By Emil Danielyan and Ruzanna Khachatrian
President Serzh Sarkisian completed the formation of his coalition government on Monday with the appointment of five more ministers, among them an influential figure close to his predecessor Robert Kocharian.
Under Armenia’s constitution, the new government has to submit its policy program to parliament for a vote of confidence within the next 20 days. Such a vote is a mere formality as the National Assembly is overwhelmingly controlled by Sarkisian’s Republican Party (HHK) and three other parties that signed a power-sharing with him last month.
Eleven of the 17 cabinet ministers named by Sarkisian since his April 9 inauguration occupied the same positions in the previous government that stepped down following last February’s presidential election. The most prominent of the other ministers is Armen Gevorgian, the longtime head of the presidential administration and Kocharian’s confidante. In an indication of Kocharian’s continuing influence on government affairs, Gevorgian, 34, was appointed as deputy prime minister and minister for local government in place of another influential figure, Hovik Abrahamian. Abrahamian, who was Sarkisian’s election campaign manager, will now serve as the chief of the new president’s staff.
The other newcomers are Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian, Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian, Finance Minister Tigran Davtian, Transport and Communications Minister Gurgen Sargsian and Minister for Emergency Situations Mher Shahgeldian. Sargsian and Shahgeldian were picked because of their affiliation with the Orinats Yerkir Party of Artur Baghdasarian, who finished third in the disputed election.
The HHK’s two other coalition partners, the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK) and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), each retained their three ministerial portfolios. Dashnaktsutyun members, in particular, will continue to run the ministries of social affairs, education and agriculture.
A Dashnaktsutyun leader, Hrant Markarian, told RFE/RL earlier this month that the nationalist party is seeking to increase its presence in the government with “more influential positions” relating to defense, law-enforcement or finances. The party harbored similar hopes in the run-up to the May 2007 parliamentary elections. However, they were dashed by the HHK’s landslide victory in the polls.
Dashnaktsutyun subsequently decided to challenge Sarkisian in the presidential ballot. Its candidate, Vahan Hovannisian, strongly criticized government policies during the election campaign and called for sweeping personnel changes in the highest echelons of power.
Hovannisian on Monday downplayed the apparent lack of such changes in the cabinet formed by Sarkisian. “The ministers will work the way the president and the prime minister will instruct them to,” he told RFE/RL. “If new conditions of work are set for them, it will be clear before the end of this year who is really capable of doing a good job, not being corrupt and being in real control of their spheres.”
Hovannisian said in that regard he has high expectations from the new Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian (no relation to Serzh). “I know him as a specialist of the highest level, and as prime minister, he will manage to implement programs that will enable us to move forward,” he said.
Speaking to university students in Yerevan on March 12, President Sarkisian hinted that the new government will be radically different from the previous one. “There will be changes which many people do not expect,” he said. Few of those changes proved unexpected, though.
Victor Dallakian, an independent parliamentarian close to some HHK leaders, claimed that Sarkisian planned a more radical government shake-up but eventually had to keep many unpopular Kocharian loyalists in the government because of the former president’s decisive role in the violent suppression of post-election opposition protests.
“This is hardly the government Serzh Sarkisian dreamed about,” Dallakian told RFE/RL. “I wish the government all the best, but don’t think it will achieve miracles.” “I think the president should gradually distance himself from Kocharian’s cadres,” he said.
But Samvel Nikoyan, a senior HHK lawmaker, dismissed Dallakian’s claims. “Let us not forget that many ministers worked with [Sarkisian] when he was prime minister,” he said. “He knows their potential. There is also a need to maintain continuity in the government’s program and activities.”