Speaker Khachatrian Weathers First Resignation Onslaught

YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–The session of the Armenian parliament ended on Tuesday in a bitter dispute over whether or not speaker Armen Khachatrian’s offer to resign can be deemed accepted by the National Assembly. Efforts by Prime Minister Andranik Markarian and his Republican Party to unseat Khachatrian ran into trouble when the latter’s resignation was approved by only 63 members of the 131-seat assembly. The speaker and his supporters claimed that at least 66 votes are needed for the decision to have legal force–while their opponents countered that its approval by the majority of deputies present at the sitting was sufficient.

The row was stoked by the ambiguity of the parliament regulations which do not state explicitly how many votes are needed for the formal acceptance a speaker’s decision to step down. The differing interpretations of the law left the outcome of the unfolding political battle uncertain.

Earlier in the day–Khachatrian stunned fellow members of the People’s Party of Armenia–announcing that he wants to quit his post to defuse mounting tensions with the Republican Party–the People’s Party’s partner in the governing Unity alliance. The surprise move was apparently the result of strong pressure from the government and several parties supporting it. As recently as late on Monday–Khachatrian dismissed as "unconstitutional" the efforts to oust him after it became obvious that the Republicans collected sufficient signatures to launch impeachment proceedings against him. Khachatrian–who has been dogged by scandals during his eleven-month tenure–thanked deputies for their continuing "confidence" in him once the results of the vote were shown on the parliament scoreboard. His supposedly farewell speech was delivered just minutes earlier. The speaker blamed unnamed forces of making "consistent efforts to discredit" him. Khachatrian said that by tendering his resignation he also wants to prove that he does not want to cling to his post at any cost.

The remarks provoked an angry reaction from People’s Party deputies. "The People’s Party denounces this step which was not agreed with the party’s board," said one of them–Aramayis Barseghian. "The speaker turned out to be coward today," charged another People’s Party deputy–Manuk Gasparian.

Some deputies made the point that the change of the status quo that came into existence following Unity’s victory in the 1999 elections would deprive the assembly of legitimacy and necessitate fresh elections. The two Unity parties have been inching towards break-up since last May when the People’s Party objected to Markarian’s appointment as prime minister. The rift deepened last summer when the center-left party tried to block some of the government’s economic initiatives. A series of negotiations between Markarian and People’s Party leader Stepan Demirchian have yielded no results.

The Republicans are now looking for new allies in an attempt to build a new governing coalition that would enjoy the support of the parliament majority. The challenge against Khachatrian is backed by the Stability parliamentary group–which is already represented in Markarian’s cabinet–the Armenian Revolutionary Federation and Orinats Yerkir party.

"The parliament majority [formed in 1999] no longer exists. Therefore–the new situation requires new solutions," one Stability deputy argued during the stormy debates. Artur Baghdasarian of Orinats Yerkir agreed–describing Khachatrian’s resignation as a "logical outcome" of the rift. In the words of ARF deputy Aghvan Vartanian–"the bloc has proved unworthy of its founding leaders," who were killed in last year’s terrorist attack on the parliament.

The Hayastan parliamentary group uniting members of the Yerkrapah Union of Nagorno-Karabakh war veterans–another nominal member of–joined the deman’s for Khachatrian’s resignation but said it should not result in the bloc’s disintegration.

The Armenian Communists were the only parliamentary faction to unanimously side with the People’s Party on the issue. Their leaders accused the Republicans of plotting to "seize power." Artashes Geghamian–the outspoken leader of the opposition Right and Accord bloc–charged that "the National Assembly is held hostage by a failed and bankrupt government."

The results of the subsequent vote were a major disappointment for the Republicans and their allies even though they insisted that Khachatrian’s resignation can still be considered accepted. The speaker suggested that they appeal to the Constitutional Court. But the appeal procedure could take several months–ending the momentum of the Republican offensive.

Observers believe that the Republican Party–which lacked only three votes to put its victory beyond doubt–will rather press ahead with the impeachment proceedings. The issue may therefore again be discussed by the parliament on Wednesday. Tuesday’s vote exposed the lack of a stable majority enjoyed by Markarian in the assembly and his dependence on other political forces.

President Robert Kocharian–who enjoys sweeping constitutional powers–has so far kept a low profile in the clash between the once close political allies. He appears to have no objections against the change of parliament leadership. Khachatrian was apparently alluding to this fact when he noted: "I would have been much stronger if the president of the republic had stood by me."

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