In a post-election move that has puzzled analysts, President Serzh Sarkisian has appointed Mikael Minasian, his son-in-law and reputedly most influential adviser, as Armenia’s ambassador to the Vatican.
Sarkisian signed a corresponding decree on Saturday two days after his cabinet announced the hitherto unplanned establishment of an Armenian embassy in the Holy See. The government said it will give “new impetus” to Armenia’s relations with the Roman Catholic Church.
Armenian ambassadors to the Vatican have until now been based in other European capitals, performing their main duties there.
The Armenian state budget for this year sets aside funding for the opening of new embassies in only three states: Mexico, Indonesia and Vietnam. An explanatory note submitted by the Finance Ministry to the cabinet meeting on Thursday said that the government will have to economize on other diplomatic expenses in order to launch the mission to the Vatican.
Sarkisian formally approved the embassy’s opening on February 19, the day after a disputed presidential election in which he won a second term in office. Minasian was one of the deputy managers of the incumbent’s election campaign. Observers believe that his real influence went beyond that official role.
Minasian has developed considerable political clout since Sarkisian was first elected president in 2008. He served as first deputy chief of the presidential staff from 2008 through the end of 2011. Political analysts increasingly regarded him as Sarkisian’s political and public relations strategist during that period. Some went as far as to proclaim him the president’s future successor.
Minasian, who has always kept a low profile, is also thought to have gained control over several private TV stations as well as a number of online news services in recent years. Opposition politicians and media commentators critical of the government claim that he has been personally overseeing political news coverage of all major Armenian broadcasters. The latter deny any government influence on their editorial policy, however.
That Minasian will be appointed ambassador to the Vatican was first reported by the pro-opposition daily “Haykakan Zhamanak” on Thursday. The paper speculated that Sarkisian is sending his son-in-law into “honorary exile” because he holds the latter responsible for the stronger-than-expected performance of Raffi Hovannisian, the main opposition presidential candidate.
According to official results of the February 18 vote, Hovannisian defeated the incumbent in most provincial capitals and some parts of Yerevan. Sarkisian suffered a particularly crushing defeat in Armenia’s second largest city of Gyumri.
Other observers suggested, however, that Sarkisian is on the contrary sending Minasian abroad to spare him continued opposition attacks damaging his reputation and prepare ground for his future appointment to a more high-ranking government post in Yerevan.
The presidential administration itself has given no official explanation for the choice of the Armenian envoy to the Vatican.
Minasian, who is married to the president’s elder daughter, has no prior experience in diplomatic service. But he studied international relations and diplomacy at a university in Italy from 1996-2000, according to his CV posted on the Armenian Foreign Ministry’s website.