TSAGHKADZOR, Armenia -- President Serzh Sarkisian has dismissed the suggestion that he won't be facing any true competition in Armenia's presidential election next month, adding that "nurturing" rivals is not the government's job.
Sarkisian made the comment in an exclusive interview with RFE/RL’s Armenian Service in the resort town of Tsaghkadzor, near the capital, Yerevan.
The government, the leader of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia insisted, is rather responsible for creating a fair electoral environment.
“I don’t agree with those who say that there are no strong competitors or people who could poll a significant number of votes," Sarkisian said. "And who has said that [former Foreign Minister] Raffi Hovannisian, [former Prime Minister] Hrant Bagratian, or [Soviet-era dissident] Paruyr Hayrikian, who have merits and a track record, are easier competitors or have less experience in debating or in speaking in public?”
FULL INTERVIEW: A Conversation With President Serzh Sarkisian
Sarkisian is running for a second five-year term in the February 18 election.
He faces challenges from Hovannisian, Bagratian, Hayrikian, and four other candidates. All have been publicly critical of Sarkisian’s leadership.
Sarkisian insisted that he has never considered election candidates -- past or present -- to be adversaries, but said he has always regarded them as competitors.
“Our struggle has always been in favor of something," Sarkisian told RFE/RL. "We have always competed for our ideas to be supported rather than trying to expose the mistakes or weak points of others. In this sense, the upcoming election will be no exception.”
The view that Sarkisian's election victory is a foregone conclusion has spead in Armenia since major opposition groups announced in late 2012 that they would not field presidential candidates.
The largest opposition bloc, the Armenian National Congress (HAK), and the Prosperous Armenia (BHK) party said they would not contest the election with their own candidates and would not support any of the contenders.
Another opposition party, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), made a similar announcement.
The HAK and Dashnaktsutyun explained their decisions by saying the government has failed to provide a level playing field for all candidates. The BHK has not officially elaborated on its stance.
None of the three movements, however, has explicitly called for a boycott of the vote.
Sarkisian also discussed the continued standoff with neighboring rival Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, the source of a bitter armed conflict between the two countries in the late 1980s and early '90s. The Armenian president expressed hope the territory's final status could soon be resolved but accused Baku of losing a "sense of reality" over the issue.
Sarkisian said, despite Armenia's struggling economy, Yerevan would continue to strengthen its armed forces in the face of military threats from Azerbaijan.
"We should always be prepared to defend our people," he said, but added Armenia was already ready to continue negotiations "because the alternative is war."
The Armenian leader went on to discuss the 100-year anniversary, in 2015, of the start of the massacre of Armenians by Ottoman-era Turks, a campaign commonly referred to by Armenians as genocide. Sarkisian said Armenia's goal "is for the Turks to admit the Armenian genocide. I am convinced it will happen."
Sarkisian also acknowledged that Armenia is continuing to lose tens of thousands of people a year because of economic migration. As many as 55,000 Armenians acquired Russian citizenship in 2009, and 20,000 Armenians have become American citizens in the past decade -- a situation the president called "perhaps the biggest of all the problems we face."
"We don't lose them," he said. "Yes, perhaps some small part of them is lost...But in the main they remain Armenians, but unfortunately work for the enhancement of other countries, other economies."
Harry Tamrazian is the director of RFE/RL's Armenian Service