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By Karine Kalantarian
Parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian risked fresh accusations of demagoguery and populism over the weekend as he subjected to scathing criticism economic policies of Armenia’s government in which his Orinats Yerkir Party is represented.

Baghdasarian claimed that official macroeconomic statistics are not credible and accused the authorities of tolerating widespread corruption. The allegations, which could stoke tensions inside the ruling coalition, were immediately rebutted by Prime Minister Andranik Markarian who questioned the Orinats Yerkir leader’s knowledge of economics.

“The Orinats Yerkir Party’s view is that the economic policy pursued by the government of the Republic of Armenia over the past decade was declared reformist, but in terms of practical results has not followed the logic of reforms,” Baghdasarian told a congress of his party on Saturday that was apparently timed to coincide with his 35th birthday anniversary. “It is obvious that in certain cases government levers were used for establishing clan monopolies on lucrative sectors [of the economy].”

“Orinats Yerkir also believes that macroeconomic stability shown by official statistics does not correspond to reality because the plight of the vast majority of the population remains dire,” he added, referring to record-high rates of economic growth cited by the authorities in recent years.

Official figures for the first nine months of the year, personally cited by President Robert Kocharian, show the Armenian economy growing by a staggering 15 percent on the back of an almost 13 percent surge registered last year. Together with low inflation and budget deficit, also achieved in Armenia, the growth rates fit into the definition of macroeconomic stability.

The credibility of the figures was defended by Markarian whose Republican Party (HHK) is the senior partner in the coalition of three pro-Kocharian parties. “Our macroeconomic indicators do correspond to reality,” he told reporters after hearing the speaker’s speech. He said Baghdasarian’s complaints relate to the country’s “microeconomic” environment which still leaves much to be desired.

Markarian also dismissed Baghdasarian’s claims that the government is taking “no practical steps” to combat corruption and boost the rule of law. “He did not say anything new,” the premier said. “The Republican Party and the government have long talked about that. We are the ones who initiated the anti-corruption program two years ago.”

The program was formally adopted by the cabinet last week after being endorsed by all three governing parties, including Orinats Yerkir. Its two ministers are also not known to have voiced any objections to the government’s recently unveiled poverty reduction program which calls for the continuation of economic policies pursued so far.

Baghdasarian has long been accused of using populist rhetoric for furthering his political agenda. Those accusations intensified after his party formed the second largest faction in the Armenian parliament as a result of the disputed May 25 elections. Many observers attributed the strong showing to its strong verbal attacks on the Republicans who have been in government for the past four years. The HHK reportedly agreed to elect the Orinats Yerkir leader parliament speaker and admit his party into the cabinet only after strong pressure from Kocharian.

Baghdasarian’s high-profile activities in the new capacities have been one of the sources of persisting friction within the coalition. Markarian, however, claimed that he is untroubled by them and wants to continue to cooperate with Orinats Yerkir. “If they had not been in government, they would have criticized us even more strongly,” he said.

The premier went on to make six more deputy ministerial appointments on Monday resulting from a power-sharing deal agreed by the three parties last month. Three of the new vice-ministers represent Dashnaktsutyun and will deal with transport, environment and education. Two others, including a 27-year-old woman, are affiliated with the HHK. Only one appointee is a member of Orinats Yerkir.

Baghdasarian on Saturday dismissed speculation that he is already positioning himself from the next presidential election scheduled for 2008. “We have no such ambitions, we should first of all reinforce our positions in government,” he said. “That said, any party must always be prepared for an election.”

(Photolur photo: Baghdasarian greeted by conference delegates.)
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