By Astghik Bedevian and Atom Markarian
Prime Minister Andranik Markarian has defended the effective ouster of the Orinats Yerkir Party from Armenia’s governing coalition, accusing it of siding with the opposition and violating a 2003 power-sharing agreement with two other parties supporting President Robert Kocharian.
In a weekend interview with RFE/RL, Markarian also admitted that wealthy lawmakers that have defected from Orinats Yerkir would have risked hurting their businesses if they had remained loyal to Artur Baghdasarian, the party’s leader and outgoing parliament speaker.
“Artur Baghdasarian knew where he was heading for,” he said. “Orinats Yerkir itself decided whether it wants to be in opposition or in the coalition.”
Markarian pointed to Orinats Yerkir leaders’ recent public attacks on the government which he said exposed the start of their preparations for next year’s parliamentary election. “We signed a memorandum [in June 2003] which says that if there are differences on internal or foreign policies, we must discuss them within the coalition before learning about them from newspapers,” he said. “So naturally, we expressed our discontent [with the fact that] we were not told about disagreements and learned about them from other sources.”
According to Markarian, Orinats Yerkir’s withdrawal from the coalition was inevitable also because of Baghdasarian’s disagreements with the socioeconomic and foreign policies pursued by Armenia’s leadership. He noted in particular that its repeated demands for a large-scale compensation of hundreds of thousands of Armenians who lost their Soviet-era bank savings during the early 1990s “ran counter to the economic policy of our state.” He also rejected as “unacceptable” Baghdasarian’s recent calls for Armenia’s eventual membership in NATO.
Baghdasarian similarly cited growing policy disagreements with Kocharian, Markarian’s Republican Party and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun) as he officially announced his resignation and Orinats Yerkir’s withdrawal from the government on Friday. Baghdasarian also stopped short of blaming Kocharian for this month’s defection of a dozen Orinats Yerkir parliamentarians, which precipitated the party’s exit. His continuing refusal to criticize the head of state hardly lent credence to his claims that Orinats Yerkir is “becoming an opposition force.”
Markarian denied reports that the Orinats Yerkir defectors, all of them wealthy businessmen with close ties to the government, faced strong pressure from the presidential administration. But he did admit that “continuing to do business while being in opposition would be much more difficult” for them.
Khachatur Sukiasian, a millionaire businessman who too holds a parliament seat, agreed. “In a transitional country like Armenia any businessman who openly supports the opposition will end up in serious trouble,” he said.
Sukiasian believes that legal immunity from prosecution enjoyed by Armenian parliamentarians is not a safeguards against government inroads on their business assets. “I don’t think you can protect your business through membership of the National Assembly,” he said. “On the contrary, you are more likely to face various political problems,”
Under Armenia’s constitution, members of parliament are not allowed to run economic entities whether they are in opposition or in government.
The Armenian premier insisted at the same time that the defectors as well as the three Orinats Yerkir ministers who have also deserted Baghdasarian made a “political decision not to join the opposition.” “So this is more of a question of political orientation, rather than protection of businesses. Sergo [Yeritsian], for example, is not engaged in business,” he said, referring to Armenia’s education minister who was Orinats Yerkir’s deputy chairman and one of Baghdasarian’s closest associates until last Friday.
Some government sources say Yeritsian will be replaced by a senior member of Dashnaktsutyun, Levon Mkrtchian, and appointed to another, less significant government position despite his defection. Markarian declined to confirm or deny this.