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Armenia: Talks On New Government Enter Third Week

Serzh Sarkasian speaking at a campaign rally in Yerevan earlier this month (AFP) May 31, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Almost three weeks after the May 12 parliamentary elections from which Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian's Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) emerged the clear winner with 64 of the total 131 mandates, it remains unclear which other parties will be represented in the next government.

Participants say the ongoing talks between the HHK and its junior partner in government since 2003, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD), focus not on the number of ministerial portfolios the HHD would receive, but on increasing its input into the formulation of government policy.

But the real bone of contention may be whether the HHD is prepared to support Sarkisian's candidacy in the presidential election due early next year.

Sarkisian may be reluctant to include the HHD in the new government without a binding pledge of support for his 2008 presidential bid.

In his first public comments after the release of the preliminary election returns, Sarkisian told journalists in Yerevan on May 16 that "the more political forces are included in the government, the more trusted that government will be."

He added, without elaboration, "we are ready to cooperate with any political force, with any individual."

What Kind Of Coalition?

Meeting with election observers one week later, he repeated that the HHK is ready "to draw capable parliamentary and extra-parliamentary forces into the government," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. But at least one senior HHK member has said the new government will not be a coalition in the classic sense of the word.

Tentative talks on the composition of the new cabinet took place on May 18, according to the opposition newspaper "Hayk" that has ties to former President Levon Ter-Petrossian's Armenian Pan-National Movement. How many subsequent rounds of talks have taken place is unclear.

Sarkisian told journalists on May 28 that "negotiations are still going on" with the HHD, which has 16 parliament mandates, and the Bargavach Hayastan (Prosperous Armenia, BH) party headed by wealthy businessman Gagik Tsarukian, which is the second-largest parliament faction with 25 mandates.

Two top HHD members, Armen Rustamian and Hrant Markarian, similarly told journalists after a two-hour meeting on May 30 with President Robert Kocharian that negotiations on forming a new government are continuing. Rustamian confirmed that "we have not yet reached agreement on a number of issues."

Sticking Points Remain

Media reports have generally attributed the delay in reaching agreement on the new cabinet on imputed disagreements over which party should obtain how many, and which, ministerial portfolios, with some analysts suggesting that the sticking point is the HHD's desire to increase the number of ministerial posts it controls, possibly by acquiring the defense portfolio.

In the outgoing government, the HHD headed the ministries of Agriculture, Education, Health Care, and Social Welfare. Under the Armenian Constitution, however, it is the prerogative of the president, not the prime minister, to name the ministers of defense and foreign affairs. And some observers have pointed out that Russia is likely to object to the appointment as defense minister of anyone whose pro-Moscow credentials are perceived to be less than impeccable.

Outgoing Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, who has served in that post since April 1998, told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on May 28 that he has not yet received an invitation to join the new government.

On May 23, Rustamian said the HHD received "various kinds of offers" of ministerial posts, but declined to be more specific. He said a decision would be made "very soon." One week later, on May 30, Rustamian denied that the disagreements between the HHK and the HHD center on specific ministerial posts. What is at issue, he said, is the HHD's "new proposals and approaches" to the functioning of the new government.

In an interview the previous day with RFE/RL's Armenian Service, Markarian similarly denied the HHD has already accepted an offer of three ministerial portfolios, and explained that the "negotiations center on more important issues."

He said the HHD cannot be "bribed by a few portfolios to join a government as an appendage," but will agree to enter a putative coalition only after "ascertaining policies, rights, and responsibilities." Markarian further denied explicitly that the HHD is insisting on naming the new defense minister.

Looking Toward The Presidency

But the most likely explanation for the protracted delay in forming a new government is Sarkisian's recent public confirmation that he intends to run for president in the ballot due in early 2008. The Armenian Constitution bars incumbent President Kocharian from seeking a third consecutive term. On May 29, Markarian said the HHD is reluctant to commit its members to supporting Sarkisian's candidacy, but he declined to say whether the party plans to field its own candidate.

On May 30, Rustamian said that he and Markarian did not discuss the 2008 presidential ballot during their meeting with Kocharian, and that the HHD will nominate its own presidential candidate.

"That also means retaining our political independence," he said. "That is the most important thing for any political force."

But Sarkisian, for his part, may be reluctant to include the HHD in the new government without a binding pledge of support for his presidential bid.

BH has not yet made any public statement about joining the new government, while a member of the Zharangutiun (Heritage) party headed by U.S.-born former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian told Noyan Tapan on May 22 that the party has not yet been invited to join talks on forming a new cabinet.

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

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