YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–The influential Defense Minister Vazgen Sargsyan urged political opponents on Saturday to cooperate with his Republican Party of Armenia to make sure the upcoming parliamentary elections are free and fair. He also sharply denied rumors about growing differences with President Robert Kocharian–saying that his political ambitions do not go beyond his current post.
"You have no reason to mistrust us–the Yerkrapah Union and the Republican Party have never handled elections," Sargsyan announced speaking at the first congress of the Republican Party. "We assume our big share of responsibility for the elections’ cleanness. So let us sit and talk about every aspect of their handling," he urged Armenia’s other major parties.
The remarks came amid growing opposition concern about Sargsyan’s loyalists resorting to illegal means to maintain their control over most government bodies in Armenia. That concern is exacerbated by the government-controlled parliament’s expected passage of a new elections condemned as undemocratic by the opposition.
"I must make it clear that [a victory in] the upcoming elections (due in May) will not be a super-goal for the Republican Party. No election is worth splits and animosity among the people," Sargsyan said. He went on to claim that frequent elections held in Armenia’since 1995 (all marred with serious irregularities) have excessively polarized the society. He said the resulting bickering among leading political parties has in turn led to protracted internal strife and "desperation" among ordinary Armenia’s. However–he did not propose any concrete steps to rule out election fraud–which has come to be a dominant issue in Armenian politics.
"In Armenia–elections can’t be absolutely fair because we are a small state–most people know each other and personal sympathy and antipathy are extremely significant," the defense minister said. The opposition has alleged that Sargsyan’s Yerkrapah was the main instrument behind irregularities during last year’s presidential election–which the Organization for Security and Cooperation said did not meet its standards.
Yerkrapah’s formal transformation into a political party–the Republican Party of Armenia–has led to speculations that Sargsyan sees a greater political role for himself. Yerkrapah currently holds a majority in the National Assembly–controls several ministries and most local self-government bodies. Kocharian has called the Republican Party a "reliable support base." Sargsyan on Saturday insisted that he wants to focus on his current job only.
"Robert Kocharian and myself are close friends–and I will never turn against him. Another pre-term presidential election would be destructive for this country," Sargsyan said. "I want to state it once and for all: I don’t want to be president or prime minister. I want to remain defense minister. I believe I’m a good defense minister and there is a lot of work to be done," he added.
Sargsyan further noted that his political role in the past several years has been to "stand in between the society and army" to prevent the latter’s involvement in politics. "I am against the army’s polarization–I am against the Turkish variant," he said.
"My role [in government] has been unjustly exaggerated. Neither under [the former President] Levon Ter-Petrosyan–nor under Robert Kocharian have I participated in economic and staffing policy making. I have worked with seven prime ministers and had conflicts with none of them," Sargsyan said.
In another important statement–Sargsyan dismissed as "ridiculous" claims that he played the key role in forcing ex-president Ter-Petrosyan into resignation one year ago. "If Levon Ter-Petrosyan had decided not to quit–nobody would have forced him to. I would have resigned if he had decided so." He said he still "respect[s] and appreciate[s]" Ter-Petrosyan–who he described as a "wise and moral person."
Sargsyan’s long speech was cheered by more than one thousand Republican delegates ending their two-day congress which elected the party’s board and its chairman–parliament deputy Andranik Markarian. The defense minister will be the party’s unofficial leader. Among members of the Republican Party board are–David Zadoyan–the minister for territorial self-rule–Smbat Ayvazian–head of the government’s tax department–and Albert Bazeyan–deputy speaker of parliament.
"This party has not been set up against other parties," Sargsyan announced. He complained that many Armenia’s underestimated their "greatest and long-lasting achievemen’s over the past century" despite numerous tragic events. "We are entering the 21st century with a positive balance: an independent statehood–liberated Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) and military victories we hadn’t had for centuries."
"In reality–we are much better than we are portraying ourselves to the world. Armenia was never so close to an ultimate victory. We must draw lessons from our mistakes but we must not expose only our bad sides to the people and the world," Sargsyan said. "This movement intends to put together all the positive things accumulated over the past century–and by adding a social liberalism to these absolute values get Armenia on its feet," he added.