Armenia’s newly reshuffled government faced fierce opposition criticism on Wednesday as the National Assembly began debating its five-year policy program that promises faster economic growth and a sizable decrease in poverty.
The program presented by Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian says that the government will aim to achieve an annual growth rate of 5-7 percent, create 100,000 new jobs and reduce the official poverty rate, which currently stands at 36 percent, by at least 8 percentage points. It also calls for more government efforts to tackle corruption and strengthen “justice” in the country.
“We are setting more ambitious goals and there are objective grounds for that,” Sarkisian told lawmakers. “We can see that our economy has entered a phase of recovery.”
Deputies from the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), which holds the majority of parliament seats, praised the document. The parliamentary faction of Orinats Yerkir, the HHK’s junior coalition partner, also backed its approval by the assembly, something which would amount to a vote of confidence in the cabinet.
The four other parliamentary factions rejected the plan of actions as too ambiguous, reaffirming their plans to vote against it. Their representatives claimed that the government failed to specify just how it will meet its socioeconomic targets. They also deplored few ministerial changes made by President Serzh Sarkisian after the HHK’s landslide victory in last month’s parliamentary elections.
“The same team headed by the same prime minister is aspiring to continue, with the same policies and philosophy, the work in which it did not succeed while implementing the previous government’s program,” said Naira Zohrabian of the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), the second largest parliamentary force that was part of the ruling coalition until recently.
Vartan Oskanian, another senior BHK lawmaker, said Sarkisian failed to mention the fact that the government has increased budgetary spending in recent years thanks to large-scale external borrowing. “You didn’t say a word about the debt, the fact that [the ratio of] our public debt rose from 17 percent [of GDP] when you took office in 2008 to 45 percent,” Oskanian told the premier.
Opposition lawmakers were also critical of the program. Hrant Bagratian, a former prime minister representing the Armenian National Congress (HAK), said that the growth target set by the government is too modest and called into question new jobs promised by it.
“Serzh Sarkisian already promised to create 100,000 jobs in 2008,” Bagratian said. “That has become fashionable. According to official data, the number of employed persons rose by 1,800 from 2008 through 2011. Serzh Sarkisian’s promise has been fulfilled by 1 percent.”
Nikol Pashinian, another HAK deputy, questioned government pledges to liberalize lucrative sectors of the Armenian economy controlled by de facto monopolies. He wondered if anyone in Armenia will be able to import fuel and basic foodstuffs.
“The government cannot aim to have 30 entities importing fuel because it’s the market that decides whether there will be 30 or 3 of them,” replied Sarkisian. “The state’s mission is not to break up big businesses. The state’s mission is to create conditions for equal competition so that if there is a company in Armenia that wants to import sugar or fuel it doesn’t face obstacles.”
“My understanding is that the government will take the kind of measures that it took in the past and nothing will change in reality,” shot back Pashinian.
Alexander Arzumanian of the opposition Zharangutyun (Heritage) party was also scathing about the government plan, dismissing it as a “collection of toasts” “We live in Armenia and hear such toasts at family parties every week,” he told the parliament.
The debates will continue on Thursday.