By Karine Kalantarian and Astghik Bedevian
President Serzh Sarkisian urged public support for his government on Friday as he discussed the growing impact of the global economic crisis on Armenia with the leaders of nearly 50 parties mainly loyal to him.
The meeting, boycotted by the country’s main opposition forces, began with speeches by Sarkisian and his prime minister, Tigran Sarkisian, and continued behind the closed doors for about four hours.
“The reality is that unless we confront this crisis with joint efforts, everyone, the entire society will suffer,” the president said in his speech. “It would be at least imprudent to leave the government alone in the face of this danger.”
In an apparent reference to the opposition, Sarkisian said that no Armenian party should not try to draw “political dividends” from the worsening socioeconomic situation in the country. “This is the moment when drawing political benefits, taking subversive steps would mean adding to the crisis, rather than fighting against its effects,” he said.
Sarkisian also stressed the importance of public optimism and belief in the country’s bright future. “Thank God, our population is displaying a prudent behavior in the crisis, not succumbing to a panic that would needlessly complicate the situation,” he said.
Prime Minister Sarkisian, for his part, reiterated and defended the Armenian government’s strategy of reducing the fallout from the global downturn. A key element of that strategy is large-scale road, housing and other infrastructure projects mainly financed by foreign donors. The government also plans to use external loans and grants for providing credit to small and medium-sized enterprises.
The Armenian premier further pledged “targeted” government assistance to local companies which would result in new jobs and boost the country’s modest exports. He said the government’s anti-crisis task force has already approved 25 billion drams ($68 million) in financial aid to 18 firms.
Speaking to RFE/RL after the meeting, Tigran Sarkisian said he received many “serious proposals” from party leaders relating to not only economic policy but the rule of law and government transparency. Some participants also criticized the government, he said. “All this is important for us to understand current public moods, views and assessments,” he said.
“We could not have come up with a recipe for addressing Armenia’s problems,” said Vazgen Manukian, a former prime minister leading the once influential National Democratic Union party. “But the fact that people jointly discuss their common pain creates an atmosphere and opportunities for solving problems.”
Manukian also made the point that the government has to be “law-abiding and fair” if it is enjoy public confidence.
Opposition leaders, meanwhile, defended their decision to boycott the meeting. The boycott reflected the opposition’s refusal to engage in any form of dialogue with the Sarkisian administration before the release of all opposition members and supporters arrested following the February 2008 presidential election.
“How would I look our imprisoned comrades in the eyes after that?” said Hrant Bagratian, another former premier affiliated with the main opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK). “My participation in that meeting would deal a blow to the political prisoners,” he told RFE/RL.
“Our participation would have been meaningless and would not have been understood by the public,” agreed Aram Sarkisian, another HAK leader. He dismissed Friday’s meeting as a government gimmick.
Another opposition force, the Zharangutyun party, also accused the authorities of ignoring opposition views on key challenges facing Armenia. “Besides, we have a more important discussion today: a meeting of the party’s board,” said Armen Martirosian, a Zharangutyun leader.