Armen Sarkissian, a former scholar who has long lived in Britain, pledged to strive for a “new Armenia” able to meet challenges of the modern world as he was sworn in as the country’s new president on Monday.
He took the oath of office at a special session of the Armenian parliament attended by hundreds of other dignitaries.
The ceremony took place at a concert hall in Yerevan just over a month after the National Assembly voted overwhelmingly to elect Sarkissian president of the republic. His candidacy was nominated by the outgoing President Serzh Sarkisian (no relation) and the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) earlier this year.
Sarkissian, 64, is the first Armenian president not elected by popular vote. The change stems from controversial constitutional changes that have transformed Armenia into a parliamentary republic. Sarkissian will therefore have largely ceremonial powers.
The HHK-controlled parliament is widely expected to appoint Serzh Sarkisian as prime minister next week. The latter met with his handpicked successor shortly before the inauguration ceremony broadcast live by national television.
Putting his right hand on the Armenian constitution and a 7th century Armenian Bible, Armen Sarkissian vowed to stay “impartial” in performing his duties and do his best to “strengthen national unity.”
In an ensuing speech, Sarkissian mentioned challenges facing the country. “We must jointly and consistently fight against negative and vicious practices in the state system, society and our environment: from corruption to social injustice, from indifference to irresponsibility,” he declared. “In this just and uncompromising fight, each of us has a role to play. We will succeed if we not only criticize but also propose, if we join forces and work together, rather than create divisions.”
The new president, who has tried to reach out to various political and civic groups, intellectuals and business circles in recent weeks, went on to stress the need for faster economic development. “No matter how attractive and substantiated promises of the bright future are, people want to feel their fruits now, and they are right,” he said.
“The 21st century is a century of thought and rapid scientific progress,” said Sarkissian. “Accordingly, we must build a new Armenia; a young Armenia; a dynamic, flexible, and creative Armenia.”
The inauguration was attended by 92 of the 105 members of the parliament. Most of the absent deputies are affiliated with the opposition Yelk bloc, which controls 9 parliament seats. Seven Yelk deputies voted against Sarkissian while the two others did not vote at all on March 2.
A physicist and mathematician by education, Sarkissian worked at the Cambridge University when he was appointed as newly independent Armenia’s first ambassador to the United Kingdom in 1991. He served as prime minister for four months in 1996-1997 before being again named ambassador in London.
His second ambassadorial stint was cut short in 1999 by then President Robert Kocharian. Sarkissian stayed in Britain and made a fortune there in the following decade, working as an advisor and middleman for Western corporations doing business in the former Soviet Union. He was appointed as Armenian ambassador to Britain for a third time in 2013.
Under the amended constitution, Sarkissian will serve for a seven-year term. He will be primarily tasked with ensuring “observance of the constitution” by various branches of government. In particular, he will be able to send parliament-approved bills to the Constitutional Court for examination in case of objecting to their provisions. The bills will have to be signed into law if the court certifies their conformity with the constitution.
The president will also formally appoint members of the government, Armenian ambassadors abroad and the Armenian army’s top brass nominated by the prime minister. In addition, he can sign international treaties recommended by the ruling cabinet.