President Armen Sarkissian, left, with Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, during better times

President Sarkissian’s Resignation Sparks Speculation, Raises More Questions

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YEREVAN — Armenian President Armen Sarkissian may have reignited political intrigue in Armenia when he announced his resignation late on Sunday, January 23. In the announcement posted to the presidential website, Sarkissian bemoaned the lack of executive power that the Constitution affords the office of the president, which he claims, denies him access to “the appropriate tools” to influence matters of war and peace, or solve systemic domestic and foreign policy problems.

“We have a paradoxical situation when the president has to be the guarantor of statehood without actually having any real tools,” Sarkissian was quoted as saying, adding that the Constitution contains certain flaws which, among other things, prevents well-known experts from the Diaspora to participate in the management of state institutions in their historical Homeland.

He also grumbled over what he described as his family and himself being targeted by “various political groups.” The president and his family have indeed been at the center of much public cogitation since he was first tapped as former President Serzh Sargsyan’s replacement in early 2018. Questions have lingered over his ties to several prominent figures, including the British royal family, his citizenship status, and the source (and location) of his massive wealth.

Prior to his political life, the 69-year-old Sarkissian had a flourishing career as a mathematician, physicist and computer scientist. He is famously credited as one of the creators of the early Nintendo puzzle game Tetris, and its offshoot, Wordtris. Upon independence, he briefly served as Armenia’s fifth prime minister in the 1990s before taking up office in London as Armenia’s longest-serving ambassador to the United Kingdom — a role he kept until 2018 when he accepted the position of President of the Republic of Armenia.

Under this new arrangement, Armen Sarkissian would be elected by the National Assembly to the purely ceremonial role of President of the Republic on April 9, 2018, under the newly amended constitution which simultaneously went into force, freeing his predecessor, Serzh Sargsyan (no relation) to then assume the newly-bolstered role of prime minister, which would hold most executive functions, including direct control over the military, police and security establishment.

What was likely intended as a typical post-soviet transition of elites quickly triggered a series of events culminating in the May 2018 Velvet Revolution, where the regime was brought down by months of large-scale peaceful demonstrations. The newly-appointed President Sarkissian was credited with playing a critical role in brokering productive dialogue between the government and the opposition, thus securing a peaceful transition.

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“We and others called it a velvet revolution,” Sarkissian reminisced to reporters from RFE/RL in an interview on the one-year anniversary of the event. “I often call it a revolution in the Armenian way … We are Armenians and we are different from many others in that we manage to carry out dramatic changes, including revolutions, in a very humane manner, without clashes, without tragedies, which of course hugely impressed the world.”

The president’s actions during and immediately following the 44-day Second Karabakh War have been both praised and criticized by observers. Despite making several international trips, including to NATO headquarters and Brussels at the height of the fighting, Sarkissian came under fire for not utilizing this vast network of influential world figures more effectively to pressure Azerbaijan into a ceasefire. He was also criticized by both pro-government and opposition commentators for his ambiguous stance during the political unrest following the ceasefire. Sarkissian was praised for using the apolitical nature of his office to call for unity in the face of instability, but also spoke out in favor of replacing the current government with a technocratic one, sparking calls for his resignation by government figures and some civil liberties watchdogs.

Among the president’s most difficult calls was the controversy over the dismissal of then-Chief of the Army General Staff, General Onnik Gasparyan in February 2021 for involving the military in civilian political matters. Sarkissian’s ultimate decision to neither sign the dismissal nor reject it –– choosing instead to submit a separate question to the Constitutional Court –– almost led the country towards a constitutional crisis, with pro-opposition lawyers even challenging the legitimacy of his Presidency in court, but ultimately led to his brokering of a deal between the Government and opposition forces to organize fresh snap elections. These elections, held on June 20, 2021, saw Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s government retain a comfortable parliamentary majority in what international observers deemed “competitive and generally well-managed [elections] within a short timeframe.”

Sarkissian remained neutral during the pre-election campaign, calling on voters to “Vote fairly and freely, and reckon with only and nothing but your conscience.” Post-election, the President and Prime Minister seemed to have publicly reconciled their differences, exchanging encouraging remarks with each other.

Throughout this presidency, Sarkissian has tried to position himself as a head-diplomat for the country, while also promoting scientific advancement and education, pushing his signature policy: “Quantum Politics.” In the aftermath of the war, Sarkissian went on a frenzy of diplomatic trips, mostly to the European Union and to the Gulf States, which sought to help Armenia position itself as a credible partner in the midst of increasing regional rivalry between the Gulf countries and Turkey. These trips contributed to the announcement of several large-scale strategic investments from the UAE, and a symbolically significant meeting with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman.

However, at times, the president’s diplomatic overtures seem to have coincided with business interests as well. Sarkissian has been accused by environmentalist groups such as Ecolur of having intimate links to the gold mining giant Lydian International which had won a controversial concession to exploit the Amulsar mountain in Armenia’s Vayots Dzor region. In fact, Sarkissian served both as director of the company and board member in between stints as Armenian ambassador to the UK. Sarkissian repeatedly defended his role in the mining project as a use of his network to attract investment and job creation to the Armenian nation. The mine did indeed hire up to 1700, mostly local, employees and injected almost $1billion into Armenia in the form of state taxes, local corporate social responsability (CSR) projects and other investments. However, the company’s future remains unclear following a restructuring in the wake of environmentalist protests.

But a line from the president’s statement in particular, that “The purpose of my proposal was not to move from one form of government to another (parliamentary to semi-presidential or presidential), but to create a state system based on checks and balances” suggests that Sarkissian may not be so much pushing for a constitutional change of powers, rather than setting himself up for a potential run for the Prime Minister’s Office in 2026, where he might find the constitutional powers he was looking for.

Indeed, the President has been dropping hints about resigning for a while now, with several opinion polls showing him to be among the more popular public figures, rivaling the prime minister’s numbers. Several political commentators have pegged him as a potential candidate for last year’s election. Prof. Nerses Kopalyan, a political scientist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, tweeted on Monday: “President Armen Sarkissian had been hinting for some time of  possibly resigning. As the domestic political landscape has relatively stabilized, he’s taken the step. Expect him to enter politics as a democratic alternative to Pashinyan. The voter base is there!” According to him, the President won a lot of political capital in the eyes of many Velvet Revolution participants who were more concerned with removing the previous regime than supporting Nikol Pashinyan. In last year’s election, Pashinyan did manage to win over 35 percent of the undecided vote, which Kopalyan describes as more of an “anti-Kocharyan vote” rather than support for him. According to him, Sarkissian could fill a void in the political spectrum which breaks the lesser-of-two-evils dichotomy by giving more urban and educated voters a more mature and experienced candidate who still respects the values of the Velvet Revolution.

While no official statement on the rumor has been made yet, the president has been dropping a lot of not-so-subtle hints that he might see himself as that person as well. In a clearly-self-promotional interview with SpectatorWorld.com appropriately titled “Will Armen Sarkissian save Armenia?”, Sarkissian was asked how one could build a nation devastated by foreign aggression and demoralized by infighting. Sarkissian was quoted as responding: “You begin by looking inwards. You ask yourself difficult questions and make necessary changes.”

Still, both the reason provided, and the circumstances of the president’s resignation have raised lingering questions. Civil rights activist Daniel Ioannisyan, who also sits on the Constitutional Amendment Committee, was perplexed by the president’s claimed dissatisfaction with the lack of powers of his office. In a media interview following the President’s resignation, Ionnisyan countered that Sarkissian seldom, if ever, used the constitutional leverages at his disposal anyway. “The only time [Sarkissian] truly attempted to use his powers to affect the political process, during the crisis of General Gasparyan’s resignation last February, his actions ended up hindering efforts to keep the Army outside of politics” Ionnisyan said, “how he would have chosen to wield his powers if he had been afforded more is anyone’s guess.”

But the most explosive theory explaining the president’s resignation — which strangely was made on a Sunday evening, while he was outside the country on leave — came in the form of a damning report by the investigative journalism platform Hetq. According to Hetq editor-in-chief Edik Baghdasaryan, Armen Sarkissian had admitted to holding citizenship of the small Caribbean island of St. Kitts and Nevis at the time he was sworn into the presidency, thus violating the Armenian constitution which requires the president to be solely a citizen of Armenia. If the president’s appointment was indeed unconstitutional, it would raise questions about the validity of all presidential decrees signed since 2018, including the appointing of the prime minister’s government. According to Hetq, “President Armen Sarkissian is unlikely to return to Armenia since he could be prosecuted for forging official documents.”

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