YEREVAN (RFE/RL)—Former President Robert Kocharian kept up his strong criticism of the Armenian government’s economic policies on Monday, in a continuing war of words with Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian which is fuelling growing talk of his political comeback.
Kocharian slammed the government for secretly subsidizing the price of natural gas purchased from Russia and warned that its recent agreement with Gazprom could turn the Armenian energy sector into a “hostage” of the Russian gas monopoly. He also deplored an ongoing controversial reform of the national pension system that has sparked street protests in Yerevan.
In fresh remarks posted on his unofficial website, 2rd.am, Kocharian remained coy about what many see as his desire to return to power. “I have spoken out and will speak out on pressing issues related to Armenia’s present and future regardless of my return to active politics,” he said. “I cannot look at problems accumulated in the country with indifference and am frankly expressing my attitudes to them.”
Kocharian went on to launch another scathing personal attack on Tigran Sarkisian, which will be widely construed as a broadside also aimed at his successor, President Serzh Sarkisian. “It is pointless to debate with someone who has spent the past six years constantly justifying his failings with his predecessors’ actions,” he said. “The main criterion for evaluating the work of any government is very simple: have the people become better off or worse off under that government?”
The attack came just two days after Tigran Sarkisian issued another statement meant to substantiate his recent claims that Armenia’s double-digit economic growth during much of Kocharian’s 1998-2008 presidency mainly resulted from a construction boom which proved to be a “bubble.” Kocharian, who had not spoken up since January 2013, reacted angrily to such claims on December 30, accusing the government of mismanaging the economy.
In a detailed statement released through a spokesman on Saturday, the Armenian premier insisted that the economy became “very vulnerable” in 2004-2008 because of its excessive dependence on construction. “The real picture of the construction sector in Armenia was fully exposed by the global financial crisis,” the statement said, pointing to a more than 14 percent drop in GDP recorded in 2009.
The statement also said that despite the sector’s continuing decline, mortgage lending in the country has expanded dramatically and become more affordable for Armenians since then. “The total amount of outstanding mortgage loans made up around 141 billion drams ($350 million) as of November 2013, almost three times the 2007 level of 49 billion drams,” it said.
Kocharian dismissed these figures as misleading, however, suggesting that rescheduled loans make up a large part of the mortgage portfolios of Armenian banks. “If we have so much housing credit why do we have so little construction?” he asked.
The 59-year-old ex-president also hit out at the government’s recent controversial moves, notably its gas dealings with Russia. He denounced it for keeping a 2011 sharp rise in the Russian gas price secret until after the February 2013 presidential election. The government cleared a resulting $300 million debt to Gazprom by ceding its remaining 20 percent stake in the Armenian gas distribution network to the Russian giant and granting the latter unprecedented 30-year privileges.
A corresponding agreement with Gazprom was signed during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s December 2 visit to Armenia. The agreement was strongly condemned by the leading Armenian opposition groups. They say that the government lied to the public about the gas tariff to boost President Sarkisian’s and the ruling Republican Party’s chances in the last national elections. The authorities in Yerevan deny this.
Kocharian described government explanations as “extremely unconvincing.” “It would have been easier to simply apologize,” he said, accusing the Sarkisian administration of further undermining “the remnants of public trust” in government. “The society is accustomed to the unprincipled behavior of many politicians, but such public ‘dexterity’ shown by one of the state institutions is shocking,” he said.
Kocharian also expressed serious concern over exclusive rights which Gazprom will enjoy until 2044, saying that they will turn the Armenian government into a mere “observer” in the domestic gas market. “I tried in vain to find examples of similar agreements with natural monopolies in the international practice,” he said. “Will the country’s energy sector become hostage to this agreement?”
The ex-president himself was criticized by his political opponents for giving Gazprom and other Russian companies ownership of key Armenian energy facilities during his decade-long rule.