Recent events in Armenia forcing us to have a closer look at the internal affairs of this country.
On June 14, the National Security Service of Armenia had searched Gagik Tsarukyan’s home and then summoned him for questioning for more than 8 hours. According to the NSS there are 3 criminal cases open against G. Tsarukyan. The first of the criminal cases concerns illegal actions related to the “Shangrila” casino owned by him. According to the NSS, the casino functioned without a license, as a result of which more than 29 billion drams (almost $60 million) were passed to the state budget. The second case related to the distribution of election bribes during the 2017 parliamentary elections. According to the Prosecutor General’s Office during the 2017 parliamentary elections Prosperous Armenia party bribes voters and distributed between them almost 172 millions AMD (about 345.000 USD). A total of 17.194 people were paid AMD 10 thousand each. The third criminal case causes unlawfully leasing of land in Kotayk Province. According to the officials of Arinj community—where Gagik Tsarukyan resides— he had legalized the illegal structures on a 7.5-hectare agricultural land that was unlawfully leased, and then had illegally alienated this land to “New” LLC belonging to Tsarukyan. And as a result of this illegality, about 370 million AMD (about 740.000 USD) were not transferred to Arinj’s budget.
G. Tsarukyan is a member of the parliament, local oligarch, one of the richest people in the country and simultaneously leader of Prosperous Armenia Party (PAP). In the snap parliamentary election in 2018, the party took 2nd place (receiving 26 out of 132 seats in the new elected parliament) and supported new Government headed by Nikol Pashynian, leader of “My Step” Party. It should be emphasized that Tsarukyan supported Pashynian movement and his peaceful actions from the first moment starting, from the spring protests in 2018. According to the local observers Tsarukyan was one of the largest donors of Pashynian’s wife two foundations: “My Step” and “City of smiles”. It is also worth mentioning that there were a lot of questions about possible visible cases of bribering voters by Tsarukyan’s PAP during preelection, 2018, parliamentary campaign. But law enforcement agencies turned a blind eye to these facts and allegations which was impossible without the silent consent of Pashynian, at the time the Prime Minister of Armenia.
This “fruitful” cooperation and cohabitation between Nikol Pashynian and Gagik Tsarukyan has finished early June 2020.
On June 5 Tsarukyan made a very strong statement in which he called for a change of government, including change of Prime Minister. He mentioned that because his opposition activity authorities open several cases against him and his companies. And all possible cases and accusations are having purely political character. As a reaction Pashynian’s press secretary said that criminal cases are in no way connected with Tsarukyan’s statement (about the need to change the government) and are not politically motivated. Simply law enforcement institutions, including prosecutor’s office and investigative authorities have finished investigation of financial fraud done by his companies. And finally the time has come for the logical conclusion of these investigations.
But it’s very hard to believe in such an explanations. First of all because these criminal cases are not new, but came from the past. Taking account that authorities had almost two years to initiate these criminal proceedings it seems that something else “stands behind” the events of June 14.
One of the version is that government led by Pashynian, as a consequence of losing the fight with coronavirus, has lost its popularity among the public. And to regain social trust again Pashynian decided to take another populist step: “exposure” of criminal activity one of the most interesting, popular and influential person in Armenia. Local society after changing power in 2018 demands punishment of “criminals” who got rich illegally during the government related to previous regime of former Presidents: Serge Sargsyan and Robert Kocharyan. One of such people, according to the local society, is Gagik Tsarukyan. Arrest and possible conviction of G. Tsarukyan, in Pashynian’s opinion, might bring him back lost trust and support.
But to sentence G. Tsarukyan will not be an easy task for the local justice. The process can be difficult and long-term. For example I can’t see the end of the trial of former president Robert Kocharyan who was arrested last year. G. Tsarukyan has money, influence and many supporters in the country and outside Armenia. His party – Prosperous Armenia – has a good contacts and cooperation with Russian ruling party – “United Russia”. And trial and possible Tsarukyan’s conviction can negatively affect Armenia’s relations with Russia. In the margin I would like to stress that, in my opinion, current bilateral relationships between two countries (Russia and Armenia) are not the best anyway. Sending Tsarukyan to the jail Pashynian gives new, additional arguments to the opponents of the “barchat revolution”. He might be accused of abuse of power and authoritarianism.
“There is no alternative to freedom, democracy and the rule of law in Armenia. Everyone is equal before the law”. In such a way the Prime Minister of Armenia Nikol Pashynian commented special operation carried out by the National Security Service in the mansion of the leader of the Prosperous Armenia Party Gagik Tsarukyan.
It seems that N. Pashynian is going through bad times. His popularity is falling down. Increasing number of people who are disappointed and dissatisfied of his rule. Armenians were expecting the real changes promised by Pashynian in 2018. In place of real economic growth, reducing unemployment and poverty in the country people have received another economic and social crisis.
The negative image of Pashynian’s government is also affected by the poor result of his efforts to fight Covid – 19. It seems that steps taken by authorities to defeat coronavirus did not bring the expected result. Unlike Georgia, Armenia has seen both a major economic crisis and many epidemic victims. The situation with coronavirus in Armenia remains difficult. The state of emergency in the country was introduced in March 16 and is extended till July 13. Authorities urge people to strictly follow security measures to prevent the further spread of infection. As of Monday, June 15, the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus infection in Armenia increased to 17064, and 285 people died from coronavirus complications.
In April Minister of Health announced that government lost control over the epidemic. In any country, such a statement would lead to the immediate and inevitable resignation of the minister. But not in Armenia…
In principle neighbors countries: Armenia and Georgia at the same time – mid of March – began the fight against the epidemic. And both countries had comparable possibilities and resources. Georgia’s authorities perfectly coped with this challenge. As of June 15, 879 cases of coronavirus infection have been confirmed in Georgia, of which 724 patients have recovered. 14 people died. With sadness I have to admit that the loss of control over the epidemic in Armenia is the result of ineffective leadership.
It’s clear that opening criminal cases and possible arrest of the leader of Prosperous Armenia Party Gagik Tsarukyan laid the foundation for a new domestic political spectacle in Armenia. I’m afraid that the ending of this spectacle will not have a happy ending but heavy consequences for both the political and economic situation in Armenia.
- The prime minister will show a strong will and will go to the end in the fight against the uncomfortable and implacable opponent.
- In the name of the principle: ” A thief should sit in jail” (“vor dolzen sidiet v tiurmie”) Nikol Pashynian will do everything to sentence G. Tsarukyan and send him to jail.
- G. Tsarukyan is very popular in Armenia, especially among poorer and low-income social strata. And possible a sentence to imprisonment him can cause outbreaks of social discontent and mass protests.
- Wave of social discontent may lead to forced change of government and possible resignation of Prime Minister.
- New government might be led both by the current prime minister – Nikol Pashynian – and a new person. Everything will depend on what support (in the society and in the ruling coalition) the current prime minister will have when the government resigns.
- In the case that N. Pashynian will remain in the prime minister chair’s, we will only deal with a façade reconstruction of the government. In this case no major changes in the policy of the new government should be expected. Simply because N. Pashynian is not able to change his policy. Also he will believe in personal infallibility.
- In case that someone other than N. Pashynian, becomes the prime minister he will have two tasks: calm the situation and prepare the country for early parliamentary elections.
I don’t want end my article by paraphrasing words from William Shakespeare’s famous tragedy (Hamlet) “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” and say: “something is rotten in the state of Armenia”…In place of this I prefer to say: interesting and incomprehensible events are beginning to happen in Armenia.
Note: On June 16, the National Assembly of Armenia deprived Gagik Tsarukyan of parliamentary immunity and gave so called “green light” to the investigative authorities for his interrogations. Only 87 deputies from the ruling bloc “My Step” participated in the vote. Staring from June 18 local court in Yerevan began hearings of G.Tsarukyan with the aim to make a possible decision on his arrest. The hearing is held behind closed doors.
Dr. Andrzej Klimczyk,Former Political Officer in the NATO Liaison Office in Georgia, affiliated expert of Georgian Strategic Analysis Center (GSAC)