By Ruzanna Khachatrian and Nane Atshemian
Highlighting persisting tensions within Armenia’s ruling coalition, a senior member of Prime Minister Andranik Markarian’s Republican Party (HHK) implicitly accused on Monday parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian’s Orinats Yerkir Party of illegally co-opting schoolteachers ahead of the upcoming local elections.
Galust Sahakian, the HHK’s parliamentary leader, was understood to refer to Orinats Yerkir when he complained that secondary schools across the country are being turned into “party offices.” “When school staffs start to work on a partisan basis, entire schools become offices of a particular party,” he charged, adding that the process has intensified of late.
Sahakian refused to name anyone but warned that he will do that if the alleged “politicization of schools” continues. “I don’t want to speak out sharply and declare war for the moment,” he said.
Orinats Yerkir has a strong grassroots structure that helped it form the Armenian parliament’s second largest faction as a result of the 2003 elections. Among its nationwide structures are unions of various professionals, including teachers. In addition, Armenia’s current education minister, Sergo Yeritsian, is a senior member of Baghdasarian’s party.
Sahakian implied that Orinats Yerkir is luring school principals and teachers into its ranks to improve its chances in the October local polls. Many polling stations in Armenia are located in secondary schools and school personnel are often involved in election administration.
The Republican leader’s allegations were effectively backed by a senior opposition lawmaker, Shavarsh Kocharian. “Only those who have state levers can do that,” he said.
Yeritsian, however, insisted that no political party is forcibly recruiting teachers. “Most of our schools are not politicized,” he said.
But Yeritsian also argued that school principals and their employees have the constitutionally guaranteed right to join any party. “It is not our job to inquire about the party affiliation of school principals,” he said, admitting that “quite a few” of them are members of Orinats Yerkir.
Sahakian’s stark warning threatens to reignite a bitter war of words between the HHK and Orinats Yerkir that threw President Robert Kocharian’s coalition cabinet into turmoil last February. The row was sparked rumors about Markarian’s impending resignation which the Republicans believe were spread by the ambitious parliament speaker.
Sahakian in particular accused Orinats Yerkir at the time of staffing the Armenian parliament with its loyalists and thereby turning it into Baghdasarian’s “campaign headquarters.” Baghdasarian and his party strongly denied the charges.
In a separate development, the Yerevan mayor’s office pledged on Monday to tighten financial oversight of municipal schools following increased allegations about financial abuse and other forms of corruption among their directors. “All schools will undergo annual financial monitoring,” Deputy Mayor Kamo Areyan told reporters.
Areyan said that a special commission formed by the municipality already inspected 10 schools last year and six of their principals were fired as a result. He added that the city authorities suspect many school administrations of inflating the number of their students in order to receive and misappropriate additional government funding.
(Photolur photo: Galust Sahakian.)