By Hrach Melkumian
President Robert Kocharian claimed on Friday to have fulfilled his pledge to create 40,000 new jobs in unemployment-stricken Armenia over the past year. He also threatened to dissolve the parliament if it fails to endorse his version of constitutional reform.
Speaking at a rare news conference, Kocharian unveiled a panoply of official data showing that the rapidly growing Armenian economy has generated at least 42,000 new jobs since November 2000. Nearly half of them have been created in the manufacturing and construction sectors, according to the figures.
Kocharian gave the pledge in a televised address to the nation on November 3 last year as he sought to mitigate public discontent with wrenching living conditions. The move followed a series of nationwide anti-government rallies organized by Arkady Vartanian, an Armenian-born millionaire businessman from Russia. Tens of thousands of people attended the protests. Vartanian left Armenia earlier this year after spending several months in jail for allegedly calling for a “violent overthrow” of the president.
Kocharian assured Armenians at the time that they “will feel substantial change” in the economic situation by next May, saying that continued political stability is vital for betterment. His Friday meeting with journalists was meant to be serve as a vindication of his policies.
“We have made every effort to present credible figures to you and to enable you to check them,” Kocharian said.
Minister of Trade and Industry Karen Chshmaritian was on hand to do most of the presentation with slides featuring various tables and charts. The unveiled government claims to document virtually every new job created in Armenia during the period in question. It lists the names of those enterprises across the country that have sprung up or expanded since November 2000.
The data was collected by several government agencies in Yerevan and local government bodies. The total numbers of jobs reported by them largely coincide. However, a breakdown of the employment figures based on the country regions and the sectors of the economy reveals some sharp discrepancies.
According to the Yerevan municipality, for example, some 4300 new jobs have been created in the Armenian capital since September 2001. But the ministry of social security puts the number at more than 16,000.
Some opposition politicians have alleged before that Kocharian plans to falsify the data to save his prestige and defend his track record. The leader of the opposition National Unity party, Artashes Geghamian, claimed that as many as 160,000 people have become unemployed under the current authorities.
Kocharian dismissed Geghamian’s figure, saying that it was “taken from thin air” and does not reflect the continuing economic growth. The authorities say that Armenia’s GDP grew at a record-high rate of 9.6 percent in the first ten months of this year.
The Armenian leader touched on another major issue affecting his presidency: the planned reform of the 1995 constitution. Kocharian indicated that the parliament, which has begun discussing the matter, will face dissolution unless it fully supports his package of draft constitutional amendments. He spoke out strongly against an alternative constitution drafted by leading opposition parties that want to transform Armenia into a parliamentary republic.
Kocharian’s amendments would somewhat curtail sweeping powers vested in the office of president. Kocharian needs the parliament’s consent to put them on a referendum, which is the only legal way of changing the basic law. He categorically rejected the opposition argument that voters should be able to choose between the two options when they go to polls next year.
The opposition can force such a vote if its constitutional bill wins a two thirds majority in the parliament. Kocharian warned against such development. He said: “If they get a two thirds majority in the National Assembly, then what role will be left to me? Either the National Assembly or myself will have to go. I think that’s a very explicit formula.”