Armenia: the next president's debut

MOSCOW. (Vadim Dubnov, freelance commentator, for RIA Novosti) - Armenia's leading political forces are mourning the death of Prime Minister Andranik Margaryan.

Compared with many other leaders of former-Soviet republics, he was a formidable man, and not only because he held the post of prime minister for seven years (before him, prime ministers in Armenia were replaced as often as in Ukraine, if not Italy).

Margaryan was the cornerstone of Armenian politics, the man who kept the highly contentious political scene in the republic on an even keel. He was a wizard of compromise, balancing between not very popular authorities and an unimpressive opposition, but he never did anything to cast a shadow on his lily-white credentials of a true dissident.

A man of few words, Margaryan was a political heavyweight who never voiced any presidential ambitions, but whose favors many potential candidates sought. Even though he was not running in the presidential race, his very presence on the political scene contributed to the intrigue, however minor, surrounding the contest.

This is why his death has made the Armenian authorities so nervous. Contrary to Armenia's tradition of conspiracies and despite circumstances ripe for rumors, nobody has claimed that there are any dark secrets behind Margaryan's death.

The prime minister had a heart attack shortly before a parliamentary election after which the name of the successor to the presidential chair in Armenia was to be made public. The country will hold a presidential election in 2008.

Some analysts said that Margaryan's death would undermine the position of the Republicans, who are the ruling party now. This is another, posthumous, recognition of the prime minister's high standing. Had he died before the previous election, the consequences for the authorities would have been more dramatic. However, the hierarchy in today's Armenia has been structured so effectively that it neutralizes the role of outstanding personalities, even one such as Andranik Margaryan.

Frankly speaking, his death has simplified the political situation.

There is uncertainty over the choice of successor, although everyone knows his name. It is Serzh Sarkisyan, who has held different posts but has always been considered the successor.

President Robert Kocharyan seems undecided. Reportedly, he did not discuss running for a third term during his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but rumors of the possibility only confirm the uncertainty in the authorities' plans.

In that dual situation, Armenia has chosen a well-trodden path of establishing a parallel party of power. In Russia, the two parties of power are chaired by people from the same center, while Armenia's second party of power, Prosperous Armenia, is led not by a high-ranking official, but by a major businessman, Gago Tsarukyan. This makes the party more independent and explains the intensity of the struggle for administrative resources.

The leaders of the new party have done nothing to dispel the rumor that they view Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanyan, who has little chance of winning the race, as their presidential candidate. Therefore, since Sarkisyan is not the party's favorite, its true goal may be a third term for Kocharyan, or, even better, a majority in parliament that would keep the current president the country's leader, even though in some other post.

On the other hand, the victory of Margaryan-led Republicans would not assure Sarkisyan's success, because the prime minister planned to keep his preference a secret until the last possible moment. Although he was leading a party of power, he maintained equally amicable relations with all players in the Armenian political game, whose rules could push anyone into opposition.

Artur Bagdasaryan, a former speaker of parliament, was clearly not the only official to opt for playing an independent. The situation was made more intriguing by the fact that Margaryan was one of the few serious members of the Armenian elite who was considered to be pro-Western. Now that the country needs to adjust its strategy, that reputation could play a certain role in the puzzle of the elite's preferences.

And yet, none of the above could become the dominant element of the election cycle. Margaryan was unlikely to seriously influence its outcome. In fact, he was taciturn about his plans probably because they were aimed at a more distant future. A seasoned politician, Margaryan definitely knew that the list of possible scenarios for 2007 and 2008 was limited, and so it was useless to try to interfere. At the same time, adverse events in the "power vertical," which are always possible, especially following a change of the top official, could be a godsend in the immediate future.

But Margaryan's second heart attack cut short his plans. Now everything and everyone have found a place on the Armenian scene, which may well be the only result of the prime minister's death. The chief and only candidate for succession, Serzh Sarkisyan, who in the past always preferred to play supporting roles in government (Defense Minister) and the Republican Party, has been pushed to the forefront.

Technically speaking, Operation Successor is moving in the right direction at the right time. Sarkisyan will most likely be appointed prime minister and lead the Republicans in the parliamentary race. Their victory under his leadership would be his personal victory, ensuring him a 90% chance of success in the presidential election. Given all the administrative resources that Sarkisyan no longer has to share with anyone, his victory is almost assured.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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