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Armen Sarkissian, a former prime minister nominated by the ruling Republican Party (HHK) for president, lamented social divisions, inequality and corruption in Armenia as he addressed the parliament on Thursday.

Sarkissian pledged to strive to address these problems, including through a national “dialogue,” if the National Assembly elects him the country’s next president. He would have largely ceremonial powers in line with controversial constitutional changes enacted by the President Serzh Sarkisian.

With the HHK controlling the majority of the parliament’s 105 seats, the outcome of the vote is seen as a forgone conclusion. Armen Sarkissian has also been endorsed by the HHK’s junior coalition partner, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), and businessman Gagik Tsarukian’s alliance boasting the second largest parliamentary faction.

The opposition Yelk alliance is the only parliamentary force which has made clear that its nine deputies will vote against the outgoing president’s preferred successor on Friday.

“My dream is to see the Republic of Armenia become a dynamically developing and intellectual country and … further strengthen its positions as an independent and democratic country,” Sarkissian declared in a speech delivered on the parliament floor.

The candidate, who has been Armenia’s ambassador to Britain since 2013, singled out “intolerance” among various sections of the Armenian society as he listed grave challenges facing the country. “Any new, constructive idea is rejected out of hand just because it comes from the opposite side,” he said. “The Armenian people cannot afford the luxury of succumbing to intolerance. The alternative to intolerance is dialogue.”

Sarkissian went on to complain about income inequality which he said has deepened dramatically since Armenia gained independence in late 1991. “The society was much less polarized between the rich and the poor. Today our state is stronger, richer but also more polarized,” he said, adding that the resulting poverty fuels popular cynicism and apathy.

Sarkissian, who has lived in Britain for nearly three decades, also mentioned corruption, saying that it has an adverse impact on all aspects of life in Armenia. He stressed in that regard that a stronger rule of law and independent courts are essential for attracting large-scale foreign investment in the Armenian economy.

Sarkissian is thought to have made a big fortune in the United Kingdom in the 2000s, mainly working as a consultant and middleman for Western corporations doing business in the former Soviet Union. HHK figures say the 64-year-old former Cambridge University scholar will use his business connections to raise Armenia’s economic profile in the West.

Armenia - Former Prime Minister Armen Sarkissian (L) meets with parliament deputies from the opposition Yelk alliance in Yerevan, 9 February 2018.
Armenia - Former Prime Minister Armen Sarkissian (L) meets with parliament deputies from the opposition Yelk alliance in Yerevan, 9 February 2018.

Sarkissian was put on the defensive by parliament deputies from Yelk during a question-and-answer session that followed his speech. In particular, they questioned his eligibility for the post of president.

The Armenian constitution requires presidential candidates to have had only Armenian citizenship for the last six years. Sarkissian has admitted receiving British citizenship in 2002. He insists that he gave it up in 2011.

Sarkissian repeated these assurances on Thursday. Yelk lawmakers remained unconvinced, however. They cited a 2014 British tax document referring to him as a British national.

The former Armenian prime minister said that the reference was the result of a technical error. A Yelk deputy countered that the document carries his signature. Sarkissian claimed to have signed it without reading it carefully. It related to a now defunct educational organization which he set up in London more than a decade ago.

Yelk’s parliamentary leader, Nikol Pashinian, decried Sarkissian’s “unserious attitude,” saying that it is “depreciating” his public discourse. “You are preparing to take over as president,” Pashinian told the candidate. “Should we expect that you will be signing more papers without reading what’s written in them?”

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