By Atom Markarian
The Armenian government claimed further improvement in the difficult socioeconomic situation, announcing on Wednesday that robust economic growth continued unabated in the third quarter of this year.
According to statistical data released by the Ministry of Industry and Economic Development, Armenia's Gross Domestic Product soared by 11 percent in the first nine months of 2002, boosted by an even bigger jump in industrial production. They show the country's huge trade deficit continuing to fall for the second consecutive year, with exports up 46 percent from the same period last year.
A ministry statement said the high GDP growth rate was largely the result of a 23 percent surge in industrial output, which in turn was made possible by an unprecedented upswing in the mining and diamond sectors -- Armenia's main export oriented industries.
The diamond-cutting enterprises, mainly owned by foreign investors, are said to have almost doubled their production to 62.2 billion drams ($110 million) from January through September. This is more than the combined 47 billion-dram output of the Armenian manufacturers of non-ferrous metals and construction materials.
By contrast, most other Soviet-era industries, which used to be the backbone of the Armenian economy, remained stagnant, producing only 3.5 billion drams worth of various machines and industrial equipment in January-September.
Strong performance was again registered in the construction sector, which expanded by 33 percent. Multimillion-dollar road and infrastructure projects funded by the Lincy Foundation of U.S. billionaire Kirk Kerkorian appear to have accounted for much of the gain.
In another major development, Armenia's exports reached $355.4 million during the period in question -- up from $342 million registered during the whole of 2001. But despite the improving trade balance, there has been little positive change in the structure of the exports, with cut diamonds remaining their single largest item.
Presenting the latest official figures, Industry Minister Karen Chshmaritian said economic growth will not slow in the remaining months of the year and in the course of 2003. The International Monetary Fund, however, forecast lower growth rates in its recent World Economic Outlook. The IMF said Armenian growth will stand at 7.5 percent and 6 percent in 2002 and 2003 respectively.
Chshmaritian said next year's presidential and parliamentary elections will not have a negative impact on economic activity. "Over the last three years we have created such a base and our private sector has grown so much integrated into the economy that the elections can not have major effects on economic growth," he told reporters.
Chshmaritian also claimed that the continuing growth has translated into more than 30,000 new jobs since the beginning of the year, further reducing Armenia's huge unemployment.
The latest macroeconomic data are bound to be challenged by the opposition which accuses President Robert Kocharian and the government of increasingly falsifying official statistics to boost their chances in the 2003 elections.