ARMENIA: PRESIDENTIAL HEALTH STORY "LEAKED"

Institute for War and Peace Reporting, UK
IWPR Caucasus Reporting #721
Jan 31 2014

Serzh Sargsyan's foes want to portray him as weak and not in control
of his own security service, commentator says.

By Armen Karapetyan - Caucasus

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 Chosun.com 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.

David Shahnazaryan, a former head of Armenia's National Security
Service, is more interested in how the story was leaked.

It would not have been in the clinic's interests violate such
a high-profile client's privacy. Instead, Shahnazaryan suspects
a covert campaign designed to portray the president as "not only
unhealthy and weak, but also unable to control Armenia's security
systems and the mechanisms of power in general".

Shahnazaryan notes that on returning home, the president sacked Armen
Sargsyan, who is the ambassador in Seoul and also a brother of Prime
Minister Tigran Sargsyan, as well as Romik Harutyunyan, deputy head of
the National Security Service. There have been no official explanations
of the dismissals.

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.

Armen Karapetyan is a freelance journalist in Armenia.

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