Thursday, February 06, 2014

Armenia: Presidential Health Story "Leaked"

This article originally appeared in the Institute for War and Peace Reporting,
Armenia: Presidential Health Story "Leaked"

[Corrected story] Politics-watchers in Armenia are buzzing with news that President Serzh Sargsyan has undergone stem cell therapy in South Korea.

The fact that the news was leaked rather than announced officially suggests that factions within the governing elite are already jostling for position in the next presidential race, even though the election is not until 2018.

The Armenian Times newspaper reported that medics had to be called on November 5, when Sargsyan heard that police had clashed with protesters. On January 16, it reported that Sargsyan had gone to South Korea for medical treatment, rather than going on holiday as had been announced.

A government spokesman denied both reports, calling one of them a “stupid lie”.

But on January 24, the South Korean website reported that Sargsyan had spent a week in the country on a stem cell therapy programme designed to help him lose weight and delay the ageing process.

After this, presidential spokesman Arman Saghatelyan was forced to confirm that Sargsyan had indeed been undergoing treatment, but insisted it had been preventive only, and that he paid for it out of his own funds.

Armen Badalyan, an analyst with the Centre for Political Studies, suspects the leak has do with the increasingly bitter battle for succession, led by former president Robert Kocharyan.

“Of course the president has to explain why his spokesman lied. He must also explain where he got the money to afford an anti-ageing course in South Korea,” Badalyan told IWPR. “But there’s also the other side of the coin. This is Serzh Sargsyan’s last term, and a real competitor has emerged. We can’t rule out that as the end of this president’s term draws near, [Kocharyan’s] circle wants to prepare the ground for his return.”

At the next election in 2018, Sargsyan will have to step down since presidents are constitutionally limited to two consecutive terms.

In December, Kocharyan issued strong criticisms of the government and prime minister, leading many observers to suspect he was already planning a return to the top job.

When his own second term ended in 2008, Kocharyan, then 54, said, “I do not intend to be the youngest pensioner.”

Many observers predicted that Sargsyan and Kocharyan, who fought together in the Karabakh war of the early 1990s, would attempt to replicate the model used in Russia, where Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev swapped posts as president and prime minister, but retained power between them.

The arrival of Tigran Sargsyan as prime minister derails the chances of that happening.

“It appears that Serzh Sargsyan has raised the possibility of Tigran Sargsyan taking over as president,” Ashot Manucharyan, an adviser to Levon Ter-Petrosyan told IWPR. Ter-Petrosyan was Armenia’s first post-independence president and is now an opposition politician.

“Tigran Sargysan has also decided to create political groups loyal to him. That worries Kocharyan. He realises he has a competitor.”

Manucharyan noted that unlike many opposition politicians, Kocharyan has both the financial resources and the connections within the elite needed to make a bid for power.

“He has even managed to unite a large number of opposition figures around him. This is Serzh Sargsyan’s last term, and the Armenian elite is going to have to choose. It’s an unprecedented situation…. This is where scandals like the South Korean one are coming from.”

Another government-related scandal has emerged from the case Paylak Hayrapetyan, a famous businessman who went bankrupt after lending 11 million US dollars to an individual who was planning to invest in gold and diamond mining in Sierra Leone, but then disappeared.

Hayrapetyan has told police that he had confidence in the arrangement because the prime minister took part in the discussions on several occasions.

Prime Minister Sargsyan has denied any connection to these matters. He remains in his job, but Manucharyan sees this as just the beginning of what could be a dirty battle for the top job.

“I don’t think these will be the last such scandals,” he said.

[Correction: the initial version of this story included quotes attributed to David Shahnazaryan. These remarks were not made by him. We apologise for the misattribution and for any embarrassment or confusion it may have caused.] Armen Karapetyan is a freelance journalist in Armenia.