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Armenian Defence Minister Makes Election Move

Serzh Sarkisian’s elevation to a leading post in the governing party seen as the first shot in the election campaign.
By Diana Markosyan
The recent congress of the Republican Party, the leading member of Armenia’s governing coalition, saw the second most powerful man in the country, defence minister Serzh Sarkisian, elected chairman of the party’s board.



On one level the move meant very little, as Sarkisian has been working closely with the party for years. But he formally joined the Republicans only a week before the meeting, and his elevation is widely being seen as the party’s first move to win next year’s parliamentary elections - and perhaps also an opening bid by Sarkisian to run for the presidency in 2008.



The congress also re-elected Prime Minister Andranik Margarian as party chairman.



Sarkisian has been a close associate of President Robert Kocharian for more than 20 years, since the days when they both worked in Communist youth league or Komsomol in Nagorny Karabakh in Soviet times. He has served as Armenian defence minister twice, most recently since May 2000.



The Armenian constitution prohibits Kocharian from running for a third term when his term expires in 2008, leaving Sarkisian a leading contender to replace him.



However, many opposition politicians and analysts say it is inappropriate for the country’s defence minister to be associated with one political party. Several observers pointed out that the previous defence minister, career officer General Vagharshak Harutyunian, was dismissed in 2000 on the grounds that he was too engaged in politics.



“Of course, Serzh Sarkisian has a right to engage in politics actively, it’s his civil right under the constitution,” said political analyst Stepan Grigorian. “But if that happens, he should leave his defence post.”



Asked by IWPR whether he was contravening the constitutional requirement that “the army should have no party allegiances and be neutral”, Sarkisian said, “It’s true the law says that the army belongs to no party and is neutral, but my being chairman of the board does not introduce any new element.



“What’s the difference, when I’ve been collaborating with the Republican Party for some time and was second on the party’s list in the last parliamentary election? Nothing has changed, the only difference being that this entire process has now been officially registered.”



On the possibility that he might be positioning himself to replace Kocharian, Sarkisian insisted, “My friends can testify that I have never had the ambition to be president.”



Sarkisian has never admitted an interest in becoming Armenia’s next president, although his name is frequently mentioned as a contender.



The Republican Party congress also saw many businessman, government officials, regional governors and the mayor of Yerevan join the party, strengthening its reputation as the party of power. Several deputies from the People’s Party group in parliament, who are for the most part businessmen, also joined up.



Tigran Torosian, the speaker of parliament and deputy chairman of the party’s ruling board, said the strengthening of his party was a positive development. “Political life in Armenia is becoming more mature, though not as quickly as one would like,” he said.



Torosian was happy to agree that joining the Republican Party was now seen as a route to high office in Armenia.



Critics say this trend as a setback for democracy.



“The Republican Party has concentrated its security resources in the person of the defence minister, its financial resources are represented by oligarchs and its administrative resources [allowing it to influence elections] are held by leaders of local government and ministers,” said Grigorian.



“These people are uniting not around some idea, but around an aspiration to keep power, which is a very dangerous scenario,” opposition leader and former defence minister Vazgen Manukian told IWPR.



Political analyst Aghasi Yenokian warned, “After the special congress of the Republican Party, Armenia is moving towards a one-party system. A strong party has been created - so strong that no other pro-government party will want to oppose or rival it.



“The opposition has its own particular characteristics – it’s quite malleable and associates itself with certain figures in power – so it won’t want to pit itself against [the Republican Party] either.”



The Republican Party is not, however, the only pro-government political force. A new party, Bargavach Haiastan (Prosperous Armenia), set up by top businessman Gagik Tsarukian, has widely been seen as a support base for President Kocharian for his last two years in office.



There is some tension between the two parties. Bargavach Haiastan has been registered for three years, but has not yet held a founding congress. This drew some denigrating comments from Sarkisian and other Republican leaders, to the effect that their rivals could not yet consider themselves a proper party.



Tsarukian was among a handful of outsiders asked to attend the Republican congress, but he did not take up the invitation.



Manukian said the activation of these two pro-government parties should serve as a wake-up call for the opposition. He predicted that the two could expect to win 30 to 40 per cent of the vote, and said the opposition needed to consolidate in order to maximise its appeal in next year’s parliamentary election.



Diana Markosian is a correspondent for А1+ television in Yerevan.

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