By Karine Kalantarian
The Armenian parliament overwhelmingly approved on Thursday controversial government bills that have drawn strong protests from many small traders and environment protection groups.
One of the bills allows the government to press ahead with its plans to lower the rising water level of Armenia’s ecologically vital Lake Sevan. The government wants to do that by considerably increasing the volume of water flowing out of Sevan into the river Hrazdan that feeds a cascade of hydro-electric power plants and the fruit-growing Ararat Valley south of Yerevan.
Andranik Andreasian, head of the State Committee on Water Resources, insisted that the measure is aimed at helping local farmers fend off consequences of a brief summer drought. He said the country’s artificial water reservoirs are running low on water at the moment.
“Sevan has strategic water reserves and we need those reserves today,” Andreasian told lawmakers. “We are doing this for the first time in eight years.”
Environmentalists claim, however, that the government simply wants to salvage expensive houses and resorts located along Sevan’s coastline. Those properties have been at growing risk of being submerged by Sevan’s rising waters.
“I still don’t believe that the measure is about boosting agriculture,” said Karine Danielian, a former environment minister and prominent ecologist. “It’s about something else.”
The environmentalists’ concerns were shared by opposition parliamentarians and some of their pro-government colleagues, including Vahan Hovannisian, the parliamentary leader of the governing Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun). Nonetheless, members of the Dashnaktsutyun faction in the National Assembly voted for the bill.
Hovannisian said they decided to go along with the government measure because they believe it will save 250,000 farmers from economic “collapse.” He said local agriculture needs to be boosted now that Armenia’s economic growth could slow down as a result of the war in neighboring Georgia.
The National Assembly also passed an equally controversial package of government-drafted amendments to more than a dozen Armenian laws regulating tax collection. The amendments are part of a three-year government program designed to significantly reduce the scale of tax evasion in the country.
One of changes scrapped a preferential form of taxation that has been enjoyed until now by small retail traders at non-agricultural markets across Armenia. They will no longer be exempt from value-added and other taxes levied from larger businesses.
Many traders fear that the measure will force them out of business. Hundreds of them demonstrated outside the parliament building in Yerevan earlier this week.