By Ruzanna Stepanian
An ambitious party created by a government-connected tycoon claimed on Tuesday to be the largest political force in Armenia, dismissing Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian’s remarks that it lacks the muscle to be President Robert Kocharian’s new power base.
In an interview with RFE/RL last week, Sarkisian said Gagik Tsarukian’s Prosperous Armenia party can not be a counterweight to the governing Republican Party (HHK) which he joined earlier this month. “Prosperous Armenia is not yet a party,” he said in what some observers interpreted as a covert warning to Kocharian not to undercut the HHK.
But a senior member of Prosperous Armenia, Vartan Vartanian, took issue with Sarkisian, claiming that the party was registered with the Justice Ministry three years ago and already has as many as 210,000 members and over 300 branches across the country. “I want to make it clear that the party exists, has a three-year history, and its [founding] congress has already been held,” he told RFE/RL.
Prosperous Armenia’s existence was officially unveiled only last January, giving rise to speculation that Kocharian, who has until now relied on the HHK and several other pro-establishment parties, is building a new support base to retain his grip on government after his anticipated resignation 2008. Sarkisian is widely thought to be planning to become Armenia’s next president, something which a growing number of local analysts say does not sit well with Kocharian.
Tsarukian’s failure to attend a weekend high-profile congress of the HHK only added to talk of an unfolding rivalry between the two political groups. Sources close to Tsarukian said earlier this year that Prosperous Armenia aims to win next year’s parliamentary election by capitalizing on the feared tycoon’s vast financial resources and government levers.
This raised fears that the party will resort to massive vote buying in a bid to have the largest faction in the next National Assembly. Vartanian, who is also deputy minister of transport and communications, sought to allay them. He revealed that Tsarukian presided on Monday over a closed-door meeting several hundred party activists and issued a stern warning to those of them who might have joined Prosperous Armenia “for money.”
“The party is not going to hand out cash. The party is not a money store,” Vartanian said, insisting that the vast majority of the party faithful have “rallied around an idea.”
The HHK, which has 30,000 members and the largest faction in the current Armenian parliament, also intends to make a strong showing in the 2007 election. Opposition parties say it can not win the vote without falsifying its results.