By Karine Kalantarian
An extraordinary war of words between two senior Armenian officials loyal to President Robert Kocharian heated up on Saturday as they traded more bitter accusations through the media.
The deputy speaker of the Armenian parliament, Gagik Aslanian, and Transport and Communications Minister Andranik Manukian used offensive language to refer to each other in an escalating row over the national telecommunications monopoly ArmenTel.
Photo: Manukian,left, at odds with Aslanian
The row was sparked earlier this week by Manukian's strongly-worded attacks on the Greek owners of ArmenTel that had just settled a dispute with the Armenian government on telephone charges. The flamboyant minister told reporters that he remains highly critical of ArmenTel's parent company, OTE, accusing it of "laundering money" in Armenia.
Justice Minister David Harutiunian, who personally negotiated the deal, publicly disagreed with Manukian, saying that the Greek firm has not been involved in illegal activities.
Aslanian, who has a reputation of an extremely cautious politician, criticized Manukian on Thursday for what he said is a behavior "discrediting the state." He said a high-ranking government official "should think about consequences before making public statements."
Manukian hit back with allegations that the vice-speaker is mired in corruption and nepotism and driven by personal revenge. In remarks carried by the "Haykakan Zhamanak" daily on Saturday, Manukian claimed that in his previous capacity as minister for state revenues he had turned down Aslanian's request to give his brother a senior job in the tax collection agency. He said he had also cracked down on an unnamed "smuggler sponsored by Aslanian."
At a news conference later in the day Aslanian rejected the allegations as "false" and went on a verbal counteroffensive questioning the minister's mental capabilities. "He is either telling lies or just doesn't realize what he is saying," the senior lawmaker charged.
The angry exchange between the two officials signals the first discord in the broad coalition of politicians and groups supporting Kocharian. Aslanian is the leader of a pro-presidential group that split from the opposition People's Party of Armenia (HZhK) last July after a failed revolt against its chairman Stepan Demirchian. The group later registered as a political party named the People's Democratic Party (ZhDK).
Manukian, who was heavily wounded in the October 1999 attack on the National Assembly, is a member of Prime Minister Andranik Markarian's Republican Party (HHK). But his relations with Markarian have reportedly cooled over the past year.