By Armen Zakarian
President Robert Kocharian revived on Tuesday his 1998 notion that Armenia must become "the most organized state" of the South Caucasus as he addressed heads of the country's local governments in a speech that signaled the start of his reelection campaign. Kocharian also told them to ensure that the upcoming local elections are democratic.
"I am sure that Armenia will be the most organized country in the region. That is my slogan," he told an emergency congress of the Union of Communities, an organization comprising most of the country's local government chiefs.
Putting his vision into the local government context, Kocharian pointed to the need to create "the best road infrastructure," adequate public utilities and an irrigation system for rural areas. He did not dwell on political and other aspects of the concept which he was fond of emphasizing in the months that followed his controversial election as president in March 1998.
Kocharian's visit to the union's gathering underscored the importance he attaches to its organizational potential. The heads of more than 900 local communities are believed to wield considerable influence on the outcome of various elections held in their constituencies. Political analysts say that Kocharian will rely on them in his bid to win a second five-year term in next February's presidential elections.
Most local bosses are loyal to the head of state. Many of them are also affiliated with Prime Minister Andranik Markarian's Republican Party (HHK). But as Tuesday's gathering demonstrated, there are also those who are unhappy with Markarian and some of his ministers.
One of the community union's leaders, Echmiadzin Mayor Yervand Aghvanian, urged Kocharian to prevent "mediocrities" from holding senior posts in the Armenian government. Aghvanian gave no names in his speech, but later criticized Markarian and Finance Minister Vartan Khachatrian.
The simmering tensions inside the organization flared up into angry bickering only moments after Kocharian and his entourage left the congress venue -- Yerevan's largest concert hall named after the late Karen Demirchian, the president's main 1998 challenger. A group of Yerevan district chiefs openly expressed their distrust in Aghvanian and other leaders of the union, accusing them of misleading the country's leadership.
In his speech, the first in many months, Kocharian also urged the community leaders to ensure the freedom and fairness of the local elections scheduled for October 20. "With free and fair elections, we must show that our entry into the Council of Europe was not part of a fashionable trend," he said.
Elections in some communities have been tainted in the past with violence and other irregularities blamed on incumbent leaders.