By Atom Markarian
A nearly 20 percent increase in Armenia’s military spending next year is a response to the drastic rise in similar expenditures in neighboring Azerbaijan, officials in Yerevan said following Tuesday’s closed meeting of parliamentary commissions.
National Assembly Standing Defense, Internal Affairs and National Security Commission Chairman Mher Shahgeldian confirmed plans to increase next year’s military budget to $150 million.
Saying that the move was planned considering the drastic increase in Azerbaijan’s military spending, the lawmaker added: “We should pay attention to this correlation. Our task in this case is to preserve our qualitative level to ensure the country’s defense capability and security.”
Minister of Defense Serzh Sarkisian considers this sum to be enough to ensure the country’s defenses.
“This amount of spending is a minimum that can ensure a due level of our army’s combat efficiency,” he told the media. “For the first time the defense budget has been made not proceeding from the absolute sum of previous years, but from the percentage of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP), that is there is an agreement that at least 3 percent of our GDP should be spent for defense purposes.”
Meanwhile, Azerbaijan plans to double its military spending in 2006 increasing it to $650 million.
During the press conference, Sarkisian also spoke about possible outcomes of the upcoming elections in Azerbaijan and how they can influence the Karabakh peace process.
“It is natural that if the opposition suddenly wins perhaps the negotiating process would have to be started from scratch, and if the authorities win, I think the negotiating process will be continued,” the minister said.
Regarding his trip to Washington slated for late October, Sarkisian said it was a regular visit not pursuing the goal of deepening cooperation with the U.S. in the military sphere at the expense of Armenian-Russian relations. “We wish to be friends with both sides,” the minister said.
Some analysts voice opinions that Serzh Sarkisian is the most likely successor of President Robert Kocharian in his office in 2008 when presidential elections are due to be held in Armenia and in this regard view his upcoming visit to the U.S. within this very context.
The defense minister himself, who once was categorically denying any theories regarding his possible succession to the presidency, now ambiguously shrugs off these predictions, giving diplomatic answers: “Let’s not jump to conclusions. In the end, there might be a situation when the players will be totally different people, when the interests of the country will demand many other things.”
Regarding the referendum on constitutional amendments, the influential minister said: “I don’t want this referendum to be compared to a football match. I think that in case of proper work, a sufficient number of voters will turn out and will say ‘yes’ to the constitutional amendments.”
Sarkisian was also asked to comment on the recent mayoral elections in Echmiadzin in which Deputy Defense Minister Manvel Grigorian is said to have had vital interests.
“Manvel Grigorian did not have any immediate participation in the elections in Echmiadzin. Despite this, certain media are making great efforts to portray these elections there as elections directed by Manvel [Grigorian]. It does not correspond to the facts at all,” Sarkisian said.
To a journalist’s remark about the presence of military in town on the election day, the defense minister said: “I don’t think your ideas about democracy can be deeper than those of international observers who were there and gave a corresponding evaluation. We are building a nation proceeding from these criteria and not from the criteria of our mass media representatives.”