Winter session the Parliamentary Assembly, January 2018

YEREVAN (RFE/RL) — President Serzh Sarkisian gave on Monday the strongest indication yet that he will become Armenia’s prime minister and thus extend his decade-long rule after serving out his final presidential term on April 9.

In comments to the news service, Sarkisian downplayed his 2014 pledge not to hold on to power if Armenia becomes a parliamentary republic as a result of his controversial constitutional changes. He cited the increased risk of renewed fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh and other security challenges facing the country.

Sarkisian had specifically promised that he would “not aspire” to the post of prime minister under a parliamentary system of government. But he subsequently declined to reaffirm that pledge.

In recent months, his political allies have increasingly made a case for his continued rule. This has led Armenian opposition leaders to accuse the outgoing president of not keeping his word.

Sarkisian claimed on Monday that his political opponents are taking his 2014 statement “out of context.” “I still do not aspire to the post of prime minister,” he said. “But I have never regarded myself as someone who is guided by prejudice or rigid thinking. I cannot fail to reckon with the reality and think that I bear no responsibility for the future and our country’s smooth course.”

Sarkisian said in that regard that “threats” to Armenia’s security and stability have increased since he initiated the ongoing transition to a parliamentary system of government. In particular, he cited the April 2016 fighting in Karabakh and the July 2016 attack on a police station in Yerevan staged by radical opposition members.

Sarkisian went on to speak of ongoing unofficial “discussions” within his Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) and its junior coalition partner, Dashnaktsutyun, on who should be the country’s next, far more powerful prime minister.

“I don’t know when we will finish those discussions,” he claimed. “But if we decide after all that my candidacy will be nominated then that will be done with one supplement on my part to the effect that parallel to fully performing my constitutional duties I will be spending more time transferring our country’s entire visible and not visible experience of the past years to young political leaders. This is an issue which is extremely important right now.”

Sarkisian did not name any of those leaders. His remark will fuel suggestions that he will openly groom one or more successors after taking over as prime minister. Defense Minister Vigen Sargsian (no relation) is widely regarded as a strong candidate for that role. The 42-year-old Sargsian previously worked as chief of the presidential staff.

Armenia’s current prime minister, Karen Karapetian, is aged 54. He is also the ruling HHK’s first deputy chairman. Some Armenian media outlets have speculated that he will become the country’s first deputy prime minister mainly responsible for the government’s socioeconomic policies after the end of Sarkisian’s presidency.

Armenian opposition forces have already condemned Sarkisian’s perceived plans to prolong his rule. Some of them have pledged to stage street protests against such a development.

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