By Ruzanna Stepanian
President Robert Kocharian on Wednesday defended his track record in office with upbeat macroeconomic statistics and bristled at lingering questions about the legitimacy of his hotly disputed reelection one year ago.
Meeting with students at Yerevan State University, Kocharian argued that Armenia registered last year record-fast economic growth accompanied by improving public services. The GDP growth rate of 13.9 percent registered by the Armenian government was the highest in the Commonwealth of Independent States, he stressed.
Kocharian used the “unprecedented indicators” to try to disprove opposition claims that Armenia remains gripped by a political crisis. “To describe as crisis the situation in a country where economic growth has reached 13.9 percent and where all the indicators testify to quite interesting developments is at least tantamount to not understanding what a crisis means,” he said, responding to a student’s question.
The Armenian president, still reeling from allegations of electoral fraud, was visibly annoyed by another student who wondered whether “the degree of his legitimacy” hampers a pro-Armenian solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. “It helps. Have I calmed you?” he hit back sternly.
That legitimacy is at the heart of the ongoing opposition efforts to drum up popular support for a renewed bid to force Kocharian into resignation. Armenia’s two main opposition groups maintain that the February-March 2003 presidential elections, criticized as undemocratic by international observers, were falsified by the authorities. But Kocharian and his allies insist that violations reported during the two-round vote were not serious enough to affect its outcome.
Kocharian was also confronted with tough queries about luxury cars and other manifestations of the conspicuous wealth of senior government officials which are widely perceived to be an indication of rampant government corruption. He said in particular that Russian-made limousines are unreliable and not environmentally-friendly, but accepted that top state bureaucrats must not be too extravagant in their choice of vehicles purchased with taxpayers’ money.
It was the Armenian leader’s first visit to the country’s largest university since last month’s student protests against a controversial government bill on military service. The bill, which would have allowed the military to draft graduate and doctoral students, was eventually withdrawn from parliament. Kocharian’s most powerful associate, Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, was snubbed and booed by protesting students in the same university auditorium while he strongly defended it.
Kocharian acknowledged that the proposed legislation should have undergone a detailed public debate before being submitted to the National Assembly. But he was vague about what the authorities plan to do next.