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Kocharian's Allies Share Out Power

Surprise success for election third-runner in Armenian government reshuffle.
By Susanna Petrosian

Three political parties loyal to President Robert Kocharian are taking over both government and legislature in Armenia, following the recent parliamentary elections.


But the biggest beneficiary is Orinats Erkir (Country of Law), whose leader, Artur Baghdasarian becomes speaker of parliament, while three other party members get ministerial portfolios.


The new division of power sees the spoils shared between the dominant Republican Party, Orinats Erkir, and the veteran nationalist party Dashnaktsutiun. They came first, third and fourth respectively on party tickets in the May 25 parliamentary polls. The majority of Armenian parliament deputies (75 seats) are elected on party tickets, and the remaining 56 in first-past-the-post constituencies.


The opposition Justice bloc, which came second, was not invited to join the governing coalition and has had no say in the ministerial appointments.


The pro-presidential parties formalised the deal in a memorandum signed on June 11 in the presence of the president and his old ally, defence minister Serzh Sarkisian, considered the second most powerful man in Armenia.


"I am satisfied that the coalition was formed by the three political groups with which I am eager to cooperate and share responsibility for the future of the nation," said Kocharian.


However, despite this apparently cosy arrangement it is far from certain that these groups will co-exist easily. Only weeks before, the three parties were in fierce competition with each other in the parliamentary campaign.


At his party's pre-election congress, Baghdasarian attacked the Republican Party, calling it a "party of money".


"One gets the impression that our citizens work day and night solely to allow certain officials to steal, ride around in luxury cars and build themselves new mansions," he said.


For its part, Dashnaktsutiun had hoped to winning the prime ministerial portfolio, and had an obvious candidate for the job in Artashes Tumanian, the presidential chief of staff. But in the event the Republicans won, and their leader Andranik Margarian continues as prime minister.


The now suppressed competition between the three parties may suit the president quite well.


"It is useful for authoritarian regimes when the parliamentary majority consists of several political groups," said Shavarsh Kocharian of the Justice bloc. "In this case, the president becomes the final arbiter".


Other analysts think the president has built a temporary alliance in the full knowledge that tensions between its members will soon resurface.


But Orinats Erkir leaders insist that the coalition is solid.


"The memorandum of political coalition is not merely a declaration of intent," party vice president Mher Shakhgeldian told IWPR. "It's a strategic instrument setting out the basic mechanisms and principles for our work together."


Orinats Erkir was founded in 1997 and claims a membership of over 40,000. Its election programme made a priority of protecting human rights, curbing abuses by officials and enhancing the role of parliament.


Some critics say the party really has no coherent ideological platform. The day after the election, Dashnak leader Vahan Hovannesian accused it having failed to define what its political orientation should be. He said the other two coalition members - his party and the Republicans - were bound together by shared nationalist beliefs.


Ideology or no ideology, it is Orinats Erkir that has benefited most from the new deal, capturing the post of parliamentary chairman which is at least in formal terms the second most important job in Armenia. Under the constitution, the speaker becomes acting head of state if the president steps down.


Artur Baghdasarian, a 34-year-old lawyer, is something of a populist. During the election campaign, he promised to compensate citizens for savings they had lost in the early 1990s when many banks collapsed. However, when the new government approved a four-year action plan on June 17, there was no sign of Baghdasarian's pledge.


He was first elected to parliament in 1995 with the support of the then ruling Armenian National Movement. He founded Orinats Erkir in 1997. In 1998, he took over the parliamentary commission on legal policy. Outside the legislature, Baghdasarian is also president of the French University and founder of the European University of Armenia, and is a welcome guest in European embassies.


Many ordinary Armenians, however, are more sceptical. "He is the president's puppet," Anahit Poghosian, a mother of three, told IWPR.


"This is political profanity," said Levon Movsesian, an academic. "Many deputies were against him until the president told them to change their mind."


The appointment of Orinats Erkir member Tamara Poghosian as minister of culture has also been widely condemned. A mathematician by training, she had worked as a trade union official and expert adviser to parliamentary commissions.


"It is simply wrong to entrust culture to a person who has had nothing to do with it," said Sos Sarkisian, a well-known actor who heads Yerevan's Theatre Institute.


Another controversial Orinats Erkir appointment was that of Sergo Yeritsian, a television journalist, as minister of education and science, fields in which he has little or no experience.


During the last parliamentary campaign in 1999, speculation was rife that Orinats Erkir was actually being masterminded by defence minister Serzh Sarkisian. If that is the case, Sarkisian is very close to establishing full control over the nation's legislature, as he is also closely associated with the Republicans - he was number 2 on the party's candidate list after prime minister Margarian. The Republican Party and Orinats Erkir together hold 62 of the 131 seats in parliament.


Political analyst Agasi Yenokian, director of the Centre for Political and International Studies, argues that the new coalition is very vulnerable to both domestic and international political changes and that Orinats Erkir's honeymoon will not last long.


"This memorandum was a bargain, and a short-lived one, too. It does not reflect the real disposition of political forces," he said.


Susanna Petrosian is a journalist with the Noyan Tapan news agency.


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