By Ruzanna Khachatrian
President Robert Kocharian and the Armenian government suffered a major upset in the parliament on Thursday when they failed to push through a controversial bill on civil service. Several minority factions, which accuse Kocharian of trying to increase his already wide-ranging powers, managed to kill the bill with a concerted boycott of the vote.
The draft legislation, which aims to reform the system of public administration in Armenia, was first rejected by the parliament in February. Critics say it has since undergone few changes.
The controversy centers on a provision whereby the head of state enjoys the exclusive right to appoint all seven members of a supervisory body that would decide on all key appointments in the Armenian civil service. The People’s Party of Armenia (HZhK), a member of the governing coalition, and opposition parties argue that this would place the entire state apparatus under direct presidential control and offset proposed safeguards against arbitrary dismissal of civil servants.
But proponents of the bill believe that its passage should be the first necessary step in making government agencies work more effectively and freeing them of rampant corruption and cronyism. After two days of heated debates they lacked only several votes to have it approved by the National Assembly in the first reading.
One of the pro-government lawmakers, Orinats Yerkir party leader Artur Baghdasarian, said the draft law complicates the entry of incompetent persons into the civil service by stipulating that government appointees possess specific professional qualifications.
Also voting for the bill were deputies from the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun) and the opposition National Democratic Union (AZhM). “Power is already concentrated in the office of president,” AZhM leader Vazgen Manukian said. “No law can make things worse than they are now.”
Their opponents remained adamant, however. “What we have is a bill which aims to expand the framework of presidential authority contrary to provisions of the existing constitution,” said Frunze Kharatian of the Armenian Communist Party. Another opposition leader, Artashes Geghamian of the Right and Accord bloc, claimed that Kocharian is pressing ahead with the legislation as part of his preparations for the presidential election of 2003.
The debates have again exposed serious differences between the HZhK and its senior partner in the majority Miasnutyun bloc, Prime Minister Andranik Markarian’s Republican Party (HHK). The two nominal allies have failed to agree a common position on the issue, prompting more speculation about Miasnutyun’s inevitable collapse.
However, some HZhK legislators, including parliament speaker Armen Khachatrian and one of his deputies, Gagik Aslanian, broke ranks to support Kocharian and the Republicans. The HZhK leadership has previously ordered its deputies to vote against the bill.