Fotolur photo: Opposition deputies keeping Environment Minister Vartan Ayvazian from addressing the parliament
By Armen Zakarian, Atom Markarian and Shakeh Avoyan
Pro-government and opposition members of the Armenian parliament narrowly avoided large-scale violence on Tuesday as their bitter row over proposed impeachment proceedings against President Robert Kocharian kept the legislature paralyzed for the second day running.
Speaker Armen Khachatrian called another one-day break after making several unsuccessful attempts to restore order in the parliament hall where several opposition deputies continued to disrupt proceedings by refusing to leave its podium. They occupied it on Monday in protest against Khachatrian’s refusal to allow an impeachment debate.
The 131-member National Assembly was poised for a mass fistfight when one of the protesting lawmakers, Aramayis Barseghian, was punched in the head by a member of a non-partisan faction supporting Kocharian. Scores of deputies menacingly rose from seats in anticipation of a major clash.
However, their attention turned to a member of the largely neutral Hayastan faction, Hakob Hakobian, who unleashed a litany of abuse at the parliament’s pro-presidential majority, enraged by the assault on Barseghian. Tensions somewhat eased after Hakobian, who is the deputy chairman of the influential Yerkrapah Union of Nagorno-Karabakh war veterans, left the chamber, facing no protests against his strongly-worded insults.
The violent incident followed bitter verbal exchanges between the two rival camps, with the parliament leadership and majority demanding that the protesters leave the main rostrum. But the latter did not cave in to the pressure, insisting that Khachatrian “illegally” refused to include the impeachment issue on the parliament agenda. At one point they physically prevented Environment Minister Vartan Ayvazian from delivering a scheduled speech to the deputies.
The rising tensions prompted Khachatrian to announce that no deputy will be allowed to bring firearms inside the parliament compound starting on Wednesday. Some parliamentarians are known to carry pistols even during regular sessions.
The parliament standoff was on Tuesday condemned by Kocharian who laid the blame on the opposition, describing its actions as “hooliganism.” He threatened to take unspecified action if the deputies fail to overcome the crisis.
“I don’t think that the parliament should be held hostage by several, to put it mildly, undisciplined deputies,” Kocharian told reporters in Yerevan. “If this situation drags on and if there is a request from the parliament, then we will definitely step in and show that deputies too must keep order.”
The dispute results from efforts by an alliance of 13 opposition parties to prompt impeachment proceedings against Kocharian whom they accuse of violating the Armenian constitution to tighten his grip on power. They last month failed to collect at least 44 signatures in the parliament which are needed to force a debate on the issue. But shortly afterwards they invoked a legal loophole allowing them to do so without enlisting the required support.
Opposition deputies reacted furiously when they learned that a three-day draft agenda proposed by Khachatrian on Monday does not contain their motion to seek the president’s impeachment. They accused the speaker of violating the parliament statutes.
“Khachatrian has committed a crime and must be punished in accordance with the Criminal Code,” a senior member of the Hanrapetutyun party, Artak Zeynalian, told several hundred opposition supporters that again gathered outside the parliament building.
Kocharian, however, defended the embattled speaker’s actions. He also criticized the findings of an ad hoc parliamentary commission monitoring the official inquiry into the October 1999 shootings in the parliament. The commission’s recent report, which blamed the law-enforcement agencies for their failure to forestall the massacre, was used by the opposition as a pretext for revitalizing the impeachment issue.
Opposition leaders, meanwhile, said they are determined to continue to disrupt the parliament proceedings until their demands are met. Hanrapetutyun’s leader, Albert Bazeyan, warned pro-Kocharian lawmakers against exerting more “physical pressure” on their colleagues occupying the rostrum. “If they use more violence against their colleagues, we will go after them,” he said.