President Vahagn Khachaturyan (photo president.am)

Armenia’s President Khachaturyan Aims to Alleviate Domestic Tensions

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WATERTOWN — The position of president of the Republic of Armenia has largely been a ceremonial one after 2018, when the prime minister and National Assembly became the main wielders of power as the result of a change in the Armenian Constitution. Nevertheless, the president is the head of state and obliged to uphold compliance with the Constitution, as guarantor of the latter. The current president, 64-year-old Vahagn Khachaturyan, assumed office on March 13, 2022. He provided some insights into his post and his work during a May 18 interview.

The first president to hold office in the new parliamentary governmental system, Armen Sarkissian, resigned in January 2022, claiming that the constitution did not give him enough powers. During his presidency, he called for increasing the powers of his office, and after the 2020 Karabakh war pushed for Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s resignation and the creation of a government of national accord. However, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) discovered Sarkissian had dual citizenship a few years before becoming president, which contradicts the stipulations of the Constitution. Sarkissian resigned about a month after the OCCRP sent him a letter asking about this, leading to speculation that this may have been the immediate spur.

Foreign Relations

Unlike his predecessor, Khachaturyan declared that he is in harmony with the work of the current government headed by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, and that in general, the president as the representative of the Armenian republic must not express views contrary to that of the rest of the government on foreign relations. He said, “it must be thus for somebody in my position. A situation existed in the past, where different discussions took place in this [presidential] building, the governmental building and the foreign ministry building, which caused great damage to the Republic of Armenia…I am that man who carries out the state foreign policy accepted by the government of the Republic of Armenia.”

More specifically, he said he participates in various foreign negotiations in agreement with the Armenian foreign and prime ministers, for which he receives the necessary authorization from the latter officials, as per the current  state constitution. As a representative of the state, he said, “I have the possibility to speak on particular issues, to speak or meet with individuals, to transmit or deliver those approaches, those messages that we wish to deliver.”

His role appears wide-ranging. He said, “Let me tell you, the president of the republic and this institution, with its international contacts, has fairly extensive possibilities to convey all those concerns which exist connected with our country, with Mountainous Karabakh, with the defense of our borders, and, in general, with the domestic and foreign policy of Armenia.”

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Artsakh

“I am among those people and a member of the political team who always insisted that the Karabakh question should have been solved as soon as possible. Mutual concessions are always in international politics the condition that leads issues to solutions. If we are not ready for mutual concessions, we must be ready for worse results,” Khachaturyan declared.

He felt Armenians made a big mistake, awaiting a miracle for 20 plus years: “We did not want to confront reality. This is one of the greatest errors. In our imagination, we are always the most correct and always have been the most correct, and the others are all guilty. This has always been true in our history, not just now.” Whoever raised his voice to point out weaknesses in the army was accused of being a traitor.

As far as the current blockade of Karabakh is concerned, Khachaturyan said, “We must find international partisans, fellow thinkers, who must place pressure on Azerbaijan and through the results of that pressure, we will reach our goal. Till now, sadly, that pressure has been insufficient…The matter lies in how much the international community, including Russia, is ready to place pressure on Azerbaijan, so that free travel through the Lachin corridor is restored…If it is not ready, then we must understand what we are to do. Are we going to go to extremes, or try to find another way to solve the matter?”

Khachaturyan, as noted above, is in consensus with the Pashinyan government on most issues, and the Karabakh issue is not an exception. That means apparently trying to improve conditions for Karabakh’s Armenians while accepting Karabakh under duress as part of Azerbaijan after the 2020 war. Khachaturyan said, “We have placed two important factors on the agenda for our compatriots of Mountainous Karabakh: the right to live and security. This is possible for all sides. … We say to them in that case, let us secure the realization of this through an international presence. That can be a country, that can be a group of countries, or an international organization, which guarantees that Azerbaijan is that state where 120,000 of our compatriots in Karabakh can realize their rights and live safely. We are in that matter. We are trying to solve this issue.”

Domestic Tensions

The defeat of the 2020 war has led to great domestic turmoil in Armenia. “Today,” Khachaturyan said, “tension, polarization impede our progress. In reality, this comes from two things – there are objective conditions which no one can deny. This was conditioned by the 2020 44-day war. What is objective here is that we were defeated, and, most importantly, we had human losses…and we cannot give full explanations about those losses. A part of the public does not accept them. It unconditionally wants to see a responsible party, and see that responsible party punished.”

Khachaturyan stated, “We have no question of hiding anything. Why did it take place that way? We all must be able to know truly and understand whether it could have been avoided.” He added that the prime minister is willing to this end to be interrogated on this topic by a commission established by the National Assembly.

He pointed out that in 2021, when there was tension after the war, the ruling party held new elections to offer a solution. However, the defeated political forces did not accept the result and still does not accept it. He said, “In civilized normal democratic countries, this is not acceptable. Though people have a rostrum in the form of the National Assembly, they are not using this rostrum and decide to use other platforms.”

In this circumstance, as president, Khachaturyan said, “I have that role [to try to bring together the factions], and must do it, though I have not succeeded until now. That too must be recorded, as a negative aspect ascribed to me. I myself am thinking. I want to find ways so that I can decrease the tension.”

One way is to speak with people and try to understand the goal or meaning of their positions, he said. Two situations are unacceptable to him and serve as obstacles in this. First is any attempt to seize power at all costs by the defeated political elements in the country. The second obstacle, he said, “for me to begin that discussion is the vocabulary used, and all those interpretations made about the regime and individuals, considering one an enemy, considering one a traitor, and expressing this with even worse words. I consider that we are all citizens of the Republic of Armenia, and all in this way have equal rights and responsibilities. We are not the ones to decide the question of being a traitor or not…If there is a legal issue, there are legal conventions. There is the understanding of a traitor to the state, for which there are serious punishments.”

The roots of the difficulties in sitting around a table and having civil discussions are cultural and profound. Khachaturyan declared: “This is our peculiarity. By not listening to each other, to answer, by raising voices to try to show the advantage, whereas these are all negative aspects.” He added, “This is a matter which we must solve through our kindergartens, our schools, all our educational, pedagogical processes. This is what we are lacking today, which as a result hinders us from talking to one another, discussing with one another, [and] listening to each other, which is the most important.”

Ultimately, people should understand, he said, “that we all are yoked to the same task, which is to strengthen our statehood, to preserve our statehood.”

Early Political Involvement

Born in Sisian in the south of Armenia, Khachaturyan graduated from the Yerevan Institute of National Economy in 1980 as an economist. After serving in the Soviet army, he taught at the same institute for a decade, and also worked as an economist at the HrazdanMash (Hrazdan Instrumental Production) Enterprise until 1989, becoming head of the economic research laboratory.

Khachaturyan recalled that after public gatherings with ecological aims took place in the town of Abovyan (today in Kotayk Province) for several days in 1988, he had heard their continuation was going to take place in Yerevan. He said, “Like many others, when the February 1988 events began in Yerevan, when at the Opera Square (at that time it was not yet Liberty Square), we learned that gatherings were taking place … we young men, academics, decided that we were going to participate too. We were working in the Myasnikyan Public Library on our scholarly theses. We all in 1988 came to the square, and I always say that we have not gone home till now, as we never imagined that the Karabakhian struggle would last this long, but life turned out in that way.” He said they thought they were serving the general good, and at first believed that they could solve their problems within the framework of the Soviet Union.

In 1990, he was elected as one out of 181 representatives of the Yerevan City Council, and, he said, when the mayor resigned, in December 1992 he was elected to his post, which at that time was called chairman of the Executive Committee of the City Council. He continued in this post until 1996, and from 1996 to 1998 was an adviser to President Levon Ter-Petrosian, while serving as a deputy of the National Assembly from 1996 to 1999.

Privatization

The process of privatization of state property and the creation of market relations in the formerly Soviet Armenia began in the 1990s. Khachaturyan said that in general, nobody in any country has been satisfied with the results of privatization, as there are always people or organizations which receive more, while others receive less. “However,” he said, “the basic motivation was the creation of a new social order and a new class,” which would have the ability to work privately. What was unique about Armenia was that it began this process and came under a blockade due to the first Karabakh war.

As mayor, Khachaturyan was involved in privatization insofar as the city government had state property such as stores or houses. He said that it was decided that in Armenia, all structures in trade and services which used to belong to collectives would be given to the collectives, so in Yerevan, around 2,200 stores, restaurants and service places were given away. Furthermore, whoever was living in a residence would become its owner. All this was without any need for payments.

“I can say that there were no protests. Nobody said you took it from us. It was decided internally in the collectives what happened next,” Khachaturyan said. “It is something else whether a director in a collective or someone else was able to gain the shares of the works and turn into a 100 percent owner.”

Large enterprises, on the other hand, were only privatized in general after the year 2000. Khachaturyan said that until 1998, it was only attempted to privatize 10 large enterprises as an experiment to see which model should be followed. For example, 25 percent of the shares of the enterprise could be given to the collective and the rest placed for sale by auction. A second way, privatization through investments, was not widespread in Armenia until some 10 years ago.

He noted that some problems could be witnessed in Yerevan, with many enterprises abandoned by their owners. No new investments can be made in them because legally they belong to a company or individual whose rights cannot be infringed, yet no legal mechanisms exist to change this situation.

Khachaturyan claimed that a system of oligarchy in Armenia only formed after 2002, with people in business becoming involved in politics. “The full significance of the 2018 Velvet Revolution,” he said, “was that it destroyed that system.” However, it also led to polarization, because the corrupt had to be deprived of their ill-gotten wealth and they resisted.

He said that Armenia did not have the potential to create as many ultra-rich people, multimillionaires and even billionaires, especially those connected to the government, as it has. Even millionaires in the army were found when the legal bodies began investigations, with nearly all the generals rich from sources outside their wages, Khachaturyan said. Such accumulated wealth is now used to attack the current government.

In Opposition

After Levon Ter-Petrosian resigned in 1998, Khachaturyan entered the ranks of the opposition, in which he was active for twenty years. In 2000, he became one of the founders of the Armat Democracy and Civil Society Development Center, along with other supporters of Ter-Petrosian, and in 2006 was a founder of the Alternative Sociopolitical Initiative, a similar organization. He served as a member of the Armenian National Congress (ANC), a party led by Ter-Petrosian, from 2013 to 2022, and head of its economic committee. He led the ANC list in the 2013 Yerevan City Council elections.

During the March 1, 2008 protests after the presidential election lost by Ter-Petrosian, Khachaturyan said, “I was forced to hide. Some of my friends were killed or later arrested. It was by chance that I was not.”

By 2018, he had decided to return to academic work which he had stopped as a result of the 1988 movements. Khachaturyan said, “I was not a participant in the Velvet Revolution. I did not take to the streets with the youth.” However, he continued, “What took place in 2018 was very acceptable to me. My support of the 2018 events was through my lectures, analyses and economic academic work.”

While not directly involved with the 2018 movement, Khachaturyan declared that he knew its leader, Nikol Pashinyan, for several decades. They first met in 1993. “At that time, Mr. Pashinyan was a young journalist and I the mayor. He was reporting on our activities…and he did interviews of me. After 1995, we had closer relations. Later, we had joint political activities.” These included the aforementioned Armat and Alternative movements and the 2008 protests, but when Pashinyan formed his own new political force, Khachaturyan had chosen a different path.

As far as relations with the Civic Contract leaders today, Khachaturyan said, “I have not had concrete political differences with that team which today is the government, though we may have had ideological differences of some sort.”

From 2018-2020 Khachaturyan continued with his research, teaching and academic work. He taught at the Yerevan State University, and at Shushi’s university. He was invited to be a member of the board of ArmEconomBank from 2019 to 2021.

In August, 2021 he returned to government when he was appointed Minister of High-Tech Industry. As such, and as president now, Khachaturyan said, “I consider myself a representative of the liberal ideology….I try to realize my ideas in today’s government, in state programs, as much as is possible, because in the end, the government is responsible for the political line and its realization.”

The Office of the President

Khachaturyan said that currently there are 105 people working in the office of the president, while the annual budget of his office is roughly one billion drams (approximately $2,597,000) or slightly greater. Some budget items are unchangeable and fixed by law, while others vary from year to year and are on demand. For example, this year the office wishes to renovate all their security systems and internal communications systems, which have become old, but next year this obviously will not be necessary. Similarly, renovation work has to be done on the physical offices periodically, especially on the older part of the presidential building which dates to 1958.

Last year, the entire budget allotted was not spent, primarily due to some vacant staff positions. Khachaturyan said that his office has asked the Office of the High Commissioner for Diaspora Affairs for assistance in finding specialists in the diaspora, and he appealed to legal specialists in the diaspora to apply directly if interested in working in his office.

While most positions in his office are civil service and thus protected There are a limited number of people with discretionary positions who are advisors or assistants for which a new leader has the possibility of changing. For example, there are around 2-4 such people with each minister, and somewhat more with the president. Khachaturyan said, “I assure you, I worked as a minister for 8 months and after that as the president of the country, and when I worked as a minister, even with the greatest desire, I could not remove any civil servant from his post, and this never took place.  I was only able to appoint assistants or advisers.”

He went on to remark that one of the greatest issues facing Armenia today was that of the system of justice, or courts. He said, “The public’s trust in the authorities is lacking, because generally the attitude towards the justice system is very negative. This is a situation coming from the past…The matter is that there are people in the operating legal system who have discredited their authority through their activities in the past.” Here he said there was much to do still.

While the judiciary is independent constitutionally, Khachaturyan as president of the republic has a certain involvement in the appointment of judges. When the Supreme Judicial Council, as an independent body, presents its candidates, Khachaturyan can over a span of three days either confirm them or send them back. If the same names are sent a second time, he either has to sign or they will be appointed by force of law.

To the Diaspora

Khachaturyan promised that he will come to visit the United States on an official visit one day and looks forward to meeting readers of the Mirror-Spectator. He concluded, “I am also thankful for the assistance and activities that you have always done from the very first days of the independence of the Republic of Armenia and continue to always do. My request – believe us, trust us, as the current authorities, and me as the representative of the government, president of the Republic of Armenia, that in reality we do everything for the strengthening of our statehood, to raise the prestige of our country, and through this to turn your goals into reality. So I wish you all success, achievements in personal life, and success in the work of the establishment of our statehood to all of us, so that we can in this grievous, difficult situation find solutions and emerge with the least losses. Success to all of us.”

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