Opinion: The spectre of authoritarianism in Eurasia
30 March 2018

By accepting the post of prime minister Serzh Sargsyan joins the club of authoritarian leaders in the Eurasian Economic Union and the CSTO argues Alexander Petrosyan in this op-ed

On 19 March, just as preliminary results were coming in from the Russian presidential elections proclaiming Putin's landslide victory, Armenia's incumbent president Serzh Sargsyan, whose second term of office ends in April, revealed his ambitions to lead the government of Armenia as Prime Minister under a new Constitution. On the same day, Sargsyan met with the leadership of the Army, which is the most important pillar of his team's construct.

Sargsyan's announcement has triggered criticism within the country and is expected to result in demonstrations organized by opposition parties and civil society representatives. With this statement expressing eagerness to be nominated as the new Prime Minister, Sargsyan not only failed to honour his earlier promise not to do so, but also joined the club of authoritarian leaders in the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization.

On 16 April, the Parliament of Armenia will elect a new prime minister, who, under the provision of the new Constitution, will have increased powers. The new prime minister will possess the same power under the new Constitution as the president holds under the present arrangements which are about to expire. From April onwards, the President will play the role of the British Queen, with very limited functions and only a representative role. Armen Sarkissian, the former ambassador of Armenia to the UK, was elected by parliament as the new president. The only remaining question is who will be the new prime minister?

Up to now, the incumbent president, Serzh Sargsyan, had said several times that he was not interested in holding the post of prime minister when his presidential term ends. Back in 2014, Armenia's incumbent president Serzh Sargsyan, at a meeting with the board of experts on the Constitutional reforms, announced, that he will not put forward his candidacy either for the presidential or for the prime minister posts. As he's mentioned "I am even sure, that the same person shouldn't pretend to the highest ruling position of Armenia more than twice in his life".

The years that followed since have been important for the Armenian leadership, and for Sargsyan personally. First, in April 2016, there was an unprecedented escalation around Nagorno-Karabakh, which resulted in several hundred casualties from both the Armenian and the Azerbaijani sides. A few months later, a group of armed people, mainly consisting of Karabakh war veterans, seized the biggest police station in Yerevan. Several hundred people were arrested, three policemen were killed, and for almost two weeks Yerevan faced street demonstrations. All these events were thought to undermine Sargsyan's position, and possibly hinder the re-election of his party in the parliamentary elections of April 2017.

A leading American political scientist John Mearshimer in his well-known book "Why leaders lie", distinguishes between several types of lies, which state leaders are inclined to implement. Among these various types, he mentions the so-called "strategic cover-ups", saying that "Leaders can also lie to hide a controversial but smart strategy, because they fear that it will meet serious public resistance and not be adopted. The aim in this instance is not to conceal a bungled policy from the body politic, but to implement a particular policy without arousing strong opposition."

However, Sargsyan's chess moves resulted in success in the April 2017 parliamentary elections. The ruling Republican Party under his leadership, won more than 60% of the seats in the Parliament. Of course, it would have been much more difficult without current prime minister Karen Karapetyan. The reason is that, Karaperyan's image has several important characteristics, which Sargsyan could use very cleverly for his own interests. First of all, Karapetyan's name hasn't been connected to the local kleptocracy. This means, that Karapetyan and his team had to carry the whole burden of the Republican party's campaign in the elections. Second, Karapetyan, as a former chief executive of Gazprom, is linked to Russian political and economic circles. After the Armenian-Azerbaijani escalations of 2016 there were intensive negotiations, under Russian auspices, over Nagorno-Karabakh, and a so-called "Lavrov plan" was on the table, Sargsyan in order to ease Russian pressure, invited Karapetyan to hold the post of prime minister. In retrospect one can say that Sargsyan's plan worked. Currently, negotiations around Nagorno-Karabakh are not very intense, and more significantly, the Republican Party succeeded in winning the elections.

Karapetyan's team initiated many reforms in several areas, however, given the fact that Karapetyan doesn't have his own team in the Parliament, he is not seen as a strong force in the political landscape of Armenia. The most influential leverage in his toolkit is his links to the business circles of Russian Armenians, such as Samvel Karapetyan, Ruben Vardanyan etc. But as experience shows, in post-soviet Armenia, only those regimes and circles that control the security and military services have succeeded

Karapetyan who was starring daily on media news from the time of his appointment up to the end of the parliamentary elections, has since been pushed backstage. Most probably he will vacate the prime minister's job and hold instead the post of first deputy prime minister in a new government. The first reason to think so is that, Sargsyan will continue to use Karapetyan as a symbol of continuing reforms and modernization as long as the later will not target oligarchs and corrupt officials close to Sargsyan's inner circle. Besides, Sargsyan needs to have Karapetyan in his government to ease Russia's doubts. On his part, Karapetyan needs to accept Sargsyan's offer in order to advocate the interests of those oligarchs associated with him. In any case, after the April 2017 parliamentary elections Karapetyan's public image has started to fade.

Though, Karapetyan has expressed his willingness to hold the post of prime minister in the new government, shortly after, in an interview with Al Jazeera, Sargsyan gave an evasive response to the question concerning his possible nomination as a prime minister. Back in mid- 2017, he said that it was too early then to be engaged in such kind of conversations. However, since the autumn, the media coverage started actively shifting from Karapetyan's messianic reforms to Sargsyan's security provider role. It was quite obvious from the statements of the Republican Party MPs that the issue of security has been pushed to the front, and in this context Sargsyan is perceived by them as a champion who can successfully negotiate both internally and externally. As an example of this success they mention the recent agreement signed between Armenia and the European Union.

In general, it is not a secret that security has shaped Armenia's domestic and foreign policy discourses since the collapse of the USSR. And given the fact, that Sargsyan, who has in his career led all the country's security and military institutions, and currently has power over all of them, is seen as an ideal candidate among the members of his party, and those of other parties that are its allies or clients

Even the loss of 800 hectares of land in the frontline with Azerbaijan during the April 2016 clashes, a fact that was first revealed by J. Sefilian a Karabakh war commander, political activist, currently political prisoner - did not cause Sargsyan's inner circle to doubt the incumbent president image as a security provider. Several other glaring examples also cast deep doubt on the myth associated with Sargsyan's security provider role. First of all, since 2008, when he came to power after post-election clashes, during which 10 citizens were killed, Azerbaijan's military budget has been dramatically increased. Meanwhile, Sargsyan's team has increased the budget of the police. Second, during his ten years of governance, from 2008 to 2018, Armenia's population has decreased by more than 300 000 people, most leaving for other countries because of worsening socioeconomic conditions. Third, Armenia has faced democratic decline, and the existence of political prisoners stands as an example of that. Finally, Armenia's foreign debt now exceeds USD5 billion, a whilst an increased tax burden on the one hand and the existence of monopolies in many economic fields on the other, have come to symbolisa Sargsyan's governance

The new narrative for Sargsyan's new term as prime minister revolves around the modernization of the military and security system, and the preparation of a new younger generation of politicians. However, nothing much should be expected in areas of democratization, modernization and liberalization of Armenia, after a decade of Sargsyan's failed power. Not only does he and his party pursue populistic politics, but also, they hinder the advancement of Armenia, serving mainly the interests of Russia, and trying to jump on its bandwagon as often as possible. For this reason, Sargsyan is a political figure acceptable for Russia, even though many analysts say that he is not a reliable partner for the Kremlin. Overall, Sargsyan is also an acceptable partner for the West especially for the EU. As the Head of the Standing Committee on Foreign and European Union Affairs of the Polish Seante, Marek Rocki, recently commented, each state has a right to construct its political landscape as it wants!

Source: Alexander Petrosyan is an independent analyst based in Yerevan. He contributed this op-ed to 

The views expressed in opinion pieces and commentaries do not necessarily reflect the position of or its partners.

Photo: Leaders of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) at a summit in Yerevan (archive picture)