The ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) ruled out the possibility of former President Robert Kocharian’s return to the political arena on Wednesday as it again responded to his latest verbal attacks on the Armenian government.
The government, meanwhile, brushed aside Kocharian’s strong criticism of its recent agreement with Russia’s Gazprom monopoly, in what appeared to be a concerted counteroffensive against President Serzh Sarkisian’s predecessor. Energy Minister Armen Movsisian insisted that it is far more beneficial for Armenia than controversial Russian-Armenian energy deals that were cut during Kocharian’s 1998-2008 presidency.
The ex-president voiced the criticism on Monday in a continuing war of words with Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian over the government’s economic policies, which has fuelled fresh speculation about his political comeback.
The issue was the main theme of a news conference held by Education Minister Armen Ashotian, who is also a deputy chairman of the HHK close to President Sarkisian. Ashotian claimed that Kocharian lacks “political resources” and external support to try to return to power now, four years before the next presidential election.
“Political forces that can potentially support Robert Kocharian … are so weak that they have failed to accomplish their main task -- to weaken the prime minister and the government and thereby the president as well. So even if the former president wants to return, he can’t return with this political team,” said Ashotian.
“Our government’s relations with Russia are excellent,” he said in indirect reference to suggestions that the Kremlin might be supporting Kocharian’s political ambitions. “The external political configuration in the region does not presuppose internal political changes before and even after 2018.”
Kocharian himself has been coy so far about his return to active politics. He shed no light on his immediate plans in his latest remarks posted on his unofficial website, 2rd.am. He criticized instead the government for secretly subsidizing the price of Russian natural gas from 2011-2013 and signing a highly controversial gas agreement with Gazprom in December.
The agreement condemned by Armenia’s leading opposition forces settled the government’s $300 million debt to the Russian giant incurred as a result of the subsidy. In return, the Armenian side raised from 80 to 100 percent Gazprom’s share in ARG, the domestic gas distribution network. More importantly, Gazprom gained 30-year exclusive rights in the Armenian energy market.
In particular, the current and future Armenian governments will not be allowed to raise taxes or make any other changes in the regulatory environment for the Gazprom-owned network until January 2044. The Armenian side is also obliged to ensure that retail gas tariffs are high enough for Gazprom to recoup 9 percent of its capital investments in the network annually.
In an interview with Tert.am replete with “reminders” to Kocharian, Energy Minister Movsisian claimed that the deal does not give Gazprom “new rights or privileges.” “ARG will continue its activities in a regulatory environment in which it has operated for the past 15 years,” he said, adding that the Russians simply needed legal guarantees of returns on their investments.
Movsisian, who was appointed as energy minister by Kocharian in 2001, further stated that the latest deal with Gazprom is much better for Armenia than a controversial Russian-Armenian agreement signed in November 2002. That agreement granted Russia ownership of Armenia’s largest thermal power plant and four other state-run enterprises in payment of Yerevan’s $100 million debt to Moscow.
Movsisian said that the so-called “assets-for-debt” settlement “left behind dead enterprises that never received a chance of revival.” By contrast, he claimed, the 2013 accord with Gazprom “will breathe new life into many initiatives” in Armenia.
Incidentally, it was Serzh Sarkisian who negotiated and signed the 2002 deal with the Russians in his capacity as co-chairman of a Russian-Armenian intergovernmental commission on bilateral cooperation. Sarkisian also served as Armenia’s defense minister at the time.
Kocharian’s office said later on Wednesday that the ex-president will comment soon on Movsisian’s remarks “in detail.” In a statement, the office also said that “public reactions” to Kocharian’s latest statements have been overwhelmingly positive. “It is obvious that people have correctly understood President Kocharian’s concerns and evaluations,” it said.
The statement added that Kocharian’s critics have failed to come up any “objective counterarguments.”