By Emil Danielyan and Astghik Bedevian
Colonel-General Mikael Harutiunian, the longtime chief of the Armenian army’s General Staff, will serve as acting defense minister until the formation of the country’s new government, officials said on Thursday.
The Defense Ministry spokesman, Colonel Seyran Shahsuvarian, said Harutiunian, who is also Armenia’s first deputy defense minister, will do so in accordance with a March 2002 presidential decree and ministry statutes. Those stipulate that he shall substitute for the minister in the latter’s “absence.”
The key ministerial post was left vacant with Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian’s appointment as prime minister late on Wednesday. Under the Armenian constitution, President Robert Kocharian appoints all government ministers at the premier’s recommendation.
The basic law gives Sarkisian 20 days to form his cabinet and another 20 days to submit its program to parliament. With just over a month to go before the upcoming parliamentary elections, he is unlikely to seek its approval by the outgoing National Assembly. Sarkisian is instead expected to step down, be re-appointed prime minister, and form his cabinet after the May 12 elections.
This means Harutiunian will most probably perform defense minister’s duties at least until June. The 61-year-old general served in the Soviet armed forces before moving to Armenia and joining its newly formed army in 1992, at the height of the war with Azerbaijan. He was appointed as chief of army staff and first deputy defense minister by then President Levon Ter-Petrosian two years later.
Harutiunian was born and grew up in a village in northern Azerbaijan. He graduated from a Soviet military college in Baku 1967.
Armenian media reports have singled out Seyran Ohanian, commander of Nagorno-Karabakh’s army, and former Deputy Defense Minister Artur Aghabekian as Sarkisian’s most likely successors. Both men are Karabakh Armenians loyal to Sarkisian.
Aghabekian resigned from his post and was discharged from the Armed Forces in February to contest the elections as a candidate of the governing Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun). The move fueled speculation that Sarkisian will pick Aghabekian as the next defense minister in exchange for a Dashnaktsutyun endorsement of his anticipated presidential bid. Aghabekian on Thursday again refused to comment on the speculation.
But a top Dashnaktsutyun leader, Hrant Markarian, did admit that the nationalist party has set its sights on the Defense Ministry. “Artur Aghabekian is the most worthy candidate for the post of defense minister,” Markarian told RFE/RL. He said Ohanian could work as one of Aghabekian’s deputies and/or head the General Staff.
(Photolur photo: Mikael Harutiunian.)