An April 4 decree by President Robert Kocharian has named Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian as Armenia's new premier, following the death a week and a half ago of Prime Minister Andranik Markarian.
The decision did not come as a surprise. The 53-year-old Sarkisian, who served as defense minister since 2000, following an earlier stint in the 1990s, is widely viewed as the second most influential political figure in Armenia after President Kocharian. He has also headed the country's National Security Service, National Security Council and presidential administration, posts which are believed to have given him additional key levers of advantage for Armenian political life.
Following Markarian's death, he has also been named acting head of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia. Under the terms of a coalition agreement with two other pro-government parties, the RPA, which has the largest faction in parliament, holds the post of prime minister.
Sarkisian will hold office for slightly more than a month, until the elections, when the constitution requires him to give up the post. If the Republican Party wins at the polls, he could again be reappointed to the job.
The newly named prime minister now will have 20 days to name the members of his cabinet.
Radical changes are not anticipated. On April 3, Parliamentary Speaker Tigran Torosian, deputy chairman of the Republican Party, told reporters that given "the current realities, no changes in the [government] cabinet should be expected," news agency ArmInfo reported.
For now, the prime minister's policy plans remain unclear. Sarkisian was in Brussels to discuss Armenia's progress in its Individual Partnership Action Plan with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization when his appointment was decreed. His reactions to the decision have not yet been publicized.
With just over one month to go before Arnenia's parliamentary elections, however, the nomination poses clear challenges for Sarkisian.
The March 25 death of Prime Minister Andranik Markarian presents the first. As acting head of the RPA, Sarkisian, who joined the party less than a year ago, must now not only manage to replicate Markarian's reputation for building unity within the party on the eve of a critical parliamentary election, but to replace him as the party's ideological head as well.
Some observers have wondered whether the differences in the two men's approaches could entail the Republican Party splitting into two wings. While Markarian was a Soviet-era dissident and member of a political party that called for Armenia's independence from the Soviet Union, Sarkisian, educated as a philologist, worked for nine years as a functionary for the Komsomol, the Communist Party youth league.
Addressing this issue on April 3, party spokesperson Eduard Sharmazanov denied the prospect, stating that the Republican Party does not intend to change its ideology or "strategy." Tactics alone could be subject to change, the news agency Arminfo reported Sharmazanov as saying, without elaboration.
The mysterious April 2 attempt on the life of Gyumri Mayor Vardan Ghukasian, an RPA board member, could prove a second challenge. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Ghukasian was returning from a meeting at which the party nominated Sarkisian as their candidate for prime minister. Whatever the reasons for the attack, it is widely seen as an affront to the Republican Party's status.
For now, the most pressing task for Sarkisian will be to maintain the party's standing in parliament, particularly against the increasingly popular pro-government Prosperous Armenia Party, a frontrunner in many opinion polls. Despite his influence, Sarkisian is far from among the most popular of public figures with ordinary Armenians. Sour memories persist of his statement that the "mentality of our people," rather than wrongdoing by election officials, was the reason for rigged votes during the 2003 parliamentary elections. In recent months, however, he has pledged to ensure that the May elections will be free and fair.
The pledge, many analysts believe, could have been made with an eye to the future. His past as the head of military operations for the self-declared state of Nagorno Karabakh is seen as giving him particular status within the government elite's so-called "Karabakh clan." Armenian analysts and media discuss as a given the likelihood that he will run for president in 2008 once President Kocharian's final term of office expires.
Haroutiun Khachatrian is a Yerevan-based writer specializing in economic and political affairs.