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Armenia elects new, less powerful president

March 2, 2018

Armenian lawmakers have voted in a former Cambridge professor and envoy to the UK as the next head of state. The opposition is worried, however, that the departing president will find a way to stay in power.

Armenia's new president Armen Sargsyan
Armenia's president-elect, Armen SargsyanImage: Getty Images/AFP/K. Minasyan

The Armenian parliament elected Armen Sarkissian – the only candidate considered by lawmakers on Friday – as its next president. The 64-year-old diplomat is set to take over after the current president Serzh Sargsyan steps down later this month.

Armen Sarkissian previously taught physics at Cambridge University, served three terms as Armenia's ambassador to the UK and filled other key diplomatic posts across Europe.

The president-elect's last name is highly reminiscent of the strongman Serzh Sargsyan, and sometimes even spelled the same in English.

Addressing the lawmakers after the Friday vote, Armen Sarkissian said he would use "all his knowledge and experience" to serve Armenia.

"I expect your contribution and participation, as well as contribution and participation of all citizens in the import victories of the future," he said.

Slipping presidential powers

The new president is set to see his powers severely limited as the country implements a controversial constitutional reform in April. Under the reform initiated in 2015, the nation will transfer key elements of presidential authority to the prime minister, including the command of the army and the oversight of the security apparatus.

The new president, who is set to stay in office for the next seven years, seems set to be reduced to a figurehead.

Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan at a 2017 Brussels summit
President Serzh Sargsyan is described as pro-MoscowImage: picture alliance/AP Photo

The ruling party of Serzh Sargsyan has defended the changes as a way to boost democracy and improve the division of powers among the branches of government. The party says the constitutional amendments will grant more "levers" to the opposition.

Read more: Armenians vote in divisive referendum

Old leader to stay on?

The government opponents, however, claim the reform is simply aimed at allowing President Serzh Sargsyan to maintain power by switching to the post of prime minister. They also accuse the government of influencing the outcome of the 2015 referendum that ushered in the reform.

Serzh Sargsyan has hinted he would "remain active" politically after stepping down.

The current leader is a former military officer who served as prime minister from 2007-2008, before winning his first term as president. Some of his supporters say he would be the best candidate to return to the post, praising his experience in navigating the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Azerbaijan.

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dj/kms (AFP, Reuters, AP, Interfax)