influence on parliament and little public or political support (the only party that supports Kocharian is the non-parliamentary Ramkavar-Azatakan).

Miasnutun is unlikely to survive the death of its leaders - none of their political allies have enough political vision to maintain the coalition. When the bloc falls apart, it won't just be into two pieces, but several.

While there is some political stability in the country the president will try to attain political leadership through his vast constitutional plenary powers. The National Assembly, substantially weakened by its recent loss of personnel, will no longer be able to assume the role of a powerful political counter-balance to the president and is likely to try to find an ally in a new prime minister.

On the other hand, the main problem for Kocharian is going to be his relationship with the country's power structures, starting with the army. Sarkisian's former allies are openly expressing their dissatisfaction with the head of State Security Serj Sarkisian [not related to the dead prime minister] and with Minister of Internal Affairs Suren Abraamian, who has since offered his resignation.

This is being worsened by fact that Armenia doesn't yet have any stable civic institutions. The use of force to resolve political problems can never be ruled out.

The external factors influencing the situation are minimal. On the other hand, Russia has cause for serious concern, since it had supported Sarkisian and Demirchian. With both dead, Russia has no one to replace them.

Now all attention is fixed on the outcome of the likely struggle between Kocharian's camp and that of Sarkisian to see who will fill the posts of prime minister and speaker. Hopefully, even the stormiest political problems will be overcome constitutionally.

David Petrosian is a political analyst with the Noyan Tapan news agency in Yerevan.

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