The period of relative calm in Armenian politics that followed the May 8 election of protest leader Nikol Pashinyan as the new head of government (see EDM, May 22) may have come to an end. The new cabinet had previously announced that anti-corruption measures would be among its top priorities. And in mid-June, a sequence of dramatic events related to that anticipated campaign may bring long-lasting consequences for the landlocked South Caucasus state.
Throughout May, the National Security Service (NSS) revealed evidence of tax evasion by several Armenian companies, including a supermarket chain controlled by a member of parliament from the formerly ruling Republican Party of Armenia (RPA), Samvel Aleksanyan. Until recently, the authorities preferred to seek reimbursements of damages to the state budget rather than imposing criminal charges. However, on June 14, the NSS arrested two employees of the Yerevan city hall, still controlled by the RPA, on charges of corruption. Mayor Taron Margaryan, the son of a late former prime minister, has been refusing public demands for his resignation, voiced repeatedly after the “Velvet Revolution” in April.
More significant events followed soon, triggered by demonstrations demanding the resignation of Karen Grigoryan, the mayor of Armenia’s fourth largest city of Echmiadzin. The demonstrations were apparently organized by Arthur Asatryan (a.k.a. Don Pipo), a businessman and supposedly a “thief in law” (vor v zakone—a professional criminal in the former Soviet space, who enjoys an elite and informal authority position within organized crime). Asatryan criticized both the mayor and his father, Lieutenant General (retired) Manvel Grigoryan. A former deputy defense minister and a member of parliament, Manvel Grigoyran is also the president of the Volunteers’ Union “Yerkrapah,” an influential paramilitary organization of war veterans (Factor.am, June 14). The Grigoryans, in turn, mobilized their own supporters, and the situation in the city started to grow heated.
On June 16, the NSS charged Asatryan with attempted kidnapping of several men who were allegedly plotting his assassination; the security service arrested him and his four associates—Russian citizens. At the same time, the NSS charged Manvel Grigoryan with illegal possession of weapons and arrested him as well (Azatutyun.am, June 16). Both men’s houses, as well as the Yerkrapah offices, were searched, and a number of weapons were found.
The RPA protested Grigoryan’s arrest, calling it “yet another instance of political oppression” (Azatutyun.am, June 16). The Republican Party’s statement, as well as a declaration by the RPA’s vice chair, Armen Ashotyan, suggested that the party would vote against revoking Grigoryan’s parliamentary immunity (Hayastan24.com, June 16), meaning he would have to be released within 72 hours. However, another dramatic turn subsequently occurred: Prime Minister Pashinyan, announced via one of his regular live-streamed messages that Grigoryan’s arrest had been justified not just by the illegal possession of weapons but also by the general’s apparent embezzlement of canned food and other goods meant for rank-and-file military personnel—including some donations collected during the “four-day war” in April 2016 (see EDM, April 14, 2016). Pashinyan declared that such corruption would no longer be tolerated (Facebook.com, June 17).
After Pashinyan’s live stream, the NSS issued a more detailed statement and also showed videos made during the searches of Grigoryan’s house and other premises. Among the seized weapons there were 79 rifles and 39 handguns, more than 33,000 ammunition cartridges, 18 bazookas, as well as hand grenades and explosives. In addition, large amounts of cash and goods were found, including tons of canned food marked “not for sale,” hygiene products and toiletries, first-aid kits, etc., along with boxes of handwritten letters from schoolchildren to soldiers. Part of the stored canned food appeared to have been used to feed a tiger and bears in Grigoryan’s private zoo (Sns.am, June 17). Concerned with potential damage to the party’s reputation, the RPA issued a statement, calling the misappropriation of provisions allocated for the army “unacceptable and repulsive” (Hhk.am, June 18). Ultimately, only 3 of 82 members of the Armenian National Assembly present at the extraordinary session voted against the motion to revoke Manvel Grigoyran’s parliamentary immunity (Lragir.am, June 19). Grigoryan’s son also announced he would resign from the post of mayor (Azatutyun.am, June 18).
Whether or not Manvel Grigoryan was chosen as the first high-ranked official to make an example out of because there were already rumors about goods for the army being stored at his home, clearly the eventual detailed disclosure of the findings had a strong psychological effect. The videos showing embezzled donations for the army together with children’s letters sparked mass outrage and helped to break the RPA’s resistance, undermining speculation that the attacks against Grigoryan were politically motivated.
Additional steps to tackle corruption and organized crime have already followed. In recent weeks, the police have apprehended a dozen “thieves in law” and a number of their associates (Aravot.am, June 20). Former defense minister Seyran Ohanyan, who had occupied the post in 2016, has been interrogated as a witness regarding the misappropriation of funds (News.am, June 20). Even more significantly, law enforcement has conducted searches of premises de facto belonging to Vachagan Kazaryan, the head of former president Serzh Sargsyan’s security detail; reams of documents and large amounts of cash have reportedly been seized (Factor.am, June 21).
The Pashinyan government’s high approval rating is quite secure at the moment, and practical steps to tackle corruption further contribute to its popularity. The cabinet is highly dependent on such popular support, particularly considering the prospect of snap elections that may take place in a few months. Delaying high-level corruption cases, particularly those involving former top officials, would damage its reputation. So in the next few weeks, several new criminal cases involving retired and still acting high-level officials may be opened, and tensions with the formerly ruling factions are likely to grow. Mass support, with a large number of people still ready to take to the streets to protect the results of the revolution, remains crucial both to Pashinyan as well as to prevent a possible violent reaction by cornered representatives of the old regime.