Presidential Selection: Armen Sargsyan’s Second Coming to Armenia
The move comes as Armenia prepares for a new political system, with executive power passing to the prime minister.
On January 19, Armenia’s outgoing president Serzh Sargsyan presented his ambassador to the United Kingdom Armen Sargsyan (not related) as the ruling Republican Party of Armenia’s candidate for president.
Under the norms of Armenia’s constitution that will come into force in April, the executive power will shift from president to prime minister, making the presidential position less important than it is now. Armen Sargsyan, who has yet to formally accept the nomination, is expected to be elected by the Republican-dominated National Assembly next month.
Armen Sargsyan, 64, has occupied a unique place in the Armenian political establishment. A professor of physics, Sargsyan began working at Cambridge University in 1984 and enjoyed intellectual celebrity status already at the time of Armenia’s independence, when he became its ambassador in London.
Reflecting his status as higher than that of a typical ambassador, Armen Sargsyan was appointed prime minister following the disputed 1996 presidential elections. In the role he was expected to repair the government’s image, but lasted only four months, leaving amid a widely rumored conflict with then-defense minister Vazgen Sargsyan (also unrelated).
Armen Sargsyan resumed his ambassadorship only to be dismissed three years later amid rumors he was in cahoots with opponents of president Robert Kocharyan who sought to unseat him. Following that dismissal, Armen Sargsyan founded the Eurasia House International, a consulting shop, and his name began to appear in association with foreign investment projects in Armenia, Russia and Central Asia.
At the time of the disputed 2008 presidential elections, Armen Sargsyan worked behind the scenes to repair president Serzh Sargsyan image in Europe and the United States. The ex-ambassador also organized fundraisers for Armenia that involved the British Royal family. He became ambassador to UK for the third time in 2013, an appointment that should help him meet the residency requirement for the presidential position.
In addition to his influential and non-controversial background, the fact that Armen Sargsyan has lived outside of Armenia for most of his adult life was a likely key to his selection. In comments prior to naming his party’s nominee, Serzh Sargsyan said he believed that the new president should have strong foreign policy and diaspora credentials and not be involved in Armenia’s politics.
Those politics currently evolve around the real drama: the selection of Armenia’s next, constitutionally empowered prime minister this April. Incumbent prime minister Karen Karapetyan, though he has expressed an interest in staying and has enjoyed the support of prominent Armenian business figures, appears to be increasingly isolated and overshadowed by defense minister Vigen Sargsyan (he is also not related), as the president’s political successor. Finally, even though he previously made promises to the contrary, the ruling party has been dropping hints that Serzh Sargsyan should become prime minister himself.
Before Sargsyan's nomination, two other candidates for the presidency had been frequently mentioned: the outgoing chair of Armenia’s Constitutional Court, Gagik Harutyunyan, and Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandyan.
Nalbandyan, whose name may have been intentionally leaked as a decoy in recent months, would have been too bland a candidate even for Serzh Sargsyan’s taste. Nalbandyan is also seen in Armenia as too close to the Russian establishment: his wife is believed to be a daughter of a Russian general.
Harutyunyan, who is retiring this year, and was vice president from 1991-96, may have been undercut by his familial association with prime minister Karen Karapetyan, whose daughter is married to Harutyunyan’s nephew.
In a likely related move, Armenia’s other Karen Karapetyan (not a relative of incumbent prime minister, but a brother of his business associate, Moscow-based billionaire Samvel Karapetyan) was expected to become parliament speaker, but that job went to former health minister Ara Babloyan.
In that sense, Armen Sargsyan’s selection as the “new face” of the Armenian leadership, also helps sideline the previous occupant of that niche, Prime Minister Karapetyan.