By Hrach Melkumian, Armen Dulian and Ruzanna Khachatrian
Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian said on Thursday that President Robert Kocharian does not object to his far-reaching alliance with Armenia’s largest governing party and claimed to have not yet decided whether to run for president in 2008.
In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL, he also endorsed a compromise solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict favored by international mediators.
Asked whether he thinks he could be sacked by Kocharian for joining the Republican Party (HHK) of Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, Sarkisian replied: “How can I rule out the possibility of the president dismissing me when he is the supreme commander-in-chief [of the armed forces] and can do that with a single signature?”
“But I rule out his doing so in connection with [my affiliation with the HHK] because the president of the republic has fully approved my intention,” he said. “I think there will be an occasion for him or his spokesman to speak about this. Besides, what is the use of taking steps contradicting the opinion of the supreme commander-in-chief?”
Many Armenian politicians, analysts and media commentators are convinced that Sarkisian’s decision align himself with the HHK does not sit well with Kocharian who is widely expected to resign after completing his second term in office in early 2008. They say the recent creation of an extremely ambitious party by an influential tycoon close to Kocharian is part of his efforts to contain the HHK and secure his own political future. They also claim that Kocharian does not necessarily back Sarkisian’s reputed presidential ambitions, despite having closely cooperated with the powerful defense minister for nearly two decades.
Sarkisian insisted, however, that he is still not sure he wants to be Armenia’s next president. “It’s hard to tell. Really hard,” he said. “Probably because I haven’t seriously thought about that. I am being frank, believe it or not.”
“I will make the decision after the  parliamentary elections. I can only say one thing: I have never aspired to any post. All of my friends are aware of this,” he added.
Speaking to RFE/RL late Wednesday, Markarian was likewise vague about Sarkisian’s presidential ambitions and stopped short of ruling out his own participation in the 2008 presidential ballot. “We will see in 2008,” he said.
Markarian also described as “logical” Sarkisian’s decision to join his party. “He felt that he likes the party’s ideology and program,” said the Armenian premier. “Besides, we have closely cooperated during all these years and are simply formalizing this fact.”
Sarkisian has repeatedly made it clear that the HHK’s strong showing in next year’s parliamentary elections is a necessary condition for his presidential run. This is construed by opposition leaders and other government critics as a sign that the Republicans will seek to win a parliament majority in the next National Assembly at any cost.
They boast the largest faction in the current National Assembly, controlling at least 41 of its 131 seats. Sarkisian implied on Thursday that the HHK should be happy to have as many seats in the next Armenian parliament.
“I haven’t yet discussed this topic with members and leaders of the Republican Party,” he said when asked how many parliament seats it is looking to win. “But I have decided for myself that if the Republicans win up to 21-22 percent of the vote in the elections, I will consider that satisfactory; [if they get] up to 25 percent, [I will consider that] good; [if they get] more than that [I will consider that] excellent.”
Sarkisian further agreed with the Armenian government’s overall acceptance of the most recent international plan to resolve the Karabakh conflict which calls for the holding of a referendum on Karabakh’s status after the liberation of Azerbaijani territories surrounding the disputed region. “Yes, I am in favor of the proposed principles. How can I be against something which I have said for years?”
The former wartime commander of Karabakh Armenian forces seemed to be undaunted by possible popular opposition this peace plan. “If the public has a different opinion, another political force will win a majority and pursue its policy, and that would be very good,” he said. “How can I oppose something which is to our people’s liking?”