The Armenian Republican Party (RP) congress, held January 29-30, formally launched itself in the role of Armenia’s party of power. Originally small, the RP had recently been absorbed, and its title assumed, by the powerful Yerkrapah [Paramilitary Volunteer] Union led by Defense Minister Vazgen Sarkisian. Yerkrapah, hitherto registered as a public organization, thus acquires status as a political party, conveniently before the parliamentary elections expected in mid-year. Party leaders, for their part, gain a measure of power and influence they had never had. The pre-merger party chairman, Andranik Markarian, was elected as chairman of the new and far larger party. Yerkrapah’s dowry to the RP includes a plurality of parliamentary seats, several ministries (including the king-making Defense Ministry), and most governorships of Armenia’s administrative units (marz).
Armenian President Robert Kocharian’s message to the congress confirmed the widespread assumption that he has come to rely on Yerkrapah/RP as his main base of political support. Presidential chief of staff Aleksan Harutiunian revealed himself at the congress to be a RP member. A new electoral law, which the parliament will soon consider in the third reading, favors the RP–in that most deputies would be elected from single-mandate territorial constituencies, many of which the Yerkrapah apparatus controls (Noyan-Tapan, January 29, 30).
Originally a nationalist group, the Republican Party was created underground in Soviet Armenia by the late Ashot Navasartian. It emerged officially as a party in 1990 and joined the Republican bloc under the leadership of the Armenian Pan-National Movement, but gradually drifted apart from the governing party. Mainly concerned with Karabakh, the RP sent volunteers from Armenia proper to fight against Azerbaijan. Yerkrapah itself began as a union of former volunteers in that war.
The pre-merger RP and Yerkrapah both advocate a “strong state,” limits to privatization, and an as yet ill-defined “national ideology” based on nationalism and a military ethos. RP leaders, citing the experience of war in Karabakh, consider that “Sarkisian at that time rallied our forces on the military front; today he is trying to do the same on the political front” (Interview with RP deputy chairman Tigran Torosian in Respublika Armeniya, December 24, 1998).