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By Ruzanna Stepanian
Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian pointedly declined on Thursday to refute reports that he is about to join Prime Minister Andranik Markarian’s Republican Party (HHK) as part of his reputed plans to become Armenia’s next president.

Reports in the Armenian press this week said the far-reaching move will be announced at an HHK congress scheduled for July 22. Unnamed Republican sources were cited as claiming that Sarkisian will co-chair the party and top its list of candidates for next year’s parliamentary elections.

“I am not familiar with such statements,” Sarkisian told reporters. “There may be such opinions. I think everything will be clear in the next seven or ten days.”

“I neither confirm nor rule out [membership in the HHK]. You see how the process is unfolding and, again, you will receive a definite answer in seven or ten days,” he said.

Sarkisian, who had already participated in the last parliamentary elections on the HHK ticket, promised earlier to name the party with which he will contest the 2007 polls at the beginning of this year. However, he has repeatedly delayed announcement of that decision, prompting speculation that he is having second thoughts about forming a long-term political alliance with Armenia’s largest and most influential governing faction.

A number of senior central an d local government officials as well as wealthy businessmen have joined the HHK in recent days, suggesting that the powerful defense chief has already made up his mind. The Yerevan newspaper “168 Zham” reported on Thursday that a recently formed party reputedly sponsored by Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian will soon merge with the HHK in a further boost to its electoral chances.

Sarkisian has stated before that his participation in the next Armenian presidential election, due in 2008, depends on the outcome of the 2007 vote, indicating that he needs a serious staging post to make a widely expected bid to succeed President Robert Kocharian. Some analysts believe that he intends to become prime minister a year before the presidential ballot.

Sarkisian stopped short of denying this too. “We will participate in the National Assembly elections and the elections will show which political force must to what,” he said.

The HHK’s strengthening should be cause for concern for at least one other pro-establishment group set up by one of Armenia’s richest men, Gagik Tsarukian, earlier this year. The extremely ambitious party called Prosperous Armenia reportedly intends to win a majority in the next Armenian parliament and has been busy setting up branches and recruiting members across the country in the last few months. An Armenian lawmaker privy to government affairs said last month that Prosperous Armenia’s main mission is to serve as a support base for Kocharian after his resignation.

(Photolur photo)
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