By Anna Israelian and Astghik Bedevian
Parliament speaker Hovik Abrahamian has indicated that the Armenian authorities are unlikely to release dozens of jailed opposition members and supporters in order to avert sanctions by the Council of Europe.
The Strasbourg-based organization’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) will decide in late January whether to suspend the voting rights of its Armenian members because of the continuing imprisonment of some 70 oppositionists arrested following last February’s presidential election. In its two resolutions on Armenia adopted in April and June, he PACE demanded the immediate release of all individuals jailed on “seemingly artificial or politically motivated charges.”
The PACE’s Monitoring Committee said earlier this month that Yerevan has failed to comply with those resolutions and should therefore be sanctioned by the 47-nation assembly. President Serzh Sarkisian and his governing coalition hope to avoid that as a result of their upcoming negotiations with the committee’s two Armenia rapporteurs.
“We must do everything to make sure Armenia is not stripped of its voting rights,” Abrahamian told RFE/RL on Monday. “We attach great importance to our relations with the Council of Europe and other European structures.”
Abrahamian indicated that Sarkisian will not declare a general amnesty for the arrested oppositionists, an idea backed by PACE officials. He said the president may do so only after the end of the ongoing trial of seven prominent opposition figures accused of provoking the March 1 deadly clashes in Yerevan. The trial got off to a turbulent start on December 17 and is expected to take months.
Abrahamian, who is affiliated with Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), accused opposition forces led by former President Levon Ter-Petrosian of obstructing court hearings on the high-profile case. “Let the court decide,” he said. “If [the prosecutors] are wrong, it will set those people free, he said. “The judicial process will clarify many things and many things may change as a result,” he added without elaboration.
Some senior Republicans have predicted that the PACE will stop short of imposing sanctions on Armenia at the last minute. But the HHK’s coalition partners, notably the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, are less optimistic on that score.
Abrahamian also seemed confident that the Armenian government will succeed in minimizing the increasingly visible spillover effects of the global economic crisis on the country. “The economic-financial crisis will only slightly affect the Republic of Armenia because we don’t have a capital market as such in the country,” he said. “Private remittances [from Armenians working abroad] and investments will fall. [Growth in] the mining industry will slow until international prices [for non-ferrous metals] rise.”
“But in my view, measures that are taken by the government and the prime minister with the president’s approval will help us easily cope with the crisis,” he said.
In an interview with RFE/RL last week, Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian said the government will cushion the effects of the global downturn by implementing large-scale regional projects, “drastically” increasing public spending and providing hundreds of millions of dollars in cheap credit to local businesses. “This aggressive spending policy by the state will help us neutralize negative consequences [of the crisis] and create jobs,” he said.
Opposition politicians and some independent economists are skeptical about the success of these measures. The Ter-Petrosian-led opposition has criticized the government for not revising its budget for 2009, adopted last month and including concrete anti-crisis measures in it. It says the authorities should also respond to the crisis by improving the business environment and ending privileged treatment of wealthy government-connected individuals.
Abrahamian, who has extensive business interests in the southern town of Artashat and surrounding villages, is widely regarded as such an individual. He insisted on Monday that his wealth is grossly exaggerated by the opposition and the press and that he has never capitalized on his government positions.
“The businesses I own have nothing to do with my political position,” he said. “I have owned them since the 1990s.”