By Emil Danielyan
Former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian launched a blistering attack on the Armenian authorities late Tuesday, adding his voice to opposition allegations that they are artificially boosting the national currency for personal gain.
Risking more accusations of populism, he also announced that his Orinats Yerkir party, which was forced out of the governing coalition last spring, will push for a major reduction of key utility fees.
“Elementary calculations show that we are dealing with a direct embezzlement of $200 million,” Baghdasarian charged in a speech in parliament, referring to a further surge in the value of the Armenian dram registered in the last six months. He claimed, without naming names, that the authorities have engineered the dram’s appreciation to pocket a large part of hundreds of millions of dollars in cash remittances sent home by Armenians working abroad.
The Armenian Central Bank and the government strongly deny such accusations, which have been voiced by opposition leaders and other government critics ever since the dram began its dramatic rise in December 2003. The Armenian currency has since gained more than 40 percent in value against the dollar, hurting local manufacturers and scores of people dependent on the dollar remittances.
The authorities in Yerevan, backed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, insist that the exchange rate fluctuation is the result of Armenia’s double-digit economic growth and a substantial increase in the volume of wire transfers from Russia, Europe and the United States. The transfers are expected to total at least $1.5 billion dollars this year.
Making his first appearance in the National Assembly since his resignation in May, Baghdasarian claimed that if the dram’s exchange was indeed market-based, the basic utility and consumer prices in Armenia would have fallen by now. “The prices of gas, electricity and water remain the same, even though the dollar is falling,” he said, arguing that Armenia imports the bulk of its energy resources.
Baghdasarian added that Orinats Yerkir will seek a Constitutional Court ruling allowing Armenian citizens to challenge utility prices set by state regulators in court. Under an existing Armenian law, decisions taken by the Public Service Regulatory Commission can not be overturned by local courts. Baghdasarian and other opposition leaders say the law is unconstitutional.
Baghdasarian’s initiative seems heralds the start of Orinats Yerkir’s preparations for next year’s parliamentary elections. The ambitious ex-speaker has long been accused of resorting to populism to win votes and his latest comments will likely prompt more such accusations.