Armenia’s arguably wealthiest government-connected businessman has caused a stir in the domestic political arena by setting up a new party with far-reaching political ambitions. Gagik Tsarukian appears to have enlisted the support of prominent public figures and even an opposition leader for his bid to become a key contender in the next Armenian parliamentary elections, due in 2007. That election could reveal the front-runner to succeed President Robert Kocharian, who completes his second term of office in 2008.
A former arm-wrestler who has built a business empire over the past decade, Tsarukian is the most vivid representative of Armenia’s tiny class of millionaires close to the Kocharian administration. The so-called “oligarchs” like flaunting their wealth and are not known for their respect of law. Some of them enjoy exclusive rights to highly lucrative forms of economic activity such as large-scale imports of fuel, food, and other basic commodities. In recent years the oligarchs have grown even more intertwined with the ruling regime, helping it rig elections and suppress the opposition. Their roguish “bodyguards,” for example, were reportedly involved in a spate of violent attacks on opposition politicians, journalists, and human rights activists in the spring of 2004.
Tsarukian and many other oligarchs hold seats in the Armenian parliament, having been “elected” through vote bribes and intimidation. Parliamentary mandates are little more than a badge of prestige for them. But with his decision to create his own party, Prosperous Armenia, Tsarukian revealed his intention to go farther and play a serious role in Armenian politics. “I see some unsolved problems in both the socioeconomic and political fields. I believe that our party, which will be a party of strong and clean people, will be able to make its contribution to solving those problems,” Tsarukian told the Haykakan Zhamanak daily in an interview published on December 21.
Prosperous Armenia is now said to be aiming to go so far as to win the 2007 election and field a candidate for the 2008 presidential ballot. According to local press reports, the unusually burly tycoon is not cobbling together a typical ex-Soviet “party of power” made up of government officials and wealthy individuals. His party will reportedly consist of well-known intellectuals, artists, and other public figures more acceptable to the electorate. Tsarukian is said to have already drawn up its electorate slate. It will likely be headed by Victor Dallakian, a senior member of Armenia’s largest opposition alliance and one of the most bitter critics of Kocharian’s regime.
Interviewed by RFE/RL on January 11, Dallakian effectively confirmed that he would be the official leader of Prosperous Armenia. “Nothing is ruled out in politics,” he said. “There will be quite interesting political developments in Armenia in 2006.” The new party, Dallakian added, is well placed to have a “serious influence” on political processes in the country.
The apparent choice of the nominal Prosperous Armenia leader could have hardly been more stunning. After all, Dallakian was at the forefront of the Armenian’s opposition’s ill-fated 2004 attempt to effect regime change and never minced words in his attacks on Kocharian. The Yerevan daily Aravot spoke of the “magnetic power of money” in a January 12 analysis of the unfolding political realignment. “As they say, ‘Money talks’,” agreed another paper, Azg.
Dallakian has assured reporters privately that he believes Tsarukian’s party will not be singing Kocharian’s tune and will not endorse the Armenian leader’s most likely successor, Defense Minister Serge Sarkisian. However, few believe that Tsarukian picked the oppositionist without the blessing of Kocharian and Sarkisian. Local observers point out that the tycoon owes his fortune to Armenia’s two most powerful men and would hardly dare to play his own political game. But that raises the question of what specifically the Kocharian-Sarkisian duo expects from Prosperous Armenia.
Sarkisian is widely thought to be harboring presidential ambitions. He has repeatedly stated in recent months that his participation in the next presidential election depends on the outcome of the legislative polls that will precede it. He last ran for parliament on the ticket of Prime Minister Andranik Markarian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK). Sarkisian has promised to clarify early this year whether he will again team up with the HHK in 2007. He now has an attractive alternative in Prosperous Armenia that will combine Tsarukian’s massive financial resources with the populist appeal of its candidates. “In essence, the Prosperous Armenia party poses a threat to both the [ruling] coalition and opposition alliances,” commented Azg.
The HHK and two other pro-Kocharian groups represented in the Armenian government, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) and the Orinats Yerkir party, are allegedly worried about the emergence of an “oligarchic” party. In public, their leaders have played down its implications. “We are not scared, concerned, happy or saddened, no matter how rich or poor that party is,” said an ARF spokesman. But Tigran Torosian, an HHK leader and the deputy speaker of the Armenian parliament, did expose coalition jitters on January 12 when he warned that money must not become the “decisive factor” in Armenian elections.
(Aravot, January 12; Azg, January 12; RFE/RL Armenia Report, January 11-12; Haykakan Zhamanak, December 21)