By Karine Kalantarian
Parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian and Justice Minister David Harutiunian were embroiled on Tuesday in an angry spat over a parliamentary report that accuses the government of misusing a 1999 World Bank loan designed to strengthen Armenia’s judiciary.
The two men publicly clashed on the second day of a National Assembly debate on an annual report submitted by the parliament’s Audit Chamber effectively controlled by Baghdasarian. It alleges “serious abuses” and “law violations” in the use of public funds by various government agencies.
The oversight body was particularly scathing about the “inefficient use” of a $4.45 million loan provided by the World Bank in 1999 for repairing and reconstructing 20 rundown court buildings across Armenia. Its report points out that with 99 percent of the money already spent, only 11 courts have benefited from the program.
Harutiunian, who has overseen its implementation, dismissed as “populist” the report and lawmakers’ speeches in support of it. He claimed that the government has been unable to improve conditions in the remaining nine court houses because of recent years’ surge in the prices of construction materials.
“I am concerned that inaccuracies in this report which are obvious and undisputed have not been rectified,” Harutiunian told the deputies. “Why [haven’t they been corrected]? To create more illusions of abuses?”
A furious Baghdasarian who presided over the debate interrupted the minister to defend the Chamber’s findings. “Please do not make evaluations,” he said. “Please present your response, instead of accusing the entire National Assembly and the Audit Chamber of populism.”
“People must learn to listen to criticism,” he raged at Harutiunian in an ensued speech. “They have rebuilt nine court houses and ran out of money. Who will be held accountable? They should have calculated expenses correctly.”
The 35-year-old speaker, who has often been accused of resorting to populism to further his agenda, went on to demand that the Office of Prosecutor-General open a criminal investigation into the report. “We must see to it that the guilty be held accountable,” he said.
Harutiunian toned down his vehement objections after the debate, telling journalists that he did not seek to question the credibility of the Audit Chamber. “I was concerned about some populist statements contained in the [deputies’] speeches and questions,” he said.
Although the report made damaging claims about a string of government agencies, including the customs and taxation services, Harutiunian is the only cabinet member to have denounced its content.
The use of the World Bank’s infrastructure loans by the government was already strongly criticized by a separate parliamentary inquiry in March. An ad hoc commission led by deputy speaker Vahan Hovannisian focused its criticism on a $30 million loan program launched by the bank in 1999 for improving water supplies in Yerevan. The commission concluded that the program has failed to achieve its main objectives, alleging widespread fraud and mismanagement during its implementation.
Prime Minister Andranik Markarian and other top officials have rebutted the charges. Their position was endorsed last week by the head of the World Bank office in Yerevan who described the scheme as a success.