Did Economic Woes or Moscow's Hand Force Out Armenian Premier?

Tigran Sargsyan presided over unpopular reforms, and also worked on failed efforts to move closer to Europe.

Did Economic Woes or Moscow's Hand Force Out Armenian Premier?

Tigran Sargsyan presided over unpopular reforms, and also worked on failed efforts to move closer to Europe.

Outgoing prime minister Tigran Sargsyan. (Photo: Photolure agency)
Outgoing prime minister Tigran Sargsyan. (Photo: Photolure agency)

The resignation of Tigran Sargsyan as Armenia’s prime minister has shocked political experts, many of whom suspect Moscow had a hand in it.

News of Sargsyan’s resignation was announced on April 3 by Eduard Sharmazanov, the deputy speaker of parliament and a leading figure in the ruling Republican Party. Only a week earlier, Sharmazanov had rejected opposition calls for Sargsyan’s dismissal, saying there was no question of him stepping down.

Tigran Sargsyan did not explain his decision to go, beyond a short post on his Facebook page saying it had been a considered move.

“Back in February, I asked President Serzh Sargsyan to accept my resignation. We agreed to postpone me handing in my notice because of the need to carry out some important state events,” he wrote.

Tigran Sargsyan had been prime minister since 2008, had never publicly expressed a desire to step down, and no leading Republican Party figures had criticised him openly.

His reforms to the pension system have provoked public anger this year, but President Serzh Sargsyan (no relation) defending him, saying 80 percent of Armenians backed the new system. (See Mass Protest Movement Against Armenian Pension Reform.)

A day after the prime minister’s resignation became public knowledge, the president changed his tune.

“Six years is a long period to be prime minister,” he told reporters at the Central Bank. “A new government must be able to secure economic growth and continue reforms. The new government must be able to regain people’s faith in our reforms and our actions.”

Businessmen say the poor pace of recovery from the 2008 financial crisis explains Sargsyan’s departure.

“In general, the country has not moved forward, and we’ve reached a point when people have started complaining. If Tigran Sargsyan was responsible for this, then he must bear responsibility for it,” said Vahakn Hovnanian, an American businessman of Armenian origin.

In the years after 2002, Armenia’s economy grew by more than ten per cent a year, but this double-digit boom ended in 2008, the year when the financial crisis happened and when Sargsyan became prime minister. According to Central Bank data, Armenia’s economy grew by just 3.5 per cent last year.

The International Monetary Fund forecasts that the Armenian economy will not return to 2008 levels until 2017, something neighbouring Azerbaijan and Georgia have already achieved.

Opposition parties claimed the credit for the prime minister’s departure. In late March, the four main opposition parties – the Armenian National Congress, Prosperous Armenia, Heritage, and Dashnaktsutyun – held joint protests to press for his resignation.

Flushed with what they see as their triumph, they have agreed to continue joint efforts to pressure the government.

Armen Badalyan, an analyst with the Centre of Political Studies, doubts that opposition parties had much to do with it. He pointed out that when tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in 2008-10, the president did not get rid of his prime minister.

Since the opposition parties are in the minority in parliament, they are in no position to force out a prime minister, he says.

Instead, Badalyan told IWPR, “I think the prime minister’s departure was the result of pressure from Russia. Russia prefers to have a prime minister it can rely on here, and it’s no secret that Tigran Sargsyan had a reputation for being pro-Western.”

Longer-term, the post of prime minister could become crucial.

“We know that Serzh Sargsyan does not a right to a third term as president, so a prime minister from the ruling party has a real chance of taking over the presidency in 2018,” Badalyan said.

Stepan Danielyan, head of the Cooperation for Democracy Centre, agreed that the prime minister’s departure fitted a pattern of growing Russian influence.

Last September, President Sargsyan announced plans to join the Moscow-led Customs Union, rendering years of negotiations on an Association Agreement with the European Union pointless.

“Tigran Sargsyan behaved like a pro-Western politician, holding talks with the EU on the Association Agreement,” Danielyan told IWPR. “When on September 3 last year, Serzh Sargsyan unexpectedly announced his decision to join the Customs Union, logically Tigran Sargsyan had to resign because there had been a sharp change of direction.”

The new prime minister will be named on April 14.

Armen Karapetyan is a freelance journalist in Armenia.

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