Markarian Hints At More Cabinet Changes

YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–Prime Minister Andranik Markarian warned on Wednesday that the People’s Party of Armenia–the increasingly defiant member of the ruling coalition–risks losing more government posts if it drifts further to the opposition. In a first public display of irritation with the People’s Party’s criticism of his government’s economic policy and overtures to the opposition Right and Accord bloc–Markarian threatened to remove the ministers of agriculture and education who are linked to the center-left party.

Speaking at a news conference in his official residence–the premier indicated that he will still command a majority in the parliament if the People’s Party decides to quit the Unity alliance–which it nominally composes along with his Republican Party. He also denied rumors that he himself will eventually be sacked by President Robert Kocharian–saying that his relationship with the head of state remains cordial.

"The issue of making changes may arise" Markarian declared. "Unfortunately–some of the political forces [that joined forces to form the current cabinet last May] have not clearly accomplished the tasks we agreed on straight from the beginning. In view of that there may arise the necessity to treat their representatives [in the government] in a corresponding manner as was the case during the dismissal of some deputy ministers."

Three deputy ministers formally or informally linked to the People’s Party were relieved of their duties earlier this month with no official reasons. Markarian’s remarks are in line with the widely held belief that their sacking was politically motivated. However–the premier shrugged off People’s Party claims that the move amounted to "political persecution." But he acknowledged that relations between the two Unity parties are "little by little turning into confrontation."

Political analysts believe that the bloc’s break-up is just a matter of time. Founded by its two charismatic leaders–former defense minister Vazgen Sargsyan and former Communist Party first secretary Karen Demirchian–Unity roared to a landslide victory in the 1999 parliamentary elections. The two men–who became prime minister and parliament speaker respectively shortly after the vote–were murdered in the October 27 attack on the Armenian parliament.

Differences inside bloc emerged in May–with the People’s Party objecting to Markarian’s appointment as prime minister–a move which signaled Unity’s defeat in the six-month power struggle with Kocharian. The discord deepened in July when the People’s Party led by Demirchian’s younger son–Stepan–tried to block government plans to privatize Armenia’s energy distribution networks.

Markarian said he was "surprised" by Stepan Demirchian’s decision to negotiate with Right and Accord leader Artashes Geghamian "without consulting with us." The talks led to speculations that a new opposition alliance is in the making.

Markarian claimed that even if over two dozen deputies representing Demirchian’s party defect to the opposition camp his government will still enjoy the support of the majority of lawmakers. The Republicans currently rely on independent deputies and other parliamentary parties to push government initiatives through the National Assembly. Some of those parties are represented in the cabinet. Markarian said if they–too–abandon him he will step down as prime minister.

But he went on to dismiss reports that Kocharian may be planning to replace him by one of the closest presidential loyalists–Defense Minister Serge Sarkisian. "There are no problems between the government and the president. There is no reason to think that a change [of government] will occur before the end of the year," Markarian said. In the past three months Kocharian has made no public commen’s on the performance of the executive.

Markarian defended his three-month track record–emphasizing a sizable increase in government revenues. He said the government will pay all back wages and pensions worth a total of 27 billion drams ($50 million) by the end of this year.

The Noyan Tapan news agency reported that during the press conference–Markarian said Armenia’s state foreign debt is currently at $828 million–and will reach $913.7 million at the end of the year–in the case that anticipated loans are received. Out of the total sum $182 million is the debt of the Central Bank.

According to Markarian–the government had to pay off loan obligations of several enterprises which failed to do so themselves–particularly–the loans taken for the construction of the cargo terminal at Zvartnots airport.

He noted that Armenia is considered to be a country with average foreign debt adding that 70 percent of loans are loans with a grace period of 20-30 years. Around 2.2 percent–$15 million–of the budget will go to cover loan interests this year–which is fixed in the 2000 state budget.

According to Markarian–today more than 20 loan programs worth $479 million–are not due until 2003. Among them–$88.9 million is supposed to be spent this year and $23.5 million of it has already been spent.

As a result of negotiations–changes are being made in the loan programs. Thus–about $5 million in debt to Turkmen’stan for gas supplies was postponed until 2002-2004. Also–part of the World Bank money primarily earmarked for consultation was re-distributed for publishing text-books.


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