By Emil Danielyan
President Robert Kocharian said the proper conduct of the upcoming presidential election is vital for Armenia’s stability and development as he delivered his last New Year’s address to the nation in his capacity as head of state.
In his traditional televised speech broadcast late on December 31, Kocharian described the past year as “one of the most successful” in Armenia’s post-Soviet history and stressed the need to further raise living standards in the country.
“Presidential elections will take place at the beginning of next year,” he said. “Their proper conduct will be a guarantee of stability for the next five years. Without stability it is meaningless to talk about success.”
Kocharian, whose victory in the last two Armenian presidential elections was marred by reports of serious fraud, would not say just how his administration plans to ensure the freedom and fairness of the vote scheduled for February 19. He mentioned instead Armenia’s May 2007 parliamentary elections that were swept by political allies of his preferred successor, Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian. The outcome of the polls showed “the maturity of our society,” he said.
In his own New Year’s message aired shortly before Kocharian’s, Sarkisian made no mention of the parliamentary and presidential elections, saying only that 2007 was “a year of the strengthening of democracy.” The speech followed television images of Sarkisian visiting an Armenian army unit deployed on the Azerbaijani border and sharing a meal with soldiers. The prime minister, widely seen as the election favorite, then made a point of addressing the nation against the backdrop of Armenian frontline trenches.
Both Sarkisian and Kocharian emphasized the fact that the Armenian economy continued to expand robustly in 2007. Official statistics show it growing by 13.6 percent in the first eleven months of the year.
“That allowed us to direct more resources at social issues, the most important of which is poverty reduction,” the outgoing president said, adding that ensuring a higher “quality of life” for Armenians is the number one challenge facing the country.
“We are seeking to ensure that economic growth affects the well-being of every citizen, that there are fewer poor people, that our life is not confined to day-to-day chores, that all of our children are happy,” Sarkisian said, for his part. “I assure you that I am well aware of the problems of our country and our citizens, more aware than one can imagine,” he added.
Armenian opposition leaders, notably former President Levon Ter-Petrosian, say that economic betterment is seriously hampered by what they call a monopolization of the most lucrative forms of business by Armenia’s two top leaders and their cronies. Ter-Petrosian, who is also running for president, has accused Kocharian and Sarkisian of leading a “kleptocracy” that has pocketed billions of dollars in unpaid taxes in the last few years. Both men have hit back at the allegations, saying that the ex-president himself had mismanaged the economy while in power.
Meeting with Armenia’s leading businessmen on December 27, Kocharian denied the existence of economic monopolies led by a handful of tycoons close to himself or Sarkisian. In particular, the so-called oligarchs control the highly lucrative imports of fuel, wheat, sugar and other basic commodities and hardly face any competition from other firms. Kocharian claimed that the latter are not venturing into the imports business for purely “psychological” reasons.