By Harut Sassounian,
I woke up Sunday morning to the shocking, yet not unexpected, news that the President of Armenia, Armen Sarkissian, announced his resignation while abroad, most probably in London, after nearly four years in office.
The President is someone I have known for 30 years. He is a highly-educated man with multiple accomplishments: physicist, computer scientist, successful businessman, diplomat, and politician (former Prime Minister and President of Armenia).
Sarkissian, a native of Armenia, graduated from Yerevan State University with advanced degrees in Theoretical Physics and Mathematics. He then became Associate Professor of physics at his alma mater. In 1982, he moved to the UK and became a professor at the University of Cambridge. He subsequently served as the Head of the Department of Computer Modeling of Complex Physical Phenomenon at that university.
In 1991, shortly after Armenia’s independence, Sarkissian became the country’s first Ambassador to London. He served as Armenia’s Prime Minister from November 1996 to March 1997. After recovering from a bout with cancer, he was appointed as Special Advisor to the President of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and as a Governor of EBRD from 1998 to 2000. He served on the Dean’s Board and Advisory Board of Harvard and Chicago universities and several prestigious international organizations.
In 2018, Pres. Serzh Sargsyan recommended Armen Sarkissian to the Parliament to be his successor, shortly before current Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan came to power who had been critical of his nomination.
Sarkissian became the President of Armenia under the amended constitution which gave him a ceremonial role with no political decision-making power. He had the choice of either approving appointments proposed by Pashinyan and laws passed by the Parliament or submitting them to the Constitutional Court for its determination.
As President, Sarkissian was entrusted with ensuring compliance with the provisions of the Constitution. He had to navigate delicately through Armenia’s highly charged political atmosphere and severely divided society. Despite the limitations of his office, he used his extensive international political and business contacts to promote relations with Armenia and encourage investments from overseas. He visited over a dozen countries, holding high-level meetings during his tenure.
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Meanwhile, Sarkissian was subjected to relentless criticism by Pashinyan’s partisans who never missed an opportunity to undermine his reputation and actions. He was also attacked by opposition groups. Much less understandable was the constant drumbeat by conspiracy-minded Armenians who accused him of being a British spy, without any basis of fact. These individuals must have forgotten that Great Britain is no longer a great power. It lost its vast Empire where the sun never set. Nowadays, Great Britain is a country with its multiple political and economic problems, and is not in a position to meddle in Armenia’s internal affairs.
During a private meeting, I had with Pres. Sarkissian in his office in 2019, he confided to me the constant criticisms and continued attempts to undermine his activities by his detractors.
We all recall that Pres. Sarkissian found out from the following day’s newspapers about Pashinyan signing the statement of capitulation at the end of the Artsakh War on Nov. 9, 2019. Pashinyan did not have the minimum courtesy of letting the President of Armenia know about his grave decision neither before nor after signing that statement.
Pres. Sarkissian tried to overcome the obstacles created by three separate groups: Pashinyan’s partisans in power, the opposition, and the conspiracy-minded crowd. He was severely criticized for objecting to certain orders submitted for his signature by Pashinyan or laws passed by the Parliament’s ruling majority. The biggest outcry was raised in the fall of 2020, shortly after the devastating Artsakh War, when he publicly urged Pashinyan to resign.
In his resignation statement, Pres. Sarkissian complained that he and “sometimes his family are targeted by various political groups. They are not so much interested in the achievements of the presidential institution for the benefit of the country as in my past, various conspiracy theories, and myths. This ‘concern’ for me goes beyond morality, ultimately directly affecting my health.”
Furthermore, in his resignation statement, Pres. Sarkissian pointed out the “paradoxical situation when the President has to be a guarantor of statehood without actually having any real tools. The Constitution also presupposes the supremacy of one institution over another, creates obstacles for well-known Diaspora specialists to participate in the management of state institutions of the historical Homeland, etc…. We are a parliamentary republic in form, but not in content. 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.”
Explaining his inability to deal with “the current national crisis” in Armenia due to his limited powers, Pres. Sarkissian concluded his statement with a warning that Armenia will find itself “in the margins of history. We have no right to make mistakes anymore!”
According to the Constitution, Alen Simonyan, the Speaker of the Parliament, is now the Acting President until elections are held for a new President, no earlier than 25 days and no later than 35 days from Sarkissian’s resignation.
The Constitution also outlines the process of electing a new President by the Parliament: At least 25% of the Parliament Members have the right to nominate a presidential candidate. Whoever receives at least 75% of the votes of the Members of Parliament is elected President. If no candidate receives 75% of the votes, a second round of elections is held, during which all the candidates who participated in the first round can run. In the second round, the candidate who receives at least 60% of the total number of the Parliament’s votes is elected President. If not, a third round is held, in which the two candidates with the most votes in the second round can run. The candidate who receives the simple majority of the votes of the Parliament is elected President.
The presidential candidate must: Be at least 40 years old, solely an Armenian citizen for the last six years, permanently resided in Armenia for the last six years, has the right to vote, and speaks Armenian. The term of the President is seven years. He or she cannot be reelected.
The new President will be chosen by the Prime Minister’s party members in Parliament as they hold the majority of the seats. My fear is that an unqualified person will be chosen to be the next President just like the other appointments made by Pashinyan, thus confirming once again his preference for partisan politics over national interests. Rather than establishing much needed governmental checks and balances, the choice of a pro-Pashinyan President will further consolidate the absolute power enjoyed by one man, the Prime Minister. He confirmed our worst fears when during his press conference on January 24, 2022, he said: “the President, government, and majority in Parliament must have a political harmony.” In other words, rather than checks and balances, Pashinyan prefers single-handed rule.