By Ruzanna Khachatrian and Hrach Melkumian
Artur Baghdasarian, the outgoing speaker of Armenia's parliament, was anxious to avoid any attacks on President Robert Kocharian on Friday as he officially announced his Orinats Yerkir Party’s departure from the governing coalition and its transformation into an “opposition force.”
Baghdasarian dismissed reports, confirmed by some government sources, that the dramatic collapse of his parliament faction was engineered by Kocharian. He insisted that he decided to resign and pull Orinats Yerkir out of the coalition because of major policy differences with the country’s leadership.
“It is morally right for me to tender my resignation and for our political team to leave the coalition,” he told a news conference. “All Orinats Yerkir members holding [government] posts must also resign. This is the decision unanimously taken by our political council [on Thursday night].”
The move followed defections of about a dozen Orinats Yerkir lawmakers that caused the party’s faction, the second largest in the National Assembly, to almost shrink by half. All of the defectors are wealthy government-connected businessmen. According to some senior members of the Armenian coalition, their exodus was initiated by Kocharian with the aim of forcing Orinats Yerkir out of his government.
Kocharian’s spokesman Victor Soghomonian denied this on Friday. “I don’t want to comment on gossips,” he said.
Baghdasarian said that the defectors had come under unspecified “pressure” to leave Orinats Yerkir and caved in because of “an atmosphere of fear that stifles dissent” in Armenia. “Everything is clear to everyone. Was there pressure? Yes, there was. From all sides,” he said.
But underscoring the continuing ambiguity of his discourse, Baghdasarian insisted at the same time that the Armenian leader played no part in the process. “There was no such thing,” he said. “We have for months had disagreements on different issues, including with the president of the republic.”
Baghdasarian added that those differences have centered on the Kocharian administration’s socioeconomic and foreign policies as well as “democratic reforms” which he believes need to be carried out in Armenia. He refused to go into details.
The 37-year-old speaker, who was at one point regarded as one of Kocharian’s potential successors, and his party have repeatedly criticized the government and had an uneasy relationship with its coalition partners ever since they signed a power-sharing agreement three years ago. Orinats Yerkir’s exit from power appears to have been precipitated by Baghdasarian’s recent interview with a German newspaper in which he called for Armenia’s accession to NATO and implied that Kocharian’s reelection in 2003 was fraudulent.
“Of course we are becoming an opposition force. There is no question about that,” said Baghdasarian. But he would not specify whether he is ready to align himself with Armenia’s mainstream opposition groups that have long challenged Kocharian.
Leaders of those groups seem to remain mistrustful of Orinats Yerkir. Stepan Demirchian of the opposition Artarutyun alliance told RFE/RL that the bloc will consider cooperating with Baghdasarian’s party only if it becomes a “real opposition force.” Another Artarutyun figure, Vazgen Manukian, referred to Orinats Yerkir as a “party artificially created and artificially broken up” by the authorities.
Another prominent oppositionist, Artashes Geghamian of the National Unity Party, was even more dismissive of Orinats Yerkir, alleging that it had been created by the influential Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian.
The Armenian parliament is expected to accept its speaker’s resignation when it resumes its sessions on May 22. Deputy speaker Tigran Torosian, who is a leading member of the governing Republican Party, will perform Baghdasarian’s duties in interim. He is reportedly in pole position to become the next chairman of the National Assembly.