By Astghik Bedevian
Risking renewed friction with his government allies, parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian was forced on Monday to revive a controversial bill that would partly compensate hundreds of thousands of Armenians who lost their lifetime bank savings following the Soviet collapse.
The move came after Baghdasarian was again challenged by an opposition lawmaker to honor a key campaign promise which helped his Orinats Yerkir (Country of Law) party to do well in the last parliamentary election.
The partial restoration of the savings, wiped out by the hyperinflation of the early 1990s, was a major theme of Orinats Yerkir’s discourse in the run-up to the 2003 vote. The pledge struck a chord with a considerable part of Armenia’s electorate still reeling from the post-Soviet economic collapse.
Baghdasarian and his party drafted last year a bill that calls for $83 million in public funds to be paid to the former deposit holders within the next ten years. But its passage by the National Assembly was blocked by the government which argued that the modest sum would make little difference and should instead be spent on social programs. The government’s stance was endorsed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
The issue came under renewed spotlight last December when a maverick opposition parliamentarian, Hmayak Hovannisian, unexpectedly managed to force a parliament debate on it after collecting a sufficient number of signatures from fellow lawmakers, including those representing Orinats Yerkir. However, Baghdasarian avoided putting his bill to the vote after President Robert Kocharian set up an ad hoc commission of government experts charged with looking into the problem.
The commission submitted a confidential report to Kocharian last month. According to Armenian press reports, the authorities decided not to make it public.
The confidentiality of the process led Hovannisian to press for another parliament debate on the issue. Baghdasarian responded by making sure that the Orinats Yerkir bill, co-sponsored by 36 lawmakers, is included on the parliament agenda.
However, Galust Sahakian, the leader of the Armenian parliament’s largest faction controlled by Prime Minister Andranik Markarian’s Republican Party (HHK), indicated on Monday that the parliament majority will block any discussion of the bill at least until the government formally proposes its budget for next year. The draft budget approved by ministers last week does not envisage any financial compensation to the former deposit holders.
Sahakian made it clear that the HHK continues to believe that the loss of the population’s Soviet-era savings was irreversible and that Armenia is too poor to even partly restore them. “The savings can not be the monopoly of any party. They belonged to the people,” he told RFE/RL in a stern rebuke to Orinats Yerkir
Baghdasarian’s party is often accused of resorting to populism. Still, its overt refusal to get the government to address the contentious issue in one way or another would damage the ambitious speaker’s credibility in the eyes of his supporters.