Armenian Speaker Quits

Resignation of parliamentary chairman may be a prelude to a bid for the presidency.

Armenian Speaker Quits

Resignation of parliamentary chairman may be a prelude to a bid for the presidency.

A year before the next parliamentary election in Armenia, the speaker of parliament has resigned, opening up a serious rift inside the governing coalition.

Artur Baghdasarian made his shock announcement on May 12, declaring at the same time that his Orinats Yerkir (Country of Law) party was going into opposition.

Orinats Yerkir was one of three pro-presidential parties that formed the ruling coalition in 2003, along with the Republican Party of Armenia and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (generally known as Dashnaktsutiun). As the second largest party with 20 out of the 131 seats in parliament, Orinats Yerkir was awarded the post of speaker and the ministries of town planning, education and science, as well as culture and young people.

The coalition has been slowly breaking up, and prior to Baghdasarian’s announcement, the three parties had already announced their intention to run separately in next year’s parliamentary election.

Bagdasarian, 37, has indicated that he has ambitions for the next presidential election, due in 2008. A lawyer by training, he speaks good French and is identified with the policy of integrating Armenia into European institutions, as well as with social justice for the poor.

Tensions within the coalition reached crisis point in April when Orinats Yerkir deputies voted against the government's progress report on its privatisation programme.

The party’s deputy leader Mher Shahgeldian told journalists that Baghdasarian had informed the prosecutor general of specific cases of abuse in the privatisation process.

In a later interview with the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on April 19, Baghdasarian said that if the next presidential election involves the same level of fraud as the last one, “neither domestic nor external forces will accept them”.

Baghdasarian also said that Armenia hoped to become part of NATO and that Russia should not put obstacles in the way of that happening.

This provoked an irritated response from President Robert Kocharian, who said, “Armenia does not intend to join NATO. Membership of the [Commonwealth of Independent States] Collective Security Treaty and the current high level of military technical cooperation with Russia is sufficient to ensure the security of our country.”

Kocharian added that Armenia had no plans to aspire for European Union membership, either.

The president said he met the parliamentary speaker every week, so that “it was strange to learn what his point of view on this was from the German press”.

However, Baghdasarian then reiterated his views in a speech to parliament, saying that both he and his party supported stronger relations with NATO and that they saw the country's future within the EU.

Baghdasarian’s coalition partners rejected his views, and said he had no right to use parliament as a platform for them.

Kocharian’s press secretary Victor Soghomonian said the president was convinced that the departure of Orinats Yerkir did not spell crisis for the coalition.

“A change in the composition of the ruling coalition is a normal event in any civilised country,” said Soghomonian. “Nothing unusual has happened, particularly if you consider that there have been differences of opinion inside the coalition and it’s only to be expected that these would come to a head in the pre-election period, as we have seen over the last month.”

Orinats Yerkir itself had already begun to split into pro- and anti-government factions, so only nine members of its parliamentary group followed their leader into opposition. That has allowed the government to retain its parliamentary majority. Two of the ministers holding posts awarded to the party are staying in their jobs.

Deputy speaker Tigran Torosian of the Republican Party is widely expected to be elected as the new head of parliament.

David Petrosian, political commentator for the Noyan Tapan news agency, thinks Baghdasarian has ambitions to become Armenia’s version of Mikheil Saakashvili or Viktor Yushchenko – the leaders who emerged from the Georgian and Ukrainian revolutions.

But his close association with the current regime makes that unlikely - “People whose hands are clean don't get involved in dirty business,” remarked Petrosian.

Political analyst Stepan Grigorian said it was not yet clear how Orinats Yerkir would position itself now.

“Time will tell whether Orinats Yerkir really becomse an opposition party,” he said. “If it teams up with political forces that are really in opposition to the authorities, then it is possible that there will be a movement similar to those in Georgia and Ukraine.”

Veteran opposition leader Vazgen Manukian argues that the withdrawal of Orinats Yerkir from government is a momentous event which shows how the authorities both create and destroy political parties.

However, opposition deputy Shavarsh Kocharian speculated that the apparent split was in reality coordinated with the authorities so as to create a loyal “opposition” party.

Describing the ex-speaker as a politician driven by ambition, Kocharian (no relation of the president) said, “It is obvious that in certain circles in the West, there is a favourable view of Baghdasarian. But if this trend is to last or strengthen, it will depend on whether the people accept him.”

Rita Karapetian is a correspondent with Noyan Tapan news agency.
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