A smooth ride until privatization issues come up is in store for the country, according to Beirut MP Hagop Kassardjian, who says the success of the “Paris II” donor conference could allow the government to treat dangerous social problems.
“Politically, until we get to Paris II there will be no differences. There’s been agreement since President Emile Lahoud and Prime Minister Rafik Hariri had their ‘heart-to-heart’ meeting a few months ago,” Kassardjian told The Daily Star in an interview.
“This will continue after Paris II, but when we come to privatization issues, there might be difficulties. It’s not a 100 percent economic issue, as there are political considerations at stake.”
Kassardjian, a member of Hariri’s parliamentary bloc and the head of the international committee of the Armenian Ramgavar Party, says the prime minister has made tremendous efforts to ensure the success of the Paris II donors’ conference, scheduled to take place Saturday in the French capital.
The plan, as Kassardjian said, is to create a “domino effect” by attracting funds to reduce debt service payments, followed by a reduction in interest rates by local banks, to spur economic activity. Even if interest rates drop to between 4 and 5 percent, Kassardjian maintained, it would still be more attractive for investors than rates in Europe.
Recently, as some predicted, events like Paris II have prompted the country’s political elite to show solidarity against the opposition, as represented by groups like the Qornet Shehwan Gathering of Christian politicians.
Kassardjian said that “political issues have been handled well for the time being, as we see that within the state, there are no major differences among politicians.”
“I don’t think that the opposition will make any problems (for the authorities). They are unable to carry out any significant maneuvers,” he added, describing a rough entente among the troika and key figures like Walid Jumblatt and Suleiman Franjieh.
Jumblatt, who led a delegation from his Progressive Socialist Party to see the three Armenian parties last week, is in an unenviable position, Kassardjian said.
“He can’t disengage himself from allies like Hariri, but he is also the head of a community, affiliated with the ‘national forces’ (pro-Syrian political parties) and has an obligation to be with the people when it comes to socioeconomic issues.
“He’s trying to unite the parties, to come out and say that the people are suffering from a bad economic situation, and that the government must have solutions or else there will be social unrest.”
Kassardjian said that the government must address social problems, especially unemployment, but appeared pessimistic about any dramatic change in policy.
Speculation about a new government after Paris II is rife, but Kassardjian maintained that Hariri is “satisfied” with the current Cabinet.
The MP said that ministers could be divided into three groups: effective ones, those needed for their political weight, and those only around because of “political deals.” The latter group needed replacing, Kassardjian said.
“But if the Paris II results are good, it’s in no one’s interest to tackle the issue of forming a new government. New issues and problems will come up,” he said.
If a new government is formed, the powers-that-be will face the question of who represents the Armenian community, which Kassardjian says is enjoying good times politically.
A problem will arise if Karim Pakradouni, the head of the Phalange Party, is named to a Cabinet post on behalf of the Armenian community. Pakradouni is an Orthodox Armenian but has never been part of the community’s political parties.
“I have great respect for him, regardless of his past,” Kassardjian said. “But he has no relation with the Armenian community. He’s never practically admitted that he’s part of the community. Just because it says so on his ID, that’s not enough. The Phalange can choose someone else.”
The issue of Armenian representation is a sore point for the community, which felt it was slighted in 2000. When Hariri formed a Cabinet of 30 ministers, only one seat went to the Armenians, which infuriated the community. They argued that the arrangements of the Taif Accords guaranteed them two seats when the government had more than 24 members.
“They promised us other things, like appointments to senior civil service posts, but that didn’t happen,” he said.
But a different situation exists in 2002, he maintained.
Two years ago, the Armenian political scene was split between Kassardjian’s Ramgavar Party and Hentchak Party on one side, against Hovnanian’s Tashnak Party. They were opponents during the parliamentary elections, with the former group allied with Hariri.
The Tashnak Party, its critics said, had the only ministerial post and had no interest in seeing a minister named from among its rivals. A new leadership of the Tashnak Party, however, has meant improved ties.
“Relations are better; every party respects the other. There is much less rivalry and much more acceptance of other groups,” said Kassardjian, who related the story of his handing over this year’s parliamentary allocation for public works to Bourj Hammoud.
The Tashnak-dominated municipal council sent him a letter of appreciation, a far cry from the summer of 2000, when relations were tense between the three parties.
“I can assure you that all three parties will be united on the issue of Armenian representation in government,” Kassardjian maintained.