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By Emil Danielyan
Political allies of President Robert Kocharian promptly installed on Thursday the leadership of Armenia’s new parliament in the conspicuous absence of opposition lawmakers who boycotted its opening session in protest against irregularities that marred last month’s elections.

The deputies voted by 92 to 6 to elect the leader of the Orinats Yerkir party, Artur Baghdasarian, as speaker of the National Assembly. They also overwhelmingly appointed Tigran Torosian of the Republican Party (HHK) and Vahan Hovannisian of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun) as his two deputies.

The votes became a mere formality after the three parties sealed on Wednesday an agreement to form a coalition government together with Kocharian. The distribution of the top posts in the parliament was also part of the deal.

Addressing the lawmakers, Kocharian welcomed its achievement and quick implementation. “For the first time a parliamentary coalition has been formed in Armenia as a result of the elections,” he said. “The process has been quite difficult.”

“You know that I have gone through many difficulties in my life. Last week was one of the most difficult ones,” he went on.

Kocharian signed the previous night presidential decrees that appointed Orinats Yerkir and Dashnaktsutyun members to the government of HHK leader Prime Minister Andranik Markarian. Orinats Yerkir will be represented in the cabinet by Education Minister Sergo Yeritsian, Culture Minister Tamara Poghosian and Urban Development Minister Ara Aramian. The Dashnak newcomers are Social Security Minister Aghvan Vartanian, Agriculture Minister David Lokian and Health Minister Norayr Davidian.

Markarian and seven other ministers, affiliated or allied with the Republicans, retained their posts. The power-sharing deal allows Kocharian to continue to directly control the crucial ministries of defense, foreign affairs and justice.

The session began with a collective oath of allegiance to Armenia’s constitution given by the 100 or so deputies. One by one they walked onto the podium to sign the document under the watchful eyes of Kocharian who sat nearby.

It was Kocharian’s first visit to the chamber since the tense aftermath of the October 1999 shock killings of eight senior officials carried out by five gunmen. He interfered in the oath-taking ceremony at one point, asking the lawmakers to rise and shout “We swear!” They obeyed duly.

The empty seats reserved for some 25 opposition deputies affiliated with the Artarutyun (Justice) bloc and its rival National Unity party left a gaping void in the center of the main parliament hall. It was a stark reminder of the lingering tensions between supporters and opponents of Kocharian. Both opposition forces refuse to recognize the latter’s recent reelection and accuse his loyalists of falsifying the May 25 legislative elections.

The Kocharian and the majority leaders said they regret the opposition boycott and hope that it will not extend to other, regular sessions of the assembly. Striking an unusual conciliatory note, the president said: “No government can work efficiently if there is no opposition in the country. The government should feel the opposition’s breath behind its back.”

Baghdasarian likewise pledged “constructive work” with the opposition minority, while the HHK’s Torosian acknowledged that the standoff is “dangerous” because it has effectively split Armenian society. “We have to work together and our opposition colleagues should return to the parliament,” he said in his acceptance speech.

Markarian, who turned 52 on Thursday, also held out hope for easing tensions with the opposition. “I think that there will be opportunities for cooperation with both Artarutyun and National Unity in the future,” he told reporters.

The premier went on to praise National Unity’s outspoken leader, Artashes Geghamian, saying that he has met with the latter recently. “I’m very happy with the results of our meeting; it was very constructive,” he said. Markarian did not give any details, saying only that he did not offer Geghamian any government posts.

“Cooperation doesn’t mean that someone must necessarily get a government job,” Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian explained in separate comments.

Kocharian and Sarkisian are thought to be the main masterminds of the coalition agreement, the first in its kind in Armenia’s history. The powerful defense chief confirmed that he personally supported Baghdasarian’s election as parliament speaker.

The event marked a spectacular rise in Baghdasarian’s political career. The 34-year-old lawyer entered the political arena in 1995, making use of his close ties with some leaders of the then ruling Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh) party. He served as a rank-and-file legislator until he formed Orinats Yerkir and ensured its relatively successful performance in the May 1999 elections.

The party made a much stronger showing in the May 25 polls and now boasts the second largest parliament faction: 22 seats. The Republicans have 40 and the Dashnaks 11 seats. The three parties have had uneasy relations despite rallying around Kocharian’s reelection bid last winter.

Sarkisian, meanwhile, played down the differences between the coalition parties. “We can not be uniform,” Sarkisian told journalists, adding that mutual attacks by the HHK, Dashnaktsutyun and Orinats Yerkir leaders was just pre-election rhetoric.

The Dashnaks, in particular, believe that the Republicans achieved their electoral victory by fraudulent means and claim that they agreed to stay in the HHK-led government in order to maintain political stability in Armenia. “We could have stepped aside and taken an opposition stance,” one of their leaders, Armen Rustamian, told RFE/RL. “But we preferred this posture because it allows us to actively deal with pressing problems facing our people.”

In addition to the ministerial portfolios and the post of vice-speaker, Dashnaktsutyun will head the parliament committee on foreign relations. Rustamian was elected its chairman later in the day. The two other coalition parties took over two committees each.

(Photolur photo: Baghdasarian cheered by the deputies after being elected speaker.)
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