By Atom Markarian
The Armenian government had an easy ride in trying to push its draft budget for next year through the parliament on Wednesday, with only a handful of opposition lawmakers speaking out against its passage.
The National Assembly took less than two days to debate the proposed spending bill and will likely pass it later this week. The government has until Saturday to consider amendments suggested by parliament factions and individual deputies.
Finance and Economy Minister Vartan Khachatrian made it clear that there will be no major changes in the 2003 budgetary targets before the voting.
The budget, drafted by the Finance Ministry, projects 334 billion drams ($580 million) in net expenditures and 287 billion drams in revenues or about 30 percent more than this year. It has been largely been endorsed by the main pro-presidential factions that hold the majority of seats in the parliament.
“The budget has an overall social orientation,” the deputy speaker, Tigran Torosian, said, pointing to government plans to raise the extremely low public sector wages.
Other pro-government factions were less categorical though. Martun Matevosian, a senior member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), said the center-left party has “some reservations.” He said Dashnaktsutyun is opposed, in particular, to the cabinet’s intention to more than double the salaries of the most high-ranking government officials, including the president of the republic. The funds earmarked for the suggested pay increase should instead be allocated to social programs, Matevosian added.
Wednesday’s budget debates were unusually calm, with only two deputies taking the floor after brief judgements made by the chairmen of the parliament’s standing committees.
“There is nothing significant in this budget,” said Norik Petrosian, a Communist lawmaker. “It will not boost science and education or raise pensions significantly. Therefore, we can not vote for it.”
The Communists were among those deputies who called for increasing the official minimum salary from 5,000 drams ($9) to 20,000 drams. The government rejected them out of hand. “That would require an additional 16 or 17 billion drams which we do not have,” Khachatrian argued, adding that his ministry will only consider raising the minimum salary to 8,000 in the course of next year.
Some deputies and economic analysts are skeptical about the government’s pledge to boost its tax revenues by 26 billion drams in 2003. On Tuesday, the parliament approved in the first reading a government bill aimed at toughening administrative sanctions against tax evasion.