Present and Future Power Debate: Who will be the choices in 2008?

The domestic political atmosphere in Armenia intensifies in advance of the parliamentary election campaign, with National Assembly posts to be contested next May.

But the season of pre-campaign maneuvering also sees “pre-pre-campaign” speculation over who will replace Robert Kocharyan as President of Armenia in 2008.

After taking the challenge of the parliamentary election, the 15-year-old state will elect its president for the fifth time. The situation brewing on the political stage allows for a supposition that Armenia will have plenty of contenders for the presidential chair.

Ahead of the parliamentary election there are two main alignments within the elite of Armenia: Serge Sargsyan and the Republican Party of Armenia, and Robert Kocharyan with the Prosperous Armenia Party and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation. (Kocharyan cannot seek a third term, but will play a vital role in securing the spot for his approved successor.)

Although the presidential election largely depends on which of the political scenarios of the two groupings will win the parliamentary election, analysts are already making some predictions.

Washington D.C./Yerevan political analyst Richard Giragosian says to expect a different face on the same power structure. He argues that the political field of Armenia is a closed system with powerful and clearly cut limits and the new president will be someone from inside that system.

“The connection between the state and corruption is the evidence that one needs to pay money to enter the closed system of the political elite. It’s like buying a ticket for a performance; one needs to pay to play in the ‘political theater’,” says Giragosian.

Representing a western-influenced viewpoint, Giragosian says the US has learnt a clear lesson from organizing the flower and color (“Rose” in Georgia; and “Orange” in Ukraine) revolutions in some CIS republics and concludes that imposed democracies do not work in countries where there are no truly democratic oppositions.

With too many other hot spots of unrest or tension – from North Korea to Darfur – the west, says the veteran analyst, welcomes stability.

“The process of importing American democracy has exhausted itself. Today both the US and Russia want to maintain stability in Armenia and the CIS. That context would suggest the US should endorse Serge Sargsyan’s candidacy for Kocharyan’s succession, because Sargsyan will be able to continue the current political and economic path,” Giragosian says.

Oppositional analyst Suren Surenyants, who is also a member to the political council of the Republic Party, says the main struggle for presidential chair will develop between Kocharyan and Sargsyan.

“I am absolutely against the reproduction of power, although everybody understands an authoritarian regime like this can nominate only Sargsyan for a successor to Kocharyan. He is the only one who will be able to consolidate the administrative and financial resources, as well as control the criminal element.”

Surenyants believes Kocharyan even wants to run for the third term, and is not excluded from finding ways to manipulate law to allow it.

Surenyants says the incumbent president orders to name new candidacies in an attempt to reduce Sargsyan’s aspirations for the time being. For example, earlier in July the Minister of Justice Davit Harutyunyan claimed that he “plans to go into politics and is ready to cooperate with any political force”. Harutyunyan neither denied nor confirmed the possible intentions to join the Prosperous Armenia Party.

The news on the possible nomination of the Minister of Foreign Affairs Vartan Oskanian was largely circulated particularly in September.

“In an interview Oskanian neither denied nor confirmed the fact, which, I believe, was a message to Serge Sargsyan sent by the president’s order,” says the head of the analytical department at the Center for National and International Studies, analyst Stepan Safaryan.

Oskanian, who at last month’s Armenia-Diaspora Conference presented a program for saving rural areas, was actually giving an early campaign speech, Safaryan contends.

Safaryan believes the authorities have a series of the minimum and the maximum plans prepared for a variety of situations.

“The best scenario (for the political elite) will be the following: to exploit the Karabakh problem as a means of putting the West on the false front to get a carte-blanche and to prolong the stay in power either by taking up the chair of the prime minister (the version that Kocharyan may take up the chair of the prime is already circulating), or to hand the power to a preferred successor,” says Safaryan

Safaryan finds it difficult to name people, explaining it by the existence of the least bad and the best scenarios.

He says the best scenario for Kocharyan will be if he gets a weak president, whom he can control from the sidelines; in the worst case Kocharyan will have to leave and hand the power over to someone else.

“Davit Harutyunyan or Vartan Oskanian could fit to the role of a weak president. They are frequently named. For the moment at least, Serge Sargsyan does not correspond to this scenario and if Kocharyan is forced to leave the power, he will have to accept Sargsyan’s victory,” says Safaryan

Political analyst Aghasi Yenokyan’s forecasts are somewhat different. He argues that if Kocharyan’s party wins the upcoming elections, he will continue to manipulate country business, even though he is no longer president.

“Proceeding with the ongoing political developments, if Kocharyan manages to have the parliamentary election develop in the preferred scenario, he will be the most possible candidate. At least he has managed to do it until now as he in total control of the political situation at the moment and everything is done by his order,” says Yenokyan and continues:

“If we get a parliament Kocharyan wants us to have, then he will run the country for several more years.”

Yenokyan believes Kocharyan will not have problems with the necessity to conform to the provisions of the Constitution. If Kocharyan has managed to overrule the Constitution when there were just few items that hindered his nomination for presidency quite craftily before, then this time he will manage to ignore the Constitution, Yenokyan says. (The analyst alludes to the fact that Kocharyan – a former citizen of Nagorno Karabakh – has not held the required minimum 10-year Armenian citizenship for the presidential post.)

The analysts say the most unpredictable element in upcoming elections is society, where the opposition’s hopes still lie.

“Unlike the authorities who manage to unite for the sake of their interests, the opposition is not united yet. There are external factors (the authorities) that hinder its unification as was the case with Artashes Geghamyan in 2003,” says Safaryan. Before the presidential runoff Geghamyan effectively withdrew his support to second-placed Stepan Demirchyan and did not join the rest of the opposition to support the candidate running against Kocharyan.

According to Safaryan the authorities have a ready scenario also for the case of unpredictable commotion within the society. In case of a boycott, oppositional Artur Baghdasaryan, still connected with the presidential administration Safaryan claims, will be elected.

Giragosian says neither society nor observers should expect significant change because the system is tightly closed and the opposition is: ““an elite, and would be simply like new bandits in power with just a different face.”

Giragosian says also Oskanian’s aspirations are not attainable.

“At first sight Oskanian seems an experienced politician who has been in power elites for years. But in fact he has been isolated and the sphere of his activities has been limited. There are some positive sides in this, however, because keeping him aloof from the decision-making by the elite has helped him to be more unsullied. But you never know if one is able to be a good president regardless of whether he is unsullied. Being ‘clean’ is not enough,” says Giragosian.

Nor, Giragosian adds, is Armenia ready to have an unscathed leader yet.

“It’s Armenia, not Oskanian, which is not ready. For the time being perhaps Armenia needs someone like Putin – with some dictatorial way of rule and the ability to eradicate corruption and the constantly increasing criminalization in the country.”