Former President Serzh Sarkisian sought to justify his decision to hold on to power on Tuesday as lawmakers elected him Armenia’s new prime minister amid continuing opposition demonstrations in Yerevan.
Sarkisian denounced the ongoing protests but at the same time downplayed their significance moments after the Armenian parliament voted by 76 to 17 to appoint him to what will now be the country’s top government post.
“The people cannot be unruly,” he said on the parliament floor. “If they were, there would be millions of people in the streets. You know full well how many people are taking part in these demonstrations.”
The main organizer of those rallies, Nikol Pashinian, pledged to continue his campaign which he said is turning into a popular “velvet revolution” against Sarkisian. Reacting to the parliament vote, Pashinian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) that he will keep trying to “paralyze the state government system” with peaceful acts of “civil disobedience.”
Pashinian and other critics say that Sarkisian’s extended rule would deal a severe blow to democracy and the rule of law.
Sarkisian claimed that his premiership will not amount to a third term in office because he will wield fewer powers than he did in his previous capacity as president of the republic. “People have still not realized that there is no one-man rule anymore,” he complained at a special session of the National Assembly overshadowed by tight security measures taken in and outside the parliament building.
Predictably, Sarkisian’s candidacy was backed by the deputies from his ruling Republican Party (HHK), its junior coalition partner, Dashnaktsutyun, as well as more than a dozen lawmakers representing businessman Gagik Tsarukian’s nominally opposition alliance. Tsarukian himself did not attend the session.
The vote was boycotted Pashinian and by three other deputies from the opposition Yelk alliance. The five other Yelk parliamentarians attended the session and voted against Sarkisian.
In his opening speech in the parliament, Sarkisian said he can continue to govern the country because he leads a party that won last year’s parliamentary elections. This will be in line with the newly introduced parliamentary system of government, he said.
“I am here, first and foremost as head of the ruling party, to say in favor of my candidacy that I have sufficient influence and possibilities … to ensure the harmonious work in the executive and legislative branches of the political force making up the parliamentary majority,” he said.
Sarkisian, who completed his final presidential term on April 9, indicated that he would be wrong to keep running the country from behind the scenes, as HHK chairman. That would mean dodging responsibility for government policies, he claimed.
“For me, as chairman of the Republican Party, running away from personal responsibility is unacceptable,” he said. “I have never done and will not do that. This is the primary reason why I am now standing at this podium.”
Sarkisian publicly stated in 2014 that he “will not aspire” to the post of prime minister if Armenia becomes a parliamentary republic as a result of his controversial constitutional changes. Pashinian and other opposition leaders now accuse him of breaking that pledge to cling to power.
Sarkisian dismissed the opposition claims on Tuesday, citing a “de facto absence of my ambitions” to serve as premier and again saying that his 2014 statement was taken out of context.
Sarkisian, 63, also defended his decade-long track record during a question-and-answer session that followed his 20-minute speech. He brushed aside opposition claims that that the economic situation in Armenia has deteriorated during his presidency. He listed a raft of official economic data showing sizable increases in GDP per capita, individual bank deposits and the number of cars since 2007.
The new premier did acknowledge, though, widespread discontent with the state of affairs in the country. “I am sure that many, many people in Armenia, at least 60 percent or maybe even more, are unhappy with everything,” he said. “But being unhappy does not mean revolting and rejecting everything.”
“In any family children may well be unhappy with their parents or vice versa. But that doesn’t mean a conflict,” he added.
Opposition lawmakers scoffed at these arguments. “If everything is so good, then why is everything so bad?” asked Yelk’s Edmon Marukian.
Marukian accused Sarkisian of having lost touch with reality and building a “fake parliamentary system.” “There are two worlds: your world and the world in which we live,” he told the ex-president.
Another Yelk leader, Aram Sarkisian, charged that the incoming premier has also failed to honor his 2008 pledge to tear down a “wall of misunderstanding” between Armenians and their rulers. “The wall of misunderstanding now surrounds this building,” he said, alluding to the heavy police presence outside the parliament compound.
Serzh Sarkisian rejected the opposition criticism when he again took the floor both before and after the parliament vote. He accused his political opponents of “selectively” using economic figures to “denigrate” his legacy.
Senior HHK lawmakers likewise defended their leader. The ruling party’s parliamentary leader, Vahram Baghdasarian, alleged an opposition “race” to disparage the country’s leadership.
Dashnaktsutyun’s Armen Rustamian said, for his part, that his party and the HHK have already laid the groundwork for a “just Armenia.” Sarkisian’s election as prime minister has “opened a new page for the dignified future of our country,” he said.