Edmond Azadian, left, with President Armen Sarkissian

‘Most of the Ills Afflicting Armenia May Be Corrected by Changing the Constitution:’ President Armen Sarkissian

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YEREVAN — On June 19, on the eve of the parliamentary elections, President Armen Sarkissian agreed to an interview with me, representing the Mirror-Spectator, on issues plaguing Armenia these days. This visit proved what was very obvious from outside — that there is a disconnect between the presidential office and the executive branch of the government. No matter how ceremonial the office of the president may be, it still has a function and a role in the workings of the entire country.

Beyond the strictly constitutional definition of the president’s role, the personality of the latter matters. Sarkissian was a prominent scientist before engaging in statesmanship and diplomacy. In addition to his knowledge of state-of-the-art science, over the years he has accumulated tremendous experience on a large scale in international trade and business. Along the way, he has been in contact with world leaders, relations with whom can lead to substantial benefits to the country.

One gets the impression that by confining the president to his constitutional role, and defining that role very narrowly, the Armenian government has been denying itself a powerhouse of resources which are so very needed by Armenia.

During the entire course of the conversation, the president seldom employed any diplomatic ambiguity or evasiveness. He was direct and as objective as possible.

President Sarkissian was one of the prominent leaders of the country who had called for the resignation of the prime minister after the debacle of the war, and recommended the formation of a government of technocrats. Referring to that matter, and to the notion that he might preside over such a government, Sarkissian offered the clarification that his recommendation was not directed at the prime minister’s person, but a suggestion that the entire cabinet be replaced. As to whether he might himself become the head of such a technocratic cabinet, Sarkissian suggested that he was bound by his constitutional role not to assume any executive position.

The president’s call for the resignation of the current government was based on his belief that the Third Republic has already run its course and we are at the threshold of a Fourth Republic.

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Armenia’s foreign policy establishment is in complete collapse, so how can a country manage its international relations in these trying times? When asked to what extent his contacts and experience with world leaders were being put to good use, the president did not attempt to hide his misgivings concerning Armenia’s failures in world diplomacy. However, he did reveal that he had undertaken some efforts on his own initiative to maintain foreign relations. He referred to his recent trip to Georgia where he met with government officials and Armenian community leaders. He had also taken trips to Kazakhstan and Moscow, but he did not reveal further details about the official parties contacted or particular topics discussed.

Western media sources have referred in the past to his rapport with former US president Donald Trump and the current president Joe Biden. Was he ever asked to utilize these contacts to raise some issues of great concern to Armenia? The president answered in the negative.

To the question of what he expects from the diaspora for Armenia, he spoke figuratively, questioning what would happen to an Emirati country on the Arabian peninsula if that country refused to use its oil resources. He then answered his own question, declaring that such a country would turn into a desert kingdom, and that is where we are now.

The president acknowledges that the diaspora has many talents and resources which cannot benefit Armenia because of constitutional constraints. Even a major country like France has a constitution which allows overseas French people to participate in the government and contribute to the country. This can be the answer to the rhetorical question of whether a diplomat like Sergei Lavrov can serve in Armenia in any governmental capacity.

There is an established protocol to exchange war prisoners. Most of the time, the warring parties transfer prisoners of war into the custody of the International Red Cross, which in its turn returns those prisoners to the home country in compliance with the agreement sealed between the enemy countries. After the 44-day war, the declaration signed on November 9 called for an all-for-all exchange. All the Azerbaijani prisoners would have been released upon the release of all Armenian prisoners. Why did Armenia release all the Azerbaijani prisoners before the Armenian prisoners were freed? The president did not delve into the details of the issue nor did he hesitate to state that it was a bad deal.

To the question of how he would characterize relations between the Armenian state and church, the president replied that as far as the presidential office is concerned, they are excellent. However, he would not characterize those relations in the same terms as far as the executive branch of the Armenian government is concerned. At the same time, he averred the principal of the separation of church and state. He specifically emphasized that the state should not interfere in church affairs, nor vice-versa.

A new political order is being developed in the Caucasus. Major political forces are finding their accommodations in these developments and in this process they are shaping Armenia’s destiny. Yerevan is in no position to have its say in the process. The president acknowledged those dangerous trends and his recommendation was to develop a strong diplomacy as Armenia is no match to its neighbors in military power.

The president blames this untenable political situation on the political system which was adopted during Serzh Sargsyan’s administration. Sargsyan had forced on the country a constitution tailor-made for himself. Upon his acceptance to run as a candidate for the presidential office, Armen Sarkissian had suggested to Serzh Sargsyan that the constitution be changed. However, before Sargsyan could make good on the pledge to do so, he abdicated his office in favor of Nikol Pashinyan. Eight days later, Sarkissian assumed the presidency.

Although the president refused to speculate on the outcome of the parliamentary elections, he confided that he already had an agreement with Pashinyan to hold a referendum in October on a new constitution, which will usher in a system of presidential rule and restore checks and balances on power.

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