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Armenia: New Cabinet Named

Yerevan, 16 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Armenian President Robert Kocharian late yesterday announced the composition of the country's new government four days after naming defense chief Vazgen Sarkisian as prime minister.

Nine ministers from the previous cabinet kept their jobs, one minister changed his portfolio, and another one had his agency radically restructured. The previous prime minister, Armen Darpinian, will serve as economics minister. The remaining 12 cabinet members are newcomers, some of whom held lower-ranking government posts.

Sarkisian and Armenia's longtime Soviet-era leader Karen Demirchian are the leaders of the Miasnutyun alliance that swept to a landslide victory in the May 30 parliamentary elections. The bloc controls the majority of seats in the new parliament, which elected Demirchian as its speaker last week.

In a dramatic step, Kocharian split in two the powerful ministry of interior and national security, until now headed by one of his closest allies, Serzh Sarkisian (no relation to Vazgen Sarkisian). Serzh Sarkisian was left in control of the new national security ministry (the former KGB). The interior ministry was given to Yerevan Mayor Suren Abrahamian, who is allied with the prime minister. An army general will succeed Vazgen Sarkisian in the post of defense minister.

Also separated was the ministry of finance and economics. Levon Barkhudarian -- a one-time finance minister -- was re-appointed to the post by the presidential decree.

Former parliament speaker Khosrov Harutiunian -- who failed to get into the new National Assembly -- became minister of industry and trade. Most of the cabinet members have close ties with Prime Minister Sarkisian. By contrast, none of the new ministers is known to be closely associated with Demirchian.

The popularity of Demirchian -- the republic's Soviet-era Communist leader -- was key to Miasnutyun's success. The bloc campaigned with a promise of sweeping policy changes toward greater state support of industry and more social programs. However, the presence of liberal economists in the Sarkisian government suggests that little will change in the tight macro-economic policies pursued by Yerevan since 1994. World Bank officials have said Armenia is unlikely to divert from the path of economic reform.

Sarkisian is due to submit his government's program to parliament on Friday. The absence of a vote of no-confidence will amount to its automatic approval.

The Armenian constitution gives sweeping powers to the country's president. But the new prime minister -- whose supporters already control many local administrations -- is expected to be more independent than his seven post-Soviet predecessors.

The 40-year-old Sarkisian is one of the most powerful men in Armenia. A former fiction writer, he rose to prominence in the early 1990s with the beginning of the war with Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. In 1992, he became independent Armenia's first defense minister.

Sarkisian played a key role in the forced resignation of former president Levon Ter-Petrossian in February of last year. Some analysts have speculated that his growing influence may eventually put him at odds with President Kocharian.

Still, Kocharian will at least remain in full control of foreign policy, with Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian -- a former U.S. citizen -- keeping his job. This means that major changes in Yerevan's foreign policy -- and Armenia's position on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in particular -- are unlikely.

In another major development, the number of ministerial portfolios controlled by the nationalist Dashnaktsutyun party -- a key ally of President Kocharian -- was reduced from two to one. The move may reflect the party's worse-than-expected performance in the elections.

No other parties will be represented in the Sarkisian government.

The new government has the daunting task of making good on Miasnutyun's lavish campaign promises. Widespread public expectations of a rapid improvement in living standards, associated with Demirchian's return to power, will keep it under strong pressure.