Thursday, August 05, 2004

RFE/RL Armenia Report - 08/03/2004

Education Minister Denies Resignation Rumors

By Armen Zakarian and Gayane Danielian

Minister of Science and Education Sergo Yeritsian denied on Tuesday persisting rumors about his impending dismissal, saying that he continues to be trusted by both his Orinats Yerkir Party and its coalition partners.

Yeritsian, who is one of the three Orinats Yerkir ministers in the coalition cabinet, has been the subject of such speculations ever since the scandalous ouster two months ago of one his deputies, Aida Topuzian. She was reportedly sacked on suspicion of abetting chronic bribery and nepotism during secondary school graduation examinations.

The move was interpreted by some media as a prelude to Yeristian's resignation. The speculation intensified after President Robert Kocharian ordered his oversight service to closely monitor the notoriously corrupt process of admissions to state-run universities which began last month.

Officials from the presidential administration have since been present at all admission exams with the stated aim of preventing and detecting corrupt practices. There have already been reports of conflicts between them and representatives of the Education Ministry and the university administrations.

"Those problems have been artificially complicated in recent months," Yeritsian told reporters. "I can say for sure that I will work for long. You can witness that in the course of the coming years."

Yeritsian added that Kocharian and the government support him because he is key to the success of the ongoing reforms in Armenia's education sector which are financed by loans from the World Bank. "Probably those reforms can not have the same effectiveness in the event of personnel changes," he said.

The minister also claimed that the presence of officials from the presidential staff at the university exams is not an indication of Kocharian's doubts about his integrity. "I myself asked the president to provide such assistance during these admission exams," he said.

Yeritsian's removal would deal a potentially devastating blow to the credibility of Orinats Yerkir which is led by parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian. The two other Orinats Yerkir ministers appointed when Prime Minister Andranik Markarian's cabinet was formed in June 2003 lost their jobs in embarrassing circumstances earlier this year. One of them, Urban Development Minister Ara Aramian, had to quit over his son's apparent involvement in a high-profile gunfight in downtown Yerevan.

One of Baghdasarian's new appointees, Culture Minister Hovik Hoveyan, has also been dogged by controversy. Hoveyan sparked an uproar from the country's intellectual elite when he named Orinats Yerkir members to run several cultural institutions shortly after his appointment in April. He was forced on Tuesday to again defend his staffing policy.

"Reports about my appointments being related to the Orinats Yerkir Party are extremely exaggerated," an irritated Hoveyan told a news conference. "Why do you link our cultural policies to Orinats Yerkir?"

One of the officials sacked by Hoveyan, Sos Petrosian, was subsequently reinstated by a court as the director of the Armenian State Circus. The court ruling came despite the Culture Ministry's calls for law-enforcement authorities to prosecute on Petrosian on charges of mismanagement and financial abuses.

Strangely enough, Hoveyan claimed he is happy that state prosecutors have not launched criminal proceedings against the circus chief. "We believe that the Office of Prosecutor-General was right not to open a criminal case because the law must protect the cultural elite," he explained.

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