Opposition lawmakers accused Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian of profligacy on Friday after it emerged that his most recent trips abroad cost the Armenian state budget almost 80 million drams ($200,000) in air travel expenses alone.
Information posted on the government website indicates that the money was spent on special charter flights to Saint-Petersburg , Moscow and Brussels which were carried out by a private airline, Air Armenia, in mid-September and October.
The main purposes of Sarkisian’s visits were to co-chair a meeting of a Russian-Armenian intergovernmental commission, discuss Armenia’s planned accession to the Russian-led customs union with Russian deputy prime ministers and to attend a meeting of the European People’s Party (EPP), a grouping of Europe’s leading conservative parties.
Sarkisian represented the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) at the EPP meeting. The Brussels trip proved the most expensive, with the government spending 31 million drams to hire an Air Armenia plane for the HHK delegation headed by the premier.
Representatives of the opposition minority in the Armenian parliament were quick to decry the cost of air travel, saying that it is too exorbitant for a cash-strapped country like Armenia. “The prime minister could have easily travelled on regular flights from Yerevan, instead of hiring a plane for that purpose,” said Zaruhi Postanjian of the Zharangutyun (Heritage) party.
“Why don’t our citizens get decent wages and pensions? Because our state budget is used in such an extravagant way. I believe that in a poor country like Armenia such luxury is not only inadmissible but also illegal,” Postanjian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
“We have a special prime minister who can afford such luxury,” Lyudmila Sargsian, a deputy from the opposition Armenian National Congress, commented with sarcasm. “If the prime minister thinks that the situation in our country is so good and the people are so prosperous, then his actions are absolutely justified.”
“We are scrapping 18,000-dram unemployment benefits and organizing charter flights instead. I don’t think it’s right and ethical,” agreed Stepan Markarian, a senior lawmaker from the opposition-leaning Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK).
A government spokesman, Susanna Tonoyan, dismissed the criticism, saying that the exclusive charter flights were “expedient” because Sarkisian’s trips resulted in important agreements for Armenia. Tonoyan singled out the signing of agreement in Brussels between the government and a U.S. company to construct a medical center in Armenia that will specialize in treatment of cancer.
It is not clear why Tigran Sarkisian and his delegation were not flown to Russia or Belgium by a state-owned Airbus A319 jet which is used by President Serzh Sarkisian on his trips abroad.