About a dozen leading Armenian nongovernmental organizations have challenged the legitimacy of last week’s parliamentary election of former prime minister and ambassador to the UK Armen Sarkissian as Armenia’s next president.
The organizations, including Transparency International’s anticorruption center, the Asparez club of journalists, the Union of Informed Citizens, Open Society Foundations Armenia, For Equal Rights NGO, the Vanadzor-based office of the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly and others, issued a joint statement on Monday, saying that Sarkissian “violated the requirement clearly set by the Constitution that concerns citizenship.”
Sarkissian, who was handpicked as a candidate by outgoing President Serzh Sarkisian (no relation) and supported by the Sarkisian-led ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) and its junior coalition partner, Dashnaktsutyun, received an overwhelming support during the parliamentary ballot on March 2 and is due to be sworn in as Armenia’s next, largely ceremonial head of state on April 9. (Under the country’s new Constitution, presidential veto powers are considerably curbed in favor of the prime minister).
The 64-year-old former scholar, who has been based in the UK during the past three decades, had insisted that he renounced his British citizenship in 2011, which made him eligible to run for president in Armenia where the Constitution bars any candidate who has not been a citizen of Armenia alone for the past six years from seeking the post.
Weeks before the election a local investigative magazine, Hetq, published a 2014 record from the UK registry of companies referring to Sarkissian as a British national. Sarkissian downplayed the significance of that record, explaining that it could be a technical issue. The document relates to the activities of Eurasia House International, a London-based organization set up by Sarkissian in the early 2000s. Sarkissian insisted that the information was outdated because Eurasia House stopped functioning in 2010.
Armenia’s leading NGOs as well as part of the opposition, notably the parliamentary Yelk alliance, demanded that Sarkissian produce a British document proving his renunciation of UK citizenship in 2011. Speaking in parliament before the vote Yelk faction leader Nikol Pashinian claimed that Sarkissian’s failure to produce such a document was reason enough to cast doubt over his legitimacy to stand for the post.
In a secret ballot Sarkissian received the votes of 90 out of 101 lawmakers who took part in the election, including, apparently, quite a few votes from the nominally opposition faction led by wealthy businessman Gagik Tsarukian that did not challenge the former Armenian prime minister’s credentials.
In their joint statement today the NGOs claimed that the parliamentary majority was “yet again guided by the political expedience of the moment rather than requirements of the law.” They insisted that the proof of Armenian citizenship issued by Armenia alone “cannot replace a document issued by a British state body that could be the only trustworthy proof”. “In the absence of this document suspicions in society regarding [Sarkissian’s] failure to meet the citizenship requirement only grow deeper. It also clearly demonstrates Armen Sarkissian’s disrespect towards the Constitution and citizens of the Republic of Armenia,” the authors of the statement claimed.
Sarkissian has repeatedly brushed aside opposition claims regarding his failure to meet the constitutional citizenship requirement to stand for president.
“Yes, I was a citizen of Great Britain… After I was relieved of my ambassadorial duties in 2000 I applied for and received British citizenship in 2002. I renounced that citizenship in 2011,” Sarkissian told reporters on February 9. “I renounced it because I didn’t need it anymore, not because in 2011 I thought that you are going to change the Constitution and that I’m going to become ambassador and then a [presidential] candidate.”