Richard Giragosian

Assesing Armenia's new prime minister

In a move that was not much of a surprise, Armenian Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamyan resigned on 8 September.  Seeking to move quickly to avoid a lack of leadership, the ruling Republican Party of Armenia convened an unusual meeting of its senior leaders and members that evening.  

In the hours after the prime minister announced his resignation at his last weekly cabinet meeting, it became clear that Karen Karapetian would be the leading, if not sole candidate to take over as Armenia’s prime minister. 

The Deeper Political Significance

But although the change was not seen as any real surprise, the decision to appoint a new premier holds several significant implications for Armenia. 

First, Abrahamian’s decision to resign was actually forced upon him, and his stepping down from the post was involuntary, made instead by President Serzh Sarkisian.  This was also due to the fact that Abrahamian, whose own personal and political allegiance has always been much closer to former President Robert Kocharian than to incumbent President Serzh Sarkisian, has long been an attractive “scapegoat,” ready to take the fall for the Armenian government at any time of crisis or need.  And given the economic downturn, the failure to combat corruption and the need to respond to a mounting degree of popular discontent and dissent, as demonstrated in the July hostage standoff incident, the political expediency of blaming Abrahamyan was too attractive to resist. 

The second important aspect of this change stems from the new political reality in Armenia.  More specifically, the new prime minister is challenged by a similar situation that President Sarkisian faced when he first assumed the presidency.  More specifically, Sarkisian began his first term as president in 2008 in the immediate wake of the March 1, 2008 post-election violence that left at least 10 dead in a violent confrontation between protesters and police.  

That legacy haunted Sarkisian for some time, well into his first term, driving him to distance himself from his predecessor, Robert Kocharian, whose responsibility for that violence as president at the time tended to only hinder and hobble the start of the Sarkisian Administration.  

Likewise for the new premier, the legacy of entrenched corruption, a sharply polarized public, and the inheritance of not only an economic downturn but also deeply rooted public mistrust of government, pose even greater challenges from the start.  And while this backdrop may explain the political reasoning behind his appointment, it will only make his debut even more difficult and daunting.

Further, the current political context in Armenia is dominated by the coming parliamentary elections in April 2017, which are only more significant given the December 2015 decision to switch to a new parliamentary form of government. In this context, both the former prime minister, Abrahamyan, and his successor will be essential for the ruling government’s capacity to dominate the elections, largely through the use (or abuse) of the advantages of incumbency, or a reliance on so-called “administrative resources” of leveraging the government’s extensive perks of political patronage and by pressuring civil servants and state workers to vote for the ruling party.

The New Prime Minister

The new prime minster, Karen Karapetian, is a familiar and largely respected face in Armenian politics.  And the new premier also offers a number of new political considerations.  First, unlike many of the more prominent members of the ruling political elite, the 53- year old Karapetian holds a much more impressive degree of professional experience outside of Armenia, having established his own career rising to senior executive positions in Russian subsidiaries of the Gazprom gas concern.  

But this is also a potentially negative aspect as well, suggesting that he has or must have held close ties to the Putin Administration.  This also comes at a bad time politically, given the recent crisis in relations between Armenia and Russia, making the traditional political appeal of a pro-Russian figure with close Kremlin connections much less attractive to the ordinary Armenian.  Moreover, the fact that Karapetian has mainly lived in Russia for the past six years further means that although he can be seen as distant and remote from a recent round of political scandals and crises in Armenia, his “white knight” image of rescuing Armenia from outside the system will not endear him to the powerful vested interests and oligarchs controlling Armenia’s closed political and economic system.

Moreover, Karapetian also has a political track record that suggests his earlier weakness in standing up to or challenging the country’s infamous oligarchs.  This is also the reason behind his surprising decision to step down as the mayor of Yerevan in 2011, citing “personal reasons,” after holding the post for less than one year and returning to Moscow.

Thus, despite some sense of optimism over his appointment, the return of Karapatian as the country’s new prime minister should not be seen as a significant success for reform or democracy.  Rather, the change of political personalities does not infer any substantive shift in policies, which means that the country’s fundamental problems only remain unaddressed.  

From this perspective, the move may be yet another ‘missed opportunity’ for real reform and sincere change in Armenia.  And more dangerously, it has become only more risky for any incumbent Armenian government to continue to ignore popular demands and pressing expectations for change in the country.