Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

The Role of The Army in Armenia's Politics

How deep was the crisis between President Robert Kocharian and the military? Thousands of troops were pointedly still patrolling the city last week.
By Liana Minasian

While the official mourning period has ended for the victims of the October 27 attack on Parliament, it will take far longer for Armenians to overcome the strong feelings of fear and confusion the assassination of some of the country's top politicians has provoked.


The immediate aftermath of the shootings saw the army step in to demand President Robert Kocharian sack the Security Minister, the Minister of the Interior and the Prosecutor General. Despite the fact that the attackers have been arrested, Defence Ministry officials consider the assassination part of a plot to undermine the army and deprive it of the extensive power it has held these past years.


Even after the mourning period was over, soldiers were still highly visible in Yerevan and observers reported that up to 10,000 troops had been deployed across the city.


How deep was the crisis between Kocharian and the late prime minister's close allies within the military? An Armenian official who wished to remain anonymous maintains that when Kocharian asked the defence minister Vagharshak Harutynian to stand down the army, he refused point blank. The President, Harutynian argued, "did not quite realise" how serious the situation was.


Another high ranking official who declined to be named claimed that Kocharian and his ally, Security Minister Serge Sarkisian had asked Moscow to send members of the elite anti-terrorist 'Alpha' force to Yerevan in the aftermath of the killings. The arrival of the unit was reported on both Armenian and Russian TV. There were reports that the Russians had been called in to protect other members of the Armenian leadership, instead of relying on the Armenian military.


The Armenian military have long been used to being the most privileged caste of a country that has been at war for years. Their increasingly powerful role was largely a result of the activities of assassinated prime Minister Vazgen Sarkisian. Appointed Prime Minister only last June, Sarkisian had served since 1995 as Defence Minister, when he was credited with substantially 'professionalising' the Armenian forces.


A national Armenian army existed before the independent state of Armenia was actually declared. It emerged during the last years of the Soviet regime, with the beginning of the Karabakh movement, and its powerful call to Armenia to take over the mainly Armenian populated Azerbaijani enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh by force.


By the time the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the influence of this movement in Armenian politics was already considerable, and the eventual war between the two countries over the disputed territory was bloody and intense.


After the war's suspension, leaving Armenia in total control of Nagorno-Karabakh and large areas of other Azeri land, Karabakh war veterans created the 'Erkrapa' (Union of Fighters). This group was tightly controlled by Sarkisian, who had also fought as a volunteer in Karabakh.


The Erkrapa included political malcontents, nationalists and volunteers who championed a forceful rather than an intellectual support for the independence of Karabakh. Members of Erkarpa often flouted the law, convinced of the justice of their cause.


In September 1996, following a controversial presidential vote won by incumbent Levon Ter-Petrosian, Sarkisian, then Defence Minister, sent the army and Erkrapa units to crush opposition protests in the streets of Yerevan.


Having successfully accomplished his mission, Sarkisian famously noted that "the people must not be allowed to change the structure of power."


This prompted political analysts in Yerevan to conclude that while Ter-Petrosian had won the elections, he had lost control of the country to the army, having allowed it to solve political problems by military means.


This analysis proved right in February 1998 when the same military elite accomplished a bloodless coup and forced Ter-Petrosian to resign. Observers agree that the primary reason for the army leadership's withdrawal of support was the Karabakh peace plan Ter-Petrosian intended to sign.


Political intrigues are often the legacy of authoritarian traditions. The Armenian government's increasing tendency to rely on army, police and secret service, sooner or later tempts those agencies to themselves bid for power.


This phenomena has been seen elsewhere in the Southern Caucasus - in Georgia where the former Defence Minister Igor Georgadze challenged President Eduard Shevardnadze, and in Azerbaijan, where Special Police Unit Commander Rovshan Dzhavadov challenged President Heydar Aliev.


In Armenia, the army leadership under Sarkisian became the driving force behind the country's political life since 1998. The army has been playing an active role in virtually every political event in the country and even succeeded in creating and supporting artificial political parties.


The army strongly criticised the legacy of previous governments and championed reforms that implied a shift in ideology, the economy and issues relating to Karabakh. However, it soon became clear that the army could not handle economic issues and was equally unqualified in the political sphere.


Following Ter-Petrosian's resignation and the election of Robert Kocharian as new Armenian President, Sarkisian gained a reputation as kingmaker. He engineered the victory of Kocharian, who was previously president of Nagorno-Karabakh. And, under the new presidency, Sarkisian managed to increase his influence.


In May this year, in partnership with former communist leader Karen Demirchian, Sarkisian formed the Unity bloc which subsequently won control of Parliament following the spring elections. Sarkisian became Prime Minister and Demirchian Parliamentary Speaker. Both perished in last week's shooting.


Following the vote, Kocharian seemed unable to make use of his extended constitutional power without the agreement of the army, while Sarkisian, who used to call most army officials "his combat friends", had more cooperation. Meanwhile Unity bloc members grew ever more influential, and have been controlling most key government positions, at national and regional level since the elections.


In the aftermath of the shootings, the flaw in Armenia's government has become more evident, that it is a nation run not by rule of law but by personalities. Notably, the Unity bloc could well disintegrate without its charismatic leaders, and the same could happen to its parliamentary majority. Demirchian's People's Party may simply vanish, because - like many other parties in Armenia - it was only created to serve its now late leader.


More consequences may now follow. The government and structures closely associated with it controlled virtually all economic power in the country. One of Sarkisian's first moves on becoming prime minister was to redistribute the country's financial wealth, such as it is. His absence could trigger a new and tense division of property and spheres of influence.


Armenia's core problem is that there are no politicians in the country capable of consolidating society. Even Ter-Petrosian, the former president, afraid as he is of the army's possible disintegration into small militia groups, has appealed to Armenia's citizens to support the existing government.


The military seems to have sensed that change is s are approaching and fear the loss of their privileged role. Hence the lobbying for the appointment of loyalists to key positions while issuing demands for the heads of senior officials. The army's reactions to the killings were a bad omen - and yet an obvious move.


Liana Minasian, is a Moscow-based producer and Caucasus analyst for the Segodnya v Polnoch, NTV's nightly news programme.