BY ASTGHIK BEDEVIAN
YEREVAN (RFE/RL)—An opposition-controlled commission tasked with counting lawmakers’ votes on Thursday declared invalid the ratification by Armenia’s parliament of a controversial agreement signed by the Armenian government and Russia’s Gazprom monopoly.
Meeting in emergency session, 4 of the 7 members of the Counting Commission backed opposition allegations that the agreement signed during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s December 2 visit to the country was approved by the National Assembly with serious procedural violations.
The deal was backed on Monday by 72 members of the 131-seat assembly by a show of hands. Speaker Hovik Abrahamian decided not to use its electronic voting system after an opposition deputy controversially collected electronic voting cards from about two dozen pro-government colleagues.
The hand vote count was conducted by Abrahamian and the three members of the Counting Commission affiliated with the ruling Republican Party (HHK) and its junior coalition partner, Orinats Yerkir. One of them, Sukias Avetisian, the commission chairman, then announced that the agreement has been ratified.
The other commission members, who are affiliated with the four opposition parties represented in the parliament, said that the announcement is null and void because it was not validated by the panel’s majority. “We certify the illegality of the vote,” one of them, Tigran Urikhanian of the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), said at the meeting.
The four opposition members went on to dismiss Avetisian as commission chairman and replace him by Lyudmila Sargsian, a deputy from the Armenian National Congress (HAK). “Since Sukias Avetisian abused his powers and bypassed the Counting Commission he cannot continue to be its chairman,” said Sargsian.
Avetisian, who is a senior member of the ruling HHK, refused to attend the panel’s meeting and recognize the legality of its decisions. “The Counting Commission did not need to work because by law the commission’s functions are suspended until the start of the next parliament session,” he said. “The National Assembly is now in recess. What is the Counting Commission going to count? Santa Clauses or Christmas trees?”
“The Counting Commission has no power to validate or interpret what was adopted by 72 deputies. Only the Constitutional Court can do that,” Avetisian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
The BHK, the HAK and the two other parliamentary opposition parties — Zharangutyun and Dashnaktsutyun — have already announced plans to challenge the validity of the Russian-Armenian gas accord in the court.
Davit Harutiunian, the pro-government chairman of the parliament committee on legal affairs, dismissed the opposition arguments as “very weak” on Tuesday.
The deal in question formalizes the sale of the Armenian government’s 20 percent share in the domestic gas distribution network to Russia’s Gazprom monopoly. In return for gaining 100 percent ownership of the network, Gazprom will write off a $300 million debt which the government has incurred as a result of secretly subsidizing the price of Russian natural gas supplied to Armenia since 2011.
More importantly, the deal stipulates that the current and future Armenian governments cannot raise taxes or make any other changes in the regulatory environment for the Gazprom-owned network until January 2044. The Armenian side is also obliged to ensure that domestic gas tariffs in the country are high enough for Gazprom to recoup 9 percent of its capital investments in the network annually.
These unprecedented privileges have prompted vehement objections from opposition members and anti-government activists, many of them opposed to Armenia’s planned accession to a Russian-led customs union. They say the agreement deals a further blow to the country’s sovereignty.