Businessman Gagik Tsarukian stoked more speculation about discord within the governing coalition on Monday when lawmakers from his Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK) blocked a government bill strongly backed by their colleagues loyal to President Serzh Sarkisian.
The bill involved a package of draft amendments to several economic laws. The most important of them would ban cash transactions among businesses exceeding 3 million drams ($7,770). The Armenian government says the measure would improve tax administration and make tax evasion more difficult.
Members of the BHK’s parliamentary faction, the second largest in the National Assembly, did not take part in a vote on the proposed amendments to ensure that it does not make a quorum and is deemed null and void. The bill failed to muster enough support even when speaker Samvel Nikoyan put it to the vote for a second time. Only 56 deputies of the 131-member assembly, almost all of them members of Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), were on hand to back it.
Nikoyan and other senior Republicans were quick to attack the BHK for what was a rare parliamentary fiasco suffered by the presidential party. The Republican speaker said the bill’s opponents lost the moral right to “talk about tax collection, justice and other issues on behalf of the people and in front of them.”
“Every faction has now exposed its real stance on the fight against corruption,” said Eduard Sharmazanov, a deputy parliament speaker and the chief HHK spokesman.
“Prosperous Armenia is not against the draft law. We just consider it premature for our society,” countered Samvel Balasanian, the other vice-speaker affiliated with the BHK.
Other senior BHK parliamentarians rejected the HHK criticism. But they claimed at the same time that it should not be construed as further proof of serious disagreements between Sarkisian and Tsarukian.
“Attempts to look for political disagreements between us and the Republican Party behind a technically imperfect bill are unfounded,” one of them, Aram Safarian, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
One of Armenia’s richest men, Tsarukian made much of his fortune during former President Robert Kocharian’s rule and is though to be close to Sarkisian’s predecessor. The tycoon has reportedly been under government pressure to reaffirm support for the incumbent president’s reelection plans. He has refrained from doing that so far.
Representatives of the Armenian parliament’s opposition minority, which also refused to back the government bill, insisted that the BHK stance highlighted mounting tensions within the ruling coalition. “Disagreements are serious and this is only one occasion to demonstrate them,” said Stepan Safarian of the Zharangutyun (Heritage) party.
Speaking to RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am), Safarian primarily attributed those differences to next year’s presidential election. He said the two governing parties also disagree on the number of seats they should have in the next parliament to be elected in May.
The BHK’s decision to block the proposed amendments may also lead to a renewed media spotlight on dozens of large and medium-sized businesses owned by Tsarukian. They have for years posted modest earnings contrasting with the tycoon’s conspicuous wealth.
Naira Zohrabian, a senior Tsarukian aide and BHK deputy, disagreed with government claims that the bill’s passage would deal a major blow to the informal sector of the economy. She claimed that it would not only benefit Armenian banks.