Talks On New Cabinet Said to be Deadlocked

YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–President Robert Kocharian and Prime Minister Aram Sargsyan have agreed on who should get security portfolios in the new cabinet–but still have differences threatening to thwart agreement on its composition–a source close to the government said on Tuesday.

The well-informed source who did not want to be identified told RFE/RL that Vahan Shirkhanian–the influential minister for industrial infrastructures–is the stumbling block of the negotiations–with Kocharian firmly opposed to his continued presence in government.

A former deputy minister of defense–Shirkhanian was very close to the slain Prime Minister Vazgen Sargsyan–Aram’s elder brother. Shirkhanian was reportedly the main initiator of the defense ministry’s statement demanding the resignation of top security officials for giving gunmen–who killed the ex-premier and seven other officials–access to the parliament building. The statement addressed to Kocharian was widely interpreted as a serious challenge to the head of state.

The source said differences over Shirkhanian–who is backed by the military and the majority Unity faction in parliament–are delaying the appointment of the new cabinet. Under the Armenian constitution–government ministers are chosen by the prime minister but must be endorsed by the president.

The source also said Kocharian and Sargsyan have agreed that the powerful ministries of interior and national security should be headed by career professionals with no political connections–but gave no names. This means that one of Kocharian’s closest allies–National Security Minister Serj Sarkisian–will have to step down.

The current ministers dealing with economic issues will remain in their posts to underscore the government’s continued commitment to market reforms–the source said.

That commitment was reaffirmed by the new 38-year-old premier on Tuesday during a meeting with US Ambassador to Armenia Michael Lemmon. He said that "he will stick to the course of the Vazgen Sargsyan government–and said that course has no alternative," the government’s press service reported.

"The prime minister noted that terrorism was an unexpected novelty in Armenia. A program must be developed to combat terrorism," it said. Lemmon–for his part–was quoted as telling Sargsyan that "the US will do its best to foster economic ties between Armenia and Turkey." The slain prime minister last September asked Washington to mediate an improvement in the strained Armenian-Turkish relationship.

In another meeting–Sargsyan discussed with Russian Ambassador Anatoly Dryukov bilateral economic cooperation. Dryukov said that "Russia was and remains Armenia’s close friend and ally," according to the press service.

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