Around 8:30 p.m. on Sunday, January 23, 2022, President Armen Sarkissian announced his resignation. While the specific timing might have come as a surprise, Sarkissian had made no secret about his being frustrated with the role over the past year.
In the aftermath of the 2020 Artsakh War, on November 16, 2021, Sarkissian had called for “the government and the dominant political force [the My Step Parliamentary Caucus] to objectively assess their potential and present a roadmap in a short period of time, which will provide deadlines for initiating relevant constitutional processes, allowing early parliamentary elections. Meanwhile, governing will be handed over to a highly-qualified Government of National Accord.” While details of what such a Government of National Accord might look like were not immediately elaborated, it was clear that it would not include Nikol Pashinyan, as the President emphasized that he had held consultations with political figures, NGOs and diasporan representatives, and that most of them “agree on one issue: the Prime Minister’s resignation or termination of office in accordance with the Constitution, and early parliamentary elections.”
Pashinyan did not step aside, however, and there were no constitutional tools available to President Sarkissian to trigger an early election without either the cooperation of Pashinyan (through his voluntary resignation as Prime Minister) or the My Step Caucus (in voting to replace him). Pashinyan would go on to call an early election a few months later, on his own terms, while staying in the Office of Prime Minister, and without inviting any opposition figures into Cabinet. He remains in power today after scoring 54% of the vote in that election.
At a meeting with Armenian community representatives in Moscow on November 29, 2020, Sarkissian provided additional details of what he had in mind:
- “This does not mean that every party should have a minister, but someone respected by everybody forms a government, preferably technocratic.”
- “That government must work for half a year, or one year until new elections…”
- “During this period, a referendum must be held. It is necessary to change either the Constitution or make it more humane.”
He lamented that the current Constitution, brought in by a 2015 referendum led by the previous administration, did not allow for an adequate balance of powers. He suggested that, if the Office of President was elected by the people (instead of by Parliament), it could be endowed with additional powers and thus act as a check against the Prime Minister and parliamentary majority. This would effectively return Armenia to a semi-presidential form of government, like the one it had before 2018. He added that the current Constitution only allowed him to use “about 5% of [his] potential”. Several weeks later, he reiterated his concept of a transitional technocratic government that would overhaul the Constitution and Electoral Code before calling an early election. He called the proposed framework the “Fourth Republic”.
Reducing His Own Powers
Back in the summer of 2020, there was one instance when Sarkissian actually reduced the powers of the President, which he is now saying need to be beefed up.
Bill P-475 passed second reading on June 22, 2020. (In Armenia, laws only need to pass two readings to be considered accepted by Parliament.) Among other changes to the Rules of Procedure of the National Assembly, a constitutional law, this bill removed the requirement for constitutional amendments passed by the National Assembly to be signed by the President.
Prior to Bill P-475, a constitutional amendment passed by the National Assembly would then be sent to the President, who could either sign it within 21 days or direct it to the Constitutional Court to decide whether the constitutional amendment was itself constitutional. For context, this bill was brought forward just before a constitutional amendment that would effectively dismiss several Constitutional Court judges. The Government was concerned that the move could be blocked by the Constitutional Court, which would certainly be self-interested in doing so, and thus passed Bill P-475 to remove that possibility.
President Sarkissian could have sent Bill P-475 itself to the Constitutional Court. Prima facie, the Constitutional Court could have struck down the bill for violating Article 129 of the Constitution, which explicitly provides for the role of the President in signing laws. The decision of whether to also send the constitutional amendment itself to the Constitutional Court could have been made separately by Sarkissian. For example, he could have chosen not to send the constitutional amendment to the Constitutional Court (because of the inherent conflict of interest), but still send Bill P-475 to the Constitutional Court in order to retain this decision-making power for the future.
Instead, he signed Bill-475 two days after it was passed, on June 24, 2020, removing the Office of President from the process of such constitutional amendments.
While the U.S. President holds a veto over laws passed by Congress (which he sometimes does use), and constitutional monarchs or their representatives hold a theoretical veto over laws if they choose to withhold Royal Assent (which they never do), the Armenian President under the 2015 Constitution does not have a real veto over bills passed by the National Assembly. His options are either to sign it within 21 days or forward it to the Constitutional Court. He can only refuse to sign if the Constitutional Court determines that the bill is unconstitutional. Otherwise, the Speaker of the National Assembly can sign the law in his place after the 21-day timeframe has expired. However, due to Sarkissian’s decision to sign Bill P-475 in June 2020, it can now be argued that even this bare level of discretion no longer applies to constitutional amendments, only regular bills.
Serzh Sargsyan, who originally nominated Armen Sarkissian to the post, publicly criticized him on this point in an April 2021 interview, adding that Sarkissian knew full well what he was signing up for when he accepted the offer to become President of a parliamentary republic.
There were other bills that Sarkissian had directed to the Constitutional Court, including bills that had to do with banking secrecy, higher education, increased financial penalties for slander. Most notably, he refused to sign the order dismissing Onik Gasparyan from the position of Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces, after Gasparyan had called for Pashinyan to resign.
Appointing Constitutional Court Judges
One of the powers that the President does have is to nominate three of the nine judges on the Constitutional Court, for confirmation by the National Assembly. This process had also been a bumpy ride for Sarkissian. His first opportunity to make such a nomination came up in October 2018, when he selected Vahe Grigoryan, who is best known for representing the victims of protesters killed on March 1, 2008. This nomination was rejected by the National Assembly, which was then still dominated by Serzh Sargsyan’s Republican Party of Armenia (RPA).
To fill the vacancy, Sarkissian nominated two other candidates in sequence, Gor Hovhannisyan and Arthur Vagharshyan. But, by this time, the December 2018 early election had already taken place and the My Step Alliance now commanded a majority in the National Assembly. They rejected both candidates; it was commonly understood that the My Step MPs would continue to reject candidates until Vahe Grigoryan was nominated again. On May 31, 2019, Sarkissian relented and nominated Vahe Grigoryan again “considering the fact that the selection of a nominee for the member of the [Constitutional Court] cannot become an endless process.” Grigoryan’s nomination was accepted by Parliament, and he became a Constitutional Court judge. On his first day in the role, Grigoryan went on to declare that only he and one other judge held the position legitimately (because the 2015 Constitution used the term Constitutional Court “judge” instead of Constitutional Court “member”) and that he was appointing himself the new Chairperson of the Court. The existing Chairperson Hrayr Tovmasyan and other judges effectively dismissed his assessment and continued to work as normal, while Grigoryan effectively boycotted the Court’s activities, until the previously-mentioned constitutional amendment reorganized the Court.
To fill a vacancy created by that constitutional amendment the following year, Sarkissian re-nominated Arthur Vagharshyan. This time, his candidacy was accepted by the National Assembly.
The whole process clearly irked Sarkissian; he expressed his opinion to the Expert Commission on Constitutional Reform that the candidates for Constitutional Court judge nominated by the President, General Assembly of Judges, and “Government/National Assembly” should not be subject to a confirmation process but appointed directly.
Influencing the New Constitution
That Expert Commission on Constitutional Reform had been created by a Prime Ministerial Decree on December 30, 2019. However, a series of national crises (the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 Artsakh War and the post-war political uncertainty leading to an early parliamentary election) inhibited its work. The body was disbanded by a new decree on December 17, 2021, which will restart the work of drafting proposals for further constitutional amendments, scheduled to be submitted to the Prime Minister by June 2023.
The new commission was specifically referenced in Armen Sarkissian’s resignation statement; he thanked the Government for creating it and reiterated his views that the Office of President should be given additional powers, including the ability to:
- influence issues related to war and peace
- veto bills that he considers inappropriate for the state and people
- leverage new constitutional tools to navigate turbulent political crises
Assuming that Armenia retains the parliamentary system of government, the latter of these items can be considered the most probable to actually be implemented. The current convoluted path to calling early elections, where the Prime Minister needs to formally resign and the National Assembly fail twice to elect a successor, was considered an impediment to holding the early election in June 2021. Pashinyan made the two parliamentary opposition parties promise not to nominate a Prime Minister candidate before agreeing to trigger the process through his own resignation. Since his own party commanded a strong majority in Parliament, presumably Pashinyan was worried that some of his own party’s MPs might vote for an opposition-nominated Prime Ministerial candidate in order to forgo the early election. It is common for parliamentary republics to endow the President, as Head of State, with the power to dissolve Parliament and call an early election.
However, current Minister of Justice Karen Andreasyan has suggested that moving back to a semi-presidential system is still on the table. In fact, it is held up as one of the main considerations of the new Commission, the other being a merger of the Court of Cassation (Court of Appeal) with the Constitutional Court to resemble the structure of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Having brought attention to this new process, it is not yet clear if Armen Sarkissian will continue to share his desired directions for the constitutional reform, or if the resignation announcement was his last signoff on the issue.
“Conspiracy Theories and Myths”
In his resignation announcement, Sarkissian also made reference to “conspiracy theories and myths” that various political groups had circulated about his past, and that the harassment had begun to affect his health. The most salient of these had to do with his previous British citizenship.
Paralleling the “birther movement” that questioned whether U.S. President Barack Obama was legally eligible to hold the Office he was elected to, allegations have dogged Sarkissian that he did not meet the constitutional requirement that the Armenian President have held “only the citizenship of the Republic of Armenia for the previous six years.” That is, anyone who has held dual citizenships up to six years prior to their appointment cannot become President. Sarkissian, who was a former Armenian Ambassador to the United Kingdom, has shared that he obtained British citizenship in 2002 to facilitate his international travel, but that he renounced his British citizenship nine years later in 2011. That timing would have been adequate to meet the requirements of the Constitution (he was appointed in 2018), but that hasn’t stopped various groups from suggesting that he actually held the foreign citizenship later than 2011. The Fact Investigation Platform (FIP), a project of the Union of Informed Citizens NGO headed by Daniel Ioannisyan, had pointed out that Armenia did not allow dual citizenship at all until 2007. In March 2021, a group of lawyers headed by Ara Zohrabyan, leader of the Awakening National Christian Party, applied to the Prosecutor-General to look into the matter. Investigative journalists at Hetq say they have information that Sarkissian also held a passport from the Caribbean nation of Saint Kitts and Nevis, and that an ongoing international investigation is looking into the matter.
Sarkissian’s resignation statement did also claim that the current Constitution “creates obstacles for prominent professionals from the diaspora to participate in the management of their historical homeland’s state institutions.” This could be taken as criticizing the relatively-recent ban, introduced in 2015, on dual citizens from being elected as a Member of Parliament or any number of other constitutional positions: cabinet minister, Human Rights Ombudsman, Central Electoral Commission, Television and Radio Commission, Audit Chamber, Central Bank Board, President, regional governor, etc. Sarkissian expressed his frustration about these “absurd and meaningless regulations” in an interview only a few weeks ago and asserted that he was advocating opening up government offices to diasporans.
The Process to Choose a New President
Both the Constitution and the Rules of Procedure for the National Assembly, a constitutional law, regulate the selection process for a new President. When the Office becomes vacant due to a resignation, a pre-term (sometimes translated as “extraordinary”) vote in the National Assembly for a new President is triggered. Sarkissian gets one week to take back his resignation, after which the office becomes officially vacant. The vote for his replacement must be held between 25-35 days following afterwards. Under the current circumstances, that sets the stage for a vote to be held some time between February 24 and March 6. Candidates for the office need to be nominated by at least one fourth of the total number of MPs. As there are currently 107 MPs, a nomination would thus need at least 27 co-signers. Currently, the Civil Contract Party has 71 MPs, the Armenia Alliance has 29 MPs, the I’m Honored Alliance has 6 MPs, and one member of the Homeland Party sits as an independent.
It is conceivable, therefore, that the opposition Armenia Alliance could nominate its own candidate for the office. However, their chances of being voted in would not be high. Although the President is envisioned as a consensus figure that is meant to unify across the political spectrum, in practice, only the support of the parliamentary majority is necessary.
To be selected in the first round, a presidential candidate needs at least 81 votes, a three-quarters supermajority. However, if no candidate receives that level of consensus, a second round is held among the same candidates, in which only 65 votes are needed, a three-fifths supermajority. If no candidate is able to garner this lower threshold of support, a third round is held only among the top two candidates from the second round. This time, only 54 votes, a simple majority of all MPs, is needed. If even a simple majority cannot be achieved (because of abstentions), the process begins again ten days later.
MPs have only five days after the Office becomes officially vacant to submit their nominations. The Constitution and the Rules of Procedure for the National Assembly contradict each other on who is eligible to be nominated. The Constitution requires the candidate to:
- be at least 40 years old
- be solely a citizen of the Republic of Armenia for the preceding six years (no dual citizens)
- have permanently resided in the Republic of Armenia for the preceding six years
- have the right to vote
- have a command of the Armenian language
- not be a member of any political party during their tenure as President
The Rules of Procedure for the National Assembly adds additional restrictions, stating that judges, prosecutors, and employees of the Investigation Committee (IC), Special Investigation Service (SIS), Police, National Security Service (NSS), among other employees of state bodies that carry out rescue operations, tax, customs or criminal corrections services, are not eligible to be nominated. However, these additional restrictions could be deemed unconstitutional, as Article 124 of the Constitution clearly states that the bullet points above are the only eligibility criteria.
Ultimately, it can be expected that Nikol Pashinyan will handpick the new President, the fifth in the country’s history, and the Civil Contract Caucus will vote them in through a three-fifths vote in the second round. The parliamentary opposition can be expected to reject any candidate the ruling party puts forward, no matter who it is.
The thing to watch when the announcement is made this week will be whether the candidate is a staunch party loyalist, a non-partisan member of the current administration, or a concession candidate not directly tied to Pashinyan. Pashinyan’s team has repeatedly expressed that it was inappropriate for Hrayr Tovmasyan to become Chairperson of the Constitutional Court, which also requires its officeholder to not be a member of any political party during their tenure, because he had only resigned his Republican Party of Armenia membership immediately before his appointment.
In a televised interview on Monday, January 24, 2022, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said that he was informed about the resignation only hours before it was made public, and that his team has not yet decided on a replacement candidate. He did mention that he felt it would be important for the eventual holder of the Position to be cooperative with the Government and the legislature.
Until a new President is selected, the duties of the President are exercised by the Speaker of Parliament, Alen Simonyan.
Correction 1: A previous version of this article did not mention that the President is given one week to take back his resignation before it becomes official, and thus provided an incorrect timeframe for the vote for his replacement.
Correction 2: A previous version of this article noted the date of Armen Sarkissian’s resignation as Sunday, January 24, 2022. It has been corrected to January 23.