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By Atom Markarian
Armenia’s newly formed ruling coalition unveiled on Tuesday an ambitious four-year plan of action that pledges increased government spending and a sharp rise in public sector wages and retirement benefits.

Ministers representing President Robert Kocharian and the three largest pro-presidential parties approved the program at a special cabinet meeting before sending it to the parliament. The National Assembly, dominated by Kocharian allies, is certain to rubber-stamp it on Thursday.

The document was agreed one week after a post-election power-sharing deal struck by Kocharian, the Republican Party (HHK), the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun) and the Orinats Yerkir Party. Its strong emphasis on poverty reduction and social programs reflects Dashnaktsutyun’s and Orinats Yerkir’s election platforms. Both parties criticized the previous HHK-led cabinet of Prime Minister Andranik Markarian during the election campaign.

The three-party coalition vows to reduce the share of Armenian families living below the poverty line from the current 50 percent to 35 percent and double the average salary of the chronically underpaid public sector employees by 2007. The monthly wage of school teachers alone is to triple to 60,000 drams ($100).

The government also promises to raise the modest state pensions, averaging 6,000 drams at present, to 11,000 drams within the next four years. A similar increase is envisaged for the state benefits paid to thousands of socially vulnerable families.

Finance and Economy Minister Vartan Khachatrian, presenting the program to the media, admitted that it will not be easy to implement. “The government has really adopted an ambitious program,” he said. “But we could not have acted otherwise.”

“We hope to substantially change the existing [socioeconomic] situation in the next three or four years,” Khachatrian added.

The increased social spending is tied to continued economic growth and a further growth in the government’s tax revenues. The government anticipates a steady growth rate of at least 6 percent in the years to come. The Armenian GDP growth, according to official figures, hit almost 13 percent last year and continued unabated into the first quarter of 2003.

In Khachatrian’s words, the government has no plans to raise taxes and will instead be seeking to boost its insufficient budget revenues through improved tax collection. “The government does not intend to increase taxes,” the minister said. “The tax rates will remain essentially unchanged.”

The absence of a parliamentary vote of no confidence will mean the program’s automatic approval by lawmakers, the overwhelming majority of whom are loyal to Kocharian. The two opposition groups represented in the 131-strong assembly lack enough seats to even introduce such a motion.

One of them, the Artarutyun (Justice) alliance, decided to boycott Thursday’s parliament session for that reason. The Artarutyun deputies already boycotted its opening session last week.
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