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By Hrach Melkumian
Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian has cast doubt on the ability of an ambitious party set up recently by one of Armenia’s richest men to serve as the new power base of President Robert Kocharian. He also shrugged off speculation that it will be the main rival of his Republican Party (HHK) in next year’s parliamentary elections.

The Prosperous Armenia party of Gagik Tsarukian, a millionaire businessman close to President Robert Kocharian, has been busy in the last few months opening branches across Armenia and already claims to have tens of thousands of members, among them a number of prominent public figures. Some of its founding leaders have said Tsarukian aims to win the 2007 elections by capitalizing on his populist appeal, political clout and vast financial resources.

Armenian politicians and commentators have a growing sense that the party was created with Kocharian’s blessing as a counterweight to the HHK which received a massive boost this week after being joined by Sarkisian and other influential individuals. But in an interview with RFE/RL late Thursday, Sarkisian appeared to dismiss this theory, questioning Prosperous Armenia’s ability to become a political heavyweight on which Kocharian could rely.

“I am not familiar with opinions that the number one force supporting the president of the republic is Prosperous Armenia,” he said. “Prosperous Armenia is not yet a party, to begin with. To my knowledge, it has yet to hold a founding congress. Secondly, can you tell me what concrete forms has its political support for the president of the republic taken?”

“Only a political force which is truly established, which has influence on the political arena and is represented in our government bodies and the National Assembly can provide political support. If this is not the case, what political support are they talking about?” he added, expressing hope that ordinary Armenians will realize this.

Some HHK leaders, notably parliament speaker Tigran Torosian, as well as other veteran politicians fear that Prosperous Armenia will buy votes en masse in the upcoming polls. But their critics will argue that the HHK has even more cash at its disposal than Tsarukian after its alliance with Sarkisian.

Still, the defense minister indicated that the Republicans’ electoral expectations are not as big as is widely assumed. He said winning 25 percent of the vote would be a “good” result for the party officially headed by Prime Minister Andranik Markarian.

(Photolur photo: Tsarukian, right, shows Kocharian around one of his businesses.)
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