By Astghik BedevianWealthy government-connected businessmen holding seats in Armenia’s parliament continue to avoid legal sanctions for their notoriously poor attendance of its sessions and have speaker Artur Baghdasarian to thank for that.
Under Armenian law, members of the National Assembly have to revoke the mandates of those of their colleagues who miss more than half of the parliament votes without “legitimate reasons.”
Parliament records made available to RFE/RL on Thursday show that the vast majority of wealthy lawmakers were rarely present at the assembly’s last semi-annual session which ended in late December. But officials there said none of them is now facing dismissal as Baghdasarian has accepted written justifications filed by them in the course of last month.
Their most common explanation was that they had to take care of their businesses and had no time to debate and vote on bills. It only bears out the widely held belief that membership of the parliament is primarily a badge of prestige and additional security guarantee for many of Armenia’s wealthiest citizens.
The absenteeism record belongs to Gagik Tsarukian, an influential “oligarch” close to President Robert Kocharian. He missed at least 171 of the 202 votes that took place on the parliament floor in the second half of 2005. Journalists last spotted him in the chamber in the summer of 2003, shortly after the last legislative election in which he ran unopposed. Tsarukian, who was elected to the National Assembly from his de facto fiefdom north of Yerevan, has recently set up a political party which reportedly aims to win the next election due in 2007.
Parliament staffers told RFE/RL that in a letter to Baghdasarian, Tsarukian explained that he routinely skipped parliament debates because of traveling abroad for business and private purposes. They said he made it clear that the trips were unrelated to legislative work.
Similar reasons were given by another millionaire deputy, Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian’s brother Aleksandr. He has spent much of the past year in Western Europe and the United States, reportedly spending hefty sums on real estate. Speaking to journalists in Yerevan last October, Sarkisian effectively admitted having moved some of his assets overseas.
Several other absentee lawmakers submitted even more questionable explanations that were also deemed “legitimate” by the speaker. Mikael Vartanian, who was elected to the parliament on the Armenian Revolutionary Federation ticket along with his father Hrant, claimed to have been busy organizing May Day celebrations for the employees of their tobacco factories.
The most bizarre explanation came from Mkhitar Varagian, a little-known parliamentarian from northern town of Artik. He claimed to have spent months in hospital to receive treatment for “food allergy.” His parliament seat also seems safe until the next election.
Not all wealthy deputies rarely seen in the National Assembly had to file such statements, though. For example, official parliament statistics show oligarchs Harutiun Pambukian and Samvel Aleksanian participating in most votes. Reporters covering the Armenian parliament strongly disagree with this and believe that these and some other deputies have their colleagues vote in their place. Aleksanian, who controls the lucrative imports of sugar, wheat and cooking oil to Armenia, allegedly pays for such services.
Rafik Petrosian, chairman of the parliament committee on legal affairs, admitted that multiple voting by deputies has become a serious problem. He said he will lobby for amendments in the parliament statutes that would make the practice illegal and punishable by sanctions.
The businessmen, who hold a considerable part of the 131 parliament seats, have already been directly affected by one of the recently enacted amendments to the Armenian constitution that bans them from heading or sitting on the governing boards of private firms. Justice Minister David Harutiunian urged them in December to comply with the new requirement. However, few believe that it will prevent them from continuing to run their companies.