By Ruzanna Khachatrian
Prime Minister Andranik Markarian dismissed on Tuesday speculation that the impending promotion of Minister for Local Government Hovik Abrahamian, a key cabinet member, is aimed at curtailing his powers. He also said that the Armenian authorities are still undecided about the precise date for a constitutional referendum expected later this year.
Abrahamian is widely expected to take over a new ministry that will have direct control over local governments as well as the existing government departments managing water resources, emergency situations and refugee affairs. Some observers have suggested that President Robert Kocharian is thereby creating another counterweight to Markarian who has headed the Armenian cabinet longer than any of his ten predecessors.
“There is no such thing,” Markarian told RFE/RL in an interview. “Abrahamian is not in opposition to me. Abrahamian is a fellow member of my party. I myself brought him to the government. He performs tasks assigned by the prime minister.”
Markarian sought to downplay the significance of the structural change which he said will be formalized soon. “We want to create a ministry, not a super-ministry, that will comprise agencies which are already overseen by the minister,” he said. “So no new powers will be given. This will simply be a structural consolidation.”
Abrahamian made the same point at a news conference last week. “I am already a super-minister,” he said.
The remarks were followed by fresh rumors about the premier’s imminent resignation, with Abrahamian being mentioned among his possible successors. Markarian denied them as untrue.
However, Abrahamian, who has extensive business interests and is affiliated with Markarian’s Republican Party (HHK), poured petrol on the flames of the speculation as he met with reporters on Monday. Asked by one of them whether he wants to become prime minister, he replied: “If the president makes such an offer, I will think.”
In his interview, Markarian also touched on Kocharian’s efforts to amend Armenia’s constitution jointly with the HHK and two other parties represented in government. He said Kocharian and his top allies had “tentatively” agreed to put their package of constitutional amendment to a referendum this July but may decide to hold the vote concurrently with local elections scheduled for October.
“The main thing is to interest people and get them to vote as our law on referendums has very strict requirements,” he said.
The law stipulates that constitutional amendments must be endorsed by at least one third of Armenia’s eligible voters in order to be considered enacted. The authorities failed to garner the required minimum of votes when they held a similar constitutional referendum in May 2003.
The Armenian opposition, which has rejected Kocharian’s constitutional package, claims that the authorities will find it easier to rig referendum results if it is held in October.
Markarian further insisted that the ruling coalition will not seek to leave legal loopholes that will enable Kocharian to seek a third term in office in 2008. The Armenian constitution bars him from doing so. Some opposition leaders allege that the authorities could declare a fresh countdown of presidential terms after amending the existing basic.
But Markarian denied those claims. “No such interpretations were made during the presentation of both the previous and present constitutional amendments,” he said. “Those concerns are more artificial than legitimate.”