By Ruzanna Stepanian and Ruben Meloyan
Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian campaigned in the southern Armavir region on Tuesday, again promising to significantly raise living standards and attacking his election challengers’ pledges to downsize Armenia’s armed forces and cut taxes.
As was the case during his previous campaign rallies, Sarkisian was particularly scathing about former President Levon Ter-Petrosian as he rallied hundreds of people in the town of Echmiadzin. Without mentioning Ter-Petrosian by name, he condemned the latter’s recent remark that Armenia, which currently has a 60,000-strong army, would need no more than 15,000 troops to secure its borders after the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
The ex-president argued earlier this month that the military, which has long been financed better any other state institution, is a huge drain on the country’s scarce public resources. He said the country should also phase out compulsory military service and hire military personnel on a contractual basis.
“I don’t want to prove at this meeting the falseness or immaturity of this idea,” Sarkisian told the Echmiadzin rally. “I just want you to take a moment and think. Today the Armenian army protects 1,280 kilometers of border. Imagine what will happen to our country if our army becomes 10,000-strong. That means we will have only a few soldiers per kilometer.”
President Robert Kocharian likewise ridiculed the idea as he renewed his verbal attacks on Ter-Petrosian at the weekend. Kocharian again accused his predecessor of endangering national security after giving awards to a large group of Armenian army officers on Monday.
Criticism of Ter-Petrosian and his administration’s track record was also a major theme of Sarkisian’s speeches at similar campaign rallies held in Yerevan’s Erebuni and Nubarashen districts on Sunday.
But the former president was not the only opposition candidate lambasted by the Armenian premier in Echmiadzin. In an apparent attack on former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian, Sarkisian mocked unnamed presidential hopefuls who promise to simultaneously cut taxes and sharply increase government spending.
“Armenia has no oil, no other source of revenue and the welfare of our elders and invalids depends only on taxes,” he said. “How are they going to cut taxes and raise pensions? Maybe they are magicians.”
Baghdasarian has been particularly vocal in promising to reduce tax rates and boost government expenditure on social programs. The leader of the opposition Orinats Yerkir Party reaffirmed this pledge on Tuesday as he campaigned in another southern region, Vayots Dzor. Speaking at a rally in the regional capital Yeghegnadzor, he said he would at least double public sector salaries and triple pensions by stimulating economic activity and cracking down on tax evasion.
“There are no reductions in tax rates in Armenia because there is no equal taxation in Armenia,” he said, accusing wealthy businessmen close to Sarkisian of large-scale tax fraud.
“These people have divided all branches of the economy among themselves with the government’s connivance and consent,” charged another Orinats Yerkir leader, Mher Shahgeldian. He went on to allege that the authorities are deliberately keeping many Armenians mired in poverty to be able to buy their votes.
Baghdasarian also indicated that, if elected president, he will abolish compulsory military service even before a Karabakh settlement. “We have tens of thousands of unemployed men,” he argued. “It would be better if they went to the army and got paid. This is the case in many countries.”
Sarkisian, meanwhile, insisted that most Armenians are now better off than they were several years ago. He also reiterated his pledge to double the average household income in the country within five years if he wins the February 19 election.
(Photolur photo: Sarkisian supporters rally in Echmiadzin.)