Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Armenia's Former President Attacks Prime Minister

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By Haroutiun Khachatrian (the 22/01/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

Armenia's second President Robert Kocharyan presented an unexpectedly harsh criticism of Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan’s economic policy. The attack demonstrates that cooperation between Kocharyan and Armenia's third President Serzh Sargsyan, may be deteriorating.

Late last year, Armenia saw many important events. One of them was Tigran Sargsyan's long press conference of on December 27, the first in its kind since April 2009. During the event, the Prime Minister commented on the country's economic performance and said the robust growth of the preceding period was mainly due to growth in the construction sector, which he considered to be a bubble. According to Sargsyan, the country needs a more balanced and diversified economy now that the construction bubble has exploded.

Kocharyan's unexpected reaction came two days later. Kocharyan's presidency (1998-2008) included an interrupted period of rapid GDP growth during the years 2001 to 2007. In an interview with a local information site, Kocharyan presented other reasons for the current problematic situation in the construction sector, primarily negative migration trends and worsened mortgage conditions. During the interview, Kocharyan denigrated the current government using abusive formulations: “…the previous government and … saucer men should not be blamed for this. The crisis has nothing to do (with them) … So, there is no possibility here to become  free of responsibility … If the Prime Minister does not understand this, then he has got degradation of his mind … Probably, we have the case of total harmony of degradation of the mind and the morality. In any case, a bastard prime minister is a luxury for a country,” he was quoted to say.

PM Sargsyan presented a non-economic and very polite answer on Facebook. The quoted interview was followed by several other attacks, which often included other officials. Thus, the government's press-service and the office of the National Assembly Deputy Karen Avagyan provided additional responses – which gave rise to a wave of jokes since National Assembly members usually have no special offices in Armenia.

Kocharyan then blasted the recently signed gas agreement between Armenia and Russia and the ongoing pension reform, and some cabinet members got involved in the exchange. Among them was Armen Movsisyan, the minister of energy and natural resources. The latter has been in office since 2001, and was hence in government during Kocharyan's presidency. Finally, the spokesman of the Republican Party, vice-chairman of the National Assembly Eduard Sharmazanov criticized the former President for the abusive wording in his discussion with PM Sargsyan.  

PM Sargsyan has become a close associate of President Sargsyan after his appointment in 2008, when then non-partisan PM Sargsyan entered the president's ruling Republican Party, became a member of its board, and even the party’s vice-president. In March 2013, President Sargsyan declared that if the country’s GDP does not grow by 7 percent or more per year, then the government must present its resignation. In December, it became evident that GDP growth in 2013 would hardly reach 3 percent, but PM Sargsyan made clear that his government would continue working.

Kocharyan’s move was a surprising to most Armenian observers. Judging from outward appearance, Presidents Kocharyan and Sargsyan have normal working relations. Kocharyan attends most events organized by Sargsyan, in contrast with Armenia's first president Levon Ter-Petrossian, the first president of Armenia. Both Sargsyan and Kocharyan are Karabakh-born men and are known to be Russia-oriented politicians. These factors were believed to be a basis of accord between the two, and schemes have even been suggested according to which they could replace each other in a fashion similar to that of Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev in Russia.

Kocharyan's accusations against PM Sargsyan were interpreted by many local observers as a bid by Kocharyan to return to the national political scene, whereas he has avoided direct attacks on the incumbent president due to his friendly relations with the latter. A factor substantiating this assumption is that Kocharyan criticizes the government in a fashion very similar to that of opposition. Kocharyan himself has not confirmed these speculations. He is currently a member of the Board of Directors of Sistema, a large Russian company. However, most Armenians remember his address shortly before the end of his second term when Kocharyan, who turns 60 this year, said he would not become the youngest pensioner in the country.

The exchange with PM Sargsyan still revealed that cooperation between the two presidents is being complicated. This is at least the third instance where Kocharyan has expressed disagreement with President Sargsyan's policies. He said while in office that Armenians and Azerbaijanis are incompatible, whereas Sargsyan has sought to build trust between the two peoples. Kocharyan has later said that he did not agree with Sargsyan’s approach to Turkey.

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