By Armen Dulian and Anna Israelian
Prime Minister Andranik Markarian on Friday downplayed opinion polls suggesting that most Armenians believe their country is on the wrong track.
Markarian also said that his government plans to draw up a new program to combat endemic corruption in Armenia. In a yearend interview with RFE/RL, he admitted that its anti-corruption measures taken so far have not had desired effects.
A U.S.-funded nationwide opinion poll conducted last month found that 58 percent of voters think Armenia is going in the wrong direction. Only one third of some 1,200 randomly polled people said the economic situation in the country is improving. The two previous surveys conducted the Armenian Sociological Association in August and May produced similar results.
“In all normal countries, there is discontent,” said Markarian. “Take the United States or European Union countries. There is discontent in all of them.”
Markarian also complained that the question put to respondents was not specific enough. “What track are they unhappy with? What government steps are they unhappy with? Democracy? Yes, we admit that there is a lack of democracy here, and we are taking legislative and other steps to increase democracy.”
“Isn’t the very fact that I am sitting in your studio today a gesture of democracy?” he reasoned.
Markarian insisted that Armenia’s double-digit economic growth, which is set to continue for a sixth consecutive year, has boosted living standards despite the uneven distribution of its benefits. But he did acknowledge increased income disparity resulting from widespread tax evasion and government corruption.
“Our anti-corruption measures have not been as effective as we hoped,” he said. “That is one of our failings.”
The government unveiled in late 2003 a three-year plan of actions aimed at tackling bribery and other corrupt practices. Many Armenians feel that the scale of graft has not decreased and may have grown even bigger since then. Local and international anti-graft watchdogs say the plan has been ineffectual because of its excessive emphasis on legislative measures.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development made a similar point in a special report released on December 18." The OECD said that although Armenia has taken several steps to improve action against corruption "the number of convictions for corruption is low, especially for high-ranking officials, and more efforts must be made to investigate allegations and bring cases to court.”
Markarian revealed that the government will ask Western donors to help it draw up a new strategy that will “ascertain mechanisms for putting the [anti-graft] legislative framework into practice.” But he again rejected the idea of creating a powerful anti-corruption agency which is favored by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), a junior partner in his governing coalition.
“Dashnaktsutyun wanted to create a monster agency that would go after people and solve some issues,” he said. “That is, to do things that are supposed to be done by the police or the prosecutor’s office … The government was naturally against that because that would only create new breeding ground for corruption.”
Turning to internal political issues, the 51-year-old premier confirmed that his Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) will be seeking to retain its governing status and the largest faction in parliament in elections due next May. He said the election results will determine who will be the HHK’s candidate in the 2008 presidential election. The party is widely expected to nominate Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian for the presidency.
Analysts believe that the HHK’s grip on power will be challenged not only by the Armenian opposition but also a rapidly growing party set up last year by Gagik Tsarukian, a millionaire businessman close to President Robert Kocharian. The party called Prosperous Armenia has already raised eyebrows by distributing relief aid and providing free medical services to tens of thousands of poor voters. Representatives of the country’s mainstream political forces, including some HHK leaders, have denounced what they see as a massive vote buying operation.
Markarian also disapproved of Tsarukian’s “benevolent actions.” “Such things have to be done by charities and private individuals,” he said. “A party can not engage in such activities … I have a negative attitude to such phenomena.”
The HHK leader claimed at the same time that the politically motivated benevolence will not influence the election outcome. “Experience has shown that even if they accept handouts, the people eventually do what they wanted to do [during elections],” he said.
Prosperous Armenia’s emergence is widely linked with President Robert Kocharian’s intention to retain a key role in government after he completes his second and final term in office in 2008. Some commentators have speculated that Kocharian has set his sights on the post of prime minister.
“The president did not express such a desire in his conversations with me,” countered Markarian.