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By Ruzanna Khachatrian
A lawmaker allegedly linked to Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian succeeded Wednesday in forcing a debate in parliament on partly compensating the holders of depreciated Soviet-era bank accounts, a controversial idea repeatedly rejected by the Armenian government.

The initiative of independent deputy Hmayak Hovannisian was backed by just over half of the National Assembly members. Under Armenian law, President Robert Kocharian must call an extraordinary parliament session next week.

Among those who signed Hovannisian’s petition was parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian and two dozen deputies affiliated with his Orinats Yerkir Party, one of the three members of the ruling coalition. The parliamentary factions of Orinats Yerkir’s coalition partners, the Republican Party (HHK) and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), refused to join in.

The Republicans led by Prime Minister Andranik Markarian are particularly opposed to the idea. Their parliamentary leader, Galust Sahakian, warned that Orinats Yerkir is going against a government of which it is a member.

“I find this move dangerous,” he told RFE/RL. “One is left to conclude that the purpose of the imitative is not to make the people’s life better.”

The issue thus threatens to reignite tensions between the three pro-Kocharian parties that have had an uneasy relationship ever since joining Markarian’s cabinet in June 2003. Less than two weeks ago they settled a bitter dispute on electoral reform that nearly brought down the coalition.

Scenting blood, the Armenian opposition has decided do suspend its long-running boycott of parliament sessions and take part in the upcoming debate on ways of restoring the Soviet-era bank savings wiped out by the hyperinflation of the early 1990s. The opposition Artarutyun alliance drafted of one of two relevant bills to be discussed by the parliamentarians on December 20.

The principal author of the other bill is Orinats Yerkir. It calls for $83 million in public funds to be paid to the former deposit holders within the next ten years. The government blocked the passage of the proposed legislation earlier this year, arguing that the modest sum would make little difference and should instead be spent on social programs.

Its position reflects the views of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, Armenia’s leading creditors. Officials from the two lending institutions expressed concern about the Orinats Yerkir bill in meetings with Kocharian last summer.

The savings compensation was high on the list of Orinats Yerkir’s campaign promises and is thought to have contributed to its strong showing in the May 2003 elections. Baghdasarian’s party is often accused of resorting to populism. Still, its failure to back a parliament debate on the issue would have damaged the ambitious speaker’s credibility in the eyes of his supporters.

Ironically, Hovannisian has been one of the most fierce critics of Orinats Yerkir in recent years. He was elected to the current legislature on the opposition National Unity Party’s ticket, but subsequently quit its parliamentary faction.

Media reports have suggested that National Unity leader Artashes Geghamian forced Hovannisian out after finding out about his suspected links with Defense Minister Sarkisian. Hovannisian strongly denies secretly cooperating with the latter, though.

The HHK and Dashnaktsutyun jointly control only approximately 50 of the 131 parliament seats. However, their deputies could potentially scuttle the December 20 debate by simply boycotting it. Markarian hinted at such possibility on Tuesday.
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