By Astghik Bedevian and Ruzanna Stepanian
The parliament faction of the governing Orinats Yerkir Party was hit by yet another defection on Wednesday as its leader, Artur Baghdasarian, faced what appears to be mounting government pressure to resign as speaker of Armenia’s National Assembly.
Sources close to the Armenian government told RFE/RL that President Robert Kocharian has personally decided to seek Baghdasarian’s ouster and instructed aides to engineer a break-up of the Orinats Yerkir faction as part of the effort.
Four of the faction members quit Baghdasarian’s party late last week without providing a clear explanation. They were joined by another lawmaker, Samvel Shahgeldian, on Wednesday.
All five defectors are wealthy businessmen connected to the government. Their exit left Orinats Yerkir, which boasted the second largest parliament just a few days ago, in control of only 14 of the 131 National Assembly seats, putting it on a par with the opposition Artarutyun alliance.
Baghdasarian said through a spokeswoman that he will not comment on the situation for the moment. But another senior Orinats Yerkir parliamentarian sought to downplay the development. “That is their right. They may join and leave the Orinats Yerkir Party,” said Hovannes Markarian.
Markarian claimed that Orinats Yerkir, which has three ministers in Kocharian’s government, remains the largest political party in Armenia and will not be weakened by the exodus of some of its wealthiest members. “There is nothing dangerous or tragic in the fact the number of our members has fallen from 62,000 to 61,995 or 61,994,” he said.
However, observers believe that the dwindling ranks of Orinats Yerkir lawmakers are making it increasingly difficult for Baghdasarian to cling to the second most important position in the Armenian state hierarchy. Government sources said several other wealthy deputies, including a brother of Yerevan Mayor Yervand Zakharian, will also leave his party in the coming days.
A senior member of Prime Minister Andranik Markarian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), who asked not to be identified, told RFE/RL that the government-orchestrated defections are aimed at forcing Baghdasarian to step down. He warned that the latter’s refusal to quit willingly would force the authorities to “work with” hardcore Orinats Yerkir deputies as well.
In another indication of his growing estrangement from Armenia’s leadership, Baghdasarian was not among senior officials who accompanied Kocharian during Tuesday’s official ceremony in Yerevan that marked the 61st anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. Sources said Kocharian did not want to be seen with him in public and told him not to attend the event.
Baghdasarian’s resignation would be a serious blow to his reputed presidential ambitions and could also spell an end to his party’s presence in the government alongside the HHK and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation. The three pro-presidential parties have had an uneasy rapport ever since they signed a power-sharing agreement with Kocharian in June 2003.
Baghdasarian and Orinats Yerkir have repeatedly incurred the HHK’s ire for publicly criticizing a government of which they are a member. The government was most recently attacked and embarrassed by Orinats Yerkir last month over its controversial privatization policies.
The ensued defections of Baghdasarian’s loyalists suggest that Kocharian has also grown exasperated with this opposition-style tactic. Some analysts say the 37-year-old speaker’s recent calls for Armenia’s accession to NATO and his acknowledgement of serious fraud in the last Armenian presidential and parliamentary elections were the last straw for Kocharian.
Artashes Geghamian, the leader of the opposition National Unity Party (AMK), agreed with these explanations. “The [government] guys’ patience snapped when Artur Baghdasarian stated that Armenia’s future is NATO,” he told RFE/RL.
But Geghamian insisted that Baghdasarian and his party will remain loyal to Kocharian even if they are squeezed out of government. “Mr. Baghdasarian’s respect for Robert Kocharian is so great that if Mr. Kocharian tells him to quit Orinats Yerkir, I think Baghdasarian will comply,” he said. “Their relations are very close and warm.”
Geghamian added that he and most Armenians will recognize Orinats Yerkir as an opposition force only if it “repents” its collaboration with the ruling regime and other “sins.”
Aram Sarkisian, another opposition leader affiliated with Artarutyun, was more sympathetic to the embattled speaker. “Orinats Yerkir has not been forgiven the fact that while being in government it has expressed, from time to time, opposition views on issues like privatization, NATO membership and vote rigging,” he said.
“I think Artur Baghdasarian will tender his resignation,” added Sarkisian.