Armenia’s main opposition forces have opened a new front in their standoff with the government, launching a joint movement against what they claim is the growing role of “criminal elements” in the country’s political life. Influential Defense Minister Serge Sarkisian and other leaders of the governing Republican Party (HHK), the main targets of the campaign, have dismissed the accusations as an attempt to discredit them ahead of approaching parliamentary elections.
For weeks this issue has dominated the discourse of the country’s leading politicians, media commentators, and even prominent intellectuals. The opposition allegations were sparked by a string of high-profile murders and a recent influx of influential, but less than law-abiding, individuals into the HHK. The latter development resulted from the party’s far-reaching political alliance with Sarkisian, which was formalized in late July.
Although the HHK continues to be officially headed by Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, local analysts increasingly regard Sarkisian as its de facto top leader. The defense minister, seen as President Robert Kocharian’s most likely successor, is believed to have already begun preparations for the next presidential election, due in 2008. That vote will be preceded by parliamentary elections early next year. Sarkisian has repeatedly implied that the HHK’s victory in the polls is essential for his presidential ambitions. To that end, he has bolstered Armenia’s largest establishment party, which already controls many central and local government bodies, with over a dozen loyal wealthy businessmen. Most of them represent government-connected clans that hold sway in various areas of the country and have bribed or bullied voters in previous Armenian elections.
Some are better known to the public by their notorious nicknames. By “criminal elements” the Armenian opposition usually means them. “We now see that mobsters or good fellows, as people call them, are entering parties,” said former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian. “By beating and terrorizing people they are trying to further their interests. A country like that has no future.” His Orinats Yerkir (Country of Law) party was expelled from Kocharian’s governing coalition in May, charged on August 12.
The allegations were picked up by other prominent oppositionists who link the HHK’s increased reliance on “criminal elements” with an apparent upsurge in the number of contract killings reported in Armenia this year. Most of those crimes were committed in broad daylight and have not yet been solved by the police. Their most recent victim, a high-ranking official at the Armenian government’s main tax collection agency, was blown up in his own car in downtown Yerevan on September 6. The car bombing came less than a month after the brutal murder of a local businessman and the fatal roadside shooting of a reputed crime figure that left one innocent bystander dead. A stray bullet also killed an innocent woman in June when gunmen chased and shot dead a notorious “good fellow” in the city’s western Malatia-Sebastia district.
The police have urged the public not to draw far-reaching conclusions from the killings, arguing that Armenia continues to have one of the lowest crime rates in the former Soviet Union. Sarkisian, for his part, has rounded on the detractors of his party’s important new recruits. The fact that they usually lack education, use slangy phrases, and have mobster-style nicknames does not mean they are criminals, he claimed.
However, the opposition attacks continued unabated, and on September 28 15 opposition parties launched an “anti-criminal movement” that is supposed to counter the “criminalization of the political field.” According to the movement’s joint declaration, “Criminal acts in the country are committed with the connivance and direct encouragement of the Robert Kocharian-Serge Sarkisian duo.” The initiative was joined the next day by Intellectual Forum, a radical organization uniting prominent artists and intellectuals critical of the Kocharian administration. In a written statement, they urged Armenians to “declare war on this regime and return power seized by criminal traitors to the people.”
Just how the declared “anti-criminal movement” intends to achieve its objectives is unclear, though. Its leaders admitted that they have not even begun discussing concrete plans. Uneasy relationships among them may well scupper those actions. In particular, some oppositionists make no secret of their distrust of the movement’s main initiator: Aram Karapetian, the outspoken leader of the Nor Zhamanakner (New Times) party known for his Russian connections.
While sharing the opposition’s concerns, some Armenian newspapers have speculated that the initiative was masterminded by Russia. The daily Aravot said on September 18 that a senior Kremlin official, Modest Kolerov, had recently visited Yerevan for that purpose. Another paper, Zhamanak Yerevan, claimed last week that Moscow is preparing the ground for installing a more pro-Russian regime in Armenia. A group of other renowned intellectuals more sympathetic to the Armenian leaderships apparently had Karapetian in mind when they warned their pro-opposition colleagues, in a September 22 statement, against being manipulated by “foreign agents.”
(Haykakan Zhamanak, September 28-29, September 23; Zhamanak Yerevan, September 28; Aravot, September 18; RFE/RL Armenia Report, September 6, August 14)