Plan for future?: Government’s five-year program approved by parliament despite harsh criticism from opposition

At a special meeting on Thursday the Armenian parliament approved a five-year program of the government by a vote of 75 to 47, with one abstention. The “for” votes came from lawmakers representing the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (RPA) and its junior coalition partner, Orinats Yerkir. All the other factions, including ARF Dashnaktsutyun, Heritage, the Armenian National Congress (ANC) as well as the Prosperous Armenia Party (PAP) which refused to form a coalition with the RPA following the May 6 parliamentary elections.

The voting in the National Assembly revealed several important vectors, and first of all the fact that an opposition camp capable of consolidating efforts and pressurizing the government is emerging in Armenia. Despite the fact that the government’s program was adopted by the two coalition parties that have an absolute majority in the parliament, some very strong criticism was heard during the debate and Prime Minister Tigran Sargsyan, overall, could not answer the main points of this criticism.

Though, he said, he was satisfied with the discussions of the program, he also said that some opposition MPs voiced “artificial” arguments against him. The head of the government stressed that almost all concerns voiced during the debate are reflected in the program, which also indicates ways of overcoming these problems. At the same time, Sargsyan admitted that the government led by him failed in late 2008 to predict the economic crisis that had a significant negative impact on the economy of Armenia.

Armenia’s former foreign minister, PPA faction member Vartan Oskanian, however, noted that the prime minister who, before being appointed to his current post in April 2008, headed the Central Bank, was unable to move beyond his “monetarist thinking”, which is also reflected in the program of the government. He reminded Sargsyan that in 2008 he returned from the United States, where the financial crisis had already begun and then presented a draft budget for 2009 with a projected economic growth of 9.5 percent, while the country eventually got a 14.5-percent GDP fall.

The opposition accused the government of lacking specific estimates and proposed steps in the program. Member of the Heritage faction Alexander Arzumanyan called the program “a collection of toasts and good wishes”, saying that would be difficult to implement. Some oppositionists also said that by making general statements, the government reserves for itself the way for a retreat so that it would not later be accused of reneging on specific items.

Meanwhile, presenting the achievements of the past four years in the National Assembly, the head of the Armenian government also spoke about some concrete plans. In particular, Sargsyan said that a venture capital fund will be set up to encourage innovative business. For the first time the government intends to provide financial and technical assistance to small businesses for which it is going to simplify taxation procedures. Sargsyan intends to introduce a system of medical insurance, a contributory pension scheme, make education free for socially vulnerable categories, provide young families with subsidized mortgages, issue 1 million drams (about $2,500) for the birth of third and fourth child and 1.5 million (about $3,700 ) for the birth of the fifth and subsequent children. The government intends to ensure an annual economic growth of 5-7 percent, increase exports, to double the current minimum wage, which is 32,500 drams (about $80) a month, to reduce the official poverty rate by 8-10 percentage points, and to create more than 100,000 jobs.

But speaking in the Parliament, PAP faction secretary Naira Zohrabyan said that the government promised to reduce poverty three years ago, but instead it has increased to the level of 35.8 percent. Emigration has also reached unprecedented levels, as the population of an average village daily leaves the country. She said that the policy of the government, in fact, has not changed, even though the previous program failed, and the composition of the government has seen little change, too. Zohrabyan stressed that someone must be made to answer for the 14.5-percent economic decline in 2009.

However, it is not excluded that, as MP Arzumanyan said, “the program is of a temporary nature” and that considerable changes will take place in it after the presidential election of 2013. “What has been submitted by the Government aims for the next 6-7 months, to somehow survive the winter,” he said.