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Political Limbo in Armenia

Armenia waits with bated breath as President Kocharian considers his options for a new cabinet.
By Ara Tadevosian

Armenian president Robert Kocharian, who last week fired his entire cabinet, is preparing to appoint his third government in less than a year.


Kocharian sacked his prime minister, Aram Sarkisian, and his defence minister, Vagharshak Harutiunian, on May 2, claiming both men had been plotting against him. According to the Armenian constitution, such a move presupposes the dismissal of the cabinet.


The president told the nation that the decision had been prompted by growing tensions within the government. "Whatever was going on was undermining the very foundations of the state," said Kocharian. "Unfortunately, all my attempts to build a single administrative team have been doomed to failure."


He went on to say that the tensions threatened to "split the army on political grounds, scupper investment plans and damage the country's credibility in the international arena."


Although the move is generally seen as a tactical victory for the president, much will depend on who is offered the post of prime minister. If the candidate is unacceptable to the parliamentary majority, it will be difficult for Kocharian to persuade the National Assembly to adopt his new government.


Some observers believe that the president will wait until May 30 before announcing Sarkisian's successor. This date marks the new parliament's first anniversary when Kocharian can take advantage of his constitutional right to dissolve the body at will.


The Armenian leader has already announced that he will be consulting all political forces represented in parliament before forming his new government - first and foremost, with the Unity bloc, which holds a majority in the National Assembly.


Professor Suren Zolian, a member of the National Human Rights Commission, applauded last week's move which, he said, "is aimed at limiting the influence wielded by the army over Armenia's political life and, from this point of view, marks an important step on the road to forming a civil society in this country."


Gegham Manukian, of the Dashnaktsutium Party, agreed. "The president acted in complete accordance with the constitution," he said. "We believe these steps will help to clear the political air in Armenia. All of us should realise that the people are fed up with intrigues."


But other political leaders view the latest developments with growing unease. Hrant Khachatrian, chairman of the Union for Constitutional Rights, said, "The president didn't consult us and I have no idea what will happen after the decree."


The former parliamentary vice-speaker, Ara Sahakian, added, "This does not mark the victory or defeat of a specific faction but Armenia's territorial integrity and the security of her citizens have certainly come under threat."


In neighbouring Azerbaijan, Novruz Mamedov, head of the president's foreign affairs department, told the Caspian news agency that any unexpected changes on Armenia's political stage would ultimately have a negative effect on the peace process in Nagorny Karabakh.


Sarkisian's dismissal came just two days after the prime minister had returned from an official visit to Moscow. There he claimed to have discussed Armenia's economic problems with President-elect Vladimir Putin as well as with the vice premier, Mikhail Kasyanov, however Moscow sources will not confirm that Sarkisian actually met with the Russian leader.


Sarkisian was appointed prime minister in November last year. A cement factory director, his only qualification for the job was that he was the brother of Vazgen Sarkisian, the previous prime minister who was assassinated last October. Vazgen was one of eight leading officials to be killed when five hitmen burst into the Armenian parliament and unleashed a hail of machine-gun bullets.


Apparently, Kocharian regretted his decision almost immediately after Sarkisian's appointment. Strongly influenced by Yerkrapah, the union of Karabakh war veterans, the prime minister openly favoured political heavyweights who were directly opposed to the president's policies.


These figures included Vagharshak Harutiunian, taxation minister Smbat Ayvazian and the industry chief, Vahan Shirkhanian. Shirkhanian's relations with Kocharian reached a low point just hours after the October shooting when he presented the president with "a list of necessary appointments" nominating himself for the post of prime minister.


A former military envoy to Moscow, Lieutenant-General Harutiunian was appointed to the defence ministry in June 1999, when his predecessor, Vazgen Sarkisian, was made prime minister. A day prior to his dismissal, he was congratulated on his 44th birthday by his Russian counterpart, Igor Sergeev.


Meanwhile, the investigation of the October shootings continues to overshadow the Armenian political stage. On April 20, in an interview with Armenian National Television, Kocharian sharply criticised the conduct of the military prosecutor general, Gagik Jhangirian, who is leading the probe.


"The military prosecutor has become enmeshed in political processes and that is forbidden by law," said the president. "I will not tolerate this any longer and if it continues, appropriate conclusions will be drawn."


Five days later, Kocharian banned Jhangirian from taking part in parliamentary hearings on the case. The prosecutor promptly tendered his resignation, which Kocharian has since refused.


Ara Tadevosian is director of Mediamax, an independent Armenian news agency.