By Emil Danielyan
Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian pledged to improve Armenia’s problematic investment climate and, in particular, tackle harassment of businesspeople by corrupt tax officials on an election campaign trip to the central Aragatsotn region on Wednesday.
Speaking before hundreds of people in the regional capital Ashtarak, Sarkisian said a better business environment is vital for stimulating the Armenian economy and creating new jobs.
“We have only one source of [budgetary] revenue: taxes,” he said. “We must be able to improve our business environment to make it easy for businessmen to make money and pay money to the state.”
Sarkisian acknowledged that corruption among tax officials is a major problem hampering economic activity in the country. He said he has instructed the head of the State Tax Service (STS) to open a special hotline for entrepreneurs harassed by unscrupulous employees of the feared government agency.
Sarkisian’s election manifesto likewise stresses the need to create “the best conditions” for anyone doing business in Armenia. It commits outgoing President Robert Kocharian’s favored successor to implementing “second-generation reforms” that would not only strengthen the rule of law but protect fair business competition.
Government critics say Sarkisian, who has long wielded substantial influence on economic life, himself is responsible for the fact that government connections remain essential for engaging in large-scale economic activity in the country. They accuse him as well as Kocharian of sponsoring a handful of millionaire businessmen who enjoy a de facto monopoly on imports of fuel and basic foodstuffs.
Unlike in his previous campaign speeches, Sarkisian avoided attacking his most formidable challenger, former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, and only briefly criticized other opposition presidential candidates, notably Artur Baghdasarian, who promise sweeping tax cuts. “They may say that they would cut taxes and raise pensions,” he said. “But miracles happen only in fairy tales.”
For the first time during the election campaign, Sarkisian publicly took a swipe at the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), a junior partner in his governing coalition which is contesting the February 19 election with its own candidate, Vahan Hovannisian. Without naming names, the prime minister slammed Dashnaktsutyun leaders for saying that his victory would be bad for Armenian as it would mean that virtually all branches of government are controlled by Sarkisian’s Republican Party (HHK).
“They say that if the president too is a member of the Republican Party the country will have a one-polar government and nobody in the country will be able to prod the president to do a better job with criticism,” said Sarkisian. “But you all know that I am the candidate of not only the Republican Party but also the Prosperous Armenia Party and many other parties and compatriots’ unions.”
As always, Sarkisian’s campaign rally featured only himself and performances by Armenian pop stars. Other prominent HHK figures such as Deputy Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian and parliament speaker Tigran Torosian again did not accompany the candidate on the campaign trail.
Many in the crowd that gathered in Ashtarak’s central square appeared to be residents of nearby villages bused to the small town 25 kilometers northwest of Yerevan. Norayr Muradian, the mayor of Ujan, one of the region’s largest villages, was also there, expressing confidence that most of his fellow villagers will vote for Sarkisian come February 19. “People respect the prime minister,” he told RFE/RL.
“I want a bright future for our country,” said Rshtuni Hakobian, another Ujan resident and a veteran of the Nagorno-Karabakh war. “Only the path chosen by Serzh Sarkisian will lead us there.”
Robert Hakobian, an elderly university professor who also lives in the area, agreed. “Only a blind person won’t see the achievements Armenia has had in the past ten years,” he said. “New buildings, bridges, canals have been constructed. Teachers used to make 5,000 drams but now get 70,000 drams ($230) a month.”
But other participants of the rally were more ambivalent towards the Armenian premier. “I’m still familiarizing myself with candidates,” one middle-aged woman, who works part-time at an Ashtarak policlinic, told RFE/RL, holding a small white flag of the Sarkisian campaign in her hand.
Another, older woman said her main preoccupation now is how to privatize a tiny apartment which she shares with her unmarried son. She said her government employer has promised to help her do that if she votes for Sarkisian.
Both in Ashtarak and Oshakan, a nearby big village plastered with Ter-Petrosian’s campaign posters, Sarkisian was mobbed by people keen to hand him letters or inform him about their grievances orally. About one hundred people, many of them teachers and students of the two village schools, gathered outside Oshakan’s famous church to listen to his planned speech. However, the rally was cancelled at the last minute for unknown reasons, with Sarkisian only visiting the church and briefly talking to some locals afterwards.
“The classes were cancelled today because of the rally,” said one teenage girl. “We want to see the prime minister. We hope he will become our president.’
But one of her teachers was less certain about that as she awaited Sarkisian’s arrival. “To he honest, I’ve still not made a final decision,” she told RFE/RL.