Sarkissian: Belated departure of effete figurehead
By Orkhan Amashov
Following the four fruitless years of prowling around and travailing in pain as a nominal head of state, Armen Sarkissian eventually decided to quit this top but largely ceremonial post. There is a convincing narrative explaining the reasons for his departure, but the precise circumstances that prompted his resignation and its timing, given the half-confirmed allegations about his dual citizenship, remain shrouded in semi-impenetrable mystery.
One pivotal “but”
There is some truth to the official reasoning that Sarkissian put forward in his resignation statement. As a president, he did not have the necessary powers to influence the fundamental processes related to foreign and domestic policy at a time of national crisis.
This central linchpin of his rationale for quitting seems to be veracious, but to an extent only, as there is one "but" which will continue to haunt Sarkissian for the remainder of his lifetime. When he was offered presidency in 2018, the rules of the game defining the political leadership were already fixed. In many ways, he entered the process as a conformist, who knew exactly what sort of a president he was going to be - a ceremonial figurehead in a parliamentary republic, in which critical powers had been vested in the person of the prime minister.
When Armenia moved from a semi-presidential system to a parliamentary one in 2015, the purpose was to extend war-monger Serzh Sargsyan’s political lifetime and enable him to continue leading the country as a premier. Later, in 2018, when the latter recommended Sarkissian, who was Armenian ambassador to the UK back then, for the post of head of state, the terms of the offer were clear. Armen Sarkissian was never meant to be a strong president with real powers, but a leader in name only, standing by the premier and reinforcing his legitimacy.
It was only after Sargsyan’s resignation and Pashinyan’s ascendance to power that Sarkissian became a vociferous advocate for a political system with a more balanced distribution of constitutional powers. In this vein, his resignation is more indicative of his dissatisfaction with the scope of his resources rather than a defiant attack on the present system of governance.
As a last visible surviving member of the old guard, Sarkissian did not share the outlook of Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan as to the future of Armenia. The kerfuffle over a key military appointment was just one of the episodes revealing the lack of harmony at the top. He had no say regarding the ceasefire agreement that the prime minister was forced to sign in November 2020.
The prevailing narrative is that, in view of the Armenian PM’s purported desire to move towards signing a peace agreement with Azerbaijan and normalising relations with Turkey, Sarkissian found it obligatory to disassociate himself from the “inglorious inevitability”.
Grand but impracticable tomorrow
Throughout his tenure, in addition to extensively complaining about his powerlessness, Sarkissian also spoke at inexorable length, without any perceptible sense of immediacy or urgency, about the future in terms of obscure and vague grandiosities.
Being both corpulent and refined, and bearing a striking resemblance to Count Fosco, Wilkie Collins's literary creation, he had and still has the air of a visibly effete and emollient figure, yet behind the facade of genteel delicacy there is a ruthless character and global operator. If this characterisation is true, there is nothing tangible or consequential on a grand scale that has so far eventuated from this assumed Machiavellian inner persona.
There is a fine and nuanced difference between what is possible and what is not impossible. The latter is what he preferred to pontificate about. He portrayed Yerevan as a future financial centre and bridge between the EU and Eurasia. He enjoyed numerous references to the forum of minds with which he associated great hopes. But when it came to the issues within the rubric of the immediate agenda, he chose to equivocate.
As a spokesperson for a global Armenia, he was self-tasked with the mission to attract investment to the country, using his worldwide connections. Despite the Covid-related restriction, he practiced some globe-trotting in his post, albeit with no easily recognisable benefits for Armenia.
There is also a question about dual citizenship rumours swirling around. If to trust the Armenian media platform Hetq, which conducted an investigation together with its international partner, Sarkissian, at the point of assuming his presidential duties, was a citizen of Saint Kitts and Nevis, a Commonwealth nation in the Caribbean, in violation of the Armenian Constitution.
It appears that there was an exchange between Hetq and the presidential office, and the latter did not deny the fact but claimed that the citizenship was acquired by default as a result of his investment, and Sarkissian instructed his lawyers to request the citizenship to be put on hold, which it has now transpired was not duly carried out. The former president denied any connection between this citizenship scandal and the timing of his resignation, but the facts, as they are stated and known, do not favour him.
It remains somewhat a moot point if Pashinyan prefers to have a president of his own choice and remain an omnipotent premier in a parliamentary republic, or to become a President with enhanced powers, under a new constitution.
What is clear is that Sarkissian’s departure will allow him to put his own man into the office. Now Pashinyan has reached the political equilibrium of the German system in which the time-honoured rule is that “if you can create a President, you can form a government”. Sarkissian was already there when he became a PM. Now the parliament where he has a healthy majority will elect a new figurehead.
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