Armenia is completing its transition to a parliamentary system of government, that the ruling coalition has lauded as a step towards greater democracy. But many argue the change has simply been high-jacked to extend former President Serzh Sargsyan's grip on power.
Armenia has just sworn in a new president and next week parliament is set to elect a new prime minister, concluding a controversial transition from a semi-presidential system of government to a parliamentary one. However, many remain sceptical.
On Monday, Armen Sarkissian, a former ambassador to Britain, was sworn in as the country’s fourth president, while Parliament is slated to vote for a new prime minister on April 17. Sarkissian briefly held the prime minister’s post in the 1990s and has many high-profile connections in international scientific and business circles. As President, his new role will have a largely ceremonial function, while power will now be with the prime minister.
On Wednesday, the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) announced its intention to nominate former president Serzh Sargsyan, who has been in office for the last ten years, for the powerful prime minister’s office.
Amid criticisms that Sargsyan is simply maintaining his iron-grip on power, supporters say security reasons make his continuing rule necessary. Armenia is blockaded by Turkey and Azerbaijan amid an armed confrontation with the latter over the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. In April 2016, renewed fighting lasted four days during which hundreds died on both sides.
Sargsyan’s plan for constitutional change dates back to 2014. The following year, a referendum on the constitutional amendment received a resounding ‘yes’ with 63% of the vote, according to official data. However, the political opposition disputed the results, which they claim had been rigged in order for Sargsyan to maintain his power.
In July 2016, Sargsyan repelled an attempt to force him out of power. A group of armed men stormed and occupied a police patrol department, demanding his resignation. Over the following days, large-scale demonstrations were held in solidarity with the gunmen. After negotiations that lasted a little over two weeks, the gunmen agreed to surrender. Three police officers were killed, and dozens of citizens were hurt over this period. Following the events, a new government was formed with the appointment of former ArmRosGazprom chief executive Karen Karapetyan to the prime minister’s office.
‘The current system is formed around a single person who can control and balance it’
Davit Sanasaryan, an activist who participated in the demonstrations of July 2016, believes that unlike the authorities who have launched anti-democratic practices, civil society groups and some political forces are trying to start a democratic process by carrying out peaceful campaigns against Sargsyan’s leadership.
“It’s not clear at this moment which way the scale will tip, the success of democracy depends on the society’s involvement, without which the situation created by the authorities will remain unchanged” Sanasaryan says.
He believes if the ruling circles take sharp anti-democratic steps, the emergence of new armed groups and attempts to overthrow the government by force cannot be ruled out.
“As a supporter of peaceful disobedience, I hope everything will be done to prevent possible armed struggles,” Sanasaryan says.
Given the parliamentary majority of Sargsyan’s Republican Party and its coalition partner, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), he is unlikely to face any obstacles to his election as premier. Outside the ruling coalition, the Tsarukyan bloc, headed by business magnate Gagik Tsarukyan, is also refraining from joining protests against Sargsyan’s leadership and is generally uncritical of him. It was also in favour of Sarkissian’s election for president. The Yelk bloc, which consists of three opposition parties, has been divided as only one of them – the Civil Contract party – has said it is prepared to take to the streets and fight against Sargsyan’s rule.
Lena Nazaryan, one of its lawmakers, explained why it is important to fight this premiership even if power remains in the hands of his party. “The current system is formed around a single person who can control and balance it,” Nazaryan says. “But when the system loses its head, all the other elements panic, and internal disagreements surface.”
Weighing in on the current power system in place, Nazaryan said Sargsyan is concentrating economic monopolies in the hands of people close to the authorities, and blamed him for “a politicized justice system and a lack of fair trial.”
“Improper sentences will always be handed in politically motivated trials, even if there is an element of crime,” she said.
Nazaryan also accused the former president of reinforcing corruption in the electoral system, claiming that election bribes are disseminated ahead of each vote.
“If he continues ruling the country, nothing will change. The society has adapted to this situation and doesn’t fight against it,” she added.
A shift headed for democracy?
Republican Party deputy chairman Armen Ashotyan, meanwhile, rejected accusations that the political shift was anti-democratic.
“It’s hard to explain how a parliamentary model of government can be less democratic than a semi-presidential one,” Ashotyan said.
Describing the opposition’s presence in parliament as unprecedented, the lawmaker says 40% of National Assembly represents the opposition, while a further 25% of the parliamentary leadership posts and 33% of standing committees are given to the opposition. The latter two, however, are comprised exclusively of the Tsarukyan bloc.
According to him, the country is now in the process of obtaining a parliamentary government experience. “The current solutions certainly presuppose more transparent, democratic and participatory management than previously,” he says.
Ashotyan also argued no official decision had been made on Sargsyan’s possible tenure as the country’s prime minister, and that critics of the ruling party misinterpret the current situation.
“The RPA and its coalition partner ARF formed a majority in 2017, which means political decisions will be implemented by the political majority,” the lawmaker said.
“So the issue of reproducing or continuing Sargsyan’s rule was not the question. This is only about the vote of confidence that the RPA received in 2017 and the formation of a new parliamentary system by 2022."
He also drew comparisons to EU countries, adding, "Meanwhile, in some member states of the European Union, like Germany and Hungary, personal leadership is gaining even a fourth term.”
The public’s resignation
Hrant Mikaelian, a political scientist and researcher at the Caucasus Institute, believes that the key goal of the shift in the form of government was to distribute power among the various branches of the government.
The transition to a parliamentary system, according to him, was made by Sargsyan to ensure power was not concentrated in the presidential office after his possible departure as president at the end of his second five-year term.
He believes that the political opposition’s chances of success are low, as people are disappointed with both the authorities and the opposition, and do not understand how they will benefit from any changes.