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Armenia’s government faced strong criticism from the parliamentary opposition on Monday as the National Assembly began debating its plans to introduce a new tax for sharply increasing compensation paid to the families of soldiers killed or seriously wounded in action.

Under a government bill unveiled last week, the closest relatives of soldiers who die or become gravely disabled while on combat duty would be paid 10 million drams ($21,000). Wounded soldiers suffering from less serious disabilities will be entitled to 5 million drams.

In addition to these one-off payouts, the families of killed or maimed army officers, contract soldiers and conscripts would receive monthly pensions ranging from 100,000 to 300,000 drams for 20 years.

The compensation scheme would apply to combat incidents happening after January 2017. It would be financed from a special fund to which every working Armenian would contribute 1,000 drams (just over $2) per month.

The government initiative has prompted criticism from opposition politicians, civil society activists and other critics of the government. They say that it is inherently unfair.

“It means that we are trying to play on the feelings of the people to introduce an additional tax under such a smokescreen,” Levon Zurabian, a leader of the opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK), said at the start of parliamentary debates on the bill.

“This is a very cynical and dangerous approach,” charged Zurabian.

“The public does not share the view that the tax burden must be raised by 1,000 drams,” said another opposition lawmaker, Zaruhi Postanjian. “Stop engaging in begging,” she went on, appealing to the government.

Armenia - Army soldiers are lined up at their military base in eastern Armenia, 21Oct2014.

Armenia - Army soldiers are lined up at their military base in eastern Armenia, 21Oct2014.

Defense Minister Vigen Sargsian defended the scheme when he presented it to the parliament. He said at the same time that the government is open to discussing critics’ specific concerns and amending the bill.

“I find very logical views expressed in recent days to the effect that families whose members are now army conscripts should not pay this money,” said Sargsian. “I will personally see to it that this amendment is added to the draft because it’s very logical and correct.”

The recently appointed minister added that the families of killed or disabled military personnel should also be exempt from the new tax.

Sargsian went on to dismiss critics arguments that instead of placing an additional financial burden on ordinary citizens the government should crack down on corrupt state officials and retrieve public funds embezzled or misused by them.

“I would be very happy if every member of the National Assembly as well as relevant state bodies more directly responsible for the matter named, one by one, those who have tried to make their families prosperous at the expense of the defense budget” he said. “But I am deeply convinced that this is simply impossible for not only legal but also moral and many other reasons,”

Sargsian further asserted that the government is too cash-strapped to finance the much higher payouts from the state budget.

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