By Atom Markarian
The Armenian government’s plans for a drastic increase in the salaries of the most high-ranking state officials came under strong attack in the parliament on Tuesday, with many deputies rejecting them as unfair and profligate.
The controversial proposals are contained in the government’s draft budget for next year which is currently examined by the parliament standing committees. They would raise the monthly salaries of the country’s president and judges from the current $350 to about $1,000. Members of the National Assembly, if they approve the budget in its current form, will see their wages triple to roughly $700 a month.
Many of them find resented the proposed pay increase, pointing to widespread poverty and extremely low public sector incomes. “In a country where an average pensions equals just $10, a deputy has no moral right to get $700,” said Victor Dallakian, chairman of the parliament committee on legal affairs.
Dallakian and his colleagues also attacked the government’s intention to double the average monthly income of customs and tax officials $120, excluding their regular hefty bonuses. Finance and Economy Minister Vartan Khachatrian, presenting the spending bill to the lawmakers for the second consecutive bill, argued bluntly that the officials responsible for the collection of state revenues can hardly avoid corrupt practices without receiving decent wages.
“I am categorically against this approach. It is unacceptable in principle,” Dallakian said.
Another lawmaker, Mher Shahgeldian of the pro-presidential Orinats Yerkir party, warned that the proposed measure would deepen “social polarization” in Armenia where most people live below the poverty line and the official average salary is less than $50.
A deputy representing the opposition People’s Party of Armenia (HZhK), Vartan Mkrtchian, suggested that the government first equate the minimum public salary to the nationwide average. But Khachatrian rejected the proposal, saying that its implementation would require 80 billion drams ($140 million) in extra budgetary revenues.
Speaking to journalists, the minister claimed that many deputies are reluctant to accept the lavish pay increase because they are motivated by their reelection and fear a voter backlash in the elections due in May 2003. “What we suggest is ethical for both the National Assembly and the government,” he insisted, adding that the proposals are part of the government’s anti-corruption strategy.