By Edmond Y. Azadian
Since its independence 25 years ago, Armenia has had three presidents and 18 prime ministers. Most of the prime ministers have come and gone without much fanfare. However, the resignation of Hovik Abrahamyan and his replacement with Karen Karapetyan have become the subject of much speculation and various interpretations.
Abrahamyan has served the country for the past three and a half years. Before that, he forced himself into the position of speaker of Parliament, pushing aside the more refined and erudite statesman, Tigran Torosyan.
His appointment as prime minister came with promises of important economic improvements. Not only did those promises prove hollow, but the state debt crossed the threshold of $5 billion, as the Economist wrote in a recent article.
When Abrahamyan became prime minister, many in Armenia were appalled, as he lacks the polish that his predecessors have had, and many worried that he would embarrass the country in foreign diplomatic circles.
The business acumen which had helped him hoard his personal wealth did not help the country in any way. Instead, he honed his skills in playing games of intrigue and using electoral fraud for gain, which further tainted Armenia’s image as a corrupt country.
What caused his downfall when he was the perfect match for the atmosphere of rampant corruption?
Some analysts believe that his failure to revive the economy doomed his administration. Others insist that some dramatic changes are being heralded by his departure and that it may signal the beginning of the end for the rule of President Serzh Sargsyan.
Still other rumors suggest that the president needed to send a positive signal to Moscow by replacing Abrahamyan with a better-known Kremlin ally. When Russian influence is so overpowering in Armenia, no politician can afford to be seen as anti-Kremlin. But it seems that there are varying degrees of loyalty.
Opposition figures believe that all the changes are cosmetic. Others insist they are the direct outcome of the armed insurrection by the Sasna Tsrer movement. One pundit, Yervand Bozoyan, detects the preparation for electoral plans in this change. He says, “Serzh Sargsyan is vying for the position of prime minister and Abrahamyan would have been a hurdle in his drive to reach this post.”
In his resignation speech during his last cabinet meeting, Abrahamyan indicated that his move was to “give way to a coalition government” promised by Serzh Sargsyan in the wake of the violent standoff outside the Erebuni police station in Yerevan this summer.
There are talks, developments and decisions in the making about more fundamental changes in the new cabinet to be formed. President Vladimir Putin recently gave Armenia’s Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian a medal, indicating his approval of the latter’s performance. But, despite that positive signal, rumors abound that the latter is going to be replaced with Vigen Sargsyan, the president’s Western-educated chief of staff (no relation), perhaps the most modern thinker in the entire government.
Nalbandian will excel in any position he serves in. French-Armenian relations reached their peak during his tenure as Armenia’s representative in Paris. It seems that he is headed again to France, to replace the current light-weight ambassador in that country, which is crucial to Armenia’s foreign policy.
One last change is the promotion of the minister of defense, Seyran Ohanyan, to serve as the secretary general of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) system, the Russian counterpart to NATO.
Karen Karapetyan is no stranger to Armenia’s political scene; he is a known quantity. For a brief period, he served as the mayor of Yerevan, before moving to Moscow to serve as the first vice minister of Gazprombank, connected to Russia’s main oil and gas company.
In every shape and form, Karapetyan is the opposite of Abrahamyan. A suave and refined technocrat, he is less inclined to promote domestic political intrigue; more urbane, he drips with international savoir faire.
In many quarters, his appointment is interpreted in different ways.
Some believe that as a competent economist, he can bring to fruition many reforms that are being contemplated. He represents big capital in Armenia and beyond and thus he may be able to attract foreign investments in the country.
For others, he is simply the Kremlin’s man in Yerevan, planted there by President Putin to quell rising anti-Russian sentiments in Armenia. The rumors suggested that in that position he can control post-electoral political developments. Under the soft power of the West, Armenia may veer towards Europe as a result of parliamentary and presidential elections in the coming two years, thus undermining Russia’s powerbase and its influence in the Caucasus.
An analyst, Levon Shirinyan, wrote this week that he believes the new appointment tends to serve as a counterweight to the growing belief in Armenia that Russia had instigated the Azeri attack on Karabagh in April.
“Besides that,” states Shirinyan, “the revolt in Armenia demonstrated that there is no room there for a deal of territory versus independence, which is being advocated by Russia. That is why Russia decided to have a more powerful representation in the person of a circumspect statesman who can work with the Kremlin closely.”
Whatever the reason, change was needed in Armenia, not only a change in personalities, but also in perceptions. After the revolt, President Sargsyan indicated in a subtle way that he had gotten the message of the people.
Three presidents and 18 prime ministers do not indicate stability. In view of the upcoming elections and the stalemate in the Karabagh negotiations, stability is necessary so that the country can pull itself out of the current quagmire.
A change in faces is welcome, provided that it ushers in a new phase in Armenia’s political, economic and social life.