By Anna Israelian, Hrach Melkumian and Armen Dulian
Artur Baghdasarian insisted over the weekend that his Orinats Yerkir party is now an opposition force and admitted that President Robert Kocharian had a hand in mass defections that precipitated its exit from Armenia’s coalition government.
In an extensive interview with RFE/RL, he also played down the significance of the defections of over a dozen wealthy lawmakers from his parliamentary faction, claiming that that enabled Orinats Yerkir to “cleanse itself” and get stronger.
“Yes, we are in opposition,” he said. “Within the framework of our ideas and programs, we will be criticizing both Serzh Sarkisian and Robert Kocharian and all those whose activities will be unacceptable to us. But that doesn’t mean we must immediately start with personalized criticism.”
Baghdasarian did not rule out in that regard the possibility of Orinats Yerkir forming an alliance with some anti-Kocharian groups to contest next year’s parliamentary elections. “I don’t rule out that Orinats Yerkir will contest the elections in an alliance. But I don’t rule out that Orinats Yerkir will contest the elections single-handedly either,” he said.
Many leaders of Armenia’s mainstream opposition remain suspicious of Baghdasarian, citing his long history of cooperation with Kocharian and his continuing reluctance to attack the latter. Some, notably Artashes Geghamian of the National Unity Party (AMK), allege that Orinats Yerkir’s decision to leave the coalition was part of Kocharian’s secret plan to further weaken their political opponents.
Baghdasarian angrily rebutted Geghamian’s claims, effectively endorsing allegations that the AMK leader had been bribed by the ruling regime into withholding support for another opposition leader, Stepan Demirchian, during the second round of the 2003 presidential election. “Whereas Orinats Yerkir defended Robert Kocharian openly and publicly [during the 2003 election], Artashes Geghamian, being in opposition, did not back Stepan Demirchian in the second round,” he said. “If he did, a totally new political situation would emerge in Armenia.”
Baghdasarian went on to accuse Geghamian of secretly maintaining close ties with Kocharian’s most likely successor, Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian. “While Geghamian speaks out against Serzh Sarkisian, a member of his parliament faction supplies goods to the Defense Ministry headed by Serzh Sarkisian,” he charged, referring to businessman Gagik Kostandian.
Demirchian and other opposition heavyweights like Aram Sarkisian and Raffi Hovannisian have sounded more sympathetic to the outgoing speaker of the Armenian parliament. But some of their associates do not hide their mistrust of Baghdasarian, pointing to the fact that he avoided blaming Kocharian when he first announced his resignation and Orinats Yerkir’s exit from power on May 12.
The announcement came after the Orinats Yerkir faction, once the second largest in the National Assembly, shrunk by half in a matter of several days. Government sources said the defections were engineered by Kocharian as part of his efforts to squeeze Orinats Yerkir out of his cabinet.
Baghdasarian made it clear on Saturday that he believes Kocharian was involved in the defections. “Yes, there was pressure [exerted on the defectors] from all sides, including the presidential administration and other places,” he said.
It is still not clear what exactly led Kocharian, who had gone to great lengths to have Baghdasarian elected parliament speaker in June 2003, to put an to Orinats Yerkir’s presence in his government. Some analysts point to Baghdasarian’s April 18 interview with a major German newspaper in which he called for Armenia’s eventual accession to NATO and implied that Kocharian’s reelection in 2003 was fraudulent.
Kocharian and Orinats Yerkir have said that their “political divorce” was down to serious policy differences. Baghdasarian, however, stated as recently as on May 2 that he has no major disagreements with his coalition partners. He claimed on Saturday that those disagreements turned out to be “serious” during his subsequent “discussions” with Kocharian and the two parties remaining in government.
Baghdasarian also defended Orinats Yerkir’s three-year track record in government, dismissing allegations of populism that still dog the party. “The parliament became an open body; we tried to enact numerous laws; we made sure that no schools or kindergartens are put on sale in Armenia today,” he said. He claimed credit for the ongoing reform of Armenia’s public education sector and modest compensation of some of those citizens whose Soviet-era bank savings had been wiped out during the hyperinflation of the early 1990s. Critics will counter, however, that none of that has had a serious impact on the day-to-day lives of most ordinary Armenians.
The 37-year-old politician, seen as a potentially major contender in the 2008 presidential election, further asserted that Orinats Yerkir has not been weakened by the exodus of its wealthiest members connected to the government. “Only 15-20 people left Orinats Yerkir. Good for us. That was a gift from God,” he said. “Our team remains strong and has cleansed itself. Orinats Yerkir has tens of thousands of members. Orinats Yerkir is getting stronger every hour, no matter how hard they try to attack and destroy Orinats Yerkir.”
“Today we are the largest political organization in Armenia,” added Baghdasarian. “We enjoy quite weighty support inside the country and are understood outside it. Forces sharing our value system are numerous, and we will continue to follow that path.”