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By Ruzanna Khachatrian and Ruzanna Stepanian
Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian said next year’s parliamentary elections will be the “best” in Armenia’s history as he officially became the number two figure in the governing Republican Party (HHK) at the weekend.

“I think that 2007 will see the best elections that have ever been held in the republic’s territory,” Sarkisian said. Asked by a reporter to explain reasons for his optimism, he replied: “Because I will strive for that, because all the prerequisites are in place.”

Sarkisian made the remarks at a news conference that followed a one-day congress of the HHK which formalized the party’s strategic alliance with Armenia’s second most powerful man who is believed to harbor presidential ambitions.

Opposition leaders are certain to scoff at the pledge not least because Armenian officials had given such promises in the past but failed to honor them, with virtually every national election held in the country since independence criticized as undemocratic by Western observers. They regard Sarkisian as the main mastermind of serious fraud reported during the last presidential and parliamentary elections in 2003. The powerful minister managed President Robert Kocharian’s reelection campaign at the time.

But Sarkisian made it clear that he does not think the previous Armenian elections were deeply flawed. “The best means better than good,” he said. “That is, things were good and will get even better. For during every election [Western] observers concluded that it was a step forward from the previous election. But of course there were shortcomings.”

According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe, those shortcomings were serious enough to make the Armenian elections fall short of democratic standards.

Sarkisian is now seen as Kocharian’s most likely successor, having secured the backing of the HHK, Armenia’s largest governing party headed by Prime Minister Andranik Markarian. Some 700 delegates attending the HHK congress, among them scores of senior government officials, unanimously elected him as the party’s first vice-chairman. He will also head the party’s new 70-strong governing council that will comprise some of the wealthy government-connected businessmen that joined the HHK after it teamed up with Sarkisian. Those include Karen Karapetian, the leader of the second largest group in Armenia’s current parliament, and millionaire businessman Harutiun Pambukian.

Addressing the congress, Sarkisian portrayed the HHK as a force capable of bringing long-term stability and prosperity to Armenia. “I will do everything to ensure that we prevail in this struggle as well,” he said.

“I am confident that there have emerged new opportunities to jointly achieve our objectives,” Markarian said for his part. “I am confident that all of our party comrades are able to assist in that.”

Speaking at the ensued press conference, both men were at pains to dispel the widely held belief that Sarkisian is now the party’s de facto top leader. “I can only be considered one of the leaders of the Republican Party,” said Sarkisian.

Hasmik Navasardian, the widow of the HHK’s late founder Ashot Navasardian, hoped that this will be the case. “I hope that Andranik Markarian will not cede his positions,” she told RFE/RL. “Serzh Sarkisian and Andranik Markarian must cooperate or risk angering God.”

Sarkisian’s affiliation with the HHK and the resulting influx of more influential individuals into the party have raised fears that the Republicans will try to achieve a landslide victory in the 2007 elections at any cost. In an interview with RFE/RL late last week, Sarkisian implicitly denied this, saying that even garnering 25 percent of the vote would be a “good” result for his party. He also claimed to have not yet decided whether to contest the presidential election due in 2008. He had indicated earlier that his decision depends on the outcome of the parliamentary vote.

The Republican congress was also marked by the conspicuous absence of Gagik Tsarukian, a influential tycoon close to Kocharian who set up recently a party widely seen as a counterweight to the HHK. Organizers said Tsarukian was invited to attend the gathering along with other guests. His failure to show up stoked rumors that Kocharian is not quite happy with the HHK’s strengthening.

The HHK’s junior coalition partner, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), also appears to be less than enthusiastic about the latest political developments. Spartak Seyranian, a Dashnaktsutyun spokesman, implicitly referred to the new Republican recruits as opportunists who frequently switch sides. “There is a certain stratum that usually decides its [political] orientation in advance of elections,” he told RFE/RL. “I therefore don’t see anything extraordinary happening now.”

Seyranian also claimed that Dashnaktsutyun is not worried that Sarkisian might use the Armenian military for electoral purposes. “I think that our political capacities and levers will allows us to ensure the objectivity of any electoral process. Dashnaktsutyun has the necessary will to do that,” he said.

A senior member of former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian’s Orinats Yerkir party, which was squeezed out of the governing coalition in May, said the HHK is being bolstered by government factions keen to “reproduce themselves. “Some forces are trying to act in new uniforms, hoping that they won’t be recognized,” Heghine Bisharian said in an apparent jibe at Sarkisian and his inner circle. “But they are badly mistaken.”

“That congress had nothing to do with the Republican Party as its sole purpose was to prolong the rule of President Kocharian and Serzh Sarkisian,” claimed Artashes Geghamian, the leader of the opposition National Unity Party.

(Photolur photo: Sarkisian, left, and Minister for Local Government Hovik Abrahamian applaud during the congress.)
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