Two retired senior Armenian diplomats criticized President Serzh Sarkisian on Friday for appointing a politically inexperienced former weightlifter as Armenia’s ambassador to neighboring Georgia.
Yuri Vartanian’s appointment, announced on Tuesday, continued a pattern of unusual diplomatic postings made by Sarkisian during his six-year rule. In particular, Sarkisian has given ambassadorial and consular posts to several wealthy Diaspora Armenians who have never lived in Armenia.
Vartanian was named to run the Armenian Embassy in Tbilisi on Tuesday less than two months after being dismissed as minister of sports and youth affairs. He had served as an adviser to Sarkisian before taking up the ministerial post in May 2013.
Vartanian, 58, is one of Armenia’s most renowned athletes, having won the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow and several world championships for the Soviet Union and setting world records in the process.
Vartanian’s one-year ministerial stint proved turbulent not least because of his tense rapport with the influential chairman of the Armenian National Olympic Committee, Gagik Tsarukian. He faced opposition calls to resign after the arrest of his son Davit on drug trafficking charges last fall. Vartanian lost his job as a result of a government reshuffle initiated by Sarkisian in April.
The president’s decision to pick the ex-athlete with no experience in internal relations for an important diplomatic position abroad raised eyebrows in Armenian opposition and media circles. Critics believe that Vartanian was simply compensated for his recent sacking and is unfit for the new job.
“I just can’t see a logic behind that appointment,” said Arman Navasardian, a retired diplomat who held senior positions in the 1990s. “He is very far from politics and diplomacy. I think that Yuri Vartanian will fail to lift the bar lying in front of him.”
Aleksandr Arzumanian, who served as foreign minister from 1996-1998 after running the Armenian mission to the United Nations, agreed. “I very much respect Yuri Vartanian as a fantastic athlete who earned our country glory and reached phenomenal results. But if we follow the same logic, we should also appoint Henrik Mkhitarian as culture minister or ambassador,” he said, referring to Armenia’s top football player aged 25.
Speaking to RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am), both Navasardian and Arzumanian insisted that Sarkisian should have appointed an experienced diplomat or political figure given Georgia’s significance to Armenia.
“We have four neighbors and we are in conflict with two of them,” argued Arzumanian. “Another neighbor [Iran] is isolated by the international community. There is only one neighbor through which we can do business with not only the EU but also ‘brotherly’ Russia.”
Arzumanian, who is now an opposition deputy, also complained that Sarkisian has used ambassadorial appointments to reward or placate sacked government officials and political allies.
The Armenian president’s high-level diplomatic picks have also included a number of prominent Diaspora Armenians. French-Armenian singer Charles Aznavour’s appointment in 2009 as Armenia’s ambassador to Switzerland and international organizations headquartered in Geneva is a case in point. The 90-year-old crooner still giving concerts has played a largely symbolic and ceremonial role in that capacity.
In 2010, Sarkisian appointed Murad Muradian, an Armenian-born Russian businessman, as Armenia’s first-ever ambassador to Iraq. Muradian was sacked on Thursday amid a deepening financial dispute between the Armenian government and the Moscow-based construction firm BAMO that privatized Yerevan’s largest concert and sports arena in 2005. Muradian is the principal owner of BAMO.
Two other, even wealthier Russian-Armenians, insurance magnate Sergei Sarkisov and his brother Nikolai, also a billionaire, joined the Armenian diplomatic service last year. Sergey was named Armenia’s consul-general in Los Angeles, while Nikolai took over the Armenian consulate general in Lyon, France. Both brothers were born and raised in Russia.
Armenia also opened a consulate in another French city, Marseille, in 2011. It has since been headed by Vartan Sirmakes, a Turkish-born Swiss businessman of Armenian descent. Sirmakes is a co-founder of the Swiss watchmaker Franck Muller and reportedly has business interests in Armenia as well.