Bako Sahakyan's inauguration in 2012. PanArmenian photo via CivilNet.

by Emil Sanamyan

On June 6, in response to several days of public protests, President Bako Sahakyan replaced the national security and police service directors. Unexpectedly, state minister Arayik Harutyunyan, the second person in the executive after the president, was also replaced.

Harutyunyan actively engaged with protesters from early on and even promised to resign if their demands to fire security and police directors would not be met. So, it was surprising to see his resignation as well. In a press conference, Harutyunyan couched his replacement in positive terms – after 11 years in government he will have more time with his family and to prepare for elections scheduled in 2020 – but it was clear he was forced to resign, likely as part of the deal to fire the power ministers.

Notably the day of the reshuffle, Sahakyan visited the National Security Service, meeting the outgoing director Arshavir Gharamyan and his deputy Gagik Sargsyan, he “thanked them for many years of service and wishing them successes.” Gharamyan was widely believed to be the closest ally of Sahakyan and his potential successor. Involvement of Gharamyan’s son in the June 1 brawl was a key factor that sparked the protests in Stepanakert.

Harutyunyan’s replacement is finance minister Grigoriy Martirosyan, a 39-year-old technocrat, who had a stint working in the Armenian government from 1999 to 2007. Gharamyan’s and police chief Kamo Aghajanyan’s replacements come from within their respective agencies.

The reshuffle became the most significant government change in 11 years, weakening Sahakyan’s position, though he has not yet indicated that he might consider resigning as well. Sahakyan’s current term is up in 2020, when direct elections are planned for both the president and parliament. Should he resign earlier, the parliament will pick his successor.

Harutyunyan’s Free Homeland Party is the largest group in parliament, directly controlling 15 of 33 seats. Dashnaktsutyun controls further seven seats and local Democratic Party – 6. All these parties and MPs can be influenced by Armenia’s prime minister Nikol Pashinyan, whose authority is palpable in Artsakh. Pashinyan, however, is likely to continue to show some deference to Sahakyan.

Armenia’s mirror image

In certain key ways, Artsakh’s political house of cards closely mirrors Armenia’s prior to the recent change of government. Like Serzh Sargsyan, Sahakyan is in his third term. The number two official until this week, Harutyunyan, enjoys substantial economic clout but apparently not the trust of Sahakyan, placing Harutyunyan in the role of Karen Karapetyan in Yerevan. Gharamyan is in the role of Vigen Sargsyan; both having some influence among the political class and bureaucrats but not the wider public support.

Artsakh’s parliament even has its own Pashinyan – Hayk Khanumyan, who leads the main opposition party, the National Revival. But while Khanumyan was an active mediator between Stepanakert protesters and the government, unlike Pashinyan he was not the protest leader. At this point, Khanumyan, like Harutyunyan, is also likely to run for president, but his chances – particularly if he is not clearly promoted by the Pashinyan government – are not great.

Finally, unlike Armenia, where after Sargsyan’s resignation the choice of leadership came down to between Karapetyan and Pashinyan, Artsakh has a credible third candidate. That is foreign minister Masis Mayiliyan, who was Sahakyan’s main challenger in 2007 election and, after mending ties with the president in recent years, could be an acceptable compromise candidate for the presidency. That is, of course, if Sahakyan himself decides to step aside, as his mentor Serzh Sargsyan had done.

UPDATE: Following the protests, Sahakyan pledged not to run in 2020 presidential elections, but appears determined to stay in office until then.