The two opposition parties represented in the Armenian parliament are facing embarrassing accusations of secret collaboration with the government after effectively acquiescing to the reappointment of the country’s top prosecutor. The National Assembly overwhelmingly voted on September 13 to endorse President Robert Kocharian’s decision to extend Prosecutor General Aghvan Hovsepian’s tenure for six more years.
Only three members of the 131-strong legislature voted against his candidacy, raising fresh questions about the opposition credentials of the Orinats Yerkir (Country of Law) and Heritage parties led by former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian and the U.S.-born former foreign minister Raffi Hovannisian respectively. Orinats Yerkir and Heritage were the only opposition parties that cleared the 5% threshold for winning parliament seats in the last general elections held in May. The main political allies of Kocharian and Prime Minister Serge Sarkisian won the polls by a landslide.
Two-day parliamentary debates on Hovsepian’s reappointment were a mere formality as Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), which controls most parliament seats, made it clear right from the beginning that he will back Kocharian’s decision. A figure close to the president, Hovsepian, 54, has been more than a senior law-enforcement official since being first named prosecutor-general in 1998. He was forced to step down in the wake of the October 1999 terrorist attack on the Armenian parliament but was reinstated by Kocharian in the job five years later. Kocharian needed a parliamentary approval of Hovsepian’s continued tenure in accordance with the 2005 reform of the Armenian constitution.
Over the past decade, Hovsepian has developed extensive business interests, being widely linked with a number of lucrative companies. He has also displayed growing political ambitions, so much so that at one point he was viewed as one of Kocharian’s potential successors. He became even more visible after getting, with strong government assistance, hundreds of thousands of people to collectively perform a traditional Armenian circle dance around the country’s highest mountain in May 2005.
The soft-spoken and bespectacled prosecutor has furthered his political agenda through an ostensibly apolitical organization uniting prominent natives of Aparan, a mountainous district in central Armenia where he was born and grew up. The so-called compatriots’ union transformed itself into a political party last year and was expected to be a major contender in the May elections. However, Hovsepian decided not to enter the fray shortly before the vote as a result of an apparent behind-the-scenes deal with Sarkisian. The latter was anxious to make sure that the Aparan clan does not stand in the HHK’s way and to ensure its support for his presidential bid. Sarkisian has clearly been willing to give it something in return, as evidenced by Hovsepian’s reappointment and the earlier appointment one of his deputies, Gevorg Danielian, as justice minister.
Hovsepian will thus remain one of the leaders of Armenia’s vicious and corrupt law-enforcement system that continues to operate in utter disregard of human rights. Mistreatment of criminal suspects and witnesses remains the norm, despite being illegal and running counter to Yerevan’s international obligations. The most recent torture scandal relates to the ongoing criminal investigation into the August 26 murder of the chief prosecutor of Lori region, Albert Ghazarian. The investigation is being led by the Office of the Prosecutor General.
One of the theories circulating is that the crime was masterminded by Samvel Darpinian, the mayor of the regional capital Vanadzor, who was at loggerheads with Ghazarian. Several employees of a local restaurant owned by an arrested nephew of Darpinian claim that they were beaten by investigators to extract false testimony implicating the mayor’s extended family in the shooting. Hovsepian pledged to investigate the torture claims in the face of a mounting opposition and media outcry. Few believe that any law-enforcement official will be punished as a result, though.
Ghazarian’s assassination was the latest high-profile killing, which occur regularly in Armenia. Most of them have yet to be solved. In addition, law-enforcement authorities have been under fire this year over the prosecution and imprisonment of several prominent government critics on dubious charges.
Opposition lawmakers asked Hovsepian tough questions before the September 13 parliament vote. But in the end, most of them chose not to oppose his confirmation, leading more radical opposition politicians and commentators to wonder whether Orinats Yerkir and Heritage are really in opposition to the ruling regime. “In essence, the parliamentary opposition complied with the majority’s decision,” the Haykakan Zhamanak daily editorialized on September 15. “This type of opposition is ready to fight as long as it is not up against a representative of the regime,” scoffed another pro-opposition paper, Chorrord Ishkhanutyun.
Ex-speaker Baghdasarian was already mistrusted by many other opposition forces and civil society members, despite attracting considerable interest from the United States and European governments with his pro-Western statements. Heritage’s Hovannisian risked facing similar mistrust even before the parliament vote due to his ambiguous and contradictory actions. Hovannisian, for example, charged after the May elections that his party had won three times more votes than were shown by the Central Election Commission (CEC). However, the party’s representative to the government-controlled body, Zoya Tadevosian subsequently voted for the reelection of Garegin Azarian as CEC chairman. Furthermore, Tadevosian, endorsed the official results of an August 26 repeat parliamentary election in a central Armenian constituency, which was denounced as “fundamentally unfree and unfair” by Hovannisian. The latter contested the vote to try to win Heritage an extra parliament seat. He won less than 4% of the vote, according to the official results.
A Heritage legislator insisted that the vote was deeply flawed during the Armenian government’s September 12 question-and-answer session in parliament. “The CEC received no complaints, your representative accepted everything, and the chairman of your party filed no appeals in connection with that,” countered Sarkisian. “I can’t understand what the matter is. Should I once declare that you lost?”
(Haykakan Zhamanak, Chorrord Ishkhanutyun, September 15; Aravot, September 13)