By Hrach Melkumian and Ruzanna Khachatrian
Opposition leader Stepan Demirchian denounced on Thursday the government’s decision to transfer five state-run enterprises, including the Mars electronics plant managed by him, to Russia in payment for Armenia’s $100 million debt.
Demirchian, who will likely be one of President Robert Kocharian’s main election challengers next February, said the debt settlement will not promote bilateral economic ties as was claimed by Russian and Armenian officials who signed it in Yerevan on Tuesday.
“I think it is wrong to portray the equities-for-debt agreement as a brilliant example of [Russian-Armenian] cooperation,” he told RFE/RL in an interview. “The deal will be more justified if, as a result of it, those enterprises create more jobs and operate more effectively. Unfortunately, there are no such guarantees as yet.”
Demirchian complained that the government did not consult with him and the factory’s personnel when it decided to include Mars in the list of Armenian assets handed over to Russia. “Even the Ministry of Industry wasn’t aware of what is going on,” he said.
Mars was built and equipped in the late 1980s by a British electronics firm which was paid more than $300 million worth of hard currency by the Soviet government. Left without orders and markets following the ensued collapse of the Soviet Union, the state-of-the-arts Yerevan factory has largely stood idle for much of the past decade. Several government attempts to privatize it in the 1990s failed.
The Russian government has thus become the sole owner of Mars as well as the thermal power plant in Hrazdan and three research institutes.
Leaders of the pro-Kocharian majority in the Armenian parliament predicted on Thursday that the National Assembly will overwhelmingly ratify the agreement, signed during Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov’s visit to Armenia. Only one pro-presidential faction, Orinats Yerkir, voiced reservations about the deal -- the first in its kind between Russia and another former Soviet republic.
Demirchian’s arguments were endorsed by Shavarsh Kocharian, chairman of the parliament committee on science and education and a prominent opposition figure. Kocharian claimed that Russia has demonstrated that it does not treat Armenia as an equal partner. “A real friend won’t come to your home and take away your property in payment for your debt,” he told reporters.
But two other major opposition groups, the National Unity and Communist parties came out in support of the agreement. “This was the least of evils,” said Frunze Kharatian, the Communist parliamentary leader. “It’s better to give that property to the Russians than to somebody else.”