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By Ruzanna Khachatrian
The opposition Orinats Yerkir Party has lost one of its nine seats in Armenia’s newly elected parliament as a result of yet another high-profile defection from its ranks.

Samvel Balasanian, a prominent party figure, confirmed on Wednesday reports that he quit Orinats Yerkir after securing his reelection to the 131-member National Security in a single-member district in the northwestern Shirak region. Balasanian said he did so in order to concentrate on the needs of people living in the constituency that partly encompasses Armenia’s second largest city of Gyumri.

The Gyumri-based businessman, who owns the country’s third-biggest brewery, denied that he was forced to defect from Orinats Yerkir by the Armenian government. “No, there was no pressure on me,” he told RFE/RL.

The move is a further blow to the party of former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian which is reeling from its worse-than-expected performance in the May 12 parliamentary elections. Baghdasarian and his associates have rejected as fraudulent their official results, which showed Orinats Yerkir winning less than 7 percent of the vote, and plan to challenge them in the Constitutional Court.

Balasanian, who used to lead the Orinats Yerkir faction in the outgoing Armenian parliament, was the only party candidate who won a parliament seat under the so-called majoritarian system. Another Orinats Yerkir candidate, Hakob Hakobian, defected to the governing Republican Party (HHK) shortly before getting elected in another single-mandate constituency.

Heghine Bisharian, the number two figure in the party leadership, refused to comment on Balasanian’s exit, saying only that she finds it “inexplicable.”

The Yerevan daily “Aravot” suggested that the defection was a government “precondition” for his reelection to the parliament. The paper noted that Hakobian is the co-owner of another major brewery, concluding sarcastically that beer business is “incompatible with membership in Orinats Yerkir.”

But Balasanian dismissed such suggestions. “If I wanted to sell out, I would have done it earlier, during the pre-election period,” he argued.

Orinats Yerkir had already been hit by mass defections of its parliamentarians, virtually all of them government-connected businessmen, in the spring of last year. The move precipitated the party’s ouster from the ruling coalition and Baghdasarian’s resignation as parliament speaker.

Balasanian was among the few businessmen who remained in Baghdasarian’s depleted parliament faction. He repeatedly assured journalists last year that he will not leave the party, famously declaring that the word “Orinats Yerkir is written on my forehead.”

“Yes, I said that,” Balasanian said on Wednesday. “But I also I worked hard and earned Orinats Yerkir many votes for the previous parliament. I did everything for the faction.”

(Photolur photo: Balasanian, left, attends a parliament session with fellow Orinats Yerkir deputies in 2005.)
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