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What’s Behind Armenia’s New Coalition Deal?

Alliance may be a sign of future challenges to Armenia’s democratic development.
By Armen Karapetyan
  • (Photo: Courtesy of RA President's official website)
    (Photo: Courtesy of RA President's official website)
  • (Photo: Courtesy of RA President's official website)
    (Photo: Courtesy of RA President's official website)
  • (Photo: Courtesy of RA President's official website)
    (Photo: Courtesy of RA President's official website)

Analysts say that Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan’s surprise decision to form a coalition government is a sign that he plans to continue his hold on power after his second and final term expires in 2018.

On February 24, Sargysan’s Republican party signed an agreement with the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, or Dashnaktsutyun.

The agreement “marks the beginning of a long-term political cooperation based on common values and joint goals and action plans,” the Republican party´s deputy chairman Armen Ashotyan told journalists.

Dashnaktsutyun took three ministerial posts: Artsvik Minasyan became minister of economy, Levon Mkrtchyan minister of education and science and David Lokyan minister of territorial administration and development. 

The Republican party had previously served with Dashnaktsutyun as part of a four-party coalition in 2008, but Dashnaktsutyun withdrew a year later in protest over an agreement signed by Armenia and Turkey to normalise relations. 

The Zurich Protocols would have led to the opening of the border between the two countries and in the end were never ratified.  In February 2015, on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide in Ottoman Turkey, Sargsyan recalled the protocols from parliament.

This power-sharing deal has come as a particular surprise since there was no political need for Sargsyan to form a coalition.  The junior partner, a socialist and nationalist party, currently holds just five seats in Armenia´s 131-member parliament, whereas the Republican Party holds the majority with 70 seats.

This has fuelled speculation that the coalition is part of a longer-term strategy by Sargsyan.

As a result of last December’s controversial constitutional referendum, Armenia will shift to a parliamentary system of government in 2018 when the presidential term expires. 

(See Armenian Reform Vote Tarnished by Fraud Allegations). 

The next president will have a more ceremonial role, while the powers of parliament and the prime minister will be expanded.

As part of the transition, the next parliamentary elections due in 2017 will already be held under this new system. 

(See also Armenians to Vote on Constitutional Reform).

Up to now, the president could serve two consecutive terms of five years each.  In the future, he will be allowed only one single seven-year term. There will be no term limits for the prime minister.    

There has been much speculation about Sargsyan's future ambitions and how the country will be governed.

Aghasi Yenokyan, director of the Armenian Centre for Political and International Studies, said that Sargsyan might have begun preparing for the end of his second term as far back as 2009, when Dashnaktsutyun opted out of the four-party coalition and joined the opposition.  The party later supported the constitutional reforms put forward by the president´s Republican Party.

Now, by joining forces with Dashnaktsutyun, the Republican Party was driving a wedge between the country´s opposition parties while also blocking his influential predecessor from returning to politics.

“The main purpose of splitting the opposition camp and forming a coalition with [Dashnaktsutyun] was to prevent the return of the second president of Armenia, Robert Kocharyan,” Yenokyan said.  “Kocharyan has the resources and is the number one threat to Sarkisyan.”

Kocharyan, who ran the country between 1998 and 2008, is considered to be close to the opposition party Prosperous Armenia, which has 33 seats in parliament, and have ambitions to return to active politics.

“After 2017, Sargsyan will try to control the National Assembly, government and the Republican Party through various forces elected to parliament and political coalitions,” said Stepan Danielyan, the chairman of the Collaboration for Democracy Centre.

He explained that Sargsyan was preparing for all eventualities, including the upcoming parliamentary elections, while also trying to ensure his own transition to another very senior post after 2018.

This meant he had to keep both a tight lid on any potential dissent within his own party’s ranks and exert influence over other forces in the National Assembly. This required building control on a number of levels.

The president, Danielyan continued, must “control the oligarchic wing within the Republican Party, which has resources and provides votes for the president.  [This wing] has its own needs and is therefore a potential threat. 

“To control the oligarchs, Sargsyan should form another parliamentary majority together with parties with few seats in parliament and members of the party loyal to him personally,” Danielyan continued.

Sargsyan has avoided answering questions about his strategy beyond 2018.  When he was asked about his future plans, ahead of the December 6 constitutional referendum, Sargsyan said he would only discuss them after the 2017 parliamentary elections. 

Members of his Republican party as well as his younger brother Levon Sargsyan, an ambassador-at-large, have not been as guarded.  They have said openly that the president has no intention of leaving politics, but will continue to be one of Armenia’s decision makers after 2018.

Sargsyan has continuously held senior government positions since independence in 1991, among them as leader of the armed forces of Nagorny Karabakh, defence minister, minister of national security, prime minister and finally president. 

His rise has not gone unchallenged, however.  After his victory in the 2008 presidential election, there were public protests amid accusations that the election results had been fabricated.  At least 10 people were killed when the armed forces attempted to suppress the subsequent riots.

Officially, Armenia is moving from a presidential to a parliamentary system of governance so as to decentralise power and strengthen democracy.

“The updated constitution is a new thrust for a new beginning,” Sargsyan said in a February 12 speech in which he outlined Armenia´s course following the amendments. “We have created an exceptional opportunity to give a boost to our development and address the shortcomings.”

But many doubt that the political elite will so easily agree to abandon powers accumulated over the last  quarter of a century. 

Instead, there is a growing perception that the real purpose of amending the constitution was to give president Sargsyan the chance to stay in power.  

“It is obvious that in Armenia the constitutional amendments have nothing to do with democracy, since the people who are involved in the falsification of the election results cannot think about democracy.  They only think about how to make their power eternal,” said Zaruhi Postanjyan, a representative of the opposition Heritage party.

According to Human Rights Watch, Armenia remains only partly free. 

Armen Karapetyan is a freelance reporter in Armenia.