The pro-government majority in the Armenian parliament ratified on Monday a highly controversial gas agreement with Russia, in a vote which was denounced as invalid by Armenia’s leading opposition forces and accompanied by fresh street protests.
The deal, which critics consider a serious blow to Armenia’s sovereignty, was backed by 77 members of the 131-seat National Assembly mainly representing President Serzh Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK). Deputies from the three opposition parties represented in the assembly as well as the opposition-leaning Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK) walked out of the main parliament auditorium in protest.
The pro-government lawmakers decided to vote by hand, instead of using the customary electronic voting system, after it emerged that some of them had their plastic magnetic cards taken away by one of their outspoken opposition colleagues, Zaruhi Postanjian of the Zharangutyun (Heritage). “Shame on you,” speaker Hovik Abrahamian said, accusing Postanjian and other opposition deputies of resorting to “fraud” and “trickery.”
Postanjian was unrepentant about her actions. “There was no other effective way of preventing the ratification of this disgraceful agreement,” she told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
Postanjian and other opposition minority leaders declared the vote null and void moments before the walkout. In an ensuing joint statement, they cited the National Assembly’s statutes stipulating that if the electronic system is not used votes should be counted by the parliament’s special Counting Commission. They argued that the vote count was done instead by Abrahamian and his two deputies.
“The treaty has not been ratified,” read the statement signed by Postanjian, BHK’s Naira Zohrabian, Levon Zurabian, the parliamentary leader of the Armenian National Congress (HAK), and Armen Rustamian of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun).
“The Russian Federation, the outside world must be aware that the agreement has not been ratified,” Nikol Pashinian, another opposition deputy not affiliated with any of these four parties, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
“If anybody transfers any assets of the Republic of Armenia to somebody else on the basis of this non-ratified agreement, we will deal with that somebody in a proper manner,” warned Pashinian.
The oppositionists also announced that they will jointly appeal to the Constitutional Court to annul the deal’s ratification in the next few days.
The parliament majority insisted, however, that the vote result was valid. “If a deputy votes for something, who can refuse to count their vote?” said Sukias Avetisian, the chairman of the Counting Commission.
The deal in question, which was signed during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent visit to Armenia, formalizes the sale of the Armenian government’s 20 percent share in the domestic gas distribution network to Russia’s Gazprom monopoly. In return, Gazprom will write off a $300 million debt which the government has incurred as a result of secretly subsidizing the price of Russian natural gas supplied to Armenia since 2011.
More importantly, the deal stipulates that the current and future Armenian governments cannot raise taxes or make any other changes in the regulatory environment for the Gazprom-owned network until January 2044. The Armenian side is also obliged to ensure that domestic gas tariffs in the country are high enough for Gazprom to recoup 9 percent of its capital investments in the network annually.
These unprecedented privileges have prompted vehement objections from opposition members and anti-government activists opposed to Armenia’s planned accession to a Russian-led customs union. Hundreds of them braved an unusually cold weather to demonstrate outside the parliament building in Yerevan on Monday.
The protesters chanted “Free, independent Armenia!” and jeered pro-government deputies as the latter made their way into the chamber in the morning. Some of them tried to force their way into the parliament compound surrounded by high walls and railings. Riot police stepped in to stop them opening massive metal gates outside the main entrance.
Minority leaders addressed the protesters immediately after the boycott. Many in the crowd urged all opposition parliamentarians to surrender their mandates. “That wouldn’t solve any issue,” countered Aram Manukian, a deputy from the HAK.
Monday’s vote also sparked an unprecedented protest staged on the parliament floor by journalists accredited in the National Assembly. Four of them stood by the podium, holding up posters that urged the HHK majority not to ratify the gas accord. Several other reporters protested from the press gallery overlooking the auditorium. They banged their fists on windows separating them from the legislators.