Armenia’s likely next president has a credibility problem

Armenia’s likely next president has a credibility problem
Armen Sarkissian at the World Economic Forum on Europe and Central Asia in 2008.
By Carmen Valache in Berlin February 21, 2018

Armen Sarkissian, the frontrunner in Armenia's presidential race, has had a busy month ever since the ruling Republican Party (HHK) nominated him as their choice for head of state on January 19. 

Since then, the former diplomat and prime minister spent four weeks meeting with representatives of Armenian political parties, civil society and diaspora organisations in order to rally support and open up a "national dialogue" before he finally decided to run for the presidency on February 16. 

But while Sarkissian has sought to bring together otherwise divided factions, not everyone is happy about his candidacy and questions about his dual nationality and a short-lived stint as prime minister in 1999 continue to loom. 

Not Armenian enough? 

The 64-year-old Sarkissian started his career as a physics professor at Yerevan State University in 1976, and continued his academic career as a visiting scholar at Cambridge University in the 1980s. 

In 1992, he was appointed as the ambassador of Armenia to the UK, which was the first of three such tenures he has held over the years (1992-1995, 1998-2000, 2013-2018). His diplomatic career also included a stint in Brussels where he was Armenia's top representative at the EU, the Vatican, Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands until 1999.  

The only interruption to his diplomatic career was a four-month period between November 1996 and February 1997, when he served as the country's fifth prime minister. The official reason for Sarkissian's untimely resignation was the fact that he needed to pursue treatment for a serious illness. However, many speculated that he had stepped down due to disagreements with then defence minister Vazgen Sargsyan; to this day, the issue of his resignation remains shrouded in mystery.

Back in Western Europe, Sarkissian leveraged his connections in Armenia to found a London-based think tank, Eurasia House International (EHI), in 2000, and went on to become a corporate whisperer of sorts, advising multinationals like Alcatel, BP and Telefonica on investment opportunities in Central Asia and the South Caucasus. In Armenia, he is credited with having brokered several deals between the government and foreign investors, most notably the contract with UK-registered mining company Lydian International 

But critics have been quick to point out that Sarkissian's three-decade absence from Armenia makes him poorly equipped to become the next head of state. "He has been removed from the current domestic issues of Armenia, both political and social. It's difficult to say whether he will be able to overcome this problem, since he was outside of the country for more than 30 years. He left Soviet Armenia, and now it's a completely different country,” political commentator David Petrosyan opined in an interview with Vestina Kavkaza

Meanwhile, an investigation by the opposition publication Hetq in February revealed that Sarkissian's nomination may have clashed with an article in the Armenian constitution that required that presidential nominees hold sole citizenship of Armenia and permanently reside in Armenia for six years prior to running for office. A look into EHI's registration documents revealed that Sarkissian held British citizenship and had listed the UK as his permanent residence as recently as 2014. A spokesperson in Sarkissian's office responded by saying that he had held dual British-Armenian citizenship between 2002 and 2011, but that he had renounced the former more than six years ago and therefore that he was legally eligible to run for president.  

Puppet president? 

Upon his nomination in January, several opposition parties criticised Sarkissian for being a weak proxy for the current head of state, Serzh Sargsyan (no relation), whose second term in office ends in April. If appointed, Sarkissian will become the first president whose powers will be largely ceremonial, after Armenians voted to switch from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary republic in a December 2015 referendum

Since the office of the prime minister will become the most important in the country come April, the parliamentary opposition — the Yelk ("Way Out") and Prosperous Armenia parties — and extra-parliamentary parties have accused Sargsyan of seeking to become the country's next prime minister and of appointing a figurehead as president in order to continue to exert control over the presidency. As the head of HHK, Sargsyan is a natural choice for prime minister, but his popularity has taken a nosedive in recent years amidst waves of demonstrations over his administration's corruption, economic policies and defence strategies

And Sarkissian needs to secure the support of at least part of the parliamentary opposition to facilitate his presidential candidacy. In early March, the 108-seat parliament is scheduled to vote on how the country's next president will be selected. While HHK has been the dominant political force in Armenia for two decades, and Sarkissian will likely be the next head of state, the parliamentary opposition can make it more difficult for him to get elected. 

As per the 2015 referendum, the national assembly can hold up to three rounds of voting. If no candidate secures three-quarters or 79 of the votes in the first round, even if they run unopposed, there will be a second round of voting. In order to win this round, a candidate would need to secure two-thirds or 68 of the MPs’ votes; lastly, a third round of voting will be organised if no candidate wins in the first two rounds, which would require a simple majority.

At the moment, HHK commands 58 seats in the assembly, and its coalition partner Dashnaktsutyun (Armenian Revolutionary Federation) seven. The ruling coalition would therefore need to secure at least 14 votes from amongst the Prosperous Armenia (31 seats) or Yelk Alliance (nine seats) MPs in order to spare Sarkissian the embarrassment of having to go through several rounds of voting, despite running unopposed. 

Since the former diplomat's ability and suitability for the office have already been called into question, protracting his victory will only further dent his credibility. In January, Yelk said that its MPs would not vote for Sarkissian, though its representatives met with him for discussion in early February, so there is a possibility that the party's position will change. 

In an effort to rally support around himself, Sarkissian called for all Armenians to embark on a "national dialogue" because "the challenges are much greater than we think". "Otherwise, our society will become even more divided," he warned while answering reporters' questions in February. While he has yet to give more specific details about his political agenda, Sarkissian has made it clear that he is not "a member of the Republican Party or any other party, and I expect that people in the National Assembly or outside it will choose someone regardless of who has nominated his candidacy". 

Thanks to HHK's endorsement, Sarkissian will most likely become Armenia's next president come April. However, the ease with which he wins the parliament's vote of confidence and, most importantly, what the current incumbent decides to do after his term ends (i.e. whether he will seek to become prime minister) will affect the new president's credibility and ability to unite Armenians around himself.