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By Hrach Melkumian
In remarks that could enrage some of his coalition partners, Prime Minister Andranik Markarian spoke on Wednesday unusually warmly about one of his nine predecessors who is now highly critical of President Robert Kocharian.

Markarian credited former premier Hrant Bagratian, who headed Armenia’s government from 1993-96 under then President Levon Ter-Petrosian, with launching sweeping but unpopular market reforms which he said are now beginning to bear fruit.

“I am very happy with the work done by Mr. Bagratian,” he said. “The economic reforms began during his tenure and were continued, but not rolled back, by all subsequent prime ministers.”

“What we have now is not only the result of the work carried out by him but also by our country’s former leadership,” Markarian added, in a rare praise of Ter-Petrosian made by a serving senior Armenian official.

Bagratian served as prime minister at the time of an unprecedented post-Soviet economic decline that left much of Armenia’s population in poverty. A staunch advocate of liberal economics, he pursued tight fiscal-monetary policies and initiated a large-scale privatization of state assets that earned his government support from international finance organizations.

The latter believe that those policies laid the groundwork for low inflation and economic growth which has been going on since 1995. Markarian similarly defended the enormous social cost of Bagratian’s reforms, saying that the Armenian economy was in a condition that required “surgical solutions which always cause pain.”

Interestingly, Bagratian has been a bitter critic of Kocharian’s and Markarian’s economic record, claiming that some of his reforms stalled under the current regime. He has even challenged the credibility of recent years’ official statistics indicating record-high rates of economic growth.

Markarian’s comments come just as he looks certain to break the record of prime-ministerial longevity set by Bagratian. “This is a weird question,” he told reporters when asked whether he is keen to cling to the job longer than his predecessor did.

Markarian’s assessment is sure to be disapproved by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), one of the three pro-Kocharian parties making up the current ruling coalition. Dashnaktsutyun was a vocal opponent of the Ter-Petrosian administration and was controversially banned by it in 1994. Not surprisingly, it welcomed Ter-Petrosian’s forced resignation in early 1998.

The differing attitudes are indicative of broader differences simmering inside the coalition. Leaders of Markarian’s Republican Party (HHK) rounded on Dashnaktsutyun last week for their public criticism of the premier’s anti-corruption and staffing policies.

Relations are also uneasy between Dashnaktsutyun and the third coalition partner, the Orinats Yerkir Party led by parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian. In the latest example of their friction, the nationalist party has demanded an explanation from Culture Minister Tamara Poghosian (who is affiliated with Orinats Yerkir) over a controversial statement on Turkish-Armenian relations attributed to one of her deputies.

The official, Karen Aristakesian, was quoted by the Turkish media as saying last week that the Armenian and Turkish peoples should “forget events of the past,” notably the 1915 genocide of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. Aristakesian, who spoke at a conference in Turkey, claimed that he was badly misquoted.

Still, the leader of Dashnaktsutyun’s parliamentary faction, Levon Mkrtchian, demanded that Poghosian officially refute the information. “I officially state that that nothing of the sort was said there,” Poghosian responded on Wednesday at the government’s weekly question-and-answer session in the National Assembly.
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