The pro-government majority in the National Assembly put an end on Monday to opposition control over a key parliament committee that has declared invalid Armenia’s recent controversial deal with Russia’s Gazprom natural gas monopoly.
The Counting Committee tasked with organizing non-electronic parliament votes has until now had seven members representing various factions. The three opposition parties represented in the parliament as well as the opposition-leaning Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK) each held one seat in the panel, giving them control over its activities.
The opposition minority exploited this lever when it tried to scuttle parliamentary ratification of the Russian-Armenian gas agreement in late December. The deal was backed by 72 members of the 131-seat assembly by a show of hands. Speaker Hovik Abrahamian decided not to use the electronic voting system after an opposition deputy controversially collected electronic voting cards from about two dozen pro-government colleagues.
The four opposition members of the Counting Committee afterwards alleged serious procedural violations in the vote, declaring its outcome null and void. The pro-government majority insisted, however, that it was ratified.
Opening the National Assembly’s spring session on Monday, majority leaders put forward changes in the parliamentary statutes whereby the committee will now gave 11 members, 6 of representing the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) and its junior coalition partner, Orinats Yerkir. HHK and Orinats Yerkir deputies promptly backed the initiative.
Manvel Badeyan, an HHK lawmaker, acknowledged that the purpose of the measure is to strip the opposition minority of one of its few levers. He complained that the Counting Committee has been in a position to block decisions made by the parliament majority.
Minority leaders condemned the changes and said their factions will boycott the new committee. “Since the majority cannot work in equal conditions it wants to have a majority everywhere,” said Armen Rustamian of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation.
Citing Badeyan’s remarks, Vartan Oskanian, a former foreign minister affiliated with the BHK, said the ruling party has effectively admitted that the gas accord was not ratified.
The deal formalized the sale of the Armenian government’s 20 percent share in the domestic gas distribution network to Gazprom. In return, Gazprom wrote off a $300 million debt which the government has incurred as a result of secretly subsidizing the price of Russian gas supplied to Armenia since 2011.
More importantly, the deal stipulates that the current and future Armenian governments cannot 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 domestic gas tariffs in the country are high enough for Gazprom to recoup 9 percent of its capital investments in the network annually.
These unprecedented privileges prompted vehement objections from opposition members and anti-government activists, many of them opposed to Armenia’s planned accession to a Russian-led customs union. They say the agreement deals a further blow to the country’s sovereignty.