By Hrach Melkumian
Armenia's diverse but increasingly consolidating opposition trumpeted on Friday the first step toward an agreement on fielding a single presidential candidate capable of defeating President Robert Kocharian in the February election.
The announcement followed several days of intensive negotiation among about two dozen parties representing the country's virtually entire opposition spectrum. The talks resulted late on Thursday in the creation of a loose multi-party coalition which opposition leaders hope will develop into an electoral alliance.
"This grouping is meant to transform into an electoral alliance and participate in the presidential elections with a joint candidate and platform," reads a declaration signed by 14 different parties. Among them are opposition heavyweights like the People's Party (HZhK), Hanrapetutyun, National Accord, the Communists and the National Democratic Union (AZhM). Two more groups will likely sign it later this week.
The declaration is expected to be officially released next week. It was leaked to RFE/RL on Friday.
The document says the opposition parties will engage in "joint political activities" and create "coordinating bodies." It also pledges "resolute" efforts to prevent vote rigging by the authorities. "Neglecting the interests of the state and the people, the ruling regime is today concerned with only one thing: to retain and reproduce its power at any cost," it charges.
A senior member of the National Accord party, Aleksan Karapetian, told RFE/RL that the opposition will "soon" start discussing possible presidential candidacies. He said the agreement "will not be late in coming."
But neither Karapetian, nor HZhK leader Stepan Demirchian left any indication on who might be chosen to represent the opposition in the February showdown. "It makes no sense to talk about a single candidate at this point," Demirchian told reporters.
Among the likely challengers of Kocharian are Demirchian, National Accord leader Artashes Geghamian and the AZhM's Vazgen Manukian. Armen Sarkisian, the London-based former prime minister, is also an object of speculation.
Kocharian, meanwhile, marked his 48th birthday on Friday, receiving congratulations from Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, parliament speaker Armen Khachatrian and other officials. No official ceremonies dedicated to the occasion were reported.