By Hovannes Shoghikian
Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian promised on Monday that his government will postpone the enforcement of stricter licensing requirements that could force hundreds of Armenian taxi drivers out of business.
Meeting several dozen drivers who again gathered outside his office, Sarkisian said the rules, effective from August 1, were approved by the Armenian government last March too hastily.
“The decision affects the livelihood of thousands of people and we must give them more time [to comply with it,]” he told the protesters surrounding him.
Under the new rules, taxi companies and independent cab drivers to pay an annual state duty of 200,000 drams ($590) for each of their cars. More importantly, they would be banned from using vehicles manufactured more than 10 years ago. Virtually all of the drivers that twice demonstrated outside the government headquarters in Yerevan last week are self-employed and have older vehicles.
Sarkisian told them that he will make sure the government measure takes effect on April 1. The government will make a relevant decision at its next meeting on Thursday, he said.
The promised reprieve will end right after Armenia’s next presidential election in which Sarkisian is expected to be a top contender.
The Armenian premier made it clear at the same time that there will be no major changes in the new rules themselves. In particular, he was adamant in defending the 10-year limit on the age of cabs. “Is it right to transport people in a 10-year-old Lada?” he asked the protesting drivers.
“Yes, if a driver properly looks after his personal car,” said one of them.
“Fine, so let him drive his family in his personal car,” responded Sarkisian. “I could have done trickery,” he continued. “I could have set the limit at five years and all of you would have gathered here and I would have said, ‘OK guys, I raise it to ten years.’ But I didn’t do trickery. I set the maximum possible limit.”
Government officials say the measure will improve passenger safety and complicate tax evasion. But critics say it will primarily benefit large carriers that are owned by wealthy business and can afford buying new cars.